When Abraham left Ur, he did not go alone. His wife, his nephew, his household of servants, all went with him to the unknown land. And, of course, God was with Abraham, too, this Lord Almighty of whom Abraham had never heard before God spoke to him.
So why did Abraham follow? How did he know that he was hearing the voice of God and not that of his own mind, wondering if there might not be a better land far away from that of his ancestors? The author of Hebrews says Abraham acted by faith. So did Abel, Enoch and Noah whose stories we skipped in this morning's reading. If we had continued reading, we would have heard that Rahab, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses also acted by faith.
But what is faith and how do we know that we are putting our faith in God? The author of Hebrews has much to say about that. To better understand him, though, we need to know more about this so-called letter. Sadly, if we are searching for who/what/where details, we will be disappointed. We do not know who the author was or when and to whom he wrote. We do not know where he was or where the congregation was, either. What we do know is that this letter is more likely a sermon, written to buoy up a flagging congregation and we think it was written before the end of the first century because that was a time when it was really hard to be a Christian.
Tom Long, author of a commentary on Hebrews, says this: "The Preacher is addressing a real and urgent pastoral problem, one that seems astonishingly contemporary. His congregation is exhausted. They are tired - tired of serving the world, tired of worship, tired of Christian education, tired of being peculiar and being whispered about in society, tired of the spiritual struggle, tired of trying to keep their prayer life going, tired even of Jesus. Their hands droop and their knees are weak, attendance is down at church and they are losing confidence."
Does any of that sound like a time or two in our own lives? Havent we all experienced times when we just feel that being a Christian - constantly being ready for the return of the Christ even though a large part of us just doesn't believe we will ever see it and we sometimes doubt that it will ever happen at all? - is exhausting and maybe even futile? I've heard a lot of people say something like, "Well, if God really does care, why doesn't God come down here right now and *do* something about this?" It is not very hard at all to put ourselves in the shoes of the Hebrews even though some 2,000 years separates us.
It is to this situation of exhaustion and flagging faith that the sermon is speaking. When we are ready to give up, says the Preacher, remember Abraham. Remember all the faithful people who have gone before us, rarely seeing the fruit of their labor but having faith that the fruit will come.
We too get tired, even tired of being peculiar. This country may be called a Christian nation but it really isn't. What would happen, for instance, if we told our child's soccer coach that he or she won't be playing on Sundays? What would happen if we refused to work on Sundays? What would happen if we asked our company for time off to go on a spiritual retreat or if we asked to leave early because we want to go to church? As far as I know, I am the only one here who ought to work on Sundays and who actually does get to take time for spiritual reenergizing.
But Jesus is very clear that we are supposed to be ready at all times for the bridgroom to come. How, Lord, are we supposed to do that 24/7, we want to ask? The answer, I believe, goes back to faith. We are grounded by our faith. We need to see everything we do, no matter how trivial or secular it seems, as being done in faith. For instance, children with the special gifts necessary to play soccer give thanks for that ability, pray that the Lord will continue to be with them as use their gifts and that through the sport of soccer they may learn how those same skills might be put to use for the kingdom of God. That sounds very strange, doesn't it? But I believe that we are to use our gifts and that by doing so, we will be drawn closer to the Lord. How? Well, we are to have faith that God will reveal that to us in God's time.
Faith, says the Preacher of Hebrews, "is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Because we have faith in the promises God has given us through the Christ, we act out of faith even though the world doesn't often look as though God care one whit about it or us. It is through faith that we live in the promises of peace, jsutice, mercy and salvation.
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.