August 15 2004
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 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.
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and “he was not found, because God had taken him.” For it was attested before he was taken away that “he had pleased God.” And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith.
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. 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. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 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. 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.”
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, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 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.
By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you. He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. By faith Isaac invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, “bowing in worship over the top of his staff.” By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions about his burial.
By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, unafraid of the king’s anger; for he persevered as though he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I’d like to do something radical this morning. It may seem un-Presbyterian, but I’m going to do it anyway. I’d like to take a poll and ask for a show of hands. Are you ready? Raise your hand if you have ever been to a family reunion _____________ Raise your hand if you have ever been compared to someone else in your family—maybe an older brother, a grandparent, a stubborn aunt or uncle? _________________ Raise your hand if you have, at some point, been subjected to (or been the one subjecting others to) story after story from the annals of family history? _________________ ok…hands down.
Most of us have had at least one of these experiences with our family story. In my family, it usually starts out with my grandmother calling me by every name in the family, sometimes including her own brothers or even pets, before she settles on mine. Then comes a story about how whatever I’ve just done or said (which was probably slightly less than bright) reminded her of the time when my mother said x, or Uncle Bobby did y, or how our family has always been z. Or there’s the statement: “You are just like your Aunt Susan.” This is rarely explained, but I usually choose to take it as a compliment.
Family stories are a huge part of who we are. We tell our stories to children and grandchildren, sometimes to neighbor kids or college best friends. We pass them on, hoping that somehow we will pass on other things too—like our worldview, our morals, our values, our ideals. And sometimes we suddenly realize how much we wish we had more of those stories—like when my great-grandmother died last summer, making my four-generations-of-women-alive-at-the-same-time family a little more average, I suddenly realized that I’d never had a chance to ask her about her life in the 1920’s, about raising kids in the depression, about the first time she got to vote, about her parents journey from Germany. There are so many stories that I never got to ask about, so many things that didn’t seem important before but now leave a gaping hole in my family history.
The church has a family history too. Each congregation has a story—this one involves two churches joining into one, it involves pastors and children and music and worship and mission and musicals and talent shows and potluck suppers. The Presbyterian Church has a story—sometimes happy and sometimes fraught with strife. The Protestant branch of the church has a story reaching back five centuries, and the Catholic branch has eleven centuries more. The whole people of God have a story, one we find in history books, we archive in closets in the foyer, we read in theology and memoirs. The Bible is, in one sense, a record of the stories of the people of God. And here in Hebrews we have a pretty specific list of some of the best-known stories—the ones everyone wants to hear over and over again. In my family it’s the story of my brother, at age three, “helping to clear the table.” He pulled the marinated vegetable salad, with its oil and vinegar dressing, onto the carpet and created a permanent stain we still talk about 15 years (and a whole houseful of new carpet) later. Or it’s the story of a ten-year-old me pointing out the car window at a llama and saying, “look, it’s one of those llama things.” For the writer of Hebrews, it’s Abraham and Sarah, or it’s Moses leading the people through the Red Sea.
This long passage sometimes reads like one of those genealogies from Chronicles or from the first chapter of Matthew. Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, etcetera. We always think those genealogies are so boring—and yet we make them of our own families all the time, indeed our culture is fascinated with genealogy and we travel across continents to put together our family trees. Why? Because names are part of the story. The story gets significantly less effective if you say “remember that guy, the one from the mountain…yeah….he did something with plagues and then brought us through the sea…I can’t really remember his name right now…but he was great.” The names, even the ones we don’t recognize, are a way of holding on to the story. The names are those of our family—the family of God’s people. The genealogies aren’t just of Jesus or of the twelve tribes of Israel, they are our genealogies. And these stories are part of our story, just as our individual stories make up the story of our family or our church.
We already said that we tell family stories to pass on both the content of the story and also our worldview, values, and ideals. So, in addition to the details of the story, what is this storyteller passing on? It seems—in fact, it’s stated every sentence or so—that one thing the storyteller wants to pass on is an idea of what faith is. He begins this section with the slightly vague and highly poetic statement that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Then, thankfully, he explains what that definition means using stories from the family. Faith is Abraham trusting that he and Sarah, though they were in their 90’s, would have a child. Faith is leaving one’s country—or one’s comfort zone—to head out into the unknown that has been promised. Faith is living, doing, and trusting the word of God. These are some awesome role models here: Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rahab, David. They worked on hope and faith, living their lives listening for the word of the Lord, blazing a new path. But the writer of Hebrews wants to make sure we get the point—these role models didn’t see the reality of what was promised, they only glimpsed it from far off. Now The Word—capital W—has come and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus and we are heirs of the promise and the reality of the promise.
