Cheers from heaven
by Jack Wald | November 19th, 2000

Hebrews 11:1 – 12:3

Faith, says the guru in the American comic strip B.C., is a condemned prisoner eating his last meal asking for a doggie-bag.

Faith, said one cynic, is believing what you know ain’t true.

Faith, says the writer of Hebrews, is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

Chapter 11 of Hebrews is the Hall of Fame for those who were considered by the writer of Hebrews to be prime examples of those who lived by faith. It is an exhilarating chapter, moving to read and does not need a sermon to sense the power of these words.

But that will not stop me and this morning I want to make four observations about faith from today’s text.

1. Faith exists in the absence of absolute proof.

This chapter of Heroes of the faith begins with this definition of faith and then illustrates that definition with the lives of some of the saints of Israel.

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.  2 This is what the ancients were commended for.

Let’s look at some of these ancients. Noah was warned by God about an impending flood and told to build an ark. What evidence was there for that flood? Was there a river that every day rose higher and higher? Was there an ocean that kept eating away the shore and getting closer and closer? No! There was no evidence for the coming flood but Noah is commended for believing God and obeying God when he was told to build the ark. Day after day Noah and his sons worked on the ark, month after month of construction and they did that without any evidence that there was going to be a flood other than that God had spoken to Noah.

Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

Abraham was called by God to go from the civilized city of Ur to the backwoods area of Canaan. He went, promised by God over and over again, that God would make him into a great nation and that they would possess the land of Canaan. Abraham was 86 years old and still had no children yet he continued to believe that what God had told him would come to pass, that he would be the father of a great nation with offspring more numerous than the stars in the sky. What evidence was there for Abraham to continue believing what God told him? None! No children and no land. And yet Abraham by faith continued to believe that what God told him would happen.

Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

We believe that the creator of the universe has made himself known to us, that he gave us the law of the Old Testament, that his son, God in the flesh, Jesus, was born a man, lived in Palestine, died our death when he was crucified, three days later rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. We believe all this, but where is the evidence for it? We know Jesus existed but beyond a shadow of doubt, do we have proof that he was God in the flesh? That he resurrected from the dead? That he ascended to heaven and will return for us at the end of time? No!

We have no absolute proof but we believe.

Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

Faith exists in the absence of absolute proof.

2. Faith cannot exist without doubt.

It is not just that faith exists in the absence of absolute proof. Faith cannot exist in the presence of absolute proof. There has to be room for doubt for faith to exist.

What would happen in a world where there was no room for doubt? I talked about this back in January when preaching from I Peter but I want to bring this up again.

What would it be like if Jesus periodically descended from heaven out of the clouds and spoke to people, held mass rallies at which he performed miracles and then ascended to heaven?

What would happen to our faith if  God produced a video of the actual birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus so we would know beyond a shadow of a doubt what really happened?

What would be the result if, when someone said, “I don’t believe God exists,” God popped into the room and said, “Hey, what do you mean I don’t exist?”

What would result if every time we prayed for someone to be healed, they were healed?

What would happen if, when making decisions, God simply spoke to us in an audible voice or even wrote on the wall and told us what to do?

What would happen if, when we had doubts about our faith, God sent an angel to tap us on the shoulder, hug us and remind us of the reality of what we believe?

What would the world be like if all Christian business men and women were successful? If all Christians were healthy and could heal the sick every time they prayed for them? If in an epidemic, only the Christians were spared? If Christians were untouched by famine and war and robbery and violent attack? Non-Christians might suffer but Christians would not.

In this world without room for doubt, there would be many converts. Business schools would teach that the first step to being successful in business was to become a Christian. Christian doctors would be more effective than nonchristian doctors. Everyone would want to be a Christian. Why not? Christian homes would remain unscathed by hurricanes, earthquakes and fires.

But in this world without doubt, would faith be strengthened?

