A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga. on May 30, 2010.
O God, we thank you for the lives of those who were once part of our journey, those who now live with you in eternity. Bless the memory of those with small families or no family to hold their memory aloft. Bless those with large families who continue to hold memories high and the influence of which can still be seen. We pray that you would bless the grief that is still present, still fresh with pain in the hearts of those gathered here. We thank you for the comfort of your spirit and pray today for a double portion of that comfort.
Bless as well the memories and the sacrifices of those who have died in the quest for peace and justice. We pray that the sacrifices of all generations would continue to provide the cement which makes our nation great. We pray for those whose sacrifices are recent, the names of those who still bring sadness and pride when we hear the roll call of heroes.
We ask for your comfort and your assistance to those who continue to suffer pain or endure injury as part of their sacrifice. Comfort the minds that are distressed and those hearts that are troubled. We pray that they would find peace.
We pray for ourselves. We pray that we might live lives worthy of such sacrifice. Grant that we do not live lightly in liberty or selfishly in freedom. Teach us to strive for the good of the nation and the world. May we always walk beneath the wings of the angels of our better nature. Through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
Whether or not you are married you probably know about the love chapter in the Bible. You have probably been to a wedding where they read the love chapter, “Love is kind, love is patient . . .” That is in 1 Corinthians 13 and written by the Apostle Paul.
The faith chapter is in the Book of Hebrews. The early, early, early theologian named Origen said it best when he said, “God only knows who wrote the Hebrews.” We don’t know who the writer of Hebrews is, but whoever the writer happened to be, that writer took a different slant in trying to describe faith than Paul took in the love chapter.
Paul was very poetic. He used lofty, rhythmic terms with meter and cadence. “Love is patient, love is kind, love does not insist on its own way, love is not arrogant or rude.” Chances are you have heard those words repeated in your family as someone has stood to pledge a vow of love to one another.
The writer of Hebrews decided that a picture is worth a thousand words. Instead of either giving a dissertation that was long and boring or going poetic like the Apostle Paul, he merely gives a definition and then he gives image after image after image. There was no photography in those days so he could not actually take a picture but he does describe word pictures, stories about individuals. He says, “This is what it means. Remember, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” People always want to talk about proving faith. That is the whole nature of faith. You can’t prove it. What we believe about God is unseen, but we follow anyway. The writer of Hebrews gives many illustrations that are mentioned earlier in the Bible.
If you are a product of my generation, you will probably remember the great Bill Cosby sequence on Noah. He said it was not raining. There was no body of water anywhere nearby. Can you imagine receiving this word that you are supposed to build this huge boat for no particular reason other than God told you to? It would take a boat-load of faith to do that. Noah, by faith, cannot see anything but believed this was the task God had given him and built the ark.
Abraham was in a country far away and God promised a homeland. God promised a land that belonged to him and all of his descendants. The great thing about Abraham and Sarah when they left was they did not even know where they were going. There was no map that said, “Here is how to get there. Just plug it into your GPS and you will know when you have arrived. Promised Land on right.” It doesn’t say that. They had to follow until they came to the place where, out of conviction, they knew this was the place God had given them.
Abraham and Sarah were supposed to be the ancestors of a great nation, yet they had no children and were well into old age. The writer of Hebrews said they might as well have been dead. Then, all of a sudden, the promise comes through. It was totally unseen. It was almost unthinkable but it was what they hoped for and what they believed God would give them.
I believe the writer of Hebrews adds something to the Moses story that we don’t get anywhere else. I know every parent believes that their child is special, but at three months of age, it was hard to imagine that Moses was going to save the people. But by faith in something that they had not seen yet in a child who was still too small to care for himself and was not able to walk yet alone lead people, they believed this was what God wanted them to do. Unseen and unknown, but surely the path they were supposed to take.
Chapter 11 is a long chapter. When you get to verse 35, the pace picks up and the writer of Hebrews begins to list all these people who are nameless to us: 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, mountains, caves, and holes in the ground.