Well, if Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Rahab, David, and the prophets were hard shoes to fill, now we’re in trouble. To be like Abraham is a tall order. To be like Jesus is an even taller one, especially since it may feel that we haven’t seen the promise either—Jesus was on earth nearly 2000 years ago, and we often only glimpse the reality of the kingdom from afar. We may feel like we are trusting only in things we cannot see, trying to be sure about the things we hope for. It’s hard to think that we have it down—that it should be easier for us than for Abraham, that this side of BC/AD is better than Moses’ side. But the beauty of it is that we have many examples to follow and many stories to hear to build our courage and confidence. We are surrounded, in fact, by a great cloud of witnesses. As our storyteller says of those who have gone before, “they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” That means that we, apart from them, cannot be made perfect. It is within this cloud that we live as people of God.
The cloud of witnesses, the communion of saints, the invisible church. You usually can’t see it, but sometimes you can feel it. You know, when you come across a book or a song and think of your great grandmother, who has always been older than old, and how she cared for the “elderly” lady next door or how she read you stories. When you visit an old church building where people have been gathering to worship for hundreds of years. I felt it on Mt. Sinai and in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Sometimes you can sense the people of God through the ages forming a cloud around you—while singing a hymn, washing feet at the clinic, or teaching Sunday School. Once you feel it, it’s hard to shake. Though it’s a little spooky, this feeling that we are surrounded all the time, I think it’s a good thing. It helps remind us that we don’t have to do it alone. We have a faith community, a family, to look to for support. Sometimes our earthly families are less than perfect, but we have a whole source of extra-extended family to lean on. Sometimes we’re scared, or feel we’ve lost our faith, or we don’t know what to do next, and thankfully we have this whole cloud of witnesses to look to and listen to. And we’ll never be alone—we can’t just leave the cloud and go out on our own, and the people of God can’t just leave us—those witnesses are always with us, just as our family stories follow us around like the oil stain in my grandmother’s carpet.
Now, our storyteller never says it will be easy. He compares the life of faith to a race that must be run with perseverance. It’s hard work to lean on someone like Abraham and Sarah, who were so old and yet had a son and traveled to a foreign land. It’s hard to imagine being like Rahab the prostitute, who sheltered the Hebrew spies as they scoped out the city to determine whether or not they could conquer it. It’s quite a stretch to think of ourselves like Moses, bringing plagues on the Egyptians, then stretching out a rod over the Sea and trusting that it would indeed separate so the Israelites could walk through on dry land. But it wasn’t easy for Moses either, or for Abraham, or Rahab. And it wasn’t easy for any of the unnamed people our storyteller describes by their stories—being shut up with lions, being flogged, being sawn in two, being forced to hide out in goatskins. Sometimes running the race feels like a never-ending extreme marathon. But at least it’s a mostly cloudy day, and we are surrounded by those who will give us water and Power Bars along the way.
Sometimes the cloud of witnesses is most tangible for us in the people who are still here and present with us—parents, friends, teachers. Which means that sometimes each of us is a part of the cloud of witnesses that someone else experiences. Whenever we share the love of God with others, we proclaim to whom we belong and we align ourselves with the saints of God. Whether sharing God’s love takes the form of cleaning someone’s house, preparing a meal for new parents, listening to another person’s story, praying for others, painting a refugee home, visiting at the hospital, doing what we are asked the first time, or giving a hug, we are acting our part as a member of the communion of saints.
This is why we tell the stories. So we can learn from our ever-present helpers what it means to share the love of God with all whom we meet. So we can remember that the people of God have been wondering, doubting, trusting, and following for thousands of years before us. Indeed, time would fail us to tell all the stories today, of Gideon and David and the prophets, of Augustine and Hildegaard and Luther, of Calvin and Barth and Mother Theresa, of George and Brenda and John and Carol. Our lives are shaped and informed by these family stories, these tales of heroes and martyrs, of prophets and prostitutes, of mothers and preachers and friends. Just as we are already a part of this great cloud of witnesses, one day our stories will be included in the family stories, for the story of each of us is already bound up with God’s story. So, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses—apart from whom we cannot be made perfect—let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.