Hebrews 11:1-7 – Live By Faith

The Mackinac Bridge, joining the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.

By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith. (New International Version)

“Faith does not eliminate questions. But faith knows where to take them.” Elisabeth Elliot

Faith is dynamic, not static. Faith is both knowledge and mystery. Faith encompasses past, present, and future.

The Mackinac Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the Western hemisphere at 26,372 feet long. At its highest, the roadway is 200 feet above the strait that separates the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan in the United States. 

All suspension bridges are designed to move to accommodate wind, change in temperature, and weight. It is possible that the deck at center span could move as much as 35 feet either east or west, due to severe wind conditions.

It’s one thing to know facts about the bridge, and it’s another thing to actually drive on it and cross the strait. 

Some people don’t try it. I’ve driven the Mackinac Bridge many times, and it’s a hoot! In order to cross the bridge, we need to know it will hold us up above the water. And then, we actually need to drive on it.

True biblical faith is neither an existential leap into darkness, nor a simple recognition of certain facts. 

Rather, Christian faith is a reliance upon and commitment to Jesus that results in taking a risk. 

Faith is knowledge that God exists. Faith is stepping out and acting. Faith requires both knowledge and action. 

One can read all the facts about the Mackinac Bridge, but it isn’t the same thing as crossing it. Conversely, one can cross the bridge, even daily, and have no real appreciation for its true magnificence and structural wonder.

The New Testament of the Bible wants us to know Jesus, both intellectually and experientially. Only through those two elements of faith will anyone have a sustainable faith which perseveres throughout life. 

A lack of high-level commitment from professing Christians points to the reality that many believers are missing a crucial part of faith. There are those who rush into situations half-cocked without a solid base of understanding. And then, there are others who talk an issue to death and never act. 

A full-orbed biblical faith seeks knowledge and understanding so that it may respond in loving action.

Faith is important. It’s part of us. We are all people of faith – maybe not sharing the same faith – but it is faith, none-the-less.

“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” Corrie ten Boom

Belief transcends time. Faith is rooted in the past, experienced in the present, and future-oriented. In Christianity, faith is historically moored to the redemptive events of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. This historic faith has continuing ramifications into the present time. And it is a faith which believes Christ is coming again to judge the living and the dead.

All of this means our salvation encompasses past, present, and future. So, it is appropriate and accurate to say the Christian has been saved, is being saved, and will be saved.

Deliverance from sin, death, and hell was achieved on the cross. We are presently in the process of being delivered from our sinful nature and the effects of a fallen world. And we will be completely delivered at the end of the age from disease, disaster, and death.

The New Testament brings out all these dimensions of time. Whereas the Apostle Paul tended to continually look back to the past of God’s action in history, the author of Hebrews consistently looks ahead and brings out the future orientation of our faith.

And that is what the great Hall of Faith in chapter eleven of Hebrews is about – giving repeated examples of individuals who transcended their present hard circumstances through realizing what will be eventually coming. All of them acted particular ways in the present time because of what they believed would happen in the future.

People of faith allow their belief in what is coming to shape how they live now in daily life.

Abel took the absolute best of his flock and made it an offering, with the intent of giving God an appropriate gift. Whereas his brother Cain cobbled together some of the leftovers from his vegetable harvest and gave them a nonchalant toss to God. Then, he got upset when God looked with disfavor on it.

Abel’s actions demonstrated the attitude of his heart. His knowledge and action worked together. The gift he gave to God cost him his life, as Cain was inflamed with anger and killed his brother. Only by looking ahead and seeing that God’s reward is better than anything this world can offer, can we endure hardship.

Enoch focused on pleasing God through his three-hundred year life, knowing he would then enjoy an eternity with the Lord who provides good rewards. Enoch displayed his faith through obedience to God. He believed God existed and that God is good, and then proceeded to live a life of goodness.

