August 8, 2010

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12

The eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews begins with a definition of faith: The King James Bible translates it this way: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The New International Version says, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase “The Message” puts it like this: “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.”

At our church membership class two weeks ago, I asked those present to think about what it might mean to be a person of faith. I asked them to think about what the characteristics of a person of faith might be… and these were some of the answers: hope, trust, generosity, kindness, commitment, steadfastness, humility, patience, joy.

But before I asked them to define faith, I invited them to think of a person they know whom they think of as a person of faith. Maybe someone in their life today, maybe someone they once knew, maybe someone they don’t even know personally, but who serves as an example of faith for them.

That’s what the author of Hebrews does as she tries to explain to the Christians of her day what it means to live in faith and trust in God. She begins with a brief definition: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But she swiftly goes on to start giving examples of people who had faith in God… people that her readers might learn from or emulate.

She begins with Abraham… the earliest story we have of a person – of a family – who lived in relationship with the One God of the universe. Abraham heard God speaking to him and sending him out on an amazing journey. God made three promises to Abraham… that he would be blessed and become a blessing to others, that he would have a good land to live on, and that he would have many many descendants.

The promises must have seemed outrageous! Abraham and Sarah were old by now, and not likely to have any kids at this point. And with all the challenges of living in tents and not knowing where they were going, most people would have given up and turned around… gone back to the familiar and the comfortable.

But as the book of Hebrews says, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out… By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land… By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old… 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.” Even though it seemed unlikely that things would work out, Abraham trusted God enough to stay on the course… to follow the way that God was marking out for him.

In a variety of gatherings over the last couple of weeks, I have asked several people to tell me about a person that they consider to be a person of faith.

I heard about a mother who brought her children to church as often as the road from the farm to the village church was passable. She showed them how important it was to worship and learn about God in Christian community.

I heard about a neighbour who was an example of faith through the illness and death of her husband. She showed her friend that God’s Spirit could bring courage and hope in the midst of the most difficult circumstances.

I heard about a father-in-law who opened his home to those who were hungry for food and company every Sunday for the evening meal. He demonstrated faithfulness as he welcomed, and accepted the lost and lonely into his home.

I heard about a teacher who paid special attention to those students who might otherwise get left behind. His faithfulness was shown in the time and attention he gave, and it made a real difference in those students’ lives.

Many of the people of faith that were mentioned were ones who demonstrated their faith through regular church attendance, bible study, and prayer. In a time when most people’s lives have become extremely busy, and when church attendance and participation in church programs is steadily declining, being pushed off the agenda by so many other priorities, the people who keep coming to church every Sunday and who keep finding time in their schedules for spiritual practices stand out as particularly faithful… particularly committed.

But in the stories I heard, faith meant more than just coming to church or bringing your kids to church. It was more about how these people lived out their faith in their daily lives… in their families, their communities, and their work places.

Our text from Isaiah this morning makes it clear that God desires much more than our commitment to worship. God says, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?… I have had enough of burnt offerings… Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me… When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”

It’s a harsh text full of hard words from God, and it makes you wonder if the people are not worshipping God correctly, if they are bringing the wrong offerings or saying the wrong prayers. But it soon becomes clear that there’s nothing wrong with their worship. What is wrong is the way that they live their lives. And that makes their religious festivals into lies. They’re just putting on a show for God. It isn’t real.

God continues, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” In other words, make your lives match up with your worship, make your actions match up with your words.

We need to come to church to learn about God, to listen together for how God is leading us, to receive forgiveness and encouragement and hope… And then we need to go out into the world to do our best to follow the way of Jesus. If we trust God that the kingdom is coming… If we trust God that we can be a part of making it a reality… If we trust God that the Spirit is with us and in us, around us and between us… then we will be living out our faith in our daily lives.

Becoming people of faith is a journey. Just as Abraham and Sarah laughed at the prospect of having children so late in life, it takes most of us some time to grow in faith and to trust God to be our guide and our helper through all that life throws at us. And that’s one reason why I think it’s helpful to keep on looking to the examples of faith and trust in God that surround us.

I invite you to reflect on the people of faith who have made a difference in your life. Who would you name as a person of faith whose example you would want to follow? How has that person’s faith encouraged, challenged, or directed you in your life? I will be gathering some stories this week… so if you want to share a story, please write it down or tell it to me. I hope to be able to share a few of these stories next Sunday… so speak to me today or give me a call or send me an email this week.

When I was up at Camp Christopher a few weeks ago, I asked a similar question of the campers and counsellors. We had been exploring the theme of being a hero for God all week. Each day we studied a bible story and encountered one or more biblical characters who became heroes for God.

First there was the little boy who shared his lunch. He only had five loaves and two fish, but he heroically offered them up, and Jesus turned them into a feast for thousands.

Then there was King Saul’s son Jonathan. Even though it put him in danger from his father, he was a faithful friend to David. He stood up for what was right and protected his friend from being killed.

We also met a poor widow. She didn’t have much to offer, and no one would have predicted that she would become a hero. But when she gave two small copper coins to help those who needed it more than she did, she gave so much more than the rich folk for whom larger offerings were easier to make.

And there was Peter who paid attention to how God was leading him to change. Though Cornelius and his family were Gentiles, Peter learned that the good news about Jesus was for them too, and he went and shared the Gospel with them.

The final story of the week was not so much a story as a short piece from one of Paul’s letters. Paul was writing to his friend and colleague, Timothy. Timothy was a young Christian who was learning from Paul about sharing the Gospel and building new churches wherever people were coming to faith.

Paul begins his letter by telling Timothy that he is thanking God for Timothy and for his gift of faith. Paul obviously misses Timothy and their friendship, but he is grateful to God because Timothy is continuing the work that Paul began. Now that Paul is in prison, he depends very heavily on people like Timothy to carry on despite the obvious personal risks involved in the work.

He writes, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” Like so many of us, I imagine that Timothy learned to live as a person of faith from his mother and his grandmother. He probably learned a lot from the Apostle Paul as well, but his own mother and grandmother likely told him the stories of Jesus and demonstrated that their lives could be transformed when they made their purpose in life to live according to his ways. They were the heroes of the story… the women who passed on their faith to their children.

And so I asked the youth at camp to think about who first told them about Jesus. I asked them to consider who had been an influence on them in their faith. As we went around the circle in a prayer of thanksgiving for these heroes, I heard many familiar names… ministers, church school teachers, youth leaders, and people in the churches of Saskatchewan who have been examples to our young people today. And I also heard, “My mom, my dad, my grandma, my grandpa, my uncle, my sister, my friend…”

We may not always realize it or think about it, but our faith makes a difference to the people in our lives. As much as we live it out through our commitment to worship and spiritual practices like prayer and bible study. And as much as we put it into practice through kindness, generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, and love… people see that… our children, grandchildren, friends, neighbours, and co-workers.. they see that.

And God sees that too. And God celebrates, because we are living as heroes for God, we are growing into people of faith. Amen.