Sunday, November 26, 2006

Gutsy Faith (Hebrews 10:19-11:3)

Download MP3: Gutsy Faith (Arborfield Church, November 26th)
I wish I could have your faith? Have you ever said that? Has anyone ever said that to you? It's the 21st Century, faith was supposed to have become a relic of history, and yet it seems to be making a resurgence. A scientist recently tested the hypothesis “God exists” and came up with a 62% probability of it being true. How likely do you think it is that God exists?

But what is faith? Seems to me that when we say “I wish I could have your faith” what we often mean is, I don't have the mental weakness to believe. Is faith just a commendable quirk of the weak willed? And then we say of others - “He has really strong faith”. But what do we mean? Don't we often mean – he knows it's not true, but he has so much “faith” that he can still believe. But people who believe what isn't true aren't nice and quirky, they're deluded. And those who believe what they know isn't true aren't heroes they're insane!

What is faith? The part of the Bible we've just read, ends by saying – faith is being certain of what is unseen. Sounds like a leap into the darkness, doesn't it? Does “faith” require us to leave our brains at the door? We need to flesh out a bit what is being said. Look at chapter 11, sentence 1. Faith is about being: “Sure of what we hope for”, “certain of what is unseen”. Sure without seeing...

Faith leads to certainty about something unseen. Chapter 10, sentence 34, says that the unseen thing in this case is “a better and lasting possession”. Faith is described here as a certainty about eternity. When the writer uses words like “hope”, “unseen” and “a better possession” it's Bible language for spending forever with God. Above and beyond space and time.

Putting certainty and faith in the same sentence runs contrary to everything our scientific education has told us we should do. But run with it for a while... Hear this true story. Chapter 10, sentences 32 to 34. The original audience reminded of their own experiences. Experiences that illustrate what he's trying to teach them. Christians had been put in prison for being Christians. That's rare in the UK today, but if we were in a church meeting in many, many other parts of the world this morning that would be commonplace. Even so, in UK in recent weeks we've seen disputes about the freedom of Christians to express their faith in the workplace – at British Airways, and on our University campuses.

We know our prisons are overcrowded, but they're laden with great luxury compared to Roman jails. Back then a prisoner only survived if friends and family stood up and fed them. If a friend or member of your family has been arrested for being a Christian it is risky to identify yourself with them. You might also get locked up! These Christians took their stand. They entered into partnership with the prisoners. And what happened? Their possessions were seized. All they held dear, taken from them.

How would you react? We might tolerate it, for a good cause. We might give it a good dose of British stiff-upper lip. We might mourn and weep for our loss. Look at sentence 34 and see what happened to them. They reluctantly accepted... no... they stoically accepted... no.... “you sympathised with those in prison and joyfully accepted...” joyfully. Joyfully!

If we're honest we take our comfort and safety as a right. We consider our good standing and possession to be deserved. But what if they were taken from you? What if your TV, mp3 collection, books or even your home were taken from you? Your reputation or your family? What if we send Rupert to the Gambia on his year out before University and he doesn't come back? What if everything we treasure was taken from us, because we called ourselves Christians...

How did they face this with joy? How? Sentence 34. They knew they had a better and a lasting possession. Faith makes a difference. This isn't something limp or fuzzy. This is an unswerving conviction. We're wary of strong convictions – We call it fundamentalism. But this isn't suicide bomber faith. This is faith that loves... even at great personal risk and loss.

This is the way faith is described in chapter 11, sentences 1 to 3. Faith is not believing in what is untrue. It is not wishful thinking. Sentence 1 – being sure... certain... So gutsy and convinced that removes fear and sets Christians free to love lavishly and dangerously. Faith is a confidence in a better possession. In heaven.

C.S. Lewis describes a journey in his book The Great Divorce: Imagine boarding the train tomorrow morning, but instead of arriving at Waterloo the journey ends in heaven. You step out into a grassy field and find blades of grass going straight through your feet... you stoop to pick up a flower and it takes the skin off your fingers. Everything is more solid. More real. Somewhere bigger. Brighter. Better.

These First Century Christians had seen the adverts, they'd heard that their HiFi could make them happy, and that their car would transport them into new world. But they disregarded this. They knew that there was something more real than their car or their HiFi, or their comfort or safety. They had set their hearts on what is better. They invested in eternal joy with God.
In pleasures evermore! Not a hedonists playground... but heaven. Not saint and angels playing on clouds... but Jesus forever. Seeing and savouring him for all eternity.

Bigger. Brighter. Better. Absolutely certain. Sure of eternity and, chapter 11, sentence 3, sure about the beginning of all things. By faith, understanding that God spoke the universe into being. “At God's command”. A word into nothingness and suddenly everything! How you get such convictions? Such gutsy glad faith?

