“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
In the Broadway musical, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka invites his young guests into his never-before-seen magical land of candy making. Before the children and their chaperones enter, however, he is very careful to remind them that cynicism, doubt and mistrust are not welcome in this special place. He invites them to open their hearts and minds to what lies ahead as he proudly sings that “it must be believed to be seen”.
It must be believed to be seen.
That’s exactly what faith is. And that’s exactly where we find ourselves this morning in Hebrews. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Through the letter to the Hebrews, God is reminding us that we must believe and THEN we will see. It is by faith that we more clearly understand. It is by faith that we are inspired to live as reflections of God to the world. It is by faith that we are moved to action as we seek to emulate the life of Christ.
It is by faith that we find our hope, our trust and our future in the Lord.
And the writer of Hebrews gives us an entire chapter filled with the names of our ancestors in faith. By faith, these names that we have known since our childhood Sunday School days, have their stories recounted for us as reminders of their dedication and commitment to God. Chapter 11 first defines faith and then proceeds to list the names of prophets, saints, martyrs and many other faithful followers and heroes of our faith.
Here we find the names of folks from every generation who were courageous. They trusted completely in God’s promises, and every time, God’s promises remained firm. They were obedient to their faith, and many of them suffered as a consequence. But, all of them exemplified a belief in things unseen, and for that, they were given God’s approval.
It was hard to choose just a part of this chapter to be read today, so I’d like to share with you from chapter 11, yet another list of people who did incredible things “by faith”.
When I first read this chapter a few weeks ago, in preparation for this morning, I was completely blown away by all that these heroes had gone through. Some of them did incredible things with glorious results. But others faced physical peril, they were tortured, they were mocked, they were left alone and destitute all because of their faith. All of these heroes were moved to action by faith. And yet, not all of them received accolades or praise or even life while on this earth. But they acted “by faith” anyway.
This is a list of women and men who trusted God completely. Their hearts were so moved by the promise of God’s grace and mercy, that they were compelled to act. What they knew to be true in their hearts, had to also be reflected in their lives. They trusted God completely. They trusted that God would honor them for their faith- even if that didn’t happen while on this earth.
Along with this list in Hebrews, we know that there have been additional heroes of the faith who have gone before us even since this scripture was written. We can all think of men and women who have given up their homes, their families and even their lives because of their faith.
Last summer our family was in Munich, Germany for a few days. One morning we traveled by train to the nearby village of Dachau to visit the first Nazi Concentration Camp. We were moved to tears as we learned the history of this camp that went on to hold 160,000 political prisoners. All kinds of people were imprisoned there for being a perceived threat to Hitler’s regime. And it is heartbreaking to walk the grounds of a space where such atrocities against humanity once occurred.
During our visit, I was prepared to be moved emotionally, and I was also prepared to be educated. But I was not prepared for the feelings I would have when I learned about one particular group who was regularly imprisoned at Dachau.
You see, Dachau was the primary concentration camp for clergy.
Almost 3,000 pastors, ministers and priests were imprisoned for their opposition of Hitler. There they suffered, they were spit on, they were malnourished, they were forced to labor in horrible conditions. And yet, those clergy created spaces for worship within the walls of the concentration camp. They shared what little food they had with other prisoners who had even less. They lived an unimaginably awful life, but they lived by faith.
Many of the prisoners at Dachau died from an outbreak of typhus. These folks did not receive a glorious return on their faith commitment here on earth. But, we know that God’s promises are greater than that. This scripture reminds us that God’s promise of hope and peace and healing are not meant for this temporal place, but for an eternal resolution.
People of faith have a confidence in the present- that when everything around them is failing, the promises of God for peace, justice, mercy and salvation can be trusted. And so, these people show us the way through their actions.
As Christians, we are called to have faith that is inward assurance, but we are just as strongly called to embody our faith as an outward example of what we believe is to come. We believe in the kingdom of God as a place of peace and comfort, of equality and equity, of deep love and great praise. And so, our faith calls us to live in such a way that brings pieces of the kingdom of God to earth now.
We can see the world suffering. We see violence and hardship. Faith is the ability to see beyond that world…to what canbe. Having an inward faith, moves our hearts. But having an outward faith, moves us to action. That is what is so outstanding about the folks in this passage. And it’s what is so remarkable about all of the giants and heroes of our faith who’ve gone before us.
Reformation leader, Martin Luther said, “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace. It is so sure and certain that a person could stake his life on it a thousand times.”
