Monday, August 29, 2016

Sermon on Hebrews 13:1-17, for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, "Life in Harmony with God's Design"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. This is the fourth and last week where our readings are from the end of Hebrews. Previously we’ve seen how Hebrews makes the case that Jesus is superior over all things, and that our faith is centered in Him. The closing chapters show how to run the race by faith, endure hardships, receive God’s discipline, and be encouraged by the heavenly cloud of witnesses that cheer us on. In this last chapter, the author picks up what might seem like some miscellaneous pieces of advice on how to live. They are called “exhortations”, or encouragements to continue doing what is right. Exhortations are a form of the “Law”, or commands of God—but with the difference that they’re set in the context of the new identity we’ve been given in the Gospel—the reality that Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law, and made us a new creation and new community in Him.
Let me explain a little more. What has or hasn’t changed about the Law of God, from Old Testament to New? It’s not that the Law is ever offered to save us, either in Old Testament or New. We cannot be saved by our good works. That is plain. It’s only by the Gospel of Jesus that we can be saved. But God calls us to obedience, in both Old and New Testaments. That hasn’t changed. But the accusations of the Law against us, and its demands have been met in Christ Jesus. The Law, presented in the NT is not necessarily easier or harder to do. It’s not that the NT commands are even new or dramatically different—although there are some major categories of laws that just no longer apply. Our reading mentions food laws, which don’t benefit those who were devoted to them. Hebrews also explains the ending of the sacrificial and ceremonial laws. But there are still many moral laws and continuing principles of God’s Word, that carry forward from the Old to the New. These “exhortations” or calls to obedience in Hebrews 13 point us to a life in harmony with God’s design. They’re not given for works righteousness or salvation, but to live in purity, and in harmony with God and with our neighbors. They’re given to show us what is good and pleasing to God.
What’s also different from the Old to the New Testament is the source and motivation of our obedience. The external system of laws in the Old Testament often worked by fear of punishment. God sought sincere obedience from the heart, but rarely found it. But made new in Christ Jesus, and having Christ atone for sin, once and for all—we need not be motivated by fear, but by the love of Christ dwelling in us, and thankfulness. We are called to an obedience led by the Holy Spirit working in our heart, not by external coercion or fear.
If we think of these NT exhortations, or calls to obedience, as God’s call to live our life in harmony with His good design, we can better reflect on the goodness and benefit of God’s design. It’s a thankful response to what Jesus has done; not a way to earning credit before God. Verse 12 tells us what Jesus did, and why: “Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through His blood.” His suffering was outside the gate of the city, at Golgotha—a place of uncleanness and shame and dishonor—where criminals were executed on a gory hill. In the OT sacrifices, the bodies of animals offered for sin were burned outside the camp. A place of death and uncleanness. Jesus joined Himself to our uncleanness and death, and took our shame upon Himself, to make us holy through His blood. His blood is the complete forgiveness of our sins.
Verse 13 continues: “Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.” This verse urges us to share the reproach or indignities that Christ bore, outside the camp. There is a crossroads—one path is to live in harmony with God’s design, to walk in the holiness that Christ freely gives. The other path is to forsake our purity, and live in harmony with the world.  Standing with Jesus will bring us rejection and reproach from the world. 1 John 2:15–17 echoes this: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” The way of the world is destined to pass away. But to do the will of God, is to remain forever. Vs. 14 in Hebrews adds that same thought: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”
Verses 15-16 describe our response to what Jesus has done for us: “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” There is a music of our life. Will it be a sacrifice of praise in harmony with God’s Design? Or will our lives produce a music that is discordant, and clashes with God, because it belongs to the world? One is a pleasant to God, and leads to harmony in life and relationships. The way of the world, however, is destined to be judged by God, and leads to strife and disharmony in life and relationships. Choose the way of the world, and we choose the negative consequences.
But notice what has changed, from OT to New! The sacrifices we offer are no longer animals or grain offerings. But our sacrifices are praising the name of God. Doing what is good, and showing generosity to others. These are the pleasing sacrifices to God! The sacrifice for our sins has been completed once for all by Christ Jesus, on the cross. But our new sacrifices are a life of worship and praise to God. A life that lifts up a beautiful music of love and service to our neighbor, by living in harmony with God’s design—God’s love commandments.
