Sunday, August 15, 2010

Where (faithful) fools rush in

Hebrews 11:29–12:2

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Christian writers and scholars . . . spill a lot of ink,
and preachers use up a lot of air,
trying their very best to come up with the one
good, final, authoritative definition . . . of faith.
I’ve tried to do it myself, from this pulpit.
And the writer of Hebrews tried to do it,
at the beginning of chapter 11.
We heard that part of the chapter last Sunday:
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.”

Choosing the right words to define faith,
is well and good.
It helps us think more clearly about something,
when we wrestle with language to describe it.

But in the final analysis—
and the writer of Hebrews obviously knew this—
definitions can only take us so far.
We need stories.
We need real-life examples of faith.
Where we can see what faith looks like in the real world,
when it runs up against opposition,
when it’s put to the test,
when it’s . . . tried.

So the whole of chapter 11 in Hebrews,
is a catalogue of stories of the faithful.
Over and over the writer says,
“By faith . . . by faith, so-and-so did such-and-such.”
By faith, Abel gave an offering that pleased God . . .
by faith, Noah built an ark,
by faith, Abraham obeyed God
and set out for a place not knowing where he was going,
by faith, Abraham and Sarah gave birth in their old age,
by faith, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses,
the whole people of Israel,
Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah,
David, and Samuel and the prophets . . .
all did things significant for God’s purposes.
Their stories are only briefly told,
sometimes only mentioned, with a one-line summary.
The original readers would have known the whole story,
and just by hearing the names
their stories would have come to mind,
and they would have gotten a clear picture,
of the nature and character of faith.

But we, I suppose, need more prompting.
I need more prompting.
I needed to study a bit to discover
what we really had to learn about faith,
from the experience of Barak, Jephthah, Gideon, and the rest.
You can do your own reflection on these stories,
and learn what you need to learn.
But let me tell you what I think I learned from these stories.

And let me just say,
I think reflecting on stories is a trustworthy way
to discover biblical truth.
Truth doesn’t only come in declarative, definitive statements.
It is uncovered in story.
The biblical writer tells us that all these persons
did all these things mentioned . . . by faith.
So . . . if we can find any common threads in these stories,
those threads probably tell us something trustworthy
about what faith looks like, and what faith does.

So I’m going to go back to the beginning of this chapter 11 in Hebrews,
even though we looked at some of it last Sunday.
And you might find it helpful to follow along.

From the first several verses of the chapter
we get the idea that faith is what enables God’s people
to act in ways that meet with God’s . . . approval.
The result of our faith-acts
is that God says, “Yes!”
Perhaps that is the most important result of our faith.
God says, “Yes! Yes, my child.
You are living the way I intend you to live.
You are living right.”
That’s what is meant when it says in v. 2,
“by faith our ancestors received approval.”
The writer says in v. 4 that Abel, son of Adam and Eve,
offered to God a good sacrifice,
and thus, “he received approval as righteous.”

Abel, in the biblical story,
comes long before God revealed himself as Yahweh,
long before any religious system of sacrifice was established.
But as the story is told,
Abel—in this primitive survival economy,
where if you weren’t successful in the hunt,
or successful raising your meat or grain,
you would go hungry—
Abel chooses to relinquish, that is, sacrifice,
some of the best and fattest of his flock
as an act of worship,
to a God he really didn’t know.
And God said, “Yes!”

And in v. 5,
“By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death.”
We really don’t know any more details about Enoch than this.
Genesis 5 says, “Enoch walked with God, and then was no more.”
The implication here was that Enoch, by the way he lived,
pleased God so much,
that God said, “Yes!” And spared him the pain of death.

And in v. 7,
“By faith, Noah respected God’s warning and built an ark.”
Despite the ridiculousness of his project,
and the scorn he suffered from others,
Noah obeyed.
And God said, “Yes!”
I approve! You are an heir to righteousness.

