History of Faith
I’m told there was a small holiday yesterday. It was sad to not see the usual fireworks display from the Lapeer school fields this year, though I understand the painful necessity of the decision. But I was pleased to see neighbors across our town take up the mantle by launching their own fireworks last night, so that despite the hardships of pandemic precautions the 4th of July could still be celebrate in style. National holidays like the one we just had are opportunities for us Americans to remember our history—in all its glory and honor, as well as its hardship and shame—to remember our past even as we move into the future. I hope you all had a happy 4th.
The scripture we read together this morning is my favorite part of the Letter to the Hebrews. It’s a giant celebration of ancient Jewish history, from Adam and Eve… to Abraham and Sarah… to Moses and Rahab… on down through the ages until the present day of its first readers. Yet the author of Hebrews notices an odd point about all these Old Testament heroes. Every single one of them had faith—and risked, suffered, and sacrificed much for that faith—yet none of them received the fullness of God’s promises. None of them saw the guarantee of the resurrection of the dead. None of them met the messiah. None of them experienced the full forgiveness of sins promised through Christ, at least not in their lifetimes. These are the greatest women and men in the history of our faith. But nonetheless Hebrews tells us: “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised.”
And it is because of that realization that Hebrews declares in our opening verses today: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This line is easily misunderstood, so carefully read it in light of all the stories of faith that follow. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for…” tells us faith… is intrinsically linked to hope. Faith is the certainty that your hopes will be realized by the grace of God. I may hope for a better world free from suffering. But without faith, that’s merely wishy-washy optimism that guarantees nothing and knows little but merely desires a better world. Faith makes me trust that the better world I hope for can, does, and will exist. “Faith is the conviction of things not seen” is much the same. That line is not endorsing you reject what your eyes tell you, not saying you need to check your brain at the door. None of the examples that follow are geared to suggest that. Instead, every example that Hebrews displays is about faithful believers… keeping their eyes toward the future. Nobody can see the future: all we can do is hope for a good one. And so faith is the assurance of our hopes, the conviction of the things we do not yet see but hope to see one day. In similar fashion, Hebrews mentions the creation of the cosmos in verse 3: “By faith we understand the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so what is seen was made from things not visible.” Hebrews doesn’t mention creation to talk about creation in and of itself… but rather to use the past to prove a point about the future. Hebrews compares how the visible world we live in was born from things we cannot see… to our current Christian hope for the visible to once again be built from the invisible. Only this time it will be our visible eternal life drawn emerging from the future we cannot see. Just as creation came from nothingness, so too shall our Christian future emerge from things we do not yet see.
Three of my four grandparents grew up in immigrant households. Their families could not know with certainty what life would be like here. Would they be accepted by new neighbors? Would their jobs last? Would their children have a better life? My great-grandparents could not know, but they were confident in what they hoped for as they tried for a better life in this nation. None of my great-grandparents and only two of my grandparents were alive by the time I was born. Most died before I could see them or they me, but I owe so much of what I have today to their investment in the future, to their putting the future first though they could only dream of it.
That is what Hebrews tells us faith is like: faith looks forward. Faith is not the charlatans who say if you just believe then you’ll never get sick, never have debts, never struggle. No. Read through Hebrews’ history litany again to see just how often our faithful ancestors struggled, suffered, and died for their faith. Faith doesn’t mean life is easy: it means you keep your eyes fixed on our certain hope as you endure with patient the difficulty of today. And faith is not nostalgia for the past, a clinging to what once was. The history Hebrews gives shows ancestors who time and again left behind all they ever knew in trust that God had something better in store. Faith learns from the past but leaves the past behind when it gets in the way, just as Hebrews invites readers to learn from the Old Testament even as it calls them to believe in the New Testament gospel of Jesus. So faith is not the easy way, and faith is not blind devotion to the past. Rather, as the assurance of things hoped for, faith looks forward. As the conviction of things not seen, faith looks forward to the revealing of God’s glory. With understanding that just as creation came from what we cannot see, so too shall God’s eternal rest for us, faith looks forward. Faith looks forward not because it sees what is beyond. But because it trusts in God who has promised that there is indeed rest and life and justice for our longing world.
Things are changing rapidly these days. You don’t need me to reiterate all the advice coming from the CDC about how to stay safe under Covid-19. Much has been asked of us as individuals, as families, as workers and employers and leaders. Even more will be asked before this pandemic is finished. No one can snap their fingers and end this global crisis overnight: it’s going to take months and years of hard work, suffering, and endurance. Not everyone will see the rewards of their work to beat this disease. But we persevere in hopes of a better, coronavirus-free world where we can gather together once more in safety and comfort, though we do not see that world now. And we look to historic examples, just as Hebrews does today. Think of the hardships our ancestors endured to beat the Spanish flu 100 years ago, to beat polio in the 50s. Many died without seeing the end of those diseases. Everyone sacrificed and endured to beat those diseases, even though not everyone saw the final victory. But they sacrificed and endured… because they kept their eyes fixed forward. For us today, we can learn from our past—whether our ancestors in the Bible or our American ancestors—as we find our way through this new crisis. But as we find our way, remember that faith may learn from the past… but faith focuses forward on the future, keeping its eyes on the hoped-for deliverance God promises.
Our reading today ends where we’ll pick up next week: in chapter 12 with this joyful exhortation. All our ancestors in faith endured such trials and hardships despite being unable to see the salvation God promised. But now we—we who have met Jesus—we have seen that promise fulfilled! We have seen and known the thing our ancestors could only hope and trust in but never saw in their lifetimes! We have what they overcame so much for! You and I have experienced the thing that countless generations before us only dreamed of… but worked so hard for that we might at last share in this glory, this honor, this comfort and joy. So if they endured so strongly, how much more should we! So as we go from here, as our nation celebrates its own past this weekend, I invite you to think back to the far larger history of our own faith… give thanks for those who have gone before, learn from their stories… but then go forward with a faith that keeps its eyes locked on the future glory and joy we hope for. May you find comfort in a faith that guarantees your hope. May that comfort give you strength to hold on when times are tough. And to God be the glory for giving us this hope we can put our faith in. Amen.