Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Throughout the summer we have focused on one of the five guiding principles of the Reformation, Sola Fide, by Faith Alone. For Martin Luther, faith alone was the solid, unshakable confidence in God’s promise which allowed the believer to act in a broken world. This morning we continue our sermon series on the Old Testament characters mentioned in the Book of Hebrews who embodied this faith. Today we turn to the Consolation Prize awaiting those who walk by faith.
From Hebrews 11:32-40 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Clergy are used to teasing. It’s said, You might be a preacher if- you’ve ever been tempted to take an offering at a family reunion. You might be a preacher if – you prefer talking to people with their heads bowed and eyes closed and are not tempted to wake them up. You might be a preacher if you think that an alternative to reading your children a favorite bedtime story is reading them a good sermon instead. Yes, pastors are used to hearing the good-natured ribbing about how easy it is working only one morning a week for an hour. But we’re not alone. Police officers hear about donuts and coffee. Teachers are teased about summer vacations. Doctors are kidded about Thursday golf course appointments. I’m guessing that everybody has heard just how fine and easy their job is. It’s pretty much guaranteed that if two people are working on a factory line doing exactly the same job at exactly the same rate, one of the two will tease the other about slacking off.
Unfortunately, for the pastors and church members living by faith in the 1st Century this was no laughing matter. There was no slacking off. Instead of enjoying the spiritual, “promised land” flowing with milk and honey that Christ offered, many were being forced out of their homes and families. Instead of being nurtured by love and worship at the bounty of the Lord’s Table, many were being tortured and crucified. Instead of experiencing genuine community as the living Body of Christ, many were experiencing division and mistrust.
The author of Hebrews understood this disappointment and disillusionment, and so he championed the stories the witnesses and martyrs of the Old Testament who had passed before them. And through it all he lifted up one heralded prize for those who lived by faith. And that is the prize we shall meditate upon this day- God’s Consolation Prize- Everlasting Life.
In this morning’s reading, the author has just completed his roll call of the patriarchs and prophets who conquered the promised land. The author, however, now sounds like a preacher with his eye on the clock. He names the next generation of victorious warriors, but he never mentions their deeds. He could have said far more had time allowed. Instead, he simply chooses to list the judges, kings and prophets who won great victories, though they were certainly anything but perfect.
Gideon was a cowardly lion of a soldier who had to be coaxed to do what God called him to do. After his amazing victory with 300 men over the Midianite army of 135,000, however, he made a religious statue that lured Israel back into idolatry. Barak won a great victory for Israel over an army of 900 chariots, but he only did it at the prodding of a woman, Deborah. Samson routed the Philistines on numerous occasions, yet he was tripped up by his own lust for foreign women. Jephthah was driven away from home by his half-brothers. The elders of his home town, however, pleaded with him to return and lead them in battle against the enemy. After he won the victory, he made a rash vow to sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house. His only daughter came out to greet him, and he foolishly kept his boastful vow. In scripture, we read, David was a man after God’s heart. He had great faith even as a teenager, when he defeated Goliath. But he later committed adultery and then murder to cover his tracks. Even the prophet Samuel, a godly man himself, who anointed the first kings of Israel, failed to raise his sons to follow the Lord.
In contrast to the warriors and prophets who performed great deeds, the author then includes a list of men and women who endured horrible trials without wavering, and who by faith were made strong from their weakness. By faith, Daniel was one who shut the mouths of lions when he was thrown into the lion’s den. By faith, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who as captives in Babylon refused to bow to the King Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, withstood the quenching power of fire. By faith, women received their dead back in the resurrection. By faith, Elisha prayed and God restored the life to a dead boy. By faith, others escaped the sword. King David escaped from the sword of Saul; and the prophet Elijah escaped from Jezebel and King Ahab. We read that “Others were tortured, not accepting their release, mocking and scourging, yes also chains and imprisonment.” The prophet Jeremiah was one who experienced such treatment. He was beaten and put in stocks, and his own family mocked him. But he never abandoned God.
Finally, the author recounts those who walked and were strengthened by God in their suffering. “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated, wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.” Many biblical scholars turn to the events surrounding the martyrdom of a 90-year-old Jewish scribe, Eleazar. During the Maccabean era, between the Old and New Testaments, the Greek ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, tried to get Eleazar to renounce his commitment to God. He promised Eleazar that he would release him if he would do so. But Eleazar did not accept this release, but rather he chose to be tortured and killed rather so that he might inherit a better resurrection.
You get a sense that the author of Hebrews could go on and on with such examples. But he has now made his point. None of these figures would receive their reward in their lifetime. These stories instead teach us that: For some of God’s chosen, living by faith brought great triumph. For others, living by faith brought amazing victories to situations that looked dismal from a human perspective. And for others, living by faith, brought a tremendous personal strength which allowed them to endure hardship and isolation.
It is still true today. There are Christians who by faith, continue to suffer. I met a Pakistani Lutheran pastor on a visit to Norway. He had been attacked five times, and his home in Pakistan had been burned to the ground. In my work as a missionary in Europe’s former Eastern Block, I met scores of men and women who were persecuted for teaching Sunday School. I worked together with colleagues who were denied access to university education studies because they attended worship services on Christmas Eve; a swimmer who could not compete for the Soviet Union because he had been baptized. These are not stories of some distant past two millennia; these are stories from our own life time. These men and women were not slackers who showed their faith one day a week. They were those who by faith were given an abundance of strength and hope. This same gift has been given to you.
Perhaps, as you think about your life and the challenges that you face, you feel like there is no way it can turn out well. Maybe you’ve been thinking God has failed you. Or maybe you have been beating yourself up for weak faith. Be encouraged that if that is where you are, you are in the company with many saints both in the Bible and in more recent times who have walked the same path. It is an opportunity to continue to look to the unseen and walk by faith in a God who really does love you and care about you. So keep on walking by faith.
My friends, God has not promised his disciples an easy journey. But there is no doubt which path he believes will bring you ultimate comfort and happiness. God assured his followers long ago, as he assures us still today- a faithful life will be completely fearless, absurdly happy and in constant trouble. Now that may not sound like the life you desire. After all, who wants happiness with trouble, and fearlessness with trial? No one, to be sure. But it is God’s promise to all that the joy and peace and comfort of heaven will amply compensate for the trouble of this world. It is a consolation prize better by far, than any first place victory you may have known.
You and I are faced with an eternal choice which begins in childhood and never ends till life ends. It may be difficult to choose. But somewhere along the line you will discover that God offers joy in the midst of life’s losses. In the aftermath of that lost job, you discover a reserve of strength you had never known. It gives you focus in the next interview. In the pain of divorce, you see weak side that truly is loveable. Your second marriage has fulfillment you never experienced. The loss of a parent may still seem fresh in your heart. But you feel a hope that tomorrow, someday, will be better. God’s consolation prize of faith gives you more joy and comfort than winning.
A woman’s four year-old grandson was memorizing John 3:16. He quoted what you normally read from the gospel until he made a slight manuscript change. He said, “Whoever believes in him, should not perish, but shall live happily ever after.” It’s not a bad paraphrase. We may not win in the ways of the world, but we have been offered a wonderful consolation prize- “You shall not perish, but you shall live happily ever after.”
My friends, the challenge and choice is before you. Will you be happy in the ways of the world or will you choose the wonder of God’s own consolation prize? Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.