Scripture: Hebrews 10:32 – 11: 2, 8-16
When I planned our current sermon series, I intended this week’s scripture to be a detour from the gospel of Luke. But today’s scripture is part of the same theme we’ve been discussing—the Bible’s surprising and often difficult path to lasting happiness and joy. In fact, today’s scripture, mostly from Hebrews chapter 11, is part of the “hall of faith” chapter—because it describes a Who’s Who of great heroes of faith from the Bible.
The author wants us to know that these great saints of the Old Testament are not part of an elite club of super-spiritual believers of which you and I could never be members. They may be heroes of faith, in other words, but they aren’t superheroes of faith. The author is saying that if these Bible heroes possess a “heroic faith,” well, so should we. So in this sermon, I want to encourage us modern-day believers to have the same kind of “heroic” faith.
And I want to do so first by describing three important things that “heroic faith” is not: First, heroic faith is not based on something that’s happened to us in the past. Second, heroic faith is not strong faith. Third, heroic faith is not “knowledgeable” faith. And finally, Point Number Four, God is not ashamed of us. So this sermon is about four nots.
First, heroic faith is not based on something that happened in the past…
Speaking of which, I talked about my own past for a couple of weeks on Wednesday nights, in Bible study. I shared, for instance, the story of my own conversion. I said that as an adolescent of 12 and 13 years old, I had two big fears: One, I was afraid of dying in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Popular culture back in the early ’80s was saturated with fear about nuclear war: TV shows, movies, pop songs on the radio, music videos on MTV, video games… all of these portrayed the threat of nuclear war. And I readily absorbed that message, and I was pretty sure I was going to die in a nuclear holocaust. And that scared me.
To make matters worse, when I did end up dying in a nuclear war, I was deathly afraid of facing God in final judgment, and going to hell… See, although I wasn’t the most faithful churchgoer at the time, I grew up Baptist, and I had watched Sunday school classmates and friends walk down the aisle and make professions of faith, receive Christ, get baptized, get saved—and I knew that I hadn’t done that. While I certainly wanted to be saved, no one bothered to explain how that happened.
So I was afraid!
To make a long story short, I went on winter youth group retreat in Black Mountain, North Carolina, in February 1984. And let me tell you… the Lord got hold of me on that retreat. I found Jesus… or I should say, he found me. I made a profession of faith in Christ that weekend and got baptized.
And Jesus completely took away my fear of death, my fear of the Soviet Union, my fear of nuclear war. It was gone. He replaced that fear with a sense of relief. I was confident that something had happened in my past that had forever changed my future. I was saved, past tense. And I knew it! I knew for sure that I was now a child of God. If I died, I knew for sure that I would spend eternity with Christ. And that nothing would change that.
Jesus says, for instance, in John 10:28, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Or Romans 8:38-39: Paul says that nothing—neither death nor life nor anything else in all creation—will ever separate us from God’s love. Or Philippians 1:6: “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.”
Since that time, of course, I’ve been to seminary. I have a more “sophisticated” understanding of what happened to me back then, on February 19, 1984. I have a richer theological vocabulary to describe what happened. I understand these doctrines with greater nuance than I did back then.
But the fact remains: nothing I believed back then was wrong: I was saved… Past tense. All that was true!
But… given today’s scripture—and many others like it—there’s a small but necessary nuance I would add to what I understood back then…
Although I was saved… in the past… I’m not saved today merely because of what happened in the past. In other words, saving faith is not merely something that “happens to us” in the past—in one moment of time… In some churches, that “moment of time” may look like walking down an aisle and praying a “sinner’s prayer,” which I myself did at age 14… In other churches, including our own, it may more often look like going through a months-long confirmation class and making a public promise to follow Jesus for the rest of our lives.
Either way, if we’re not careful, we may make a serious mistake: We may easily think that after this moment in time… whatever else that happens to us in our lives—whether we continue to grow as Christian disciples or whether we drop out of church and never or rarely give Jesus or Christianity a second thought… whatever else happens in our lives is secondary to that initial moment of conversion.
We may mistakenly believe, in other words, that the most important part of faith is the beginning. And what happens after that isn’t nearly as important.
Friends, this is a spiritually dangerous, deadly lie straight from the pit of hell!
