This might seem like an obvious point to make, but faith is an important word in the Bible. In Hebrews chapter 11 alone, the words “by faith” appear 22 times. So what is faith? The closest we get in the Bible to a definition of faith is here in Hebrews 11:1. The New International Version translation reads, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” The King James Version says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Literally the Greek of Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the reality of things being hoped for, the proof of things not being seen.” This is an often quoted and usually well-known passage. In our search for understanding and our desire for definitions this can be a useful phrase. It offers us a clue to the mystery of faith.
In a Bible study written by scholar Roger Hahn he calls Hebrews “a study in pastoral care for a church under pressure. It is the rich literary and theological testimony of an author who has found Christ to be the fulfillment of all the hopes of the Old Testament. Hebrews leads a pilgrim people down the path of faithfulness and confident trust.” It is believed that the book of Hebrews is a letter written to Jewish Christians in Rome who were facing persecution under Nero. Under such circumstances it would have been a very tempting thought to downplay their commitment to Christ. If they were only seen as Jews and not as Jewish Christians, they would be safe from persecution. Hebrews may have been the writer’s effort at persuading the community of believers not to let this happen. The people would have needed hope and encouragement to grow in faith during trying times.
We fortunately do not find ourselves in the same situations as those early Christians, but this letter is still meaningful and moving today. Roger Hahn puts forth the concept of a pilgrim people. In our lives we are challenged to understand our own spiritual experiences in terms of a pilgrimage or journey. In modern experience we could say faith is like a road trip. When you’re on a road trip you’re faced with hard times and easy times. Sometimes you have car trouble and no cell phone reception to call triple A and sometimes it is smooth sailing. If we think of faith as a road trip we remember that the speed bumps and the open highways are all part of what it takes to get us to our destination. The trip wouldn’t be quite as interesting without the adventures. I’ll be the first to admit that there are moments when the obstacles I face in my path don’t seem like an exciting adventure. They just make me afraid of moving forward. I can get overwhelmed by uncertainty, and I need to hear the hope in the message of Hebrews. I would guess that you do too. We are tempted to believe that faith is easy when life is easy and faith is hard when life is hard.
The author of Hebrews declares that faith is the way of knowing and living that is based on the confident assurance that God is the one who has ordered all of creation and history. Creation and history is what is seen. But that visible world and the visible history of the world all came into being from things that are not visible. You know the saying, “Seeing is believing.” Well Hebrews is telling us that faith is the opposite. Believing is knowing when you cannot see.
I’ve found that in my search to understand and articulate what faith is, it gets too complicated sometimes. I’m reminded that it can be better to simplify. When I think of simple ways to talk about faith, I think of children; I am a youth minister after all. A particular experience that comes to mind is preparing the children’s message for worship. One of my favorite children’s messages involves a helium balloon. The kids are asked what makes the balloon float and pull towards the ceiling. The older ones smartly shout out, helium. Then I would ask, how do you know there is helium in the balloon? That usually stumped the kids a little bit. As they’re thinking of their answer you follow up by asking, can you see the helium? The kids would all agree that no, you can’t see helium so that was not the answer. You know there is helium because that is what you have learned and, even though you can’t see it, you believe it. I’m sure you can see where this is going. We can make the connection between believing in God but not necessarily being able to see God. Believing in the unseen.
In college I took a class called physics for poets. We studied light and human sight. I was fascinated, realizing that because of the physical construction of the human eye, we can only see a certain range of reflected light. If our eyes were different, the whole world would look different. Let’s be superman for a moment and have x-ray vision. If we could see different light, have special powers, see through things, what would the world be like? Would it feel the same to you or would life be totally different? What if we could see all the sound waves traveling around us? They’re there but we’re not aware of them because we don’t see them. It doesn’t make them any less real. The world is not only what we think it is. It’s easier to believe only in what we can see but if we limit our understanding like that, then the picture is incomplete.
I recently learned about an animal called the African impala. It can jump to a height of over 10 feet and cover a distance of greater than 30 feet. The sad fact is that these amazing creatures can be kept in an enclosure in any zoo with a 3-foot wall. The animals will not jump if they cannot see where their feet will land. Faith is the ability to trust what we cannot see, and with faith we are freed from the flimsy enclosures of life that only fear and our own misperception allow to entrap us. Are you living as an impala?
