Hebrews 11:1-16 

A man was lost in the desert desperately looking for any relief from the baking, drying, sun. He sees in the distance a small shack. Mustering what little strength he has left he gets to the shack. There is some relief in the shade.  Reviving a bit he looks around to see what else might be around him.  He sees an old rusty water pump several yards away. Could it bring water from deep within the Earth?  Back in the glaring sun he goes out to the pump. He pumps the handle up and down…but nothing. Defeated he slowly walks back to the shack and again lays on the ground in the shade wondering how he will ever get home.

Then he sees it. A water jug. Covered with dust from the wind blown sand. He wipes the dust from the jug and reads these words, “You must prime the pump with all of the water in this jug. It will take every drop. Then the pump will work. Be sure to fill the jug up again when you are done.”  The man is caught in a conundrum. Should he drink the water in the jug? It might be enough to get him to some place where he can get more help.  Or should he trust the words on the jug, pour out all the water he now has, in hope of securing all the water he can use?  He thinks for a moment. His weary and dehydrated body is shouting at him to drink the water. His thoughts twist and turn and then he picks up the jug.

Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews introduces the subject of faith.  Remember that the Letter was written to a group of people undergoing hardships such as imprisonment, ridicule, confiscation of property and imprisonment.  As a result of these pressures some members of the community  have given up on their faith or were avoiding community gatherings like worship or were struggling with worry or discouragement at the endless waiting.  For them belief, and affirming their beliefs, came at great cost.  Hebrews is written to encourage them.  Listen to a bit of Hebrews (11:1-3)

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3By 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.

Faith can be tricky to get a handle on.  For one thing, it can sound very otherworldly.  Sometimes we use it as if faith means agreeing to things that make no sense unless we see them through “the eyes of faith.”  We “take it on faith” even if we know it’s impossible.  Mark Twain’s character Hcck Finn put it this way: “Faith is believin’ what you know ain’t so.”  Obviously that won’t cut it!  But what do we mean?  American author and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner has an intriguing idea.  Faith is better understood as a verb and as a process rather than a possession.  Faith is on-again-off-again rather than once-for-all.  Faith is not being sure where you’re going but going anyway.  Listen to some more of Hebrews: 

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 

This section of Hebrews has a roll call of these great people of faith – or maybe they are people of great faith.  Folk like Noah, who started building an ark, before one drop of rain fell, believing in God’s command and promise to save all creation.  Abraham packed up his possessions and family and went – not knowing where, or how, or how long.  We may think it was easier for these folk, but it wasn’t.  As human as you and me they were strengthened by faith to be “sure of what they hoped for and certain of what they did not see.”

If there is a major challenge facing us it may be that we have fallen into the trap of believing that we have arrived.  Faith does not mean that we have arrived – but we often act like it is so for us.  Listen to some more of that early Christian Letter

All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Let’s be clear, the folk who appear in the roll call of the saints in Hebrews 11 were not looking for a better physical place to be.  They were not physically or financially restless – they were spiritually so.  Abraham lived in a city called Ur.  Ur was the place to be in those days.  Archeology reveals a constant influx of people – everyone wanted to be in Ur.  It may have been one of the first cities in the world to have running water.  Ur was the vision of “success city” in the day.  But Abraham heard a call to go elsewhere.  And it’s not just famous people.  Listen again:

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. 30By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

I don’t know how many years I’d been reading Hebrews before I finally recognized what that verse said.  It’s like a gift.  One of the great things about being part of God’s ministry in any place is that it’s never dull.  God hates boredom.  Just when we think we’ve got it all figured out, God throws in something to wake us up and remind us that life isn’t nearly as predictable, and God isn’t nearly as neat as we’d like to think.  This is a God who works both sides of the street.  This God doesn’t go to just the nice, friendly, church-going religious folk.  This is a God who reaches out to a prostitute inside an enemy city and invites her to become part of the people of God.  And a tax collector in the Temple who finally figures out how to pray.  And a thief on a cross who finally gets it together.

