August 18, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
11:29 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.
12:1 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.
Remember how it used to be, taking pictures, before digital photography? You had to load film into a camera, carry the camera with you, set up the shots, take the pictures, then wait for them to be developed before you could see them – so you had to pay for processing your pictures – whether they were any good or not. Remember getting double prints? And saving negatives? Remember photo albums?
A favorite pastime when I was a child was to sit with my brothers and sisters on a rainy Saturday afternoon, and to leaf through family photos. We would recall Christmases, vacations, illnesses and birthdays. Mostly we remembered the odd events, like when the raccoon stole our pajamas off the line, or the time we got so sunburned the first day at the beach that we spent the rest of the trip visiting caves, or staying in the shade. Pictures jog our memories, change them even, keep them alive and growing, filling our lives with stories.
One of my fondest memories of my maternal grandmother is the afternoon Bob and I went to visit, and while he did repairs -- she always made a list when she knew he was coming!— Grandma and I looked at her photo album. She talked to me about nearly every picture in her album – pictures I had never seen, of her parents, her grandparents, her brother and sister, and herself. She called to mind for me my heritage and my connection with those pictured.
That’s what is happening in the opening verses of today’s reading. The writer of Hebrews, as we saw last week, is discussing faith. In this section, the writer lists the names of some heroes of the Hebrews. He doesn’t need to go into detail about their stories, any more than I would if I mention Abraham Lincoln, or Babe Ruth, or, to get more local, Hezekiah Brink, or Myrtle Alps. The writer knows his audience, knows they will recognize these stories, and he lifts up these heroes as examples of faith.
In verse 29, he refers to Moses, leading the people through the Red Sea.
In verse 30, he’s talking about Joshua circling the walls of Jericho.
The next verse is Rahab, who modeled hospitality in welcoming Israelite spies.
Gideon – whose trumpet and sword for the Lord made him victorious;
Samson, whose superhuman strength testified to God’s power;
Jephthah, another judge of Israel;
David, the shepherd boy who felled a giant, king and ancestor of Jesus;
Samuel, the prophet whose call from God came when he was only a boy.
These giants of faithfulness 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. Look at them, arrayed here, this pantheon of saints! Be like them!
However – and this is a big however! – not exactly.Because there’s more to their stories. These are family photos, but they are awkward – more than a little awkward! That afternoon that I spent with my grandma, looking at family pictures – she told me things about her family that I did not know – things she had never even told my mother. It changed the way I saw those photos. It’s funny, when you take a second look at pictures of heroes.
Moses, led the people out of Egypt, but he was wishy washy and timid. Rahab was a prostitute. Samson couldn’t keep his mouth shut and told his secret to a woman who betrayed him. Jephthah, judge of Israel, made a rash promise to God that result in the death of his own daughter. David, well, you remember, that little issue he had with the neighbor, the one he sent into battle to be killed so he could keep the man’s wife?
Awkward family photos, indeed.
This is our family of faith. This is what faith looks like.
Faith looks like a struggle to believe. Faith looks like suffering. Faith looks like failure and embarrassment. Faith looks like disgrace. At first glance, anyway, faith looks like it is impossible.
Pause for a moment and think about your own photo album, the pictures you carry in your heart, of people and places from your past. Look through the eyes of faith. I think what you will see is perseverance in the face of problems, grace in the time of disgrace… because faith also looks like strength. Faith holds up its head and keeps going. Faith reaches out a hand to another, and together, we get through it. Faith perseveres, even under a heavy load, even under the weight of sin that clings as close as fine dust, the grit from the dirt road that gets into your ears and down into your pores and even in your mouth.
The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Faith perseveres because of this other face, this picture in our family photo album that draws our attention every time we open the book, this face of love and tenderness, of compassion, of hope. Faith perseveres because of him, who was faithful to the end, who traded glory for shame, honor for humiliation. Faith perseveres because of the one who ate with sinners and prostitutes, who sought out the fearful and the shamed, the lowly and the least, but still had room for the arrogant and mighty, made room for them at the cross.
He is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who walked the road and walks with us still. He is the center of this family of faith, the picture in our photo album that reminds us that God’s best hope for us
is not shame but celebration,
not grief but gladness,
not hurt but healing.
not poverty but plenty.
Jesus is the picture of love that keeps on loving, grace that keeps on giving.
His grace does not depend on our faith, but our faith depends on his grace.
Pause again for a moment and think about the photo album you carry in your heart, the pictures of those who encouraged you, who upheld you, taught you and corrected you. Take a moment and give thanks for them, and then give thanks for the one whose incredible love was there at the beginning, the one who is the author of all our stories and the one who will be there at the end, perfecting our journey.
Because that is what faith looks like. 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, 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.
Thanks be to God for the cloud of witnesses, and for the one who sits at God’s right hand.