A sermon about faith may, at first, seem out of place in 2017. We are living in the least religious era in American history, where people, especially young people, are leaving churches in droves. How can we discuss faith when more people than ever are convinced that faith is an unnecessary relic of the past? Well, those who argue that faith is unnecessary in this day and age don’t really know what they’re talking about. When you set your alarm clock last night, you had faith that it would go off in the morning. When you turned the key in the ignition this morning, you had faith that the engine would start. I just read this morning that even as young people are leaving churches, interest in the occult and astrology (horoscopes etc.) is growing. That takes faith. Even atheists, even though they would never admit it, have faith – they believe, without a shred of evidence, that there is no God. Everyone believes something. So the question is not really whether faith is relevant in 2017 – it is as much as ever. The question is what distinguishes genuine, Christian faith – the only faith that can save – from the rest. Hebrews 11 answers the big questions about genuine, saving faith: what is faith? Faith in what? Faith for what?
The letter to the Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were being tempted to abandon their Christian faith and return to the Judaism of their forefathers because of persecution. These believers were living in a world where Judaism was legalized and tolerated but Christianity, the new kid on the “religious” block, was viewed with suspicion and, under Emperor Nero, was widely persecuted. The temptation, then, was to abandon faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in favor of the old, “safe” ways of Judaism – circumcision, the sacrifices, the Sabbaths and festivals, kosher diet, etc. They were tempted to abandon their faith in a Savior they couldn’t see for traditions and ceremonies they could. The author’s goal in chapter 11, then, is to show these wavering believers that leaving the Christian faith was not a return to the religion of the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – but a desertion of them. This chapter emphasizes that the way of salvation has only ever been through faith in God’s promises.
So what is faith? H. L. Mencken, a 20th century American journalist wrote that “faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.”  Faith has been mocked as a blind leap in the dark, a rejection of scientific fact, or a fuzzy feeling that you get in your stomach. Even Christians can have a false understanding of faith. Some do it by equating faith to behavior. If you do good things – live a clean life, work hard, obey the Golden Rule, attend church, donate your time and money – many equate that to having faith. Others have faith in faith, thinking “it doesn’t really matter what you believe, as long as you really believe it.” And still others see faith as a way to bribe God for his blessings. They have fallen for the televangelist heresy that “if you truly believe, you will be able to name and claim great worldly riches and success for yourself.” There are many false definitions of faith – but only one that comes from the Holy Spirit himself: now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. What is faith? Faith is the conviction that things we cannot see or prove are true and reliable. But doesn’t that just prove that faith is a blind leap into the unknown? Not at all! Faith is not a blind hope or empty feeling. Faith sees God’s promises – printed in black and white in his Word – and holds onto them in spite of any external, visible circumstances.
The author gives an example two verses later: 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. No one was there to see what happened in the very beginning, when everything that we see around us was made from nothing. (see Job 38:4) There is no YouTube video that can show us what happened on the first six days of this universe – but because the only one who was there – God himself – tells us that he created everything in six normal days with nothing but his Word, we believe it. That’s faith. It’s not blind. Not a denial of the facts. It’s certainty regarding things we cannot see or prove – like creation – simply because God says so.
In the verses we skipped, the author lists some of the heroes of Genesis which prove that saving faith is nothing other than taking God at his Word. There’s Abel, whose sacrifice was accepted by God because he combined it with faith in the promised Savior. Enoch, one of only two humans who didn’t experience death, was commended as one who pleased God because he trusted God’s promises. Noah, who built a ship on dry ground, in spite of the ridicule and criticism of his neighbors, because he believed that God would make good on his threat to send a flood. Abraham, who followed God’s command to leave his home for an unknown destination and believed that his wife, Sarah, would give birth even though she was old and infertile. In each case, these people are immortalized in Scripture – and in that way, commended by God – simply because they took God at his Word in spite of uncertain or dangerous circumstances.
He then summarizes what we can learn from these people: all these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them from a distance. What did these people die without receiving? The Savior. And yet, they believed God’s promise anyway. Abel knew that his sacrifice could not pay for any of his sins, but he trusted that the sacrifice God had promised would pay for all of them. (Hebrews 10:10) Noah, whom God saved by the water of the flood, was never baptized in Jesus’ name – but through faith in the coming Savior his sins were washed away nonetheless. And Abraham – who we will hear more about next week – trusted that God would keep his promise to preserve the line of the Savior through him even though, in terms of fertility, he was as good as dead. (Hebrews 11:12) None of them knew the specific details of how God would keep his promise – how Jesus was born of a virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, and on the third day rose again from the dead. None of them could have made the full, detailed confession of faith that we can, but they trusted that if God promised to send a Savior, he would. And this was what they clung to in spite of dangerous, uncertain, and frightening circumstances.
