A sermon on Hebrews chapter 11 (read the biblical text here)
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
I stand before you as one who has very little assurance or conviction this morning, but I stand here nonetheless. It is faith which allows me to get up here today, a faith that is not my own.
As Craig Koester puts it, “it is the power of God’s Word to evoke faith. If we are to have faith, something beyond our senses must pull it into being.” So I am here to tell you not my own story, which is deep and dark and faithless right now, but to proclaim to you the stories that have more power than mine to pull faith into being.
The first is the story of Creation, in which God’s Word speaks into a deep and swirling nothingness, making order out of chaos, bringing light and a new beginning. Where there is nothing, God can still do something.
Then follows the story of Abel, son of Adam and Eve, the first creatures made in God’s image. His faith made his sacrifices acceptable to God, even as those sacrifices stirred envy in the heart of his brother and led to his death. Even in a tragic and too early death, God allows Abel’s faith to live on as an example.
The story of Enoch is next, a story that is three sentences long in Genesis chapter 5, so don’t feel bad if you don’t know this one. It’s one of the few in this lineage that doesn’t end in death. He was taken, Hebrews says, much the same way that the prophet Elijah ascended in a chariot of fire, or the way Jesus ascended to the right hand of God. Enoch’s life is the reminder that faith has rewards, and that God is pleased even with our efforts at faithfulness.
Then Noah, the paragon of believing in God’s word over what his eyes could see, building in ark of ridiculous proportions under a cloudless sky.
Abraham comes next, and is the heart of this chapter. His is a complicated story, one of the longest in our Scriptures. He was a migrant, a foreigner in a strange land. He was alternately faithful and faithless, sometimes believing God’s impossible promise of children from his old body, sometimes taking matters into his own hands and having a child with Hagar, Sarah’s maid, or lying about his relationship with Sarah to protect himself from a jealous Pharoah.
Abraham gets lifted up again and again in the New Testament as an example of great faith, but a close reading of his story shows that his faith was inconsistent, that he struggled mightily some days to believe in what seemed impossible. The fulfillment of God’s promise took decades to come, and even after Isaac’s birth, Abraham could not see the fullness of what God had promised. I find his inconsistency comforting.
The story goes on beyond Abraham of course, in the rest of chapter 11 we didn’t read. Isaac and his twin sons, Jacob and Esau come next. Then all Jacob’s sons and the story of Joseph in Egypt. Then Moses whose great faith saved the people of God again and again, though even he did not live to see the promise fulfilled.
This litany of faith in the lives of people called to God’s work proves a number of things, but two stand out and begin to evoke faith for me. First, that even these heroes of God’s story were not perfect in their faith. Their stories are full of doubting and failing, questioning and crying out in despair. Yet they are still proclaimed faithful. Doubting does not disqualify you from being part of God’s stor.
Second, and probably more important: the story of God coming down to us through the lives of the people we’ve talked about is a story about the seemingly impossible becoming reality. In the lives of every biblical hero, there are moments where they cannot see how the promises of God could possibly be true, and the act of faith is simply to move forward in the ways of love and kindness and righteousness, not knowing exactly where those ways may lead. The act of faith is stepping out toward God, hoping that what has been true for others in the past will also be true for you. Hoping, possibly trusting, that more is possible than can currently be seen.
More is possible than can currently be seen.
That is becoming my own mantra as I move toward God one unbelieving step at a time. And an enormous part of why I can take even those steps is because of the great cloud of witnesses surrounding me, both in this realm and in eternity.
In the first days after Marrett’s death, as cards and phone calls and gifts came flooding in to my home, my dad quoted that verse from Hebrews chapter 12, which follows this litany of faith heroes. “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.”
When I could see nothing of my own future, when I felt like a stranger in my own life, when part of my homeland was taken from me, you surrounded me with your witness to God’s love and faithfulness. You gave me the assurance of this hopes for, which I could not find for myself. You have me the conviction of things which are still unseen. You continue to carry me on your hearts and with your helping hands along this journey I don’t want to take.
YOU are my great cloud of witnesses. YOU are my heroes of faith. YOU are part of God’s great story, still unfolding right now and right here.
Thank you and thank God for you.