By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and “he was not found, because God had taken him.” For it was attested before he was taken away that “he had pleased God.” And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. --Hebrews 11:1-16, 12:1-2 (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Why do you have faith? Has anyone ever asked you that question? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Why do you have faith?
I mean, come on, after all, it’s not really the “in” thing anymore in our culture, is it? To have faith in God? Sure, people say they believe in God, but do they really? Church attendance is declining. Younger people are moving away from the church. Many churches - both mainline and evangelical - are struggling. Let’s be honest. We struggle, too.
So, why should we have faith? Why should you have faith?
Over these past five weeks, we’ve been immersing ourselves in the letter to the Hebrews. It’s a challenging book in scripture, full of doctrinal statements and rhetorical arguments to back up those statements. It’s a book full of images - trying the spark the imagination and faith of a congregation of mostly Hellenistic Jews. Living abroad, away from Israel. Influenced, particularly, by Greek culture. A culture that, very much like our culture, looked down on faith, viewing it as an inferior form of understanding. “Mere belief” as one Greek philosopher called it. The congregation had lost heart. Whether it was because of persecution. Or the long wait for Jesus’ promised return. Or just the general fatigue and doubt that any community experiences over time, this congregation had lost heart. The writer assumes that unbelief has become their baseline. And asks the question, “Why should they have faith at all?”
And in the process of asking that question, the author works to spark their imagination. To rekindle it. To help them remember why they first believed. Why they should continue to believe. Trying to not only rekindle their imagination, but to rekindle their faith.
So, today, we come to the last of our Hebrews texts. And, likely, the most familiar to you. We often call this the “roll call of saints.” It includes the ancestors of faith whose stories we have likely heard from childhood. The saints who believed when there was no reason to believe.
Let's take Noah, for example. Noah was called into action before the flood came. He had no weather forecasts to prove the coming rains to anyone. Called to build an ark the length of 1-½ football fields. Imagine if we began to build an ark on our property. What do you think our neighbors would say? Or think? Oh, those Lutherans! There they go again! Yet, Noah believed even when he couldn’t see the future. Even when the world was mocking him. Even when no one else believed. Noah believed. And he took steps to move into the future.
And then there’s Abraham and Sarah. If they’d lived today, they would already have been on Social Security for over 25 years. Both of them, by the time they received the child they had longed for their entire lives. Sarah, barren. Abraham, well our text says he was “good as dead.” Both of them, living into God’s promises. And, then, when they were nearing the age of 100, finally, having the child they had longed for their entire lives. And, then trusting that, from this one son, God would create a people that would number more than the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore. Were they crazy? Yet, they believed. Even when they couldn’t see the future, God summoned them forward into it. And they had faith.
Who's on your “roll call of saints”? Who are those ancestors of faith for you - those who believed even when they couldn’t see the future? Who trusted even when they didn’t know what was to come next? Who held onto God’s promise for a future?
Just as your ancestors were called into an unseen future. Into an uncertain future. Unsure of what it would hold. Yet, trusting that God had a future for them. In the same way, throughout the letter to the Hebrews, the writer is calling the community out of despair and into hope. To trust in God’s promises. To have faith.
The Hebrews’ vision of the Christian life is like that of a race. Not a sprint, but a long distance race. More like a cross-country race. A journey of transformation moving toward a communal completion. As we run this race together, as we journey, we are cheered on. Looking up in the stands of the stadium, we see all of the ancestors of our faith who have gone before. Abel, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Aaron, Gideon, Peter, John, Mary. My ancestors. Your ancestors. All of our ancestors in faith.
As Hebrews describes to us, through faith, all of these ancestors conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Were tortured. Mocked and flogged. Chained and imprisoned. Stoned to death, sawn in two. Destitute. Persecuted. Tormented. All of them for whom the world was not worthy. Though they were commended for their faith, they did not receive what was promised.
As we run the race of faith, all of these ancestors of faith cheer us on. Because living by faith is not a concept. Living by faith is a way of life. This is what it means to have faith. To be claimed by the Word of God. To move into a future. Perhaps unseen. Perhaps uncertain. Not sure of where we will end up. But, moving forward, all the same. Into a future that we know by virtue of promise rather than by what our eyes have seen.
Because we have Jesus. Our pioneer - the one who has gone before us. Our perfector - who has shown us the way. Our great high priest - who in his “once and for all” act of sacrifice forever altered the relationship between all humanity and God. This Jesus: God’s participation, God’s own self-offering, God’s own self-giving act. God, who through this Jesus, this Word, now invites us into God’s presence, to go where only the high priest was privileged to go. And who calls us into the future. Into a life of promise. Into a life of hope.
This is why we should have faith. Because, even though we may have experiences that may challenge our faith, that might call our faith into question, the only other option for us is despair. A life without hope. And that, sisters and brothers in Christ, is no life.
So, take the promise. And run with it!
Preached September 1, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Readings: Matthew 8:5-10; Hebrews 11:1-16, 12:1-2.