How Now Shall We Live? (Hebrews 11)
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I think probably everyone thinks this of their own experience, but I really believe that when I was growing up - it was the golden age of Christmas movies. Whether it was National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, The Santa Clause, Muppet Christmas Carol, the live action Grinch - we had it all! Of course you had the classics, that you could watch re-runs of - the claymation cluster of Rudolph and Santa Claus is Coming to Town and all those, or the timeless greatest of all time - It’s A Wonderful Life. The reason I say that my childhood was the golden age is that it sure seems like all the best movies coming out these days are sequels to the ones that were coming out when I was little. I’m not even going to talk about the Hallmark Channel and their 42 new Christmas movies a year. I didn’t make that number up - that’s how many Christmas movies Hallmark put out this year. (Wow). Now most of the big Hollywood Christmas movies have the same few themes - family, love, generosity - and those are all amazing messages. But when I was little - there was one message that was the most important - the unspoken virtue of believing in Santa. Whether it was Tim Allen in the Santa Clause, the little girl in Miracle On 34th Street, or Buddy the Elf - for most holiday movies there is an unspoken virtue of believing in Santa. (Now, before I continue - I just want to say, I’m not going to get into the Santa VS Jesus thing. The character of Santa is based on a real person - Saint Nicholas, who was a Bishop in the Christian church in the 4th century. Santa kneels at the foot of the manger and recognizes Christ as lord, so I’m not treat them as competitors.) So in a ton of the movies the good guys believe in Santa, and the bad guys don’t. I was watching Elf with my kiddos and, if you’ve never seen it - the big struggle is that there’s just no more Christmas Spirit to make Santa’s sleigh fly. Or the Santa Clause where Tim Allen is at the actual North Pole, talking to an actual elf and he still can’t believe it and she says to him, “Seeing isn’t believing: believing is seeing. Kids don’t have to see this place to know that it’s here. They just…know.” My point with all this, whether you believe in the fat man who eats your Christmas cookies or not, what I want you to see is that these films are getting their ideas from OUR beliefs! They’re describing Christian FAITH! And that's what we’re going to find in our work with the book of Hebrews today.
Now if you’ve been with us over the past few weeks, we’ve been reading through some of the later books at the end of the New Testament (If I hold up my bible, I’ve only got a couple of pages left). And the letters in the New Testament deal with three main things: encouragement, teachings and conflict management. Hebrews is one of those books of the Bible that is mostly just teachings. It’s very rich and deep and teaches us a lot about Jesus. But chapter 11, where we’re going to spend some time, chapter 11 is sort of like a flash back episode. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes sitcoms, rather than have a real episode, they’ll do a throw away episode where all the characters sit around and talk, “hey, do you remember that one time….” And then the episode is mostly clips from previous episodes. That’s chapter 11 of Hebrews, it’s a MASSIVE list of stories from previous books in the Bible. It’s kind of like when you finish eating at Thanksgiving, or everyone is stuffed from the big extended family Christmas dinner - and you just sort of sit around and commiserate. “Do you remember when we were kids and we used to do… blah, blah, blah” Do you guys do this? Those are some of my favorite moments - just sitting around shooting the breeze, sharing stories and laughing at memories. Hebrews 11 is a list of heroes of the faith - it’s like, “do you remember when Abel had faith? And Enoch had faith? Do you remember when Noah had faith? Do you remember when Abraham had faith?” Moment of honesty, I had to go look up Enoch - I didn’t remember his story off the tip of his head. And if you’ve got a really solid bible, some of them will include the references at the bottom so if you forgot - you can go back and check out that story. (Enoch was Genesis 5)
Hebrews starts out, [read v.1-3]. Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen. There’s another translation that phrases it differently - it says that faith is the evidence of things unseen. Faith is where we trust, we believe in something - even if it’s not right in front of us. There’s a great moment in the movie the Santa Clause where this adult Neil is trying to convince Charlie that Santa isn’t real. And he says, “well, I’ve never seen a reindeer fly.” And the kid responds, “Have you ever seen a million dollars?” And Neil admits, “No.” And then Charlie says, “Just because you can’t see something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.” Who knew the author of Hebrews and Charlie from The Santa Clause would have so much in common! Here’s what I want you to grab from all this - Faith is the start of every good thing that has ever been. Every single good thing that has ever been created started with somebody who believed in it. Before you could see it, someone had to have faith in it. Faith is a spark. When I wake up in my bed, I have no evidence of coffee - maybe some monster broke into my house and stole all my grounds and threw away my Chemex - but I believe it’s there, and sometimes that’s the main reason I get up - is the belief that there’s coffee. Faith is a spark, Faith is a starting point. And as for faith in God? That’s why all these guys did all these things! They believed and that belief was a motivation for the incredible things they did. Noah didn't have any evidence of a world wide flood, but he still built that boat. Listen to the list, verse 8 [read it], verse 11 [read v.11-12]. Every single good thing that has ever been started with some form of Faith. Back in verse 6, [read it]. You need faith to please God, and without faith, we will lack motivation in our lives. Hear some of these stories, remember what you’ve learned, [read v.20-25]. Look at what Faith can do.
