“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This is the most well-known definition of faith from the Bible. It’s short, sweet and to the point but what does this statement really say about faith?
Before I respond to that question…. I would like to address what this definition doesn’t say. The writer of Hebrews doesn’t say: Now faith is the assurance that you will never have to face any adversities in your life. He doesn’t say: Now faith is the assurance that if you pray hard enough that things will always turn out the way that you want them to.
It’s not about having Faith Points, as one theologian described these two misconceptions about faith. “When I have enough Faith Points to get to the “make stuff happen” line on the Faith Tank, someone will get healed. Doubt Points lower the level on the Faith Tank. Whatever you do, don’t doubt! Think your happy thoughts! Try as hard as possible to work your faith up so you can get more Faith Points.”
If one reads the Bible, and the stories of God’s faithful, we can see this just simply isn’t true. God’s faithful experience difficult times in their lives just like everyone else – sometimes more so because the mission that God has called them to puts them at odds with the dominant culture of the day. In fact, the community to whom the letter of Hebrews is addressed had as noted in chapter 10 “endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and persecution.” Some of the community had even renounced their faith due to this suffering. This is the reason for our reading for this morning – it is a “pep talk” for the community – a reminder to keep them focused and assured of God’s presence in their lives in the midst of the suffering.
In reality, Faith thrives in these moments – in the moments when everything is all wrong – when the world seems to be turned upside down and nothing seems to be working right, not even those things you always thought you could count on. That’s where faith takes over. That’s where faith abides. Faith isn’t belief in a list of doctrines about humanity and divinity, the Trinity, virgin birth or creation vs. evolution, not that wrestling with those things aren’t important, but faith is something much deeper, much more primal and fundamental. Faith lives in the center of our very being. It doesn’t involve our head, it involves our heart. It’s more than belief, it is trust. Trust in the God who loves and cares for us. Trust that no matter what we see in front of us – no matter how our circumstances feel or appear – we are in God’s care. Trust like a small child has of their parent.
Many years ago when our youngest daughter, Allie was little and hadn’t learned to swim yet we were at a pool here in Omaha with my sister-in-law. Allie was a daredevil at that age and wasn’t afraid of anything. She had been going down the water slide for a couple of hours. She would wait in line and I would wait at the bottom. When she came down the slide I would catch her. She was having a great time.
The lifeguards called break time so I got out of the pool. Allie was at the top of the ladder for the slide. The lifeguards were telling her to get down but what she heard was go down. She sat down on the top of the slide and pushed herself off trusting that I would be there at the bottom to catch her. I’m pretty sure I’ve never moved faster in my life as I jumped from the side of the pool into the water to catch her at the end of the slide. She, of course, had no idea that anything was wrong because she was safely in the arms of her mother. She trusted me. She had come down that slide many times before that and each time I was there so she didn’t question that I would be there this time as well.
Faith is this kind of relationship of trust with God – knowing that God will be there to catch us when we fall. We have spent so much time over the years in the church talking about and emphasizing doctrines and the subtle differences of belief in this God, making people feel as if they are on the outside if they can’t subscribe to each and every nuance, when what we rest upon in our daily lives is faith – a relationship of trust with the One who creates and sustains – the One we as Christians would say was most vividly revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
But where does this faith come from? How does one grab onto this “assurance of things hoped for and conviction of things not yet seen”? In his “Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” Martin Luther talks about and defines faith. “Faith is not what some people think it is, Luther says. Their human dream is a delusion. They think that, when you hear the gospel, you start working, creating by your own strength a thankful heart which says, “I believe.” That is what they think true faith is. Instead, faith is God’s work in us that changes us and gives new birth from God.” Luther in his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed says: “I believe that cannot by my own will and understanding, come to God, or know him, but that the Holy Spirit enlightens me with faith…” Faith is a gift from God through God’s Holy Spirit it’s not something that we grab onto.
This gift of faith that God gives us changes us and moves us beyond ourselves. Luther says that “Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers.” This gift of faith isn’t passive, it doesn’t allow us to remain the same as we were. God’s gift of faith leaves us changed forever. Those who have received the gift of faith can’t help but serve others out of love and gratitude for the gifts God has given to them. Rather than focusing on ourselves and our own needs, the gift of faith compels us to see things differently.
In one of his books, John Killinger, a theologian, describes a busy airport late one afternoon. People are hurrying about to meet schedules and make flight connections. Tempers are on edge. Suddenly, in the midst of the hustle and bustle, a loud voice erupts, exclaiming, “Good work, God!” Nearly everyone turns and sees an elderly woman in a wheelchair. Her gaze is directed out a large glass window at a majestic sunset lighting up the sky.
Smiles break out on many of the faces. Some of the airline passengers begin to walk with a renewed bounce in their step. The atmosphere of the entire place is transformed by the woman’s observation, “Good work, God!” Faith’s presence in our lives and the presence of faith-filled people in our world transforms things.
Faith isn’t an insurance policy that guarantees us a trouble-free life, all we need to do is look to the Bible to see examples of that. Faith isn’t something we attain on our own so that we might tally up points with God to be used to purchase favors at our request. Faith, instead is our support in the midst of whatever comes our way in this life. The gift of faith gives us a vision for the future. Faith helps us look beyond the reality of what we see today poverty, injustice, oppression and indifference, to a future where God’s kingdom will reign. We, like those mentioned in Hebrews, might never see the complete reign of God’s kingdom here on earth but “assured of what we hope for, and convinced of what we have not yet seen” we trust that God’s kingdom awaits us in eternity. Amen.