What is faith? (A sermon on Hebrews 11:1-16)

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1-3)

I’m focusing today’s sermon on our epistle reading from the ‘Letter to the Hebrews’, and I appreciate that Hebrews is not a book of the New Testament that we tend to spend a lot of time with.

There are obvious reasons for that. Hebrews is one of those ‘how did he get in?’ books of the New Testament. It’s one that most of us feel no particular kinship with, as it seems to be written for a very ethno-specific audience, namely for Hebrews.   It’s full of references to high priests and blood sacrifices in a way that seems alien to those of us who aren’t don’t have any of that as a part of our direct spiritual heritage.

It’s not one of the letters of Saint Paul, such that the early church might have felt they had to include it in the canon of Scripture. We don’t know who (male or female) wrote the book. What was it that led the early church to insist that this letter should be included in the collection of books to be recognised as the ‘word of God’, whereas any number of other early writings, claiming to be inspired by God, were excluded?

My guess is that it was sections of the book such as those we deal with today from chapter 11 that clinched the deal for Hebrews – not so much the opening verses that I just read, but the great list of heroes of the faith that fills up the rest of the chapter.

It’s a list that starts with the Abel, whose faith, we are told, earned him favour with God, in contrast to his brother, Cain, and Abel is followed by a great list of other ancient heroes such as Enoch, Noah, and, of course, Abraham and Sarah. 

As you proceed through the chapter, the other greats of the past are rolled out too – Joseph, Moses, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets … It’s a bit like a line-up of the who’s who of old-time Biblical celebrities, and the point is that each one of these greats only achieved what they were able to achieve because they were people of faith, just as we are people of faith. 

As a young Christian man, I used to find this list inspiring, and Indeed I remember giving one of my first sermons on this passage when I was a part of Saint John’s church in Kings Cross, back in the 80’s. If these ordinary people achieved great things through the workings of their faith, what is to stop us achieving great things?

That was when I was a younger man. Now I read through this list of superheroes and find the comparison more humiliating than inspiring. What happened?

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a Tony Robbins seminar or read one of his books. I know a lot of good people who have been helped by that sort of thing, but I only got about a third of the way through one of his tomes and couldn’t stomach it. It was all his ‘power of positive thinking’ stuff – the ‘you can do anything if you only believe you can do it’ line. I just can’t buy into that anymore.

They said that it could not be done.
He said, ‘just let me try’.
They said ‘other men have tried and failed’.
He answered, ‘but not I’.

They said, ‘it is impossible’
He said, ‘there’s no such word’.
He closed his mind, he closed his heart
to everything he heard.

He said, ‘within the heart of man
there is a tiny seed
It grows until it blossoms.
It’s called ‘the will to succeed.

Its roots are strength, its stem is hope,
its petals inspiration.
Its thorns protect its strong green leaves
with grim determination.”

“Its stamens are its skills
Which help to shape each plan,
For there’s nothing in the universe
Beyond the scope of man.”

They thought that it could not be done.
Some even said they knew it,
But he faced up to what could not be done …
And he couldn’t bloody do it!

That may be the only time you ever hear the late, great Benny Hill quoted from the pulpit. Even so, ‘they said that it could not be done’ really strikes a chord with me.

How long have I been pursuing that World Middleweight boxing title now? I’m nearly 58 now and I’m still looking for that breakthrough fight. Is that faith or is it stupidity?

Mind you, one book I really got a lot out of was Steven Pressfield’s “Do the work”, and Pressfield says that we have just two assets in life – stubbornness and stupidity. Pressfield suggests that we resist the temptation to give them high-sounding names like ‘perseverance’ and ‘daring’. Let’s call them what they are – stubbornness and stupidity. His point is that we need plenty of both if we are going to accomplish anything worthwhile in life.

Perhaps that’s right, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got plenty of both. Perhaps we could even translate the Letter to the Hebrews using those terms: 

‘Abraham was stupid enough to set out for a place that he would receive as an inheritance, not knowing where he was going, and he was stubborn enough to live there in a tent as a foreigner, as were Isaac and Jabob after him!’ (Hebrews 11:8-9)

Both Pressfield and Tony Robbins would have been proud of them. Even so, as I say, I’ve got lots of stubbornness and stupidity. Why haven’t they worked for me?

Perhaps I’m being unfair to our Biblical superheroes. Indeed, one of the key points made by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews is that none of these great spiritual archetypes ever actually saw in their own lifetimes the things they were working for.