And in v. 8, the writer takes 12 whole verses
to summarize the story of Abraham.
He was called to a place, but didn’t know where he was going.
He lived in tents for decades, waiting for God’s next move (v. 9).
He and Sarah accepted the promise of a son in their old age (v. 11).
By faith, he later was willing to sacrifice this only son,
because God directed him (v. 17).
He died before the fruit of all God’s promises were seen.
But throughout his life,
he obeyed God’s call, he took God’s direction,
he accepted God’s demands,
even at great personal sacrifice,
even when the end was not in view.
And God said, “Yes . . . yes . . . and yes!”
I approve. You are living right.

In v. 20, even though Isaac was old and his eyesight had failed,
still saw clearly with the eyes of faith to perceive God’s vision,
and “By faith, Isaac invoked blessings for the future
on Jacob and Esau.”
and God said, “Yes.”

Similarly, in v. 21, Jacob, even though he was dying,
“By faith . . . blessed each of the sons of Joseph.”
And God said, “Yes.”

V. 22, By faith, Joseph was forward-looking enough,
before he died, saw the horizons of God’s future in the Exodus,
and asked that his bones be carried into the land of promise.
And God said, “Yes.”

V. 23ff, By faith, Moses’ parents, and later Moses himself,
believed God had something better in store for their people,
than continued child-killing and slavery,
and refused to become Egyptian-ized.
And God said, “Yes.”

V. 29, By faith, the whole people of Israel,
although they had only recently
become acquainted with this God Yahweh, through Moses,
were willing to walk through the Red Sea at God’s command.
And God said, “Yes,” parting the sea and getting them safely across.

V. 30, By faith, the people marched around a large fortified city, Jericho,
seven times, blowing trumpets and looking silly.
And God said, “Yes,” causing the walls to fall
and the city to be defeated.

V. 31, By faith, Rahab the prostitute
received the Hebrew spies in peace, and helped them escape,
at great risk to her own life,
and to Rahab the prostitute,
God said, “Yes!” and spared her life.

And then there’s the six names in v. 32.
Names only, no mention of what they did.
But from other scriptures, we learn that,
by faith, Gideon gained victory over Midian
with an utterly small army,
equipped with trumpets and torches . . .
by faith, Barak also gained an unlikely victory,
with the counsel of the prophetess, Deborah . . .
by faith, Samson, even at his most vulnerable hour,
was given superhuman strength to defeat the enemies
of God’s people . . .
by faith, Jephthah, the son of a prostitute,
kicked out of his house by his half-brothers,
fled and lived as an outlaw,
then was invited back by the elders
to lead a rout of the army attacking Israel,
and he had sufficient faith to listen to God’s call . . .
and by faith King David . . . where can we even start?
so many stories of David acting by faith,
beginning with his faithful work as a shepherd boy,
and on to confronting the giant Goliath with a slingshot,
to leading the nation as a king . . .
and by faith Samuel the prophet,
listened to God’s call in the night,
in the home of his caretaker Eli,
and worked for justice for his people in the face of great odds,
and by faith the other un-named prophets
did all sorts of unlikely and seemingly foolish things
because God directed them to,
and to each of these, God said, “Yes!”
“I approve of your act of faith.”
_____________________

Now, that’s quite a list I just went over.
It doesn’t take a lot of digging to realize
that this is a hall of fame for people who acted in faith.
It is not a hall of fame for holy people.
In this list is a prostitute,
an outlaw son of a prostitute,
who also ended up killing his own daughter
because of a foolish vow he made,
a king who murdered the husband of a beautiful woman,
because he lusted after her,
a strong man who forsook his vows to please his lover.
And this isn’t even getting into the issue
that the outcome of their acts of faith often resulted
in whole armies and towns being wiped off the map.
Holy? Unblemished? Worthy examples of Christian ethics?
No.

It would take a whole sermon—maybe a sermon series—
to unpack all the issues raised by these unholy lives.
This is not God’s endorsement of modern warfare,
any more than it’s God’s endorsement of prostitution
and murder and family homicide.

So what is the common thread
that ties these people together as persons who exhibited faith,
and to whom God gave a resounding “Yes.”
They were all, by faith,
fools who rushed in where angels feared to tread.

All of them were being called,
either directly, by the voice of God,
or through a prophet or prophetess of God,
to undertake some particular act that advanced the purposes of God,
and to do so even though it appeared at best, foolish,
at worst, suicidal.
But certainly dangerous, and highly unlikely to succeed.
And they were all acts that did nothing
to advance their own individual interests or agenda.
In most cases, in fact, they were setting aside their plans and agenda,
to undertake this dangerous work for the purposes of God,
and to act in the interest of God’s people.

What fool would relinquish the fattest of his flock
to make an offering to an unknown God?
Only a faithful fool.
What fool would build a huge boat on dry land
without a body of water in sight,
just on the basis of a divine weather forecast?
What fool would pull up his tent stakes
and leave his whole family and clan and head off into the desert
without even a map?
What fool would give up a life of ease and riches in a Pharaoh’s palace,
and voluntarily join forces with a people in slavery?
What fools would march around a fortified city seven times
blowing trumpets, and . . . well, making fools of themselves?
What fool would take on a vast army with 300 unarmed men?
What fool would risk her life and livelihood,
to give safe shelter to foreigners she never met before?
. . .
What fools would leave secure jobs and careers and families
in the wealthiest country on the earth,
and head off to Afghanistan for weeks, or years . . .
and give medical aid to those with eye problems,
and live in the harshest conditions,
risking kidnapping and murder?
Only faithful fools.
The fools who rush in where angels fear to tread.

What fools would stand up to both religious and civil authorities,
and be the kind of church they believed God wanted them to be,
even if it meant being burned at the stake, drowned, or beheaded?
What fool would shed themselves of all their earthly possessions
and go live in Christian community among the poor,
such as with lepers in Calcutta?
What fool would voluntarily choose not to live in a safe neighborhood,
but choose to live in a blighted neighborhood
in inner-city Baltimore?
What fool would quit a high-paying job
because they can no longer look the other way
when their company is conducting business
that enables people to kill and maim others in warfare?
or treats people unjustly?
or makes worse the plight of the poor?
What fool would give up even a simple pleasure,
or convenience,
or a few dollars,
because doing so, is an act of creation care?
What fool, in today’s world,
makes any personal sacrifice for the sake of God’s purposes?
What fool puts the cause of God’s kingdom above self-interest?
Only a faithful fool.
A fool who rushes in . . . just because God calls.

That’s faith.
That’s what faith does.

Faith is far more than being able to recite the proper creed,
although words are certainly important.
Faith is far more than having a perfect ethical track record,
although living lives that are holy
is an important part of God’s call.
Faith is more.

Faith is saying “yes” to God,
when doing so makes little sense in the immediate,
when it entails some personal risk or sacrifice,
when it invites ridicule,
when there is no guaranteed outcome,
and yet, it is clearly an act that contributes
to the purposes of God in this broken world.

Whether we are hearing God correctly, of course,
is a matter to be discerned within our faith community,
guided by the Spirit and the Scriptures.
But when that call is adequately discerned,
Faith is responding, by our actions, in trust to God’s call.

And when we do,
we will hear a voice coming from heaven,
and echoing around the earth.
And that voice will be saying,
“Yes!”
“That’s my child. I approve.”

It doesn’t mean we will be hailed as heros in this life.
It doesn’t even mean we will live to see the outcome.
Just read again vv. 35-38 of Hebrews 11.
Some of these heros, it says,
were tortured, mocked, flogged, and imprisoned,
stoned, sawn in two, killed by the sword . . .
they went about in skins of sheep and goats,
destitute, persecuted, tormented . . .
they wandered in deserts and mountains,
and in caves and holes in the ground.
But . . . it tells the readers . . . of them the world was not worthy.

That’s how I like to think of those Christian aid workers
in Afghanistan,
who, by faith, were serving God’s purposes,
at their personal and individual peril.
They were deemed, by their attackers,
not to be worthy to live in this world.
But Hebrews says, in fact,
the world was not worthy of them.
May God give peace to their families.
And may God give us the courage to live our lives
by such faith.
And God will certainly say, “Yes!”

—Phil Kniss, August 15, 2010

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