Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

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

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes that “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go.” I wonder how often, in the age of GPS, we set out without a clear sense of how to get where we’re going. I know that if I’m going someplace unfamiliar I connect my smartphone to the Bluetooth on my car stereo, and its soothing voice leads me all the way.

I did get a little taste of this recently, though, if only second-hand. Most of you know that I recently returned from being chaplain on a ship with 450 Merchant Marine cadets on its training cruise across the Atlantic. A couple days after we boarded I was on the bow of the ship talking to one of the deck officers when I saw the captain, coming up behind us rather quickly and looking less than pleased. Fortunately neither of us was in trouble. He came to inform the officer I was talking to that he had gotten fed up with the cadets relying too much on the ship’s navigation technology, and he was about to turn off all of the electronics on the bridge and in the chart room.

This was no idle threat. He did just that, and for the next couple of weeks one could see groups of 18-to-22-year-olds on the bridge-wing with their sextants or huddled over physical, paper charts in the aft navigation room. These kids were going to get us from Belfast to New York using celestial navigation, without the benefit of anything more technologically advanced than a hand calculator. It is hard enough, sometimes, to put one’s trust in God’s providence to take one by a way which is unknown, as did Abraham; expecting that providence to be mediated through a bunch of college-aged-kids requires some faith as well!

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Today’s Epistle 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 our lives.

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 “fear not”, 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. The normal means by which we come to know things, observation and reason, had 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 Abraham 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 improbability 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 the author of Hebrews called conviction. Ordinary trust doesn’t require anything of the beneficiary save confidence in the trustee. Conviction, on the other hand, requires action. 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 facts despite the lack of evidence, as important as believing those facts might be. It is 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.” We may not know the way. We may feel sometimes like our lives are being charted by chance, even less certain than teenagers with sextants. But through prayer and participation in God’s plan for our lives, even when we don’t know that plan–that is to say, when we live by faith and not by sight–we come to the joy of the knowledge that this plan is for our good and that of the world. And When we live in the joy of that knowledge, our lives will be changed, will be transformed into sacrifices even more pleasing to God than was Abraham’s.

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