Yes, by all means… we have to get started in the Christian life. We have to be converted. But merely “getting started,” or being converted, doesn’t prove, right now, at this moment, that you are saved. Look at the verses we read before chapter 11. The author is describing some Christians who already made a perfectly good start in their Christian life. Yet, he says in verses 32 through 34, that despite this perfectly good beginning, some of those Christians fell away, or “shrunk back.” But in verse 39, he writes: “But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.”
My point is, the proof of saving faith is not that you got off to a good start; it’s that you continue to have faith throughout your life. And if you have saving faith, that means that slowly, over time, this faith will change you.
How could it be otherwise? If sin is such a big problem in our lives, and God loves us so much that he sent his Son to die on a cross to save us from our sins, salvation can’t just be something that we look forward to in the future—when we go to heaven instead of hell. God doesn’t just want to save us from our sins in the hereafter; he wants to save us from our sins in the here and now!
And over the past couple of Wednesday nights, I talked about some ways God was currently saving me from sin. For example, I described how Lisa and I experienced various kinds of car trouble when we were in seminary and shortly thereafter—when times were tight, and we were just scraping by, financially. We experienced car trouble when we could least afford it.
Speaking of which, I saw this funny tweet last week, to which I totally relate: “It’s like your car gets jealous when you’re doing good in life. As soon as I start making money my car suddenly says, ‘It’s our money. Give me $20,000.’”
That’s what Lisa and I experienced for years when I was just starting out in pastoral ministry. I’m not exaggerating when I say that we had a Honda minivan—a pretty famously reliable manufacturer, right? Yet, somehow, this car’s transmission failed and had to be replaced three times… each time just outside of the warranty. And each time, when things looked bleak and hopeless, financially, God came through. He “supplied every need of ours according to his riches in glory,” just like Philippians 4:19 promises that he will.
And as a result of these financial trials, I—even I, who has so little faith—learned to trust in the Lord more and place greater confidence in the promises of his Word.
And here’s another way of putting this: God was saving me through these financial trials—25 years after my conversion—he was saving me from my sin of failing to trust in God, of failing to believe in his promises, not to mention saving me from my sin of covetousness about the shiny new cars that other people possessed that I didn’t. God used those financial trials to grow my faith and overcome sin in the here and now.
That’s what heroic faith looks like. That person I was in 1984 didn’t possess the faith that I needed to handle what would happen later in life. But God is making me into a different person.
And that’s Point Number One: Heroic faith is not merely something that happens to us, or something that we “receive,” at one moment in the past; it persists and grows over a lifetime.
That’s certainly true of Abraham and Sarah. These great heroes of faith are not so different from us us! But I’m guessing many of you don’t believe that.
If so, listen to Point Number Two: Like your faith and my faith, heroic faith is not strong faith.
We see this in the lives of Abraham and Sarah. On two different occasions, instead of trusting God to supply their needs, Abraham deceives powerful rulers into thinking Sarah was not his wife—in effect, Abraham risks selling his wife, Sarah, into a king’s harem—so that the king will spare Abraham’s life and enrich him financially. Abraham demonstrates a startling lack of faith in God. A few years after God promises that he’ll bless Abraham and Sarah with a promised son, and make of his descendants a great nation, Abraham basically gives up on that promise, complaining to God that one of his household servants will have to become his heir instead… Because, Abraham thinks, “After all this time, God still hasn’t come through and given me this long promised son.” 1 Abraham doubted God. His faith wasn’t strong.
Or how about Sarah’s lack of faith? Even though God promised that she would conceive and give birth to a son, after about eleven years of waiting on God, Sarah also gives up. She tells Abraham to take her young Egyptian servant Hagar to be a secondary wife… and by Hagar, Abraham can have a son. And even here, of course, we can’t let Abraham off the hook! It’s not like he objected to this plan!
And this was a disastrous decision that brought great heartache and pain to everyone involved. And once again, it demonstrated a startling lack of faith in God.
Abraham and Sarah prove by their actions that they didn’t have much faith!
The Bible doesn’t pull any punches. The unvarnished truth is that even the great Bible heroes didn’t have much faith!
You know, much like you and me!
Does this reassure you that even you can have heroic faith? It should! Because please notice verse 11: “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.”
