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.
So begins this passage from Hebrews, one of my favorite books. I love Hebrews, through and through. Some people think it’s a letter. Some people think it’s actually a sermon. Nobody knows who wrote it. To me, it has some of the best explanations for the Christian faith found anywhere in scripture. And it certainly has some of the most inspiring and encouraging words.
In fact, I tried, but I can’t improve on it. I’ll admit up front that most of this sermon is just going to be me sharing these astounding words on the power of faith.
I want you to have strong faith. I want my own self to have a strong faith. Hebrews tells us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
What does that mean? Does it meant that God will answer your prayers and grant your wishes if your faith is strong enough? I hear that from time to time. I think that’s not very helpful. God isn’t a the Genie from Alladin, only granting wishes if you phrase it just right. And if someone is feeling distraught, I don’t think it’s a good idea to tell them that it’s their lack of faith that is preventing the outcome that they desire. The world doesn’t need more guilt.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith says: “I trust that the final chapter of the story is the thing that I hope for, and not the thing that I fear.” Faith says: “Even if I can’t see the good future now, I know it is coming, because God has promised it.” Faith says: “There is more to reality than I can see or understand, and this means the possibilities are beyond my expectations.” Faith says: “It is in your hands, O God our Creator. I trust in you.”
Hebrews reminds us that nearly every remarkable person in the Old Testament was remarkable why? Because of their great faith.
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.’
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 Moses left Egypt, unafraid of the king’s anger; for he persevered as though he saw him who is invisible.
By faith Moses 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.
All of them, guided, supported, strengthened by their faith, and sometimes by faith alone. A testimony of faith, all those many men and women who achieved greatness because of their trust in God, their assurance in things hoped for, their conviction of things not seen.
The story did not end with them, but continued with Mary and Joseph, with John the Baptist and Elizabeth and Zechariah, with the disciples who saw the Lord Jesus Christ but had faith that the kingdom was yet to be fulfilled. Their assurance and conviction faithed — let us try using faith as a verb — they faithed the church into existence with the help of the Holy Spirit.
And so on, down the centuries, millions upon millions of Christians sustaining the church through faith, and building up on the assurance of the beautiful hopes that all humanity has for justice and mercy and grace and peace.
Hebrews tells us that we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors in faith, and continue in their work:
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
By faith, what can you do? Let us run with perseverance. Let us walk with endurance. Let us dance with hope. Let us keep on moving, with this cloud of witnesses cheering us on.
Literally everything that was done by this cloud of witnesses, this communion of saints, was done in the power of faith, and through the power of faith, and with the power of faith. Faith, as we began, is the assurance of things hoped for, and we always hope that God is bringing the world towards perfection. We trust in that hope. We cling to that hope when we feel close to losing that hope. And when we slide into hopelessness and faith fails us, we rely so strongly on the cloud of witnesses to faith us back into hope, to carry us through the valley, and march on towards that good, good future that God has promised.
By faith, we continue on.