SERMON –For St. Mary’s Anglican – Aug 14,2022
TEXTS: Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80: 1,2 & 8-18, Hebrews 11:29- 40 and Luke 12:49-56
Opening prayer: Let the words of my mouth…
Nero Claudius was the Emperor of the Roman Empire from 37 AD to 54 AD. During his time as the ruler in Rome, the Empire had control over all the nations bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Nero’s authority stretched from Spain in the west to Turkey and Egypt in the east and thus included France, Italy, Greece and all the countries on the northern edge of the continent of Africa. Roman garrisons, governors and administrative officials extended far and wide.
At the same time that Nero held this incredible position of power and was seen almost like a god, there was another historical figure although much smaller in terms of his political power or influence. This man was Saul who soon after his encounter with Jesus, became known as Paul and it was he who carried the message of the gospel to various parts of the Empire. Paul though did not seek political power but devoted himself to talking about God and about God sending his son Jesus to die for sins of the world. This is not the stuff that brings you political power or even makes you popular. The suffering he endured was incredible and in the end he died, it is believed, in Rome, perhaps as a result of Emperor Nero’s policies in regard to these lowly Christians.
Paul identified with a small bunch of Jewish men and women in a small outpost ofthe Empire, who began to proclaim a message about Jesus who, if the officials who served under Nero knew about him might have described him as a small town, insignificant rabbi, who was crucified on a cross. But the followers of this rabbi named Jesus, proclaimed him to be the son of God and said that had been raised from the dead. These individuals lived lives of compassion and conviction within their communities. But they had absolutely no political power. They were the “little people” of the known world far away in the small territory called Palestine; the contrast between Paul and Nero could hardly have been greater.
One famous writer, reflecting on the final end of the Emperor Nero and the Apostle Paul noted that over the course of history, Nero’s stature decreased rather quickly while that of Paul increased to such an extent that people began to name their sons Paul – the name Nero might still be used but more likely for a pet, but not for a son. How does this work? How does it happen that a man of such stature as Nero becomes nothing more than a historical footnote while Paul becomes a name that for centuries following his death is chosen to be the name for a son?
Our text this morning, Hebrews 11 gives us some insight into this. The whole chapter – some of it was read last week – describes a kind of life that is difficult, precarious and often results in persecution, suffering and even death. But because these lives are live “by faith,” the final end honours God and results in eternal glory. That is basic story line here and the point of this sermon. But to get a better understanding, let’s look at these verses a little more closely.
The key phrase, repeated multiple times in this chapter, is this: “by faith”. The writer of the letter to the Hebrew Christians who lived at the time of Paul and of Nero illustrates his point by talking about the saints that lived long before the writing of this letter. The stories of these faithful followers are included in the writings of the Old Testament. The writer describes these individuals in chapter 11 as ones who lived their lives “by faith.”
What does this mean, by faith? Well, at minimum this means that they acted out of set of specific convictions. The believed firstly that God existed and that he had sent His son, Jesus, to the earth. Secondly, they believed that God was to be honoured and obeyed above all and thirdly they held to the conviction that this obedience pertained to all aspects of life and right up to its very end.
In last week’s reading from Hebrews we read about the actions of Israel’s patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as well as the one the Jewish people often called the father of their nation: Moses. In today’s reading it is a variety of people who are illustrations of those lived by faith: it is the people who cross over the Red Sea, Rahab who hides the spies and thus saves her life, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel who each in their own lives demonstrated a courage enhanced by faith so that they were able to do God’s will.
But one of the most interesting things about this list of individuals is that they were not perfect nor were they perfectly obedient. Any reading of their life stories and an examination of some of their decisions makes it clear they were very ordinary and in some cases, openly sinful. And yet, and yet they are viewed by the writer of Hebrews and viewed by God, as individuals who lived “by faith” and who were honoured because of that belief.
Any attempt to paint these “heroes of the faith” as perfect human beings and extraordinary individuals is simply false. They did not obey God at every turn in their lives but overall and in key moments, they did so.
That to me is the first important truth that I want to emphasize this morning; whether we live “by faith” or not is determined by an “instant or momentary” measuring device. Nor is it determined by one set of actions. David is the most well-known example: he committed adultery and then murder in such a blatant and open way that it is simply astonishing. And yet God did not view his life as devoid of faith. There was an understanding of God and of forgiveness that David hung on to over the long haul and which God honoured and viewed as one that was born of faith.
So if you have any idea that you must attain some sort of perfection or must have an impeccable track record in regard to virtuous living before you can be loved by God and counted as faithful, you can get rid of that idea right now: it is not helpful and it is not true. Living “by faith” is possible for all of us.
There is a second point that the Hebrews writer makes which I think is equally important particularly in light of what we often hear in our current Christian community. We often hear that God blesses those who obey Him and that he causes them to prosper. This is a half-truth as there is some support for this in the Bible. In the Psalms, for example we find statements that say the faithful will do well, they will succeed, they will be victorious and they will be blessed by God.Psalm 1 says “blessed is the one whose delight is the law of God for they shall be like trees planted by water.. in all they do they shall prosper.”
I recognize these words and believe them but they do not tell the whole story. In fact there are churches and even church movements and various preachers who proclaim a “prosperity gospel” in which the foundational belief is that everyChristian is meant to prosper materially and that to be wealthy is a sign of God’s approval and blessing. Unfortunately the converse tends to be promoted as well: if you are not prospering, then you are disobedient or doing something wrong. The result is a loss of confidence that living a life of faith in the midst of difficulty is worthwhile and God honouring.
This is not true and when a “prosperity gospel” is proclaimed it intimidates and lays blame or guilt on those who are poor or struggling financially, it is simply ugly. Of course we may feel blessed and in comparison to others in poorer nations we are definitely prosperous but to say this is our doing and because of how good we have been, is to walk on thin ice. We prosper because of God’s grace. Period.
The prosperity gospel certainly flies in the face of what our text says this morning. While it is true that some of those who lived by faith were able to accomplish tremendous things – the text says they conquered kingdoms, administered justice, shut to mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness – the rest of the chapter goes on to say that others were tortured, refused to accept release, suffered mocking and flogging and even chains and imprisonment. Still others were stoned to death, or were sawn in two or killed by the sword.
And the most significant things about this list is that there is no distinction made between the ones who conquered kingdoms and the ones who were stoned to death, no condemnation for those who suffered mocking or flogging or words suggesting it was their lack of faith that led to the suffering.
Quite the opposite: their faith in the midst of the horrible suffering was evidence that they had a conviction that God had provided something better for them beyond this earthly life. Their faith resulted in a glory that we have not seen yet, but which they have experienced already.
I know this isn’t part of what was read this morning, but the first 2 verses of chapter 12 are a natural follow up to the description of the ones who endured and continued to believe in God despite their tremendous suffering. The image that is painted in these two verses just takes my breath away.
It says “we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” And who are these witnesses? They are the very ones who have lived by faith, endured suffering and died under great duress and persecution. They are now in the stands as it were, watching what we are doing with our lives; they are cheering us on having demonstrated to us that it is worth it, that it is right and that Jesus is the one to whom we can look with complete confidence that the suffering will lead to eternal glory.
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews begins chapter 12 with a “therefore” and by doing so he is saying that because all of what he said in chapter 11 is true, “therefore” or for this reason, we need to live in a certain way. Because God honours those who live by faith whether they do great things or suffer persecution and die, therefore, we ought to live by faith as well. We need to keep our eyes on Jesus who did the same and who is now seated at the right hand of God. This is our calling, this is our task and being sinful and frail must not deter us from doing so. May God give us grace so to live. Amen.