Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
August 7, 2016
There’s a sound that tires make on the highway. It’s a steady thump as the wheels roll over the endless pavement. I associate that sound with the car trips of my childhood. When it was dark, and everyone but my dad, the driver, was asleep, I would listen to that thump, thump, thump and know that we were getting closer to where we were going. When I was a little girl, our main vacation destination was Minneapolis, Minnesota. That was my parents’ hometown, and that’s where the majority of our extended family lived. Because we were the rebels who went south, we were the ones who would pack up the car every summer – and sometimes at Christmas – and head the car northward.
Getting ready to leave town was an elaborate ritual. My father was the primary driver, so he would sleep. My sister and brother would both sleep. As a treat, I would get to sleep downstairs on the couch. My mother would stay up doing every scrap of laundry she could find and finish packing. Then at about 5:30 am, we would hit the road. We weren’t even out of Nashville before everyone would fall back asleep; except my dad, thankfully. Then sometime about the middle of Kentucky, we would get to stop for breakfast.
These were long car trips, about 14 hours. With rare exception we would make that drive in a day. I remember only one or two times when we actually stopped at motels – and that was because we got stuck in a terrible thunderstorm one summer, and hit icy roads one winter. Along with the sound of the wheels on pavement, I also could generally guess how close we were to Minnesota or Tennessee by what I could see outside of my window. Even before I could read the road signs, I could sense our location. And it wasn’t because I had memorized specific landmarks or could pinpoint exactly where we were in any given state. I knew because of the shape and contour of the land that flanked either side of the road. If we were driving through what seemed to be one enormous, never-ending farm, that was Illinois. The flatter the land became, the closer we were to Minnesota. On the return trip, I knew we were getting closer to Tennessee, because by Kentucky the land would get hilly again and the roads would get curvier and twistier. I didn’t have to read any signs to know that we getting closer to our destination.
I wish I could read the landscape of my life that easily; especially in terms of following God’s call. Am I doing the right thing? Am I not? Was this the direction I should have chosen? How nice it would be to look at the scene around me and think, “Yep, I’m getting closer to where God is calling me. I can see it.”
I don’t know about you, but when it comes to following God, I could use some clearer signs. I don’t need them all the time, but every once in a while it would be nice to see some indicator that I’m going where I’m supposed to. Maybe the clouds could periodically reshape themselves into an arrow pointing in the direction I should be heading. Perhaps a road sign or a billboard with specific instructions could pop up periodically. Or why can’t God email me or send me a text?
“Amy, go here. Amy, do this.”
It would make life and being faithful so much easier. But that’s not how it works is it? That’s not how God works. If God did work like that, we wouldn’t be talking about faithfulness, we’d be talking about certainty. Those are two different things entirely.
In these well-known and beloved words, the preacher in Hebrews offers a description of faith, as well as a long list of folks who had the kind of faith described.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith, our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for. As I understand it, the Greek word translated as “assurance,” hypostasis, denotes a foundation. The assurance of faith is our foundation. We stand firmly on the foundation of faith, we build our lives on the foundation of faith. How firm a foundation is not just a hymn we sing. According to these verses, it is the essence of faith. That is our assurance.
The verse continues with the words, “the conviction of things not seen.” We believe, we are convinced that God is present though God cannot be seen. We are convinced that there is more to this world than what meets the eye. We are convinced that God’s kingdom is here in our midst, even though physical evidence suggests the opposite. When we are faithful, we are convinced about the truth of God even though we cannot see God.
And just in case we think that this kind of faith is impossible, the preacher gives us a roll call of, as one commentator put it, the hall of fame of the faithful. These folks serve as examples of this kind of faith. We don’t read all of those examples in our verses today, but we do read about Abraham. Abraham had a good life going. He had property and possessions. He and his wife Sarah were well-off. Their great sadness was not having children, but when it came to riches, they had those. But God said, “Go. Leave. Leave this land and go to a land, a place that I will show you. You will receive an inheritance greater than your wildest dreams. You have no children? Look at the stars in the sky, look at the sand below your feet. Your descendants will be as numerous as the stars and as countless as the sand.”
