Sermon for Pentecost 9 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

What is faith? I think if one were to ask most people they’d give a rather simple answer, something like “believing stuff you can’t know for sure.” This isn’t a terribly popular thing in our rational, scientific age. But faith means a great deal more than the simplistic definition.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews uses a couple of words which transform our understanding of faith: assurance and conviction. Faith is not just about believing stuff; faith is about receiving an assurance that our greatest hopes will come to pass. Faith is not some tepid assent to facts that we choose to believe because we might as well; faith is about engendering conviction– a certainty about God’s promise which changes how we live.

This is all very abstract, so let us take Abraham as our example. Abraham was not a captive to wishful thinking. His initial state was fear. God begins his conversations with Abraham in today’s Old Testament lesson, by bidding him “do not be afraid”, yet Abraham remains fearful. He desires what every man of his era desired: a legacy in the form of descendants, and he is justifiably afraid that it will never happen. Observation and reason have taught him that his hope was empty. No man of his age, with a wife apparently incapable of conceiving, could have hope for children.

Yet, God gives Abraham an assurance that the promise will be kept, and he immediately believes. Assurance only means something if the one giving it is in a relationship with the one receiving it. Abraham’s relationship with God was strong, and so the assurance was received. Despite all evidence pointing to the impossibility of God keeping the promise, Abraham’s relationship with God was strong enough to elicit trust.

Now Abraham’s response was not just any kind of trust. It was what we might call “conviction.” Ordinary trust doesn’t require anything of the beneficiary save confidence in the trustee. Conviction, on the other hand, requires action. Conviction changes one’s whole outlook and approach. Immediately after this morning’s reading, Abraham makes sacrifice to God. Throughout the next several chapters he will obey God’s commands even when he doesn’t understand the point, most significantly in the binding of Isaac after Sarah does give birth. Ultimately, it is through this kind of conviction, the principle component of faith, by which God himself is proved faithful.

This is good news for us, but it is also a great challenge. It is good news because it means that we can be assured of things unseen if we maintain our relationship with God. We can come to a place of profound confidence simply by maintaining that bond, as did Abraham and all the great heroes of our faith. It is, however, a challenge, because it means that something is required of us, namely conviction. The Christian life isn’t just about believing certain propositions despite the lack of evidence, as important as believing those propositions is. It is also about letting those truths change us. It is about bearing the good fruits of virtue: temperance and justice and mercy and love. Just as Abraham’s faith proved God faithful, so will our faith if we live with conviction. Just like Abraham, and just like all the saints, we can not only believe but know, know more sincerely and more powerfully than we can know the truths of reason and science, that God has prepared for us “a better country… a heavenly one.” When we live in the great joy of that knowledge, our lives will be changed, will be transformed into sacrifices just as pleasing to God as was Abraham’s.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.