Sermon by: Robert Austell
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[Note: Sometimes the audio follows closely to the manuscript; sometimes not. In this case, the spoken sermon varied significantly from the script below. If you pick one, listen to the audio.]
We’ve been talking this summer about exile and redemption. In mercy, God did not destroy us or allow the immediate consequences of humanity’s original sin, but exiled us that He might come to us, speak to us, offer reconciliation, and provide a way back home. That God would come after us is His grace. We are not left to find our way home or earn a place back in God’s good favor. God does not hide out in Heaven waiting for us, but has plunged into the depth of human existence to seek and save us through Jesus Christ.
Last Sunday we looked at a passage from Isaiah 51 and talked about hope for the exiles… hope for us. The key idea out of that passage was that we not only must call on God for help, but trust in God to show the way. The question is not “how bad is it?” but “What are we going to do?” And even that question can lead us astray, because we risk missing God’s action – we must ask, “What is GOD going to do?” Exile is the result of human disobedience toward God and affects us on a personal and community level and beyond. In each of these settings of exile, we must be asking, “What is God going to do? What is God already doing now?”
Today we turn to Hebrews 11, known for its description of human faithfulness. It might seem like the heroes of faith are the furthest thing from exiles, until we look closer at their stories. In fact, this chapter ties in faithfulness to exile in a significant way. Today we’ll look at real exiles who trusted in God’s promises. And their attitude of trust in what they could not yet see is the very definition of godly faith.
Definition of Faith (vv. 1-3)
Hebrews 11:1 defines faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This may be the origin of the term “blind faith” – but that term has taken on negative connotations. The man or woman of faith would tell you, “Yes, I am blind,” but would also tell you that the basis of faith is far more trustworthy than sight or sound! Verse two sets up the illustrations that will follow in this chapter: “For by [faith] the men [and women, we’ll see] of old gained approval.”
Verse three points to the basis of this “blind faith” – and tempts me into a discursus on “intelligent design.” It reads, “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.” In other words, what you see ain’t all we got. There is more to life and this world than mortar and wood and nails, more than DNA and atoms and particles, there is supernatural intention, design, and purpose. And that supernatural intention, design, and purpose belong to God!
The solidness and reality of God, standing behind, under, and around all the stuff we can see, hear, touch, taste, and smell, is how verse one can describe having assurance based on hope and conviction without seeing.
For now, if it’s hard to latch on to this definition of faith, don’t worry – what follows this definition of faith in verses 4-12 are a number of illustrations. It’s just what I’ll often do in a sermon – here’s an idea that may be fairly abstract, but here’s a real life example of that idea so we can latch on to it. Likewise, the next nine verses give examples of blind faith convicted and rooted in assuring hope in God. Maybe along the way you and I can think of some modern-day examples.
Faith Produces Action (Faithfulness) (vv. 4-12)
Let’s look at each of these briefly. Before we do, I want to point out something that is runs through all these examples. Faith, which Hebrews characterizes as hopeful and blind, and will later describe as heavenly-minded, is very practical and action-oriented.
The references to Abel and Enoch are rather obscure, with only brief mention given to each in the Old Testament. But both are described as acting in ways that were pleasing to the Lord. Abel pleased the Lord with his offering (Genesis 4:4) and Enoch by “walking with God” (Genesis 5:22). Hebrews links these actions with faith, as examples of assurance and conviction based on trust in God’s will and purpose.
The other examples provide more detail. Noah built an ark on the basis of God’s instruction, though rain and flood were nowhere in view. He endured the mocking of neighbors to follow God’s Word to Him. Those concrete actions were rooted, says Hebrews, in his faith.
Abraham and Sarah, to whom Isaiah similarly appealed in last week’s text, trusted in God despite seeing no “proof” in the short-term. Abraham left his home to go to the place God would show him. Sarah gave birth, despite old age and a few moments of laughing disbelief. Nonetheless, both are demonstrations in hoping in what is yet unseen.
In each of these, faith produced action. Blind faith didn’t result in standing stock-still, fearful of a step in any direction. Rather, it resulted in steps and even leaps of faith, trusting that God was doing something and asking men and women to be a part of that.
Sometimes we set up a distinction between faith and works. One way I’ve found to keep the intended link between them is to talk about works as “faithfulness.” Faith produces faithfulness and faithfulness demonstrates faith. They go together!
Often you might find yourself stuck and hear someone suggest, “You just gotta have faith!” While there is truth to that, this passage really is much more proactive and turns faith around: whether you are stuck, unstuck, hard-pressed, free-and-clear, or anywhere in between, the key question here is the same as last week in Isaiah 51. It’s not, “How bad is it?” or even “What am I going to do?” The key question is: “What is God doing?”
For all we know Abraham was wrestling with what career to pursue in Mesopotamia when he heard God’s instruction to “Go to a place I will show you.” While we don’t exactly know for sure, it seems likely that one reason Abel’s offering was pleasing to the Lord and Cain’s wasn’t is that Abel was asking the question, “What does the Lord want” while Cain gave God what Cain wanted to give him. While Sarah may well have struggled with her barrenness, she was far past the point of thinking she’d have a child. Yet God broke through and in accomplishing what He wanted to do, His name was honored and He was shown to be gracious.
