Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
The Meaning of Faith
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
The Faith of Abraham
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. By faith Sarah herself, though barren, received power to conceive, even when she was too old, because she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Jesus said, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.
‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’
What is the most important thing in the world for you? One of my brother-in-laws loves sailing. For a while he and his son became a very successful and quite competitive pairing. My nephew also looked like he might have made the junior national squad, and for several years their weekends were full of loading up the boats on to their trailer and then driving off literally all over the country to compete.
In terms of their weekends, they put all of their resources into being the best they could be, and they worked hard to be able to afford the best boats for their class. The most important thing to them was being the best competitive sailors in their class, and they often were. Had my nephew wanted to make a career out of it, he quite probably could. When something is that important to you, you put your heart and soul into it.
When I was younger I wanted to race cars. Now this might seem strange from someone who drives an old Volvo estate, but I promise you, that’s out of necessity. Sadly I have a drumkit, percussion and Ali’s harp to cart around and there’s not really anything else big enough to do that job other than a Volvo. Or a truck.
But both my Father and my Grandfather were club level racers so I guess that competitive spirit is in the blood, and I really liked the idea of racing and used to go and watch club-level racing at the weekends, dreaming of the day when I could do it.
But then I started to look at the dedication of the drivers. Even at club level motorsport it requires dedication and a big budget. And then when you look at those at the top level, and you find people like Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton for whom almost their entire focus of their lives is on winning and being literally the best and fastest drivers in the world. That’s real dedication. Apparently to drive at that level requires the fitness of a world-class marathon runner.
Two thousand years ago Jesus made a very simple observation. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. There’s no judgement in it, it is simply seeing how we are. It’s human nature. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Whatever it is that we most want, that’s what we will put all of our energies into achieving.
So let’s ask the question again. What’s the most important thing in the world to you? In order to answer the question honestly, all you have to do is have a good look at your life and see what you put most of your energies into. Now to be honest, this can be quite painful. Being truthful with ourselves is usually uncomfortable because it means we uncover hidden motivations that perhaps we’d rather weren’t there.
If you put all of your heart and soul into being a good parent, that’s where your treasure is. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all; that’s a good thing. But what about if you’re putting all of your heart and soul into being the most important? Is that such a good thing? It’s not that ambition is wrong, but is there someone who’s having to make way for you? Who’s getting trampled on?
You see the problem is that when we put all of our energies into our own reputation, or success, or wealth, those things are so fleeting. What will there be of any lasting value?
Last week we heard the parable of the rich man who was going to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to hold all his huge harvest, only for God to demand his soul of him that night. What then of his bigger barns? Who would get what he had saved for himself?
Today’s reading is really an extension of that as Jesus tells us to look at what’s most important to us, and then asks the question whether, in the eternal scheme of things, our treasure is really worth anything of actual lasting value? Possessions aren’t; when we go, they get left behind. Power? Well that’s useless to us on the other side of the veil, and when we go the next power-hungry person will just move in and upend all that we have put in place.
So what is there that’s really of lasting value? For that we have to turn to the reading from Hebrews, and this is where it becomes very difficult for us because our human nature rebels against what the writer is saying.
If I were to sum it up it is this: Our faith leads us to believe that after death we will inherit the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom not yet seen but of which we are already subjects. This earthly place is not our home, and so we should live as subjects of the place we will inherit when we die rather than residents of this planet. The place we will inherit is so amazing, so wonderful and so all-consuming that we should put all of our earthly energies into living as people of that place.
Now that’s not so easy to take is it. Back in the Gospel reading, Jesus made it clear that if our treasure was in heaven, then that should dictate how we live on earth so that we live to meet the needs of others. The writer to the Hebrews underlines this by reminding us of people who have died in faith because they were seeking the homeland, heaven, that they hadn’t yet received.
And this is where the rubber really hits the road. You can tell the strength of someone’s belief that the kingdom of heaven is their real home because that belief will become obvious in the way they live. Where their treasure is, there is their heart. So if someone has the values of their real homeland, of heaven, then they will live that out in the here and now.
But this is where it gets more complicated. The easy preach is to tell you do the impossible which is to sell everything you’ve got, much as Jesus said. But he must have been using hyperbole, as many Rabbi’s did, to make a point. We have to ask ourselves what our possessions mean to us. Jesus could only conduct his ministry because he had some well-off people, like Mary Magdalene, who supported him.
And she supported him because, although she had access to money, she was open-handed with using it for something she believed in, ie supporting Jesus’s ministry. So what about us? For example, let’s think about the things we acquire. Why do we buy what we do? What are our motives?
I know of a Christian who agonizes over every piece of art that he buys because he wants to be sure he’s buying it for the right reason. If it is a work which inspires him then he knows that it can help him to grow as a person by broadening his horizons in his appreciation of it, but he has to be sure that he’s not buying it simply to show off, or to feed an acquisition habit.
Do we give to the poor? I hope so, but why? Because we feel we ought to? What would be the effect if our real treasure is in the kingdom of heaven? Then everything that we own here on earth, and any quests for power influence or wealth will be obvious to us as merely transient.
That’s why Jesus was able to say that we should be able to sell our possessions, because basically in the grand scheme of things they’re pretty pointless. Only... only it doesn’t always feel like that does it. The truth is that it’s very difficult, extremely difficult to live like this because it requires that we believe in something we can’t see; that we have faith that there is this other place which we will inherit on our deaths. But what is the proof?
You see we live in a culture which is dominated by the scientific method, whereby the truth of something depends on being able to prove it. That’s the culture of our time and so that’s how we’ve learnt to measure truth; can it be proven? I have to say that with hand on heart the answer is no, I can’t prove it to you. But look at the lives of the best of us and ask yourself, where does their inspiration come from to live like that? Look at those whose lives are drenched in prayer and ask yourself, don’t you recognise something in them that sets you yearning?
Ali and I had a meal with a clergy friend of ours not so long ago. Before we left she asked if we could pray together. As she prayed Ali and I both felt a sense of holy power flowing out from her. She is a woman of great faith, although just as flawed as the rest of us.
But her flaws don’t matter. Her faith revealed itself in that humble, holy power that flowed out of her. If you know someone like that, you’ll know how inspiring they are. So is it true? I can’t prove it; that’s why we have faith. But this is I do believe; if you spend time praying regularly you will discover a treasure far beyond anything you can imagine here on earth, and it will be worth giving up everything to have to reach out for it.
That’s what the writer to the Hebrews was saying, that we have a great hope in the kingdom of heaven, and that there is a great joy in this. Christianity should not be built around a sense of dreadful guilt that we’re not good enough and we really shouldn’t be doing this, or that, and certainly not the other. Ahem...
Instead we should grow in our relationship with the Lord in such a way that we get a vision for the future of what awaits us, and that should inspire us in how we should live now.