The infinitesimal, faltering, far-from-perfect, doubt-filled speck of faith that Sarah possessed ended up being just enough faith for God to transform the world! Verse 11 implies that if Sarah didn’t have whatever tiny amount of faith she had, then what? Then God wouldn’t have enabled her to conceive the promised son, Isaac, and God’s plan of salvation wouldn’t have been put into effect through her and Abraham, and their family tree wouldn’t have eventually brought Jesus the Messiah and Savior into the world.
Sarah’s faith was not much—I mean, sure, it was not nothing, but it was not much…But it was just enough.
Abraham and Sarah’s story proves that God can do amazing things with a “not much” kind of faith. And that’s true, of course, of all the heroes of faith in this chapter.
I like the way Aaron Zimmerman, an Episcopal minister in Waco, puts it. He said, “The point is not, ‘have enough faith on the Faith-O-Meter to make God give you things.’ It’s “have faith, even if it’s the tiny mustard seed that Jesus talks about, and God will bring these things to pass.”
So, chances are, you—even you—possess enough faith to have heroic faith. And that’s Point Number Two.
Point Number Three: Heroic faith is not “knowledgeable” faith. In other words, people with “heroic faith” simply don’t know very much! And that’s okay, too!
Look at verse 8: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.”
So this points back to Genesis chapter 12, verse 1: “Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” The land that I will show you… In other words, “I won’t show you where you’re going right now. I won’t give you the details right now. I won’t show you my plan right now. You’ll have to wait and find out how my plan for you will unfold over time. And by the way, it’s going to take a lot more time than you imagine. In the meantime, you’ll just have to trust me.”
So there’s an important principle that God’s people today need to understand: When we answer God’s call, when we surrender to his will, when we seek to obey him alone, when we seek to be faithful to him alone, when we seek to follow his plan for our lives, we will mostly be ignorant. We will not be very “knowledgeable” about this plan. We will have a hard time seeing exactly what God is up to in our lives.
And following God’s plan usually means—let’s face it—that our plans won’t work out very well—or at least they won’t work out the way we expect, and God’s plans certainly won’t correspond to our original plans. And chances are we’ll have to wait a lot longer than we want. Abraham and Sarah waited 25 years to have their son Isaac—25 years after God first came to Abraham and put him on this path.
Good heavens, when I first answered God’s call into ministry back in 2002, I had no idea that God’s plan for me would unfold the way it has! It has not worked out the way I wanted or expected… not at all! I did not get the pastoral career I wanted or expected.
No, God didn’t give me the pastoral career I wanted. He gave me something far better: he gave me the pastoral career I needed.
In fact, God has given me the life that I needed. God has given me the experiences that I needed. God has given me the trials that I needed. God has even given me the enemies in my life that I needed. And of course God has given me the friends in my life that I needed.
So how can I complain? I’ve been shaped by all these experiences, good or bad. And if any part of God’s plan for me would have worked out differently, I would be a different person from the one I am today.
And I mostly like the person I am today. I especially like the person I’m becoming—the person God is shaping me into. And I especially like this one indisputable truth: I love Jesus, and I trust Jesus, and I treasure Jesus much more today than I did twenty years ago, when I started down this ministry path, or ten years ago, or five years ago… even one year ago. That’s a fact! Forget about my plans or my expectations, or what I wanted. God knows exactly what he’s doing! And I’m learning to trust him.
Even these past several weeks my family has endured a health crisis. Lisa hadn’t felt well for weeks with strange pains in her chest and arms. The doctors were running tests and ruling out various worst case scenarios. This past Monday, Dr. Wade administered a nuclear stress test—and instantly we understood that this was a serious and life-threatening problem. We met with a cardiologist. Lisa needed to have a heart cath right away—she needed stents installed.
And then we had to wait for the insurance company. Many of y’all know how frustrating that can be…
And at nearly every moment last week, when I was tempted to give in to fear, I was reminded of God’s promises in his Word. One of my favorites says, “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened that it cannot save or his ear dull that it cannot hear.” Isaiah 59:1. This means that if it pleases God to bring healing when we ask for it, then we can be certain that God will: his “hand is not shortened.” If it pleases him, he will do whatever he needs to do to make that healing possible. The Bible also says in 1 Corinthians 3:21 to 23 that literally everything that happens in the universe is happening for the good of his children—including Lisa and me. God uses everything for our ultimate benefit. The Bible says that because God is on our side—literally nothing else in the universe can be against us! Even Satan can do his worst to harm us; he’s no match for our heavenly Father! Our Father transforms it into something good.
