On the whole, the Bible is not taken up with providing definitions in the way that a dictionary does. One place where it comes close to doing so, however, is in today’s reading from the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews. There we encounter what now serves as a standard definition of faith in the Christian tradition: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
The author does not rest content with simply providing this definition. He offers a long series of examples of how this assurance, this conviction, led figures from the Old Testament to do what they had to do and bear what they had to bear. The figures mentioned by name include Abel and Enoch and Noah, Isaac and Jacob and Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Jephthah, David, and Samuel.
Among all these, none is more prominent than Abraham, and he is the subject of the passage we heard this morning. Abraham stands out as a great exemplar of faith, this assurance of things hoped for, this conviction of things not seen.
Listen again to what we are told about him.
• By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance.
• By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land.
• By faith he received the power of procreation when he was a very old man, far past the age for fathering children.
This account does not present Abraham as a stereotypical hero, someone who makes his own way in the world.
Nor does he come across as a conventional person, someone who does only what society tells him.
Instead, he is portrayed as a new and different creature, a man of faith.
He lives inside the tension between promise and fulfillment. He recognizes that what is visible and what is certain are not the same.
Abraham is not a stereotypical hero who makes his own way in the world.
Nor is he a conventional person who follows a path others have traveled.
Instead, he accepts as his guide the Lord God, and trusts him to lead the way. He says no to what his culture tells him, he says no to even his own small self, and obeys instead the bewildering voice of God.
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Some presentations of religion would make such obedience seem like a walk in the park. But what do we hear from Hebrews about this man of faith, Abraham.
• We’re told that “he set out, not knowing where he was going.” He did not lose his way; he never knew it in the first place.
• We’re told that with his son and grandson, he lived in tents in a foreign land, as though he was a nomad, a refugee, perhaps an illegal alien.
• We’re told that he found himself with a baby at ninety. He’ll be by far the oldest dad at the elementary school graduation.
Here we have a situation, a life story, both unsafe and unheroic. Abraham obeys a different voice than other people do. It’s not his ego talking, nor the demands and norms of society. I’m sure that often he found it anything but easy.
It’s commonplace to call Abraham “the father of believers.” What does that mean? It means that a family resemblance should be apparent between him and us. Like Abraham, we also must sometimes shut our ears to our egos and to society’s expectations and listen instead to a different voice.
We’re people who don’t necessarily have to know where we are going. In place of nervous self-confidence, we can have instead the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen, which is not something we dream up, but comes to us as a gift. Rather than trust our private self or some human collective, we can choose to put our trust where Abraham put his.
A warning is in order here. This attitude, known as faith, does not guarantee a trouble-free existence. Remember Abraham.
• Faith had him head out one day, he knew not where.
• He found himself a refugee of sorts.
• And it’s tough chasing a toddler nearly a hundred years younger than you are.
But in his wandering, his exile, his stumbling, he did come to enjoy—much of the time anyway—the companionship of the Lord God, who took at least as much of a gamble on Abraham as Abraham took on him.
Some of you may know how in 1939, as war clouds darkened over Europe, King George VI lifted countless spirits through a Christmas message broadcast to the British Empire when he quoted these lines from a poem by Minnie Louise Haskins:
“I said to the man
who stood at the gate of the year
‘Give me a light
that I may tread into the unknown.’
“And he replied,
‘Go into the darkness
and put your hand in the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light
and safer than a known way.'”
Abraham did this when he faced the unknown, for he did not recognize the way himself, and other people could not guide him, but he walked into the darkness, one time after another, and put his hand into the hand of God.
Any person, any congregation, has times of facing the unknown. None of us is exempt. St. Christopher’s is not exempt from this. There are moments when we look foolish in the eyes of the world, and we feel anything but comfortable about ourselves. Life seems neither heroic nor conventional.
It is then we do well to heed the example of our father Abraham. For when we do not recognize where we are going, he stands at the gate of this new episode. In response to our plea for a light, he tells us to be his children in faith.
“Go into the darkness,” he tells us. “Do as I and all the saints have done,” he says. “Put you hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”
Copyright 2010, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications), a book devoted to helping clergy prepare funeral homilies that are faithful, pastoral, and personal.