Reading: Hebrews 11: 1-3
Video of sermon here (from around 28:23)
Audio of sermon here
One of the most popular shows on BBC2 over the last 20 years is Dragon’s Den. In fact, apparently this year it’s made the leap to BBC1. It has a fairly simple premise. Budding entrepreneurs have 3 minutes to pitch their business idea to a series of high-profile business names – the ‘dragons’ in the show’s title – in the hope that they will be able to secure investment in their project in exchange for a share in their business.
Some of the ideas are ingenious. Others wacky. Some are well thought out, others less so. The saying ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ is exceptionally apt in this show. These dragons haven’t become ridiculously rich for nothing. Any weakness in the idea, they’ll spot it. Particularly on the financial side.
But pretty much every pitch will start in much the same way. An individual comes across a particular problem and finds themselves asking ‘if only there was something which solved this?’ Then they come with an idea, before, often at great personal expense, developing the project.
What starts as a thought, an idea, becomes the product that they bring to the den.
But every single one of them starts out as an idea in someone’s mind.
And you know that is true of pretty much anything material we encounter in life. Long before it was made, or became visible, it started out life in someone’s mind. To borrow from the writer to Hebrews, what is seen emerges from the invisible.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to spend some time in the book of Hebrews, and in one chapter in particular. Hebrews 11. The chapter largely comprises a potted history of great characters of faith. Some well known, some less well known, sometimes we might recognise the story the writer is talking about, even without the character being named. Others are completely anonymous.
There are lots of things we don’t know about the book of Hebrews. It is often described as an epistle or letter. But it’s not really set out like one. Some think it was more of a sermon than a letter. Other things we don’t know for sure is who wrote it, when, why, or to whom it was originally addressed.
However what we can pick up from reading it, was that this was a bunch of early followers of Jesus, going through a hard time. The precise nature of the difficulty they faced is not really specified, but it was serious enough that many were starting to question whether following Jesus was worth it. Many were giving up.
The overriding message is a call to them to stick at it, to hold on. They were never promised the journey would be easy, just that it would be worth it.
Hebrews 11 is a greatly loved chapter in what can sometimes feel a difficult to understand book. But it doesn’t just appear in a vacuum. It links into that idea of ‘stick with it’ not by minimizing the struggle, but by highlighting that what they are facing is not new or even unusual. The life of faith or walking with God has always been like that. They are not the first person to experience this. They are part of a long, continuing story.
During the week I was having a tough day with Siggy. Not because she was doing anything especially bad – she was just being a puppy and she’s not even in the ball park of what some people experience. But on that particular day she had me tearing my hair out… or she would have done, had I any hair to tear out! You could probably have told this had you seen my internet search history that day.
And I have to confess, I was a long way from the kind of model dog owner I would wish to be. I was feeling quite down on myself. Like I was being a total failure, making a mess of things.
But my quick search showed me that more or less every new dog owner goes through precisely what I was experiencing. That, and an e-mail conversation with a good friend and dog lover telling me that this is perfectly normal and sharing some of her experience, giving me a few pointers, well it was a real help and encouragement.
Well amongst other things, Hebrews 11 plays a similar role for these early followers of Jesus… and for us. The life of faith has its ups and downs. There are times when we might feel down and ready to give up. There might be times when we feel like we’re making a right mess of it. When we feel like we’re the only ones who has ever felt this way. Hebrews 11 is saying I hear you. It’s always been like that. Look at these examples. You are part of a long, winding, continuing story. But they kept going. You can too. God is not finished with us yet.
The examples offered are quite a diverse mix. Certainly there are some you might think really? For example, Samson is in there. Those of you who have been around our church for a few years might remember the series I did on Samson a while ago. Or at least you might remember that there was such a series. But something I said fairly regularly in that series was that in his story there were not a lot of go thou and do likewise moments.
But all these characters have a few things in common. They were flawed people, just as we are. None of them could truly see where the story was going, just as so often we can’t. They lived with a mix of knowing what God had already done, and a longing to see what is to come. And it wasn’t always easy for them, just as it’s not for us. So don’t give up. Hold on.
We’re going to be thinking about some of those characters over the next few weeks and considering what we can learn from their stories. But today we begin with a description of faith.
What is this life of walking with God all about?
What does it look like?
Faith is confidence is what we hope for, and assurance of what we do not see.
In modern conversation faith is often presented as divorced from the evidence. A small child once defined faith as believing things we know aren’t true. It is often contrasted with science, which claims to believe only in that which can be empirically proven. People will often proudly tell me that they are not people of faith. They trust the science.
And you know, for the most part most of us do. We may not especially understand it, but we’ll trust it. When we have a headache, we take painkillers. We’ll board a plane to go on holiday. The vast majority of us have trusted the science over the last couple of years, be it in wearing face masks or taking the Covid vaccine.
People of faith are often caricatured as resisting the evidence. Not always unfairly, if I’m honest. But faith is not just a dogged persistence against all the evidence to the contrary. It’s not a totally irrational decision to step into darkness.
