Title: These far by faith
Text: Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Date: August 15, 2010
Author: Monica Schmucker
This week the lectionary gives us another chunk of that legendary Hebrews chapter that we started on last week. As I read it over during this past week, I was looking for the things that would jump out at me either as inspiring or disturbing or just kind of interesting. It’s always my hope that out of these musings something worthy of a sermon will emerge. But I will let you be the judge of that.
One of those musings was about a church in Canton, Ohio. It is home of the “Christian Hall of Fame.” I did a little searching and found that in 1964 the pastor had been inspired by Hebrews 11 to create this gallery celebrating heroes of the Christian faith. And of course, Canton is the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, so it seemed fitting endeavor for the church. I took a virtual tour of the Christian Hall of Fame (http://www.christianhof.org). The first thing that bothered me was the description of it as celebrating “the men who through the centuries have stood for the faith…” Curiously, though, Fanny Crosby is recognized despite her gender. Otherwise, it’s all white men, mostly British and American, once you get past the Reformation. In case you’re wondering, Menno Simons did get included. While intended to inspire and inform, it probably tells more about the inspirations of this particular church and its former pastor than about the broader Body of Christ.
Developing a “hall of faith” definitely has some pitfalls. Who would I include and why? The writer of Hebrews 11 lists eighteen people by name, but refers to many more by their deeds. Last week Meghan drew on the wandering of Abraham and his seeking a city whose foundations and builder is God. In our passage today, the author says, “I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets…” Earlier this week it seemed like a good idea to look at these stories, especially since maybe like me, you had no idea that Barak was a biblical name. I was hoping these might be instructive.
I ended up reading several chapters in Judges. I did not find what I was looking for. In fact, reading the stories left me with a lot of questions. Why mention Barak, the army commander, instead of Deborah, the judge who is God’s spokeswoman (Judges 4:4-9)? What about Gideon’s golden ephod that the people end up worshipping and that “became a snare to Gideon and his family?” (Judges 8:27). Is Samson’s story (Judges 13-16) really one we might look to as a model of faithful living? Jephthah makes a foolish and unnecessary oath to ensure God will give him victory. Keeping that oath results in sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering (Judges 11:29-39). These are not the stories I would have chosen to reference in a chapter on faith.
Sometimes I read Hebrews 11 and admire the faith displayed. Other times I read it and think that the author is giving a sanitized version of these characters. Take Abraham or Moses or David or Elijah and in their stories we see lives that were not a constant parade of power and victory “by faith.” Those same Israelites who by faith walked through the Red Sea on dry land also died in the desert because of their grumbling and disbelief. Moses, Gideon, Isaiah and Jeremiah all question why God has chosen to work through them. Elijah, who raises the widow’s son, who is fed by ravens in the wilderness, and calls down fire from heaven, also flees Jezebel and tells God he’s had enough and wants to die.
So this is where I draw on the help of a commentary to reconcile these stories. Perhaps the author chooses these people “. . . because they are meant to stand as representative of the faith that moved and directed all those who spoke and acted for God and through whom also God spoke and acted” (Johnson, p.306). On further reflection I realize that all these people, named or alluded to in Hebrews 11, are ones who heard God’s call and responded with faith. Many of them asked “Why me?” or “Are you sure?” Sometimes God did amazing things through them. Sometimes they did disastrous things that did not reflect God’s intentions. And sometimes they suffered greatly for their obedience to God’s calling. How would an honest account of my life read? In particular I am moved by the phrase, “the world was not worthy of them”—they who are destitute, persecuted, and tormented. The world has cast them off as of little value, but really, it is the world that is not worthy to receive them. This is a profound statement of faith. According to Hebrews, they are waiting for us as we also struggle to live the life of faith, so that together in Christ we will finally experience the fulfillment of the faith and hope which is calling us into the reality of God’s kingdom.
By now many of you probably thought Absalom made a mistake in printing the sermon title. But I asked him to put it in that way because I have a story. Some years ago my friend, Edel, tacked up a woven banner in the house we were staying in for two months. It was a gift to her and her husband from James and Gifty, a lovely West African couple. The banner said, “I have come these far by faith.” I read that message a couple of times a day. I think the non-standard grammar is part of it’s attraction for me. It’s exactly the kind of thing you would see hand-painted on the bumper of a minibus taxi. This chapter on things done “by faith,” reminded me of that little banner. Sometimes when I have felt uncertain about the future or am struggling with the intersect of God’s leading and my own desires and fears, I’ll think, “Well, I have come these far by faith” and realize again the ways God’s grace has already been woven into the crazy-quilt of my life. Now I picture that cloud of witnesses saying, “We have come these far by faith, so don’t be discouraged.”
All those stories are leading us to an encouraging conclusion, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (12:1-2).
I hope this is where we as a church body can serve as witnesses and encouragers. It is here that we struggle together with laying aside the things that hinder us and the sin that is so much a part of our lives that we often can’t see it or have the strength to pull away from it on our own. Together, we look to Jesus who is both the beginning and the completion of all things. And together with those who have gone before us and those who will come after us, we will obtain the promise.
“Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” I read a little book by Mike Oman and in it he recalls watching a track and field day at his children’s school. It was the relay runners that reminded him of this race of faith. We did not start this journey and we may not see it’s completion, but we are not responsible for those. We are simply called to run with integrity that stretch that is ours.
The lectionary lingers in Hebrews for two more Sundays. I think this is a good thing. Reading ahead, I recognize what the author is doing. In my profession it’s called “anticipatory guidance.” Basically, it’s giving people a “heads up” on what to expect based on the experiences of others. It’s also normalizing their experience and reassuring people. Yes, eventually your baby will sleep through the night—and here’s how to foster that. Early pregnancy feels like a horrible illness? Well, that’s normal, and for the majority of women it does get better, so hang in there and in the meantime you might find such-and-such helpful in coping.
Hebrews gives us some practical anticipatory guidance for running this race set before us. It’s things like, look to Jesus. Expect hardships. See them as a normal part of God’s disciple of his children. Try to live at peace with others. Offer hospitality. Avoid bitterness and divisions. Be content with what you have. Remember those in prison. Honor marriage. Look to people who are wise examples.
I’ll close with the prayer in Hebrews 13:
May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever.
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Johnson, L.T. (2006). Hebrews. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
Oman, M.K. (1994). My Father’s Heart. Belfast, Northern Ireland: The Dargan Press.