August 05, 2019
The Proper 14C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 12:32-40 from the Lectionary Gospel; Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 33:12-22 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Old Testament Lectionary: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 82 (Lord’s Day 30)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Homiletics Professor Paul Scott Wilson refers to it as “The Tiny Dog.” Specifically he uses as a mnemonic device the phrase “The Tiny Dog Is Now Mine.” TTDINM is meant to help insure sermon unity by asking students/preachers to have One Text, One Theme, One Doctrine, One Image, One Need, and One Mission. The Tiny Dog keeps sermons unified, keeps them from being scattershot.
Jesus in Luke 12 did not get the Tiny Dog memo. Jesus here is rather all over the place thematically and with his imagery. One second we’re hearing about a wedding banquet and being prepped for the arrival of the bridegroom but then before you know it we’ve switched back to the image of a thief entering a house.
If this were a student sermon I was grading . . . well, probably best not to consider grading Jesus!
We begin with words of grace: the Father has already given them the kingdom. And so they have a treasure in heaven that cannot be removed, stolen, or in any way diminished. Good news! Happy days! In these days when anxiety and uncertainty over the stock market keeps people up nights—and in which altogether too many people have seen a lifetime’s worth of savings evaporate overnight—the promise of a portfolio that is rock solid eternally is a mighty delicious promise to savor.
Jesus seems to know this, too. Hence what follows! Make no mistake: the kingdom is ours by grace and it is every bit as secure as Jesus says it is. But our Lord is also wise enough to know that with rock-solid security can come also a sense of entitlement, a sangfroid attitude toward life, maybe even a measure of smugness mixed with laziness.
In other words, what you see in Luke 12 is the classic conundrum of the gospel: salvation by grace alone is great but it can also lead to moral torpor, to the very “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry Because Tomorrow We’re Forgiven Anyway” attitude that the Apostle Paul dealt with in the very earliest days of the church (cf. Romans 6). Or to invoke a phrase attributed to the German philosopher Heinrich Heine, “God likes to forgive. I like to sin. Really, the world is admirably arranged.”
It goes without saying that such an attitude cannot characterize disciples. And so Jesus goes right on to offer some words designed to provide moral seriousness and preparedness for Christian disciples. Yes, the kingdom is a free gift and it’s secure forever. But nevertheless, be watchful, be mindful, be ready for the Lord’s return at any moment because only such a posture of devotion and readiness displays the kind of grateful heart that it is only fitting for people who have received such a great gift to have.
I think we all understand this. Who among us does not love to lavish things on our children: good food, fun gifts, family vacations to beautiful locales. We love giving this to our kids even as we hope they know that our love for them as parents is rock-solid, secure, unassailable. But even so, what parents wants to see those kids grow up to be spoiled brats? Who wants a rude and entitled child who begins every sentence with the words, “I want . . .”?
We want to achieve that tricky balance between unconditional love and a grateful loving response in return. We want to give them the world but not allow them to think the world is their oyster to do with as they please. We want, in short, to be loved as we have loved, to be generous in ways that in turn produce generous children who will spread that same goodness around to their children and to the other people in their lives. We want to create good moral momentum.
And so does Jesus.
But is there a way to proclaim the parousia, the return of Christ, in a way that is not threatening? We all know that in history the prospect of Christ’s return—and the subsequent “Judgment Day” that this will usher in—have been used by the church as a bludgeon, as a rolled-up newspaper raised over people’s heads in ways designed to make them behave. The return of the master of which Jesus speaks in Luke 12 has been a moral wedge, a fundraising tool, a nightmare. Artwork depicting Judgment Day tends to be a little on the scary side.
Of course, if Jesus really is coming back and if we are to proclaim this as a church, then there is no way we cannot tell people that it is coming and that what this means is that history has a purpose, an end point, and there will come a time of reckoning when what is wrong with life will get corrected. And I suppose that if you are not a believer in Jesus, then none of this talk will mean much to you. However, deep in the unbeliever’s heart will be the secret, albeit unacknowledged, truth that if that really happens, such an event could well spell bad news for all those who did not live for Christ.
