Hebrews 11.29-12.2 Heroes of the Faith (2)
We need each other
We need each other
We also need men and women of faith from the past.
1. They are our inspiration
They are described here as a ‘host of witnesses’ (12.1)
I am not a runner. Run and fun are not two words that I put together. I think people who run for fun are crazy. And I am astonished to discover that there are even people who claim to enjoy running marathons.
But I am told that when you do run a marathon, you are usually dead at about the 25 mile mark. But something strange then happen. For the last mile or so, as the crowds increase, and as you hear them urge you on, you come alive again.
It is what gets you over the finish line.
Well, the men and women who are described here in Hebrews 11 are our crowd. They are cheering us, urging us on as we get toward the finishing line of the Christian life.
And they know what it is all about, because they already have run and completed the race.
If you go into one of the Kremlin churches you will see in front of you a wall on which are about 5 or 6 rows of icons. Those icons depict the faces of Old Testament heroes of faith, of apostles and of more recent saints. It is a very physical representation of the host of witnesses. There they are: the heroes of the faith.
They put their trust in God
In God who creates everything out of nothing (11.2).
In other words, we need to look behind what ‘is’, matter or anti-matter, to see the real meaning and significance of the universe
In God who promises a future city (11.10), a better country (11.16), a future reward (11.26)
In God who rescues those who call on him.
That is what happened to the people of Israel after they had fled from Egypt and stood by the Red Sea. They couldn’t go forwards – there was a sea; and they couldn’t go backwards – there was the Egyptian army. They were trapped. All Moses could do was to pray. And the sea opened, and God rescued them.
What is interesting is that they are all seriously flawed individuals. Gideon was at first hesitant and then tried to establish his family as a dynasty. Samson – the less said about him the better. He had a tiny problem with authority, lust and anger management. Barak simply bottled out and was rebuked by Deborah the prophetess. And Jephthah sacrificed his own daughter after a rash oath that he will have regretted to the end of his days.
But what is important about them is that each of them put their trust in God.
In God who can break down walls
The people of Israel stood in front of the fortified city of Jericho. But they didn’t build siege engines. Instead they walked around the city in absolute silence once for 6 days. And then on the seventh day, they walked round 7 times, but on this occasion they blew their trumpets. Then with one long blast of the trumpet, they give a great shout.
And the walls came tumbling down!
It is not a military strategy that you will find in any manual. But it was what God had commanded Joshua and he trusted God.
In God who gives his promise and declares his purpose
Verse 31 speaks of the faith of Rahab. She is the woman who sheltered the Israelite agents when they came to spy out Jericho. Her inclusion in this list is remarkable. She is a Gentile, a woman and a prostitute: religiously, socially and morally she is an outsider. But she puts her faith in the God, whose purposes she can see unfolding in history. She believed that God was with the Israelite people and she wanted to be on God’s side.
And then there is David. David, the shepherd boy who became king. He had been told that one day he would become king. And he believed God. And because he trusted God that his time would come, he refused to seize power by murdering the existing King Saul when he had the chance. Through faith he conquered a kingdom.
And there was Samuel the prophet, who so clearly heard the voice of God and saw the hand of God at work. He foresaw the purposes of God to build a kingdom that would rest on one far greater than any human king.
In God who makes weak people strong:
‘they won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight’ (v34)
God uses our weakness to win his wars
The Egyptian army was drowned in the Red sea
Gideon goes up against the Midianite army with 300 men
David, as a shepherd boy, defeats the giant and the champion of the Philistine army Goliath.
And Paul got this when he says, ‘Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.’ (2 Corinthians 12:10)
In God who can bring people back from the dead
Earlier we have the example of Abraham (v19), willing to sacrifice his son Isaac because he believed that God would bring him back from the dead.
And in v35 we are reminded of the widow of Zarephath whose son died. She called on Elijah to pray for him and he was brought back to life. And of the woman who ran the guest house where Elisha would stay. Her son dies and Elisha prays that God will raise him from the dead.
And verse 35 is a transition.
Up to this point we have seen how faith wins great victories here, in this visible world: it ‘conquers kingdoms, administers justice, obtained promises .. became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight’.
