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Genesis 15:1-2, 5-8
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
A few nights ago, just before heading to bed, I took Scout (my dog) outside to do her business. And while we were enjoying in the cool evening air, I looked up.
Up at the sky. Looking up into the clear, moonless sky, I could just make out the Milky Way. I saw planets glowing brightly and countless stars twinkling from many light-years away. Looking up, I was reminded of the incomprehensible vastness of the universe—and what a small and seemingly insignificant part of it I am. I could have stood there all night gazing up in wonder and awe.
And then I remembered our lesson from the 15th chapter of Genesis, where God appears to Abram in a vision and tells him to go outside and try—just try—to count the stars. Then, just as Abram is realizing that he doesn’t know that many numbers, God says, “This is how big your family will be. You’re going to have too many descendants to count.”
Now you may have a hard time believing that God and some old, childless guy stood around in the middle of the night singing “When You Wish Upon a Star.” I get that. But what’s even more amazing to me is the old man’s response to this promise about stars and offspring: The story says he believed God.
The unidentified writer of the letter of the Hebrews is saying this is what it means to have faith—that is to trust God: to live in the certainty of God’s love, forgiveness, healing, and abundance despite all the evidence. Despite the lack of evidence.
To have faith is to trust God for all that we can’t see or know, to open our hearts to the promise of what is unseen, unlikely, and even unimaginable, to live as if we believe that God is with us in everything—backing us up, holding us together, and carrying us through. To have faith is to let go and trust God with all that we can’t control, believing that, in ways that we can’t predict or pretend to understand, the Spirit force of life and holy power is working in and through our lives—not only for our good but for the good of the all creation and future generations.
To have faith is to live by the Spirit, trusting God for the results. To live faithfully is to continue to hope, to continue to love, to continue to follow Jesus even when we can’t see any results, and when what we can see is not encouraging.
The writer of Hebrews is giving a pep talk, alright, as well as a litany of some of the heroes of ancient Israel. But what he’s praising is not human strength, not individual strength and independence,but the divine-human dance, what is possible when humans trust God for what they cannot see.
In naming some of those who ensured Israel’s survival, the writer mentions Abel and Enoch, Noah and Moses, Gideon, Samuel, and David—and even Rahab, a non-Jewish prostitute. But it’s Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of the Israelites, who come in for the greatest praise.
By faith they left everything and almost everyone they knew to go where God told them to go, even though they had no idea where that was. By faith they wandered around in that land. By faith, even though they were way, way, way too old to have children, they had a son—just as God had promised. All of these people lived and died and became great by faith, the writer says, even though they never received all God had promised them.
Because faith, he says, is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Or as the late great William Sloan Coffin said, faith involves a certain amount of what looks to all the world like recklessness. “First you leap and then you grow wings.”
Well, bumper-sticker sayings are great, and lists of heroes are nice, but the Christians of the early church, the ones hearing and reading the message to the Hebrews, were being persecuted. They were suffering precisely because they had trusted Christ and had committed themselves to following the way of Jesus rather than the powers of the Roman Empire.
They are being beaten and thrown in prison, and the writer of the Hebrews is telling them to just go out and have faith. Really? they might have said.
And who could blame them? Isn’t that what most of us think?
When you are struggling, when you are weighed down by discouragement and grief, wouldn’t you—to put it mildly—be a little less than satisfied if I told you to just buck up and have faith? Wouldn’t you wonder what that even meant?
I would. I would want to know what it means to trust God, how to put my hope in something outside of myself, how to know when to keep praying for what I want and when to trust that God may have something even better in mind for me. I would want to learn how to take the long view, and how to remember that it’s not all about me.
There are no easy answers, of course. But we have the life of Jesus and the stories of people much more like us. People who doubted, people who resisted, people who argued with God and made bad choices—the same way we do.
But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from writer of Hebrews.
To hear him tell the story, you’d never know how scared Abraham was (so scared that one time he even bargained away his wife). You’d never know that Sarah laughed out loud at God. And you might forget all the times God promised Abraham abundantly far more than he could ask or imagine, and Abraham said, “But, but, but . . . How am I to know?
Well, thank God for the Hebrew Bible’s fuller account. There we see that God had been making grand promises to Abram and Sarai for many years. God had been telling them they would become a great nation. God had promised them they would possess all the land they could see. God had said their offspring would be as plentiful as the dust of the earth. For years God had been saying this, through many trials and tribulations.
So by the time God appears to Abram in a vision and talks to him about the stars, Abram has had enough of promises.
“Oh, yeah?” he says to God. “What about all those descendants you promised us? You haven’t given us even one!”
If Abram-turned-Abraham is the paragon of what it means to live by faith, it seems that faith leaves room for doubt. And if we follow Abraham’s example, it seems that faith can argue with God.
Apparently, as long as we keep hanging on and hanging in and putting our hopes in the goodness of this mystery who is God, we, too, are faithful—we who wrestle with angels and yell at God, we who shake our fists at life’s injustices and wonder where God is when another unarmed black person is killed by police, when a beloved place of refuge is damaged by fire, when a loved one suffers, when we keep waiting and waiting and waiting for an answer to our prayers.
I don’t think doubt or resistance are opposites of faith; I think fear and stubborn self-reliance are.
Faith is defined not by what we believe, but by how we live and whom we trust. True faith is based not on results but on the reliability of the One who loves us with a fierce and steadfast love.
Faithful people are not the ones who have all the answers or the ones who always seem to be at peace. Faithful people are the ones who keep their hearts and minds open, who keep asking questions—listening for God’s voice and watching for God’s Spirit.
People of faith do not necessarily have their act together, but they keep plugging away, trusting that God has their back, following their call, setting out for unknown places.
The faithful person keeps working against climate change despite all the damage that’s already been done. The faithful person continues to march and pray for peace in the face of new acts of terror and doubled-down policies of war. The faithful person keeps redefining justice and working harder for it. The faithful person prays for enemies as well as neighbors. The faithful person is constantly seeking to understand how and where to widen the welcome, and what it means to be kind.
Theirs is the time-tested, hearts-wide-open faith whose prayers are laced with the pain and longing. Theirs is the determined faith that says, “Yes, we can—with God’s help.” Theirs is the mature faith that grows from disappointment and brokenheartedness; the tear-stained faith that can still say “God is good’; the leaping faith that leaves homes and jobs and relationships and certainty to go to college or pursue a vocation, to walk more closely with God and discover more fully the abundance of life.
This faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.
No, Sarah and Abraham never saw descendants as numerous as the stars—but they were okay with that. Once they had laid eyes on Isaac, their miracle of a child, they didn’t need to see anyone or anything else. Their faith was sure; their God was true.
So, my friends, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the fear that clings so closely. Let us be stubborn in hope and bold in faith. Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Let us not grow weary or lose heart because, even now, God is working within us and through us to accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine.