July 31, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Luke 12 is like drinking from a fire hose, or maybe several different fire hoses at once with different flavors of water from each. Throughout Luke 12—and certainly in the nine verses of this particular reading from the Year C Lectionary—Jesus is doing some classic pearl-stringing in uttering one beatitude, saying, warning, or prediction after another. In fact, the way Luke constructs Jesus’ words here, it looks like Jesus is even mixing up 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, I’d complain about the lack of consistency and the confusing way the imagery keeps toggling back and forth. I would direct them to Paul Wilson’s “The Tiny Dog Is Now Mine” scheme to ensure sermon unity: ONE Text, ONE Theme, ONE Doctrine, ONE Image, ONE Need, and ONE Mission. But since the words in Luke 12 do not come from a student sermon, we’ll accept the text as is and try to figure out why it comes off the way it does (I generally would avoid ever grading Jesus!).
The way the Lectionary chops up this text yields this particular reading in which 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 even 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.
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 reson 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 blacks 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.
That’s often the way of it, of course. We all know those soaring prophetic words of Isaiah about every valley being exalted and all the mountains being leveled out into a plain. That passage is one of many in the Bible that points to what could best be described as a reversal of fortune. The first are last, the last first. The places that had been exalted will be turned upside down. But it seems to me that the promise of the valley’s exaltation will sound best to this world’s Thelmas, to those who already live in the valley. But what about the folks who already now live on the mountaintops of life?
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Author: Doug Bratt
As this is being written, grim news fills our media. Terrorist attacks. Police shootings. Ambushes of police officers. Civil wars and attempted coups. They remind us that while the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday may be nearly 3,000 years old, both its context and the sins it describes are nearly as contemporary as today’s news.
After all, when Isaiah prophesies, observers worry about a rising power in the east. In fact, not long after he writes this, Assyria will destroy Israel and, not much later, nearly destroy Judah.
Yet Judah thrives in Isaiah’s day. Its elite bask in their wealth. Even its religious institutions seem to flourish. Jerusalem’s temple overflows with worshipers scurrying around with their sacrifices, offerings and incense.
It’s a situation reminiscent of 21st century North America’s. While eastern nations like India and China seem to pose growing economic threats, much of North America seems to be thriving. Wealth among North America’s richest citizens is near unprecedented levels.
What’s more, no country claims to have a higher percentage active worshipers than the United States. So on the surface, things look good; America’s economic and religious institutions seem to flourish like few others in world history.
Yet Isaiah may unnerve the 21st century’s citizens with his report that just beneath Israel’s sturdy surface things were rotting. After all, while the Israelites were, like we are, busy doing “religious things,” the prophet compares them, in verse 10, to Sodom and Gomorrah. Nothing the Judeans are doing in the temple, he insists, pleases the Lord. In fact, Isaiah announces, all of it is disgusting and, in fact, disturbing to the God to whom it’s supposedly offered.
This message, however, isn’t as shocking as Isaiah’s next. “When you spread your hands out in prayer,” God warns in verse 15 through him, “I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen.” All this is because, Isaiah insists, the blood of innocent people soaks the hands Israel stretches out to God in prayer.
The Israelites who, in other words, pray to God show that they don’t love the Lord or their neighbors nearly as much as they love themselves. God warns that God will no longer listen to the prayers of people who have bloodied their hands in that way.
Arguably, few warnings are more sobering to God’s people who cherish God’s faithfulness in hearing and answering prayers. If we can’t rely on God to hear and answer our prayers, what hope is there for ourselves, those we love and, in fact, God’s whole creation?
Old Testament scholar James Limburg says Isaiah’s warning shows the Judeans have “arranged their lives into two compartments.” One they’ve labeled “religion.” It includes their participation in religious ceremonies and rituals. The other box the Israelites have labeled something like “life.” In includes their daily lives.
Those two boxes, Isaiah complains, have nothing to do with each other. The Israelites’ religion has no impact on the way they live. They don’t, for instance, do justice and defend widows and orphans, as God expects them to do.
Worship services are among the modern church’s most cherished activities. We bustle around offering prayers, songs, messages and money, assuming it must surely make God happy. Yet Isaiah suggests that to the extent that the hands we’ve folded in prayer are somehow stained with vulnerable peoples’ blood, it angers God.
