Monday, August 08, 2016

Sermon on Hebrews 11:1-16, for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, "Living in God's Promises"

            Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Our reading from Hebrews 11 is a famous chapter in the Bible—sometimes called the “Faith Hall of Fame”. Chapter 11 holds a key place near the end of the book. Just to summarize the main thrust of the book—it’s that Jesus Christ is superior to all other things. From God’s former revelation in the Old Testament; to angels, to Moses, the great lawgiver of Israel, to all forms of the priesthood, to all the sacrifices and worship forms of the Old Testament. The book of Hebrews builds a crescendo of reasons why Christ is over and above all things, and then concludes that we should place all our faith fully in Him. Chapter 11 fits into the book as a list of examples of Old Testament heroes of faith, who did not shrink back and give up when their faith was challenged or put to the test—but they held firm to their faith and lived on in the promise of God.
The faith of these heroes in chapter 11 is firmly anchored in Jesus Christ, as we hear these exhortations to faith before and after: “Since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus…let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith…(Hebrews 10:19a, 22a) and look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus is the object of faith—the center and reason why we can draw near to God in full confidence. If Jesus were not in the picture, or had He not shed His blood for the forgiveness of our sins, then we could not have the same confidence to approach God. We would have to face God’s wrath. But instead our faith stands firmly on Jesus’ complete intercession for us. It’s vital to know that Jesus is the focus of our faith, as we dive into the examples in Hebrews 11, of those who lived by faith in the Promised Savior.
The word “faith” itself requires some definition. The term “faith” gets borrowed and used loosely in clich├ęs and pop-culture, as well as being central to the language of the Bible and the church; which can lead to some confusion if we don’t define it. Hebrews 11:1 gives a simple definition: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The words assurance and conviction convey that faith is not a matter of wishful thinking or longshot hopes. It’s not something indecisive or wishy washy, but a firmly grounded, confident trust. As we see in the examples of those who lived by faith, this confident trust extended from their heart to taking bold actions of obedience to God.
Also, faith deals with things not yet seen or realized. St. Paul talks about hope, faith’s sibling, in this way: “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24-25). Likewise, it takes no faith or trust when you already see or know something. Faith is assurance of things hoped for—something that’s not already in your hands or full possession. It’s the conviction of things not seen—being certain that God exists, although you cannot see Him.
Faith gets a lot of criticism today, especially given the rise of atheism—the rejection of belief in God. Atheists mock that it’s irrational to believe in a God that you can’t see. Or they claim that science has come to a “universal consensus” of evolution, and thus God is unnecessary to our existence. The same people scorn any opposing viewpoints as “faith, not science”. To put a twist on one famous atheist’s words, some people may wonder whether it’s possible to be an “intellectually fulfilled Christian.” If a timid Christian were to “shrink back” and give in to these points, and concede that faith really is some kind of irrationalism—then faith would be a losing proposition. In Hebrews 10:38 God says, “My righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.” So faith is not the stuff that backs down from a challenge or trial. Faith is not a matter of jumping on the bandwagon when it’s the cool thing to do, and jumping off when it’s not popular. And the examples of Noah, Abraham, Sarah, and others show us that faith takes its stand against the scorn and powers of the world, and stands solidly on God’s promise.
Ironically, if Christians were to cave in to these criticisms of faith, they would also basically be ignoring the 2,000 plus years that Christians have spent wrestling with Scripture and giving answers to the tough questions of the Christian faith. Christianity, from start till the present day, has implicitly shown that it’s possible to be a thinking Christian. One only has to scratch the surface of the vast number of writings, to see this. We are not of those who shrink back. And not just that it’s possible to be a thinking Christian, but that the very pursuits of science and learning were positively driven by believing what Hebrews 11:3 says: “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the Word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”
Faith embraces the truth that the universe that we see and inhabit, bears the unmistakable “fingerprints” and “signature of design”, of the unseen God. In the incredible, self-replicating, miniature library of enormous information, called DNA, we see a true signature of Divine Intelligence. In the precise fine tuning of the laws of the universe, to allow life to even exist, we recognize an invisible hand at work, ordering the very fundamental laws of nature. Faith believes that God created a rational, orderly universe, that operates according to laws set by God’s hand. This faith has driven many Christians into the fields of science. In the words of Johannes Kepler, a Lutheran astronomer, mathematician, and theologian: “I was merely thinking God's thoughts after him. Since we astronomers are priests of the highest God in regard to the book of nature, it benefits us to be thoughtful, not of the glory of our minds, but rather, above all else, of the glory of God." So, contrary to modern criticisms of faith, the Christian boldly confesses that faith is no enemy to genuine reason (as one of the faculties created by God)—but human reason must not overrule faith. As Kepler warned, our reason should not be turned to the glorying of our minds, but to the glory of God. Our reason must submit to God’s Word.