Noah, despite the jeering of his neighbors, took one-hundred years of his life to build a big ark, believing without a doubt that God’s judgment was coming. The daily grind of constructing an ark for such a long time was made possible because Noah was looking ahead. His present actions were shaped by his forward thinking faith.

In each individual’s life, their daily actions were a result of their unshakable belief in what was to come.

Faith enables us to persevere patiently through any kind of adversity.

Knowing we have a better reward ahead; realizing our present trouble will not last forever; and believing Christ will eventually make all things right in this world – forms the foundation of our faith. Such a faith buoys us so that we do not drown in a sea of injustice, microaggressions, unhealthy power dynamics, as well as plain old meanness and insensitivity from others.

So, when we face those times which tempt us to get lost or stuck in an ever-enclosing existential angst, take a pause, check the facts, and then confidently cross the bridge.

Live by faith. You’ll be glad you did.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Amen. – A Prayer of St. Patrick

Luke 12:32-40 – Don’t Be Afraid to Give

The Good Shepherd by He Qi

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near, and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning, like servants waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.” (New International Version)

The most oft repeated command in all of Holy Scripture is, “Do not be afraid.” The Lord says it 365 times. It seems like we are meant to be reminded of this every day of the year.

The particular stating of the phrase by Jesus is in the context of money and possessions. Christ is telling his disciples to not fear about personal resources. Since we have a kingdom inheritance, we ought to freely give what we have to the poor without fear of being in need ourselves.

And it isn’t something we ought to procrastinate about – because the Lord could return at any time; and he doesn’t want to have to go looking for us underneath a pile of money and possessions in order to find us.

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”

Dale Carnegie

Fear is a real thing. Fear, at its core, is being afraid of losing what we have and getting hurt. Fear can be a helpful emotion, meant to protect us and keep us safe from harm. The problem, however, is that our fears can lead us to some unhealthy behaviors such as:

  • Vilifying another, afraid that others I don’t know or who are different from me might harm me, my family, or my community.
  • Hiding my emotions, afraid my weaknesses or failures will be exposed or exploited.
  • Serving others compulsively, afraid that I won’t have worth, meaning, or purpose without helping.
  • Achieving or winning, afraid that I will be irrelevant or unwanted, if I lose.
  • Smiling and being upbeat, afraid of facing and feeling the deep sadness within me.
  • Procrastinating projects, tasks, or conversations, afraid of being disliked or rejected.

“Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

Yoda

All of those unhealthy practices keeps us at arm’s distance from the poor and needy. Getting close to poor folk creates fear with some people, that is, being afraid they might hurt me, or afraid that they will get my money.

“Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Faith is the opposite of fear. Faith tethers itself to the promises of God and frees us to be generous. And faith allows us to confidently minister and build relationships with all kinds of people, especially the poor and needy.

One of the great preachers in church history, St. John Chrysostom (the fourth century Bishop of Constantinople) lived in a large city full of both rich and poor. He lamented the large class difference between them. He said this about poverty and wealth:   

“To deprive is to take what belongs to another; for it is called deprivation when we take and keep what belongs to others.  By this we are taught then when we do not show mercy, we will be punished just like those who steal.  For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it.  If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty. 

This is why God has allowed you to have more, not for you to waste on… indulgence, but for you to distribute to those in need….  If you are affluent, but spend more than you need, you will give account of the funds which were entrusted to you… for you obtained more than others have, and you have received it, not to spend it for yourself, but to become a good steward for others as well.”

“Whenever you see anyone longing for many things, esteem him of all persons the poorest, even though he possess all manner of wealth; again, when you see one who does not wish for many things, judge him to be of all persons most affluent, even if he possess nothing. For by the condition of our mind and spirit, not by the quantity of our material wealth, should it be our custom to distinguish between poverty and affluence.”

The point that Jesus makes of selling possessions and giving to the poor is not to elevate poverty over wealth – or the poor over the rich – but rather to lift generosity as a significant mark of the Christian life.