To the extent that the voices we’ve lifted in song have hurt others, our worship angers God. The prophet implies that to the extent that we’ve gained the money we’ve offered God in immoral ways, it angers God. To the extent that pastors have failed to practice what we’ve preached, we’ve angered God.
You can stretch that nationally. After all, some hands raised in prayer have also bound Africans in chains and chased Native Americans off their lands. Some voices raised in song have spoken about adherents of other religions as if they were demons. Some money American Christians have offered God has been gained through fraud and other devious means. Some of our preachers who have preached have also abused our nation’s children.
This is ominous, because, as Will Willimon, reflecting on our text’s message, says, “Bad deeds can silence the most eloquent of religious words. The test for what we do here from eleven until noon is what we do out there Monday through Saturday.” So how will the Lord ever accept our own flawed worship? What hope do you and I have that God will ever answer our prayers?
Something, answers the prophet, must transform our sinfully “scarlet” worship into something as lovely as new snow. Something must change our morally “crimson” actions into offerings that are as pure as newly spun wool.
Christians sometimes act as if our religion is little more than another self-help plan. We sometimes act as though all we need to do to be better people is just try harder. To use the prophet’s imagery, we almost act as if we can scrub clean our ourselves and our actions, including our worship.
The Bible, however, insists that only blood, ironically, that most staining element, can do that. When the Israelites worshiped in the temple, God called them to sprinkle the altar, their priests and even the temple veil with sacrificed animals’ blood. This blood, after all, symbolized God’s washing away of sins and sanctifying of God’s people and even temple. In fact, Hebrews 9:22’s author goes so far as to insist, “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”
However, the book of Hebrews reminds us that animal blood could only go so far in scouring crimson sins and scarlet sinners. It could only clean people from our sins “outwardly,” according to Hebrews 9:13.
Thankfully, then, God has done everything necessary to scrub God’s adopted sons and daughters clean. God sent God’s only Son to live and die among us. In his life-long suffering, but especially on the cross, Jesus Christ offered the complete and completed sacrifice for our forgiveness.
In fact, only Christ’s blood makes our scarlet selves clean and crimson selves forgiven. His blood graciously scrubs the bloodstained hands of those who have received God’s grace with our faith clean. As a result, God treats us as though we were as morally spotless as new snow and wool. However, through that blood, God also empowers us to be what Isaiah called “willing and obedient.” The Holy Spirit enables you and me to live in ways that show that we’re both forgiven and thankful for God’s grace.
While a man about whom I recently read wasn’t highly formally educated, he stayed up late nights educating himself in the law. So during the Great Depression a bank hired him to dispose of the many farms on which the bank was foreclosing.
This man, however, was deeply concerned about the farmers who were little more than slaves. They lived on someone else’s land and paid often-exorbitant rent. Each year many of them simply sank deeper and deeper into debt.
So this man met with those farmers in order to train them to use advanced agricultural techniques and keep good records of what they grew. By doing so, he helped more than 200 black farmers and their families get better prices for their work.
When he died, his family members and friends held his funeral in his home rather than the local church. After all, they figured, all those black mourners would make the members of the largely white church nervous.
But it was probably just as well. As his son later reported, “My daddy almost never attended church. Couldn’t stand to sit there and watch ushers pass the offering plates on Sunday, knowing how those scoundrels conducted their businesses during the week, knowing the way they treated people when they weren’t all dressed up and playing church.”
So whose prayers pleased God, for Jesus’ sake? Those whose blood-stained hands folded piously in church? Or the one whose hands lifted up the needy people around him?
James Limburg tells a story about hunting pheasants with his dad and some of his buddies when he was growing up. They’d just finished hunting and were sitting, eating lunch and swapping stories.
One of the men said, “I need a new combine. Where’s the best place to buy it?” When one friend answered, “Buy it from Jones. He’s a member of our church,” another snorted, “Don’t buy from Jones. Yes, he goes to church on Sundays, sometimes even twice. But don’t go to his implement shop on Monday morning! He’ll take you for all you’ve got!”
Author: Stan Mast
Our Psalm reading for today is the second half of a Psalm of praise to Yahweh. It is focused on the sovereignty of the God of Israel. It is one of the first Psalms of praise in the Psalter and one of only a few such Psalms in the first book of the Psalter, which is heavily concentrated on lament.
