“Faith Gives Power”

Pentecost 13

August 14, 2016


Text:  Hebrews 11:29-12:2


    As I reflected on today’s Scripture from Hebrews, I was struck by what it says about what faith in Jesus Christ does for us.  And I realized what I was seeing is not what I usually think of when that subject comes up.  So I decided to see if my perception squared with what others think.  I did some crowdsourcing on Facebook.  Here is some of the answers I received to the question of “what are the benefits of faith”:

  • The guarantee of forgiveness of sins, constant unconditional love, and eternal life. Greatest benefit package ever!!!

  • Eternal salvation!

  • Peace in hearts

  • Letting Jesus make me more like Him.

  • We were made to be in a loving relationship with God and each other. Faith allows those relationships and those relationships are what makes life worthwhile!

  • At its very best, being a follower of Jesus means that we get to be a part of what God is doing in the world to bring about the beloved community.

  • Resilience. Comfort. Love. Lots and lots of love. It never stops growing and amazing me. And then there's even more of it. So much that sometimes, it overwhelms and crowds out everything else for a while.

    All of these are true.  But in our lesson from Hebrews, I find yet more.  The writer of Hebrews talks about a number of Old Testament people, and also makes nameless reference to some of the earliest followers of Jesus.  Listen once more to what these people received through faith:

  • The Israelites who had been slaves in Egypt received freedom by crossing the Red Sea on dry land, while the pursuing Egyptians were drowned and defeated.

  • Years later, as they moved into the Promised Land, they conquered Jericho by marching around the city once a day for seven days, and on the seventh day shouting and blowing ram’s horns.

  • During the siege of Jericho, one of its residents, Rahab the prostitute, had her life spared because she had protected the Israelite spies.

    Then the author of Hebrews says he doesn’t have enough space to tell about a whole bunch of other people.  But I don’t have that problem.  So let’s quickly review the people he mentions.

  • Gideon--Received a victory over the Midianites even though he had serious doubts about his abilities and about God really being with him, and while badly outnumbered, to remind Israel that it was really God who fought their battles.

  • Barak--Received a victory over the army of King Jabin of Canaan, even though the Canaanites were far better equipped, and even though Barak didn’t get much credit for the victory because he insisted that a woman, the prophet Deborah, accompany him into battle.

  • Samson--Dedicated to God at birth, and extremely strong, he raised havoc with the Philistines, although his vulnerability to seduction ultimately did him in.

  • Jephthah--Rejected by his half-brothers because his mother was a prostitute, and leader of a gang of thugs, but was called on to lead his people to victory over the Ammonites, which he did, although he made a stupid vow in the process that resulted in him offering his daughter as a sacrifice.

  • David--Chosen to be king even though he was the youngest in his family and a shepherd boy.  A great warrior, the king who brought Israel to greatness, described in Scripture as “a man after God’s own heart”--but who also sinned grievously by raping Bathsheba, having her husband killed in battle, and taking her as his wife.

  • Samuel--Also dedicated to God as a child, he led Israel back to God as God defeated the Philistines, and then helped them transition from being a tribal confederation to a monarchy, even though he thought having a king was a bad idea.

  • The prophets.  There were many of these, who spoke on God’s behalf, calling his people Israel to return to God from idolatry and injustice.  They were generally ignored, and often were mistreated.

In short, what these people was received was power--power to defeat enemies, power to win victories, power to lead people closer to God, even when the odds were against them, even though they struggled with their weaknesses, doubts, and fears.  Indeed listen to this list of things that the writer of Hebrews mentions that people have been able to do because of faith:

  • Conquer kingdoms

  • Bring about justice

  • Realize promises

  • Shut the mouths of lions (a reference to the story of Daniel)

  • Put out raging fires

  • Escape the sword

  • Find strength in weakness

  • Be mighty in war

  • Rout foreign armies

And there’s more:

  • Women received back their dead by resurrection (Mary and Martha got Lazarus back, and then Mary Magdalene received Jesus back)

  • Others were tortured and refused to be released so they might gain a better resurrection (this and the next several examples refer to early Christians who were persecuted and martyred for their faith)

  • Others experienced public shame by being taunted and whipped

  • They were put in chains and imprisoned

  • There were stoned to death, cut in two, and murdered with swords

  • They went around wearing animal skins, needy, oppressed, and mistreated

  • They wandered around in deserts, mountains, caves, and holes in the ground

Yet because of faith, they were able to endure.  They were given the power to do God’s work, to show God’s greatness and love, and to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

    By faith, we receive this same power.  We are given the power to bear witness to God’s love and justice in a world sorely lacking in both.  We are given this power even though we are imperfect beings with our own doubts and fears and misunderstandings and troubles.  The people mentioned in Hebrews were far from perfect, yet God did great things through them.  We are no different than they are.  What deed of power is God wanting to do through you and me?

    Yet even though we receive this power, it doesn’t mean God’s purposes for the world will be fulfilled completely.  The author of Hebrews wrote that the heroes of the faith he mentioned received God’s approval, but they did not receive the fulfillment of God’s promise.  They only got to see it from afar, because God wanted to include everyone who came after them to share in that fulfillment, to be made perfect with them.  We also only see the promise from afar for as long as God decides that there will still be others who come after us who are to share in that perfect fulfillment with us and with all who have gone before us.

    So as people of faith, what are we to do?  We are to throw off our extra baggage that gets in the way of being faithful to God, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  He endured the cross and its shame.  He took away our sin.  He rose victorious over the powers of sin, death, and evil.  He reigns with God forever.  He is our guide as we claim the promise and the power we have been given to do his work in the world.  Let us look to him with faith, with trust, with hope, and with confidence.  Amen.

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