The key question in our messes, brokenness, discouragement, and exile, and in our successes, blessings, celebrations, and joys needs to be, “What is God doing and how can I be a part of that?” That is faithfulness. And that comes out of the hearts and hands of people who realize that earth is not our home.
Faith for the Exile (vv. 13-16)
In the last few verses of this passage this is the perspective of these great figures of faith. Not only did they trust in God and try to be a part of what God was doing, they did so because they realized there was a God with a plan. They realized that there was more to life than living, dying, bricks, and mortar. They realized that earth is not our home… that this is only exile and God has more in store for us than this.
Listen to these verses again:
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth… they desire[d] a better country, that is, a heavenly one. (vv. 13, 16)
Well some of them did see the promise fulfilled on earth – Sarah saw the birth of her son, Isaac. Abraham was brought to the Land God would show him. But the promises were incomplete.
And Abel never saw the Lord’s pleasure on earth – he was murdered by his brother. Enoch lived in a time of increasing wickedness – only by being taken up into Heaven did he see God’s righteousness fulfilled. Abraham and Sarah didn’t live to see the multiplication of their descendants into the millions.
That’s just the point being made here in Hebrews – these figures of faith were looking beyond the stuff of earth. They were trusting in God’s eternal faithfulness and rejoiced in the earthly and temporary foreshadowing of God’s lasting goodness. Hebrews is being written to the diaspora – Jewish people scattered throughout the known world at the time. For them, one earthly hope would have been to return to their own country – but that is, again, only a temporary foreshadowing of the lasting home with God. Hebrews is challenging us to not only pray for and have earthly hopes, but look beyond them to the lasting goodness of God’s plans and purpose.
There is a saying, “So heavenly-minded you’re no earthly good.” That is not the faith being depicted here. The first part is right – we are to recognize that earth is not our home. We are to set our minds and hearts on Heaven and God’s lasting goodness. But Hebrews defines that as faith and says that out of that will come a faithfulness that impacts the temporary world around us in profound ways. Sure, it may still not make sense to onlookers – Noah was ridiculed for building a giant boat during a drought in the middle of desert country. But as we look back with the perspective of history, he certainly could not be accused of having no earthly impact.
We find out in the New Testament that God’s lasting goodness is Jesus Christ. That is God’s ultimate rescue from exile and the final answer to “What is God doing?” We’ve been talking about God being on the move around us – in our lives, in our church, in our neighborhood, and beyond. What is God doing?
What About Me?
I’d like to end with two stories. The first is one of mine, the second will be one of yours. Before I came to Good Shepherd, I was an Associate Pastor a couple of hours from here. Among other things, I directed the youth ministry for the six years I was there. There was one young girl I met when I arrived. Her father had walked out on her, her mom, and her three siblings a year or so before I came. I poured myself into her whole family’s life for the six years I was there, which covered her 7th grade through high school graduation and a little beyond. During those years I prayed with and for the family, counseled with them, and lived with them through some real highs and lows. I trusted in God to provide, but moved here during a period when the one daughter had really turned away from church and friends. My faith that God would keep after her fueled my involvement with her and her family, but I never got to see those prayers wrapped up in a shiny, tidy package. The marriage was not restored, each child continued to have issues and struggles in their own way, and I moved away six years ago. I remember praying for many specific things I wanted for the family, but I also remember entrusting them and her into God’s hands when I left – praying for what God would do in her life.
I had lunch with Mary this week. She’s 25 now, married with a beautiful baby boy, and strong of faith. In fact, every other sentence out of her mouth is about faith and God and her prayers and hopes. She told me about a woman she met several years ago who has encouraged and disciple and walked with her as she came back to God. So that’s what God was doing! J I didn’t have to see God’s eternal plan for her to be involved in her life all those years ago. Faith in God’s plan led to active faithfulness. It was a gift from God to get to tune in years later and hear first-hand of His faithfulness.
That’s a bit of what is going on here in Hebrews. Earth is not our home. But rather than that turning us into lazy dreamers, our trust is in a God who is on the move – over, under, behind, and around the stuff of this earth – with a purpose and a plan to enter into our mess and offer us a way home.
The second story is yours and you will have to tell it or remember it. What does exile look like for you? Maybe you are literally exiled – estranged from a family member or friend. Maybe illness has cut you off from friends and the life you once enjoyed. What things do you pray about? Do you have a son or daughter or parent who doesn’t know God, for whom you pray fervently? Is body or mind failing you or someone close to you? God invites prayers for all of that and more. Make known your needs and wants – bring them to the Father. But last week and this week’s passages invite us to temper into our prayers a focus beyond the stuff of this earth – with all its circumstances, failures, shortcomings, illnesses, and weaknesses. How bad is it? It’s bad, and we are to ask God for help and peace and strength in the midst of it all. But we are to remember this key question – it’s the question of faith and the question of one who is faithful: “God, what are you doing? God, what would you have me do?” God is on the move, not hidden away in Heaven, but right here all around us. We need to be asking what He is doing.
That’s what Jesus was getting at when he taught us to pray, “Not my will, but your will be done, Father.” What is God doing right now – your life, in our church, in our neighborhood and beyond? Let’s make that our #1 question! Amen.