A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist, Charlottesville, Va.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
(Heb 11:1-3, 8-16) Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for. 3 By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. 8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. 13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country– a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
Faith. As Christians, we talk about faith a lot. But what is faith? What does it look like in our lives? This Sunday, I begin a series of sermons taken from the book of Hebrews, and we will focus on faith. Hebrews was a letter written to Jewish Christians who were experiencing sustained suffering because of their faith. They were ostracized by the Jews, who saw them as traitors, and they were persecuted by the Gentiles because they didn’t worship the emperor. They were publicly abused, put into prison and their property was confiscated.
It was in the midst of all this that the writer of Hebrews was encouraging these early Jesus followers to remain true to the faith. He tells them: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” The word “confidence” here paints a picture of faith as a sure and firm foundation. We don’t see the foundation, but when storms come, we have hope that the foundation will stay firm so that house won’t wash away. This “hope” is not a “cross-my-fingers” wishful-thinking kind of hope, but a trusting assurance that the foundation will hold and the house will stand.
This understanding of faith as a firm and trusted foundation from which we can anchor everything else is very different from a modern understanding of faith. “Faith” in the modern sense is often contrasted to “fact.” The former is often seen as a blind leap into the dark, while the latter is visibly grounded in reality. For us moderns, it’s like we all live in Missouri, the “Show Me” state. We won’t trust something unless we can see and examine it for ourselves. That’s usually a good policy; it isn’t good to put your faith in just anything. What the writer of Hebrews is trying to teach us is that faith in God is more like trusting in a sure foundation. Even though we can’t see the foundation, we know that it is there holding us up, anchoring our lives firmly in God. If God is our sure foundation, what does it mean for us today to live with the eyes of faith?
The writer of Hebrews gives us the example of Abraham and Sarah. Having the eyes of faith means trusting God enough to go to a foreign land. Hebrews 11:8 says, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” It is hard to comprehend the kind of trust that Abraham had in order to move 500 miles to a place he’s never seen. As we prepared to move back to Charlottesville, we used the internet to research houses. We looked at pictures of our house, read up on all its features before we stepped one foot into it. In contrast, Abraham and Sarah just left home without knowing their destination. Tradition has it that Abraham was born in Ur, one of the earliest known civilizations in world history, known for its trade and commerce. Imagine God telling Abraham and Sarah: “Good news! I have an inheritance for you. But you’ll have to move away from Ur and your extended family, in order to live in the middle of nowhere as strangers in a foreign land.” Now, if you were Abraham and Sarah, how would you respond to that? That probably was not the kind of life they had foreseen for themselves, uprooted and called to a place they’d never even seen.
Seven years ago, when I announced that I had accepted a call to Farmville Baptist to serve as their pastor, some of you were a bit concerned. I remember one person asking Beth and me, “Have you ever been to Farmville?” Well, yes, we did visit Farmville and checked the place out. No, Farmville is not Charlottesville. Yes, in some ways, it was a step of faith. No, it was nothing compared to what God asked Abraham and Sarah to do.
Now, some of you may be thinking: “This doesn’t apply to me. I’ve lived here all my life, and I don’t plan on going anywhere.” I’m sorry, but you’re not off the hook. For at some point in our lives, all of us will be called – perhaps not by God – to go to an unfamiliar and foreign land. It may be the unfamiliar land of a new grade in school with a new teacher and classroom. It may be the foreign land of a terminated relationship, or a change in your job situation, or of being out of work. It may be the foreign land of a serious medical ailment, of declining health, of moving out of your house and into a retirement home, of burying a parent or a child. During these times, you’ll be thrust to a place you haven’t foreseen. This is precisely the time when we are called to have faith in God, to trust that God has a plan. This is precisely the time when God is working to mature our faith and trust in Him to deliver us to a future that we can’t see.
For you see, faith is much deeper than merely trusting God to deal with our present life stage or situation. According to the writer of Hebrews, faith is also about trusting God with our future. When we get right down to it, our anxieties about broken relationships, about our children or our parents, about our declining health, about our financial security, all of these anxieties have to do with our earthly future. The inheritance that God promised Abraham and Sarah also had to do with their earthly future—they were promised children, not just several, but, as Carl Sagan might put it, billions and billions of them, as numerous as the stars in the sky. In those days, children were the Social Security, IRA accounts and pension plans for their parents. God promised Abraham and Sarah that they were going to be as financially secure as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Oprah put together. The problem was, they were still childless. They had no stock. All they had from God was an unfulfilled promise, and time was running out. It was almost cruel. From God’s perspective, the promise appeared so extravagant. From Abraham and Sarah’s viewpoint, the reality looked so barren and hopeless. There was a great disconnect between what they saw in reality and what they were invited to see with their eyes of faith.
Despite that gap, Abraham trusted God anyway, because faith is even deeper than trusting God with our earthly future. The ultimate issue of faith is trusting God to participate in God’s future. Hebrews 11:13 says: “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.”
This verse is so counter-cultural that I struggle to understand it, much less live it out. We live in an instant self-gratification culture. We want results on our own terms and we want them now. That’s our attitude toward fast food, our financial investments, our business earnings, and even our churches. We want our needs and wants met in a timely fashion.