But it doesn’t stop there, verse 13 is so important, it says, [read v.13]. This is so key. Most of these people died without without receiving what was promised. God DID deliver, we know the whole story - God DID fulfill every single one of his promises, but these heroes of faith did not get to see it. Joseph had been dead for 400 years before his promise was fulfilled. Moses did not actually get to see the promise land, he died in the wilderness. These people had more than just faith. Faith is a spark, but the spark will go out easily without HOPE. Hope is the only way that the thing we started with faith doesn’t sputter out and die. In the darkness, in the valley, in the struggles and obstacles we find in life - Hope is the way we make it through. Faith is easy in the daylight, but hope is the way faith survives the night. Hebrews says that all these heroes died before they received what was promised, but they saw it from a distance and they welcomed it. Hope is the kindling that we add to the spark of Faith. Hope is that moment when we take the faith and we look into the distance. We see that our faith is stronger than the struggles of the present moment. If it’s hard right now in your life, pray for hope. Because hope is the belief that the story is not over. I mean, listen to this - [read Hebrews 11:30-40].
Faith leads us to incredible things, but life is not a steady upward climb. Hope is the method that helps faith endure. I think about the Christmas story - Hebrews 11 is mostly old testament, but I think we’ve got some more stories we could add. The hope of Mary, who weathered incredible conditions to give birth to her first child. Her faith started when the angel showed up and told her about the baby, but hope is what got her through the delivery. I think about the hope of the shepherds. They have to find this kid in a stable in Bethlehem. Again, the spark started with an angel. Their faith got them moving - but do you ever wonder if they got lost? If they checked barn after barn - how silly do you think they felt? Checking barns for a baby. The hope of the wise men following a star. That star was FAR away, and their faith got them started. We need to follow this star, but how about on the cold winter nights out in the dessert? They’re exhausted and they’ve been traveling for a really long time? At any point do you think Wise Man number 2 looked at the other guys and said, “I mean, it’s JUST a star. I miss my bed, I want to go home.” Hope takes Faith across the finish line.
And this is all over the place, our readings for this past week were mostly Hebrews and then 1 and 2 Peter. 2 Peter chapter 1, verse 20 says [read v.20-21]. No prophecy ever came from a prophets own understanding. If you remember the prophets - they were the mouthpiece of God, way back in the day in the old testament. But the prophets did not understand. You might remember Jeremiah or Isaiah - God would say, “tell the people of Israel this…” and the prophets would sort of go, “Alright, that doesn't really make any sense to me, but I’ll tell them.” And then you fast forward 50 years or whatever and suddenly it all comes together. Like the prophecies of Jesus - Isaiah was the guy who said “a virgin is going to give birth” - and that didn’t make any sense for hundreds of years! Think about it like this. Children have to wait for Christmas morning in order to open their presents - we want to teach them about delayed gratification. We have to tell kids you don’t always get the thing you want the instant you want it - we have to wait, be patient, and that makes the moment when the promise is fulfilled amazing. In the same way, God has set up the history of the world not in a way that satisfies us instantly and on demand. It’s very rare for us to have faith and pray for something and instantly get it. And think about these stories from Israel’s history! Most of them did NOT see the promise fulfilled in their lifetime. God puts the history of the world together this way ON PURPOSE, to teach us to trust God more.
Faith is the spark, Hope is the kindling - but here is where it all comes together. We teach you these things about faith and hope, so that you can better love. The whole point of lighting the fire, is so that we can see by its light. There’s an old story about a school system in a large city that had a program to help children keep up with their school work during stays in the city’s hospital. If a kid was in the hospital for a while, they would send a teacher to the hospital to do some tutoring so they wouldn’t get behind. And there was this lady who was assigned to a certain kid. She took the name, room number and talked with the regular teacher so she knew what to cover. The hospital program teacher went to go see the boy, but no one had told her that he had been badly burned and he was in great pain. So she was shocked and sort of stammered, “I’ve been sent by your school to help you with nouns and adverbs.” And afterwards she left and felt like she hadn’t accomplished very much. But the next day, a nurse asked her, “What did you do to that boy?” The teacher thought she did something wrong and she began to apologize, “Oh no, I’m so sorry…” No, no, said the nurse. “You misunderstand, we’ve been so worried about that little boy, but ever since yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He’s fighting back, responding to treatment. It’s as though he’s decided to live.” Two weeks later the boy explained that he had completely given up hope until the teacher had arrived. Everything changed when he came to a simple realization. “They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?” Faith and Hope bring healing into people’s lives. It gives peace to those of us who have it. Faith and hope have enormous psychological benefit - but that’s not just for us. As people who follow Jesus, we work to cultivate and grow faith and hope in our lives - not just so we will feel better, but so that we will be better at loving the people around us. 1 Peter chapter 4 tells us, in verse 7 [read v.7-8]. Be earnest and disciplined, but MOST importantly - love.