Several features of Psalm 33 make it feel like a model for all the Psalms of praise that will follow. Its 22 verses correspond to the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet (though it is not an acrostic), suggesting that it is designed to be complete praise. The words used to describe the excellence of Yahweh in verses 4-5 are the most frequently mentioned attributes of God in the Old Testament. The format of the Psalm is the pattern of most other Psalms of praise. It begins with a call to praise (verses 1-3), ends with a response to that praise (20-22), and in between we hear the actual praise in two almost equal stanzas (4-11 which focus on God’s greatness and 12-19 which zero in on God’s goodness). In fact, Psalm 33 is so typical that one wonders how to preach a fresh and vibrant sermon on it.
We might start outside the lectionary reading and pick up on the “new song” of verse 3, which is the first occurrence of that phrase in the Psalter. Brueggemann does that, though what he says doesn’t give us much new to preach on. “Psalm 33 is a new song that sings about a new world. It is the world about which Israel always sings, the new world Yahweh is now creating. It is a world ordered by God’s justice over which God presides with faithfulness. To such a world the only appropriate response is confident and sure praise to the one who makes that world available to us.” That is true, wonderfully true, but since it is what Israel “always sings,” how can we make a new sermon on Psalm 33.
I suggest starting with verse 12. I have a very vivid memory of that verse from my youth. Driving down narrow state highways as my family made the annual trek to my childhood home in South Dakota, I would often see verse 12 emblazoned on huge bill boards along the side of the road. “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord….” Whether the people who erected that billboard were rebuking a godless nation or encouraging the remnant who still believed in God, they clearly saw Psalm 33:12 as a patriotic passage. Maybe we can use it that way.
Indeed, one scholar thinks that Psalm 33 was written in a time when Israel was threatened militarily, which happened many times in her history. Verse 10 and especially verses 16 and 17 can certainly be read that way. A military take on Psalm 33 would resonate with many North American congregations, as we are constantly reminded of the threats of Islamic terrorism and some new military provocation by Russia or North Korea. Our nation responds to military threats by calling for more sanctions or for more appropriations or for more boots on the ground. Force is met with force. Psalm 33 responds by calling the nation back to the God who is Yahweh. Force is met with faith.
Of course, that approach to Psalm 33 raises a big question. Can we apply this Psalm to America? The rest of verse 12 describes the nation whose God is Yahweh as “the people he chose for his inheritance.” Clearly, that was true of Israel. The Bible says so in many places.
Does the Bible say that America is God’s chosen nation? From the beginning of our nation that belief has been part of our civil religion, but the Bible says nothing about that. If any group of people is God’s chosen nation, it is the transnational Church of Jesus Christ, the Israel of God (Gal. 6:16). Besides, it is very difficult to claim that American is a nation whose “God is Yahweh,” as much as Christian revisionists might want that to be so. If we’re going to take this patriotic, militaristic approach to Psalm 33, we’ll have to apply it to the church or to all nations.
That, in fact, is how our reading continues in verse 13, where the emphasis is on “all mankind.” We might want to believe that our own nation is the “apple of God’s eye,” but Psalm 33 uses 4 visual words to emphasize that God “looks down,” “sees,” “watches over,” and “considers” everything everyone does. The God of Israel keeps his eye on all the nations of the world. That can be heard as a kind of threat or as a kind of assurance. I suspect that Israel heard it as the later, though many of the nations probably heard it as the former.
The Psalm goes on to address the military might of the nations whose plans and purposes Yahweh “foils and thwarts (verse 10).” Contrary to the conventional wisdom that drives the military buildups of every nation, “No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite its great strength it cannot save.”
Now, that is simply pious nonsense in the ears of the warrior class. It isn’t the real world. But the Psalm asks us to think about the real world. As necessary as war is sometimes, when has it ever “saved the world?” For a moment, yes, even for a decade or more, perhaps. But isn’t war always followed by more war? That’s the real world. As much as we might hope that the military solution will bring us victory and peace, the hard truth is that it doesn’t. Indeed, the word “hope” in verse 17 is a very different word than the word “hope” in verses 18, 20, and 22. The first hope (in armaments) is a deceptive confidence, while the second (in Yahweh) is a lasting trust that won’t be disappointed.