It's not self-confidence. No, look back to chapter 10, sentence 19 and we'll see! The ground of this confidence is this: Sentence 19, “ "the blood - of Jesus", the death – of Jesus. We can stumble around in the dark looking for a way out, but God has stepped in. Into history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth in the backwaters of the Roman Empire, 2000 years ago. Jesus the man who lived to die and who stands at the turning point of history. Killed on a Roman Cross. We're used to the cross these days, it's become sanitised. A symbol of fashion and architecture and even in our national flag.

In the first century the cross was scandalous. Dying on a Cross was a death too bad for a Roman citizen. It was shameful and it was violent. And for a Jew, like Jesus, it also represented dying under God's curse. Yet, sentence 19, it, the death of Jesus, on a Roman cross, opens the way for us to confidently come into somewhere new. The death of Jesus is the key to a place called “The - Most - Holy - Place”. That's Bible language for the place where God is. Not for a church building, like this hall... but God in heaven. The Most Holy Place.

The cross is a promise of access now and forever to knowing and enjoying God. Confidence about this gives us confidence about everything else that God says. Confidence about the unseen beginning and the unseen end... Confidence that traces back to what is now seen. To the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in human history. Documented in the biographies of Jesus in the Bible. Designed to give us all the evidence we need. Designed to invite us into the presence of God forever.

There is also a warning because this is serious. We can't just “take it or leave it”. Sentence 26 – We have received a knowledge of the truth this morning. If we walk away there is no where else to go except - Sentence 31 – into the hands of God in his judgement. Sentence 39. We're invited to “believe and be saved” - the only alternative is destruction by rejecting his promise.

So, how can we have faith? Let's just be clear – faith isn't the point. What counts is what we have faith in. Or, rather who we have faith in. We all exercise faith every day. When you took the milk out of the fridge this morning you put faith in the fridge, Tesco's and your senses that it was still good.

And when you took your seat here you looked it, at others sat on it, weighing up in your mind: can it carry me? The question is will you look at the death of Jesus and say – it can hold me.
If we'll do that then we must only learn to grow that faith. So let's spend the rest of our time considering four ways to develop gutsy, joyful faith.

1.Live near God.

Sentence 22. We're invited to “draw near to God”. Maybe you've never done that before. “Live near God” doesn't mean buy a new house next door to him, or Jesus' catchment area. Jesus gives us access to God. He's the keys and the door to God. If you want to know me: You'd spend time with me, You'd listen to me. Same goes for God. If we want gutsy faith we need to get listening to God. To hear what he says in the Bible and ask him to help us to believe. Live near God.

2.Look to heaven.

Sentence 23. Hold on! We live in a world that believes we're in peril – advertisers constantly tell us that we're in trouble. And they insist that they have the answer. Heaven, we're told is a place on earth. Gutsy faith flies in the face of that. It says heaven on earth is too small an ambition. Gutsy faith believes what God's word says about God's world. Gutsy faith believes God against everything our education and culture tells us. The air we breathe is poison, attempting to blind us from seeing how real heaven is.

3.Learn about each other

Sentence 24. “Consider how to spur one another on.” Christians can't go it alone. We need help from one another. And so we need to learn how to help one another:

The teenager. Facing peer pressure from every angle told that the here and now is ultimate. How can we give them a passionate vision of what it is to have faith in Jesus. A vision of how great it is to be a Christian, because Christians spend forever with Jesus. A vision for what's bigger, brighter and better. Not settling for the pleasures of this life when they could have the pleasures of God.... the kind of gutsy faith we see the the story we heard earlier.

Or, the pensioner... after 40 years of hard work perhaps tempted to take a break for the next decade or two before meeting Jesus face to face. What a tragedy it would be if those final years were absorbed in the here and now rather than a gutsy hungering for heaven.

4.Belong to the Church.

Sentence 25. “Don't give up meeting together.” The church is the centre of God's plan to show everyone how amazing he is. It's not an optional extra for the truly committed. It's not like signing up for the gym where we pay our monthly subscription but never go. The church is God's family – it's not always an easy place to live, it's full of imperfect people. Unimpressive? Unattrachive? But, God plans the church to be the happiest place on earth. A place where we can help one another to look to what is unseen by looking together at what has been seen.

A people who look forward together by looking back at the cross of Jesus. A “community of celebration”. It's the best place to be. Don't give up on the church! We don't meet to be religious, but to spur one another on. All the more. Increasingly. With acceleration! Our unseen future has never been nearer. It's closer now than when I began to speak. We help one another to take hold of it.

We began by asking “what is faith?”

Christian Faith is certainity about eternity because of Jesus. It means asking, “can his death carry me?” Christian Faith stands in conflict with all the pressures and pleasures of this world and says: “heaven is real!” Gutsy faith knows that its great to meet with God's people and look ahead to something bigger, brighter and better than anything in this world! Eternity with Jesus!

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