In the same way, the watchfulness Jesus commands is not an anxious hand-wringing anticipation of the apocalypse. Instead, it is an eager expectation of God’s final act of doing away with all injustice forever.

In other words, Jesus is extoling a faith that frees us to be generous; enables us to leave fear, worry, and anxiety behind; and that creates in us confidence about how the future is all going to shake-out in the end.

The Lord’s Table is meant to remind us that God is hospitable and generous.

Communion together is meant to show us that we are not alone in faith.

And the Eucharist allows us to celebrate a future we know is coming, that as often as we eat and drink the elements of bread and cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he returns to judge the living and the dead.

Like the feeding of the 5,000, there is plenty of bread for all – and the cup will never run dry. That’s because the Lord we serve is a God of abundance. And when we are near to such a generous God, we feel safe and secure, and are able to freely share what we have with others – without fear and without panicking that there isn’t enough. There’s always enough because God is enough.

Generous and gracious God, You came to honor the least, the forgotten, the overlooked and the misjudged. You came to give first place to the last, those left behind, and those who are misunderstood and undervalued. You came to give a warm welcome to the lost, the abandoned, and the destitute.

Help us to be your ears to listen to their cries. Help us to be your voice speaking out love and acceptance. Help us to be your feet walking beside those in need. Help us to be your hands to clothe, feed and shelter them. You came for the least, the lost and last of this world. Lord, hear our prayer. Amen.

Matthew 6:19-24 – Where Is Your Loyalty Placed?

Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (New International Version)

Nobody can pursue two diametrically opposed commitments. 

Trying to live in both worlds of pursuing earthly treasure and heavenly treasure is not possible. 

Jesus has no place for any of his followers to ride the fence between those two worlds.

We cannot practice God’s will, and at the same time have a moonlighting job with the world.

As followers of God, we must have a single-minded loyalty to kingdom values. 

We are to do the will of God, from a right and sincere heart, and follow Christ’s teaching alone. 

We may give of ourselves, and give of our money, with sincerity, but if we walk away from that and believe the rest of my money, time, talents, and resources are mine to use as I want (since I fulfilled my duty) then we have a divided loyalty between the kingdom of God and the domain of darkness.

Jesus, as he typically does in the Gospels, used metaphors to communicate that we must have an unswerving loyalty to God’s kingdom values.

The Treasure Metaphor

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. So, what are earthly treasures? 

Stuff, money, possessions, control, power, position, and recognition from others. 

You may rightly ask in response, “Is any of that really, in and of itself, wrong?” 

No. However, that’s not the real issue. The real question is this:

Do we use our earthly treasure to build heavenly treasure, or do we hoard earthly treasure for our own purposes apart from Christ’s kingdom values?

A man in a crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to give me my share of what our father left us when he died.”

Jesus answered, “Who gave me the right to settle arguments between you and your brother?”

Then he said to the crowd, “Don’t be greedy! Owning a lot of things won’t make your life safe.”

So, Jesus told them this story:

A rich man’s farm produced a big crop, and he said to himself, “What can I do? I don’t have a place large enough to store everything.”

Later, he said, “Now I know what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones, where I can store all my grain and other goods. Then I’ll say to myself, ‘You have stored up enough good things to last for years to come. Live it up! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.’ ”

But God said to him, “You fool! Tonight, you will die. Then who will get what you have stored up?”

“This is what happens to people who store up everything for themselves but are poor in the sight of God.” (Luke 12:13-21, CEV)

Earthly possessions are tools to be used. Jesus warns that we must not accumulate personal wealth, esteem, and success for the sake of placing ultimate security in money, but for advancing God’s kingdom values. 

Why do that? 

Because earthly treasure is temporary, and heavenly treasure is permanent. 

Heavenly treasure is righteousness; it’s right and just relationships. Humility, peace, grace, mercy, purity, and forgiveness are all relational values. The only thing that we will take with us when we die is relationships; it’s the only thing that’s permanent.

