Stepping Into the Unknown

My sermon from this past Sunday. Text was Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16.

 

Faith. Hope. Assurance.

Christianity has its own language, its own vocabulary, and for those who are new to the Christian faith or new to the church, the vocabulary can be somewhat confusing, with terms that are used so often and so frequently and in so many different ways with little or no definition of the terms. Faith is one of those words. In fact, if you asked twenty Christians to define faith, you may well get twenty different answers.

But faith is what the eleventh chapter of Hebrews is all about, and in fact, in the first verse, we get a fantastic definition of faith that we would do well to spend some time and meditate upon. “[F]aith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

You see, many times we think of faith as something intellectual, something that we think. We are saved by faith. This is true, but when think of faith as what we think which is distinct from what we do, this becomes a problem. Faith is not just thinking, faith is not just in one’s head. We can’t claim to have faith and then go on with our merry lives. no, faith is not just thinking something. “[F]aith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith is not just wishful thinking, we read here that faith is a confidence. It is the assurance of things hoped for, some translations even translate the term assurance as substance. Faith is not just wishing or hoping for something, faith is a something. Faith is not something that we just muster up on our own, faith is granted to us by God. Faith is not just looking forward to something — it is that, but not only that — but faith is something.

The writer of Hebrews allows us to linger on the life of Abraham and Sarah in order to illustrate faith.

One day Abraham, actually, before he was Abraham when he was Abram, was doing what he was doing living in Ur in Mesopotamia. However, God had a plan for him and his descendants that Abram didn’t know anything about. So God told him to get up and to leave his home, and to travel to the land that God was going to show to him. God promised to Abram that God would make a great nation from him. Now, when he and his wife Sarai were young, this would not have been an unheard of promise. But Abram and his wife were old, and while it may still be possible for Abram to father a child, the idea of Sarai mothering a child was pretty much unheard of. I can only imagine that Abram had a lot of doubts about this promise, but there must have been something within Abram — or rather something that God planted within Abram — that caused Abram to believe God, to have some sort of confidence about this.

Now, getting up and leaving one’s country in the ancient world was a bigger deal. There was no internet, no telephone, no postal mail. There was no Craig’s List to find an apartment. So Abram was leaving all that he knew, probably all that his father and his father’s father knew and he set out for who knows where on nothing but a promise from a God whom he didn’t knowingly have a particularly long history with — there was no Bible at the time — and he packed up his home, and loaded up his camels with all of their worldly possessions and left their home and headed west toward the setting sun, unsure of where exactly they will land.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that they lived in tents. In fact, for generations they lived in tents. They lived in tents because they were always strangers. Always sojourners, always travelers. They lived in tents because they were always journeying, never quite home. They lived in tents because they were never led to the place where they are able to stake out property and build a permanent home. They were always foreigners in a foreign land. A land which would become home to their descendants, but never home to them. It was a land in which Abram — who would become Abraham — would never see, would never have any tangible evidence of, but he lived in a tent and never arrived home to the “city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb 11:10).

At some point, Abram says, “Wait a minute there God. You’ve made all of these promises to me, of being a great nation, but if you haven’t noticed, a great nation begins with a single descendant, but I don’t have any descendants, so I suppose that my great nation will have to be born from a servant in my house?”

But God, not one for clear and simple answers, takes him outside, outside of Abram’s tent and God points him to the sky. God says to Abram, “Do you see all of these stars? Count them if you can, because this many will be your descendants.” Abram, I can imagine, was overwhelmed by the sheer number of stars which filled his eyes — it would have been magnificent. Those of us who live in the city can’t really quite understand what they view could have looked like, we have streetlights which obscure our view, but for Abram there would have been nothing else, save a fire to cast light which would have dimmed the brilliance of the stars that seemed to completely encircle him on the desert plain. God planted something within Abram much earlier, and we are told that Abram “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6).

Even though Abram and Sarai were old, even though she was barren, even though there was no child to be the next in line for this great nation, Abram believed the LORD, and we read in Genesis that the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness, that this faith this belief, this assurance, confidence, the substance was enough. It was enough to allow Abram to move into the future that God was calling him into. Abram could have said, “That’s enough, I’m going back to Ur.” But he didn’t. He continued in the future that God is unfolding, a future that Abram will never see with his eyes, it is a future in which seeds are being planted but are not yet popping through the soil. It is a future which exists but is not yet evident. For Abram, then, this faith that he had was not just hope for something that he would possess in the future, something that he would have in the future. No, for Abram, this faith was the substance, it was the thing, it was what he had.

