December 18, 2011

High-risk Faith

Part 5: Better for us

Hebrews 11:32-40

 

Opening:

    Merry Christmas!

ILL: A man stopped to watch a Little League baseball game. He asked one of the youngsters what the score was. “We’re losing 18-0,” was the answer.

“Well,” said the man. “You don’t look discouraged—that’s good.”

“Why should we be discouraged?” the boy asked.  “We haven’t come to bat yet.”

That is faith in the face of adversity!  Today, we’re going to finish our High-risk Faith series by reading the final verses of Hebrews 11 which describe the kind of faith that gains great victories against overwhelming odds, and endures great suffering.  It’s about trusting God when it goes your way and when it doesn’t.

 

Greeting:

    Lots of you like the extended greeting times we’ve been doing, but I know that some of you don’t care for it.  If you’re an introvert, it may not be your favorite time!  There’s a method to my madness.  Church is people.  It’s about relationships.  It’s not just hearing a message—you can do that alone with your iPod.  It’s not just singing your worship to God—you can do that alone at home, in your car—and I hope you do!  Church is Christians meeting together—that’s the one thing that you can’t do alone!  Church is being face to face and talking.  If you come to church and you don’t interact with another person, you haven’t really been to church.  

    So I’m trying to make sure we are being the church.  I’m trying to coax some of you out of your shells.  I’m trying to change our culture from spectators to participants, from a room full of strangers to a family reunion.  This is one small part of that effort.

    So here’s today’s subject: Who are you inviting to Christmas Eve services?  What are you doing to celebrate Christmas?

 

Introduction and offering:

    This is the fifth and final message in this series, High-risk Faith, from Hebrews 11.  The book of Hebrews was written to encourage a group of Hebrew Christians who were teetering on the edge of abandoning their faith. In the first several centuries, Christians were a tiny and powerless minority in the Roman Empire.  They faced occasional state-sponsored persecution, and regular outbreaks of localized persecution.  Hebrews may have been written during a state-sponsored persecution, such as the one during the reign of Nero.  

Nero hated Christians, outlawed them and had them murdered in a variety of gruesome ways, including covering them with pitch and lighting them on fire to illuminate his gardens at night, or clothing them with animal skins and turning hungry lions loose on them in the Coliseum. It was dangerous to be a Christian!  In the face of this danger, some people caved in and abandoned their faith.  The book of Hebrews was written to address just such a situation.  

Hebrews 11, the great chapter on faith, was written to encourage these endangered Christians to keep trusting God.  The stories of the great heroes of the faith were meant to inspire them to keep believing.  Here’s the Big Idea:

 

The Big Idea: Real faith (faith in God) empowers us for the good and sustains us through the bad.

    Pause.  Monday in my PBJ time, I was reading Hebrews 5, and noticed that the author was disappointed with these people.  They were spiritually dull.  They were spiritual babies when they should have been grown-ups.  They still needed to learn again the ABC’s when they should have been teaching others.  I was struck that he expected them—all of them—to teach others what they had learned.  You haven’t really learned something until you put it into practice and can explain it to someone else.  You haven’t learned until you do it and share it.  I blogged about this Monday—you can read it on our website—it’s a post called “Perpetual Puppyhood”.  

    So you’ll notice two new things on your outline.  

  • The Big Idea at the top will be my attempt to summarize the message in one sentence—to give you the Big Idea so that you can easily share it with someone else.  

  • The Action Step at the bottom will be your homework.  What practical step will you take to put what you learned into action?  

Hopefully, together we can really learn something from God’s word, which means we do it and we pass it on to others.

    Faith enabled them to win and to lose, to gain great victories and to endure great suffering.

 

1. Faith enabled them to gain great victories.  32-35a  *Pause!

Hebrews 11:32–35a And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again.

    After listing over a dozen of the heroes of the Old Testament and their exploits of faith, the author realizes that he’s got to wrap it up.  So he mentions six more individuals (Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel) and a group—the prophets.  The six individuals have two things in common.  First, they all faced insurmountable odds; they were all charged with high-risk tasks that required high-risk faith.  God asked them to do the impossible, and then helped them do it. Second, they are all flawed heroes.