And so, faith is more than having inner confidence that God’s promises will be revealedsomeday. It’s knowing that the promises are working now. While these Bible characters had that confidence, we often find ourselves searching for it in our own lives. We look for examples in our time. And yet, I’d suggest that we don’t have to look far. On every scale, we can name and claim folks who are led to live completely by faith.
I think of those who taught me Sunday School, music, Mission Friends and GA’s. They gave of their time and their patience to make sure that the scriptures and hymns of our faith were passed along to my heart.
I think back on the missionaries who visited my church as a child. They left all of the comforts of American culture, to give and care for and share in life with the nations.
I think of my friends, CBF pastors Greg and Helms Jarrell who live in an intentional community in Charlotte’s economically depressed Enderly Park. For over 15 years they have created a life among their neighbors, as advocates for justice, and companions on the journey.
I think of friends and loved ones who have overcome addiction in order that their lives might more clearly reflect their beliefs. This often requires stepping away from friends, and also finding new ways of dealing with anxiety or grief or pain.
We all have heroes of faith that go far beyond the list in Hebrews 11. Who are those folks for you? Who is on your list- those who have acted boldly, courageously, passionately, by faith?
This list is not simply there for us to meditate on. It is also written as a call to action. We too must be moved by faith.
Theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer said, “The disciple is dragged out of…relative security into a life of absolute insecurity…Out of the realm of finite… into the realm of infinite possibilities.”
There are INFINITE possibilities for the ways that God is calling us to live by faith. The means by which we are called are different according to our gifts. But, the point is that we are called. We are called out of security into insecurity. We are called to move away from what is comfortable and careful and dictated by fear, to a life that is difficult and bold and led by truth.
Faith is a response to believing that God is who God claims to be. Do you believe that God is trustworthy? Do you believe in God’s promises? What needs to happen so that your life is led by faith?
Ezra 10:4 says, “Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it!”
Let’s rise up, friends! We are in this community of believers in order that we might encourage and support and sustain each other- not simply in our internal belief, but in the actions to which we are called byfaith. We can each take courage knowing that whatever feels too hard or big or too scary is exactlywhere God’s promises lie.
We’ve recently finished the insanity that is Greensboro City Summer Swim. Each June & July this city turns into a town that excitedly awaits each Tuesday night’s neighborhood pool swim meets. My personal favorite event to watch is any time that the teenagers swim a Medley Relay. In a medley relay, each swimmer is responsible for swimming one of the four strokes- backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle.
As the race begins, each swimmer is in place on the opposite ends of the pool, ready to jump in and swim as soon as the previous swimmer touches the wall. It’s a beautiful sight to behold as the next swimmer dives into the water over the head of the swimmer before him or her. With the older swimmers, this is done seamlessly and beautifully.
Each swimmer swims the stroke assigned with as much strength and technical prowess as possible. The relay team is dependent on that. Each stroke is different, but it is accomplishing the same goal. The team has faith in one another to complete the race with persistence and endurance.
We too, are a relay team. Each of our stories are different. Our methods of living out our faith are different, but it’s the same faith that binds us together. The same eternal goal that drives each of us to live by faith. The stronger we are in our faith, the stronger our story becomes.
We are next in line. The relay that went from Abel to Enoch to Noah to Rahab to Gideon to Samuel and so on and so on to this very day, is being passed on to us. It is our turn to dive into the water. It is our turn to act upon our faith in bold, confident, strong ways, not because of anything we have done, but because of our faith in the One who has gone before us and who goes ahead of us.
There is someone waiting for you to take your turn and live by faith. Someone who is waiting to call you a hero of the faith. Someone whose life will be changed, who will know Christ more intimately because you lived out the peace, justice and love of God.
The list in Hebrews 11 includes characters who had imperfect stories. Many of them had sordid pasts. Many of them were persecuted for what they believed and how they acted. The people in this list were not perfect people. But at some point, each of them showed us exactly what it means to live out the kind of faith that pleases God.
The end of the chapter says, “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” All of that faith and righteousness and suffering, and they still didn’t “receive what was promised”…not on this earth. Because God had more in store for each of them. And God has more in store for each of us.
Because of Christ, it is not up to us alone to be the only example of faith. He was that ultimate example. But it is also in response to Christ, that God desires to show us how to live by faith!
Do you believe God’s promises today? Do you believe that what God has in store for you is greater than any plan or program or system that you can put into place? In what ways is God calling you to take risks, to act boldly simply by faith- not because of assurance or promise that you will succeed or be happy or be rewarded? But because it will help bring the Kingdom of God just a bit closer.
The very first verse of Chapter 12 says, “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.”
Will you join me in rising up, laying everything aside, and running toward God’s promises- not out of fear or control or our own strength, but by faith?