A world without room for doubt does not strengthen faith. It’s as simple as that. A world without room for doubt is not a good culture in which to grow faith. In a world without doubt we would have knowledge about God. We would say, “2 + 2 = 4″ “The force of gravity is 32 ft/sec2″ “God always tells me what to do.” “God appears from the sky to speak to me.” “School begins at 8 AM every day except Sunday.”

Knowledge but no faith.

There has to be room for doubt or there can be no faith.

But, you may think, doubt is not good. A good Christian does not doubt. A mature Christian does not doubt.

To that thought, let me read the Frederick Buechner quote on doubt printed in the bulletin:

“Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

What about Abraham? Paul, in Romans, calls him the father of all who have faith. Half of Hebrews 11 talks about Abraham. So, did Abraham ever doubt?

Abraham heard God’s call to go to Canaan and obeyed. God promised to make him the father of a great nation and Abraham believed. At the age of 86, Abraham can’t wait any longer and has a son through Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar. It is obvious that Abraham has struggled to understand how God’s promises could come true when he had no son so he took matters in his own hands.

But then thirteen years later, God speaks to him and says his heir will come through Sarah and the amazing result is the birth of Isaac. Born to two old, over-the-hill, past the age where this thing happens, even in dreams, and almost as physically miraculous as the virgin birth of Jesus.

So now, Abraham finally has the son who is the visual evidence that God’s word to him was true, he now has the potential to be the father of a great nation. It still takes a lot of faith to believe that this one person can become a great nation, but it is a lot better than having no son at all.

And then God tells Abraham to go up the mountain to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.

It is important to think about what we read in Scripture, not just swallow it whole and go on to the next text. Don’t read the account of this in Genesis as a sanitized, lifeless account. This is history and history is about flesh and blood people, people with feelings. When we read about Abraham taking his son, Isaac, to sacrifice him on the altar, do you seriously think Abraham did not have doubts? Do you seriously think Abraham did not question whether he was supposed to kill his son? Can you imagine the intense struggle and doubt that flooded Abraham?

How about Noah? God tells him to build an ark, a boat half the size of a modern ocean liner, large enough to have a game of football or soccer played on it’s deck, with room for spectators. When Noah was building his ark, in the middle of a field, far away from any river or lake or sea large enough to handle a boat that size, do you think he never stopped to say, “This is crazy! Why am I doing this?” Do you think that weren’t mornings when he said, “No way am I going to continue with this foolishness anymore?” Do you think that Noah was not hurt by the ridicule he received from his neighbors?

The struggle of Moses is clear to us in Scripture. The second forty years of Moses’ life were spent in the wilderness and were years of doubt and struggle. He grew up in Pharaoh’s house, was educated as an Egyptian prince and then, when he sensed that his calling was to rescue his fellow Israelites from their slavery and oppression, he was rebuffed by the Israelites he wanted to help and had to flee to protect himself. He spent the next forty years in the wilderness and had so little confidence that when God appeared to him in a burning bush — the holiness of God revealed to him, he told God to find someone else to rescue Egypt.

And Joseph, who the Scriptures reveal as one who was faithful despite the circumstances of being thrown into a pit by his brothers, sold into slavery in Egypt, being thrown into jail by Potiphar. The Scriptures do not give us a complete account of each person’s life, but do you not think that there were prolonged periods of doubt and struggle and depression in the life of Joseph?

The heroes of faith in Chapter 11 were men and women, not unfeeling robots. The heroes of faith in Chapter 11 of Hebrews were men and women who lived with doubt and uncertainty, who struggled but continued on in the direction God had called them.

What made these men and women heroes of the faith is that they pressed on despite the doubts, despite the struggling, despite the difficulty.