I’m not suggesting that we preach a pacifist sermon on this text. It doesn’t call us to lay down our arms; it calls us to rest in the arms of God. That’s exactly where the Psalm goes next, and where it ends. After pointing out the futility of any arms race, the Psalmist says, “But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love, to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine.”
Here is the theological heart of the Psalm. Though God sees everything everyone does, the “eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him” in a special way. In an age of ubiquitous surveillance, your sermon should work with the image of “the eyes of the Lord. “ And the phrase “those who fear him,” which is so often misunderstood, is explained here in lovely terms. It means “those whose hope is in his unfailing love.” It has to do not with terror or even reverence, but with looking to Yahweh with hopeful trust.
We can trust him because of “his unfailing love.” The Hebrew there is that covenantal word chesed, which is the main theme of the Psalm (verses 5, 18, 22). In a world filled with militaristic nationalism, where plots and plans aim to disrupt our lives, where promises are made and broken every day, what can we trust? Whose word can we believe? Well, says Psalm 33, you can trust the chesed, the covenantal faithfulness of Yahweh. He promises to be your God, and he will be your God through all the crises of our times and all the chapters of our lives. That is reason to praise Yahweh. Indeed, that is the central reason Israel praised God. Psalm 33 is a model of that praise.
After the praise, the Psalmist closes with a confession and a petition. Because Yahweh is so great and good, “we wait in hope for him; he is our help and our shield.” Notice the military language there. We wait in hope, “for we trust in his holy name.” That’s a confession of faith any Christian can make.
So is the closing petition. After rejoicing in Yahweh’s chesed, the Psalmist prays that the chesed of Yahweh may rest on us. That may sound a bit peculiar, but it fits the wavering character of our faith. We believe, but we wrestle with unbelief. So, though we trust God’s unfailing love in Christ, we still pray that God’s unfailing love in Christ will rest upon us. Given the uncertainty of life, we can’t help but plead with God to stay faithful. But there really isn’t any possibility that he won’t. That’s the good news for any nation/people/church whose God is Yahweh.
One way to help people think about the “eyes of the Lord” is to contrast God’s eye with the fearsome, flaming eye of Sauron in the movies based on Tolkien’s Trilogy of the Ring. Mounted high on a mountain, it surveyed Middle Earth with malevolent intent. Everyone feared being seen by that terrible eye.
Psalm 33 calls those who fear the Lord to wait in hope. That’s how the friends of the bridegroom waited for his arrival in Jesus parable in Luke 12:32-40, which just happens to be the Gospel reading for today. Contrast that kind of waiting with the restless, nervous, and ultimately fruitless waiting of Vladimir and Estragon in Beckett’s devastating play, Waiting for Godot. Told that they will be visited by a mysterious stranger named Godot, the two ne’er-do-wells wait and wait and wait. They don’t know what Godot looks like, so they aren’t sure how they will know that he has come. At the end of the play, Godot has not come. Or has he, and they just missed him? Or does Godot even exist? Beckett’s play reflects the existential angst of a world that waits and waits to no good end. Nothing ever happens to relieve our angst. Thank God that our hopeful waiting is met with God’s unfailing love.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Author: Scott Hoezee
Technically one of the confessions adhered to by my church (The Belgic Confession) semi-commits me to believing the Apostle Paul wrote Hebrews. But we now know to a high degree of certainty that is incorrect. We don’t know who wrote Hebrews, or even if it was a single author. Some think it’s a collection of sermons from the earliest days of the Church, and that is possible. But one thing is certain: whoever wrote Hebrews 11 had a tremendous flair for composition! These words are elegant, poetic, and deeply moving. They also manage to capture the dynamics of faith as well as—if not a lot better than—most any single passage in the whole of Scripture.
Preaching on Hebrews 11 provides a rich pastoral care opportunity from the pulpit. Because when people are able to realize that their lot in life is not so different from the situation faced by even these biblical pillars of the faith, they may find themselves comforted and encouraged. It’s too easy, of course, to assume that being one of God’s holy saints is just a wonderful thing all along the way. It’s too easy to imagine that the roads traveled by people like Abraham or Isaac or all the others listed in Hebrews 11 were smoother than most roads, free of spiritual potholes and sharp, dangerous curves. But it’s not true. As Frederick Buechner somewhere wrote, had you been able to tap any of these people on the shoulder at any given point in their faith journeys to ask them how it felt to be specially chosen by God, their answers would likely have surprised you.
