Grace Presbyterian Church
August 7, 2016, Pentecost 12C
Faith: A Matter of Trust
What is faith?
That might seem a strange question to ask in this case, since in the very first verse of today’s reading from Hebrews we get what has become one of the more familiar verses of scripture as a seeming definition of faith – “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” or “substance of things hoped for, evidence of things not seen” if all your memorized scripture is still in the King James Version. (I hate to break it to you, but "assurance" and “conviction” is actually a better word to correspond to the Greek here.)
It’s a beautiful verse, true. Maybe too beautiful. We hear it and get lost in the mellifluous poetry of it all and maybe we don’t always bore down into it to understand just what’s really going on.
Fortunately, the author of Hebrews (which really is in effect a sermon rather than a letter) doesn’t stop with the lovely poetry, but pushes forward to flesh out the picture of faith with a couple of further elaborations and then a whole bunch of examples.
This isn’t a bad thing, and maybe at this point it’s a particularly beneficial thing for us modern Christians, who have a habit of using the word “faith” in some strange ways.
If you go to Dictionary.com and look up the word “faith” you get seven different definitions, some of which are clearly not quite what our preacher is talking about here and some of which might just be part of the story. The sixth and seventh definitions have to do with “the obligaion of loyalty or fidelity to a person, promise, engagement, etc.” and “the observance of this obligation,” which do sound a bit like the Hebrews preacher in some parts of this chapter. The fifth definition, “a system of religious belief,” is acceptable I suppose, but we have better words for that – “theology” or “doctrine” or even “religion” itself seem closer to the mark there. And the second definition, “belief that is not based on proof,” sounds very much like our preacher here in verses 1-3.
But the sticking point comes in comparing the third and first definitions. The third definition, “belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion,” seems to be the definition we are most likely to use these days. We speak of “faith” rather often in reference to a mere assertion of belief in God. “I have faith” ends up meaning little more than “I believe in God,” or “I believe x about God.” We assert a particular set of propositions or statements about God and call that faith.
At the risk of offending, if our Hebrews preacher were to hear us use the word “faith” today, he (or she) might be tempted to borrow a line from the character Inigo Montoya in the movie The Princess Bride: “You use that word a lot. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
What our preacher is telling us in this passage, what our preacher wants us to see in the examples of Abel and his faithful sacrifice; Enoch who “walked with God” and was taken up by God without suffering death; Noah who built an ark well before any rain fell; and yes, Abraham who set out from the only home he knew and followed God to a strange new land; what Hebrews wants us to see in all of these examples (and more to come later in the chapter) has basically nothing to do with fealty to a set of doctrines or teachings. That’s not the faith that moved these ancient ancestors.
The synonym for “faith” that Hebrews wants us to hear is not “belief”; the synonym Hebrews wants us to hear is “trust.”
Abraham didn’t set out from Ur and journey into that strange land because he had memorized the Apostles’ Creed or the “Roman Road” to salvation. Abraham made that journey, followed after God with his wife and his household and his complete lack of children, because somehow in that moment of call, somehow in that moment of being called out by God to take on this strange and terrible journey, Abraham trusted God. Noah certainly didn’t build an ark in the midst of a dry season in a dry land because somebody handed him a gospel tract and told him to believe it. Noah, crazily and unbelievably, trusted God.
And this might be why the Hebrews preacher might go all Inigo Montoya on us and question how we use the word. We’re very good at asserting beliefs, we moderns, and very good at beating up on those who don’t assert the same beliefs that we do and even declaring them to be “outside the faith.” I have no doubt you can find that kind of “faith” at dozens of churches in this town. But the kind of faith that shows real trust in God? The kind of faith that steps out with zero visual evidence ready to follow the crazy and unexpected path that God sets before us? Yeah, not so much.
But that’s the faith that Hebrews urges upon us. Faith that trusts God, convicted of things not seen, not worrying about what’s behind us but set on what God points to ahead of us, faith that actually dares to encounter God instead of merely talking about God? That’s the faith of Hebrews 11. Trust is not the end point of that faith (that’s next week’s sermon), but it is its start. And that’s the faith that will matter in a faithless world.
For trust in God, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#838 Standing on the Promises
#817 We Walk By Faith and Not By Sight
#538 Hallelujah! We Sing Your Praises
#321 The Church’s One Foundation
Credit: agnusday.org. It's not a contest...