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Sermon: Eyes of Faith

August 7, 2010

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Sometimes we human beings chase foolish dreams and wish for foolish things.  That’s about the only way to explain the billions upon billions of dollars spent on lottery tickets and in gambling casinos here in this country alone.  The odds of matching six numbers out of 49 on a lottery ticket, for example, are about 14 million to one.  (Christine Cadena, “Gambling: Why We Repeatedly Buy Lottery Tickets Despite Unfavorable Statistics,” May 15, 2007.)  That means that the average person would need to spend about $14 million dollars on lottery tickets for one win.  That is not a realistic hope.

Because of the fact that so many of our dreams turn out to be foolish, some people in this life have learned to choose only the dreams that are certain of success.  They have learned to analyze the evidence, to think through every possible scenario, to examine every potential risk, and then to choose only those options that are practically a sure thing.  They have learned to play it safe so that they will no longer experience the pain of a broken dream or a failed attempt.  And that’s not the right path, either.

People of faith, however, have a rich heritage in which those who have come before us have taken a third path, one that is neither foolish, unrealistic fancy nor based on cold, calculated analysis.  Our ancestors in faith have chosen to embrace and believe certain promises not because the present evidence was in favor of their fulfillment, but solely because they trusted the one who had given the promise.

Our scripture lesson from Hebrews this morning uses the great father Abraham and the great mother Sarah as the example of people who believed in the one who made the promise.  By faith, says our scripture, Abraham obeyed God and left his own land, even though Abraham had no idea where he was going.  It was that faith that enabled Abraham and Sarah to become parents.  Our pew Bibles say that “[Abraham] trusted God to keep his promise” (Hebrews 11:11; Today’s English Version).  The New Revised Standard Version puts it more beautifully.  “By faith he received the power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised.  Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendents were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’”

When Abraham and Sarah analyzed the evidence—and they did—they discovered that the future God had in store for them was impossible.  There could be no future that included children born to this very old couple, “as good as dead.”  Impossible.  That was not one of the futures available to Abraham and Sarah.  Find a couple of youngsters just starting out, and perhaps then you can discuss a future of innumerable descendants, but not Abraham and Sarah.

And they were incredulous.  They doubted.  They laughed.  They did what they could to help God, because God’s own plan was clearly so flawed.  But they also obeyed.  They left home and family.  They kept moving forward into the future that God was revealing to them, step by step.  Their obedience was based on faith because they ultimately believed in the one who made the promise.  It was only through the eyes of faith that they could imagine a promise that seemed to have no basis in reality.  God’s promise to them was not like winning the lottery.  It was more like winning the lottery 1,000 straight times.  Impossible.

So Abraham and Sarah believed that God could show them a future that was at odds with present circumstances.  They believed that the one who promised was eternally faithful, and so they obeyed.  And, lo and behold, along came a little bundle of laughter named Isaac.  And while that was a really nice event for the aged couple, that wasn’t the promise.  It was a part of the promise, but one little child an innumerable sky of stars does not make.

Our scripture lesson indirectly reminds us that the dreams of God aren’t really our dreams.  The impossible future God plans for us aren’t for us.  The promise isn’t our promise.  God’s promise isn’t for us because it is much broader and much wider than our poor imaginations ever grasp.  Sarah and Abraham were wondering to themselves about the impossibility of one single child, and God was dreaming of an entire people.  What happens is that God invites us to participate in the greater promise, and so the text says that they “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”  Abraham and Sarah acted in faith and obedience, but they did not see the innumerable stars of their descendants.  The promises of God are far too big for one or two individuals, for one short span of human life.  God’s promises are like a great river, and each of us is called by God to drop a tiny trickle of water into the flood.  We may not get all the way to the ocean, but far off in the distance, we can see where that river just might finally get to the sea.  That has to be enough sometimes.  Not every promise will be fulfilled in the way we believe it should be.  Not every part of our lives will be brought to the perfection we believe we deserve.  So we must be satisfied with greeting the fulfilled promise from a distance, giving it a wave and a smile.  That has to be enough.

In the meantime, we live and act in obedience to the God who calls us in faith.  If you believe that the one who makes the promise is faithful, then you can move forward, even if the hoped for promise seems impossible.  That obedience is sometimes the hardest part.  Obedience means that we are participating, doing our small part in the much grander scheme of God’s great promise.  But in day-to-day living, that obedience takes the form of countless dull, dreary, difficult tasks, tasks that must be continued each day even when the promise seems to have stalled.  Sure, occasionally, we have the opportunity for a moment of dramatic action, like Abraham and Sarah setting off on a great adventure by leaving home.  But not too far out of town, that adventure becomes one small step after another beneath the hot sun.  Or Vacation Bible School.  This was a great week of laughter and singing and good times, but now David has vacuumed up all the confetti and it’s back to the ordinary routine again.  We got a glimpse of the future.  When we watched the kids scream in delight as Pastor Neal worked the monkey to the top of the tree, we greeted God’s promise from a distance.  When I listened to the words of scripture come from the lips of little children each day as they entered the Sanctuary, I greeted God’s promise from a distance.  When John and Betsy and Judy sang and danced with each class, the kids increasing in confidence and delight with each passing day, they greeted God’s promise from a distance.

That’s really all we need to keep going—a glimpse of God’s promised future here and there.  That is enough.  After all, it is God’s promise and not ours.  It depends upon the faithfulness of God, not ours.  It is in God that we put our trust and our faith.  Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

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