  • Gideon delivered Israel from the Midianites by trusting God, who reduced his already out-numbered army from 32,000 to 300!  But Gideon’s faith was pretty wobbly—he kept testing God and asking for signs.

  • Barak routed the Canaanite army of Sisera, but he is not remembered for that; he is remembered as a reluctant and fearful leader who was upstaged by a woman.

  • Samson was a muscleman who regularly trashed the Philistines, but he was also a moral midget who sold out for sexy Delilah.  Big muscles, itty-bitty conscience.

  • Jephthah defeated the Ammonites and then in a moment of stupidity made a rash vow that cost him the life of his daughter.

  • David was a man of great faith who did many amazing exploits, including clonking the giant Goliath.  He was called a man after God’s heart, and yet he was also an adulterer and murderer.

  • Samuel was a great spiritual leader for Israel, yet he couldn’t pass his faith on to his own kids—his family was a mess.

“What more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel.”  I’ll say!  These heroes of the faith were flawed—much like some other folks I know: me!  Us!  This is wonderful news: you can be a person of high-risk faith who does great things for God and still be flawed!  You don’t have to be perfect—or even close to perfect—for God to use you!  Each of these deeply flawed people trusted God in high-risk, impossible situations—often when their lives were on the line.  They did great things by faith even though they were flawed.  You might read Hebrews 11 and disqualify yourself.  “I’m no Abraham.”  No, but you’re not a Samson either!  Every person in this chapter was flawed, just like you, and trusted God anyway!  God used them to do seemingly impossible things!

John Calvin commented on this: “Thus in all the saints, something reprehensible is ever to be found; yet faith, though halting and imperfect, is still approved by God. There is, therefore, no reason why the faults we labor under should break us down, or dishearten us, provided we by faith go on in the race of our calling.”#

    After listing these flawed heroes, the author lists some of their exploits.  Each short phrase would have called to mind some OT heroes.  They…

  • Conquered kingdoms.  David over the Philistines.

  • Administered justice.  Solomon.

  • Gained promises.  Joshua taking the Promised Land.

  • Shut the mouths of lions.  Daniel in the lions’ den.

  • Quenched the fury of flames.  Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego in the fiery furnace.

  • Escaped the edge of the sword.  David and Saul; Elijah and Jezebel; Elisha and the king of Aram.

  • Turned weakness into strength. Elijah and the ravens.

  • Routed foreign armies.  Jehoshaphat.

  • Raised the dead.  Elijah and Elisha.

What do you notice about this list?  They are all victories.  Faith enabled them to gain great victories, or to experience God’s powerful deliverance.  The Old Testament is filled with stories like these: stories of people who turned to God and He delivered them from trouble.  God comes to the aid of those who trust Him and He rescues them.  

I hope you all have stories like this in your life—times when you cried out to God and He helped you, healed you, provided for you, delivered you, and gave you victory.

ILL: Mike and Cathy Rojan have been owners here at Life Center since 1979.  Several years ago, Mike was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.  Each time the doc gave him a new medicine to try, Mike had a reaction to it.  Finally, the doc said, “I don’t have anything else I can give you.  I’m done.”  

Things got worse last year; on Dec. 21, 2010, Mike was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  After going through a period of grief and despair, Mike and Cathy began to seek God.  Mike started visiting the Healing Rooms, where he was prayed for.  His faith grew—he told me that he was confident God would heal him.

And He has!  Mike has not only experienced a reversal of ALS and all its symptoms, but he was healed of the Crohn’s disease too!  It’s a wonderful story, and Mike would be happy to tell you more!

We could spend all day telling stories like this!  When we pray, God works!  And He does some pretty awesome stuff!

    But not every story ends in victory—and we need faith then too.

 

2. Faith enabled them to endure great suffering.  35b-38 *Pause!

Hebrews 11:35b-38 There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

Suddenly, in the midst of his summary of the great exploits of faith, the author switches gears.  He goes from great victories to great suffering.  Faith not only enabled people to gain great victories, but to endure great suffering.  In fact, faith may be strongest when it is carrying us through the valley of the shadow of death.  