In Luke 12, in the verse that comes just after the Lectionary cuts off this reading (verse 41), Peter asks Jesus who his audience is. “Lord, are you talking to just us insiders or to the general hoi polloi out there?” Jesus seems to indicate in his answer that he’s talking to just the disciples. But the larger crowds no doubt heard it, too.
So here is my question: what is the best way to talk about the return of the master both inside the church and outside the church? It’s a vital question because I think we have tended to mess up this message in both settings. And the reason we have messed it up is the same in both venues: we forget that the starting (and so ending) point of the gospel is love fueled by grace. In Luke 12 Jesus first tells the disciples that they are all set, that the kingdom is theirs, that they are eternally secure. True and as noted in another section of this set of sermon starters, that was not meant to induce laziness or a morally lax attitude. Watchfulness and faithfulness were still called for. But if we keep the up-front message of grace prominent, then we will find it all-but impossible to turn the prospect of Jesus’ return into a moral bludgeon with which to frighten believers into submission.
If it’s true that perfect love casts out fear, it’s also true that fear-mongering short-circuits love. It’s also a grace killer every time.
But what about for those outside the church and outside the faith? Surely it’s not wrong to hold up the return of the master as a source of fear to them. After all, they have a reason to fear, don’t they?
Well, perhaps. Let’s not pretend that the prospect of judgment is something to be taken lightly. And let’s not forget that no figure in the New Testament spoke about that final reckoning—as well as the prospect of hell—more than Jesus himself.
Nevertheless, if the gospel is truly Good News, if it is truly a proclamation of love fueled by grace, then frightening people into the faith is almost certainly the wrong way to go. Because the master who returns in the end will be the same loving and gracious Lord who died in our place and who, in his life prior to that sacrifice, exuded nothing but love and kindness to especially those in society whom the religious folks of the day deemed the least worthy of such grace.
We’ll never make people fall in love with that gracious Savior if all we do is scare them to death with the prospect of meeting him. If we want to keep in mind the prospect of final judgment, then let’s use that as the motivation to reach out to all people with the gospel of grace. But let’s begin with the love. It may well be the best chance we have to be used by the Holy Spirit to head off a fearful conclusion.
Some years ago I had the privilege of hearing Barbara Brown Taylor deliver a sermon at the Princeton University Chapel. At one point she related a story from her childhood when she was growing up in the American South. Every day after school Barbara and her siblings were supervised by an African-American babysitter named Thelma. Thelma was remarkable for how little she ever talked to the children. Each afternoon she’d sit in a rocking chair reading her Bible while the children did homework or played. If things got out of hand, all Thelma had to do was lower the Bible an inch or two, just enough for the children to see her eyes glaring overtop the old King James Version, and order would be rather quickly restored.
One afternoon, to the children’s surprise, Thelma engaged them with an activity. She told them to go fetch some blank sheets of paper and crayons. She then instructed them to draw their house: a classic southern home replete with a big pillared front porch, a nice lawn with some oak trees, and even a white picket fence. And so the children drew the house even as Thelma encouraged them to include as many details as they could. When the kids had finished their portraits, Thelma then said, “Now, I want you to draw fire comin’ down from the sky. Draw the fire lickin’ up the oak trees and the picket fence and the roof. Draw it that way ’cause that’s what’s gonna happen when da Lord comes back.”
Well this widened their eyes a bit. But what has stuck with Rev. Taylor in the years since then was not just that Thelma gave the children a backdoor eschatology lesson but that for Thelma this future fire was something to look forward to. Barbara and her siblings were too young and naive to appreciate the racial tensions in the midst of which they lived. They did not see their living in a nice house as something that might cause resentment on the part of black people whose opportunities for a similar lifestyle were, at best, minimal. A fire of judgment which would one day by and by set all wrongs to right looked good to Thelma. But it felt like a threat to Barbara and the other kids. What looked like a new beginning to Thelma looked like the end of everything to the children.
