Sunday, August 11, 2013

Uncertainty requires faith: thoughts on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

8By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-- and Sarah herself was barren-- because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore."

13All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

The book of Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians to demonstrate the necessity of  faith in Christ as being the sole and complete revelation of and from God. Although some assume Paul was the author, it is more likely not Paul, although some scholars have thought it might have been one of Paul’s helpers, such as Barnabas, or it might have actually had more than one author—the text uses “we” amost exclusively, unlike Acts or other Biblical epistles that flip back and forth between “I” and “we.” The first generation of Christians are passing away, and the second generation seems to be faltering, given that the Messiah has NOT returned as they believed. Early Christians expected Jesus to return within their lifetimes, and yet that expectation was being confounded. Persecution was tempting them back into Judaism, or attempting to Judaize Christianity and expel Gentiles who would not follow Judaic Law. The Church was in danger of foundering and shrinking back into a local mystery cult instead of continuing to spread. This explains the context of todays reading.

Verse one is a wonderful summary of the significance of faith as the lynchpin of our search for God. Faith is the junction of the finite, material world which can be derived through the senses with the eternal world. Faith links us to the eternal and enables us to trust in God’s promises. It is what enables us to know God in response to God’s knowledge of us. Faith depends upon trust—a subject of our verses about Abram in the OT reading. Further, faith is what animates and motivates us to respond to God. Abram demonstrated faith enough to leave the only home he had known in Ur without even knowing what the land he was being given looked like—merely trusting that it was good land, which of course was at a premium.

Verses 4-7 of this 11th chapter that are omitted name what some scholars refer to as “the Heroes of Faith” from the OT—Abel, Enoch, and Noah. Then our reading returns to the subject of Abram/Abraham. Left unsaid is the fact that Abraham is even willing to sacrifice that long-awaited son as a sign of his faith in God. So then the Promised Land of Canaan is tied to the heavenly promised land, the city of God, which is the true inheritance of those of us who come after Abraham but are willing to act based solely upon our faith and trust in God.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly remarks that faith is what made miracles possible—the faith comes BEFORE the miracle, not after, which is something that is very difficult for our modern, skeptical selves to understand. In Matthew 8:13, Jesus assures the centurion that his faith had led to the healing of the centurion’s servant: ‘Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.’ In Matthew 9:22, Jesus tells the hemorrhaging woman that her faith has made her well after she tells herself that just touching the fringe of his cloak, as well as praising the faith of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:28 who actually argues with Jesus when he first rebuffs her as she asks for healing for her daughter. Other instances include Mark 5:34, Mark 10:52, Luke 7:50, Luke 8:48, Luke 17:19, Luke 18:42 (See attached). Lack of faith could have the reverse effect, as well. In Luke 8:25, he rebukes his disciples for having little faith when a storm besets their boat.

Yet faith is not a magic wish-fulfillment device, regardless of how these anecdotes from the Bible sound. Faith is required because we are uncertain to begin with, because we cannot see. It is a paradox that faith is required BECAUSE we are not certain; people of faith still encounter prayers that are not answered, illnesses that cannot be cured, and so on. But look again at our heroes of faith. Abel certainly did not escape tragedy, by a long shot, yet his faith was still reckoned as righteousness. Noah witnessed the destruction of most of the people he knew. Abraham waited a very long time indeed for some of those promises to be fulfilled, and yet the twentieth century along visited untold horrors upon many of his descendants.

Faith is TRUST, which is required because we lack certainty. Yet, if we had certainty, how would we know when we are being blessed, and why would we need to admit our dependence upon God? We would just check the “faith” box and move on. However, the world is not perfect. Tragedies happen for unexplainable reasons. Faith enables us to move forward and live our lives without certainty.

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