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A Necessary Faith
Summer Quarter: Confident Hope
Unit 3: Faith Gives Us Hope
Sunday school lesson for the week of August 8, 2021
By Dr. Jay Harris
Lesson Scripture: Hebrews 11:1-8, 13-16
Faith Gives Us Hope
We are starting the third and final unit in this summer quarter. In many ways, the second unit helped us see how faith and salvation give us hope. In this third unit, we will spend the next four weeks learning not only how faith gives us hope, but also what hope does for faith. In today’s lesson, look for the dynamic interaction between faith and hope. Today’s lesson is entitled “A Necessary Faith.” We will learn how faith is necessary for a hope-filled life.
Faith Is Necessary for Vision
Hope and vision are intimately related. Vision is the ability to see what is possible. Think how limited individuals and organizations are when they cannot see any possibilities in a given situation. Being able to see the possibilities gives us direction and also motivates us to move in that direction. What about the vision that arises from our faith? In this context, vision means seeing God’s preferred future for us before it comes to pass. Faith is necessary for vision.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.”
The dynamic interaction between faith and hope is suggested by the definition given at the beginning of our scripture lesson: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for.” This assurance of things hoped for propels us forward in our faith journey. The assurance of things hoped for gets us out of bed each morning to see what awaits us. Our faith assures us that what we will be called to do will be worth it because we walk into a hope-filled future. Faith is necessary to have hope, and in turn, we can be assured that hope will motivate us every step of the way in our faith.
When it comes to faith and the assurance of things hoped for, we’re talking about “the conviction of things not seen.” What Hebrews says about faith, Paul said about hope in Romans 8:24: “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” Seeing the unseen is central to the experience both of faith and hope.
The 11th chapter of Hebrews has been called the “Hall of Faith” because throughout this chapter we’re given pictures of faith through the lives of those who have lived by faith. At the beginning of this beloved chapter we’re given this brief definition of faith, seeing the unseen, so that we will look for this particular characteristic in each example. By seeing the unseen, our ancestors in the faith received approval from God.
We’re also reminded that the worlds were created ex nihilo, created out of nothing. What is seen was made from things that are not visible. This belief shapes our Christian worldview. Seeing the unseen is a vital part of the faith journey. God delights when we, by faith, take the leap of seeing beyond what is seen. Envisioning a future before it happens propels us forward in faithful living. The importance of seeing the unseen is necessary to have vision and to see the possibilities.
Faith Is Necessary to Please God
Receiving approval from God and pleasing God are two sides of the same coin. In receiving approval from God, we’re on the receiving end of something that is very relational. In pleasing God, God is on the receiving end of something that is very relational. Both depend on God being gracious, merciful, patient, and loving. What is required from us is a response to God that demonstrates our faith and love. The focus here is relational, and faith is a necessary part.
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s. Through this he received approval as righteous, God himself giving approval to his gifts; he died, but through his faith he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and “he was not found, because God had taken him.” For it was attested before he was taken away that “he had pleased God.” And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir to the righteousness that is in accordance with faith.
What do Abel, Enoch, and Noah have in common? They are among the earliest people of faith in the biblical record. There is something simple yet profound about each one’s expression of faith.
We can only guess why Abel’s sacrifice was more acceptable than Cain’s sacrifice. Cain grew food from the soil. Abel kept flocks. Their occupations represented two rival ways of living in early civilization. Those who grew food from the soil represented a more settled existence. Their dwellings were more permanent. Those who raised flocks roamed around finding good grass for their flocks and lived in tents. Yet, both grain offerings and animal sacrifices became a part of the sacrificial system presented in the law of Moses. Perhaps the reason Abel’s sacrifice was more acceptable than Cain’s had to do with what was in each one’s heart. You could make the case for this based on what happened afterward when Cain’s jealousy resulted in Abel’s murder. The final point made is that Abel’s sacrifice met God’s approval and therefore it is Abel’s faith that still speaks from the grave down through the centuries. Not even death could extinguish the simple way Abel pleased God.
The character of Enoch is even more enigmatic than Abel. He was taken by God without experiencing death because it was shown that before Enoch was taken away he had pleased God. What is said next in our scripture helps us understand why Abel, Enoch, and the next biblical character, Noah, are being lifted up: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would approach him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” It seems obvious that whoever would approach God must believe that God exists, but it is good to state the obvious sometimes. Believing that God rewards those who seek God goes beyond simply believing God exists. There is a progression implied here. Step one is believing God exists. Step two is seeking God. Step three is believing that God rewards our seeking. It’s one thing to believe God exists, but it is another thing altogether to seek God and believe that the journey will be worthwhile and rewarding.
This is how Noah’s faith unfolded. He was warned about events as yet unseen. Noah had to start building the ark well before the first drop of rain in order to complete the project. Noah had to have faith and begin the project without evidence to confirm that this flood was going to happen. What was at stake was the human race. Things had gotten so bad that God had to make the difficult choice to begin the human experiment over again. God could have chosen that this experiment was not worth beginning again. Not to begin again would have ended in humankind’s self-destruction. Because God is gracious, God used Noah and his family to make a new start. We are grateful that, out of the whole human race at that time, a vestige of faith remained in Noah. God could take that and use it.
Faith Is Necessary for God’s Journey
The story of Noah leads to Abraham and Sarah. The story of the Tower of Babel made it clear that, left to humankind’s own devices, humanity would descend into chaos again. A new intervention was needed. God made a covenant with Abraham and Sarah. That covenant began with a calling to take a journey.
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.
To be called to set out for a place not knowing the ultimate destination is the very definition of a faith journey. A journey of faith is one where we depend on God giving us the directions along the way. We do not know up front where the journey will take us. We trust God to shine a light upon the path. When we take a detour, we trust God to get us back on the path. In this sense, everyone who takes the journey of faith walks in Abraham’s footsteps. This focus on journey is why the writer of Hebrews pauses in the middle of Abrahams’s story and makes the following observation:
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
Abraham, and the people of faith who preceded Abraham, and the people of faith who followed Abraham, all eventually died in faith without having received the complete fulfillment of all that was promised. This might seem like an embarrassing admission unless you know the whole story. God makes promises so big that they cannot possibly be fulfilled in one generation.
No one illustrates this truth quite as literally as Moses. In the last chapter of Deuteronomy, the epic story of Moses comes to an end. Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo and the Lord showed him all the land promised to God’s people. Everyone else in Moses’ generation had died in the wilderness. It was the next generation, the children of the Exodus generation, who were about to cross the Jordan River and enter into the Promised Land. Moses was at the ripe old age of 120. As Moses stood on the mountain overlooking the Promised Land, the Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Moses died in the land of Moab. It was time for him to die. It would be this next generation which was to take the baton and run the next leg of the journey. From a distance, Moses was able to see the Promised Land and “greet” it.
The great heroes of the faith confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. They were passing through, in a sense. People of faith are sojourners. People of faith make it clear that the homeland they seek lies somewhere in the future. If they were thinking of a homeland that they had left behind somewhere in their past, they would have gone back there. Instead, they go forward. They desire a better country than any they have experienced before. The country they ultimately desire is a heavenly country. God is not ashamed to be called their God. God has prepared a city for them.
Faith is necessary for us to have vision – to see the possibilities that are not yet visible. Faith – this ability and desire to see the unseen – takes us on a journey where we must rely upon God. It is this element of faith and trust that pleases the heart of God so much. Faith is necessary for life to be what it was always meant to be – a journey of faith with God. Faith truly is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. It is the “hope” element of faith that makes a life of faith worth waking up for each day. Faith gives us hope, but we will also see over the next three weeks how hope sustains us in the life of faith.
O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, we thank you for the lives of our heroes in the faith. Grant us your vision, nourished by your word, that we may the see the possibilities and be propelled in the journey of faith and hope with you as our Leader and Companion, through our Lord Jesus Christ, who reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Dr. Jay Harris serves as the Assistant to the Bishop for Ministerial Services for the South Georgia Conference. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.