Going Deeper 8-12-19

Hear again the first three verses of our second reading, from Hebrews 11:  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.  Thus far our texts.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Our readings today set us up to revisit a word we use a lot around here, a word used a lot in churches everywhere, a word that is vitally important and at the same time quite challenging to explain or to understand.  That word is faith.  What exactly do we mean when we speak of faith?
Hebrews 11:1 gives us a definition: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  There are three important terms used here: assurance, hope, and conviction.  Merriam-Webster defines assurance as “the state of being sure or certain about something.”  Hmmmm… Is that what faith really is-- the state of being sure or certain about something?  
I have shared before a quote which challenges that idea of equating faith with certainty.  It comes from Anne Lamont who wrote: “The opposite of faith is not doubt.  It is certainty.”  I believe she is right.  If something is certain, tangible, touchable, provable, then it doesn’t take faith to believe in it.  The writer of Hebrews speaks of faith as the assurance of things hoped for.  Does that even really make sense?  What does assurance/certainty have to do with hope?  “Hope” is defined as “desiring something to happen or be true.”  Okay, so there is desiring… but that’s quite a bit different than certainty.
Okay, so let’s consider the third term from our text: conviction, which is defined as “a strong persuasion or belief.”  Now I really like that!  That captures the essence of faith… a strong—but not necessarily absolutely certain— belief.
In summary, faith involves conviction, hope, and belief, not unwavering certainty.  While doubt is not at all a good thing, and can be a dangerous thing, it can nonetheless be a reality God’s children deal with in different measures throughout our earthly journey.  If God wanted faith to involve certainty, then why did Jesus ascend into heaven?  And why doesn’t God make Himself irrefutably and continuously obvious to everyone everywhere all of the time?  Why?  Because God did not create us to be robots with no choice but to believe and obey, but as beings who are capable of not believing, capable of striking out on our own, trusting in other things, not in Him.
Sometimes concepts like faith are easier to understand when we see examples of what it looks like.  Hebrews 11 has traditionally been called “The Hall of Fame for Faith.”  Listed are such notable pillars of faith as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Rahab the prostitute, Gideon, Samson, David.  Uh… just how truly heroic were these “hall-of-famers”?  How strong was their collective certainty and trust?  How consistent was their strength and obedience?
Let’s start with that last character: David.  When we read all of the stories about David, we can begin to see him as being perhaps the most bi-polar character in the whole Bible.  Described in some places as “a man after God’s own heart,” an incredibly gifted and brave warrior and general, a Psalm-writing, temple-planning worshipper of God, David was also a very violent, deceitful, blood-thirsty murder and adulterer.  And he is in the “Hall of Fame for Faith”?
Yes, with the likes of Rahab the prostitute who lied to the authorities in order to save Joshua and other spies, and Samson with his legendary physical strength and moral weakness, as well as Gideon, the guy who only trusted when given repeated tangible signs, and then still did not prove to be very faithful.   
And then, seemingly at the head of the Hall of Fame class, we have Abram/Abraham.  But in our first reading we hear about just one of several instances where Abram wavered in his faith, questioned God, and expressed a ton of uncertainty.  The Lord came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great."  But Abram said, "O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless…?"  God then instructed him to look at the stars and reiterated his promise that his descendants would as numerous as the stars.  Our text ended with these words: And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.  
But do you know what happens next in Genesis 15?  The Lord reaffirms His pledge to bless Abram’s descendants with the “Promised Land.”  Abram’s response: "O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?"  Does that sound like unwavering certainty?  Does that sound like what we call strong, hall-of-fame-worthy “faith”?
So, having faith and living a faith-filled life is not a matter of consistent certainty or of flawless obedience.  Faith is a belief-based holding on, a seeking to trust in grace, a hope based on what we cannot see, or touch, or prove, and a reliance on God’s goodness and not our own.  A faith-filled life is far from perfect, yet involves a very real and constant commitment to participating in the transformation of our lives.  We are called, inspired, and empowered to grow in faith.
In my own faith-life, there are times when conviction is strong and doubt almost non-existent.  But there have also been times when doubt has raised its ugly head, and there may very well be more times like that in the future.  In such times I cry out with the man seeking the healing of Jesus, “Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief!”  At times, I am like Peter stepping out of the boat upon stormy waters, looking to and moving toward Jesus, while at other times I am more like Peter seeing the threatening waves and starting to sink, and crying out, “Lord, save me!”
There are times when I sense and experience the transforming presence and working of the Holy Spirit of God upon my life, and there are times when temptation is strong and I am weak.  In faith, I hold on… I hold on to belief, to hope, and most of all I hold on to grace.  In the end, it’s all about God’s goodness, not my own. 
Finally, there are times when each of us and all of us need to be challenged to grow in faith, to be pushed—admonished, if you will—to keep growing, to not accept a doubt-ridden faith that is less than what it has the potential to be.  We are called to be transformed, and we do well to not accept a weak or mediocre faith, one undermined with doubt or stale or too comfortable.  
But there are also times when we need to hear grace spoken loudly and clearly, grace that covers and heals our recognition of our lack of faith, or our lack of growth.  It is forgiven.  God loves and uses broken things, not super-heroes of faith.  You know, people like me and people like you, people who recognize that we continue to fall short and at the same time continue to be healed by God’s love and grace.  ‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus.  Oh, for grace to trust Him more. Amen.