In that context, when we review all those exhortations, we see how much they center on love, by God’s definition. “Let brotherly love continue.” This is a harmony, a peacefulness, unity, and loyalty among brothers and sisters in Christ. A love that’s expressed in good and trustworthy friendships and companionship. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Hospitality here could literally be translated “love of strangers.” Our community is not to be insular and unwelcoming, but to show kindness to others. We may even experience the hidden reward of serving an angel of God, without knowing it! This recalls the experience of Abraham and his nephew Lot, who entertained angels unaware. And with this and the next exhortation, remember Jesus’ words that whatever you do for the least of these, you do for Him.
“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” Over 2 Million Americans are locked up in our prisons and jails. They must not be forgotten. Beyond those in our own community or family that we can visit or communicate with, there are also those around the world who are suffering for the faith, and for whom we should continue to pray and advocate. Many worthy organizations use the strength of public petitions to make legal appeals for the freedom of those who are wrongfully imprisoned for their faith, because of persecution. Prominent cases like Iranian Pastor Saed Abedini, who was released this year, or Asia Bibi, a Pakistani mother whose case is now hanging in the balance, are examples where we can even help from a great distance by advocacy and prayer.
“Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” Here is an area where we face enormous pressures to conform to the world, rather than living in harmony with God’s design. It’s incredibly easy and self-satisfying to go along with the way of the world, and seek sexual gratification apart from marriage, or to be unfaithful in marriage. Our society approves this! But God’s Word does not. The call for purity here is straightforward—let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. Marriage between a man and a woman is the God-intended place for sexual expression. Period. Seeking to live by God’s design in this way is especially challenging for our youth. It will certainly cause them and us to share in the “reproach of Christ”, by practicing abstinence outside of marriage, and faithfulness in it. God has built in blessings for following His order. And He forgives and restores holiness to those who confess their sins.  
“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” Money and  possessions are not evils in themselves, but it is the love of money that is sinful and corrupts us. It leads to a life without contentment, a life without satisfaction, because it chases a hunger that can never be filled, instead of seeking God’s kingdom first, and His righteousness, so all these other things can be added to us as well.
Two other exhortations in verse 7 & 17 are related: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith…Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Here it points to past and present spiritual leaders—those who spoke to us the word of God, who keep a watch over our souls, and must give an account to God. As pastors, we are charged with a special responsibility to teach God’s Word to you faithfully. 1 Timothy 4 exhorts us as pastors to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity…and Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (v. 12, 16). It is a task in which I daily struggle, but earnestly seek your prayers and joyful assistance. It is a joyful task to do, but it’s not without spiritual warfare and soul searching, for which I again seek your prayers. God has so ordered His Christian community, the church, that there should be pastors, and there should be hearers. Pray also that God raise up young men to serve in the ministry, and that young men and women would also serve His church through teaching, missionary work, and evangelism. Witnessing the church of Christ live in harmony with God’s love, is music to a pastor’s ears!
We have seen how this chapter of exhortations is grounded on the holiness of Christ Jesus. He sanctified His people through His blood. Through His holiness and the gift of His Spirit we begin walking in harmony with God’s design—begin to love as Jesus loves. In closing, I want to circle back to vs. 8-10, that points us to one more Gospel gem, in the midst of these encouragements to obedience.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.  Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them.  We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.” Jesus is our unchanging Savior, in a world of volatility and change. He always remains our High Priest, our Mediator, our Redeemer. Cling to Him!
Our heart needs to be strengthened by grace, not by dietary laws. And we have an altar, which the OT priests have no right to eat. We eat at this altar, because Jesus has secured us access to God’s grace through His own blood. We eat Jesus’ body and blood, to have our hearts strengthened by His grace—to receive His forgiveness and holiness, won on the cross. Here we eat, not by right, not by ancestry, title, virtue, or honor, but by the holiness that Jesus has given to us, by joining us to Him by faith. Here we have hearts mended, forgiven, and renewed for service in His kingdom, healed by God’s grace. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Hebrews 13 is filled with “exhortations”, or encouragements to continue doing what is right. What are some of the qualities you would use to describe “brotherly love?” In v. 2, “hospitality” is literally, “love for strangers.” What are the visible ways we show this kind of love? What special honor might be unknowingly receive?
