Good morning! You may
remember that last week we reflected on seeing and believing, and
the importance of knowing not only with our minds, but also with
our hearts. Believing in Jesus is always more than just assembling
a convincing set of facts; it is the knowledge of the special relationship
between God the Father and Jesus the Son, having confidence in Jesus’
ability to heal, transform and save, and believing in the teachings
of Jesus which we have received in the Bible and through the teaching
of those who are inspired by the Bible.
Several of you mentioned to me following worship last week that
faith is an important component of believing. I absolutely agree
with you, and I’m glad you said something, and I hope you’re
listening, because I had already planned to talk about faith this
morning. The 11th Chapter of Hebrews is a natural place to go for
a discussion about faith. Scholars aren’t sure who wrote the
book of Hebrews -- sometimes it gets lumped together with other
writings of Paul, but it’s stylistically quite different than
Paul’s letters. Hebrews isn’t a letter at all, it’s
more of sermon. The author calls it an “exhortation.”
Whoever wrote it, it may have even been the deaconess Pricilla,
he or she was writing to the second generation of Christians --
50 or 60 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
Some of these folks had experienced persecution or were discouraged
that Christ had not yet returned. Some had fallen away from their
faith or were leaving their Christian communities. The author was
writing with encouragement, exhortation, and the conviction that
through Christ, Christians have direct access to God.
I wish I had written this as the beginning of a sermon, but since
the author of Hebrews beat me to it, listen to these opening words:
Long ago God spoke
to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but
in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed
to be heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.
He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint
of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful
word. (Hebrews 1:1-3a)
That is great stuff. It sets the stage for the rest of the book
of Hebrews: chapter 11 is sometimes called the “Hall of Faith,”
and gives a history of faithful believers; chapter 12 gives the
example of Jesus, and chapter 13 tells us how we can live lives
that are pleasing to God. It’s a great progression. I want
to focus on Chapter 11 and some thoughts about faith. Specifically,
what does faith look like for grown- ups, and what does it demand
from us? I’m indebted to Bruce Maples for some of these ideas.
Hebrews 11 opens with these words, “Now faith is the assurance
of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith
means being able to “see” beyond the things which are
literally in front of us. Faith is the capacity to believe in things
which we have not yet seen; even things which might look impossible.
Hebrews 11 gives the example of Abraham, who obeyed God’s
call and set out even when he didn’t know where he was going.
Verse 11 talks about Abraham receiving the power of procreation,
which is a pretty diplomatic way to talk about guy who is 99 years
old getting his 90 year old wife pregnant. Even the author of Hebrews
acknowledges this is pretty far-fetched.; verse 12 says, therefore
from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were
That is quite a phrase, “as good as dead.” I wonder
how Abraham would have felt about being described that way. If you’re
as good as dead, you have no hope; you have no future. How can you
have faith if you’re as good as dead?
I’d like to tell you about someone else who was as good as
dead. I’m sure he wouldn’t have described himself that
way, which is why his story is significant. If he had accepted the
idea that he was as good as dead, he probably would have died as
others in his situation did. Instead, he survived to be a motivational
speaker, had a business principle named after him, and became a
vice-presidential candidate. His name is Admiral James Stockdale,
and he was the highest ranking naval officer to be held as a prisoner
of war in Vietnam. He was imprisoned for over 7 years. Because of
his rank, he was subjected to more brutal treatment than other POWs:
he was kept in isolation, in a lighted room 24 hours a day, and
he was shackled even when he slept. Somehow Stockdale lived through
this experience, even when younger and seemingly more fit prisoners
did not survive. How did Stockdale do it?
His answer is known as the Stockdale Paradox; his principles have
been used by businesses and in Ross Perot’s 1992 political
campaign. I think they have something to say to us about faith,
even from a man who was as good as dead. Here’s what Stockdale
says: the prisoners who were complete optimists or complete pessimists
were the ones which had the most trouble surviving. The key to Stockdale’s
survival was the combination of optimism and realism. He held on
to the conviction that he would prevail in the end, no matter how
difficult things were right now. But at the same time, he had to
confront the brutal facts of his current reality, whatever they
That, my friends, is a description of faith: optimism and realism.
Let me say a bit more about that: we as Christians hold on to the
conviction that God will prevail: if we have victory, it is through
the power of God through Jesus Christ. It is not our power which
will prevail -- we may be as good as dead -- but we can do all things
through the power of God, and through Christ who strengthens us.
But the other part of that is that we actually have to do things.
We are challenged to do more than just sit on our hands and wait
for God to come rescue us. If we think that’s the solution,
we are as good as dead. Elderly Abraham and barren Sarah may have
been skeptical about God’s covenant to make a great nation
of their descendants, but when God got around to making good on
that promise, I’m pretty sure Sarah and Abraham had to participate
in the process in order for them to have descendants.
We should not read Hebrews 11 -- which lists a whole lot of folks
-- as merely a roll call of the giants of our faith who did really
great stuff. We should be asking what these stories of faith have
in common with our own stories. These were not perfect people. Good
heavens. They didn’t have easy lives -- far from it. Old Abraham,
he was no superman -- he was as good as dead. And yet he dared to
listen to God, and have faith in a promise that he couldn’t
Optimism is a quality which we cultivate in community. One of the
most difficult things for POWs to endure -- perhaps more difficult
than physical abuse -- is isolation. If we think we’re alone,
optimism withers and hope dies; when we know that other people are
experiencing the same things we are going through, it can give us
hope even in the midst of suffering. Admiral Stockdale was kept
in isolation for long periods of time. If he had been alone, he
would have been as good as dead. But he developed a method of communication,
a tap code of 5 letters in five rows, which allowed him to send
and receive communication with other prisoners. It was a life-line
which kept his hope alive. We will not prevail because we have optimism:
we will prevail because God is on our side, but optimism is a gift
which we can give each other on the journey.
Stockdale woke up each morning with three thoughts:
I’m still in
this horrible place.
Someday, though, I’m
going to get out.
If that’s so,
what should I do and how should I act today?
I think there is some great material here for people of faith:
we are here in this place -- our workplace, our families, our health,
our church-- this is our current reality. We might be so discouraged
that we think we’re as good as dead. But whatever our situation,
we have faith that God is calling us to something more, something
deeper, something we believe in but cannot yet see. If that’s
so, what should we do and how should we act today? We don’t
have to be perfect, we don’t have to be superhuman, but we
have to work with the conviction that together we can move our current
reality closer to God’s reality: there is a God, and that
God is loving and good, and loving people loving God is who we are
called to be. This is the power of God and the power to do all things
through Christ who strengthens us. It isn’t a trick, it isn’t
an illusion, it isn’t a magic bullet which will protect us
from pain or adversity, it is faith: the assurance of things hoped
for, the conviction of things not seen. This is the faith we are
called to walk in today and every day, and the faith which will
bring us home. Amen.