A Sermon from the North Yarmouth Congregational Church
A sermon offered by the Rev. Nancy J. White in the public worship of the First Congregational Church of North Yarmouth, UCC of North Yarmouth, Maine on August 14, 2016.
Principal Reading Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Today’s scripture reading from Hebrews finishes up one of the best known chapters in the Bible on faith. This chapter starts with a concise definition of faith that may sound familiar, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” ‘the assurance of things hoped for’ – in the Greek, the word for assurance has a quality of ‘reality’ and hope in Biblical terms means more than what it has come to mean in our culture today. It is more than just a wish – it is an expectation – our hope in God and God’s promises for us are what we can rightly expect – we are assured that God will come through in all things. It is the ‘conviction of things not seen’ – in Greek the word for conviction has a connotation of ‘evidence’ meaning that people of faith have insight into God’s promises – a world that human understanding does not really comprehend. We do not always see the fruition of God’s promises and yet through faith we know that God will deliver on all that is promised. Faith in God is a sure thing even during suffering and trials. In Christ Jesus we are promised an amazing eternal life with God – so amazing that for centuries song writers and poets and the writers of the Bible have tried to describe it and yet we still find it difficult to define.
Chapter 11 of Hebrews contains a litany of Biblical personalities and how each was faithful against all odds.
For most of chapter eleven we hear detailed accounts of the faith of famous characters of the Bible, starting at the beginning: Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and Moses. Noah respected God’s warning that all the earth would be destroyed by a massive flood and that only Noah’s family would be saved and so by faith Noah built a huge boat that would house Noah’s family and two of every type of animal. Noah was mocked and laughed at – but his faith kept him strong and he persevered. God promised Abraham descendants – ‘as many as the stars of of the heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand’ and yet he was without children until he and Sarah had their firstborn when they were 100 and 90 years old. The descendants of Abraham are the foundations of our faith but Abraham himself never saw that – and now we still sing about how Father Abraham had many children and we are all descendants. Moses, a Hebrew baby, was raised by the daughter of the Egyptian king while that same king enslaved the Hebrew people. At the age of eighty, God called Moses to lead the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt and Moses had faith God would protect them against the king’s massive army. After leading God’s people through the wilderness for forty years, their descendants finally made it to the land God promised but Moses died before reaching it.
Then in today’s lesson, the list escalates. We quickly hear of the Hebrews, led by Moses, crossing the Red Sea on dry land; we hear how the unscalable walls of Jericho – the city God promised to the Israelites – fell after a long siege with just the blowing of trumpets and the loud cry of God’s people; we hear of a prostitute, Rahab, the only inhabitant of Jericho who was saved from death because she aided the Israelites. Then we hear of how numerous others persevered even through amazing hardships or torture, imprisonment, even death for their faith in God.
Their faith – ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.’
This lesson on the heroes of our faith tells us that we are surrounded by a great ‘cloud of witnesses’ – we are surrounded – both those we just read about in Hebrews and those whom we have known of in our own lives. These are the people we should be looking to, to help shape our own lives. Here at North Yarmouth Congregational Church, there are many who have gone before us who have guided us by their lives of faith in God. There are many now who still help us see the path we should take.
In our culture today, things are more complex than ever and the lines between right choices and not so good choices seem to blur. We rush about trying to be good neighbors and good citizens and good parents and good workers and good volunteers, good brothers and sisters, good examples for our youth,
the list goes on.
As in the litany of biblical heroes of faith, earthly life goes on with or without God in it.
Those who are faithful, find themselves confidently expectant in God’s promises even in the midst of strife.
They are able to persevere through all of life’s struggles knowing that God has something better in store for them – something so amazing and wonderful, that any earthly struggle can be endured. How do they do that? How do we do that? We build our faith. We work on our relationship with God through daily prayer and study of the stories of the bible where we learn of people just like ourselves who struggled and at times even despaired – the Bible is full of them. And just like anyone trying to become good at something, we practice our faith daily.
And the good news is we don’t have to do it alone. We are part of a faith community,
a faith family, a wonderful group of people whom God has brought together in Christ – ‘so great a cloud of witnesses’ – past and present – our faith family. We bolster our own faith by sharing the faith stories of others. We listen to the stories of those who have gone before us. We need to share our individual faith stories with our faith community, our church family.
Are we comfortable doing that? We should be. Last week I mentioned how many of us do wonderful ministries of volunteering in our community. I am thinking it would be really wonderful if sometime soon we had a special time where we can learn about what different volunteer ministries are happening right here in our own church family. I hope and pray that part of that will be each person sharing what their particular volunteer work means to them and how they meet God there.
We share our inmost thoughts and feelings with those we are closest to, don’t we? As a church family, do we know each other well enough, are we close enough to trust each other with our deepest feelings,with our ‘God moments’? As a faith family, we need to get to know one another and we need to be intentional about it. I have known of folks who have revealed to me a real reticence about talking with and socializing with people at fellowship time following worship – this is way out of their comfort zone and yet they come and mingle because they are looking for connections with people in their faith family. So if socializing is an area where you are comfortable, seek out someone whom you don’t know very well and chat with them instead of spending your time speaking to people you already know well.
In our culture today, many young families are far removed from relatives and loved ones. This coming year, we will be having a confirmation class for youth in 7th grade and older. Each youth will be looking for a ‘non-relative’ mentor who will help guide them, pray for them and support them on this journey. The hope here is that mentors will share some of their own experiences of their faith journeys and that in turn our young people will feel supported and safe enough to share their thoughts and questions with their mentors. There are no rules here but our hope is that this will grow relationships between some whose daily paths do not ordinarily cross.
Growing in faith also means growing in our relationship with God. Part of that and only part is personal time of study and prayer; the other part is time with other believers studying the bible and exploring faith issues.
Join a Bible study or start one of your own. One way to start would be to just get together with a small group of people and read a book from the bible and discuss it. Or you can use a study guide – there are many available. Meet in someone’s home – rotate who brings refreshments – allow time to build relationships centered around the Word of God. A gathering such as this, will help you grow in faith and get to know each other on a different level than here on Sunday morning.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.
Surrounded by our faith family, together, always look to Jesus for guidance and help.
Keep your focus on Jesus and you will not be disappointed. For the joy of the Lord will be yours.
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face,
and the things of earth will turn strangely dim,
In the light of his glory and grace.
God has provided something better for each of us and it is fulfilled in Jesus the Christ.