Sunday, January 01, 2006

New Year's Day Sermon (Hebrews 11)

We have just lived through the 365 days of 2005. Enoch, one of the heroes of faith recorded in Hebrews chapter 11, lived for 365 years (Gen. 5:23). He walked with God all those years - one year for every single day we have just lived in the last calendar year, and then he simply “could not be found” for God took him away.

Well, we are all still here. God has not taken us away yet and unless he does so this year we have another 365 days to live through before next New Year’s Day. How will we live those days? As people of faith? As those who belong to the great list of heroes of the faith given here? Will we face our trials with faith and courage as our ancestors did or will we shrink back?

What is faith anyway? It’s defined for us in verse 1 - “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Faith is the substance (the Greek word is hypostasis) of what we hope for. It is the “title deed” of things hoped for. (F.F. Bruce, The Epistle To The Hebrews, 277.) If I have the title deed to a property, though the deed itself is not the property it is a guarantee of my possession of that property. In the same way our faith is a title deed to what God has promised.

Verse 6 gives us a bit more content and helps us to understand exactly what are these invisible things of which a person of faith is so certain. “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” We are people of faith then, not only if we believe in God but if we believe that he is a rewarder of those who seek him.

I like the way J. B. Phillips renders this verse - “The [one] who approached God must have faith in two things, first that God exists and second that it is worth a [person’s] while to try to find God.” A person of faith is a person who knows it is worth while to seek God and then having found him to live for him. As the great stories of the ancients demonstrate in this chapter, faith is not mere belief. Belief is a passive thing, whereas faith is active. I believe that 2 + 2 equals 4 but I can’t get very passionate about that. Faith on the other hand is a living and acting confidence in the invisible God. It involves a willingness to act as though living for God is a worthwhile proposition, as the great stories of the heroes of the faith given here make clear.

The writer of Hebrews draws his examples from across the entire range of the biblical story. He begins with creation in verse 3, “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.” He then goes on to characters from the Book of Genesis - Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph (in verses 4-22). He then moves right into Exodus with Moses, the Deliverance from Egypt, and the crossing of the Red Sea in verses 23-29). Then it’s into the historical books from verse 30 on with the story of Jericho, Rahab, and then Gideon, Samuel, Samson, and David.

These are all people who thought it worthwhile to seek God and having found him to live for him. They walked with the same God we do. Joseph Hart’s eighteenth century hymn makes this clear:

The God who created the skies,
The strength and support of the saints,
Who gives them all needful supplies,
And hearkens to all their complaints:

This, this is the God we adore,
Our faithful, unchangeable Friend
Whose love is as large as His power
And neither knows measure nor end.

Not only did these ancients live as people of faith they also died as people of faith. “A church had a bulletin board decorated with pictures of soldiers who had been killed in service to their country. A little boy was looking up at the board when the pastor came up. He asked the little boy how he liked the board. The boy asked what it was about. The pastor explained that the pictures were the men from their church who had died in the service. The little boy said, “The morning service or the evening service?” Verse 13 tells us "All these people were still living by faith when they died." The people listed in Hebrews 11 died in the service of God. They lived faithfully and they died faithfully.

“Some were tortured and refused to be released so that they might gain a better resurrection.” This may well be a reference to the Jewish martyrs written about in the apocryphal book 2 Macabbees. Eleazar the faithful High Priest was tortured (the Greek verb strongly suggests the rack), and then his mother and seven sons were all tortured confessing that no matter what was done to their bodies they would get better ones at the resurrection. They could have allowed themselves to be released from their imprisonment and suffering but they had a better and more lasting release in mind that allowed them to endure their suffering with seemingly superhuman patience.

Those who were said to have “wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground” maybe also be the Maccabean martyrs who hid in caves from the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes and refused to defend themselves on the Sabbath Day and so were cruelly slaughtered. If so then our writer has taken us from Abel right through to the very edge of the arrival of the Messiah onto the scene. He has given us a potted history of the world up to that time.

It is clear from this list that some of the heroes of faith escaped martyrdom while others did not. Yet they were still heroes of faith either way. Elijah escaped the sword of Ahab and Jezebel but Elisha lost his life. Jeremiah was delivered from Jehoiakim but his fellow prophet Uriah was slain by Jehoiakim. Herod Agrippa I killed James the brother of John with the sword but Peter escaped the same fight. “By faith one lived by faith another died.” So it’s not that faith delivered people from their trials but faith was the quality with which they faced their dangers regardless of the outcome.

I like that story about the family getting ready for a trip for the first time to Disneyland the next day. That evening as the Dad was putting his son to bed, the boy hugged his father’s neck and said, "Dad, thanks for tomorrow."... People of faith are those who can thank their heavenly father for things not yet experienced but certain because promised.


Anonymous said...

Your New Year's Day Blog was Wonderful!
After reading it-I had tremendous hope!!

Glen O'Brien said...

I'm very encouraged to hear that. God bless you.

Anonymous said...

I am reading this in March. At a time of great difficulty but holding onto my faith. Your sermon was as though God had given me ths answer Himself through you. I returned to your sermons looking for just that expression of faith in teh Lord in times that seem hopeless and that we must live for Him not for the very tenuous comforts of this world; even acceptable ones - like good health. I have had several experiences of God's guidance in good adn hard times and i believe He led me to your wonderful sermon. Thank you. Anonymous

Glen O'Brien said...

Thanks for commenting. Sorry it took me a while to reply. I had a technical problem and have not blogged for months. I'm so glad you were helped by the sermon. One wonders sometimes whether these sown seeds ever germinate.. May the Lord bless you.


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