Summary: Faith is not a concept but a way of life. Faith is known by it’s action - faithfulness.
Sometimes when I read Hebrews chapter 11 I feel like a kid walking through a hall of fame, looking up into the faces of those people who seem bigger than life. They are the pillars of the faith, the great forebearers of the people of God. And I think ‘Oh man, I can’t be like them’. But I’d like to, so I go back to the Old Testament to learn more. And suddenly I discover plain, ordinary people, people who were far less than perfect, people who didn’t always do right, people who didn’t even necessarily listen to God. Rahab was a prostitute, Moses killed a man, King David committed adultery, and as for the patriarchs - Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - there were so many skeletons in their family closet it would make a therapist cry. So how do we put these two pictures together, the down to earth, human stories of the Old Testament and the shiny saintly images of Hebrews. Why, when the Hebrews writer spoke of faith, did he choose these characters? If, in fact, they were no different than you and what kind of example is the writer of Hebrews setting for us?
This chapter opens with a definition of faith, so we say it is a chapter on faith with a few concrete examples thrown in. But what if it is not about a definition of faith (with examples), but instead shows examples of faithfulness by which we can understand the meaning of faith. It would mean the Hebrew writer opens with the cart, and then follows it with a team of horses.
So we are here, not to play with abstract concepts, but to talk about faithfulness, that concrete, down to earth, rubber meets the road undertaking. Faith as it is seen by action. The writer of Hebrews would heartily agree with James when he said, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” The Hebrews writer is not trying to convince us of anything about faith, he is simply pointing to the work that makes faith real. Let’s look at the chapter again, but this time holding onto our new focus. In faithfulness Abel offered to God a better sacrifice, in faithfulness Noah built a ark, in faithfulness Abraham left his home, living in a foreign land. In faithfulness he raised a son in his old age. In faithfulness Moses stood with his oppressed people rather than lives as Pharaoh’s kinsmen. In faithfulness the people of Israel entered the promised land, on and on, the list goes through the ages. And in faithfulness, we come to church, in faithfulness we teach our children, in faithfulness we care for our community, in faithfulness we give our time and resources and abilities in the service of God.
Is this what made these people our spiritual ancestors? Is this all it takes to be heroes in God’s kingdom? Does recognition from God come by being just plain good folks. Well!!!!, are good works and faithfulness the same thing? No -faithfulness is more than keeping our responsibilities or even a whole load of kindness. And faithfulness is not just a shining character of human nature. Faithfulness is just what it says ‘Faith--fullness’. The fullness of faith, the completion of faith. Faith rightly placed and responsive to the One in whom we have entrusted our faith.
The Hebrews writer begins his chapter with his definition of faith. It is Assurance, It is Conviction, It is Discernment. And then he states, “and without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that God exists and that God rewards those who seek him.” Now, it is not hard for us to understand that faith rests on God. That is our basic assumption. We believe in God - even in a non-doctrinal church that much is a given, I don’t think there is an argument there. Our problem more often is that we are more than content to stop right there. Faith becomes simply a mental exercise, a set of concepts that we assert rather than a body of convictions that we have chosen to follow. We want a faith that makes us feel better, not necessarily something that will drive us to action. But listen to the Cotton Patch version of the opening verses of Hebrew 11, “Now faith is the turning of dreams into deeds. It is betting your life on the unseen realities. It was for such faith that men of old were martyred. And by so relating our lives, we become aware that history is woven to God’s design so that the seen event is a projection of the unseen intent.”
Faith, real, genuine, honest before God, ‘test me and see’ faith - acts. It goes into the world based on the promises of God and trusting in God’s own faithfulness to us. Such faith cannot sit by the wayside, it must get up and move. Such faith takes the presence and power of God seriously, and stands up to be counted. Such faith led Abraham out of Ur, brought Israel into the promised land, inspired prophets, directed kings, and challenged saints. It led Saint Patrick back to the land where he had been a slave, to tell them of the freedom of Christ. It led Martin Luther King Jr. to dream of a better world and march for it’s reality. It led Mother Theresa into the slums of Calcutta and David Livingstone into the jungles of Africa. In all these faith took form in faithfulness, in service, in involvement in the world and in care for all God’s people.