Text: Hebrews 11:1-7
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That’s how our reading for tonight begins, and with it we begin a five-week series titled “By Faith” that will take us through some of the final chapters of the book of Hebrews – a book of the bible that’s full of memorable one-liners. Can you remember any others?
- Maybe, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…” (Heb. 1:1-2a)
- Or, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor…” (Heb 2:6b-7)
- Or, “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb. 4:14-15)
- And certainly, “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.” (Heb. 12:1-2)
The book of Hebrews is a complicated theological reflection on the nature of sin and atonement, filled with references to Hebrew scripture and assuming a knowledge of sacrificial atonement, yet preaching hope and perseverance to a community two generations removed from the life of Jesus, encouraging them to hold on to their faith in the face of all manner of external persecutions and internal doubts. In short, it is the perfect book for us to reflect upon during the season of Lent, and so if you are planning to join us these five weeks for midweek services I’d highly recommend that you find time to go back and re-read this book again from beginning to end. It will take you an hour or less, depending on how carefully you read and how frequently you stop to digest what you’re reading.
Central to the book of Hebrews is the image of Jesus Christ as the high priest who offers for all humanity, even all creation, the sacrifice of blood that atones once and for all for all our offenses. For many people, this is a comforting cornerstone of their theology, as it is meant to be. The writer of Hebrews is explicitly working to relieve the people of the heavy burden of trying to make themselves acceptable in the sight of God by their own sacrifices, by their own works. He writes,
“Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshippers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God.’” (Heb. 10:1-7a)
As Lutherans this is familiar ground, and Hebrews was fertile soil for Martin Luther who found in its verses clear explanations of how God’s “living and active” Word functions as both law and gospel, “sharper than any two-edged sword” (to quote Hebrews again at 4:12). We hear God’s voice in Hebrews as law, confronting the failure of our self-devised self-improvement strategies when it denounces all our ineffective and catastrophic sacrificial systems; and we hear God’s voice in Hebrews as promise, assuring us that we were never meant to perfect ourselves, but to trust in the love of God that has surrounded us from the beginnings of creation.
So the author, building towards the climax of his sermon, recites the acts of faith undertaken by the patriarchs of Israel, beginning with Noah – and that is who we focus on tonight.
Hebrews’ author writes,
“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.” (Heb. 11:7)
Looking back to the early chapters of Genesis, we are reminded that God’s displeasure with humanity is a recurring theme that has haunted us since our creation. Chapter 6, verses 5-8 read,
“The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was very sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created – people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the sight of the LORD.”
I have to say, that between the sacrificial atonement theology of the book of Hebrews, which at first pass seems to suggest that God requires blood in exchange for human sin and cruelty, and the wrath of God in Genesis that is prepared to wipe out all of humanity out of disgust with our misbehavior, I’m hard-pressed to hear the good news. I’m led to wonder what the connection between human wrath and vengeance and divine wrath and vengeance is.
Then I stop and think about some of the stories I’ve read in the last week about the flood waters that have engulfed the Japanese city of Sendai and surrounding areas, and the ways that story has been told and mistold for selfish gain, and I can see that human behavior is troubling to say the least.
An article in yesterday’s New York Times recounted the horrors of human behavior as the waters rushed over the small town of Yuriage. One young man, fleeing with his mother to the safety of a nearby junior high school, witnessed as people shoved elderly neighbors down the stairs in order to find safety on the roof.
Closer to home, senators and pundits with close ti
es to the nuclear power industry were quick to downplay the severity of the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, claiming that similar disasters – such as the one at Three Mile Island in 1979 – resulted in no loss of life. In fact, we know that the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island resulted in increased rates of infant mortality, cancer-related deaths in children, death and disease in area livestock.
At the same time, in that same Japanese stairwell, strangers formed human chains to help move injured neighbors to safety. They rescued children struggling to climb faster than the waters, and they held each other as the floods washed homes and lives away.
At the Daiichi Power Plant, emergency workers have continued to work as long as possible, called away only when the radiation levels are too high to continue, knowing that they are putting their own health and lives at risk in order to preserve the health and lives of their neighbors.
We are not who we ought to be, but we are not completely wicked either. We cannot hide this knowledge from ourselves, from each other, or from God. We can try and try to make amends, to right the wrongs we have committed, or that have been committed in our names, but in the end there is not enough blood to atone for all that has passed before any of us in this room was yet born. So we must let God be God, and that means we must have faith that despite all evidence to the contrary, God is reaching out in love to restore the world for love, through love.
We hear tonight, at the beginning of this five weeks of journeying together by faith that “without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach [God] must believe that [God] exists and that [God] rewards those who seek [God.]” (Heb. 11:6). How do we understand this seeking kind of faith, the faith of Noah and all our forebears, without turning it into one more sacrifice we try to offer on our own behalf, one more offering of our own?
Perhaps we could try and work our way backwards through this promise. The reward for seeking God is nothing less than finding God, and finding God we discover that we are loved by the source and ground of all being. Finding God, we discover that we can lay down every insecurity that plagues us, every guilt that haunts us, every doubt that nags us, every sin that clings to us. With God there are no secrets to hide and no past too awful to be forgiven, and so to seek God in and of itself is to gain the reward.
Is this not what you have truly hoped for, even if it is not what you have ever seen? Then remember and take heart, for “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
But how do we even begin to know that we need to seek God? What happens in a human life, or in community, that sets us on the path to seeking and finding God? That is the faith that called Abraham to “set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.” (Heb. 11:8) That is a dimension of faith we will explore as we gather next week.
For tonight, as we consider the flood waters that washed the world out from under Noah’s feet, and the waters that have burdened and abused our sisters and brothers in Japan, we can take comfort and direction from some of the final words of the book of Hebrews.
“For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. Through [Christ] then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is the fruit of lips that confess [God’s] name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (Heb. 13:14-16)