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Sermon for Sunday 7 August 2016

FIRST READING Genesis 15:1-6

1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.


PSALM Psalm 33:12-22

12Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord! happy the people he has chosen to be his own! 13The Lord looks down from heaven, and beholds all the people in the world. 14From where he sits enthroned he turns his gaze on all who dwell on the earth. 15He fashions all the hearts of them and understands all their works. 16There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army; a strong man is not delivered by his great strength. 17The horse is a vain hope for deliverance; for all its strength it cannot save. 18Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him, on those who wait upon his love, 19To pluck their lives from death, and to feed them in time of famine. 20Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. 21Indeed, our heart rejoices in him, for in his holy name we put our trust. 22Let your lovingkindness, O Lord, be upon us, as we have put our trust in you.


SECOND READING Hebrews 11:1-16

1Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2For by it the people of old received their commendation. 3By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. 4By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. 5By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. 6And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. 7By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. 8By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. 11By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. 12Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. 13These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.


GOSPEL Luke 12:22-40

22And {Jesus} said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 26If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? 27Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! 29And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. 30For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you. 32“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” 35“Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, 36and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. 37Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. 38If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants! 39But know this, that if the master of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have left his house to be broken into. 40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”



For those of you who are tech savvy or have dabbled into extreme sports, then you’re aware that there are specially designed cameras and mounts that will allow you to film your exploits. I’m sure most of us have seen them in ads, on reality TV shows or even the Facebook posts of some of our folks. There are camera setups specially designed for bikers, surfers, skiers, scuba divers, auto racers, or participants in any other action sport. Probably the most recognizable brand of these cameras is the HD GoPro HERO camera. The HERO cam can be mounted to your helmet, handlebar, windshield, car bumper or any other place you can think of where you might capture your adrenaline-pumping exploits.
Now I got to thinking about these cameras the other day and for a moment I wished there could have been some of these HERO cams back in Biblical times. If there had been, then we might have had live action footage of real heroes; the kind of heroes whose lives changed the world. Unfortunately, that technology didn’t exist, so the writer of Hebrews tries to capture these Biblical heroes with the written word.
Listen to our second reading for today again and picture these scenes as they happened: “By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. “By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days. “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient. “And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again.” These were ordinary people who placed their faith in God and because of that faith in God, they did extraordinary things.
Now I know the word hero is used often used today, sometimes correctly, and other times to simply honor a person. However, when you stop and consider the Biblical stories and the lives of faith these people led, I’d say they came closer to being real action heroes rather than some of the adrenaline junkies we call heroes today. They were real action heroes, because many of them lived by faith; they lived for decades trusting God and many of them never saw the promise or even tasted victory in this world. In fact, many of the New Testament heroes were crushed because of their faithfulness.
The writer continues: “There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated, the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground . . .” It’s easy to get a sense of what it means to be a hero in these words.
These were men and women who looked into the face of ridicule, torture and death and didn’t flinch. As we said, they weren’t always victorious, at least not in this world, but they were heroes just the same, real-life heroes. Hebrews 11 is sometimes called “The Faith Chapter” and when you think about it, faith by its very nature is heroic. As disciples of Jesus, we don’t always know what tomorrow may bring, but in faith we march forward trusting that an unseen God will be with us. Our Hebrews reading for today gives us example after example of such courageous, uncompromising faith even in the face of incredible odds. It also gives us glimpses of the cost some had to pay for their faith; a faith that could easily be called blind faith. Of course blind faith is sometimes the hardest, because it asks us to believe even though there’s no tangible evidence.
As you know, I was born and raised in Arizona, and as such I learned a few things about having faith. One of those lessons was about the way an old hand pump works. My father, a fan of the western writer Louis L`Amour, loved to take my brothers and I in the old VW Beetle to the old ghost towns mentioned in the novels. On one particular Saturday, we had been driving through the desert for several hours and had run out of water. We were miles from the nearest inhabited town and as young boys will do, my brothers and I were complaining about the heat and how thirsty we were.
