Today is a day for sporting heroes, so I thought I would introduce you to one of mine,Cliff Young. In my opinion one of the greatest athletes ever. You might notice he's not the youngest athlete – he was 61 then, just finished running from Sydney to Melbourne, about the distance from Aberdeen to Portsmouth, or 4 times as far as the coast to coast bike ride (544 miles to be precise). He smashed the field in the worlds biggest ultramarathon race, finishing half a day in front of his nearest rival and more than 2 days faster than the previous record. He ran that 544 miles in 5 days and 15 hours.
What makes Cliff such a hero is just how unlikely it all seemed. He was 61. He wasn't a professional athlete, he was a farmer. He figured he could run 'cause he spent a lot of time chasing sheep in the fields … in his wellies. He started competing a bit when he was 57 – 57! When they lined up to start he didn't attract any attention as a likely winner, he was more of a curiosity story – like Eddie the Eagle, we thought we were about to watch him fail and fail terribly. Some people worried such an old competitor might be putting his life at risk trying to run so far. No one expected him to win, I don't think many people expected him to even finish. But Cliffy kept up with the leaders all the first day, when all the other runners stopped for the night, Cliff just kept running. And it became real news – Cliff and the race was the first item on every news report for days. It was became the biggest news story in Australia; it was awesome, we were just waiting for him to stop or to drop back to the field. On the forth day one of the professionals did finally catch up with him – it was the favourite, the guy who held the record for the course. He caught up with him late at night, said see you later and ran on. Then he stopped for the night. When he woke Cliff was 20 miles in front of him and still going. No one else got closer than 9 hours behind. By the time he got to Melbourne hundreds of thousands of people lined the roads to see him come in and he was a national legend.
What's so good about that story? Well we love an unlikely hero don't we? He's the Susan Boyle of the athletics world – but how can you have a Susan Boyle in athletics – he was 61 years old, 61! And he wasn't an athlete; he was just one of us, just an ordinary guy, a country boy, a farm boy, a shepherd from the bush. He sounds almost biblical doesn't he?
And over the next couple of months we're going to see that the Bible is full of spiritual Cliff Young stories. People like us, normal people who did amazing things. And we're going to see that they were heroes, not because they were amazing, but because they trusted God, they took him at his word and acted as if God's word would come true – which is to say they lived by faith. And we might not be able to emulate Cliff Young and take up a sport at 57 and go on to beat the world, but we can emulate the heroes of faith. That's where we're going this term, we're going to be studying Hebrews 11 the great chapter on living by Faith.
Tonight we're getting into the chapter with an overview sermon –looking at the first three verses of the chapter; and they work at bit like this: verse 1 gives us the topic, verse two explains what we're going to do in the rest of the chapter and verse three explains the logic that underlies the whole thing.
You will not need me to tell you that Hebrews doesn't start at chapter 11, so before we jump in we need a little background, but I'll be brief.
Hebrews is a bit mysterious - we don't know who wrote it, or who they wrote it to; but it's clearly written to people who are facing persecution, a topic that comes up in chapters 10 and 12, either side of our chapter. I don't need to tell you persecution sucks, and it naturally leads to temptation deny Christ to avoid pain. And that seems to be the great concern driving this letter – specifically the concern that they might abandon Christianity – which was not a legal religion in the Roman Empire – for Judaism – which was legally accepted in the Roman Empire – in order to try and avoid the persecution that was coming.
So Hebrews does a compare and contrast: showing numerous ways that Jesus is better than the Old Testament religion: he is greater than the Old Testament messengers - not just an angel, but God himself. He is greater than the Old Testament patriarchs Moses and Abraham - not just a servant in God's house, but it's owner. He is greater than the Old Testament priests and sacrifice – not just shadows offered in an earthly copy, but the real thing offered in the heavenly temple.
In short Jesus is the real deal, he fully saves us by his one sacrifice which effectively deals with the very guilt of sin; and he has overcome death and now reigns at God's side and gives us life after death; he will never die so he's always able to help us.
The conclusion is hammered home then – hold on to Jesus, hold on to Jesus, hold on to Jesus – so there are repeated warnings against giving up or turning away to trust in other things, and there are repeated encouragements to hold on to Jesus.