So even that health crisis that we dealt with last week wasn’t against Lisa and me: God was transforming it into something that was good for us!
These are just a few of the promises that God gives us from his Word, which apply to those of us who are God’s children through faith in his Son Jesus.
And I—even I, with my minuscule amount of faith—must have believed in these promises enough last week that I didn’t worry nearly as much as I might have when I was younger! Praise God!
Speaking of which, I know that many of you are fearful about something that’s happening in our church and denomination right now…
Our local church—and many, many other churches in our denomination—are facing an important decision… about disaffiliation. And this is your decision to make—not mine, yours—as I hope you know by now. I am deliberately not involved in the work of the 2553 Task Force and its responsibility to inform you of your options. I don’t get a vote.
But I have an important decision of my own to make—and this decision affects me and my family greatly. How can I remain United Methodist in good conscience if our denomination changes or disregards important doctrines and beliefs—which strike at the heart of this question: “Is God telling the truth in his Word? Can we trust him? Are we willing to obey his Word, even when doing so is difficult and unpopular?”
So… what am I supposed to do?
To say the least, I need some heroic faith right about now!
I wish I knew the future; I don’t. But what I know for sure is that my decision in this present denominational crisis will be guided by one overarching principle: my desire to be faithful to Jesus alone and to do his will.
Of course, we can’t know what his will is apart from what he’s has revealed to us through the words of scripture, which Christ’s very Spirit, the Holy Spirit, breathed out.
I also know for sure that Christ will be my only judge. When I die, or when Christ returns, I will not stand before the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church to give an account of my life and ministry. I will stand before Jesus and answer to him alone. We all will.
Here’s my problem: The same convictions regarding the truthfulness of scripture that I held twelve years ago when the United Methodist Church ordained me for pastoral ministry… I continue to hold. And the same convictions I held back then concerning the time-tested doctrines of our denomination, which I believe are faithful to God’s Word… I also continue to hold.
And you don’t have to agree with me to be a part of this church. I love you and want to be your pastor.
But whether you agree with me or not, I hope you wouldn’t want a pastor whose convictions about the truthfulness and authority of scripture could change so quickly and easily! After all, we don’t look to the shifting sands of contemporary culture in order to find out what we ought to believe; we look only to this book—and to the faithful saints over the past two thousand years who guide our understanding of it.
But here’s the point: because of my confidence in the truthfulness of God’s Word, I can say for sure that my Lord will continue to take care of me… I mean, I love the United Methodist Church, but my faith has never has been in an institution or a denomination—it never will be! My faith is in Jesus alone!
And if you’re scared for the future of our denomination, I want your faith to be in Jesus alone, as well.
I want you to be assured that Jesus will continue to take care of Toccoa First Methodist as we seek to be faithful to him—no matter what the future holds! Keep trusting in him! Heroic faith trusts in Jesus!
So… that’s Point Number Three… Today’s scripture tells us that having “heroic faith” means not knowing God’s plan, not knowing the future, not knowing exactly how God is going to come through for us—only trusting that he will!
Finally, please notice verse 16: “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” Remember the many times in scripture God introduces himself to others as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” That’s what this refers to. God is not ashamed to be identified with these heroically faithful people—even though they were so badly flawed, even though they sinned in such spectacular ways, even though they failed to trust in God time and time again… much like you and me.
God is not “ashamed” of you and me because on the cross, Jesus Christ bore our shame… He took away all the reasons that we have to be ashamed—namely our sin. And he suffered the penalty that our sins deserved. And he gave us his perfect righteousness in return.
So… remember what I said about getting started… if you haven’t “gotten started” on this journey of heroic faith, if you’ve never trusted in Christ, received his forgiveness, received his gift of eternal life, I invite you to do that now…
I also invite you to come forward if you’ve decided to continue your journey of Christian faith as a member of this local church…