Heroes of God’s Long March - Hebrews 11. 1-3, 8-16
Prayer: God of our fathers and mothers in the faith, of Sarah and Abraham, of Isaac and Rebecca, of Rachel and Jacob, as they listened and heard what you said to them then, help us to listen and hear what you are saying to us today.
Book of Hebrews up to this point pretty tough slog, high priests, and covenants, and worship and sacrifice and so on. But when come to chapter 11 like entering another sphere, one of most familiar chapters in Bible. Been called the Westminster Abbey of Scripture. Visit Westminster - amazing experience because so many of heroes of the British, the ancestors of my human story, buried there, and walk over those cobbled stones and wonder about all the feet that walked there before you. And here have hall of heroes of history of faith of God’s realm. And it all about faith. Interesting question to begin with - just what is faith.
Some define it as “believing what you know isn’t true” as the Queen put it in Alice in Wonderland “Sometimes I believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Nor is it positive thinking or hoping for the best, the optimism that everything will turn out all right. One anonymous preacher “That you are sitting before me in this church is a fact. That I am standing and speaking to you from this pulpit is a fact. But it is only faith that makes me believe anyone is listening” Samuel Butler said “What is faith but a kind of betting after all.”
Much nearer the mark is Martin Luther “Faith is a living deliberate confidence in the grace of God, so certain that for it one could die a thousand deaths.” And of course Martin Luther wrote that wonderful hymn of faith “A mighty fortress is our God” when that an ever present possibly – when he faced by all the forces of the Empire and Catholic church out to put him to death as a heretic. “A mighty fortress is our God, A bulwark never failing;… And though this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us; We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.”
And here at beginning this chpt 11 have only definition of faith in Scripture. Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Two critical things here.
(1) being sure of what we hope for. Writer describing what faith already has, It already possesses in the present what God has promised for the future. Inwardly people of faith have a confidence today, here and now, when all hell is breaking loose around, that the promises of God for peace, for mercy, for justice, for salvation can be trusted. Faith in this sense is a response to the trustworthiness of God. It is demonstrated by the faith of a Martin Luther King as he sung “We shall overcome” while marching toward the state troopers on Selma Bridge. Faith trusts God’s promises that “that swords will be turned into ploughshares” and that “mourning and crying and pain will be no more” and is so certain of it that it acts on the reality of it.
Faith is very strongly related to hope. Without one we do not have the other. And the biblical concept of hope is quite different from what we understand by it. As in “I hope it will be a fine day tomorrow” or “I hoped we would win the rugby today”. For us word implies doubt (perhaps with ABs against Australia at moment no doubt about that next week, but with the Highlanders next year?????? – believing the impossible! Well there is still next year as we have been saying for many years) For biblical writers hope implies not doubt but certainty, not “the prospect of what might happen, but the prospect of what is already guaranteed.” Because it is not dependent on ourselves, other people, or circumstances but the character of God. Another black person, contemporary of MLK , Muhammad Ali, said that “It's lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believe in myself.” But he came to see that faith in himself in the end insufficient and came to have faith in God, although perhaps a different understanding of God than we might share. And this is the great biblical theme that our faith, our hope, our confidence is based not on ourselves, or other people, or Hebrews 11.
circumstances, but on the God who was revealed to Israel as Yahweh and to us more fully in Jesus Christ.
(2) And so the second point in this definition is what faith sees: it is certain of what we do not see. The writer is here affirming the ability of faith to see or discern realities that are not currently visible, partly because they belong to our future. As Paul put in 2 Corinthians, what can be seen is temporary but what cannot be seen is eternal and so we walk by faith and not by sight.
GK Chesterton tells of a small girl in a city park, walking with her mother beneath torn skies and tossing trees, and not liking the wind at all. It blew in her face, made her shut her eyes, made fun of her hat of which she was very proud. Complaining repeatedly of the ceaseless atmospheric unrest, she burst out, “But mummy why don’t you take away the trees and then it wouldn’t wind anymore.” On that remark Chesterton bases an essay on the widespread confusion of visible effects with invisible causes. That we so often see events as being caused by what we can see; such as a revolution by rioting mobs, violence, demonstrations etc. In fact the real cause is the revolt in the human mind and spirit. The whole of this letter to the Hebrews is based on the fact that there are two realities, one which is visible and can be seen with the physical eye and the other which is invisible and can only be seen with the eye of faith, partly because it is future. And so to the person of faith, as the writer points out in v3 the universe is not simply an aimless swirl of energy and matter but a creation, an expression of the love of God which continues to be sustained by God’s hidden providence as it moves toward the fulfilment God is continuing to work to complete. As in other areas people of faith do not simply see the physical circumstances and events around them, but discern in them the gracious activity of God. And as one writer put it “Hope is hearing the melody of the future. Faith is to dance to it.”
It is for this kind of faith which dances to God’s tune into the future that the writer tells us the ancients, our mothers and fathers in the faith, were commended by God. And so in the next 40 verses he leafs through the annals of the OT to tell us the stories of some of these. And focus of our text today out of this gallery is on Abraham and Sarah.
Mention Abraham and Sarah, although focus in our tradition been on Abraham, but OT written in a patriarchal society, and so written from perspective of the men, and women often forgotten, but at least in this brief summary Sarah is brought into it, because without Sarah’s equal amount of faith none of this could have happened. Already in this letter in ch 2 all who believe are regarded as descendants of Sarah and Abraham and in ch 6 they are presented as the example of those who through faith inherited the promises.
