Sermon delivered by Jim Eby at Summit Presbyterian Church August 12, 2007
FAITH FOR THE JOURNEY Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
What is Christian faith? Can you give me an example?
Someone has said that faith is the capacity to believe that which you know isn't so. Sort of an
This may be the world's definition of faith, but it is not the Christian's definition. Such leave taking of God given senses is not what the author of Hebrews had it mind. He wrote: "To have faith is to be sure of the things we hope for, to be certain of the things we cannot see." Faith means to be sure of something.
Abram is an outstanding example, a living definition of faith. He was sure of the truth in the promise God made to him. That promise was given to him when he was about 75 years old. We read about it in the 12th chapter of Genesis: "Leave your native land, your relatives, and your father's home and go to a country that I am going to show you," God said. "I will give you many descendants, and they will become a great nation...and through you, I will bless all the nations."
Twenty-four years later, at the age of 99, Abram was still waiting. Was that stupidity or just plain foolishness? Today we want instant relief, instant gratification. Waiting until tomorrow is almost too long. Abram faithfully waited until he was 100 years old. The record doesn't say he never doubted. Reread the story in Genesis 12-18. There are clear indications he had doubts. But somehow, even in times and situations when the world would classify him as foolish, even then, his faith was persistent, his faith was sure.
He lived as a sojourner, a foreigner and a refugee in this world. God had promised him a homeland as well as descendants to live in that land. For the moment, he lived in tents, as did his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob whom he never saw. He lived a rich and prosperous life -- make no mistake about that. He possessed sheep, goats and cattle as well as silver and gold. He was no penniless vagabond. But in this world, he was a vagabond, as the writer of Hebrews observed: "For Abraham was waiting for the city which God has designed and built, the city with permanent foundations."
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were not improvident idealists walking around what would later be called Israel with their heads in the clouds. They lived lives that were down to earth, realistic, competent, hard-headed. They were careful herdsmen. Isaac was famous for the wells he dug to improve the pastureland. In Jesus' day, there was still a working well at Sychar that was known as Jacob's well. That was where Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman one day on his way back north to Galilee.
For Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, there was that hope for, that faith in, the realization of God's promise. It wasn't a wish, it wasn't an idle dream, it was hope, it was trust, it was patient waiting for God's promise to become reality in their lives in this world. Their waiting, their faith, was based on a certainty of things we cannot see.
The writer of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip must have been pondering this text in one of the strips. The first frame shows Calvin saying to Hobbes, "We rely on sight to confirm the existence of things. We don't believe in things we can't see." Calvin continues in the second frame: "So how do we know that no-see-ems exist? Verification is ruled out by definition. It's an ontological quandary." In the third frame, Hobbes says: "Hold still a moment." In the fourth frame, Calvin is scratching himself vigorously as he says, "Ooh, I itch!" And with a marvelous, wise tiger smile on his face, Hobbes remarks: "Glad I could help."
Just like no-see-ems, there are some things in life that are real and of vital importance that we cannot see. And the world calls it the foolishness of faith. The kind of faith exhibited by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who kept their eye on and their ear open to the promise of God.
Do you suppose you could see it by looking into their eyes? Did they always have that far away look as though they could hear strains of heavenly music. They could never be completely satisfied with anything they achieved or accomplished in this life. They were never able to permanently pitch their tents and sigh with contentment: "This is the Promised Land. I've settled in and I'm going to enjoy myself." Instead, they kept moving and striving and seeking even while they lived in the land of promise. Jacob would wrestle all night in order to gain a blessing at the place he named Peniel. Their whole lives were lived in a continuous state to tension between that which was and that which ought to be, that which would be, according to God's sure promise. They continued to look for a city which had foundations, whose builder and maker was God. They desired a better country, that is a heavenly one. Therefore, God was not ashamed to be called their God, for God had prepared for them a city.
There are others in the Old Testament who didn't make the All Star Hall of Faith. Abraham had a nephew named Lot who is forgotten in the recitation by the writer of Hebrews. Lot had made the long trek from Ur to Haran to Canaan. But somehow, somewhere along the trip, Lot grew bored and tired. And when given his choice, he chose the whole Jordan valley and settled down and pitched his tent near Sodom. It was a wicked town, we're told, and the next thing we know, Lot has a house there and has made himself very much at home. Not that he was indulging in their wickedness, but he evidently didn't condemn it either. When God sent his angels to destroy the wicked city, Lot barely escaped with his two daughters. His wife couldn't tear herself away and perished, trapped and consumed by her regard for her comfortable world. Lot did the sensible thing, according to the world's standards. And as a result, his name is missing in Hebrews' All Star Hall of Faith.
God was ashamed of Lot, when he settled for Sodom. And God was ashamed of Esau, who sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. But God was not ashamed of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob who dwelt in tents, who kept on the move, whose lives were spent seeking that city which God has designed and built, the city with permanent foundations.
Is God ashamed of you and me? Is God ashamed for us to call God our God?
God is if we have settled down like Lot and are content with the mess of the world in which we live. God is ashamed of our foolishness if we have no concern, no thought about or care for justice, mercy and loving kindness for all people. God is ashamed if we have no concern, no thought about or care for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner. God is ashamed if we live unexamined lives that waste the resources of the world while there are so many others who have too little. I believe God is ashamed to be called our God if we are content with our congregation's past or present response, with our past or present state of work and worship.
Do we look forward with anticipation to the resumption of Church School for all ages? Are we making plans to take our place as teachers or students? Do we celebrate the work ahead of us this year as students in schools and universities and offices and homes? Do we sense, as the Confession of 1967 suggests: "...a ferment in the world, stirring hope in people and preparing the world to receive its ultimate judgment and redemption? Do we sense an urgency born of that hope so that we apply ourselves to the tasks God has given us? In steadfast hope, do we look beyond all partial achievement to the final triumph of God?"
Do we? Are we eager and ready to be on our journey, to get into the game after the summer break?
I learned something recently. Do you know why the students at Texas A & M stand the whole way through their football games? It goes back to 1922. The Aggies were having a great season. They were headed to the championship of the Southwest Conference. In January, they went to Dallas for the Dixie Classic. A basketball player named E. King Gill went along to scout the game from the stands. But the team was hit hard with injuries. By the end of the first half, the coach wasn't sure that he would have 11 healthy players to put on the field. He looked up in the stands and waved for E. King Gill to come down to the field. There were no locker rooms, so the young man had to put a jersey on right there on the sideline. E. King Gill stood there throughout the second half as the 12th man, so that if they didn't have 11 men to put on the field, he would be ready to play. He stood there, the whole second half, saying, "Coach, if you need me, I'm ready to play." And ever since, the students at Texas A & M have stood the whole way through the game. It's their way of saying, "Coach if you need me, I'm ready to play."
Are we ready?
Don't get confused. You are not E. King Gill. You are not to be standing on the sidelines as the 12th player, waiting for the coach to put you in if you are needed. You are on the field. God has given us faith for the journey and promises there will always be some other 12th person. That makes it possible for you and me to give our all.
May God keep us faithful to our calling, so we do not settle down and accommodate ourselves to this world, but instead join the heroes of faith at last in the New Jerusalem come down from God out of heaven.
Our Father, by your Spirit, keep us faithful and expectant. Help us celebrate and live responsibly in Christ's kingdom coming as we work and wait and hope for the kingdom coming. In the name of our Lord and Savior, we ask it. Amen.