Hebrews 11:1-16 & 12:1-2
Today is the last Sunday in our sermon series on Hebrews, so I would like to review where we’ve been in this letter/sermon and outline the material in between last week’s reading and this week’s reading before moving to today’s text. For many of us, Hebrews 11 and the first part of 12 is all that we know of this book, and so I think it’s important to put it back in its context in the letter as a whole before talking about the Hebrews heroes hall of fame, as some people call it, today.
And so, the first thing that we need to remember is that the author of this work of Hebrews is writing to a small and struggling congregation in the late 1st century in the Roman Empire, perhaps in Rome itself. They had been persecuted for their faith, and some had fallen away because of that. Others had left the congregation because they were losing faith that Christ would return, and the group was declining in numbers. And those that remained were getting tired, wanting to remain faithful, but perhaps being tempted to also drop away from the congregation. And what the writer of this book does is not to start with any kind of revitalization program, but simply to remind the group of who this Jesus is in whom they believe. He talks about how Jesus is greater than the prophets and the angels because he is the Son of God, the exact imprint of God. He uses various word pictures to describe Jesus: a pioneer, a brother, and a liberator. He describes what Jesus has done for us by using the image of the high priest, but by saying that Jesus is a better high priest because he has been tempted as we are yet was without sin. He shows how Christ is a mediator of a new covenant. Then, at the end of chapter 9 and the beginning of chapter 10, the author talks about how Christ sacrificed himself once and for all for all our sins.
With all of this teaching about theology as the basis, the author of Hebrews then begins to call his congregation to persevere. He urges them to hold fast to the confession of our hope in Jesus without wavering and tells the people to remain faithful to Jesus. He urges them to “provoke one another to love and good deeds” and to not neglect to meet together; in other words, don’t forget to come together and worship. He urges them not to abandon their faith but to remember the days when they first believed and gladly suffered persecution for their faith. The author then moves into today’s chapter by defining what faith is, for his purposes, and listing all of the Old Testament heroes that his congregation would know about.
Our reading today begins with this statement: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This reminds me of the story of Thomas in the Gospel of John, who would not believe that Jesus was alive unless he put his finger in the nail marks of Jesus’ hands and put his hand in the wound of Jesus’ side. Jesus says, in that story, that “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” This is part of what defines faith. Thomas Long, in his commentary on Hebrews, writes, “Inwardly, people of faith have a confidence today, here and now when all hell is breaking loose around us, that the promises of God for peace, justice, mercy, and salvation can be trusted. Faith, in this inward sense, is then a response to the trustworthiness of God” (113).
But, the author of Hebrews knows that sometimes, we need concrete examples of people who have this kind of faith so that it is easier for us to understand how we, too, can live out our faith. And so, he starts a roll call of the heroes of the faith, those examples that we can look to and try to emulate. And there are many: too many to touch on in one sermon. And there are even more people listed after our reading today cuts off and goes to chapter 12. So, I’m going to touch on just a few as we move through this passage.
Most of us here should know who Abel is; he was the victim of the first murder recorded in the Bible, killed by his brother Cain. But the next person listed may not be familiar to us: Enoch. The only mention of Enoch in our Scriptures is in Genesis 5, where he is listed as the father of Methuselah, and it is said of him that he “walked with God”. And then, instead of saying that Enoch died like all of his other ancestors and descendants, it is recorded that “he was no more, because God took him”. Because of this, literature that is not included in the Bible developed around this mysterious figure of Enoch and would have probably been well known to the congregation that our preacher is writing to. The author of Hebrews says that Enoch had faith and pleased God and uses this to tell his congregation that without faith it is impossible to please God, so you’d better have faith. In my opinion, there are better examples of faith that the preacher lists, but Enoch probably would have worked for his original audience. After Enoch, the preacher lists Noah, whose story I think we are all familiar with, and yes, it took great faith for him to build that ark when no one could see any rain on the horizon, trusting God’s word that yes, there would be rain and there would be a flood.
But then, after Noah, the preacher spends an extended amount of time on the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the three great patriarchs of the faith. And so, I think it is good for us to spend some time with these men today as well, particularly with Abraham. Our preacher first speaks of Abraham as going to the land that God called him to, and having faith that God would indeed fulfill the promises which God had made to him: that he would become a great nation; that God would bless him; and that all families of the earth would be blessed through him. Abraham trusted that God would fulfill these promises even though he and Sarah were not able to have children at first, and even though when he died, he only had one child with Sarah and the only land he owned was the gravesite where he buried her when she died. Of this, the writer to the Hebrews says, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” And remember, according to this preacher, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
What would it look like for us to have this kind of faith? We, too, are small and struggling congregations, often times floundering around as we try to adapt to a changing culture. What would the author of Hebrews have to say to us? Well, I think that he would probably say many of the same things: reminding us first of who this Jesus is who we worship, and then recalling to our minds all of the stories that we have learned both in worship and in Sunday school. God has promised us all of these good things as well, but, like Abraham, we may not live to see them fulfilled. The church as we know it may die. Christians may gather in homes or in other places as they did in the first century, rather than have special buildings dedicated to the worship of God. But one thing we can be sure of is this: God’s Word will never die, and we are called, like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to be faithful and to follow God wherever God leads us, trusting in the promise that we are blessed to be a blessing to the world.
The last section of our lesson today is what I want us to take away from this sermon series on Hebrews: “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.” In other words, we need to quit whining and recommit ourselves to following Jesus. So we are a small congregation. So what? So were those first Christian congregations in the 1st and 2nd centuries. I don’t know about you, but I get tired of all the reports and statistics saying that our churches are declining. I know that. You know that. We see it around us each week. Sometimes we can’t do all the things we once did. That’s okay. Jesus is still calling us to be faithful to him in the circumstances that we find ourselves in. I’m not saying that everything will be easy; far from it. Abraham was called to sacrifice his son Isaac to God and was only saved at the last minute by God calling him to stop and showing him a ram to sacrifice instead. Isaac was fooled by his son Jacob when he wanted to bless his son Esau. Jacob tricked his brother Esau and was then threatened by him, and then he and his uncle Laban cheated one another. These so-called heroes were flawed human beings just like us. And yet, God used them for God’s purposes and brought good out of bad. These are the men and women cheering us on as we also seek to be faithful. And we should remember them even when we have difficult decisions to make, and especially when it seems like we’ve made the wrong decision.
So, how is that we can best be faithful to Jesus and follow him? We remember that first, Jesus is faithful to us and will not fail in his promises. We remember who this great one is who we worship. We remember those who have gone before us in the faith, from Abraham all the way down to those ornery grandparents of ours who nevertheless loved us and taught us about Jesus. We learn from them as we seek to hear God’s will for us. And we have courage as we move forward into a strange land, not knowing where we are going but trusting that Jesus has gone before us, blazing a trail as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Let us move forward together then, facing the future that Jesus has given us without fear. Amen.