Genesis 15: 1 – 6 Hebrews 11: 1 – 3, 8 – 16_A Faith for All Times and Places_August 11, 2019

A Faith for All Times and Places

Genesis 15: 1 – 6

Hebrews 11: 1 – 3, 8 – 16


(preached August 11, 2019)


All of the world’s major religions include sacred writings.  For us, it’s the Bible. Sacred writings can be history or poetry. Sacred writings can be hymns or books of prophecy.  But the sacred writings of Christianity are unique among the world’s religions because, along with history, poetry, hymns, and prophecy, our sacred writings include something a little more down to earth.  Some of our sacred writings are letters.


A lot of the New Testament is letters, written in the first century after Christ.  These letters were written to communities of Christians that were springing up all around the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea.  Many of these letters were written by the apostle Paul to churches he had started, but some were written by Peter and some by John.  They are pastoral letters.  They address real problems experienced by real congregations.  Even though they were written centuries ago, these pastoral letters still speak to us today.


Our New Testament passage for today, from the letter to the Hebrews, addresses a real and urgent pastoral problem.  It’s a problem that churches today still struggle with.  In that church, members are tired, more like exhausted.   Preacher Tom Long, writing about the letter to the Hebrews, puts it this way:  The people in this congregation are “tired – tired of serving the world, tired of worship, tired of Christian education, tired of being peculiar and [tired of being] whispered about in society, tired of the spiritual struggle, tired of trying to keep their prayer life going, tired even of Jesus.  Their hands droop and their knees are weak, attendance is down at church, and they are losing confidence.”


Long goes on, “The [problem for] this congregation is not that they are charging off in the wrong direction.  [The problem is that they’re not charging off at all.] They don’t have enough energy to charge off anywhere… [They are] tired of walking the walk.  Many of them are considering taking a walk, leaving the community and falling away from the faith”  (Long, Hebrews.  John Knox Press, 1997, p. 3).


Members of this weary congregation are living in a time after the great persecution of Christians.  They may remember their parents talking about what they suffered under the Roman emperor Nero.  But these weary folks, in their own day and time, are not facing persecution.  What they are facing, though, can be an even greater problem than persecution.  What they are facing is fatigue.  They’re tired.  They’ve been working together for a long time. They’ve been hoping to usher in the Kingdom of God, but they don’t see much evidence of God’s Kingdom and they’re running out of steam.


This letter comes to encourage them.  The letter comes to give them hope and a fresh understanding of faith.  Our passage from the letter begins with this description of faith: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith is the conviction that, even when you can’t see God working, God is working.  If you want to see that conviction in action, the author says, take a look at Abraham.


Abraham made a journey from anxiety to faith.  In our passage from Genesis, Abraham has not yet been given his new name by God, and so we find him here as Abram.  This passage brings us to a night in the desert long ago, when God makes a promise to Abram.  God promises to be Abram’s great reward.  But Abram isn’t convinced. “O Lord, what can you give me, since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?”


In  Abram’s day, not having children, biological children, was considered a kind of death.  To be childless was actually worse than physical death.  Eliezer, who stood to inherit Abram’s estate, was a servant in Abram’s household.  Abram longed for a son, a child from his own body, but he and Sarah were growing older and older.  It seemed less and less likely that they would have a child born of their own bodies.  Still, God promises Abram he will have many offspring, as many as the stars in the sky.  As Abram looked up at the stars that night, he decided to take God at his word.  Abram took a leap of faith.  And God recognized Abram’s faith as righteousness.


“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Faith is the conviction that, even when you can’t see God working, God is working.  After this powerful example of Abram’s faith in God’s promises, the letter brings us into what we might call a Hall of Fame of faith.  In this Hall of Fame, we find not only Abraham, but also his son Isaac, Isaac’s son Jacob, Jacob’s son Joseph, then Moses, Joshua, Rahab, Gideon, Samuel, David.  All of them are named in this Faith Hall of Fame, shining examples to inspire us.  All of them were people who followed God into an uncertain future.  They were sure of things they hoped for, convinced of what they could not see.  They were sure that, even when it didn’t look as if God was working, God was working to create and restore and bring new life.


“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” God promised Abram that his descendants would be as many as the stars in the sky.  Abram took a leap of faith and took God at God’s word.


A man named John Paton brought an understanding of faith to people in the New Hebrides islands in the South Pacific.  Paton was a missionary and, like all missionaries, he faced a number of challenges.  One of his biggest challenges was the language barrier.   As Paton learned their language, he soon discovered that the natives had words for house, tree, stone, and the like, but they had no words for love, joy, and peace.  He was especially dismayed to find that they had no word for believe.  How could he help them understand what it means to say “I believe?”  One day, it came to him.  Paton was sitting in his hut, filled with frustration.  An old man came into the hut and slumped down in a chair.  He was exhausted from a long journey.  He told Paton, “I’m leaning my whole weight on this chair.”

Paton looked up.  “What did you say?”  The man repeated, “I’m leaning my whole weight on this chair.”  Paton exclaimed, “that’s it!”  In the words of a weary old man, he had found the perfect way to express faith in Jesus.  To believe in Jesus means to lean your whole weight on Jesus.  Paton shared his new understanding with the people in his congregation.  He told them, lean your whole weight on Jesus.  With all your fears, your disappointments, your weariness, you can lean on Jesus.  You can trust Jesus to hold you up.


“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.”  Every people, in every part of the world, has to find a way, to live into a faith that is authentic for them.  Every people has to find a way to express faith.  Sometimes that means finding new words.


In the 1960s, missionaries traveled to East Africa, where they lived among the Masai people.  The Masai people were very open to receiving the faith the missionaries shared, and found their own way to express it.  They wrote the following Masai Statement of Faith:


“We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it.  He created Man and wanted Man to be happy in the world.  God loves the world and every nation and tribe on earth.  We have known this High God in the darkness, and now we know Him in the light.  God promised in the book of His word, the Bible, that he would save the world and all nations and tribes. We believe that God made good His promise by sending his Son, Jesus Christ, a man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left His home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and man, showing the meaning of religion is love.  He was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died.  He lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day, He rose from the grave.  He ascended to the skies.  He is the Lord.  We believe that all our sins are forgiven through Him.  All who have faith in Him must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the Good News to others until Jesus comes again.  We are waiting for him.  He is alive.  He lives.  This we believe. Amen (Diana Butler Bass, The End of Church and the Beginning of a New Spiritual Awakening).


“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen.”  As people of faith, who follow in the footsteps of Abraham and Jesus, you and I can trust that, even when we can’t see God working, God is at work.  We can trust that we can lean our full weight on God’s Son, Jesus, and that he will hold us up.  We are convinced that, although we do not know what the future holds, we know who holds the future.  God holds the future: the God of Abraham, the God of Jesus, the God of the Masai and millions of others all over the world.

Rev. Elva Merry Pawle

Pentecost 9