C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Screwtape Letters. These are letters written by a senior devil, Screwtape, to a lower-level devil named Wormwood. The letters concern strategy for preventing a human soul from becoming a Christian and growing as a Christian. Let me read a section I have read to you before. It speaks of the quality that makes us heroes of the faith when we persevere despite the lack of evidence for what we believe and despite the presence of doubt. As I read, remember that this is strategy from the devil’s viewpoint.
You must have often wondered why the enemy [God] does not make more use of his power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree he chooses and at any moment…. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.

When you or I continue on, despite our struggles and doubts and questions, that is a moment of victory for God’s kingdom because that is when our faith grows.

If you are persisting in what God called you to this morning despite doubts and struggles, the saints of heaven are cheering you on and rejoicing in the exercise of your faith.

Doubt is fertile soil for faith.

Faith exists in the absence of absolute proof.
Faith cannot exist without doubt.

3. Faith does not do impressive things – it obeys God’s call.

It is easy to be intimidated by this list of men and women in Hebrews 11. Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses. But the list also includes Abel, Enoch, and Rahab. How did they make the list? What grand thing did they do?

Noah we understand and Abraham and Moses. Building an ark, leaving Ur for Canaan and believing God’s promises, leading Israel out of Egypt. These are big events. But what did Abel do to be included in this list? He offered God a sacrifice. Isn’t that what we do when we tithe? When we set aside a tenth of all we earn in a year to give to the Lord, isn’t that offering God a sacrifice? That hardly seems like an earthshaking event, yet it is listed as evidence of Abel’s faith.

How about Isaac and Jacob? Isaac is revealed in Scripture as one who was easily fooled and manipulated by his wife. Jacob is portrayed as a cheater and deceiver who met his match in Laban and then finally met God and submitted to him at Penial. Jacob paid the price for having two wives and their maidservants as mothers of his children, a family in turmoil. You can make a long list of the faults of Isaac and Jacob and yet Hebrews overlooks their weaknesses and praises them for the blessing they gave in faith for their children. Even when Isaac’s blessing of Jacob was done unwillingly – thinking Jacob was Esau, he is praised for his faith in blessing Jacob and Esau.

Joseph did many great things. He is an example of a person who does not let his circumstances control him. He was an organizational whiz who ran Pharaoh’s operation for him. But what does Hebrews 11 praise him for? For his organizational genius? His achievements? No! He is praised because he spoke of the exodus of Israel from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones.

Rahab is commended because she believed that these spies she hid in her room would be her salvation. She took a gamble that the two men in her room were going to bring an army that would defeat her city and is commended for her faith.

What this means is that you and I do not have to be intimidated by this list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11. When Jerry and Leah Tingson and Soccora Teofilo presented their children this morning to be dedicated to the Lord, they were exercising the same faith that is commended in Hebrews 11. They presented their children to the Lord this morning, in obedience to God’s calling, in faith, believing that their children, Nathalie and Jerry will grow up to choose to follow God for themselves.

When you or I hear God’s call to go to some part of the world to serve him and go, this is a wonderful response of faith that deserves being listed in this chapter 11.

When you or I obediently tithe our money, giving generously to God’s work in the world. When you or I in response to Jesus’ instruction to take the Gospel out into the world, share our faith with someone. When you or I continue to pray despite feeling that our prayers are going no higher than the ceiling, we are exhibiting faith that deserves to be listed in chapter 11 of Hebrews.

We don’t have to do spectacular things. We only have to obey God when he calls us to do something, go somewhere, or speak to someone.

Faith exists in the absence of absolute proof.
Faith cannot exist without doubt.
Faith does not do impressive things – it obeys God’s call.

4. Faith puts its eyes on God, not on ourselves.

John White, a Canadian author wrote this: “Faith is man’s response to God’s initiative… Do not look inside yourself and ask, ‘How much faith do I have?’ Look to God and ask, ‘What is he saying to me? What would he have me do?”

Faith is not a matter of looking around until you see something you want and then trying to muster enough faith to get it.