If I am genuinely committed to God’s kingdom, my most cherished values will be established by God. 

Whatever it is that we value, those values consume our thoughts and our efforts. In other words, what’s truly in our hearts directs our work.

And what we value derives from how we perceive our identity. For many Americans, we are defined primarily not as citizens or workers, but consumers. Jesus is neither advocating that we take vows of poverty, nor that we ought not to enjoy the good things in life. Rather, Jesus wants us to define where our loyalties truly lie.

The Light Metaphor

In the ancient world, the eye represented what you fixed your gaze on, or what your focus was. In our culture, we could replace the word “eye” with the word “goal.” The word “body” represents the entirety of one’s life.  So, we may interpret Christ’s words in this way: 

A goal is the focus of a life. If your goals are good, your whole life will be full of proper focus. But if your goals are bad, your whole life will be full of blindness. If then, the focus within you is only really blindness, how great is that darkness!

If the goals and dreams of life are toward earthly treasure, you will blindly move in that direction and your life will end up in disordered love and misplaced values. At death, you will have nothing to take with you because all the eggs have been put in the temporal basket.

The Slavery Metaphor

Jesus flatly stated that we cannot simultaneously serve God and money. Pick and choose. You must go one way or the other; there is no middle ground. 

The question Jesus is posing is: “Who’s your Master?” 

  • When deciding between two jobs, or two homes, or how to spend your time or your money, what set of values comes into play?… values that define me as a follower of Jesus?… or values that define me as an American consumer? 
  • Will I be a bondservant of Jesus, or a slave to credit card debt? 
  • Will I serve God, or serve the lifestyle that I believe I deserve?

Conclusion

None of us are immune from the temptations of all the world’s shiny things, of ambling into misdirected goals.  If you find that you are slave to the wrong god, then there is good news: There is an infinite storehouse of grace that flows from the very heart of God through Jesus Christ. 

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. (1 John 1:9, CEB)

Choose this day whom you will serve.

Our Father in heaven,
may your name always be kept holy.
May your kingdom come
and what you want, be done,
    here on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us the food we need for each day.
Forgive us for our sins,
    just as we have forgiven those who sinned against us.
And do not cause us to be tempted,
but save us from the Evil One.

The kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours forever. Amen. (Matthew 6:9-13, NCV)

Isaiah 9:18-10:4 – The Reality in Front of Us

Surely wickedness burns like a fire;
    it consumes briers and thorns,
it sets the forest thickets ablaze,
    so that it rolls upward in a column of smoke.
By the wrath of the Lord Almighty
    the land will be scorched
and the people will be fuel for the fire;
    they will not spare one another.
On the right they will devour,
    but still be hungry;
on the left they will eat,
    but not be satisfied.
Each will feed on the flesh of their own offspring:
    Manasseh will feed on Ephraim, and Ephraim on Manasseh;
    together they will turn against Judah.

Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away,
    his hand is still upraised.

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
    to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
    and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
    and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
    when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
    Where will you leave your riches?
Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives
    or fall among the slain.

Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away,
    his hand is still upraised. (New International Version)

There are times when God has some very hard things to say.

The Lord does get angry. And that’s a good thing.

The Love/Anger Reality of God

God’s anger and wrath are a form of God’s love. A heartless unloving god is fickle and unconcerned for much of the evil which happens in the world. Conversely, a loving God is not okay with wicked persons having their way. A loving God’s anger is kindled against injustice. A loving God doesn’t long put up with people oppressing other people, and taking advantage of them.

So, this is what the Old Testament prophets are all about – communicating and calling people to change their ways because they are harming others. And when the harming and the hurting is done purposefully and callously, then the ire of a holy God is raised. The Lord will not contend with this sort of attitude and action.

The language of judgment, in today’s Old Testament prophetic lesson, is an invitation for us to take a very hard look at the reality which was responsible for such an angry response from God.

