By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
The letter to the Hebrews was probably written to Jewish Christians who were beginning to question the validity of the gospel. The first century expectation that Jesus would return in their lifetime was becoming more and more unlikely. And if those expectations were not fulfilled, was the suffering and persecution they were enduring worth it? Wasn’t the whole point of a Messiah, to redeem the world from such suffering and oppression. In their real life, the suffering was getting worse because of their faith—not better. It is hard to hold faith in deep darkness.
These same questions echo through the centuries and into our present day. On a global scale, the human insistence upon trying to determine who is better and who is lesser is never ending. We justify our prejudices and our entitlement and in its darkest form, genocide is the outcome. It is painfully true that genocide is common place in the history of human kind. Empirically it is hard to argue that love will redeem the world. It is hard to believe in love when you are a prisoner in Auschwitz.
On a more personal level, the list of pastoral concerns seems to grow larger and larger. Aging, illness, dying, addiction, depression, broken relationships and job stresses—just to name the issues that come immediately to my mind— make it harder and harder to have hope. And even when we try to swim against that tide, the needs of the people around us far exceed our ability to respond.
As we discussed particular people and situations in FIRL, a dark cloud settled in the room. Naming, seeing and remembering pain is hard. Truth be known, sometimes, I do not want to see— because seeing exposes me both to pain and to my own limitations. ‘How are you?’ is a ‘polite’ question not a caring one. I don’t want to know what it is like to be intubated when you can’t breath or have a tube pushed down your throat because you can’t eat. I don’t want to know the stories of the homeless or what it’s really like to be a minority. World suffering is frightening enough. True personal pain is sometimes more than we can bear. But whether societal or personal, none of this is new. We want relief. We want fairness and justice. And we want kindness. All too often we find the opposite. And it is to this predicament that the writer of Hebrews speaks.
The familiar sermon on this passage (and not a bad one) reminds us to remember the cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. Remember their triumphs and remember their trials. In the text, it is ‘by faith’ that many were victorious in the face of impossible odds—they ”conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” And it is ‘by faith’, many were sustained in the most horrific of times—They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented.”
Then there is a jarring truth. “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised.” Please remember that Moses never entered the promised land. If his life of faith can’t qualify because of his foibles, we’re in trouble. The problem once again is that when life takes left turns we try to explain it in terms of our version of justice. Moses took enormous risks to follow God—surely he would be blessed. His life’s work would come to fruition. But in real life, that does not always happen. Innocents suffer; our most diligent efforts fail; people we love die.
In Faith in Real Life, we tried to unpack the phrase ‘by faith.’ Just what does it mean to live by faith and what does the life of faith actually promise?
Prosperity gospel notwithstanding, it is pretty clear that the life of faith does not necessarily lead to a better life by any secular standard. One way around this realization has been an understanding that faith is the belief that God would square up accounts in the afterlife. We may have a hard time now but we will inhabit fashionable resort palaces for all eternity. And as an extra bonus, the bad guys will get theirs in the end—they will suffer for all eternity. We will be vindicated. Justice, albeit our justice, will prevail. It is a view that most have been raised with.
But such a view is dangerously self serving. We explain the world with our rationales and act as if we know the mind of God—that we possess the knowledge of good and evil. It is a temptation that has been around for a very long time. But such thinking is sinful thinking. It protects us from our helplessness but it denies our true dependence upon God.
Living by faith means following Jesus. He consistently ignored the definitions and categories that defined relationships. The poor mattered, woman mattered, children mattered. Each of these were of less account in the world but Jesus met them as persons and as children of God. That means suspending our egocentric views long enough to listen to God. In real life that means that homeless does not equal vandal; Muslim does not equal terrorist; husband does not equal heterosexual. Even more personally, pain is not a sign of divine displeasure nor well being a sign of divine approval. When we make those errors, they lead to death. They lead away from love. Jesus showed us new and an almost incomprehensible way. By every human measure, the Son of God should be protected from the pain of this world. But though he was crucified, he was united with God.
That’s living by faith. We actually have no idea of what that might mean. Our vision is way too limited to know. We use poetry and human imagining but at the end of the day we cannot concretize the promise. It is direction and a relationship that surpasses human understanding. We live by God’s promise to be with us always and to be present to one another. We are limited. We may not see the promised land. The promised land may well be different than we expected— but we move in that direction.
Hold on to the promises of God and live like love matters. The darkness will not overcome it. Let it be so.