Abram would eventually have a child, Isaac. It would be through Isaac that this great nation would continue. Unfolding over time, piece by piece, little by little, and in fact, it is still not finished. Even after Abram became Abraham, he wouldn’t get to see the nation of Israel. He wouldn’t get to see Jerusalem. He wouldn’t get to see his descendants at home in this land that God was giving to them. He wouldn’t get to see “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

***

Although Abraham was the main story which is here for reflection, Abraham wasn’t the only ancestor of the faith who lived this kind of life. We can see it similarly with his son Isaac, and his son Jacob. Even before Abraham, God was not absent for Noah believed God when God instructed him to build an ark for God was going to send a flood.

You see, God called each of these out of their homes in one way or another. God called them out of their home, out of what they knew, and charged them with entering into a future into which they would never really enter.

When we think of this, we must ask ourselves, was their faith in vain? Did they live in a hope for nothing because they never saw the fulfillment of their hope?

We may think so. After all, faith and hope are supposed to be fulfilled within our lifetimes. We hope for something because we want it to come to be. We have faith, and we expect a pay-off for this faith.

Not at all, the writer of Hebrews tells us.  It is true that they they did not see the this-worldly fulfillment of what was promised, we read that “from a distance they saw and greeted [these promises]” (Heb 11:13). Faith is not just something which gets us something, faith is a form of courage, as we can see in the stories of our spiritual ancestors which launches us into a future with God, a future where we don’t know where it will lead, a future which might be uneasy, a future which we might not completely see, knowing simply that the future belongs to God, the future is one that God is unfolding.

God’s call to Abraham and Sarah was unique, but God’s call is general. While we won’t all have to get up and go to a far of nation and be told in our seventies that we will be the progenitor of a great nation, we are all people who are on a journey. We do not dwell in tents always moving to one place or another, but we don’t live with true foundations, we don’t find our true home in any particular place other than the city where God is the architect and builder.

Faith is the way by which we can hold fast to the promises of God, even if we don’t see the promise fulfilled with our own eyes. Faith is the way in which we boldly step out of our complacency, out of our selfishness, out of our comfort, our of what we know to be familiar and into the future that God is preparing. Faith isn’t simply expecting things to get better for us, faith is the assurance, confidence, substance that we are a part of God’s future which has been unfolding for longer than we can imagine and is continuing to unfold.

It is fitting, I think, that the writer of Hebrews speaks at some length of the story of Abraham and Sarah, a story with which all the original hearers of this story would be familiar. It is a story of a journey, a journey which never truly ends but where the end is always envisioned. It is the story of a promise in which fulfillment is certain, but never within a lifetime. It is a story in which people, are emboldened and encouraged by God to boldly step into God’s future with little other than the confidence that the future belongs to the trustworthy and faithful God.

Where can you relate to this? Perhaps you are not far from where you grew up, where you consider home.

I wonder if Abraham felt like he was wandering aimlessly. I wonder if Abraham felt like he was feeling out his way in the dark. I wonder if Abraham felt like turning back. Returning to what he knew, to what he could experience, to that with which he was familiar. But this is the thing that we can know that Abraham couldn’t. He made it to where he needed to go, even though he didn’t know where that was. He had a child, which he didn’t think was possible. He was the ancestor of a great people, a people of which, in Christ, we are a part. None of this Abraham saw, but when we read of this story, we can see his role in God’s continually unfolding story, God’s continuously arriving future.

You see, faith is not just wishful thinking. Faith is the thing that we grasp hold to when things don’t make sense. Faith is the thing which we grasp hold of when we feel as though we are wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. Faith is the thing which strengthens us to take a step in a new direction, a direction which might not be clear, but a direction in which God is calling us. Faith is the home that we have when we don’t have our true home. Faith is the assurance, the confidence, the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

So what do we do when we feel as though we do not have faith? We pray for faith.

What do we do when our faith is less than consistent? We pray for a more steady faith. God is faithful and God is trustworthy. You see, God doesn’t leave us to our own devices to do this on our own. God provides the way, we simply have to take a step into it.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

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