  2. What are we doing when we visit and help those in prison? Matthew 25:39-40. In v. 4, there are two types of sexual impurity that are indicated—sexual immorality (those who are sexually impure outside of marriage), and adultery (those who are sexually impure inside marriage—i.e. unfaithfulness). What remains as the positive and pure place for sexuality to exist? How does one stay sexually pure outside of marriage? And inside?
  3. Verse 5 echoes 1 Timothy 6:5-10. How do those verses explain the danger of the love of money? Why is money itself neutral? How can it be turned to good or evil ends? 2 Corinthians 9:6ff.
  4. In v. 8, what does the constancy and unchanging nature of Jesus contrast to in this world? Why is it such a great comfort? Not only life itself is volatile and subject to change, but also the false teachings that swirl around us (v.9) and try to mislead us. Where is our constancy? Ephesians 4:13-15
  5. Sacrifices of animals were brought for sin in the Old Testament, until what happened? V. 12; Hebrews 9:11-14. What do we share with Christ, “outside the camp” (13:13; cf. 11:26). What is the reward of this? Matthew 5:10-12.
  6. What are the sacrifices that we offer to God now, and how are they different from Old Testament sacrifices? Romans 12:1-2; Hebrews 13:15-16; 1 Peter 2:5, 9.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Sermon on Hebrews 12:4-24, for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, "Disciplined to Receive His holiness"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The Olympics always feature dramatic stories of the struggle, perseverance, and the hard-fought victories of athletes, and the hardships and intense training that preceded their competition for the gold medal. The attention focused on the athletes is intense; often they are flattered with praise—but just as quickly they can bear the brunt of criticism, suspicion, or doubt, for their failures inside and outside of the game. Every athlete faces the specter of discouragement and the temptation to quit, when the road gets tough. The stakes are high, with the whole world competing, only once every four years, and with only 3 medals to be captured in each event
Last week Pastor Roschke drew on the imagery of the “race” that we are running “by faith” as Christians. How “Team Emmanuel” is being cheered on by the cloud of witnesses in heaven, who are encouraging us as we run the race, with eyes fixed on Jesus. Just like in the Olympics, we too can face discouragement and feel the temptation to quit. Chapter 11 of Hebrews recounted many examples of struggle and perseverance by faith. But the stakes are even higher in this race by faith—because it’s not a trophy or gold medal that’s on the line, but our eternal salvation. Vs. 15 urges us to make sure that “no one fails to obtain the grace of God.” Hebrews chapter 12:4-24 continues the race metaphor, to address our struggles here on earth, and how God uses them to train and shape us, and focusing us yet again on the final goal or prize.
One of the standard things a coach does in training an athlete, is to toughen them for competition. When the athlete starts to complain of weariness or aching muscles and body, the coach might downplay it, and charge them to push on through. A friend of mine used to say the pain you feel from exercising or healing from an injury is the feeling of “weakness leaving your body.” So also, Hebrews 12:4 reminds us, “in your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” Jesus shed His blood in the struggle against the sin of the world. Many Christian martyrs also shed their blood, dying for their faith. The author puts our struggle into perspective against these, and warns against our tendency to over-exaggerate our sufferings. It’s a little challenge to “toughen up”.
The word for struggle, is the root for antagonize, in the Greek. This must be our mindset towards sin—that it’s an antagonistic struggle. This helps us understand the pain of God’s discipline. There’s a spiritual war going on within us, between the new spiritual nature, working by the Holy Spirit, and on the other hand, our old sinful nature and the work of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. These are permanently antagonistic forces in this life. A Christian can never “make friends” with his sin; she can never “cave into” indulging her sin. We must necessarily war against our sin by repentance.
