Repeat with me please, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
This is the theme that describes all of the ‘heroes of the faith’ that we have been considering together. And it is the theme that describes our life of faith as well. When it comes to the life of faith in Jesus Christ, ASSURANCE and CONVICTION are based on HOPE and THINGS NOT SEEN.
HOPE, by its very nature is a FUTURE thing. HOPE is an UNSEEN thing, simply because it lies in the FUTURE.
Paul writes to the Romans saying, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24).
To live this way goes against the grain. It’s contrary to the way we are programmed. How often have we been skeptical about someone who would base their ASSURANCE and CONVICTION on HOPE and THINGS NOT SEEN.
We are much more comfortable basing the decisions and actions of our life on the things that are NOW and that we can SEE. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
When we see someone commit their whole life and make dramatic and drastic decisions based on an UNSEEN HOPE, we shake our head and are tempted to call them a fool.
And yet sometimes, those who take such risks and gamble on an UNSEEN HOPE are rewarded. They “SAW” something that no one else saw and believed in it enough to commit their lives to it and now we look at those same people with admiration and respect and we’re tempted to call them heroes.
So, the hard thing for us to swallow about these HEROES of the faith that this letter to the Hebrews holds up to us is that they never did realize that which he HOPED FOR. This 11th chapter of Hebrews closes with this remarkable and confusing verse. “And ALL OF THESE, every single one of the examples given, “though commanded through their faith, DID NOT RECEIVE what was promised…”
The PAYOFF never happened. It never reached that point where finally they could see it and hold it in their hands and count it and measure it.
By all outward appearances it looks as though “ALL THESE” are fools. It seems as though the faithful are PUT TO SHAME for being so HOPEFUL in THINGS UNSEEN.
But Paul both reminds us and challenges us saying that “hope does not put us to shame.” It doesn’t make a FOOL out of us. You won’t be EMBARRASSED in the end.
The Psalmist prays, “Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope!” (Ps.119:116).
In fact, the Word and Promise of God is the only SURE THING there is. And in the end, WHICH IS STILL UNSEEN, only those who live by faith, will not be put to shame.
In the end, WHICH IS STILL UNSEEN, those who would ONLY put their HOPE and CONVICTION in the present, tangible things that can be seen and held in the hand and counted and measured, they are the ones who will be put to shame.
I’m sure a lot of people thought that Abraham was a fool for leaving behind what was PRESENT and SEEN and tangible and REAL for what was nothing more than a HOPE in something UNSEEN.
But it’s Abraham that the Holy Spirit holds before our eyes as the example that we should all follow.
Let’s hear the text from Hebrews 11 once again which divides nicely into two parts.
I. Part 1: Leaving and Going
Part one focuses our attention on the OBEDIENCE OF FAITH. ‘By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.’
We got the background in our first reading from Genesis 12. “Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
One of the important words in that verse is the little word “will.” “To the land that I WILL show you.” Not that “I have shown you.” God told Abraham to LEAVE what is familiar and safe and SEEN and go to what is FOREIGN, UNFAMILIAR and a place that he had never SEEN.
Abraham does seem to know where he’s headed. He’s headed for the land called “Canaan.” The land of “Canaan” is where the descendants of Cain, the “Canaanites” live. We know Cain from our study of Abel. And what we know of Cain is that he was not an easy person to get along with, and neither were his descendants. That’s where God tells Abraham to go.
So, this really is a call to go from what is SAFE, SECURE, COMFORTABLE, to what is UNSAFE and DANGEROUS.
Let’s let that sink in. Maybe you like adventure and the invitation to leave home and go to some unknown land and live in a strange culture sounds appealing to you. And certainly, many have done just that. This is a nation of immigrants who left their native land and everything that is familiar and secure to come to this country and start a new life. People leave their homes and resettle in foreign lands for lots of different reasons.
Abraham did so BECAUSE God said, ‘go.’
As the Lord always does when He gives commands to His people, He surrounds the command with layers upon layers of promises that He will guide and protect and REWARD obedience to His command.
“I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
It’s the same thing when the same Lord gives the command to His apostles. He tells them to “GO.” “Go to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them everything I have commanded you, AND I WILL BE WITH YOU TO THE VERY END OF THE AGE.” (Matthew 28) The COMMAND is surrounded with promise and reward.
It’s like that for us too. When the Lord gives us a command to ‘go,’ it may not be to a dangerous, foreign land.
