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The "A, B, C's" of Faith

Sermon - 8/12/07
Dennis Lindsay
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Hebrews 11:1-3;  8-16;  12:1-2

 

Dear fellow travelers – we are gathered here in this place this morning
            To rub shoulders with one another, to share the peace of Christ,
                        To break bread with one another
                                    And to encourage one another
                                                Along our common journey of faith.

Our gathering here this morning is for each one of us part of a sojourn;
            segment of a much longer journey.
                        Some of us are more seasoned travelers,
                                    Some of us are novices – just getting started.

            But here, in this gathering that we call First Christian Church,
                   For a few moments or a few months,
                               For a few years or a few decades,
                                      Our individual faith journeys intersect with one another.

            For this moment and for this stretch of the journey, here we are together –
                        Sharing in the journey through what often seems a wilderness,
                                    Surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses –
                                                Myriads of faithful men and women who have
                                                            Traveled this road before us,
                                                Myriads of myriads more who will travel
                                                            This road in years to come.

 

As we read of Abraham and Sarah and those other seasoned travelers
            Enumerated throughout Hebrews Chapter 11 –
                        Abel, Joseph, Moses, Rahab,
                                    Judges, Kings, Prophets,
                                                Countless unnamed women and men –

            I wonder how well we relate to them.
                        Would we dare to include ourselves among the ranks of
                                    Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
                                                With regard to our own stumbling faith?

            Are these simply lofty ideals to which we ought to aspire,
                 Knowing full well that we will never achieve
                          Their level of faith?

            Would the Hebrews author, if writing 200 years from now,
                  Include my name in his list of faith examples?
                           Would he include your name?
                                 Can we imagine at all that we might be included?
                       

Doesn’t this seem too far-fetched…

Perhaps as unlikely as the 90 year old wife of a 100 year old
          Husband, conceiving and bearing a child.  (Wouldn’t that be the talk of the retirement center!)

How are we to understand the nature of these faith journeys
of Abraham and Sarah and the others?  How can we relate our journey to theirs?

 

If we learn anything from this gathered cloud that surrounds us,
      We learn that faith is a journey with God through a desert of unbelief.
             The only thing certain to us about the journey
                   is the journey itself – the fact that we are on the road
                            from somewhere to somewhere.

                        We don’t really know where it begins;
                        We don’t really know where it ends.
                        We are simply traveling – often through foreign and hostile territory –                         Following the lead of an ominous cloud by day
                        And a pillar of fire by night.

There’s nothing like the experience of living as a resident alien in a foreign country to help you appreciate the concept of sojourning.  You quite literally do not know where the people, among whom you dwell, are coming from or where they are going to – even though it is quite natural, quite routine for them.  (And they quite often do not understand why you don’t get it!) 

When Karen and I moved from Germany to Birmingham, England in 1992, we inherited a book that looked a lot like a Bible.  It was handed on to us from the staff at Springdale College.  This book had obviously been treated like a Bible.  It was worn around the edges, marked up with favorite ‘passages’ and dog-eared pages, a well-used authority, entitled “Birmingham A-Z”.  (Series of “A-Z” map books to assist navigation around UK cities.)  And we used it faithfully to navigate the virtual wilderness of Birmingham’s streets and alleys and passageways to get from point A to point Z and everything in between.

Hebrews Chapter 11 is often referred to as the “faith chapter” of the Bible – a kind of A-Z guide about what it means to walk in faith.  But I would suggest that this chapter is not an A-Z guide to faith.

            Really, it’s only a B-Y guide (at best!)
                        And maybe just an L-M guide!

Where does the faith journey begin?

Where does the faith journey end?

The combined experiences of our wilderness-wandering-witnesses do not tell us.  As Heb. 11:39-40 very clearly indicates, these experiences are not complete.  They only point us to the existential nature of our faith journey as a matter of ‘going with God’ 

Still, at the same time, they do not leave us clueless – they ARE, after all, witnesses!

The Hebrews writer talks about this mass of faith witnesses as a “cloud”.
     This is one of the very few times – if not the only time –
         that the word ‘cloud’ (nephos) is employed in ancient Greek literature.
                in this metaphorical sense as a crowd of witnesses.

Is this metaphorical use significant?

A very quick concordance study is enough to confirm that whenever the word cloud appears in the Bible, it is used almost exclusively in connection with God’s presence and power.