So what does faith look like.  Faith – as a verb – means heading off where we understand God is leading, even if we’re not sure where that is.  That may be tough for us.  Our lives are very comfortable, we have great freedom in our culture, we can come to this beautiful property that we own and sit in our regular pews week by week to worship God.  All of these things point to the idea that we have settled down, we have made our home.  But Jesus’ people are supposed to be on the move.  So, how does that work in our lives.  English Baptist minister Steve Chalke frames it this way.  

Starting from a point 100-150 years ago and moving forward the church has gradually moved out of its central role in society.  The government has moved into many of the areas we provided at one point: ranging from institutions like hospitals and schools, to social support of the economically poor and marginalized.  That challenges our Christian sense of service.  Who are we in the community?  Chalke compares us to shut-ins, gathering together to sing songs and tell stories that are largely irrelevant to the society around us and argue about things no one else cares about.  He says we’re bored.  We’ve lost track of why we’re supposed to be the Body of Christ and spend our time on making trivial things seem major.

Now while that might be a bit harsh I think he has a point.  Whenever we disconnect the relationship with God from our day to day life and the world’s problems we have settled down.  We’re no longer going out – connecting to the journey.  So, we can make all the fancy major and minor changes in worship that we want, but unless we continue to work at the connection to the world around us, it won’t go far at all.  Christian service needs to be broader than greeting at the door, or helping to lead worship or serving on a committee.  Our pilgrimage of faith is a day to day thing to be lived in every setting.

Years ago a book was published that has an important place on my shelf.  It’s entitled Good to Great and its a research project into companies which started out in roughly similar circumstance, but one became great while others remained average.  The goal was to try and boil out principles of greatness.   The “Stockdale Paradox” was one of those.  Admiral Jim Stockade was a POW in Vietnam who survived horrible conditions when other younger and fitter folk wound up dying.  Here is his reality.  The complete optimists and complete pessimists did not survive.  Only the active realists did.  Stockade summarizes it like this: You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties. AND at the same time… You must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.  If we substitute “God will prevail” in the first part we might use it as the starting point for an adult view of faith.  What do I mean by an adult view of faith?  Well, not this:  I actually heard a preacher on the car radio tell people to put their hands on the speaker in the dashboard so the power of God could flow through the sound of his voice and heal them while they were on their way to the store!

Instead, this is an adult view of faith.  It is more than intellectual agreement.  We actually dare to live as if God is, well you know, still DOING something.  In other words we dare to believe God’s good news of abundance when everyone around us is buying into society’s view of scarcity.  How should the Stockade Paradox affect us?  How would life be different if you believe that God’s ways will win in the end?  How would it affect your thinking or acting?

Hebrews 11 is not just a list of great deeds by great heroes that lets us off the hook.  It is the story of people who shared the important attribute:  they believed God is going to prevail in the end and such belief should  change their actions.  As we go into the fall consider these illustrations:

“My workplace is full of back-biting and fights to get ahead” — but God will prevail — and I am connected to God — so I will love even the back-biters and find my security in God.

“My region is financially challenged — but God will prevail — and I find my ultimate security in God — so I will speak out for just use of the finances that remain, and be a voice for reason instead of despair.

“My family seems to be falling apart” — but God will prevail — and I am called to bring the love of God into my family — so I will neither gloss over the issues, nor give up on the possibility of re-birth, but will be a constant source of love, openness, and honesty.

That’s how the journey of faith might look.  Oh, about the traveler in the desert and the jug of water.  When last seen he had just picked up the jug and was considering his options – drink it or use it.  He ponders the jug and walks out to the pump.  He pours every drop of that sparkling clear water into the pump, and once again begins to draw the handle up and down. It squeaks and groans, and nothing happens. He continues and starts to feel the handle getting heavier. Then a few drops of water fall from the spigot. Then a small stream. As he continues to move the handle the flow increases and he now has water pouring from the pump in vast quantities. He drinks his fill. He fills his canteen and soaks his cloths. Last, he refills the jug. Salvation has come to this man today. By faith.  How about us?  Will we faith it?