Now I want you to think about the Christmas story - God sent a baby, born of a virgin, laid in a manger with shepherds and kings watching on. But what I want you to realize is that God was very intentional with the way he set this up. Being born in a barn was not an accident. Being born a helpless baby was on purpose. God put the nativity picture together very specifically. Think about this - God sent us a solution that is not a solution. God sent a solution that required MORE faith and hope. God could have come into the world as a grown man, leading heavens armies to smite all his enemies. But he came as a helpless baby. A baby is not a solution. I mean, do you think the kings walked up to the kid lying in a manger and stuck a microphone in his face - “Sir, you’re coming has been foretold in the heavens and we’ve followed your star to this location. We’ve just been accosted by a bunch of very excited (and a little bit scruffy) shepherds going on about angels and it is clear that heavenly beings are telling everyone about your momentous birth - when can we expect a copy of your plan to save the world?” No! Of course not! The birth of Jesus is all about hope and faith because it is all about potential! The fact that God came into this world is, all by itself, an incredible event - but it is the shadow of the cross that gives the nativity it’s power. It is the hope of what is coming - victory over sin and death - that makes Christmas matter. If faith is a spark and hope is kindling - I want you to understand that the nativity is God pouring lighter fluid on the story. God didn’t send us a prepackaged answer, he sent us firewood. He sent us potential.
AND, I don’t want you to miss this - Jesus started as a baby with all this potential. He was the king, but he still had to learn how to talk, and walk and how to eat. Mary still had to potty train Jesus. And that’s the power of Jesus coming as a real life human being. We develop as Christians just like Jesus had to develop as a human. We start out with a spark of faith, but with hope we grow - we build a fire in our hearts that will grow - and then your life can start to change the world around you. The power of the nativity and the power of your faith is found in their potential. That baby will grow and develop, and your faith can grow and develop. Because if you have no hope, no faith in the future - you have no power in the present. Years ago, there was a small town in Maine that was proposed for the site of a huge hydroelectric plant. They were going to put in a dam, BUT since the dam would be built across the river, the entire town would be submerged. When the project was announced, the people were given a couple of months to arrange their affairs and relocate. Apparently the company paid for the relocation, helped people move and whatnot. During the time that the dam was built, because it takes a long time to build a dam, this weird thing happened to the town. All improvements ceased. No painting was done. No repairs were made on the buildings, roads and sidewalks. Day by day, the whole town got shabbier and shabbier. A long time before the flood waters came, the town looked uncared for and abandoned, even though the people had not yet moved away. One citizen complained, “Where there was no faith in the future, there is no power for the present.” The town was cursed with hopelessness because it had no future. Some of us are living our lives with no hope for the future, and that means you can’t grow today. But God didn’t send us a finished product, he sent us the power of potential, in the helplessness of the baby Jesus - and he did that to show you the power of faith, hope and love. It can change YOUR life, and then it can change the world.
So I have three quick challenges for you this morning and then we’re done. First - believe without seeing. Faith is the evidence of things unseen, it is the spark that lights up your heart. Believe without seeing. Second, I want you to hope - even in the darkest moments, cling to hope. Remember the long and storied history that we have been studying all this year. There are so many people who have gone on before us - and they clung to hope, even if they didn’t see the promise fulfilled in their lifetimes. Hope got them through the hard times when the spark of faith flickers like a candle in the wind. Hope is the kindling that gets faith through to the finish line. In the same way. - Hope can get you through the cold dark nights of the soul. Believe without seeing, hope even in the darkest moments and finally let your faith and your hope help you to better love. We built this fire of faith so that we could shine light into the dark places of this world. Jesus changed everything - not just when he was a baby, but when he grew up with his love and his sacrifice for the world. It’s the same in your life - your faith can change the world, not just because of your personal beliefs, but because your faith can grow - and when you’ve grown - your love and your sacrifices can change the world. That’s the power of potential. Every single one of you has the capacity to change the world for the better. Feed that spark. Fuel the Flame. And then let that light shine into the darkest places in our world.
I think about all those Christmas movies - with the unspoken rule that good guys believe and bad guys don’t, and I realize they were just picking up what Christianity was laying down. Faith is the spark that gets us moving. Hope is the kindling that gets us through the obstacles and challenges. And all of it is so that the love of Jesus Christ can shine out into our world. Let’s pray.