Calvin put it this way: “It is a more glorious evidence of faith, and worthy of higher praise, when reproaches, want, and extreme troubles are borne with resignation and firmness, than when recovery from sickness is miraculously obtained, or any other benefit from God.”#

Faith shines brightest in our darkest hours.  

There are Christians who believe that if you have enough faith, nothing bad will happen to you.  If you have enough faith, you’ll always be healed, you’ll always have everything you ask for.  If you aren’t healed it’s because you don’t have enough faith; if you lack money, it’s because you don’t have enough faith; if you are suffering, it’s because you lack faith.  Hebrews 11 corrects this mistaken understanding of faith.  Real faith does both: it gains great victories and endures great suffering.  Real faith empowers us for the good and sustains us through the bad.  Real faith is trusting God when you win and when you lose.  

    Just like the list of great exploits would have brought specific stories to mind, so this list of suffering would too.

  • Tortured.  The word here refers to the rack, and would have brought to mind the Maccabaean revolt. Around 168 BC, a Syrian king named Antiochus Epiphanes marched his army from Syria through Palestine to conquer Egypt; there, the Roman emperor stopped him and ordered him home.  Humiliated and angry, Antiochus took out his frustration on the Jews on his way home.  Thousands of Jews were slaughtered; the Temple was sacked; pigs were offered to Zeus on God’s altar; the Temple was turned into a brothel; Jews were forced on the threat of death to eat forbidden foods such as pork.  Many were tortured on the rack, an instrument that stretched a man to the point of pulling him apart.  Finally, the Jews fought back under the leadership of Judas Maccabaeus, and eventually regained their freedom and cleansed the Temple.  Many of the sufferings described here came from this period.  The Maccabaeans are Jewish heroes whose faith led them to fight back at the cost of great suffering and death.

  • Jeers and flogging. Prophets.

  • Chained and imprisoned. Jeremiah

  • Stoned to death.  Zechariah, Jeremiah.

  • Sawed in two.  Isaiah.

  • Put to death by the sword.  Prophets.

  • They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated.  Maccabaeans.

  • They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. Maccabaeans.

It’s quite a list, isn’t it? What makes a person able to carry on in the face such suffering?  Faith!   And that list of sufferings is growing even today.  More people have died for their faith in Christ in the last century than in the previous 19 combined!  There are over 50 nations around the world where Christians are openly persecuted.  Being a Christian in these nations can cost you your friends and family, your reputation, your job, educational opportunities, and even your life.  You can read more about this at www.persecution.com and www.persecution.org.   We have millions of brothers and sisters around the world suffering for their faith, which is why the author of Hebrews goes on to say:

Hebrews 13:3 Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

What makes a person able to carry on in the face such suffering?  Faith!  Faith shines brightest in our darkest hours.  Faith sustains you through suffering—you continue to trust God even when it hurts.

ILL: When Joni Eareckson Tada was a teenager, she broke her neck diving into a lake, and was paralyzed from the neck down.  She prayed for months, then years that God would heal her.  He hasn’t.  And yet she has become an inspiring example of faith in God in the midst of very difficult circumstances.  Here is one example in her own words.

I’m a quadriplegic, yet I can drive a van (my hand is secured to a big joystick so I can steer, accelerate, and brake). I enjoy being independent, so if there’s something I can do, I will—even if it means tackling the drive-thru at a fast-food restaurant by myself.

Remember, my hands don’t work. That’s why last week when I cruised into the drive-thru lane to order hamburgers and Cokes, I prayed for the fellows at the pick-up window. “Lord, give them patience…and give me a smile.” Then I moved to the intercom to place my order.

When I’d finished explaining “no cheese” and “extra mustard packets,” I told the voice on the intercom that I was disabled. There was a pause. Then, “Okay…no problem.”

I pulled up to the delivery window and smiled. Sticking my arm out the window, I asked the cashier to take the 10-dollar bill that was folded in my arm splint. That was a cinch. While he fished for my change, I asked him to place it in the paper bag along with the hamburgers. At that point, the server bagging my order looked over his shoulder. Both boys, confused, gave each other a look that said, “Do you know what she’s talking about? ‘Cause I don’t!” I smiled and slowly repeated my instructions.