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Author: Stan Mast
Our reading for today is arguably the most important of the Lectionary’s 69 selections from Isaiah, because it summarizes the message of this truly “major” prophet. Verse 1 reveals the author, place and time of this prophecy. Most significantly, it tells us why we should listen to the prophet—what he writes is the “vision” he “saw.” That is prophetic talk for “what you are about to read is a revelation from God,” not something Isaiah made up on his own, not the result of his religious imagination and theological insights.
Verse 1 indicates that Isaiah prophesied during the reigns of four kings in Judah. Since his call came in the year that King Uzziah died (Isaiah 6) and continued into the reign of Hezekiah, we can locate his work in the second half of the 8th century BC between 750 and 700. To place it in the context of larger history, the northern Kingdom, Israel, was crushed and taken into exile by Assyria in 722. Judah itself was nearly wiped out in 701, and the Babylonian Exile began in 597. Thus, Isaiah spoke God’s word during a time fraught with international danger.
During a good deal of that time, however, Judah was enjoying a boom time. James Limburg describes it this way. “Jerusalem just past mid-eighth century BC was a place where the economy was booming, the elite were basking in the prosperity of the Uzziah years, and ecclesiastical institutions were buzzing was sacrifices and songs. But beneath it all, something was wrong. A terrible sickness was eating away at the heart of the nation. Isaiah had seen it, and tried to warn his people before it was too late.” If that sounds like a not-so-subtle criticism of the current administration in the United States, you should know that Limburg wrote those words in 2001.
Verses 10-20 identify the terrible sickness that was eating away at the heart of the nation. Or to put it in terms that fit the mood of Isaiah better, these verses give us a preview of God’s legal case or complaint against his people, complete with possible sentencing guidelines. In verses 10-15, God strongly rejects the religious practices of Judah. In verses 16-17, God clearly spells out the justice and righteousness he requires of his people. And in verses 18-20, God summons his people into his chambers to offer them a deal that will allow them to avoid punishment. But he also threatens them with dire consequences if they refuse his offer.
God’s rejection of the religious practices of Judah could not have been more complete, which is remarkable given that God himself required those practices. Referring to his message in both prophetic (“the word of the Lord”) and priestly (“the law of our God”) terms, God compares his beloved chosen ones to Sodom and Gomorrah, those legendarily wicked cities that had been utterly destroyed in Abraham’s day.
This harsh condemnation came in spite of (or perhaps because of) Israel’s hyper-religiosity. Nearly every conceivable religious term is mentioned: sacrifices and burnt offerings, fat and blood, bulls and lambs and goats, processions (“tramplings” in verse 12) and incense, New Moons and Sabbaths and appointed feasts. The Pentateuch is filled with instructions about all of these things; they were an important part of Israel’s covenant obligations.
But God says that he doesn’t care about these things now: “what are they to me, I have more than enough of them, I have no pleasure, who asked this of you, stop bringing, detestable, I cannot bear, my soul hates, they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.” God cannot be too negative about the religious practices of 8th century Judah.
How can that be? Has God changed his mind, shifting from a religion centered relationship to something else? Has he forsaken the sacrificial system that had been so central to Israelite religion? Or has Judah done this religious observance wrong in some way, using the wrong kind of animals, or the wrong ceremonies? Or were they not frequent enough, or passionate enough? What was wrong with Judah’s religious practices?
The last part of verse 15 reveals the heart of the issue. Earlier verse 13b had called their assemblies “evil” without specifying how they were evil. Verse 15 carries God condemnation to a frightening level, rejecting not only the rituals and the rules of their religion, but even the prayers of their hearts. “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen.” How terrifying!
Why? “Your hands are full of blood….” Well, yes, of course, from all that sacrificing. No, not the blood of bulls and lambs and goats, but the blood of human beings, of your fellow Israelites. Does God mean that literally or figuratively? Probably the latter, but it’s no less serious to God. Israel has been “killing” their fellow Jews and that murder made their worship detestable to God.
Listen as God gets specific. “Wash and make yourselves clean….” God is not talking here about the ritualistic washing prescribed in Torah, nor even about the more substantive washing away of sins. That may come, but first Israel must genuinely repent, which involves a change in behavior. In effect, God is saying, “Don’t think you can make this right with a bit of water and some weak words of confession.”