But now we see how faith in God, and in the resurrection power of God, inspires these unnamed heroes and heroines of faith to remarkable acts of courage and defiance, of faithfulness and perseverance in the face of overwhelming terror and dreadful suffering. This is real faith, because these are people who are living for the invisible world – they are willing to suffer now, for the sake of the then.
We love to hear the Christian ‘success’ stories: the healings, maybe stories of remarkable business success in the name of the Lord, of miracles and revivals.
But faith is not really about looking for rewards here and now
Faith in God is what enabled these people, and many others, to endure, to face suffering and martyrdom. For the sake of the invisible, for the sake of the future, for the sake of this city that is built not by human hands but by God.
This is the faith which inspires me; and this is the faith which transforms lives.
There was an ancient saying: the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
It was true then and it is true now.
At the West end of Westminster Abbey there are 8 statues to C20th martyrs: including Maximilian Kolbe and the Grand Duchess Elizabeth.
And as a young Christian I was particularly inspired and challenged by the stories of Christian courage and witness and martyrdom in Eastern Europe as they stood for Christ in the face of an aggressively atheistic communism, and especially here in Russia.
And it continues. There have already probably been more Christian martyrs in the C21st than there were in the whole of the C20th: with the rise of Isis and the extreme Islamic Jihadist movement. People who have stood firm in their faith despite terrible suffering.
And these men and women of faith are our inspiration.
2. They are our completion
Amazingly, they need us and, the reverse holds true, we need them.
Chrysostom in the C4th explains it like this. There is a father who loves his family. They come together for a meal. Some finish their work before others and sit down at the table. But the meal is not served until all have sat down at the table.
We are part of a family, of a body made up of countless people, whose names are known to God, who put their faith in God and in his word. It is a body which reaches through space and time.
In our pride, we like to think that we are our own people, that we have discovered it all, that we have it all.
But we need to recognise our dependence on each other. We are only here because they received, lived and passed on the Faith. We have been shaped by them.
And we still need them: their wisdom, teaching and example. We can see how they have run the race, how they have cast off the sins that cling to us, and how they have persevered.
And we realise that they are part of us and we are part of them. We, you and I, are the answer to their prayers.
And so it is only when we are all gathered that the feast will begin.
3. They are our joy
Of course, our main inspiration in the Christian life is Jesus. He is described here as the pioneer of our faith (12.2).
It is a bit like you are hacking your way through the forest. And in front of you there is the one who is clearing the path, showing us the way to go.
Jesus has gone ahead of us and shown us the way. He faced the temptations that we face, but resisted them. He lived by trust in God, even though it meant he would be crucified. And he goes through the cross to the resurrection.
And he is the perfecter of our faith. He is the one who shows us what a perfect faultless faith is, and when we put our trust in him, we share in that perfection.
But v2 describes Jesus enduring the cross ‘for the sake of the joy set before him’.
That verse has become very special for me. Jesus did not go through with the cross simply out of a sense of duty and obedience and to his Father. He went into the cross in hope – in hope of the joy that lay ahead
The joy of being with his Father again, of heaven, of honour and glory. Yes.
But also the joy that, because of his death, many will be enabled to become his brothers and sisters, to become part of his family, to be part of his body.
The New Testament knows of this joy in each other:
Paul writes that the Philippian Christians are his joy and crown (Phil 4.1), and that the Thessalonian Christians are his glory and joy (1 Thess 2.20)
And John writes to the scattered New Testament Christians, that he might have fellowship with them, so that his joy will be made complete (1 John 1.4).
This is like the joy of the lover when the beloved says yes.
A couple of weeks ago I conducted a wedding service for a couple. It is a great privilege for a minister. Because as they looked at each other and as they made those vows, their eyes shone with a radiance and a love and a joy in each other.
It is like the joy when lover and beloved are together
It is like the joy of knowing that you are part of a loving family: that I am one with the other, belong to the other, am part of the other – and that the other delights in me.
And on that final day, as the last person is seated at the table, and as Jesus is seated, and as the meal is served – we will look round the table, and we will see people who we have never known – most will be people who lived before or after us – but we will know that in Jesus we are part of them, just as they are part of us. And we will learn their stories – maybe dramatic, maybe not so dramatic – but each telling of how they put off sin, how they ran the race and how they lived by putting their faith in God and their trust in the Lord Jesus. And we will see Jesus in them, and they will see Jesus in us. And we will delight in them, and they will delight in us. And they will be our joy.