A City that has Foundations! (a Sermon on Hebrews 11)

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. ” (vs.1,8-10)

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

As many of you will remember, I have been on an ongoing search for an entirely cheery and positive text to preach on for some time now.

It might seem odd to some of you that it should be such a tak to find some Good News in the Bible to preach on, but I’ve been looking for something wholly encouraging and uplifting, and I think we find in most passages in the Bible, as in most of life, there is a mixture of joy and pain, of resurrection and crucifixion.

At any rate, my point is that this week I believe I’ve finally struck gold and found a passage that is uplifting and inspiring without a hint of negativity about it!

Mind you, I’ve had to give the Gospel reading a wide berth, where Jesus talks about how He’s going to break up families – turning son against father and father against son and mother against daughter and daughter against mother, and everybody against their mother-in-law, or so it seems! (Luke 12:53)

Yes, I had to give that a wide berth, and yet I found my wholly positive and uplifting passage in our Epistle reading today from Hebrews chapter 11, in that great chronicle of the great heroes of the faith, who accomplished wonderful and mighty and humanly impossible things through their faith!

[They] “conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (vss. 33-34), managed to pay off their mortgage, lose weight and keep their hair, because nothing is impossible for those who have faith!

OK. It’s not quite that. Indeed, if you read through the passage carefully, you’ll find that the bits about losing weight and keeping your hair, along with most of the trivialities that we so often get worked up about aren’t in the list. Even so, it is a mighty list of mighty struggles, all of which were overcome by the people of faith through faith, and so it is about as close to a ‘you can do it’, ‘power of positive thinking’ type of passage that you ever likely to get in the New Testament!

And in truth, these ancient heroes did do some amazing things through their faith, and I certainly don’t want to be little their accomplishments in any way .

Look at Abraham – one of the first characters singled out by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. As he (or she) points out, Abraham was technically passed his used-by date when his whole adventure with God began, and yet, when he first felt the call of God upon him, he packed his bags, got back the deposit he’d put down for Sarah and himself at the old folk’s home, hopped into his caravan, and headed off into the desert! Why? “Because he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10)

Look at Moses – one of the other great historical characters who gets a guernsey in this heroes of the faith team. We are told that he likewise turned his back on a stable and predictable life – indeed, that he spurned his magnificently promising future as a member of the royal family of Egypt – for the sake of a life of faith.

Indeed, the author of Hebrews goes so far as to say that Moses “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt” (11:26) which is a beautiful way of putting it, I think.

Moses in his early life, as we know, was a privileged member of the Egyptian royal family, and as a member of that royal family, he had a very positive future ahead of him. Perhaps he himself would have become Pharaoh one day – wielding extreme executive power right across the entire known world of his time, and attaining the status of a god amongst his people.

But Moses saw that the luxurious lifestyle of the Egyptian elite was one that was built upon the enslavement of an entire section of the population, and that his wealth and luxury was only possible because of their poverty and suffering, and so he chose, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says, ‘the reproach of Christ’, who likewise chose to throw in his lot with the poor and despised, rather than profit from a system that was built upon the oppression of the poor.

And why did he do it? Because he was looking forward to that city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God! He didn’t want the sort of world that the Egyptians were offering him, not at the price it came at! He dared to believe in something better, fairer, more loving, more inclusive, and so he despised all wealth and privilege in order to pursue that better world.

“I have been to the mountain-top. I have seen the promised land!” Yes, I’ve moved from Moses to quoting Martin Luther King, but of course that is Martin Luther King drawing his inspiration from Moses – his hero – who, so many generations earlier, had looked forward to that city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.

We dream of a better world. We who are people of faith, dream of a better world, and indeed that surely is the very heart of what it means to be a person of faith!

Not everybody would accept that of course. Not everybody would define faith in this way. If you ask the average person on the street what it means to be a person of faith, I think they’d answer in terms of articles of faith – doctrines and dogmas that persons of faith hold to.

If you ask the average Christian person what it means to be a person of faith, I think that they would probably say similar things – speak in terms of what they believe about Christ – that He was born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried, etc.

Is that what it means to have faith? Does it mean to hold to a set of dogmas or doctrines about God, Christ, and the church? I think many people think it is, which is why, when people talk about being ‘saved by faith’, they think this means that their salvation depends upon them having the right doctrines and dogmas!

This is not how the writer of the letter to the Hebrews defines faith, and, for what it’s worth, I do believe that this passage in Hebrews chapter 11 is the only place in the entire Bible where we are actually given an explicit definition of what faith is.

Faith, we are told, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In other words, faith is a form of hope.