Instead, “take your evil deeds out of my sight. Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!” In what way? What specifically do you want of us, O God? Or to put it in the parallel terms of Amos 5 and Micah 6, “What does the Lord require of you?” In two words, “seek justice.” What does that mean? “Encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”
The justice God wants of his people is social justice—not merely giving a piece of bread to an orphan or a new coat to the widow, but coming alongside those who are oppressed by the powerful in your society. The justice God demands of his people involves protecting the defenseless from powers to great for them, even if that means going to court for them so that their case is presented to the judges of the land. It may even involve pleading their case in the legislature, so that the laws take account of the needs of the marginalized.
In earlier postings, I have noted that many Christians resist this call for social justice because they think it minimizes Jesus’ call to “make disciples.” Pursuing social justice is seen as an enemy of evangelism, perhaps because some people who are committed to social justice are weak on evangelism, seeing it as cultural imperialism, as the imposition of my beliefs on people of other or no beliefs. In those early pieces, I pointed out that making disciples entails seeking justice for one and all. If we want people to follow Jesus, we must help them overcome obstacles to their discipleship, and some of those obstacles are embedded in the social systems in which we live. Thus, seeking social justice and “winning souls” go hand in hand.
Similarly, some people see a contrast between worship and social justice. The church exists to worship God, not to change the world, says the one side. No, says the other, what we do in the courts and the streets matters more to God than what we do in our holy huddles in church. These words of Isaiah seem to agree with the latter opinion, if we tear them out of Scripture and make them God’s only word to his people. What they really mean, however, is that true worship of God entails caring for the children of God, wherever they may be, whatever may be their condition. “He who says he loves God while he hates his neighbor is a liar,” says I John 4:20. Worship must lead to love for neighbor, because the God we love calls us to love them. And love for neighbor must lead to worship, because the work of justice cannot be pursued in our own strength.
That emphasis on our need for God’s grace is the import of the last 3 verses of our reading. Verse 16a said, “wash and make yourselves clean.” But that is not something we can do apart from the grace of God. Thus, God ends his stout condemnation of worship and his strong call to just living with a summons to God’s inner chamber. “’Come then, let us reason together,’ says the Lord.” That is legal language; you argue your case and I will argue mine. I will bring my accusation and you can bring your defense.
We know who will win the case. That’s why the next words are so surprising. God offers to do the cleansing Israel cannot do. Even if your sins are like scarlet (recall the “hand full of blood” of verse 15), they shall be white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” How can that be? God doesn’t explain that to Isaiah, but it must have to do with the work of God, since it is God who offers the cleansing. It will be the Good News of Jesus that announces a new Lamb and a new sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world. But at the very least, Isaiah’s prophecy shows us a God who loves mercy rather than sacrifice and who, in his mercy, will forgive the sins of those who truly repent.
Verses 19-20 are all about the necessity and nature of true repentance. The two “if’s” loom large. “If you are willing and obedient…. If you resist and rebel….” The difference between “you will eat the best of the land” and “you will be devoured by the sword” is that little word “if.” You can either eat or be eaten; it’s the same word in Hebrew. While not denying God’s free grace and wide mercy, it is clear that repentance is necessary.