Sure, faith has a strong element of risk and uncertainty. But it’s not just plain stupidity. True faith is a choice. It is chosen and calculated on the basis of what we have discovered by experience.
True faith is fired in the crucible of life with all it’s turmoil and struggles. Show me someone with a strong faith, who’s been round the block a few times, and I will show you someone who has been through some stuff, leaned on God, even if only because they seemed to have no other choice, and seen God bring them through it before.
True faith is not escapism. True faith can honestly look at the circumstances, but also consider what God can do, either cos they’ve seen him do it before in their own life, or they’ve immersed themselves in the stories of those who have gone there before them.
True faith is what stops hope descending into mere optimism.
And true faith is not just mentally assenting to something. It is active. The person who arrives at the Dragon’s Den with an idea is someone who has had faith in it. Whether well-placed or not. They had the idea, they believed in it. Enough to act on it. They had confidence in what they were hoping for and believed in it, even when no-one could see it.
Hebrews says this is what the ancients were commended for. What were they commended for?
It was because they came to understand reality differently to those around them.
One area in which Christians are often seen as refusing to accept the evidence is in the area of our origins. I’ve said before all Christians are creationists. And at first you might disagree, because what we tend to hear when we think of creationism is a very particular understanding. However what Christians might mean by that can very immensely. When I say Christianity is a creationist faith, we might hold very divergent views about how we came to be here. I suspect we have a range even within our own congregation. Yet at the heart of our faith is the belief that at the origin of all things is God.
We can use telescopes to cast our eye back to the earliest moments of time and in a sense it looks like everything comes out of nothing. Which is odd because experience tells us nothing tends to come out of nothing. In a way that doesn’t make sense.
But if I can take you back to the Dragons Den, maybe there is an alternative option. Maybe it’s not that we emerged out of nothing, but that the visible emerged from the invisible. That before anything came to be, it existed as an idea in the mind of God.
We are creative beings. Part of what that means is that we materialize the invisible. Look around you. Everything you can see, however simple or complex. It started in someone’s mind.
And that’s what we are asserting when we speak of a creative God.
What were the ancients commended for? They perceived the world differently. They perceived that the universe was formed at God’s command. That what is seen emerged out of the invisible.
But this wasn’t an idea restricted to the first 0.0000001 seconds of time. It had implications for what they believed about their world, their lives and how they approached it. They emerged from a time when the world and life was largely considered to be cyclical. What had happened before would happen again. And again.
I don’t want to touch on this too long, as we’ll come to him in a few weeks, but amongst the most radical thing in the Abraham story is not that a God actually connected with an individual and wanted to relate to them. That was pretty radical enough for the time.
But it was also this sense that tomorrow didn’t have to be like today. It could be different. A different future could be created. Even if we couldn’t see it right now. For the visible emerges from the invisible. That behind the whole story, all they could see, was the invisible God. And he was the one who held and shaped that future. And he could be trusted with it, even when they couldn’t see it.
They saw the world differently because they were not just connected to or limited by the visible, or what they could see, feel, hear, smell or taste. They realized that behind it all, shaping it all was the invisible. It was emerging from the mind of God. So they could go beyond the visible, what they could see and reckon on what God can do.
But it wasn’t based on blind belief. It was faith fired the crucible of experience, carried by a people down through millennia. Who had seen God do it over and over again. They could not see the whole picture, but got enough of a glimpse to keep going, taking that knowledge of what God had done and using it as the basis that what they could see would come to pass. Tomorrow need not just be a repeat of today. Because a new future, one that in time they would see, would become visible, would emerge from the invisible. It was rooted in God.
And that belief can fire faith in us too.
What is that future we long for, but cannot see?
What are those things we’ve struggled with over and over and still they get the better of us?
What is that longing you can visualize, but somehow never materialize?
And it’s possible if we were left entirely to our own devices, it never would be possible.
But we are invited to perceive the world differently. That perhaps that dream, that hope, that longing has been planted in you by the one who has the power to make it possible. The God who can bring that invisible longing to reality. And he is inviting you to take that first step, however tiny it feels, trusting that the next one will follow and the one after that.
We’re asked to, and over the next few weeks we will, consider the stories of so many who have gone before us, who carried the hope down through the years. Almost 2000 years have passed since Hebrews was written, and we’re not limited to those that make the pages of this book. Our history is littered with them. Perhaps in our lives we have encountered them.
Flawed people certainly, but who kept it going, not just because of themselves, but because they placed their hope in the one who didn’t give up on us and leave us to a tomorrow that would be forever like today. But who took action, taking on flesh in Jesus, coming amongst us, entering even the darkest of experiences on the cross, but bringing new life, a new hope, a new future even from that.
Nothing is beyond that God. And nothing can keep him from us. In him we can have more than mere optimism. We are part of a long, continuing story, of those who walked with God and because of Jesus we too can see things differently can have confidence in what we hope for, and assurance of what we still do not yet see. For our faith and out future is in the one who fashions the visible from the invisible.