Faith is the heartfelt conviction that things are about to get a whole lot better! It is a conviction that there is a new and better world coming! It is the refusal to accept that things are always going to go on the same as they have always been going on. It is holding fast to the belief that, despite all evidences to the contrary, this world is in good hands, and that our history is moving towards that point where “the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea”, where every tear will be wiped away, and where the whole earth will be truly at peace and full of love. It is looking forward to that city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. That’s what faith is!

By faith, we are told, Rahab the prostitute survived the fall of Jericho. How? Did she somehow protect herself with her good theology? No. She sensed where her city’s history was moving – that God was about to build a different sort of city there – and so she got on board with the new regime, because she looked forward to a city that had foundations, whose designer and builder is God.

And what about these other amazing characters – Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephtah, David, Samuel, … and indeed there’s some pretty dubious characters in that list!.

Well might you wonder how anybody could include a character like Samson in a list of heroes of the faith astonishes me! The man was as much of a liability to his community as an asset. He was technically a judge, but he would have made a lousy magistrate, and he was even worse as a husband! Not that it was all his fault, I guess? Indeed, the woman poor old Samson ended up with was a disaster. She betrayed him continually, not by sleeping around so much as by subjecting him to the most horrendous forms of domestic violence!

And yet he was a hero of the faith! Why? Because he had a sense of what God was doing in history and he got on board with that. He looked forward to a city that had foundations, whose designer and builder is God.

I won’t continue through with the list of faithful heroes, but I do want to make the point that faith, as defined here, is not the same as doctrine. It’s a form of hope. It must be added though that just as faith is not really all about doctrine, it’s also not remotely the same as “the power of positive hoping either”.

Those who advocate the power of positive thinking (and hoping) tend to quote the Bible at length, and most especially passages like the one. You can do anything by faith! You can achieve the impossible. You can move that mountain. You can achieve that goal. You can get the job done. You can make your fortune. You can beat that mortgage. You can date that chick!

And let’s agree right away that this passage in Hebrews does affirm that with faith you can achieve the impossible. Even so, what the heroes of the faith achieve, as outlined here, is in terms of their fulfilment of the mission God gave them, and not at all in terms of the fulfilment of their own agendas. They looked forward to that city that has foundations – not just for any city of their choosing!

Indeed, there are no examples in the Scriptures that I know of, where women and men of faith end up driving better cars, improving their sex life, or even managing more stable families! Rather, where greatness lay for these people was in the fact that they saw what God was doing in their world and they got on board with it, and that’s what faith is!

And is that still Good News? I believe it is, absolutely! But in truth, I don’t think there’s any such things as Good News in and of itself, for what makes the good news good is the contrast with the bad news of what’s going on around us.

I feel that way with the Youth Centre at the moment. There’s some really wonderful things going on there at the moment, and I’m finding it a real privilege just to be over there a lot of the time. And it has really been the dancing there that’s been getting to me of late.

I’ve mentioned that we have an African-American student volunteer girl with us at the moment who is keenly teaching some of our youth centre girls how to ‘step’ or ‘stomp’ or something like that, but it basically involves jumping around and slapping your thighs and clapping your hands and making a real goose of yourself.

As you can imagine, not many of the guys put themselves forward to join in, but lots of our girls got involved – particularly our Islander girls. And it was really great to watch and I found myself smiling and laughing like I hadn’t done in ages, and there’s a warm feeling in my heart and I’m saying to myself, “I can see the new world coming!”

It was really beautiful, and what made it so beautiful, really, was the contrast. The light shines in the darkness, but it’s the darkness of the darkness that makes the light shine so bright! What these girls were up to was beautiful, but I know all too well a lot of the other things they get up to! And that’s what makes it so beautiful.

Indeed, we had three robberies in the youth centre over the last week too – one wallet and two mobile phones. And did that take away from the beauty of our dancing girls? On the contrary, the fact that they came back the next day and kept on dancing made it all the more beautiful.

And it’s that that keeps us going, isn’t it? It’s the way things like that fill you with hope, and joy and faith! Yes, there’s a new world coming! Yes, the day is coming when every tear will be wiped away!

I was thinking about this – the wonderful things that have been happening at the Youth Centre, after such a prolonged period of struggle, and I was reminded of the story that I’ve shared with you before about the great French painter, Renoir.

In old age the great French painter, suffered from arthritis, which twisted and cramped his hand. Henri Matise, his artist friend, watched sadly while Renoir, grasping a brush with only his fingertips, continued to paint, even though each movement caused stabbing pain. Matise asked Renoir why he persisted in painting at the expense of such torture. Renoir replied, “The pain passes, but the beauty remains.”

Do you believe that? Do you believe deep down in your soul in the city that has foundations, that the pain will pass but the beauty remain? Because that’s what faith is, and that is Good News!

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, August 2007.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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