Abraham and Sarah were called to set out on a journey of faith and find in them many of the qualities of all faith journeys.
First the journey required a deep trust in the God who was sending them. They responded to God’s call putting their hand in God’s hand even though they did not know where [they were] going. Throughout this letter the writer is eager to point out that the responsiveness modelled by these individuals was due to their deep trust and unwavering confidence in the God who calls.
The journey of faith was also disclocating uprooting their family for generations. Abraham and Sarah were willing to leave behind what was secure, prosperous, peaceful, enjoyable. Ur was a very sophisticated city and they were willing to leave all this and wander off into the unkown and uncertain. Faith sometimes requires this from us.
Courage. Set off not knowing what lay beyond. No google earth to scan ahead and see what going to. Takes great courage to do that – why some people never move on from where are. Reading about African animal, impala. Can jump over 3m high and further than 10m. But can keep enclosed in 1m wall because won’t jump if can’t see ground where will land. We like that. Try and jump if can’t see where going to land. True emotionally also. Reluctant to jump into something not know were going to end up. Takes courage. And sometimes God calls us like Abraham to step out not knowing where will end up. As Martin Luther King put it, “Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
Another characteristic persistence. Given great emphasis. Even when they entered the land and received the promise of inheritance didn’t become theirs immediately. Possessed only in promise not in deed, because already inhabited by others. And they lived in cities while Sarah and Abraham and their children and grandchildren lived in tents. But Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, shared this same persistent faith of Abraham and Sarah. Notice what sustained them. They were looking forward to the city with foundations whose architect and builder is God. As already mentioned people of faith can see another reality beyond the circumstance and events surrounding them in the present.
And the final characteristic of people of faith is dependence on God. Here Sarah is specifically mentioned in her own right. God had promised them they would be progenitors of a great nation, descendants be as many as the stars in the sky or sand on seashore. But Sarah was barren and Abraham well past age of fatherhood. So couldn’t happen merely by own activity and efforts. Dependent on activity of God. And that is the acid test of faith – are we still trusting God when without God coming to the party nothing is going to happen.
And so shaped by a faith like this look at the kind of qualities Abraham and Sarah possessed.
Two thing in particular:
(1) Continuing confidence despite the uncertainties of the present. v13. All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them from a distance. They never got there. When Abraham died he and Sarah had a son but no inheritance. They only owned a graveyard and the promised multitude had not arrived but faith is itself enough to live by because they could see their destination in the distance and could already taste it.
Martin Luther King, the night before he was shot, 15 years after inspired by a courageous woman Rosa Parks, the blacks of the south had set out on their long march to the promised land of racial equality, and 5 years after he had stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said “I have a dream”, King preached his last sermon. He began by taking his bearings and finding his identity with “God’s children in their magnificent trek from Egypt, through the wilderness toward the promised land” and concluded:
# Video clip?
“We’ve got some difficult times ahead. But it doesn’t really matter to me now, because I have been to the mountaintop. Like anybody else I would like to live a long life. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that we as a people will get to the promised land…. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
And he and the others marching with him were sustained by that confident faith which like Abraham and Sarah, could already see their promised inheritance through the eye of faith and so trusted in God to deliver what God had promised.
(2) A continuing quest, always seeking, never satisfied to settle down. They admitted they were aliens and strangers on earth… looking for a country of their own… longing for a better country a heavenly one. This picture of a pilgrim people, always on the move, journeying toward their final destination comes through again and again in the NT. I love the title of Ernst Kassemann’s commentary on Hebrews “The Wandering People of God.” Followers of Jesus are never satisfied to settle down and live comfortably with what they have in this world as it is now, because they know it is not their final destiny, not all God has promised for them. The best is yet to be and they anxious to be on the move toward it.
Want to make an important point of distinction here about this better reality God has for us – a heavenly country, a city… whose architect and builder is God, and so living as strangers, pilgrims, in this world. Often, coming more out of Greek dualism than biblical narrative, seen as heavenly being up there, rather than down here, spiritual rather than material. The perspective of the biblical narrative is not that God is wanting to rescue us out of a fallen evil material world, taking us up to a spiritual heavenly realm, but rather that God is working through Christ by the Spirit to redeem and recreate a world which is once again good, as God created it. God’s story ends in Revelation 21 not with the redeemed being taken up out of earth to heaven but rather the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God so that now the dwelling place of God is with humans, a city in which “the glory of God is its light” and “the nations” will walk by that and so “will not make war any more” and “and the lion and the lamb will lie down in the field together”.
This is why people of faith are never prepared just to settle down in this world as it is now, accept what we have now as good enough, because it is all there is. Because we know that God is working in it for a better future and discerning that we are moving on with God, acting with God toward that, looking forward in faith to the day when as Revelation again puts it they will be God’s people and God will be with them and be their God. It is this perspective, our seeing in faith what God is doing beyond merely what our physical eyes show us, and our knowledge of the future God is going to bring in, that keeps us going, whatever the sometimes despairing reality of the world we currently find ourselves in might be, not clinging desperately to our little plot of the world as it is now for our security, but rather in faith, as the last verse of our reading puts it longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Rev Dr Kevin Ward, Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Dunedin.