Our reading also talks about how faith is central to our relationship to God. In verse 2, the people of old received their commendation from God by faith. In v. 4, Abel’s sacrifice was pleasing to God, and not Cain’s, because Abel offered it in faith. It says God “commended him as righteous.” The only way that we can have this kind of standing with God—this kind of approval from Him, is by faith. In v. 6 it asserts this in the clearest way: “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists, and that He rewards those who seek Him.” It’s impossible to please God without faith. This right here eliminates the whole train of thought that it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you are a good person. NO! It says without faith it is impossible to please God. We have to have faith, if we are to receive God’s commendation. Otherwise there is only a fiery judgment to fear. But by faith in Jesus, we have full confidence to approach God, because He has reconciled us from our sins, to be in right relation to God. To have God’s commendation, as righteous.
It also said that whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists, and that He rewards those who seek Him. Faith has to have a specific attachment to the One True God, and His existence, or faith is nothing. If we go back to that synonym for faith—which is trust—then we see that faith or trust rely on the person or object in which they trust. People can put their “trust” or “faith” in all sorts of bizarre or silly things—but what matters is whether the person or object can actually deliver what is promised. This is why faith must believe that God exists—because no idols or false gods have any power to save. And Hebrews 11 is just a tiny slice of examples from the Bible, of God delivering on His promises, and saving those who trusted in Him. In each and every generation, and no doubt for each and every believer, there are times when our faith is tested, and we begin to worry or doubt whether God will save. But worry and doubt are the opposite of faith. We call on God in prayer to drive away our worries and fears, and to give us more faith. And He gladly answers. He supplies a faith that is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen. Jesus met a man who was weak in faith, and the man prayed, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!” Jesus answered his prayer and healed the man’s son. God will not deny His Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.
And the other half of that verse, is believing that God rewards those who seek Him. This is an interesting verse because Romans 3, quoting the Old Testament book of Psalms, says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God.” If no one seeks God, then who is there for God to reward? Of course the Romans’ text is speaking of us according to our own sinful nature, apart from the enlivening work of the Holy Spirit in us. Without God’s intervention, truly none of us could seek after and know God. Sin produces a total blindness toward the spiritual things of God. But He sends His Holy Spirit, He gives His Word, God speaking to us through His own Son Jesus; and through His enlivening work, we seek after God. He rewards, not what we’ve earned by our own efforts, but He rewards the faith that He Himself gave, that we might trust in Him. From start to finish, God supplies all that’s needed for our salvation. Salvation isn’t paid out as wages for what we’ve earned, but given freely to all who will take it, as Jesus’ gift. This is the reward of faith, and seeking God.
We’ve hardly finished describing and discussing what faith is—but we see how faith lives and depends on the promise of God. We see in verse 13, that “these all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” Many of the promises these heroes of faith trusted in, are promises that they did not see fulfilled in their own lifetimes. But those promises were brought to fullness in and through Jesus Christ. And future promises also await us. The promise of Jesus’ return one day, to judge the living and the dead. The promise of Jesus to bring us into His eternal inheritance. The promise of a new heavens and a new earth. These things are not yet here, and we await them as we await our true homecoming—waiting in confident assurance of what God has promised. Confident faith, because we have heard and believed in the record of the mighty deeds of our God and Savior, and know of the deliverance that we have, in Jesus Christ our Savior. In His Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Hebrews 11:1 says faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. What do these two words convey about faith? How would you respond to someone who says “faith” is just “wishful thinking”?
  2. Which is foolish to think—1) that God exists? or 2) that He does not exist? Psalm 53:1; Hebrews 11:6. What obvious truths must people deny, to deny that God exists? Hebrews 1:3; Romans 1:18-23. What is the self-serving reason for such denials?
  3. Faith lives on the words and promises of the unseen God. Hebrews 11:7-9 introduces another “grace concept” that runs parallel with faith. What is that concept; what did they receive by faith?
  4. How did trusting in God (faith in His promises) direct the actions of Abel, Noah, Abraham, or Sarah? What did they do, when they relied on the promises of God?
  5. Hebrews 11:13 reveals a sobering truth about faith and the things promised. What does it mean for our lives, and how we live in the promise? Faith then points to something beyond—what is it? How does that shape our relationship to this world?
  6. Describe the longing for a homeland or fatherland; either for yourself, or the power this longing has for others. Why is that longing not able to be met here on earth, or in our own particular countries on earth? Hebrews 11:13-16.
  7. How has Christ prepared a better homeland for us? John 14:1-6. What is superior about this city? Hebrews 11:10, 16. How does it compare to the earthly cities and kingdoms we know? Hebrews 12:26-28.

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