The Social/Economic Reality of Both the Prophet’s World and Today’s World

God expects justice, to have people helping one another thrive and flourish in this life, to be concerned for the common good of all persons, not just some. In Isaiah’s day, all that God saw was greed and selfishness, injustice and corruption. And God was not okay with it. The unjust systems and practices were a failure of the people to live up to the Lord’s expectations for righteous living.

Sadly, issues of justice and righteousness are still relevant in our world today. Throughout the earth, this very day, the powerless are being exploited; the rich get wealthier at the cost of the poor; greed, corruption, outsourcing, and unjust legal systems are the norm and not the exception.

Much of the world gloomily faces racism, poverty, gender injustice, violence, famine, health disparities and inequities. And so called “religious” folk are at the forefront of ensuring that these evils continue to persist. So, why would not a holy God become infuriated at such a situation!?

A 12th century German depiction of Isaiah the prophet

The Religious Reality of Isaiah’s Day and Our Day

The religious reality of Isaiah’s day is not so far off from our own today. People were, and are, engaging in forms of spiritual and/or religious activity while being completely devoid of justice. Folks attend religious gatherings and believe in God – and treat others unjustly. They talk of faith in the Lord, while trusting in wealth and assets.

It was, and is, a world where people bow before their own works and ingenuity, focusing their attention on money and power. It’s a world with no room for the God of the Bible and true divine justice.

Far too many “believers” espouse unethical leaders and turn a blind eye to morally bankrupt leadership. Far too many religious folk want what they want, with no regard for the needs of others.

The Divine Reality of God’s Pathos

We as people need to contend with a God who is a profoundly emotional Being.

God is moved and affected by what happens in the world. The Lord’s anger and judgment is aroused because of God’s love and compassion.

God both binds up the injuries of people, as well as inflicts wounds. This ought not be surprising. After all, we readily understand, through our extensive healthcare systems, that medical interventions and surgeries are needed, and that they hurt.

A God of justice is, of course, angered by ethical violations. The Lord is rightly upset that the world often falls so woefully short of instituting a just social, economic, and political order for all citizens to enjoy.

Everyone must deal with the God who is not a brain-on-a-stick but has a deep heart for people everywhere to experience truth, justice, righteousness, salvation, and love.

Conclusion

Yes, there is a coming reality in which a new world will emerge. For the Christian, this occurs when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Complete deliverance from sin, death, and hell shall be realized.

But we aren’t there yet. We still need to cope with the world as it is today, and deal with it’s failures, shortcomings, and sins.

There is currently a massive need to be attentive to the needy, to proclaim the gospel to all nations, and to be involved in reforming unjust systems in our cities, communities, and countries. Salvation is meant for the whole person, not just the spiritual part.

Therefore, we have a choice as to how we will approach the world.

Will we withdraw from it? Will we engage it, only to take advantage of others within it? Or will we participate with God in transforming it?

  • Will we hear the cries of the oppressed?
  • Will we live out God’s commitment to the poor, the weak, and the sick?
  • Will we work for economic and social equity?
  • Will we break the bonds of injustice?
  • Will we help people to reach their full potential?
  • Will we preach good news?
  • Will we suffer with those who suffer and show solidarity with the weak?
  • Will we be truly spiritual folk who invest in the concerns of humanity?
  • Will we take up our cross and follow the Lord in being suffering servants for a lost world in need of God and God’s justice?

The reality in front of us is one which demands confrontation, participation, and reformation. Will you do it?

Blessed and holy God and Father of all, it is your will that all people be gathered together as one family in yourself. Fill the hearts of humanity with the fire of your love and with the desire to ensure justice for all. By sharing the good gifts that you give us, may we secure an equality for all our brothers and sisters throughout the world. May there be an end to division, strife and war. May there be a dawning of a just society built on love and peace. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our Lord. Amen.