And, even though we are separated from those believers by thousands of years, saving faith today is no different: it’s still conviction in God’s Word regarding things we haven’t seen. We haven’t seen the paternity test that proves that Jesus was not conceived by a human father, but we trust the explanation the angel Gabriel gave to Mary: the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…for nothing is impossible with God. (Luke 1:35, 37) We haven’t seen the video footage that confirmed the sinlessness of Jesus’ life, but our faith is grounded on the testimony of Scripture – like that found in Hebrews 4: we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin. (Hebrews 4:15) No science experiment can measure the cleansing power of Baptism, but when Jesus – who had just risen from the dead – says whoever believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16) we take him at his Word. Our hearts and hands and memories are still scarred with sins of the past, but when God says that as far as the east is from the west, so far he has removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12) – we don’t argue, we believe. And, even though it’s been 2000 years since Jesus ascended into heaven, we look – with eyes of faith – for this same Jesus…to come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven. (Acts 1:11) Faith is what? Conviction, certainty. In what? God’s unbreakable, unshakeable Word.
Faith for what? Many Christians don’t believe big enough. They are merely looking for worldly peace and prosperity or temporary happiness or the answer to a specific prayer. The problem is that you can search the Scriptures and you won’t find any promises about those things. So what has God promised? What are we hoping for? They admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. Abraham’s admission that he was an alien and stranger came as he was looking to purchase a grave for his wife, Sarah, who had passed away. (Genesis 23:4) Isn’t that what faith is all about? Being able to look death and judgment in the eye with confidence and even joy? There’s certainly no lack of things that try to rattle or divert our faith in God’s promise of eternal life. The world mocks our faith in eternal life as a philosophical narcotic that makes life bearable. Our rational flesh tempts us to chase after the security this world offers – an exercise routine, a diet, an insurance plan or wealth to try to keep death away. And Satan, the accuser, is ever-present, to dredge up the past, to haunt us with guilt and shame, to remind us that we deserve nothing but God’s wrath for our sins. And the temptation is so strong in those moments to give in, to give up, to despair and allow the ugly realities we can see with these eyes to overcome the realities God has promised.
But just as faith pierces through the veil of sin to see the cross of Christ where all sin – every last one of them – was paid for; just as faith pierces through the darkness of the future, clinging to God’s promise never will I leave you; never will I forsake you (Hebrews 13:5); just as faith sees how frail and fickle this world and everything in it is, so that instead of storing up for ourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal, we store up for [ourselves] treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-20); so faith’s vision can even see through the black hole of death. Faith looks beyond the borders of this world to a better country – a heavenly one. Faith doesn’t look to preserve and extend this life at all costs, it longs for eternal citizenship in the city God has prepared. How? How can we be sure of something that is hidden in the future, how can we be certain of something we, do not see? Faith alone, given by grace alone, grounded in Scripture alone. Faith doesn’t care if this world mocks and ridicules us. It responds with Paul: let God be true, and every man a liar. (Romans 3:4) Faith clings to Christ’s cross – where he paid our admission price into heaven; and his empty tomb – which is a living testimony to his promise: because I live, you also will live. (John 14:19) Being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see – focused on Christ alone, grounded in Scripture alone, given by grace alone – that’s saving faith. Faith is not a feeling, it’s a conviction; it’s not based on what I see or feel, but in what God has promised in his Word; it’s not a hope for a better, longer or happier life in this world, it’s the assurance that we will live forever in a much better place – the city of our God.
Our Reformation heritage – the one we have freely received, the one we will freely pass on – is that we are justified, saved, by grace alone, through faith alone, found in Scripture alone. What is saving faith? Martin Luther wrote: when faith performs its proper office, it looks to absolutely nothing except Jesus Christ, the Son of God, given for the sins of the whole world. It does not look at love, does not say: What have I done? Which sins have I committed? What have I merited? It rather says: What has Christ done? What has He merited?  What is faith? Faith in what? Faith for what? Faith is certainty in God’s promise of eternal life for Christ’s sake. May God grant us such as faith as this. Amen.
 Plass, What Luther Says, 1482