13th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 15C)
August 18th/19th, 2013
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews chapter eleven. Faith is a popular word among Christians, as it should be. We hear of the heroes in Hebrews 11, of Noah and Abraham and Moses, and marvel at their faith, at the great things they accomplished for God. We marvel that Noah had the faith to build the ark. We marvel that Abraham had the faith to leave his homeland. We marvel that Moses had the faith to march into Pharaoh’s throne room and demand the freedom of the Israelites. We marvel at these displays of faith and wonder where in the mundane of our day to day lives we could ever hope to show such courage, such faith. We wonder whether our faith or our actions can ever be worth comparing to the great faith of these heroes.
Satan, of course, chimes in at this point. He is more than willing to let us continue thinking of these heroes as if their displays of faith are well beyond our measly abilities. “Where is your faith, O Christian?” he hisses in our ears. “Where is your great trust? Where is your grand display of faith?” Satan loves to question the strength of our faith – and we tend to listen. We hear that Noah had the faith to build an ark, and we wonder if we have enough faith to build a new building, much less a boat in the desert. We hear that Abraham had the faith to leave his father’s house, and we wonder if we have enough faith to take the Gospel out even into the community and neighborhoods around us, or if we will remain safely hidden behind the church walls. We hear that Moses had the faith to risk his life before Pharaoh, and we wonder whether we have the faith to risk our reputation or career standing up for our beliefs. We hear of these great displays of faith and ask ourselves, what about me? Could I do that? Should I do that? Should I try to live like Noah? Like Moses? Like Abraham?
But there is a detail that we so often leave out – and it is no small matter.
Take for example the account of Abraham and Isaac that is alluded to in the reading from Hebrews today. That narrative is part of the larger history of Abraham, which itself is part of the larger history of Israel, which itself is part of the larger history of salvation. God had spoken several specific promises to Abraham. He promised Abraham that his descendants would possess the land across the Jordan, which is where it got the name Promise Land. He promised Abraham that he would have a son, and that through that son Abraham would have descendants as numerous as the stars and as countless as the sand on the seashore. He also promised Abraham that one of those numerous descendants would be the Messiah – the one through whom all nations on earth would be blessed.
Those four promises are in the background of every single story we are told about Abraham. When Isaac was born to Sarah at time when she and Abraham were well beyond the age of childbearing, it was a miraculous indication to Abraham that God would fulfill all his promises. As the writer of Hebrews reminds us, God specifically told Abraham that the other promises of descendants and the Messiah would be fulfilled through the children of Isaac. Abraham had received a specific word from God regarding Isaac. God had said in no uncertain terms that Isaac would have children.
Fast forward a few years to a time when Isaac is grown, but not yet married and not yet a father. God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Again, Hebrews tells us that this was a test of Abraham’s faith, but what specifically is the test? Is it to see if Abraham loves God more than he loves Isaac? Is it a test to see if Abraham will blindly obey God’s directions? No. This is a test to see whether or not Abraham believes that our God is a God who keeps his promises. Isaac did not yet have children. God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. But God had already promised Abraham that Isaac’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars and as countless as the sand. God had promised Abraham that one of Isaac’s descendants would be the Messiah. God had sealed that promise through the blood of circumcision. And God does not break his promises.
Hebrews tells us that Abraham considered that God was even able to raise Isaac from the dead [Heb. 11:19]. Abraham knew that God could not allow Isaac to stay dead because of the promise God had already made. Yes, Abraham displayed great faith, but his faith was in a word of promise that God had given him concerning Isaac by name: “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named” [Gen 21:12]. Faith is trust, but it is only as strong as that in which it trusts. Faith is the hand that reaches out and takes hold of the promises of God. If window washer working on the top floors of the Renaissance Center loses his balance and falls, he is going to reach out to grab whatever he can. Maybe he grabs hold of a rope. If that rope is not connected securely to something on the roof, then it doesn’t matter how strong a grip the man has on it – it will be of no use to him. The grip of the man is not as important as the strength and reliability of the rope. Faith is the hand that reaches out and takes hold of the promises of God. Abraham’s faith was strong because he trusted in God’s promise, and God keeps his promises. Abraham’s faith was strong because the word of God that Abraham trusted is unbreakable. So even though Abraham did not know how God would work it out, he trusted the sure and certain promise that he had concerning Isaac.