It may just be to that person sitting all alone because no one will befriend her;
or a co-worker who is experiencing some trouble or hardship;
or that person that we have wronged and to whom need to apologize.
Or that sinful habit or behavior that you need to confront and confess and put to death.
We don’t need to wait for a special call from the Lord like Abraham received. There are certain cases where we have ‘STANDING ORDERS’ from the Lord to ‘GO.’
And the courage to OBEY and GO comes from His promise to be with us and guide us and keep us, and reward us. We will not be PUT TO SHAME.
Abraham leads the way for us all in this. “So Abram WENT, as the LORD had told him…” (Genesis 12:1-4) Or as the writer to the Hebrews puts it, “By faith, Abraham OBEYED when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance.”
“By faith, Abraham obeyed…” “Faith” and “Obedience” are TWO SEPARATE THINGS, but you can never SEPARATE the two. At least not before God.
“FAITH” is the fuel that powers “OBEDIENCE.” Without “FAITH,” “OBEDIENCE” quickly runs out of gas and quits.
“OBEDIENCE” is the fruit of “FAITH.” Without ‘OBEDIENCE,’ ‘FAITH’ is empty, it’s nothing. Just words.
This helps explain why, in one place in Genesis, we Abraham is commended for his ‘FAITH.’ In Genesis 15:6, we read, “And Abraham BELIEVED the Lord and He counted it to him as righteousness.”
But in another place we read that Abraham is commended for his ‘OBEDIENCE.’ In Genesis 26:5 we read, “And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham OBEYED my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”
In the first week of our Lenten readings on faith, we read those two, seemingly totally contradictory readings. The first was from Paul to the ROMANS 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by FAITH part from works.” And then the next day we read from JAMES 2:24, “You see that a person is justified by WORKS and not by faith alone.”
How can this be? It can be, because “faith” and “works” are two separate things that cannot be separated from each other.
II. The Land
That brings us to the second part of our text for today. This part focuses our attention on the OBJECT OF FAITH.
“By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”
“FAITH” always has to have an OBJECT to believe in. To say that someone has ‘FAITH’ is never enough. In fact, that’s a meaningless statement. ‘WHAT DO YOU BELIVE IN’ is the question that has to be answered. ‘FAITH’ has to believe in SOMETHING.
The OBJECT of Abraham’s faith is the LAND that God told him to go to. “By faith, he went to live in the land of promise.” “The land of promise” is “the promised land.” When Moses led Israel out of Egypt through the Red Sea, he was leading them to “the promised land.” That’s the land that Abraham had moved to long before Israel ever arrived there.
So, the first thing that is obvious is that when Abraham arrived and settled in the “promised land”, the “land of Canaan,” he didn’t ‘conquer’ it or ‘settle’ it or drive out the ‘Canaanites.’ He lived there as an alien. He didn’t even build a house. He lived in tents and raised his two sons in tents.
There’s that marvelous account in Genesis 23 that tells the story of what happened when Abraham’s wife, Sarah died. Abraham purchases a small plot of land from the locals because it has a cave on it suitable for burying his wife in. That’s the only piece of the “promised land” that Abraham ever ends up actually owning.
But Abraham was NOT ASHAMED. In fact, Abraham never thought of the “promised land” as though it were earthly REAL ESTATE. Abraham understood that the Promised Land was something much more than earthly REAL ESTATE.
“For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.”
He lived in a tent. A tent is the ICON OF IMPERMENANCE. He looked forward to what was PERMENANT – a house with foundations. A FOUNDATION is the ICON OF PERMENANCE.
And Abraham doesn’t see just A HOUSE for he and his family to live in, but an entire CITY built on FOUNDATIONS, “whose designer and builder is God.” For the whole family of the faithful to live together in.
In his Revelation, St. John sees the city that was the OBJECT of Abraham’s faith. “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels… And the wall of the city had TWELVE FOUNDATIONS, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” (Rev. 21:10-14)
Listen to how the writer to the Hebrews describes the destination that Abraham was looking forward to in the 12th chapter. “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…” (Hebrews 12:22).
Let Abraham be our example. We “fix our eyes on things above, not on earthly things” just as he did. We look forward to a PROMISED LAND whose DESIGNER AND BUILDER IS GOD. And we live our life in OBEDIENT FAITH knowing that we will not be put to shame.
“The goodly land I see, with peace and plenty blest;
A land of sacred liberty and endless rest.
There milk and honey flow, and oil and wine abound,
And trees of life forever grow with mercy crowned.” (LSB #798:6)
Repeat with me one last time: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”