And it is clear that repentance is not just saying you are sorry. Genuine repentance has to do with the bending of the will and observable behavior: being willing versus resisting, being obedient versus rebelling. It’s not that we earn our cleansing by repenting. It is rather that repentance and its positive twin, faith, are the way we receive grace and mercy. If we won’t turn away from sin and open up to God, we can’t receive salvation. “For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
It was John Calvin, I think, who called faith “the open mouth of your soul.” God is willing and eager to fill us with the salvation earned by Christ, but if our head is turned away from God and our mouth is closed, we can’t drink it in. We must turn back to God (repentance) and open our soul (faith) in order to receive the free grace and wide mercy offered to us in Christ. I can still see my children in early toddlerhood, refusing to eat, turning their heads away from the oncoming spoon filled with yummy food. Here God speaks to us as to a stubborn child. Come then, let us reason together. Let us talk about this. Use your head. Be reasonable. I have something wonderful for you. But as long as your head is turned away and your mouth is sealed tight, you can’t eat it. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Author: Scott Hoezee
Suppose you are a person who is very leery of civil religion, of the possible idolatry that can come when people equate a given nation with God’s kingdom. Well, in that case, Psalm 33:12a might give you pause, or it might flat out trouble you a bit. “Blessed is the nation whose God is Yahweh.” That sounds rather like a blanket statement, like something that certain people in American history have quoted to prop up the idea of the United States as a shining city on a hill, singularly chosen by God among all the peoples of the earth. It sounds like the kind of verse people could invoke to drape flags over the cross, to post Ten Commandments in public school classrooms and courthouses, to make this a “Christian Nation” to the exclusion of people from other faiths. It also runs the risk of saying that if a given nation makes God its Lord, then that same God will bless and baptize every action that nation takes.
Is that what Psalm 33 is up to? Almost certainly not. Because of course Psalm 33:12b immediately goes on to indicate that we are talking about ancient Israel here, about the people specially elected by God to become his beachhead in saving the whole world. Remember that Hebrew poetry does not depend on meter or rhyme schemes. Rather the foundation of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. Lines parallel each other with the second line reinforcing (or sometimes providing contrast to) the first line. As such, very often the second of the two lines also sheds retrospective light back onto the first. In this case, the “nation” that is being singled out for blessing in 12a is clearly Israel as this is indicated as such in 12b. This is not a verse about any random nation. To take this out of context and apply it to any modern day nation state would therefore, constitute bad hermeneutics.
Nevertheless, this latter portion of Psalm 33 is setting forth the marching orders for Israel and—when not applied in a political way—still has resonance for those of us who are now members of the New Israel that just is the Church of Jesus Christ. The psalm is directing the people to wholesale dependence on God alone. Without God’s help and support, large armies and outward military might of any kind would not do Israel any good. It may be that Israel still needed an earthly king and that as such a king needed an army. But to put ultimate trust in those things—to allow that to be the bottom line of your security in life—was to miss the larger picture.
Psalm 33 points to a kind of balancing act, a veritable tightrope walk that all believers to this day face. On the one hand, we know it would be foolish to conclude that so long as we trust in God for all good things, we need not do anything ourselves. Why try to get a good education? Why try to hone skills that can land you a good job? Why take out insurance on your house? Why work so hard all the time? Kick back, put your eyes on God, trust him and all will be well.
It reminds me of a story most of us have heard in one version or another. A man finds himself in dire straits: floodwaters are rising all around his home. He cries to God for help as he moves from his home’s first floor to the second. He cries again as he flees to the attic and then all the way out to his rooftop. But then someone comes by in a boat and offers to take the man but the man says, “God will take care of me!” A helicopter comes by and lowers a ladder but the man refuses. “God will take care of me!” Later as the floodwaters begin to carry him to his death, the man cries “Why did you not help me, God?” and hears the divine reply from the heavens, “I sent you a boat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”
Clearly that is not what trusting God above all else means. But the balancing act / tightrope walk gets tricky when you do indeed work hard to make a living for yourself, when you pursue all prudent measures to make your house safe from burglars, when you take out insurance policies and build up a 401k retirement portfolio. Because then it is so easy to fixate on only those outward things that you do fail to see the spiritual connection that if God is not your ultimate security—if God is not in and through and under and behind all of that outward activity and such—then it is all finally futile, fragile, and one day fruitless.
It also reminds me of some musicians I have seen. Go up to a skilled violinist to compliment him on a stunning performance of some challenging Bach sonatas and you might find it off-putting to have him point to the sky and say “It’s not me. It’s ALL God! Don’t compliment me please!” It might be equally offensive to have him say, “Yes, I know. I am truly great, aren’t I?” Surely there is some middle ground here.
Yes, a Christian artist is right to locate God as the ultimate source of his musical gifts. But the violinist still had to do his part too to nurture those gifts, to hone and refine them through a lifetime of practice and discipline. So maybe it’s both all God and all artist—both are proper targets of words of gratitude and praise. The artist cannot do much without God’s gifting but God cannot do much to make a good violinist out of a highly lazy person even if some core gifts are also present.