They got the message—and even wrapped my change in a napkin before they dropped it into the bag with the food. Then they handed me my order. I had to ask, “Could you please lean out your window and wedge the bag between me and the van door?” Both boys looked at each other again. “I can’t reach for the bag. Remember?”

“Oh, yeah,” they laughed, then hung halfway out the pick-up window to lodge the package between my wheelchair and the door. “Are you set? Are you okay?” they asked in all sincerity.

“Great job,” I assured them. “God bless you guys!” They slapped the side of my van as I drove off. When I glanced in my rearview mirror, they were waving good-bye. Thanks, God, for answering prayer. That could have been awkward, but it turned out to be fun!

This is the daily stuff of my life. It always involves more than simply picking up hamburgers or the dry cleaning. It involves a chance to make God real to people. A chance for them to serve, to feel good about themselves, to experience a new way of doing things.  

Problems are often God’s way of prying us out of our rut.

Citation: Joni Eareckson Tada, Holiness in Hidden Places (J. Countryman, 1999), pp.47-49.

It kind of puts your problems into perspective doesn’t it?  She sees her hardship as a chance to make God real for people!  That’s faith—faith that sustains you through the hardships and suffering.

 

3. God planned something better for us.  39-40 *Pause

Hebrews 11:39-40 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

    Notice first the “all”: “these were all commended for their faith”—those who by faith gained great victories, and those who by faith endured great suffering.  Win or lose, they were all commended for their faith.  Win or lose, the thing they had in common was their enduring faith in God.

    Next, notice the “none”: “yet none of them received what had been promised.”  Many of them had received things that God had promised, but none of them had received the Promise, the fulfillment of God’s covenant, the coming of the Messiah.  Think of it this way: How many of you try the samples at Costco?  Well, these heroes of the faith had all sampled God’s promises—they had experienced a taste, but they hadn’t received the full deal.  That came with Jesus.  We are getting to enjoy the full meal that they just sampled!

    Finally, he concludes “since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”  God planned something better for us!  We got the full meal deal, not just the sample!  They received specific promises, but we have received the ultimate Promise; it was fulfilled with the coming of Jesus.  This is what we celebrate at Christmas: Jesus the long-awaited Promise has come!  

Imagine living on samples—one small bite at a time!  We aren’t eating samples; we are sitting at the banquet table in the Kingdom of God that came with Jesus.  It is better for us!     If they could live by faith on samples, how much more can we live by faith since Jesus has come!  It is better for us.

    One of the key words in Hebrews is “better”.  The author of Hebrews is trying to convince them not to abandon their faith and he shows them that Jesus is better than anything else.  He uses the word better 11 times and he says that:

  • We have a better hope.

  • Christ brought a better covenant,

  • Established on better promises.

  • Christ was a better sacrifice.

  • We have better and lasting possessions than what we have now awaiting us in heaven.

Christ is better—why would you abandon Him for anything less?

    So it is better for us, and here’s the big reason.  It says, “only together with us would they be made perfect.”  What does that mean?  Earlier, the author said:

Hebrews 10:14 by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

When Christ died on the cross, He made us perfect forever.  He forgave all our sins and presents us to God perfectly clean, without fault or blemish.

ILL: In my final class in my master’s program, we took a series of about 20 lengthy online quizzes.  I was surprised to discover that if you didn’t like your score, you could retake the quiz—as often as you wanted—until you got a score you liked!  One of my classmates, who will remain unnamed, retook every quiz until she had a perfect score—no mistakes.  100% on every quiz!  I’m not sure that I could have ever have gotten perfect scores on every quiz, no matter how many times I took them.  I wished she could take my quiz for me.

Jesus took your quiz and got a perfect score, and turned it in with your name on it beside His!  He made you perfect before God!  He has forgiven every sin.  This is why you shouldn’t abandon your faith; you should stay close to Jesus.  It’s better for us!

 

    What is your action step?  Here’s a suggestion: identify your current battle or challenge and pray about it; ask God for His help and tell Him that you trust Him.  

 

Prayer: