After 45 years, I can still rattle off the starting line-up for the Detroit Tigers World Series championship team of 1968. I listened to every game on the radio, read about them in the paper the next day. They were my heroes. I’m not much of a baseball fan anymore except if the Tigers are winning (which they are right now). It’s just not the same now. It’s become big business, entertainment and it’s hard to look at any of the players, any professional athlete of any sport, with any sort of adulation. And now this week with Brewers star Ryan Braun suspended and the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez facing a ban through all of 2014, we know that every player’s stats are now tainted by the possibility that they have used performance enhancing drugs. But in other areas of life, it seems like people who we want to emulate, people who are held up as role models, inevitably have feet of clay.
In Christianity, heroes of the faith are regarded as saints, but even before there were saints, with the recognition and devotion accorded to them, there were other heroes, the great men and women of the Hebrew Bible who were held up as examples and ideals. Perhaps there was no greater hero than Abraham, whose story we have heard parts of these last weeks, and receives attention again today.
Today’s second reading comes from the letter to the Hebrews which is neither a letter, nor was it written to the Hebrews. It is more like a sermon than any other sort of literature, and it was probably directed to an audience of Christians of both Jewish and Gentile background. It works very closely with imagery and language from the Hebrew Bible as well as from Jewish practice. It’s a complex and intricate work and while some of its themes have become important in Christian theology and worship, we don’t read much of it in our three-year lectionary cycle. Today’s reading is excerpted from a longer list of the heroes of the faith, beginning with Abel and continuing down right through to first century.
The verses concerning Abraham and Sarah come approximately half-way through the long recitation and in a way, they and the other verses that are cited here are the pinnacle. Abraham was always presented as the exemplar, the ideal of faith—who had turned his back on his family, his home land and a secure future and followed God’s called into the unkown. The author of Hebrews uses his example to make a case for something inherent in the nature of faith, that it is a pilgrimage, a journey. It is language we use often, but for the author of the Hebrews, it meant something—that our true home and the destination of our journey are not here on earth, but in the eternal presence of God.
Before looking more closely at what the author of the letter to the Hebrews has to say about Abraham and Sarah, I’d like to take a brief look at the biblical story of Abraham in Genesis. We heard one brief piece of it—Yahweh’s promise to Abram that he would be the father of a mighty nation, that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the Milky Way galaxy. It’s a promise that Abram had received before, years earlier. It’s a promise that sent Abram with his wife and servants on the journey to the promised land. It’s a promise that God repeated to Abraham several times over the years. We can presume that this story is supposed to have taken place some years after Abram had entered Canaan, less than ten. We can hear something of his frustration in his response to God. Sure, Abram seems to be saying, you promised I would have many offspring, but here it is after all these years, and my heir is in fact a slave in my house.
It’s a promise that would continue to be unfulfilled for years. After 10 years in Canaan, when Abraham was 86, Hagar gave birth to his son Ishmael; it would be another fourteen years before Sarah would give birth to Isaac, when Abraham was 100 and Sarah herself 90.
So after all of those years and that promise of God to give him many descendants, Abraham had two sons. That’s only one of the two promises that God made to Abraham. The other one was even less complete. God promised that he would possess the land of Canaan, and Abraham and his family lived as aliens and foreigners in it, dwelling in tents. In fact, at Abraham’s death, he held possession to only a small piece of property in all of Canaan, the plot he had purchased on which he buried Sarah (and on which his sons Isaac and Ishmael would bury him).
At the very end of today’s reading there’s a difficult sentence. It’s translated as “Abraham believed and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” The Hebrew is difficult, because it’s unclear just who’s doing the reckoning—whether Abraham is reckoning, deeming God as righteous, because of God’s promises, or whether God is reckoning Abraham as righteous because he believes and trusts in God’s promises. That is to say, is it enough for Abraham that God makes such promises to have faith or know that God is righteous? This is an important verse because Paul uses it in both Galatians and Romans to argue that Abraham believed in God, had faith, before the giving of the law, and as such is a model of faith for us, an example of what faith in Jesus Christ means.
To use the words of the author of Hebrews: he “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance, he saw and greeted them.”
The understanding of faith articulated in these verses may be somewhat odd to us, even off-putting. When we struggle with our faith, when we have doubts about God, or Jesus Christ, it’s often because our senses and our experience call our faith into question. We want hard evidence, certain proof of faith. And too many Christians in our culture assert proofs that seem to fly in the face of scientific discovery—the endless battle over evolution is just that.
And for the author of Hebrews to say something like “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” seems to demand that we lay aside our common sense, our scientific world view, and believe in some pie in the sky. But it may be that what the author is really trying to say is something quite different. It’s not so much that we are believing in something that goes against reality, but rather that faith makes the future reality present to us, and the unseen present real. It offers us a new way of seeing the world and human beings, to see them through the eyes of eternity.
That may also be something of what Jesus means when he speaks of the Kingdom of God, or reign of God. The reign of God is like a mustard seed—something remarkable, a large bush, even a tree, hidden in a tiny seed. If we look at it one way, we see nothing but the tiny speck of seed, if we look at it another way, we imagine the bush that could grow from it, and all of the life that it might sustain.
In today’s gospel, Jesus reassures his disciples, “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” We may tend to focus on what seem to be the very clear rules or instructions that come in the subsequent verses: sell your possessions, give alms, be dressed for the journey; You also must be ready, fort he Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” But we forget that first verse, do not be afraid, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
Just as God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a mighty nation and possess the promised Land, so too does God offer promises to us, promises of abundant life, forgiveness of sins, reconciled relationships with God and with others. We may not experience the reality of all of those promises right now; we certainly don’t experience their reality all of the time, but nevertheless, God’s promises are sure and we can trust that God will keep God’s word, and that the new reality ushered in by Jesus Christ, is in our midst and that God’s joyous and just reign is available to us and to all.