What strong and unbreakable promises has God made to you?
Earlier this morning, we welcomed the newest member into our Lord’s church through the waters of baptism. God’s promises to you are connected to the water that you were washed with there. Abraham had great confidence before God because of the promises connected to circumcision. You have great confidence before God because of the promises connected to your baptism. Sin, can disturb my soul no longer – you are baptized into Christ. No longer can a guilty conscience weigh you down, for you have been cleansed in Jesus’ sacrifice. Satan, hear this proclamation: you are baptized into Christ. Drop the ugly accusations. Now that to the font you’ve traveled, all Satan’s might has come unraveled, and against his tyranny, God our Lord unites with you. Not even death can end this gladness, for you are baptized into Christ. You are a child of paradise. The sure and certain promise of our salvation, won by our Lord himself, given to us through the water of baptism, is the promise of all promises.
Moses was able to accomplish his daily tasks as the leader of Israel because of his confidence in God’s promise. The promises that we have been given in baptism – that we are made a new creation set here to love and serve the people around us – enable us to live in our daily lives.
When we hear the history of these heroes in Hebrews 11, we are called to follow their example, but it is their example of faith that we are to emulate. Our confessions put it like this: “Since callings vary, . . . the call of David to rule or of Abraham to sacrifice his son, are not for us to imitate. Callings are personal, . . . so it is perfection for each of us with true faith to obey his own calling.”[i]. Maybe you haven’t done anything in your life that is of the same universal historical significance of Noah. But God has not necessarily called you to that. He has not given you a promise concerning that. The examples of these men “are patterns for us only in that we should resemble them in their faithfulness to their tasks, not that we should make their tasks ours. We must show faithfulness in our own tasks.”[ii]
And what tasks are those? What has God called us to?
Luther would tell us to consider our stations in life. As parents, he has called us to train up our children in his word. He has called children to obey their parents, to honor their father and mother. As citizens we ought to give to Caesar what is Caesars, and to God what is God’s, living peacefully under the authority of the government in our land, for there is no authority except that which comes from God. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, and wives are to submit to their husbands as to the Lord. As employees we are to work wholeheartedly, as if we were serving the Lord himself, and not mere men. Employers are to treat their workers fairly. All of us are called to pray for others, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
How this works out in your day to day life will be different than how it worked out in Abraham’s. It will be different than how it worked out in Noah’s. It will be different than how it works out in mine. But it is founded on the word that our Lord has spoken to us. It always comes back to the promises God has made. The Scripture is filled with examples of people who lived their various daily lives trusting in these promises of God, and “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” [Hebrews 12:1-2]
We keep our eyes on Jesus because our righteousness is found in Jesus alone. Our faith is in Jesus alone – in what he has done for us, and in what he has said to us. Maybe you don’t ever build the ark as Noah did. Yet if through faith in God’s word you build a life for your children, providing them with shelter, food, clothing, medicine, and whatever they need, then you have fulfilled your vocation just as he fulfilled his. Maybe you never march into Pharaoh’s palace as Moses did. Yet if you faithfully confess to your family and friends the truth of God’s word in the face of opposition from the world around you, you have fulfilled your vocation just as he fulfilled his.
You will almost certainly never be called to take your only son onto a mountainside and sacrifice him as a test of your trust in God’s promises. Yet because our Lord himself sacrificed his only son on a mountainside in your place, you can live in the sure and certain confidence that all your sin is forgiven, and you are right with God. Faith in that reality equips us for whatever manner of service happens to show up in our daily life. We need not be bothered by Satan’s comparisons, by questions of whether or not our service compares to Abraham’s. Rather we rejoice that our Lord would use us in his service at all. We do not live under the burden of comparing our service to the service of Noah, but living in the knowledge of what our Lord has done for us, we are free to address our tasks at hand, whatever those tasks may be, confident that our service is just as pleasing in God’s eyes as the great deeds of Moses. For it is done in faith toward God and in love for our neighbor.
May our Lord grant us the faith to trust his sure and certain promises to us, and lives that reflect his love to the people around us. In Jesus Name. Amen.