And our chapter fits into all that as the centre piece of the concluding argument – the writers urges us to hold on to Jesus no matter what suffering comes – trusting that Jesus is coming back, and God will keep his promises – therefore is we hold onto Jesus we will be saved; but if we shrink back God will not be pleased with us and we will miss out.
So that leads us to the Big idea tonight – which is this:
living by faith means that we act now as if God's promises will come true.
That is we act now as if the determining factor in our future is God's promise, as if God actually does control everything, as if he really is moving all history to a conclusion, as he no one and nothing can thwart him. When we meet set backs, or when we're tempted to put our trust in other things that are more tangible and seem more likely, faith responds by holding on – not looking for something else that looks better, but trusting that God will do as he says. That's what the great heroes of the faith in the Old Testament did (and they were commended by God for it) and that's because God's word is powerful to effect what God wants.
That summary breaks down into three points, one from each verse:
Living by Faith means acting now as if God's promises will come true
Living by Faith is what made the Old Testament heroes great
Living by Faith works because of the power of God's word
1) Living By Faith Means Acting Now as if God's Promises Will Come True
This is verse one, but I want us to look at this verse in it's context, so we're going to start at chapter10.35:
So do not throw away your confidence it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a little while 'He who is coming will come and will not delay, but my righteous one will live by faith and if he shrinks back I will not be pleased with him'. But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved. Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. That is what the ancients were commended for
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Notice the logic – God has promised that if we stand by faith then we will be richly rewarded. We are not those who shrink back, and living by faith means looking beyond our circumstances and holding on to our confidence in God's word – as if what it promises is sure even though we can't see it. (this is hard, so let we need illustrations, which we get from the Old Testament).Therefore throw off everything that hinders and sin that entangles and run the race looking to the prize.
That's the logic of this whole section of Hebrews, and a decent summary of what Hebrews is all about.
So if it's all about acting in faith, what is faith? This is so important we're going to pause the ongoing argument of the whole book and take a whole chapter to look at it… but we can summarise it by saying:
Living by Faith means acting now as if God's promises will come true. We can expand that by seeing that Faith acts as if God's promises will come true in two ways:
1. Faith trusts that the future that God promises will actually come about – it is sure that the things yet to come, will come, just as they were promised: that is, it acts as if the things we hope for are really going to happen. This is of course supremely talking about Jesus return to judge and the assurance that we will be 'passed over' on that day because our sins are forgiven through Jesus sacrifice and so we will enter into God's eternal inheritance, living with him in intimate relationship and perfect uninterrupted peace forever. If that future is really coming then it must change the way we live now. Notice I say supremely, we also know that God promises that we will not give up anything in this life without reward, we also believe that God is using all our circumstances for our good to make us more like him, to grow our faith and to increase our joy in him!
2. Faith trusts that God, who promises that future, has the power to bring it to pass – faith believes that God really is alive and really is at work in the world working things out according to his good purposes – even though the evidence of our senses might suggest the opposite.
In the case of the people this letter first came to this had already meant that (10.32ff.) they stood their ground in a great contest, they accepted public ridicule without backing down; they joyfully accepted confiscation of their property – why? Because they knew they had better and more lasting possession – there were looking forward to the fulfilment of God's promises, they were acting as if their future hope of resurrected life was at least as real as their present loss of solid, worked and paid for possessions that they would not get back! They could endure these abuses of power, these profound losses because they had confidence in God's power to keep his promises. (we remember the words of Jim Elliot who said: 'he is no fool who gives up what he can not keep to gain what he can not lose!' – that logic only works if we believe that we will gain future rewards from God, if we believe that our future hope is solid)
And more than that, as we see in chapter 12 acting as if God's promises are real means more than just passively accepting wrong in the knowledge that God can bring good even out of wrong. It also means actively, deliberately, consciously getting rid of things that may be good in themselves but that would distract us from running the race for the future prize, Hebrews 12.1
throw off everything that hinders as well as the sin that so easily entangles
Some things are sin and we can't have any truck with them… and some things are neutral but open the door to sin, even good things can be dangerous if we love them too much and trust in them, or lust after them and forget God – so faith in this case means actively discarding things that might be massively brilliant and enormously desirable, good gifts from God – perhaps marriage and children, perhaps living in a comfortable home in a good suburb with good schools, perhaps the security of a good job or a the comfort of a luxury lifestyle, perhaps even (like some of our missionaries) giving up living in a safe and stable society, perhaps even giving up life itself… all sorts of good things that might distract us from the pursuit of the one great thing that puts all else into the shade.