God called Abel to offer a sacrifice and Abel offered the sacrifice. God told Noah to build an ark and Noah obeyed. God told Abraham to move and Abraham moved. I don’t know how to say this without being indelicate, but God told Abraham to have a baby with Sarah and even though he was past the age where he even dreamed of being physically able to do that with Sarah, Abraham obeyed. God told Moses to hold out his staff over the Red Sea and Moses obeyed. God told Israel to march around Jericho seven times and Israel obeyed.

Peter did not think to himself, “I think I have enough faith to walk on water.” Jesus called Peter to come to him on the water and Peter obeyed.

It is always this way. It is always God calling, God instructing, God telling and then comes the obedience.

This is important for two reasons.

First today there is a lot of bad theology going around that tells people that if they have enough faith, they will be healthy and wealthy. There are a lot of people who pick out something they want and then try to find enough faith to get it. In a room of people praying for this thing that is wanted, people who do not have enough faith are told to leave the room. The focus in on each person’s faith, not on God who is the miracle worker.

It only takes a mustard seed of faith to move a mountain, Jesus said, but the trick is that Jesus has to first tell you to move that mountain. You can’t pick a mountain you want to move and try to muster enough faith to move it. God has first to call you to move the mountain. A lot less faith than most people think is required to do what God wants us to do. Faith the size of a mustard seed is sufficient.

The second reason it is important to know that it is always God calling and then we obey is that it takes our eyes off of ourselves and puts them on Jesus.

When I am trying to do something I want to see happen but God has not called, my focus is on myself. Do I have enough faith? Maybe I’d better pray harder so I will have more faith. Maybe I’d better fast so I will have more faith. Maybe I better be sure to use the right words, think the right thoughts.

When I realize that faith is man’s response to God’s initiative, my focus is on God, not on myself. Instead of making my faith the object of my attention, I focus on God. What does God want me to do? What is God calling me to? Am I listening to God? Am I allowing time to hear him speak to me?

In Chapter 12, the writer of Hebrews urges us to “fix our eyes on Jesus.” Pursue Jesus, learn from Jesus, relearn from Jesus. When God calls you to something, obey. But don’t allow your focus to be taken off Jesus and on to yourself. Don’t be trapped by spiritual introspection, worrying about whether or not you have enough faith to do something. Fix your eyes on Jesus  and when he calls, faith the size of a mustard seed will be sufficient.

One last point. In chapter 12, when Hebrews says we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, this is Scriptural evidence that those in heaven are aware of what is going on on earth. In this sermon we have talked about Abraham and Enoch and Rahab and Joseph. I believe that when we go about our lives and move forward in faith to what God has called us to do, these saints and the saints from all of history are cheering us on. This sermon and our response to this sermon is being observed from heaven. Let the cheers from heaven encourage you as you respond to God’s call in your life.

The Eugene Peterson translation of Hebrews is magnificent. The power of this passage comes through quite clearly. Let me finish this morning by reading from The Message. Let this Scripture resonate in your mind.

The Message – Hebrews 11:32 – 12:3
I could go on and on, but I’ve run out of time. There are so many more – Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets…. Through acts of faith, they toppled kingdoms, made justice work, took the promises for themselves. They were protected from lions, fires, and sword thrusts, turned disadvantage to advantage, won battles, routed alien armies. Women received back their loved ones from the dead. There were those who, under torture, refused to give in and go free, preferring something better: resurrection. Others braved abuse and whips, and, yes, chains and dungeons. We have stories of those who were stoned, sawed in two, murdered in cold blood; stories of vagrants wandering the earth in animal skins, homeless, friendless, powerless – the world didn’t deserve them! – making their way as best they could on the cruel edges of the world.

Not one of these people, even though their lives of faith were exemplary, got their hands on what was promised. God had a better plan for us: that their faith and our faith would come together to make one completed whole, their lives of faith not complete apart from ours.

12 Do you see what this means – all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running – and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed – that exhilarating finish in and with God – he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!