Dad seemed to ignore us and continued a short distance further coming to the ghost town he’d been looking for. Near the center of town there was a large hand pump, like those you see in the western movies, where the former residents used to draw water for their horses. Again, being boys, we all ran and took turns wearing ourselves out trying to get water from the old pump. With dad looking on, all three of us took our turn at trying to get water from the pump.
Frustrated and tired we stop pumping and began to complain about the pump being broke, the well being dry and the fact that we were going to die of thrust. It was at this point that dad showed us a note that was nailed to a nearby post. The note instructed its readers to “look behind the rock where a five-gallon container of water will be found” and warned against drinking or using it for anything besides priming the pump. Every ounce was needed, and not even a drop could be spared, the note emphasized.
Not a drop exclaimed one of my brothers, can’t we have just a sip or two? Patiently dad explained that we need to have faith that the writer of the note knew what they were talking about. Dad trusted the author and did as the note instructed. With all three of us looking on, dad carefully poured the entire bucket down the well and refitted the pump. Within just a couple of strokes of the handle, water began to flow freely allowing us to refresh ourselves and refilled our containers. Then, without hesitation, dad refilled the bucket and returned it for the next traveler that might come along.
If it hadn’t been for my father placing his faith in someone he had never met, we would have never been able to get the water we needed. It’s hard for many people to give up a “sure thing” for something they cannot see at the time. You could say that many people live by the old adage, a bird in the hand… The water in the bucket was a sure thing yet the instruction told the reader to pour it “all” down the pump.
The epistle of Hebrews was written to a group of Roman Christians during the time of Nero (around 66 AD). During this time, there was a terrible fire that burned for almost a week, decimating most of Rome. Remember the old expression, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” Well, Nero did worse than that. Many of the citizens of Rome believed that Nero himself started this fire. And in order to divert attention from himself, Nero laid the blame for the fire on Christians. As one might expect, this unleashed a wave of persecution that threatened to destroy the tiny band of believers.
New Testament scholar William Barclay gives this graphic description: “Nero wrapped the Christians in pitch and set them alight, and used them as living torches to light his gardens. He sewed them in the skins of wild animals and set his hunting dogs upon them to tear them to death. They were tortured on the rack; they were scraped with pincers; molten lead was poured hissing upon them. . .”
It was during this time that Christians began using the symbol of the fish as their identifying symbol. As some of you know, the Greek word for fish, Icthus, is an acronym for the biblical phrase, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior,” and was a kind of secret password among these terrorized Christians. The way you revealed yourself to a fellow Christian was to draw half the fish sign in the dirt with your foot as you talked. If the other guy completed the drawing with a swipe of his own foot, you could safely acknowledge your true beliefs. Today we see fish symbols on the back of expensive SUVs and some businesses use them as an advertisement tool which is a far cry from the conditions under which this symbol was born. The persecution under Nero was an unbelievably horrid chapter in the life of the church. It cost many believers their lives. It cost many other less committed believers their faith.
Persecution caused many of weak or immature faith to leave the church. Most of the earliest members of the Christian community had been Jews. They had left the Jewish synagogue to worship instead as Christians in the church. With the persecution under Nero, however, many began returning to the synagogue. They couldn’t reconcile their newly attained faith with the persecution that they were experiencing. After all, they had been taught from childhood that God always rewarded right behavior. Now, under Nero’s persecution, they began thinking to themselves that they had been wrong to turn away from the faith their parents had handed down to them. It appeared that they no longer had God’s blessing since they had become Christians. Isn’t that what many of us believe deep in our hearts? If things are going bad God is no longer blessing us?
We often rationalize, that since I’m a follower of Jesus, God will bless my life and protect me and those I love from all harm. Indeed, more than that, don’t many of us believe that if we follow Jesus, God will prosper us in every good thing? That’s what those who teach the gospel of prosperity want us to believe. According to a very immature view of life and faith, that’s the way life ought to work. But it doesn’t work that way, regardless of what some of the television preachers may say. The idea that if we follow Jesus, God will automatically prosper us is nonsense; you might say it’s heresy, but it’s being preached every week on television. I need to be absolutely clear here, this teaching is a lie! Don’t believe it!
Here instead is the truth. The fact that we’re prospering doesn’t mean that God favors us, and when we’re going through a difficult time it doesn’t mean that God has forgotten us. Many of God’s most beloved people can be found in prison, can be found wandering around in rags, can be found among those who are being violently persecuted.
There was an article sometime back in Decision magazine about a man named Skender Hoti. Skender Hoti grew up in Kosovo. As a child Skender learned that, in his culture, toughness was valued above all other qualities. So Skender proved his toughness by making trouble whenever he could. He got what he wanted through threats and force. When Skender learned that his younger brother, Enver, was attending a Christian church, he gave Enver a good beating. But as Skender was hitting his younger brother, Enver looked up and said, “I love you, Skender, and God loves you.”
Skender wanted to know what kind of place taught people to love those who beat them, so he decided to check out this church. The pastor gave him a New Testament, which Skender read in the hopes of finding some loopholes. But after reading it through three times, Skender Hoti gave his life to Christ. Because of this, all of Skender’s friends abandoned him and his father threw him and Enver out of the house. But eventually, through the boys’ faithful witness, the father and the rest of their household came to believe in Christ as well.