Our reading gives an example of failed responses to sin, in verse 16-17.  It says see to it.. “that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” Esau’s failed response to his sin, was that he never truly repented of his sin; he only wept for what he lost. Esau despised the spiritual gift of his birthright, in exchange for a petty meal. He counted the things of God to be of no value, but the things of his flesh to be of first importance. His sorrow was not genuine, and so Esau was “unholy.” In this same category, we’re warned against sexual immorality. Hebrews 13:4 states it clearly: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” Caving in to our sin, including sexual sin, is another surrender to un-holiness, and risks losing the grace of God.
So we see that sin is not a mere “weakness” that must be driven out by the pain of discipline. Sin is an active force that inclines or steers our feet toward death. Sin has to be put to death, drowned in the waters of baptism and repentance, so that the new person can be raised to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. And this is where God’s discipline plays into our life. Verses 5-11 speak especially about God disciplining us. We experience discipline as hardship, difficulty, resistance, and failure. And just as an athlete exercises and lifts weights to strengthen their body against resistance, so also God uses His discipline to treat us as sons—His adopted children—to strengthen us spiritually against sin and towards holiness. If sin actively steers our feet toward death, God’s holiness steers our feet toward life.
In verse 13, it tells us to make “straight paths for your feet.” This word for “paths” is literally a “wheel track” or rut. We can think of sin as forming deeply worn “ruts” in our life—sinful habits and patterns of behavior that are hard to break. A sharp tongue, a lustful eye, a quick temper, a cruel streak, a greedy hand, a lazy or selfish attitude. When a wheel is rolling in a rut, it easily falls to the bottom, and returns to the bottom. But it takes great leverage and force to push it out of the rut, and to keep it from rolling back in. Likewise, sinful habits are easy to return to and hard to break. But make a “straight wheel track or path for your feet so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” Sin leads to dislocations and injuries, but walking in the straight path leads to healing. How do we make a straight path for our feet? The Psalms are full of invitations to walk on the right path. “Your Word is a Lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). God’s Word illuminates the straight path. God will instruct sinners and the humble in His paths (Psalm 25). “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). Walking in the straight paths of the Lord leads to a new, well worn, straight and familiar path for our feet. Like Pastor reminded last week, it requires constant hearing of God’s Word to sustain and keep faith alive and well.
Discipline always seems unpleasant to us—it’s not joyful at the time, but painful. It may even cause us to feel discouraged or ready to give up. But listen to what Pastor Bo Giertz writes about the discipline described in these verses:
This word discipline, that the Bible uses here also means ‘guidance of children,’ “bringing up”. In other words, it can be an expression of God’s love and His kind consideration for us if He takes something from us that we’re fond of or blocks a path we want to follow. When we fail at our job, when we’re criticized and run into unpleasant things, when sickness comes when we least expect it, or we have financial problems to wrestle with, it’s always wise to fold our hands and ask: Lord, is there something You want to teach me out of this?

What we are to learn from the Lord’s discipline may not always be apparent to us in life, and we can’t expect to discern a particular “lesson” out of each and every experience of hardship in life. But in a broad sense, we can always expect that God will always teach us the necessity of humility and repentance, and reliance on Him, rather than ourselves. And, that God’s will is ultimately best, even though it may be nearly impossible for us to see and understand how, in particular situations.
Again and again he reminds us why we endure all this discipline. Because God loves us, He’s treating us as sons, and doing what is good for us. He’s producing the peaceful fruit of righteousness in us. And the end goal of our competition and training—the “gold medal”, if you will: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” To see the Lord! This is our great reward. In order to see the Lord, God must work His holiness in us. That’s why He disciplines us. So that we may “share in His holiness” (v. 10). Since sin cannot stand in the presence of God, we must be purified of all sin before we can see the Lord.
The last, glorious verses of the reading, verses 18-24 focus on this. Two different mountains are described. One of them is terrifying, dark and gloomy, with fire and the dread of judgment hanging over it, and the raw majesty and power of God on blazing display—Mount Sinai. Where the 10 Commandments were given. Even Moses, the great servant of God, trembled with fear to encounter God this way. But the latter verses describe the second mountain—the One we approach right here in worship. A mountain that is resplendent with countless bright angels in festive celebration, with the saints who have died and gone before us—cheering on Team Emmanuel; and God Himself, Judge of all. This mountain is the heavenly Mount Zion—the mountain on which Jesus stands, as the Firstborn from the dead, the Author of Life, the champion and victor over all—the Perfecter of our faith.
