The Meaning of Faith

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Caine

 

11:1 “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2 Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3 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 visible.

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” 13 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, 14 for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, NRSV)

 

Let us pray: God of Abraham and Sarah, Mary and Jesus, you invite your people to contemplate heavenly things and urge us toward faith in you. May your coming among us find our doors open, our tables set, and all your people ready to greet you. Amen.

 

Growing up in the Deep South, the Bible belt helped to form who I am.  Both positively and negatively.  One on the major influences in my life was the Christian Faith.  However, one experience in particular from my past has shaped me and my understanding of faith.

 

I was about 8 or 10 years old and my friends and I were playing in a tree fort we had built out of scrap wood from the many new houses that were being built in our neighborhood.  When a light colored church van pulled up and stopped because they saw us.  Some men got out and came over to us.  They were dressed in their Sunday Church going clothes.   They asked us to come down from the tree fort so they could speak to us.   We did and then one of them asked if we believed in Jesus.  The four of us nodded our heads that yes we did.  When another man asked if we had all been baptized.

 

My friend Mike said yes.  My friend Greg said yes.  I said yes.  My friend Andy said no.  That is when another man said, “Well boys, you know if something happened to you and you died you would go to hell because you have not been baptized and saved by the blood of Jesus….”

 

I don’t remember much after that except running home very scared that my infant baptism wasn’t good enough.  That because I was not from their church that I was not good enough for Jesus.  My mom calmed me down and reassured me but as you can see that experience has scarred me.

 

As I have matured and grown in my faith this experience has shaped what I believe and don’t believe about God, Jesus, the church and the Christian Faith.

 

What I believe happened that day when those me tried to scare “the hell” out of us was my reaction to a faith built on fear.  “You had better get right with God or else he will get you!” “You had better know Jesus so when the devil comes he can save you.” This encounter changed my image of God and my understanding of faith.  I don’t want to believe in that type of God or have that sort of faith or be that sort of Christian.

 

But what is faith if it is not based on fear?   In Hebrews, chapter eleven — often called “the great faith chapter”— the writer begins with the famous definition of faith in 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  How do we have faith in God, Jesus, religion when we can’t see it or feel it or know it?

 

What I have learned since that day when the men from the church van talked to us is that what they were looking for was certainty and assurance and what I have is a questioning faith.   It is said that faith is forward looking, oriented toward the future.  Faith anticipates something yet to be revealed, even if we don’t know exactly what it is.   In other words, faith is hope.   And faith believes that God will keep God’s promises.   In other words, faith is trust.   Our hope and trust in God, in that which we cannot see, is active, reciprocal and participatory.   In other words, faith is not blind obedience or passive submission to God, it is an active and interactive, a living relationship with God.[1]

 

God is not waiting for us at the finish line, dangling a carrot to keep us on the path, judging our every move, our thoughts and our actions.   No, I believe that faith as the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen is both a future and present reality.  That God is both in the future but also very present in our everyday reality.  Our confidence, trust and hope in tomorrow is enough to get us through today and give us a vision of where we’re headed even as the chaos of life and the world swirls around us.  Faith persists and guides our way.[2]

 

This is all heady, intellectual stuff so I would like to bring it back to a more personal level.  The writer of Hebrews starts with a famous definition of faith but then quickly shifts the focus to people and examples of faith.  The examples include important ancestors of Israel — Noah, Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac, Rebecca and Jacob.[3]  Now, those famous biblical examples are all well and good but what about you?  Who in your life is an example of faith?

 

I am sure if we started making a list of the faithful people and their examples in our own lives they might not have the same stature and significance as those listed in the Bible, but their impact is no less significant, especially in your life.  Who would make that list?  Is it a parent or grandparent, a neighbor, a teacher, a professor, a Scout leader, a business owner, a manager, a music teacher, a coach, a Sunday school teacher, a pastor?  Whoever it is or was that person or persons has changed you because they lived out their faith in the everyday encounters with others and the circumstances they faced in their own lives and it had a lasting impact on you.[4]

 

Mine is my father-in-law, Marion Adams, our as we called him Bop… He was a kind, generous, and helpful man.  He was old school, in the most positive sense, a true gentleman, a strong churchman, always supportive, he offered his opinion when asked.  He always saw the good in people and wanted the best for them.  He had a faith that was deep and abiding but not show or in your face. He believed that God would provide and that God would be with him, this was especially evident in his battle with cancer the last year or so of his life… it was clear that his faith sustained him.  In his last days he held fast to his faith a “faith that was the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.”

 

Now, I have included an index card in your bulletin and I would like for you to take a moment and write down the person or persons who personifies faith for you…then take that index card home and put it somewhere so that you are reminded of that person but more importantly and the faith they live and or lived. Where ever you put it weather in your bible, in your purse, on your desk, on your refrigerator, keep it visible to be a reminder of their faith and its impact on you…

 

The names of the people on our index cards have impacted our faith.  They have touched our lives and they have lead us to the faith.  In the same way these names in the bible…Noah, Abraham, Sarah did for those before us.  We continue to read and learn from them thousands of years later because the faith they had in God mattered and they lived it.

 

And they did so not in a faith of blind obedience or passive submission to God’s will.  Because if they wanted too, they could have gone back home to the land they knew and the place of comfort.   But they made a choice, entered into a relationship with God in a faith of trust and hope, and participation.   And through the hardship of living as strangers in a foreign land, they kept the faith.

 

And so now do we – we are invited to live by faith, just like the person on your index card or the men and women of the Bible, who left behind what they knew, what they could see, and they set out on a journey of faith, moving forward in trust towards a destination that God promised.  And they are inviting us to join them in that journey.  A journey of faith and trust, to follow God even if we don’t know where God will lead us.  But we know that it will be home.  Abraham and Sarah did not see the last and deepest truth of God in its fullness any more than we can, but they spent their lives assured of it.  And so shall we.[5]

 

Let us pray

[1] Reverend Sarah Segal McCaslin, “Of Things Seen and Unseen” A sermon based on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 & Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 preached at First Presbyterian Church, New York, NY on August 12, 2007.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Reverend Jim Thvedt, www.luthersem.edu/godpause/default.aspx?m=6350 8-3-2016

[4] Ibid.

[5] Reverend Sarah Segal McCaslin, “Of Things Seen and Unseen” A sermon based on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 & Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 preached at First Presbyterian Church, New York, NY on August 12, 2007.

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