Instead of instant gratification, the writer of Hebrews invites us to trust God enough to say: “My life is not all there is. It is all about God’s plan and purpose. Yes, there are some things that I would like to see in my lifetime, but I trust God enough to follow God’s plan and leave the future in God’s hands.” Abraham and Sarah did not receive God’s promise in their lifetime; they only saw it from afar, and that was good enough for them. What they saw with their eyes of faith was a better country, one with a city with a sure foundation whose architect and builder is God. They caught a glimpse of God’s future and they understood that they were just strangers on earth passing through.
Being strangers in this old order doesn’t mean throwing up our hands and refusing to get involved in addressing the challenging issues of our day. When confronted with injustice and suffering, we don’t say, “Sorry, we’re just passing through.” At its best, Christian history tells the story of God’s people who risked and spent their lives caring for others during plagues, who built hospitals and orphanages, who worked for peace and reconciliation, who battled racial injustice and advocated for the poor. Some saw the fruit of their labors, but many died without seeing what they had spent their lives working for come true. Nevertheless, their eyes of faith saw that their lives were meant to be lived for something much greater than themselves.
I want to share three stories of how we are the beneficiaries of the faith of previous generations. First, we are the spiritual descendants of those members of High Street Baptist Church in Charlottesville, who on January 1, 1926, voted 47 to 2 to move their church from its High Street location to this location, because they saw the need to minister to the students at the University of Virginia. Those charter members of UBC died in the conviction that one day a ministry with UVA students would thrive. Generations of students have since been blessed by this church, and this year, we are reinstituting an adopt-a-college-student ministry to carry on that mission. I wrote about this ministry in last week’s Word. Please contact me if you would like more information about adopting a student.
Second, we are also the spiritual descendants of UBC members who back in 1939 sacrificially raised $20,000 in just eighty days to pay the first installment to buy back this church building from foreclosure. Led by Dr. Cecil Cook, the congregation fully paid off the mortgage in January of 1947, and Dr. Cook passed away one year later. How I wish Dr. Cook and those faithful members were still here to see our building and facility now! As beneficiaries of their sacrifice, we have an obligation to be good stewards of this resource, to open our building to the community, to upgrade it for future generations so that they may have a place to encounter and experience the love and grace of God.
Third, we are the spiritual descendants of the vision of racial inclusion that the Rev. Dick Myers saw with his eyes of faith. In April of 1969, during the height of the Civil Rights battles, he led this congregation to adopt a membership policy that stated, “Qualifications for membership shall be based solely on an individual’s Christian commitment and his sincere desire to be a member of University Baptist Church.” Rev. Myers retired in 1986 and passed away in 1999. I like to think that he would be gratified to see our congregation today, made up of members from many difference races and ethnicities, and with a Senior Minister who was born in Hong Kong!
All of these saints had eyes of faith. They lived their lives for something greater than themselves, because they trusted that God is the architect not just of their lives, but of future generations. I hope such a vision will help us see our lives differently and help us live accordingly. What future story is God inviting us to see with our eyes of faith? Can we see ourselves not only as a teaching church but also as a healing church even as a children’s clinic is being built right across the street? Can we see ourselves as a church that welcomes all into this congregation regardless of race, yes, but also sexual orientation and gender identity? Can we see ourselves as a congregation where all are sinners struggling to live out the truth of God and all are saints saved by the grace of Christ? Can we see how future generations may come to know and follow Christ through our sacrificial giving and faithful service to ministries from which we may get no tangible benefits today?
The Good News is that we have not only Abraham and Sarah and the generations of saints before us to show us how to live by faith, but we have Jesus Christ, God’s only Son. Jesus was the ultimate stranger in a foreign land, who was the Word made flesh, who pitched his tent among us.” Jesus entrusted his future to God’s grand plan, and by faith, he died so that God’s salvation for our lives and all creation might be complete. Jesus not only saved us, but he lived the perfect life of faith. God vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. Therefore, God was not ashamed to call Jesus “my Son with whom I am well pleased.” By faith, Jesus was there in the beginning, and He will be there at the end. When we put our trust in Christ, God will not be ashamed to call us His children and Himself our God.
Therefore, as followers of Christ, may we have the eyes of faith to see that our lives are meant for something greater than ourselves. May we have eyes of faith to trust in Jesus, with our present, our future, and God’s future. Amen.
In this hour of worship,
Open our eyes to see you at work
Open our ears to hear your words of truth
Open our hearts to experience your grace
Open our hands to serve you and others
We pray these things . . .
Go now with eyes wide open with the blessing of God.
may God the Father anchor you as a sure foundation
may God the Son lead you to live for a greater purpose
may God the Spirit empower you with a divine presence
so that with eyes of faith you may face the future with hope and trust. Amen.
 According to BibleWorks 6.0, the Greek word hupostasis, has these meanings: 1) a setting or placing under 1a) thing put under, substructure, foundation. 2a1) a substance, real being 2b) the substantial quality, nature, of a person or thing 2c) the steadfastness of mind, firmness, courage, resolution 2c1) confidence, firm trust, assurance.
 Howard Newlon, A People Called: University Baptist Church and Its Predecessor, High Street, 1900-2000,p. 266.
 John 1:14.