What’s your story of faith? What have been the ups and downs on your journey so far? How does that help spur you on and sustain you during the hard times? Those are the questions that Hebrews chapter 11 raises, continuing on from looking at Abraham’s journey of faith last week.
If you’re a sports fan then I guess you’ve been spoilt for choice over the last week or two – England winning the Ashes again, Mo Farah doing amazingly, the start of the football season, amongst other things. And one of the things that athletes often comment on is the difference that crowd makes. Last year during the Olympics many of the British athletes commented on how the crowd had helped to roar them home.
That’s the image that we’re meant to be thinking about at the end of the reading we heard from the letter to the Hebrews. A packed stadium roaring on the athletes to victory.
But, like Mo Farah and the England cricket team, the crowd helped roar home people who had spent a long time working hard, who hadn’t just turned up hoping that things would go alright. Farah beat his closest rival, Jeilan, in the 10,000 metres, having been beaten by him in the last World Championships in 2011. He knew what it was like to lose as well as win, had encountered setbacks and challenges. After his victory he spoke of being away from his family months at a time training. And all this helped to motivate him to carry on, to win.
And in the same way as Mo Farah’s story motivates him, the letter to the Hebrews gives us stories, stories of faith to motivate us. We thought about Abraham’s story of faith last week – about his struggles and mistakes and doubts, and hopes and successes and, above all, his faith. This week we’ve heard more from Hebrews 11, giving the stories of faith of the Moses and Joshua and then listing a whole lot more. These stories were the foundations of Israel, telling how they had been chosen by God, how they had been freed by God, how they had been given their own land by God. These were right at the heart of their identity, right at the heart of their understanding of who they were.
So, what’s our story of faith? At the heart of our faith, at the heart of our identity, is the death and resurrection of Jesus, which opens up the way for us to God, shows us that God loves us and is with us, and gives us the power of the Holy Spirit to help us. And at the heart of our understanding of who we are is the promise that because of Jesus we are welcomed as members of God’s family, welcomed as Abraham’s heirs, welcomed as the new Israel.
The letter to the Hebrews lists all those people and the many struggles and hardships that they went through. This wasn’t a way of minimising the struggles and hardships that those first Christians were going through, but as a way of helping them through their struggles: “we’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” – many of whom have been through struggles and hardships, so “run the race set out for you”.
In a recent discussion, the former archbishop, Rowan Williams, said:
“the idea that being spiritual is just about having nice experiences is rather laughable. Most people who have written seriously about the life of the spirit in Christianity … spend a lot of their time telling you how absolutely … awful it is.”
Unfortunately for those of us who’d prefer an easy life, that isn’t one of the things we’re promised by God. A life where God is with us, yes. A life where God calls us on the adventure of following him, yes. A life where God gives us the power of the Spirit and the gifts that we need, yes. And, eternal life on a renewed earth to look forward, definitely. An easy life, however, no.
So, run the race, with those spectators cheering you on, willing you on. Think back again to those scenes in the Olympics last year with huge crowds roaring the athletes on, willing them to perform to their best, suffering along with them. Now imagine an even bigger crowd roaring you on, knowing your struggles and willing you to throw off those things that entangle you. And, of course, in that crowd of witnesses there are people who will have gone through the sort of struggle that you’re facing at the moment, whatever that is. That’s the glory and the promise of our God.
That’s our shared story of faith. But what’s your story of faith?
A couple of Football World Cups ago, apparently most of the Brazil football team were Christians. And, they wanted to be able to tell people about their story of faith, what inspired them, what was really important to them. But, of course they knew that they wouldn’t have long to do this as part of any TV interview. So, apparently they got their story of faith, the bit that they wanted to tell people, down to the length of time it took for a match to burn down.
I became a Christian as a teenager because I was convinced that nothing else made sense of the reports about Jesus’ resurrection. And I came to know God’s power and his call in my life.
That’s not the whole of my story obviously, but it goes to the core of why I’m here now. And it’s good sometimes to be able to do that, to look back and remind ourselves of why we are here. Because sometimes that’s what can keep us going, sometimes it helps to spur us on, keep us going. And, it’s good to be able to look back and remind ourselves so that we can talk to other people about why we are here, what we’re doing, and where we’ve come from.
This isn’t just for the good times, it’s for the bad times as well. It’s looking back to see those times when we’ve seen God at work in our lives, to help us through the times when things are a lot harder and less obvious. That’s the same in the Psalms; reading them I’m struck by how often the ones that start with a complaint go on to tell the past story of their faith. The people who wrote the psalms weren’t afraid to tell God what they were thinking and often go on to retell part of their story of faith, either as a people or as an individual. Often, basically saying ‘well God, you did that then, so why not now?’ ‘come on, get on with it!’
The Psalm that we heard, Psalm 82, is a bit like that. It talks about God presiding in the great assembly, talks about God judging. Then, at the end, tells God to get on with judging the earth. So, it’s a statement of what God has done and a request, a demand that he does it again and properly this time! And in the middle, it’s also about our story of faith, about some of what we’re supposed to be doing: “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Are we doing that?
It’s also a reminder why we’re called to do those things. “You are gods, you are sons of the most high” we’re told. Which is a bit confusing. It’s not really any less confusing when Jesus quotes this to his opponents in John 10. Well, they certainly didn’t think so as they tried to seize him and have him killed. But, it’s a reminder that we, as children of the Most High, don’t just represent God here on earth, here in Swadlincote. We, as children of the Most High, act as God. We are God’s ambassadors on earth. Like ambassadors, we are what we represent. We act as God in what we do and say and are. And, like God, that means being angry at injustice, weeping at the hurt and pain of this world, celebrating the good things that there are in creation, and defending, rescuing and helping those in need.
We’ve been given that privilege and task and responsibility. We’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who’ve also had that privilege, task and responsibility. We’re being cheered on by them, we’re being welcomed with open arms by God himself, even as he also helps us on our way. Our struggles are real, and so is the prize and goal. So “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith”. Amen.