Because to a person they probably would have told you that it’s tough, that dark nights of the soul were common, that they went for long stretches in between hearing from God or seeing some tangible sign that they were on the right path. (Not long after Mother Theresa’s death, it was discovered in her journals that she had spent most of her blessed life of amazing ministry feeling disconnected from the very God whose clarion call once upon a time set her on that path in the first place.) And as Hebrew 11 poetically, yet bluntly, admits: when the sun set on each of their lives and they prepared to exhale their final breath, none of them were exactly home yet. None really saw the full riches of anything God had ever promised. God’s promises remained for them just that to the very end: promises. They traveled to what Shakespeare called “the undiscovered country,” by which he meant the future but they did not quite arrive in the country when they died.
Abraham is a great example. Living a comfortable life in Ur with riches aplenty, Abraham and his tranquility and equilibrium were upended one day when God came to him with a one-word comment: “Leave!” By faith Abraham did, and nothing would ever be the same. He had a series of ups and downs, tests and failures before arriving at one searingly faithful moment of very nearly offering up his only beloved son He passed that weird test of God’s but that hardly ushered him in to a new stretch of shalom in his life. Next thing you know the love of his life, Sarah, dies and this once-prosperous man who back in the day had had plenty of land holdings in Ur discovers that he’s so homeless and poor that he has to parlay with the locals to buy a 6×6 plot of earth big enough to bury his dear wife.
“All these died without having received the promises . . .” I’ll say.
But isn’t that the situation of so many of us? How many people do we preach to every week who come to church heartbroken and sad? I know a woman who lost her son when he was just shy of 20. And every time I see her—even years after that tragic accident—the corners of her eyes tell me she’ll never really recover. Not fully. She’ll never square this up with the God who made promises at the boy’s baptism, who said and says that never will he leave or forsake us. She, too, will just have to keep greeting the promises and the reality beyond them from a distance until that day when our oft-shaky faith is made sight and we arrive home.
But what I really love about Hebrews 11 is what we get in verses 15-16. After describing these saints who lived in suspense, had their doubts, and admitted that they were strangers on earth who could not ever quite fit in, we are then told that BECAUSE OF ALL THAT, God was not ashamed to be called their God. In other words, the honest experience of these saints—warts and incompleteness and all—made these folks God’s kind of people! God doesn’t want us “to fake it until we make it.” God doesn’t want plastic saints who paste yellow smiley-face stickers over everything (“Put on a Happy Faith” as church signs often declare) in an effort to cover over the insufficiency of life as it really is. No, he wants honest saints, honest believers, honest strugglers and stragglers who somehow manage to keep longing for that better country that just is the kingdom of God, all the while not denying the utter pain of still having to slog through life on this broken planet.
As Hebrews 11:1 says, faith is both assurance and conviction, but not easily or lightly or tritely. If it were that neat and tidy, the chapter would not have gone on to list the honest struggles of so many of God’s chosen ones who did not in this life make it home. Too often we who preach—and ordinary Christians as they interact with each other in Bible studies and the like—pick up on the assured conviction part of faith to the detriment of acknowledging also the tough slog of faith. As often as not, good people feel hurt and put upon—and their faith called into question—on account of this. Preaching on Hebrews 11 may give us an honest, biblical, refreshing opportunity to counter-balance some of that unhappiness and mischief in the church.
“Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you are going but going anyway. A journey without maps . . . Almost nothing that makes a real difference can be proved. I can prove the law of gravity by dropping a shoe out the window. I can prove the world is round if I am clever at that sort of thing—that the radio works, that light travels faster than sound. I cannot prove that life is better than death or love better than hate. I cannot prove the greatness of the great or the beauty of the beautiful. I cannot even prove my own free will; maybe my most heroic act, my truest love, my deepest thought, are all just subtler versions of what happens when the doctor taps my knee with his little rubber hammer and my foot jumps. Faith can’t prove a damned thing. Or a blessed one either.” Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 25-26.