So think with me about a different level of how you might experience faith on a daily basis. How does faith affect your life? You could say that something like driving is an act of faith. You get in the car and drive on faith. You don’ know if you’re going to make it to your destination without any problems, but you go. You have faith that the food you buy that is grown by strangers is not harmful, so you eat it. If you did not have faith, if you did not trust others you wouldn’t be able to drive or eat. Your life would be very difficult.
Driving and eating don’t seem like that big a deal in comparison to many of the things that people in the Bible were asked to do by faith. In Hebrews 11 it talks about the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Rehab. We understand that the universe was formed; people offered sacrifices; humanity was saved; people left their lands and moved; blessings were given; people were freed; storms were calmed; death was escaped; walls fell and seas were parted, all by faith. If you were making this list for yourself, for your own life, what are your stories of an awareness of God breaking in and transforming you? Maybe our stories are not quite as dramatic but it is by faith that we have all made it this far.
In the reading from Genesis we learned that Abraham did not know where he was going, but that did not stop him. Abraham was not a spiritual superman. He simply trusted God. The faith that we learn about from the Bible calls us to trust God enough to try to live as we hope God wants us to. The original readers of Hebrews were called to trust God enough to stay committed to Christ in the face of persecution. We are called to trust God enough not to compromise or abandon our commitment either. In our world we are accustomed to quick service and, as my dad would say, instant gratification isn’t fast enough. In a land of fast food and fast cars we have a hard time understanding the kind of patient faith being described here. Authentic trust in God does not require God to meet our timetables.
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and the generations born in Egypt never saw God’s promises to them fulfilled, but that didn’t mean that they stopped hoping and believing. Our human temptation to want fulfillment rather than promises is strong. We want results. Waiting too long is a sign that something is not going right, and our whole schedule will be thrown off. God calls God’s children to live in the promises. We wait in the here and now, not the perfection of the heavenly hereafter.
I have shared this with members of the congregation already , but I am reminded of the recent mission trip to Costa Rica in June with our high school students. When we arrived and joined the community for worship, they kept thanking God for fulfilling God’s promise to them by bringing us there. At the end of the trip that experience was still deeply affecting the youth. One of them got up and said that back home in the U.S. it was hard to have the same sense of prayer and faithful waiting because it is so easy to get what we want. Hearing the Costa Ricans story of praying, waiting and having faith that God would meet their needs was a powerful experience for us. Growing up I always had more than enough and I usually did not have to wait long to get it. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized what an impatient person I am. But luckily God is patient and I am learning to grow into faith that waits for God, hopes and doubts, sees and does not see. Over time I’ve seen that in life what seems so obvious and inevitable does not always happen. More often what seems so impossible and unexpected happens. Scholar Roger Hahn writes that “One of the great tragedies of our lives is how rarely we will trust God enough to leave him room to bring the impossible and unexpected into our lives. When we refuse to trust God, we condemn ourselves to the obvious and inevitable. We choose the limits of human imagination rather than the horizons of God’s vision.”
As I was preparing for this sermon I discovered for the first time the writings of Frederick Buechner. The quote that stuck out the most for me is this. He writes that “Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a procession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you’re going but going anyway…Faith is homesickness. Faith is a lump in the throat. Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting”
I want to tell you one last story. During the terrible days of the Blitz, a father, holding his small son by the hand, ran from a building that had been struck by a bomb. In the front yard was a shell hole. Seeking shelter as quickly as possible, the father jumped into the hole and held up his arms for his son to follow. Terrified, yet hearing his father’s voice telling him to jump, the boy replied, “I can’t see you!” The father, looking up against the sky tinted red by the burning buildings, called to the silhouette of his son, “But I can see you. That’s all that matters. Jump!” The boy waited, scared of jumping and calling out to his father who he could not see. Finally the boy jumped.
Like this story, Christian faith is not about what we can see, but the certainty that we are seen; not that we know all the answers, but that we are known. Buechner wrote “faith is waiting.” Having faith does take patience. Having faith does not mean instant gratification. It goes beyond that. As faithful people we are waiters. We live on the edge. Believing we will be caught, not knowing for sure, not seeing clearly but fearing and hoping. As Buechner said, faith is both belief and doubt. It is living in the tension. That is part of what keeps life interesting. If we put ourselves in the story, if we find ourselves standing at the crevasses of life, we find ourselves in circumstances where finally we don’t have a choice whether we fully believe or not, we have to leap, trusting that even though we cannot see, God’s vision will save us when we fall into God’s love for us. We fall and we are always caught by God’s love, by God’s grace that carries us through the darkness into the light, through the strange lands of life and brings us all home to the peace that surpasses all understanding. Amen. .