“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)
The author of the Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance for things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
That is a different definition than what we are told Faith is. We have been told that faith is subscribing to A particular doctrine without questioning it, inheriting A particular tradition without conversation with others and belonging to A particular fellowship without exploring other contexts (even our own). For example, I would say, “I am a Trinitarian Christian of the Lutheran tradition at St. Paul’s Church.” How about you?
While those things might be interesting facts to some and nice information to know for others – these particulars don’t seem to be what the author of Hebrews is talking about. It’s not subscription, identity, or membership. Faith is not a list of facts or measures or unquestioned assertions.
Rather, faith is “assurance” and “conviction” of things that cannot be proven by fact. Faith is lived through stories and relationships. Faith is expectation in where the story is going. Faith is trust in what has been promised and by who has done the promising. Faith is waiting earnestly for the fulfillment of that promised future.
The rest of chapter 11 of Hebrews gives us a recap of salvation history – from Abel to Noah to Abraham to Isaac to Joseph to Moses to David and those beyond. With one quick brush stroke Hebrews summarizes what we call the Old Testament – “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God has provided something better…” (Hebrews 11:39-40a).
What is that something? Who is that someone? Jesus. The one we are waiting for to come. The pioneer and perfector of our faith. Who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross…for you and me!… disregarding of shame, and is taking his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)
What we do in Advent, is wait with the great cloud of witnesses. We wait with the likes of Eve, Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Miriam, Rahab, Deborah, Ruth, Esther, Elizabeth and Mary. We wait with loved ones who have joined the company of all the saints in light. We wait alone in prayer and in communion with one another in companionship. We hold on earnestly and remind one another of the fulfillment of God’s promises around us to come.
Faith expects. Faith holds on. Faith stands strong. Even if all the evidence seems contrary – we believe that if we can hold on with all our strength, God’s reign will come. (If we are honest we know that strength is not our own.)
On Tuesday I went for a walk. At Knollwood Beach here in Old Saybrook someone had tethered a Christmas tree out on a pier. It was a calm day, but it isn’t always like that. Just a week ago the wind was violent and the tide was higher than I had ever seen it before.
There it stood out in the open: against the wind; against the weather; against the unknown; against the tide – that tree stood defiantly. Will it hold when the wind returns? I have no idea, but faith defies the wind that threatens, and faith stands strong against the waves and storm that is coming. Faith is the tether that keeps us standing in defiance of the odds.
Faith is looking out the window, staring into the darkness of night, knowing the coldness of the winter air, longing for the light and the warmth to return, yet stepping outside and defiantly saying, “soon.”
Faith is hearing the diagnosis, living with estrangement, carrying guilt, witnessing death, losing everything, yet turning to God and holding on to that notion that one day all will be restored and defiantly saying, “soon.”
Faith is living in our world with all its a misguided priorities, its busyness, its distractions, its lies, its conflicts, its divisions, yet asking questions, once again seek the manger, and defiantly saying, “soon.”
Hold on. The tether of faith has you. Stand strong. God’s reign is coming.
Let us defiantly say together… “Soon.”
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By 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.
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and ‘he was not found, because God had taken him.’ For it was attested before he was taken away that ‘he had pleased God.’ And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. 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.
By 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. By 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. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By 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. Therefore 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.’
All 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, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But 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.
By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.’He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. By faith Isaac invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, ‘bowing in worship over the top of his staff.’ By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions about his burial.
By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, unafraid of the king’s anger; for he persevered as thoughhe saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient,because she had received the spies in peace.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.
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. (Hebrews 11:1-12:2)