Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
So we saw a few weeks ago how Pl wrote to the Galatians, who were being troubled by some very influential jewish believers, who insisted that Christians had to become Jews 1st. The Colossians were being troubled by Greek ideas that were about secret codes & knowledge & some very odd practices. Now today’s text – we don’t know who wrote it, but it was addressed to a beleaguered, wrung-out band of jewish Christians – speaks to people who wrestled deeply with concerns of faith and doubt.
Most of the 1st Christians came from Jewish backgrounds & we think that they worshipped in secret house churches. But before the end of the first century, their Jewish relatives, as well as their pagan Roman neighbours, were harassing them over their faith in Christ. They were persecuted. By the time the Book of Hebrews appeared – perhaps 10 or 20 years after the apostle Paul – the church had endured a long beating. Some were already suffering imprisonment and the seizure of their property. Opposition and martyrdom would only get worse in the years that followed.
So the point is this:placing one’s faith in Jesus as Messiah was a brave thing to do for these Hebrew believers. When someone became a Christian for a start it often caused great division among Jewish families who ostracized their converted relatives – they refused to speak to them or have anything to do with them. They expelled them from their families, synagogues, and banned them from the rich festivals of the Jewish calendar. Some were beaten up, others imprisoned and probably some killed. It’s no wonder that many Hebrew Christians were dejected and were at risk of giving it all up. They recognised Jesus as the long-expected Messiah, but emotional fatigue was taking its toll. Needless to say, morale was low.
In this context the Book of Hebrews had its first impact, opening with this introduction: “In the past, God spoke through the prophets to our ancestors in many times and many ways. In these final days, though, he spoke to us through a Son” (Hebrews 1.1f) Here the writer exhorts Jewish-Christians who were weary & persecuted to remain faithful in worship to Christ, whose finished work is greater than any priest, covenant, or sacrifice.
The Book of Hebrews is full of inspirational quotes that illustrate this; for instance: “…let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another” (10.24-25); and “…since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us … let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (12.1).
As a preacher, the temptation is to talk about the wonderful things that God’s people did – the miracles, the good deeds, the success stories. But when do you hear about their failures? But they’re there! In Genesis 16, for instance, Abraham, the father of the faithful, is a failure. He had been promised a son, but rather than waiting for his elderly wife Sarah to fall pregnant, he chooses a more efficient & perhaps more attractive alternative by sleeping with their Egyptian maid Hagar, who gives birth to Ishmael. David, the one known as the great King David, sent an innocent man, Uriah, to certain death, for no other reason than that David fancied Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.
So my point is, if these heroes of the faith stumble & fall sometimes, we should not be surprised at our own failures? But afterwards, we get back up again. Faith – any faith – has its ups & downs & we really shouldn’t give up just because we’re going through a down-time. All God’s people did; all God’s people do.
But ironically, even though we consider ourselves “people of faith” we often yearn for a relationship with God that doesn’t demand much faith at all. As Philip Yancey writes in his book “Disappointment with God”: “We want proof, evidence, a personal appearance, so that the God we have heard about becomes the God we see.” But today’s Scripture says: faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Take a look at your own prayer life. When you’re faced with challenges, how often are you tempted to pray for clarity, specific direction, and proof and to grow disillusioned when you don’t get them? I must confess I sometimes want that proof, evidence, a clear event that will show that God’s at work. But that’s not faith; it’s just common sense; it comes from your very human nature. It takes no faith to believe something that’s obvious! & that’s the point of v1: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.Faith is believing without proof.
But even when the proof is there, it doesn’t make it better: after all, God didn’t play hide-and-seek with the Israelites; they had every proof of his existence you could ask for. But astonishingly — and as you read the stories in the OT of God’s dealings with his people, it’s difficult to believe it — God’s presence seemed to produce the very opposite of the desired effect. The Israelites responded not with worship and love, but with fear and open rebellion. God’s visible presence did nothing to improve lasting faith.
So that’s message No.1: faith isn’t about demanding proof or going off in a bad mood when we don’t get it; it’s about trusting through those dark days, when it doesn’t make sense, when we might even feel foolish to trust in God.
Philip Yancey puts it like this: “Faith means believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.” I like that.