  • The cloud that descends on Mt. Sinai

  • The cloud that leads the Israelites through the desert

  • The cloud that envelops the disciples on the Mt of Transfiguration

  • The clouds that receive the risen Jesus into heaven and upon which the Son of Man will return

 

And I think it is significant in Hebr. 12 that this reference to the cloud in vs. 1 is immediately followed in vs. 2 with the reference to Jesus, who is identified as the ‘pioneer and perfecter of faith’

  Better, the ‘starter and finisher of faith’
         Or the instigator and completer of faith,
                Or, to use our language from earlier, the “A-Z of faith”
                          with everything in between,
                                 Or to translate this into Greek,
                                       Jesus, the Alpha & Omega of faith!

It is Jesus – the one who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of God – who demonstrates clearly the beginning and end of this faith journey.

It is Jesus who prevents the journey through the desert from degenerating into a meaningless mish-mash of alphabet soup.

And I think that the Hebrews writer would suggest to us that Abraham and Noah and Enoch and Sarah, and Abel and Rahab and all the other ‘martyrs’ of faith ultimately had their eyes fixed on the one who is the alpha and omega of faith. 

            In some very real sense,
                        they were looking at Jesus.

 

At least they knew that they were neither the pioneer nor the perfectors of faith.
            But they had the ability to look beyond their own limited experience
                        in the midst of a desert of unbelief
                                    and see the one who is the A-Z of faith.

They understood God as one who traveled with them through the desert,
            The one who accompanied their every move;
                        The one who experienced with them hunger and thirst;
                                    The one who suffered with them indignity, shame, torture, death;

Ultimately, they understood that God is the one who is victorious over all these things.

This is the God who accompanied them in the cloud;

and so the Hebrews writer suggests to us that these faith witnesses

               themselves participate in that same, surrounding, abiding, guiding cloud

                                    as men and women who have engaged with God

                                                in a journey of faith.

To engage in the journey of faith is for these witnesses
a sacramental participation in the life of God;

As the Apostle Paul writes of these same ancestors in 1 Cor. 10:2-3 “They all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all drank the same spiritual drink.  For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”

 

And this is the point that I want to make for us today:

To engage with God on the journey through the desert,

            To keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the A-Z of faith,

                 To lay aside the things that would keep us from this primary focus in life,

            All this means that we too participate in that same, divine, witnessing cloud.

 

Too often we read this passage about the ‘cloud of witnesses’ and we think of dead people: Abraham, Isaac, Noah, grandma, grandpa, Dad, etc.

            We think of them somewhere up in a heavenly Autzen Stadium cheering us on
                        as we struggle through the course of our lives out on the playing field.

                                    I have trouble with the whole athletics scenario.

Though this might not be completely wrong,
it surely is not be the completely right twist on this passage.

There is more to this ‘cloud’ than dead people in the grandstands of a sports arena;

            It is God’s own powerful presence among us,
                        which is revealed both in the lives of those who have gone before
                                    and in the lives of those who are currently en route.

 

To be surrounded by this great cloud implies that we are also a part of this great cloud.

You see, the Hebrews author does include you and me in the catalog of faith martyrs, alongside Abraham and Sarah, Abel and Rahab, Prophets, Judges & Kings.

  • 10:39 “But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and are saved.”

  • 11:3 “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God.”

  • 11:39 “Yet all these witnesses, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since god had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”

  • 12:1 “We are surrounded… 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.”

 

Bearing witness to God’s powerful, faithful provision
            is not simply something that others do for us.
                        It is something that we also do for others,
                                    as we journey by faith.

We who are gathered here in this place today
            are a witnessing cloud.

        We are witnesses of God’s faithfulness along a portion of the journey through the
             wilderness of unbelief that we traverse day by day.

We participate in the proclamation that God accompanies those who dare to entrust the journey to God.

All of us here, each in his/her own way, participate in that divine cloud of witness as we each engage with God in our daily lives.

 

But no one of us is the A-Z,

            No one of us alone is the cloud.
                        Rather, the pioneer and perfector,
                                    the starter & finisher
                                                the instigator and completer
                                                            the alpha and omega of our faith journey
                                                                        is none other than Jesus.

As we keep our eyes fixed on him,
        we are incorporated into a divine cloud
        where the “l-m-n-o-p’s & q’s” of our own struggling faith find their orientation in Christ,

the alpha and omega of faith.

 

Amen.

 


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