Psalm 33 is right: our ultimate hope and security come from God. We are foolish if we do not acknowledge this and celebrate it every day. At the same time, we would be foolish to not see how God works through the ordinary things of life too and through our efforts and such. It is so easy to fall off this tightrope to the right or to the left. One of the Holy Spirit’s jobs in our lives is to help us keep our balance.
When the famed cellist Pablo Casals was around 90 years old, he still practiced the cello for hours each day. By that age and after his storied musical career, Casals surely had nothing left to prove. So one day someone asked him “Why do you still practice so much?” “Because,” Casals replied, “I think I’m getting a little better.”
A great gift is no excuse to not also work hard. And for believers, faith and trust in a great God are no excuse to not also recognize that we still have much to do in our lives to cooperate with God’s care and protection of us. Don’t put your trust in earthly things but don’t fail to shore up things on earth either.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Author: Doug Bratt
The word “faith” conjures up a variety of images. Twenty-first century Western culture often seems to think of faith as belief that has no objective basis. One of the Merriam Webster Dictionary’s definitions of faith is “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” From that perspective, one might have faith that, for instance, Saturn is made of blue cheese or that it will snow in the northern hemisphere tomorrow.
Christians often link faith to things like assurance and trust. In the Heidelberg Catechism Reformed, for example, Christians profess that “faith is not only a knowledge and conviction that everything God reveals in his Word is true; it is also a deep-rooted assurance … that … I too have had my sins forgiven, have been made forever right with God, and have been granted salvation.” So it sometimes seems as if both our culture and Christians sometimes think of faith as a largely intellectual exercise.
Yet when this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s author refers to “faith,” he seems to speak of something more than just belief. He speaks of in the context of the book of Hebrews that is what he calls “a word of exhortation” for a Christian community that he never specifically identifies. That anonymity gives Hebrews a kind of timeless quality that allows each of its readers and hearers to, by the Spirit, enter into its story.
Of course, the book of Hebrews relies heavily on Hebrew symbolism to communicate its message. It presupposes a familiarity with people like Moses and Melchizedek, as well as concepts like the sabbath, high priests and tabernacles. Yet Hebrews’ fundamental message is clear: Jesus Christ shows us far more about who God is than other religions or their practices. In fact, it insists that Moses and Melchizedek, the sabbath, high priests and the tabernacle all point to Jesus.
Among Hebrews 11’s key themes are those of “faith” and “commendation.” In fact, both its beginning (2) and its end (39) mention each concept. When this text talks about faithful people, it pays the most attention to Abraham. Perhaps that’s why the RCL appoints the verses that deal with him for this week’s Epistolary Lesson.
In them Hebrews’ inspired author mentions four actions of Abraham (while God changes Abram’s name to Abraham, Hebrews – perhaps interestingly — only refers to the patriarch as “Abraham”) that demonstrate his commendable faith. Verse 8 speaks of, first, God’s call to Abraham to leave his Mesopotamian home to which he immediately and obediently responds.
Without a GPS he starts out for a place that God has promised to give him as an inheritance – even though he doesn’t know exactly where that is. So basically Abraham leaves his settled and secure life for a life that seems unsettled and unsecure. Those who proclaim the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this week would do well to ask our hearers just why he was willing to do that.
Verses 9-10 describe, secondly, Abraham’s time in Canaan. When he lives with his family there, they’re immigrants who have no citizenship status. Today some might call them “illegals.” There Abraham’s family lives in tents, not in buildings that have solid foundations.
So Abraham doesn’t just leave home for the land of promise without a title to any land there. He also lives in the land as someone who has no ownership claim on it. The faith that equips him to do that might be more fruitful territory for Hebrews 11’s proclaimers to explore.
Third, verses 11-12 describe Abraham’s faith in God’s promise to give him numerous descendants. He lived in Canaan for nearly twenty-five years without fathering a child by his wife Sarah. Yet Abraham continued to have faith that God would give him a child. In spite of their infertility, he believed God would grant them the son they needed to claim his family’s permanent home in the land of promise.
