Reading: Hebrews 11.1-16
Watched any good telly lately? So the power system was working, was it? Evidently, the studio staff and technicians were on the job too!
Sometimes we think of faith as one of those peculiar "religious" words. Yet in reality we exercise it all the time. And if the power had been out when we flicked the switch - or if our favourite TV show was off the air - we would have reached for the telephone without a second thought.
Faith - that trust and practical inter-dependence on which any civilisation depends.
Did you notice the verb I associated with "faith" before? I said that we "exercise" faith all the time. Faith has to do with action. Faith assumes "belief". But belief becomes faith when we depend on what we believe in - when we "exercise faith."
An elderly couple met their demise in an car accident and were transported to heaven. The faithful couple were recognised by St. Peter and escorted into the welcome centre, where they began to take in all the wonder and amazement of the place. St. Peter pointed out the food court and told them that they could now eat anything and not worry about their health. The husband especially began partaking of the pastries and desserts.
The wife was amazed at the beauty, the peace and the joy she felt and commented over and over about what a nice place heaven was and how happy she felt to be there. Soon, however, the husband began looking quite grim. His wife asked him what the problem was.
He said, "If it weren't for you and your oat-bran muffins and health food, we'd probably have been here fifteen years ago!"
I suppose faith is regarded as a religious word because we often use it to describe actions in unlikely or dangerous situations. For instance, we think it would "take a lot of faith" to walk a tight-rope between two sky-scrapers. Faith hardly comes into the act of crossing Queen Street when the traffic is light.
When we speak about faith in God, we are talking about exercising this normal every-day quality in relation to God.
Alice was talking with the White Queen. The Queen said, "Let's consider your age to begin with - how old are you?"
"I'm seven and a half exactly."
"You needn't say 'exactly'," the Queen remarked: "I can believe it without that. Now I'll give you something to believe. I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day."
"I can't believe that!" said Alice.
"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. (Lewis Carroll, Alice through the Looking Glass, ch. 5)
Faith isn't drawing a long breath and shutting your eyes so that you can believe the impossible. It makes a lot of sense to believe in God. We can't see God with our eyes. But there is plenty of evidence that he is about.
We see that evidence in creative design. We see it in the universal quest for the spiritual. We see it in moral conscience.
Paul said to the philosophers of his day in Athens, "From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him - though indeed he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17.26-27).
Throughout the world, people have been "groping for God." Someone has said that "religion is indigenous to human nature" - it is not something "artificial or alien."
In Hebrews 11, we read, "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (v.1). It is, of course, faith in the true and living God that is in mind throughout this passage - not "faith in faith." As one writer has put it, "In faith things hoped for become realized, things hoped for become reality." Faith doesn't make imaginary things come true. Rather, faith enables us to live with certainty and confidence on the basis of realities that are both true and real, though invisible and not yet.
"By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible" (v. 3). How it all came to be - the processes involved in the creation of the universe - has been the subject of much speculative guess-work. None of us was there to witness the events. The Bible doesn't set out to prove God. It simply begins with a statement, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Gen. 1.1) - a statement that makes sense of what we see and that calls us to live responsibly in this world
The whole chapter is about people who lived by trusting God - people whose actions flowed from their faith. Our focus today is particularly on Abraham - described in the Old Testament as God's friend (Isaiah 41.8; 2 Chron. 20.7).
"By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (vv. 8-10).
Imagine trekking overland with your family and all your possessions, along unsealed and often unformed roads, from Ayr to Tennant Creek, passing as you do through foreign countries, different cultures and language groups. That is what Abraham did - at the age of seventy-five (Gen. 12.4) - convinced that God was calling him, obedient to the call of God. He didn't know where he was going, and when he got there he still hadn't arrived! He was still a pilgrim to somewhere else! In fact he would die a pilgrim - having faith in a promise that was not yet completed, not yet fulfilled.
The promise had been, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Gen. 12.1-3).
So the promise must go beyond Abraham's lifetime. Yet, at 75 and his wife not far behind, this must have seemed even more impossible. When nothing seemed to be happening (after they had lived in Canaan for ten years - 16.3), Abraham, at the suggestion of his wife Sarah, sought to fulfil the promise through Hagar, an Egyptian slave-girl. That union was not the purpose of God at all and its results are with us to this day. Abraham was now 86 years old (16.16) - time seemed to be running out!
Thirteen years later Abraham was 99! That's a time of excitement in a cricket match. There's a "hope he/she makes it" feel about that score in a human life too! That was when the Lord appeared to tell Abraham that "I will bless [your wife Sarah] and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her" (17. 16). Abraham thinks, "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?"
At that age, we've not only given up hoping for children, but perhaps are not particularly wanting the burden of a child! "If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!" Ishmael was not the child of promise. When we look at the genealogy of Jesus, we are amazed at some of the names (and incidents) recorded there. God can work all things together for good, but he was not about to use Abraham's unbelieving blunder with Hagar for the fulfilment of his promise! Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac - the child through whom the line of God's promise would flow.
But in fact "All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth Instead, they were longing for a better country - a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them" (Heb. 11.13, 16).
Of course, we are "instant" people. If we have faith in the unseen, we won't wait. We want it all now. We want to walk by sight and not by faith (cf. 2 Cor. 5.7).
Our calling is to live by faith. We remember the vision of Arthur Preston at West End Methodist Mission in Brisbane. We try to picture Olive Crombie, that first Blue Nurse, beginning her rounds by tram and bicycle. The whole operation had to be based on faith - no government grants and a minimum of our kind of infrastructure. As the Service grew, every effort was made to maintain faith as the motivating force behind all that was done, together with the enabling of an increasing base of skills and technology.
But our calling is still to live by faith. Trust God - he's trustworthy! Be patient - his promises are true (here and hereafter)! Move into action! You can count on God - he's also counting on you!
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