Then the writer adds this: “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised.” They did not see it. They did not obtain it in their lifetime. What the writer is referring to is the Messiah, the coming of Christ. They never saw the end of their faith. At least Noah saw the flood, Moses saw the people let go, Abraham and Sarah saw their child and they lived in the Promised Land, but there are others for whom they followed all of their lives. All of their lives, they walked in the path that they believed God intended them to take and they never, ever saw it. Faith is trusting in the unseen things that we believe God asks us to do. It means believing in the unseen God that we believe walks before us. It means trusting, following, and walking in God’s way even when we cannot see.
Sometimes people claim that the things that Jesus teaches us are just so impractical. When we think about turning the other cheek and giving to the poor, people say, “You can’t really have a life and do that. Who can really believe that is the way we are supposed to walk.”
I use as one of the best illustrations in history something from our own time. In the country of South Africa, after the end of Apartheid, they were trying to figure out how to put the races together in a government and nation so they would not revert to Civil War and absolute bloodshed. The government of South Africa created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by Archbishop Tutu. Here was the deal: Anybody who had committed a crime against another during the years of Apartheid could be forgiven of whatever it was they had done if they confessed. All you had to do to be free of any persecution of mass murder during those times was to confess the fact that you had done it. If you did not confess it, you could be held accountable. We think it is not even possible between families or between neighbors, but here is a nation that made it work. If you would confess your sin, you could be forgiven.
The great thing about this illustration is that the people who participated in it were able to see the end. Don’t you think it took a lot of faith to trust in God’s way to walk that path as a nation, to believe that this is the way that will lead indeed to wholeness, health, and peace. But we need to remember that there are other people throughout history who followed the ways of God and never saw the end—people who participated in history, in faithfulness, in obedience to the laws and commands, and justice and love of God who never saw in their lifetime what they hoped for.
I think about those little girls in Birmingham, Alabama who were killed one Sunday morning when a bomb went off in their church. They were participating in the belief that all people are created equal, and they never saw the end. They were a part of the movement of faith. While they did not see it, it has come.
We have this mistaken notion that faith is an insider’s way to personal victory. We believe as a Christian, “I’ve got faith, therefore, because I have faith I am one of God’s special people. I will have faith and I will always get what I want.” It is an insider’s way to sure success. Faith may be a way to personal victory but that is really not what faith is about. Faith is a way to participate with God whether victory comes in our lifetime or not. Faith is the belief that God’s way is the right way. It is the true way. It is the way that I choose whether I see what I hope for in my lifetime or whether it doesn’t happen for a thousand years.
Today, on this Memorial Day weekend, we see in news broadcasts or movies on television the sacrifices made in past wars. We see places like Arlington Cemetery, the ground above Omaha Beach, Iwo Jima with crosses or Stars of David marking the graves where so many people fell and died. We see VE Day or VJ Day or whatever other victory might commemorate the war in which they served, but they never saw the promise. Yet they were obedient along the way, believing that it was the way of God’s truth and righteousness. Sometimes we can’t see the end. Sometimes we can’t see the goal. We can’t see exactly what we are headed for and sometimes it looks as if it is absolutely, positively impossible.
Perhaps there is a reconciliation that needs to take place between two people, between two families or between two groups. It is impossible to think that reconciliation could ever take place. But faith is walking in the way of God and living in such a way so that it can still be a possibility.
Maybe integrity is at stake. Perhaps there is pressure for you to do something that would only cost you your sense of self-worth and your sense of being an honest person. To fail to do it will cost you something because the people who ask you to do it put pressure on you.
Faith is believing that God’s way is the right way no matter what. Perhaps there is something in your Christian pilgrimage that you believe about the justice of God in the world that you feel called to stand for, but you know that as soon as you do, people are going to think you are crazy and that you have gone fanatical on them. It is a sure way to lose friends and not influence people, but it is the way God calls you to live. It is a way of faith.
Have you ever forgiven someone only to have someone else get mad at you about it? Sometimes this happens in families between spouses. A spouse forgives the other spouse and all their friends say, “I just don’t get it. I just don’t see how you could forgive that.” Sometimes it costs to walk the way in faith that we believe God has asked us to walk. Faith is confidence in God and in God’s way whether we can see the end of it or not. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for. It is the conviction of things yet to be seen or things that may never be seen in our lifetime. It is the conviction that the things are of God and, therefore, because they are of God, I am called to walk that way.
This is faith. May we all live it today.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.