The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
11Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3By 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. 8By 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. 9By 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. 10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11By 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. 12Therefore 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.” 13All 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, 14for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But 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.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It is one of the most beautiful parts of scripture, if you ask me. The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It belongs on a wall somewhere. I would wager that you could walk into Hobby Lobby right now and find it painted on a piece of driftwood that you can take and put in your beach house.
I don’t mean to be glib—it really is lovely. But have you ever thought about what it means? Have you ever thought about what it means to be assured of the things for which you are hoping? Have you thought about what it means to feel conviction—conviction! One of the strongest feelings in the human toolbox—about things we can’t even see?
Some days I wonder why the world thinks the church is so crazy, but when I read Hebrews, I get it, because in a world filled with difficult things, it is hard to be assured of things we hope for, convicted by things upon which we have not even laid our eyes.
I mean, I don’t know about you, but I hope for a lot of things. I hope for a healthy family, to sleep well at night, for my hair to stop falling out. And, of course, more seriously, I have hopes for the world: for love, and kindness, and peace. But I do not have faith in these things. Oh, I have faith that if we really embraced peace, we’d be living out our lives the way God intended, but I don’t really have faith that everybody is suddenly going to lay down their weapons and beat their swords into gardening tools. When I say that I hope for peace, what I really mean is that wouldn’t it be nice if people just loved each other? But I don’t expect it.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things yet unseen. It is nice, but things are more complicated than that, of course. Life is too sticky for that kind of thing, so we just hang it on the wall and pass by sometimes and think, “well isn’t that nice,” and then go on with the complicated business of being alive.
And if I can just go off for a minute—I do this sometimes—but it drives me absolutely crazy when I am knee-deep in muck and somebody walks by and says to me, “Oh, just have faith,” like I hadn’t considered that before, like we aren’t already way past that 0kind of thing. Faith is nice, but real life is real life, and “just have a little faith” sometimes sounds to me less like “have faith” and more like “if you had trusted more, you wouldn’t be in that mess.”
In fact, this is the position the Hebrews were in. They felt left out and frustrated, doing their best to hold on to the promise they had been given that Jesus would return to be with them. And they waited for him, and they waited for him, and they slowly began to die, one at a time, which did not make any sense to them because as they understood the promise, this wouldn’t happen. Before a single one of them shuffled off this mortal coil, Jesus was supposed to come back. And so the writer of Hebrews writes them and says, “have a little faith,” and then brings up Abraham and Sarah.
I’ll be honest and say that I am glad I was not one of the people to whom this letter was written, because I feel even more inadequate when faith really does tide people over, really does help them keep holding on even in the midst of unbearable suffering. You talk to those poor girls who were held for years in that house in Ohio, and you ask them how they got through it? We just had faith we’d make it out alive, just had faith that we could do it. Talk to the man who’s beat cancer, and he says I just had faith it would all work out. I have exactly enough faith to get me out of bed on Sunday morning, to help me turn the coffee pot and rouse the family to get to church on time. When somebody tells me to just have a little faith, I want to tell them, that’s exactly what I already have, a little faith, and it does not seem to keep me out of trouble!
Or talk to Abraham and Sarah, who had been members of the AARP for some time before getting the news that they were having a baby. And not, as in, I’m going to leave this baby at your doorstep and you, in your advanced age, are going to have to raise him, but you are going to HAVE a BABY, yes YOU, I meant YOU and please quit laughing because I am not joking.
You ask Sarah how she got through it, and she says, with a laugh, that’s just what it means to have faith. It is the assurance of that which we hoped for—a child—and the conviction of things not seen—that if we just followed God’s lead, God would fulfill God’s promise.
This is all well and good, and it looks nice up on the wall, but it is the second part that gives me pause, because I can experience assurance of things I hope for just by suspending the more judgmental parts of myself, the more skeptical parts, and say, well, sure, everything’s going to work out. Of course, God doesn’t follow our little trite expressions, so it doesn’t always go that way, but I can get there in my mind if I just sort of black out the bad stuff. I can feel assured that what I desire, I will receive.
It is the second part that gives me pause, because conviction is a tough word. When you are convicted by something, it drives you to do. When I feel convicted of my ability to help those in need, I start to live differently. When I feel convicted by the hurt I have caused someone, I feel the need to go apologize and make things right. I can be assured up and down all day long, but when I experience conviction, I’ve got to get up off my duff and DO.
The first part is easy, but the second part requires a choice, and lest you think there is an exception here for someone who has been in the church all his life, someone who thinks she doesn’t have much left to do but warm a seat on the pew, let us be quite clear that there was once a woman of old, advanced age who was quite sure God was through with her, too, but she chose to be faithful and open to God’s leading, and though it was not easy, though she began with laughter and went through labor pain, she is the one who had the last laugh, for God used her willingness and her pain to populate God’s people, to create the group of people who would continue God’s work in the world. It was through her, this woman who the writer of Hebrews calls as . . . good . . . as . . . dead.
Now, Sarah did not have to choose to accept this sort of thing. Instead of laughing, she could have said, oh, no, thank you, but I’m too old. And, let’s call a spade a spade, she did not have the easiest time.
I mean, I’ve never had a baby. I helped create one and I have changed my share of diapers, but the closest thing to labor pains I’ve ever felt are the bruises Stacey left on my arm while she was experiencing them. But if labor pains are bad at twenty-nine, I can only imagine what they must be like at ninety, or whatever she was. But Sarah pushed through them, and whereby at the beginning of the story we had two old people, by the time the story finished—and, really, it is still going—now, there are millions, just millions, as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore, and here we sit, the beneficiaries of that promise.
And so the writer of Hebrews invites the Hebrews to be like Abraham and Sarah, having an active faith that propels them forward and having hope that though the promised land was great, something even greater lies ahead. I am paraphrasing now, but I think it is safe to say that the writer of Hebrews is saying that if you drive looking backwards you will end up in the lake. And so the promise of faith is that if you allow yourself to be assured and you work to do justice to your convictions, better country is just around the corner. Don’t make like you are as good as dead. The God we serve knows how to work with that kind of person.
This is why it drives me absolutely crazy when I hear somebody say, “Well, people say this church is going to die.” Never mind that I have never heard anyone—no bishop, no district superintendent, none of my Methodist colleagues in the ministry, neither the pastor of the Presbyterian church or the Baptist church down the road, nor any of you—I have never heard anyone say, “this church is going to die.” I’ve only heard, “Well, people say this church is going to die,” which is an excuse rather than a statement of fact, and it drives me crazy, because this is what I hear: “We are as good as dead, so let’s roll over and die.”
Look, I get it. This is hard work, no matter who you are, and for those of us who have been here for fifty, sixty years, I am sure that the challenges facing us as Christians and as the church look even more daunting than ever. But what a waste to refrain from engaging those challenges, how awful to have the opportunity to be Sarah and give birth to so many more faithful Christians, and to just say, “well, people say it is not possible.”
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.
It will not be easy, because we’re not spring chickens, many of us, and labor pains are bad enough at thirty. But if you are willing, if you will join me in praying for direction and then moving forward, I pledge to you that I will put on my walking shoes and go with you, so that together, we can make this a fertile place, a place of new birth, a place full of children carrying backpacks full of new possibility. Let us prepare for a day when we say yes to God, committing to prepare for all kinds of descendants no matter our age, so that at the end of the day, we can look at each other, laugh at what has been born in us, and say, with a wry, wizened smile, is anything too wonderful for the Lord?