The 2nd message I’d like us to gather from this passage is somewhat different; & it’s about where our home is. You see, these Hebrews were landless, stateless, like many Palestinians today. & the Hebrews’ search for a place to live was right at the heart of their life & their faith. & I want to suggest that it should also be ours; that we too should be asking ourselves: where do we truly belong?
The word translated strangers in v13 is the Greek word from which we derive the term xenophobia. It describes people who are in some way completely “different” from the majority group. The second term, translated “foreigners,” describes not just any kind of foreigners, but those who have taken up residence in another land — that is, refugees or aliens.
In other words, these faithful Jews listed in this passage were people who understood themselves to be on the margins — perhaps even beyond the margins — of their earthly homes. Their security was virtually nonexistent. Abraham had to negotiate with the Sons of Heth to get a place to bury Sarah (Genesis 23). While he may have done well for himself in the new land in which he dwelt, he never forgot his strangeness & otherness, the fact that he didn’t belong.
So what does this say to us today? Does it mean we should never buy a house, or feel at home? No, I don’t think so. The early Christians were indeed a poor and marginalised group, but as the Christian movement grew, Luke tells us about several key people of faith who did own their own houses, including such well known disciples as Simon Peter and Martha. In fact, it was in these homes and those of many others that the first Christians gathered to share their weekly meal (Acts 2:46-47).
Rather, the lesson that I hear in these verses is one of perspective. All of the faithful “considered” themselves to be strangers and foreigners. Perhaps not everyone in the genealogy of faith was, like Abraham, so literally set apart. But they, like the faithful who came after them, described in Acts 2 as opening up their homes and holding all things in common, understood that they didn’t really belong to the land in which they lived.
A good number of you have had this experience – either because you lived elsewhere, or because you’re not a native Sri Lankan here, so you know this feeling of not belonging.
& note this: Abraham not only lived as an alien in his new land, but he also chose not to return to his old land, because both homes paled in comparison to the hope that he had beyond both lands. The author of Hebrews describes all of these faithful as not returning to their homeland v15 because “they desired a better one”.
& that should be a guide for us. The hope for a homeland, the promise of a time and place when all people can rest with true safety and security in the world God has given, does not come by building bigger walls or – if we’re in the U.S. – buying bigger guns. Scripture tells us, rather, that it comes by acting in faith.
The author of Hebrews calls us to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before us, trusting the faithfulness of God, & not feeling totally at home… The more that we fit in with the world & enjoy the blessings of comfort & feeling important or powerful & respected; the more that we fit in like that, the more we increase the distance between God & ourselves. After all, Jesus prayed that his disciples would be in the world, but not of it. The childish gossip & personal criticisms that dog some churches is another side to this worldliness that we’re warned against. Perhaps many of us are just too comfortable, too much of the world, as well as in it.
To finish, I want to go back to my first point, about faith. The Stockdale Paradox was named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, who fought in the Vietnam War. Stockdale was asked how he was able to live through the horrible experience of being a prisoner of war under the Viet Cong. Other, seemingly younger and fitter men ended up dying in the prison. Stockdale noted that among the prisoners both the complete optimists & the complete pessimists had trouble surviving. It was the ones like himself who combined realism with a long view that finally made it out. & that’s the Stockdale Paradox – realism along with the long view.
You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties. AND at the same time… You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be. You must not hide your head in the sand.
If we think about the Stockdale Paradox – with the last part changed to the fact that God is going to prevail in the end, does that help?
I think it does. If I really believe that God will win out in the end, what does it mean for me today? Should it affect my thinking, or my actions? Should it change the decisions I make? Of course the answer is “Yes.”
& it’s the central truth of Hebrews 11. Most of us read it and think of it as a list of great deeds by great people & we kind of dismiss it, because we don’t see ourselves as great heroes of faith.
But the real point is this: all these people shared one important attribute — they all believed that God was going to prevail in the end & that conviction informed the decisions they made and the actions they took. They refused to hide their heads in the sand, but neither did they get disheartened when bad things happened, when it looked like God was far away. Learn the lesson from the Stockdale Paradox: God will win out in the end. Don’t minimise the problems you face, but keep that as an absolute constant: God will win out in the end. That’s faith; real faith.