So Abraham obeyed. He went. He followed. He left all that he had, all that he knew, all that was familiar and safe behind and he followed God. He lived as a stranger, as a foreigner in the land of promise. He never again had a home with a foundation. He never actually saw the fulfillment of God’s promise, but still he followed.
Many thoughts come to mind when I read Abraham’s and Sarah’s story, especially through the lens of these verses in Hebrews. First, their faith overwhelms me. God said, “Go,” and they went. That’s amazing. But here’s the thing, God said, “Go.” I can’t say for sure that I’ve actually heard God’s voice telling me to go somewhere. I’ve discerned that voice in other ways, but have I heard God’s voice echoing from the sky? No. But apparently Abraham had those kinds of encounters with God. Yes, God took the form of visiting travelers, but still there seemed to be a real voice relaying definitive instructions. My first thought, then, is that surely it was easier for Abraham to be faithful because he heard that voice.
But we don’t get the day-to-day description of their journey. I would suspect that there were times when God seemed to be taking a break from the task of leading them to this unseen land. I think it was Frederick Buechner who wrote that if you had a chance to talk with one of these faithful hall of famers, if you could tap them on the shoulder and ask them how following God was going, they might have shared a different version. Were they convinced every single day that God was leading them? Was Abraham convinced that Sarah would have a child? I mean, really? How does the preacher of Hebrews put it, “Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born...”
This one as good as dead? I suspect that even Abraham had days when he wondered and struggled and worried if God was leading them, if God’s promises of descendents and land would actually become a reality. While the birth of Isaac was the fulfillment of one promise, Abraham would never see the fulfillment of the other. He died, as did Isaac and Jacob, without seeing the entirety of God’s promises come true.
But still, even when he may struggled, even when he may have found it all but impossible, Abraham had faith. Abraham was faithful. Abraham followed when God said, “Go.” Abraham was willing to do what God asked, even if that request was heartbreaking, terrifying and made no sense: think of God’s asking for Isaac to be sacrificed. Abraham was faithful.
That is the challenge of faith. If we are faithful, then we are assured that we have a foundation that cannot be destroyed. If we are faithful, then we are convinced that even though we cannot see God or see in the visible world what God is doing, God is still there, acting, loving, creating. In fact what we see in the world may seem completely opposite to what we believe God is doing, nevertheless, we have faith that what we see does not negate what we don’t.
It would seem that faith and being faithful is about trusting. William Sloan Coffin referred to it as “trusting without reservation.” Being faithful is about trusting in God’s promises. It is being assured and convinced that there is more to this world than what our senses can take in. Faith is holding fast to God’s nevertheless.
We may hear the news each day and see the violence and the heartbreak and hatefulness that seems rampant, and wonder how God’s kingdom could possibly be in the midst of all this; but nevertheless we put our faith in the promise that it is.
We may struggle with whether we are doing the right thing or going the right way; after all, the signs are not always easy to spot. But nevertheless, we trust that God is leading us, that God is calling us, that we are following even when we stumble and drift off course.
It seems to me that when we trust God without reservation, we trust God’s nevertheless. I’m not saying that it’s easy. No one seems to struggle with doubt and worry more than I do. But then I remember Mother Theresa. When she died, her journals revealed that she doubted, that she wrestled with God and faith and trust. But never did she stop doing what she believed she was called to do. Never did she give into that doubt. She just kept on, being faithful, living faithfully. She lived and loved based not on what she could see but on God’s nevertheless.
God’s nevertheless is our good news. It is our assurance. It is our conviction. We may feel that God is absent, that God has forgotten us, or that we can no longer hear God’s call, but nevertheless God is with us; God remembers, God keeps God’s promises. God is faithful to us. So may we be faithful to God.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!”