A few years later, Skender became a pastor in his town. A group of military men kidnapped him and beat him because of his faith. But as they were beating him, Skender told the men about Jesus. Later, the commander of that military group also came to believe, and today he attends Skender’s church. The good news is that there are Skender Hotis all over this earth. Good people, people of deep faith, who are not only suffering in spite of their faith, but are suffering because of their faith. Do you think that God loves us in our affluence more than God loves them in their affliction? What kind of god would God be, if that were so?
The writer of Hebrews says this about suffering saints of God, they are people “of whom the world is not worthy.” And it’s true. We must never confuse our life situation with questions about whether or not we have God’s blessing and love. God loves us regardless of where we are on the scale of life’s fortunes or misfortunes. Study the Bible you’ll see there’s a conspicuous absence of the trappings of earthly material success as a reward for faith in the lives of many of the Bible’s greatest heroes. And the greatest hero of all, of course, is our Savior who died a tortuous death upon a cross.
Maybe this is why some churches don’t want a cross at the center of their worship. And based on the so called “gospel” they preach, a more appropriate symbol might be the dollar sign. Truth be told, they’re mere baptizers of the materialistic culture of which we are a part. It bears repeating, the fact that we’re prospering doesn’t mean that God favors us, and if we’re going through a difficult time, it doesn’t mean that God has forgotten us. God loves us and walks with us regardless of our situation. This brings us to the second truth we must accept in faith.
The secret to a great life is to hold on to God and to prepare ourselves for whatever life may send. Jesus said very clearly that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). In other words, good people prosper, bad people prosper. Good people suffer, bad people suffer. All sorts of tragic events can happen to the most blessed of saints. Expect the best, but should life deal us a crippling blow, be prepared for it and hold on to God. Believe me when I say, God will never let go of you. We can place our faith in His promise made in Deuteronomy (31:6) and echoed here in Hebrews, “It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
The story is told of a professor who, along with his son, went on a 1,000-mile backpacking trip from British Columbia to southern California. They hiked through the mountains of Washington, Oregon and California. They faced every sort of opposition, lack of food and water, danger from wild animals, the threat of robbers. They endured days of rain and mud, incredible physical exhaustion, the very real possibility of physical injury.
Before leaving on the trip, the professor discovered that over 90% of those who set out to hike more than 500 miles never make it. He discovered that those who succeeded versus those who failed understood that the biggest block was mental. They knew that their real enemy lay within, not without. Those who succeeded make two important decisions: First, they decided they would finish the trip no matter what, and second, they expect bad things would happen and decided they wouldn’t be surprised or dismayed.
So when the rains turned the trail into a quagmire, they didn’t quit because they weren’t surprised. When clouds of mosquitoes descended, they didn’t quit because they weren’t surprised. They knew that the key was simply putting one foot in front of the other. One step at a time despite the mud, the wild animals, the physical pains or even the possibility of crazy people coming out of the woods. Doesn’t matter. You just keep putting one foot in front of the other and eventually your journey is finished.
It’s a pretty good analogy of the Christian life. This text from Hebrews reminds us that the fact that we’re believers doesn’t protect us from experiencing life’s “slings and arrows.” And we need to be mindful that we’re more fortunate than those early followers of our Lord. Not only did their faith not protect them from suffering. They suffered because of their faith. We’re in no danger of being beheaded, rolled in pitch and turned into human torches, thrown into a gladiator’s pit or torn to death by wild dogs because we’re a follower of Jesus. But life is uncertain, it can get tough. So place your faith in God and prepare yourself for whatever life may send. This brings us to the third point we need to take on faith. As children of God, we’re never alone in life’s struggle.
I love the way the writer of Hebrews concludes this passage starting in chapter 12. The author writes, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before Him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The metaphor that the writer uses is that of a race, a marathon that lasts the duration of our lives. We’re running this race called life, and sometimes we climb steep hills and other days it’s somewhat easy going as we traverse a level plain, but regardless of the terrain, we’re never alone. There are people cheering us on a “great cloud of witnesses” is how the writer describes them. And who are those witnesses? It’s that list of heroes contained in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, and it’s also those of every age who have given their all for God. We draw our strength and our inspiration from them. They didn’t give up and neither should we.
In every generation there are people from all walks of life who deserved to have their lives captured on a HERO cam. Some of them have been and are in this congregation. So, what does it take to be a hero? It means whatever your background or your circumstances walking in the footsteps of Jesus. It means never giving up whatever life may throw at you. It means serving God and serving humanity and giving your all to make this a better world. It means placing our faith in the One who can deliver us from sin, death and the devil. It mans have faith, that no matter what this life may hold, we have a better life, a life forever with God for all who are faithful.

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