People in England today who walked out of Africa, left family and friends, left job, qualifications, savings.. . packed what they could carry onto their backs and walked, for days and weeks even months and years, across deserts, through wars and famines and disease… because they were convinced that if they could just make it out alive a better life was waiting for them … there are others who spent all their life's savings so they could be packed like sardines into the most unsafe of vessels and sailed off through ocean storms with no guarantee of arrival, let alone a place to live or a job… they took the risk because they were convinced that a better life was waiting for them if they could just get here. And they were right. And it was worth it. And the difference between a war torn, poverty ravaged, famine starved, corrupt, brutal dictatorship and western civilisation is not half the difference between the sin broken world we live in and the perfected one God has promised us if we hang on in faith.
This chapter is calling on us to be utterly ruthlessness in assessing our lives – if you want to be an athlete competing for the big prizes you have to cut out parties, all kinds of foods, sitting on the couch, rest days and you have to train hard and repeatedly until it hurts and pain becomes second nature… and it's the same for us - we need to cut out anything that might weigh us down, and we need to dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of this one thing, even when it hurts, even if it never stops hurting.
But let me ask you – If you knew that you could walk to heaven – that it was hard and you might die, but you could possibly make it – would you start making preparations, pack the food and provisions you need and leave everything behind to get there? What would you not be prepared to leave behind? Is there anything that would keep you here if you knew you could make it there?
I want you to stop and actually think that one through… because in practice, in reality we live as if all sorts of things are worth more than heaven. There are all sorts of things that shine bright in our little hearts as the promise of joy and hope; things that we couldn't leave behind, things that keep dragging us back – but those things, no matter how wonderful fall far short of the promise of heaven. And, left unexamined, those pathetic little dreams of ours rule our hearts and hold us back from walking by faith. So ask yourself – 'Is there anything you need to let go of tonight?'
When I was about 11 we went back to the outback town that we lived in up till time I was 4. In the middle of the night someone set the house next door on fire. It burnt to the ground in a spectacular show, the whole town gathered to watch it burn. It was a raging inferno, and the house we were in caught fire too and everyone was evacuated… I was woken from sleep and marched out the house… but the thing was it was such a hot night that I'd taken my pyjama bottoms off and was only wearing my pants. I still remember the hot shame of walking out of the house into this great crowd with no trousers on. We walked down the centre of the street for a couple of blocks – I say we, our family and our friends we were staying with, with their 3 daughters – not good! So did mum do the wrong thing not sending me back inside for a pair of trousers? Of course not - I would much rather escape a burning house with just my pants on, than stay inside while it burnt – wouldn't you?
So Faith means acting now as if God's promises will actually come true. That's the first thing, and that's the thing we'll be looking at this whole term. There's two more points, but they're much shorter…
2) Faith Is What Made Old Testament Heroes Commendable Before God
Verse 2: This what the ancients were commended for. The ancients were commended for living by faith – there are many negative examples in the Old Testament, many who are not good examples, and the writer has already used them as examples to warn us against falling away – like the Israelites who died in the wilderness and never made it to the promised land (they died because of unbelief, so don't follow their example of unbelief!); but there are also many ancients who were commended by God – so what made them commendable? Was it their rule keeping: their scrupulous observance of the food laws or their impressive ringlets? That's not the heart of it, the heart of it is far more New Testament sounding – they were commendable before God because they lived by Faith.
