by Robert Brow
The whole of Hebrews 11 is about faith, and the first verse tells us what faith is. "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). In that sense we all exercise faith every day. When you put money in the bank you can't see it is there for you, but you have faith that you can draw on it any time. When you bite into a hamburger at McDonald's you have the faith assurance that you won't get poisoned. And when you fly you have faith the pilot knows how to fly, and the huge plane can take off and land you safely at your destination.
But Christian faith is not in a bank, or McDonald's, or Canadian Airlines, but in God the Creator. "By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible" (Hebrews 11:2). An atheist also has faith when he believes that our world came into being from original matter or energy by chance without the word or plan of a Creator.
But faith is not just an idea in our head, but something you do. Believing in your bank does nothing for you till you put money in, and use it to pay your bills or draw money at a bank machine. Nor does faith in McDonald's make a difference till you decide to buy a hamburger. And believing that planes can fly will never get you to Vancouver till you buy a ticket and take your seat in the Airbus. In our reading today we have the faith of Abel, which I will call offering faith, the faith of Enoch which I will call walking faith, and the faith of Noah which is ark building faith.
"By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain's" (Hebrews 11:4). Cain and Abel were brothers. Both were farmers. Cain offered some of the grain he had grown, but Abel kept sheep, and he offered a lamb from the flock. Why was Cain's sacrifice rejected, but Abel's sacrifice acceptable to God? Both had faith, but I picture Cain's faith as a kind of bribing faith. "I have had a good harvest, so I will give some of the grain to God to guarantee he will bless my next harvest." I will call Abel's faith "Thanksgiving Faith." In those days when a lamb was killed for the family to eat they would pray "Thank you, God, that this animal has died so we can eat." Before the lamb was roasted, the fat was cut away and burned on the altar. That might be a good idea for us who are bothered by excess cholesterol! As the smoke from the burning fat ascended, they pictured their prayer of thanksgiving ascending to God.
Bribing faith is never acceptable to God. We cannot earn his love. But as we gather for communion (the word Eucharist means thanksgiving) in a few minutes, we will be offering the sacrifice of thanksgiving. We sing "Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to thy cross I cling." Like Abel thousands of years ago, we know we cannot bribe God by our offerings, but by faith we can say "I am thankful that Jesus the Lamb of God has come and died for me so I can live and have the assurance of his resurrection life." That is why "Abel received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still lives" (Hebrews 11:4).
Enoch's faith was expressed by walking with God. When the Lord, the eternal Son of God, came to invite Adam and Eve to go out for an evening walk, they hid themselves (Genesis 3:10). I imagine the Lord kept looking for others who would accept the intimacy of going out walking with him. Finally there was Enoch, and we are not told anything about him except that "Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him" (Genesis 5:24). It seems that Enoch did not die and go down into sheol (hades, the Old Testament abode of the dead. The Lord took him direct to heaven without passing through death to continue his conversation with him.
What was so special about Enoch's particular expression of faith? When we go for a walk with someone we give our whole attention to them. There are no household chores to be done, no television or news to distract us. We can enjoy the beauty around us, notice the birds and the clouds. If we take a walk with Jesus the Son of God, we can slowly share with him the joys and concerns of our heart. And as we do that we begin to hear the thoughts of his heart. Sometimes I have driven back the three hours from Toronto alone, and I have had time to enjoy that kind of a conversation with him.
So we have thought about offering faith, Abel's sacrifice of thanksgiving. And the joys of walking with God like Enoch. A third kind of faith in our reading is ark building faith. "Noah built an ark to save his household" (Hebrews 11:7). And there are many ways of building an ark to save our family and others from impending danger. When we were serving in the parish of Cavan west of Peterborough, a young woman came to the Rectory, and said she had gone round the different church buildings in Millbrook, and decided to "get cleaned up" in St. Thomas Church. Her family was a disaster from alcoholism, and her brothers in and out of jail. No one knew anything about God or the meaning of life. So she wanted to be baptized the next Sunday with her two children. She was hungry to learn, and very soon she began having a wonderful influence on her parents and brothers and sisters. She began building an ark to save her family. She is still doing that attending a Baptist Church in Peterborough (you don't have to be an Anglican to build an ark!).
Two hundred years ago in England there was a man named George Muller. He had a longing to save the hundreds of orphan children who used to roam the streets. So by faith he began building an ark for them. He began with half a dozen, and the numbers kept growing. Again and again there was no money to feed them, but he looked to God, and eventually he had two or three thousand children in his care. They never missed a meal.
Some of you had great grandparents who came to North America to be free to worship God. They faced terrible hardships as they cleared the land for a homestead for their family. American Thanksgiving began when they gave thanks for their first harvest. And their faith sustained hundreds of children and grandchildren, and great grandchildren, to this day.
In my retirement my little bit of ark building is developing a web site to explain the Christian faith and provide books and commentaries for people to use freely without charge all over the world.
The people who meet here in St. Paul's Anglican church are by faith also building an ark. Actually all the congregations of different denominations in this city are building separate parts of the one church that Jesus the Son of God is building to save many in the city of Kingston. In Noah's day many mocked at him for building an ark when there was no sign of a deluge. And many mock at you for giving huge amounts of time to build a church which will take millions of people into joyful life and on through the dark waters of death.
As we study Hebrews 11 during these four Sundays in August we will be
looking at different aspects of faith in God the Creator of our world.
But already we have sufficient to get started. As we take communion we
give thanks for Jesus, the eternal Lamb of God. I hope each of you will
go for a walk or a drive or spend time alone with him. Share your deepest
concerns, and listen for his longings for your family and your world. Some
of you have already realized what kind of ark building you are involved
in. Others by faith will find what you can do to save yourself and your
family, and perhaps many others in this city and in other places.