What is  Faith in Hebrews 11 ?

Pastor Jim Kniseley preached this sermon at Resurrection on August 11, 2013, the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.  The scripture text is Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16.


Dear Friends in Christ,


We have 3 wonderful scripture readings this Sunday.  But the one that I really want to preach on is the 11th chapter of Hebrews.  The question that leaps forth from this reading is this: what is this faith that is talked about as the most important thing in life to possess? 


Hebrews 11:1 has to be the best definition of faith ever given: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.


I think that any parent who pays for music lessons for their child has to have a large dose of faith.  Faith that your money isnŐt  being wasted and faith that your child will actually become a gifted musician.  Music lessons donŐt come with guarantees, do they?  No they donŐt.  In my case, the years of piano lessons and oboe lessons didnŐt result in being a performer.  But my love of classical music and my ability to sing enough to be in the church choir and know the church liturgy is enjoyable for me.  That is the end result of my parents faith and the fact that they never knew how their investment in my musical lessons would pan out.  I wonder if in heaven I can play the piano and the oboeÉ


So we turn to faith in Hebrews.   None of the folks listed in the pantheon of the faithful in Hebrews 11 ever knew or experienced their hoped-for promises on this earth.  In every instance the delivery of their promise came either in later generations or in heaven. 


I lift this fact up so that we will be in tune with what this scripture really says that is sobering.  Some churches today preach a message of success and prosperity in this life.  ŇYou are destined to succeed!  If you just have enough faith, God will provide money and position and prestige for you in this world!Ó  In Lutheran parlance, we would call this the theology of glory.  Each and every generation has to fight the temptation to adopt this kind of understanding for Christian life and the Church.   The theology of glory emphasizes:

á      religion which validates itself by worldly standards of success, strength and effectiveness

á      religion which promises certitude, life without questions or risk – a security often provided by an infallible leader or an infallible book

á      religion which avoids teaching that the crucifixion is both the sacrificial atoning act of Christ and the example of the way of life we are to follow


The flip side of the theology of glory is something that the Lutheran Confessions emphasize, the theology of the cross.  The theology of the cross is:

á      meeting God where he chooses to fund us – in our sorrow, our pain, our weakness

á      hearing GodŐs gracious word manifest in the death of Jesus on the cross

á      following Jesus in his death and resurrection


The preacher of Hebrews says that we Christians can look to this rather sizeable list of Old Testament characters listed in chapter 11 and learn something valuable about faith.  Our second reading today includes only the first part of chapter 11.  But if you  read the whole chapter for yourself, you will see lots of names  listed as people of faith.  HereŐs the kicker in the story of faith that is presented in Hebrews 11:  None of the persons talked about ever experienced the fulfillment of their promises themselves.  Can you imagine how hard that is?  Some of us here know about waiting and waiting for promises to be fulfilled.  Some of us here know about encountering challenges and disappointments and failures.  The message of the preacher in Hebrews is that they Old Testament folks  kept on trusting that God would keep his promises, perhaps in ways that they could not imagine.  The list includes:

Abraham and Sarah  and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and Enoch and  Gideon and Samson and David and Samuel and the prophets.


Certainly the outstanding example of faith presented is the story of Abraham and Sarah.  To the faithless, Abraham and Sarah were childless, homeless, wanders, people of no account and no future.  To the faithful, Abraham and Sarah were the first to covenant with God, always on the way to the promised land, and the parents of descendants Ňas many as the stars of heaven.Ó


Please note that the faith of Abraham was no a comfortable faith.  Faith didnŐt bring Sarah a life of rest and ease.  Faith gave this elderly, post menopausal woman an unlooked-for pregnancy.  Faith gave Sarah the opportunity to be pregnant and bear a child – at the age of 90 or so.  This was not a pretty faith, but it was a transforming faith.  One Bible commentators says that all the patriarchs were asked to trust God without much supporting evidence.  It was their courage and confidence of faith that prompts us to lift them up as our encouragement.


When you read chapter 11, you will come to the last verse and perhaps think that this is a disappointing ending to so such an heroic account, until we realize the use the preacher in Hebrews is making of his catalog of faithful people.  These giants of faith,  however great their achievement, did not received what was promised, not because God failed to keep his word, but because he willed that believers of all times should share in the joy and triumph of the new age inaugurated by the coming of Christ.  If faith could win such victories under conditions so difficult and unpromising in the old covenant, how much more will faith accomplish in the new age. We know much more about GodŐs unfolding promises.  We know about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  We have access to the means of GodŐs grace in baptism and holy communion and the preaching of the word and  the fellowship of the church.    We possess the gift of the  promised Holy Spirit. 


This day may you and I be granted deep and abiding faith in the Lord.




This day may God grant each and every one of us faith.  May that faith bear fruit hope in GodŐs future, as trust that God will fulfill his promises through us and in us.  Amen!