What do David and Moses and Abraham and Joseph and the prostitute Rahab have in common? We'll see over this term - they trusted God, they took God at his word and acted as if God was able to keep his promises. God's promises often seem unlikely, sometimes impossible to us – well it was the same for them. Think of Noah building his boat, the years it must have taken him, the effort, the investment – and by the way do you think Noah maintained his savings account or that he spent all he had on that boat? Think of David running from Saul and his army, or facing Goliath as boy with a stone and a sling; think of Moses marching up to Pharoah and saying let my people go. How unlikely did God's promises look? How crazy to act as if they would come true. These ancients acted by faith, astonishing faith.
Not two ways of coming to God in the Bible – not keeping rule in Old Testament and faith in the NT; there's not two religions in Bible – in fact old covenant is about living by faith – as Hebrews has said all along, the Old Testament is the shadow of the New Testament, it gives us the outlines which New Testament fills in in glorious colour – Old Testament people who pleased God did so by living by faith. Therefore no alternative to trust in Jesus, no other religion to go back to, in so far as Old Testament religion worked it did so by faith in God, looking forward to God's rescue through the coming Messiah; reject Jesus and you reject the Old Testament covenant as much as the new…
So see the point for us – we need to read and study and apply the Old Testament; and to do so properly need to do so through the lens of Jesus, can't understand it properly without him, because it's about him!
Also need to re-asses our heroes – I spend hours watching and admiring sporting heroes, maybe its celebrity culture for you, work heroes etc. but not achievements or glory or fame or good looks that we should be looking to emulate but faith, godly conduct… spend more time thinking about Christian heroes and what they did than about TV characters or sports men or whoever else…
So Living by Faith means acting now as if God's promises will actually come true; and it's how the Old Testament heroes pleased God;
3) Faith Works Because of the Power of God's Word
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.
I'm not certain I understand why this verse is here. Verse 2 leads to verse 4 perfectly. This is the only verse that is about what we do by faith in the whole chapter, all the rest are about what the ancients did by faith. So my question is why is this verse here?
Sure it does set up the historical sequence – we start in Genesis 1 and all the rest follows in time order after that… but I think there is something more profound here – I think the answer is that it gives the basis why faith works – it works because we are putting our faith in the word that has power to create and run the world.
Hebrews keeps pointing us beyond this world to the unseen (heavenly) realities – this is the biggest and most profound difference between Jesus and the Old Testament priest-temple religion – Jesus is the real thing because his sacrifice deals with sin once and for us, it removes the unseen stain of internal guilt and it does so by offering the sacrifice in the true temple (in heaven) in the actual presence of God, not in the earthly copy. The Old Testament dealt in shadows in the visible realm, Jesus deals in reality in the invisible realm.
And our reward from God is primarily and supremely seen in that invisible world… but we can't get there to check it out, we have no access to that world until we die – if it's not true its too late then to find another way…And the material world appears much more real and solid and reliable than God's promise.
But if we listen to God's word then we know that the material world comes from God's promise – God's word actually comes first and gives rise to everything else – the seen world, the solid, touch it and feel it world, the world in which they are frightened by powerful men trying to make them stop believing – that world is created and governed by the word of God – the very word that we are being urged to hold onto.
It sounds like a circular argument – you need faith to see that the world is made by God's word, but if you can see than then you will see that you can have faith in God's word because it is powerful over creation, and it is to a degree, but it is not without evidence to support it – the evidence will follow over the coming weeks as we see God's word ruling over creation…
The waves breaking on the shore and we feel like we're in a sand castle – belief in God and Christian morality an out moded belief system that will surely fall to the rising tide of secularism… and there's real truth there – we are weak and powerless – just like Moses and Noah and David were weak and powerless. We can't change the world, we combat forces much bigger and more powerful than ourselves. Secularism, materialism, sceptiscim, greed, there are thousands of forces that move society and are out of our control. They are like giant waves buffeting our little lives and it appears that they're marching up the beach devouring Christian belief… But we know the God who controls the moon, the one who controls the tides, now they go up, now they go down. God is the power that overrides the other powers and gives them power… and takes their power away when he is finished with them. We might not see him at work in this moment or this day or this week or this month and year – whole lifetimes go by with no clear unambiguous sign of his work… or so we might think, but he is working.
I want us to finish with one hero of the faith that we won't see in the rest of Hebrews 11. There are many heroes of faith right here at this church. Let me just point out one - Dick Dellows.