This mountain does not terrify us with the dread judgment of our sin, but here we encounter Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Jesus is our mediator—the One who comes between God and man, and reconciles us from the divide of our sins. By His death, Jesus nailed the accusations of our guilt to His cross, and fulfilled all of God’s legal demands. By His death, Jesus satisfied all of God’s wrath and judgment against our sins, so that His wrath would be turned away from us forever. And so Jesus mediates a new covenant. Not the old covenant of law that we broke and our forefathers failed to keep—the covenant of the 10 Commandments, made on Mount Sinai. But the new covenant in His blood, poured out for the forgiveness of your sins. A covenant is a contract, a sacred agreement, or promise—and God has made the sacred promise to forgive us our sins, because of the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. He binds Himself to that covenant. He sprinkles His blood on us for cleansing, in the waters of Holy Baptism. Today in the Lord’s Supper you will participate in that new covenant in His blood, shed for the forgiveness of your sins. You will receive the forgiveness He won on the cross.
And His blood speaks. What does it speak? A better word than the blood of Abel. Abel was the first man to be murdered; by his own brother Cain. God told Cain that Abel’s blood cried out from the ground for vengeance, for this great horror of innocent bloodshed. Vengeance was the word Abel’s blood spoke. And Jesus too, was murdered—an innocent man put to death. But His blood, poured out on the cross, does not cry out for vengeance. It does not demand that justice be exacted from those who put Him to death. Pardon! Is the word His blood speaks! Forgiveness! Jesus’ blood declares God’s amnesty toward us—peace for those who did not earn or deserve it. A declaration of innocence, for those who lay down their sin. Holiness bestowed on us to cleanse us from our sin, so that God can make us, the “spirits of the righteous, made perfect.” This is the better word that Jesus’ blood speaks for us!
We have received a great salvation from the Lord! This is why we are disciplined—for our own good, and to receive His holiness. Rejoice and thank Him, and endure it patiently, until the reward is fully ours! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. In Hebrews 12:4, the word translated “struggle against”, is the word root for antagonism. How does this describe what our attitude and action toward sin should be? What point is he making, by stating that we have not yet shed our blood? Who is he comparing us to? Hebrews 11:1-12:3
  2. How does discipline seem or feel to us? Contrary to our feelings, what does discipline from God actually mean? Hebrews 12:6-7, 10-11.
  3. Earthly parents are to model God’s love and discipline. What does it mean in verse 10 that our earthly fathers disciplined us “as it seemed best to them”? What is different about the discipline of our heavenly Father? Vs. 10-11. When is it especially hard for us to believe and understand that God’s will is best? See Matthew 26:39, 42.
  4. In verse 11, the author uses a word for “training” that is the word root for gymnasium. How does the athlete use physical resistance and repetition to strengthen the body (v. 12-13) and compete better?
  5. Verse 13 says that we need to make “straight paths” for our feet—using a word that means wheel track. How is sin like a crooked “rut” that a wheel creates over time. What is hard to do when your wheels are stuck in a rut? Sin is easy to fall back into, like a familiar habit or pattern. How do we form a new, straight wheel track (or path) for our feet? Psalm 1:1-2, 6; 18:21, 30, 32; 25:4, 8-12; Psalm 119:105; Proverbs 3:6.
  6. Vs 11 and 14 state that peacefulness with one another is a fruit of the Spirit, and part of the Spirit’s work of making us holy. What evidence or experience do you see or have, that shows that sin destroys peace? How does one “sow peace” into situations that might be bound for discord or strife? Contrast Zechariah 8:12-13 and Proverbs 6:12-19.
  7. What two mountains are contrasted in Hebrews 11:18-24? Why are they different, and who stands on the second? What’s He do for us? Vs 23-24

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.