“All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth … they desire a better country – a heavenly one.” (Hebrews 11:13,16)

Is that what faith is – the strength to die without seeing the outcome you’ve been working for but believing that better things are still ahead? Perhaps it is, and it’s certainly worth recognising that the Biblical superheroes we find in the letter to the Hebrews bear little resemblance to the graduates of Tony Robbin’s seminars.

I’m sure that if you look those who’ve harnessed the ‘power of positive thinking’ you’ll see a list of CEO’s and big-money executives who have ‘made it’ in life, according to contemporary standards. When you look on at the superheroes in Hebrews chapter eleven, most of them didn’t crack the big time in any way that we would recognise. On the contrary, a disturbingly high percentage of them had lives characterized by persecution and poverty that concluded with a grisly death! 

Is this what faith is – the ability to endure pain and failure and misunderstanding throughout your life because you believe that good will eventually come out of it?

I’m reminded of the story of the Henry Francis Lyte – a fellow Anglican priest who lived in the first half of the 19th century. Lyte’s life work was his vocation as priest to the fishing village of Lower Brixham, in Devon. He was rector there for twenty-three years and was so successful in building up the parish that the church building had to be enlarged, resulting in what his grandson referred “a hideous barn-like building”.

However, from about the twenty-year mark people in the parish started to leave. Some say this was because they didn’t like Lyte’s high churchmanship, and others say it was all due to arguments between families in the congregation. Either way, he lost the entire choir in 1846, with many joining ‘dissenter’ congregations, such as the Plymouth Brethren, and all this left him very depressed. 

The following year Lyte decided to take a holiday but discovered he was seriously ill just before leaving. He died while on leave in France at age 47. A couple of hours after his final service in his church though, just before he left and not long before his death, he penned the words of a hymn that were published posthumously:

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

And so the man was able to contribute more to humanity in those final hours through that hymn than he might have done through a dozen careers as a parish priest!

Is that what faith is – is it doing what God inspires you to do even if you don’t know whether it’s ever going to accomplish any good? In point of fact, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us exactly what faith is at the opening of this passage:

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen… By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1,3)

Faith, in other words, is always hanging on to the big picture. It’s believing in the good things God has promised, even when there is absolutely no sign of them, and this is a hard thing to do. It is hard to pour your life’s energy into things that never give you the results you are looking for!

I think of so many of the kid’s we’ve worked with over the years here – lovely young men like Daniel, who was a part of my fight club and became a part of our church and eventually even became one of our paid youth-workers. He was at rock bottom when he joined the club after being expelled from Dulwich High school. We helped him become a champion kickboxer and an asset to the community. The local paper even featured a lovely picture of him with Father Elias that we still have – all from the glory days, before things fell apart for him again and he suicided. I think of him every time I walk past his ashes that are contained in our memorial wall, and wonder why.

Or dear Shannon, who was a part of our church community only a couple of years ago. Again, he came in through the fight club and we had him gainfully employed at our bush camp for more than a year, and I thought we’d helped him make a fresh start in independent living again, before he threw himself off a building.

The problem is seeing how these stories (and so many like them) can be woven into any great tapestry of love and triumph. Maybe they can, and maybe I will see how it all fits together one day but, as Kierkegaard said, even if you can understand life in reverse, it unfortunately has to be lived forwards! That’s the challenge of faith – seeing it backwards while living it forwards!

I think of the time and passion I’ve poured into our work in Syria over the last eight years, and in Palestine. I think of my night spinning around in a boat off the shores of Manus Island in the blackness, sure I was about to drown, and I wonder what it all achieved. Have we saved any lives in Syria? Have we liberated anyone in Gaza? Have any of our friends from Manus Island found freedom?

And what of the vision I’ve always had for our church. I’ve always seen us growing to have a regular congregation of more than a hundred each week – one hundred plus souls from diverse backgrounds, representing many nations and expressing every aspect of social, cultural and sexual diversity known to humanity while all being one in Christ! That’s been my vision that has kept me going at all those times when I’ve wanted to throw in the towel (and there have been many). Now I need to come to terms with the fact that I’m never going to see that. I guess faith is seeing it anyway!

“I’ve been to the mountain top. I’ve seen the promised land!” Who said it? Martin Luther King Jr, of course. Yes, he did, but who said it before he said it? Moses said it, and before Moses, Abraham and Sarah both shared that vision and they said it too. In fact, all the great heroes of the faith said it, and that’s what faith is!

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen”. It’s having your stupidity, stubbornness, daring and perseverance focused on Christ.

First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday the 11th August, 2019.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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