So what sort of faith would stubbornly cling to God’s promises in the face of such apparently insurmountable odds? In verse 1 of our text Hebrews’ author tells us that “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Yet while that verse is very familiar to some of us, its precise meaning is unclear. We’re just not sure, after all, to what exactly the Greek words hypostasis and elenchos refer.
Of course, the NIV translation of the Bible translates those words as “faith” and “certain.” Yet their meaning seems to be far richer. Hypostasis seems to refer to the objective reality of our faith. Elenchos, then, appears to refer to an objective certainty about things we don’t yet see.
Yet it doesn’t seem like Hebrews’ author equates faith with that reality. So as Robert Gagnon suggests, Hebrews’ author appears to say that faith believes that ultimate reality lies not in what we can hear and see right now. Faith, instead, trusts that what’s ultimately real is what we can’t see or hear because it hasn’t happened yet.
That makes faith a radical notion in at least Western culture. We, after all, believe that only what we can see, hear, touch or smell is real. If you can’t somehow measure or test something, it can’t actually be real.
Now Hebrews comes along and claims that what’s really real is what you can’t yet see, hear, touch, smell or measure. So faith believes that, for example, God exists, even though you can’t see God. Faith believes that God “rewards” those who faithfully seek him, even when we don’t yet see that reward — or sometimes even suffer. Faith believes that God somehow formed the universe, even though no one was yet around to record that work.
Perhaps that helps Jesus’ followers begin to understand why Abraham was able to do such remarkable things. He left his home in Ur because he had faith that God had a better home in store for him. Abraham could faithfully live in Canaan, even though he had no permanent home there, because he trusted that God would someday give his descendants a home there.
Infertile Abraham could (largely) faithfully stay with his infertile wife because he believed that God would give them the descendants God promised them. Abraham could even faithfully begin to sacrifice Isaac because he believed God would somehow raise his son from the dead. Such faith recognizes that what God promises us is far better – and more real — than anything we can see, hear, smell, touch, measure or even imagine. It, quite simply, believes in the reality of what God promises and is certain of what we can’t yet see.
Yet Christians recognize that we can never muster such faith on our own. All the Christian apologetics in the world won’t by themselves convince us of God’s trustworthiness. Neither we nor those we love will be sure of what God promises unless God gives the gift of the Holy Spirit. So God’s adopted sons and daughters pray that God will fill both those we love and us with that Spirit.
Those in whom the Spirit lives see not just some bread, wine and juice at the Lord’s Table around which many of God’s deeply beloved children plan to gather this Sunday. God’s Spirit equips us with the faith that communion’s elements are somehow Christ’s body and blood for us that we gladly eat and drink.
God’s beloved people can also come to the Lord’s Supper and not just see some Christians who struggle to follow Jesus. God’s Spirit equips us with the faith that these are God’s children whom we love, forgive, pray for and share fellowship with.
And faith sends Jesus’ followers from our churches out into the world recognizing that it’s God’s handiwork rather than a place that we get to treat as we please. Faith sends us out from here to care for what we have faith God will someday renew.
May God’s Spirit so fill our proclamations of Hebrews 11 this Sunday that it fills both those to whom we speak and us with a hunger for an even deeper filling of such faith.
In his inimitable style, Frederick Beuchner writes about Abraham and Sarah’s faith in his book, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith: ‘God tells Abraham, age 100, and Sarah, 90, that they will have a baby. Both laugh. God tells them to name their son “Isaac,” which in Hebrew means “laughter”.
‘Why did the two old crocks laugh? They laughed because they knew only a fool would believe that a woman with one foot in the grave was soon going to have her other foot in the maternity ward. They laughed because God expected them to believe it anyway.
‘They laughed because God seemed to believe it. They laughed because they half believed it themselves. They laughed because laughing felt better than crying. They laughed because if by some crazy chance it just happened to come true, they would really have something to laugh about, and in the meantime it helped them keep going.’
“Faith” in Buechner, Frederick, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith, p. 109