The writer of Hebrews defines faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I like that as a definition of faith. It is confidence, even when the night is dark. It is hope, even when the most rational among us would give up.
But what I really like about this definition is that it is both interior- and outward-looking. Tom Long puts this so well, “Inwardly, faith moves hearts; outwardly, faith moves mountains.” Long’s insight drives home that faith is both about internal conviction in who God is to us and about concrete, long-term external action that leads to God’s will being done through us.
Long continues, “Faith as an inward reality sings ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Faith as an outward reality marches at Selma. Faith as an inward reality trusts God’s promise that ‘mourning and crying and pain will be no more’ (Rev. 21:4). Faith as an outward reality prays boldly for those who mourn, serves tenderly those who weep, works tirelessly to ease the pain of those who are wounded.”
Faith is both an inward conviction and outward behavior. It’s never just one or the other. As the book of James drives home, “Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.” I’d also add to that works without faith are empty.
The whole of Hebrews 11 is a sermon on what faith looks like, both in its inward reality and outward expression. This sermon touches on examples throughout Scripture, showing that we too are part of not only that legacy but also part of what God is doing in the world through us.
“By faith,” the preacher says, “Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place…not knowing where he was going.” Abraham and Sarah leave their land in Mesopotamia and live as nomads, never finally settling into the place of promise but trusting that God was guiding them to this greater future. By faith, God would make a great nation out of a couple who couldn’t conceive in their youth and now were well-passed the age of producing a child. Yet, they were able to see the start of that nation in Isaac, born to them late in life. Through all the struggles and joys of life, Abraham and Sarah kept their eyes fixed on what God had promised them—a new land, children, and the chance to bless the world with their lives. They were looking forward to the city whose builder and architect was God.
Millions of times throughout history we have seen this story played out, where people believe that God will take their lives and use them to make a difference. We know a lot of these stories, but the vast majority of them will never make the headlines. Still, I think we should be encouraged to know that our place in this story is one of faith. We too could be added to this sermon, as we both believe God and trust God with our lives. God works through us in great and small ways, so never look at yourself and believe that God doesn’t want to use you! We’ve seen it so many times throughout history—in big and small ways.
In 1960 in New Orleans, Ruby Bridges became the first African-American to desegregate her all-white elementary school. By faith, she and her family volunteered to answer the call by the NAACP to help integrate the New Orleans schools system. She was supposed to be one of six children to integrate the school, but two decided to stay in their schools and three transferred to another school. Ruby bravely went by herself. This six-year-old was escorted by federal marshals and her mother that first day, with the marshals with her for much of that year. Could you even imagine?
White parents unenrolled their children. Every teacher except one refused to teach her. For over a year, Ruby sat in an empty classroom with Barbara Henry teaching her as though the room were full of children. Daily a woman threatened to poison Ruby, while another held up a coffin with a black baby doll in it. Her father lost his job. Their local grocery store no longer permitted them to shop in it. Not everyone was terrible. Some white families sent their kids to school despite the boycott. Another provided her father a job. Another babysat for them. Others watched their house to protect it. We hear this and are shocked at this cruel, racist behavior, but it’s a great reminder that interior faith led to brave outward expression. Ruby Bridges and her family were looking forward to a city whose architect and builder was God.
Born in the mid-19th century in India, Pandita Ramabai used her considerable intellect to become a social reformer, particularly seeking to help women and the poor. When she was in her 20s, she formed the Arya Women’s Society to promote the cause of women’s education and deliverance from child marriage. She also advocated for women to be trained to provide medical care to other women. Another decade on in life, Ramabai converted to Christianity because she saw in the faith the tools necessary to bring uplift to people.
By faith she founded the Mukti Mission. It started as a school for child widows—just think about that for a second, child widows—but during a severe famine in 1896, she rescued outcast children, child widows, and orphans. By 1900, there were over 1500 residents of the mission. Ramabai had a gift for languages, so she translated the Bible from its original Hebrew and Greek into the local dialect. That mission carries on today, providing housing, education, and vocational training for the needy. Indeed, Ramabai did not see her work completed, but she looked to the city whose architect and builder was God.
Born in Baltimore in 1949, Joni Eareckson had a very active childhood. She rode horses, hiked, played tennis and swam. When she was 17-years-old she dove into Chesapeake Bay, except the water was shallow where she dove. Joni became a quadriplegic. Her two years of therapy were trying. She was depressed and angry. But during occupational therapy, she began to paint with a brush held by her teeth. Realizing she had plenty of life to live, she resolved to do all she could with it.
By faith, Joni founded an organization to encourage Christian ministry in the disability community. That organization produces books, radio shows, TV shows, family retreats, and Wounded Warrior weekend getaways. She has served on the Disability Advisory Committee of the U. S. State Department. She was part of the team that helped draft the first Americans With Disabilities Act. No, her life did not go the way she ever imagined, but she looked to the city whose architect and builder was God.
The preacher in Hebrews wraps up the sermon with these words, “And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell you of Gideon, Barak, Samson” and so on. And I say, what more should I say? Time would fail me to tell you of Dr. Shi Meiyu, also known as Mary Stone, who, by faith, left China for the University of Michigan, became a doctor, and returned home to found a hospital that still exists today. Or Sojourner Truth, who, by faith, escaped slavery in 1826, became an itinerant preacher, recruited black troops to serve in the Union Army, and whom the Smithsonian named one of the 100 Most Significant Americans of all time. All of these lived by faith. All of these looked forward to a city whose architect and builder was God.
Outside of this very sanctuary, there is a plaque that reflects the faith in action of this church’s and town’s founding family. By faith, “In the fall of 1836 the Rev. William Ferry, his wife Amanda, his sister Mary A. White, and six others banded together to form the first church in Grand Haven, First Presbyterian Church.” We sit today as part of that legacy of faith. Ferry did not see what we would become, but he looked forward to the city whose architect and builder was God.
Even today as we express our gratitude to Maddie Lambert and our sadness that this chapter of ministry is closing, I see an example of faith. Maddie came here by faith. She moves on to her next endeavors by faith. God has been faithful through it all and will continue to be. In our own ways, we’ll look forward to the city whose architect and builder was God.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Faith is both inward belief in who God is and what that means for each of us and outward expression through actions that show we believe God is working through each of us to build the kingdom. Faith moves us forward. Faith is always both inward and outward.
I’ll end my sermon the way the preacher of Hebrews does. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” We have the examples of Abraham and so many in the Bible. We have the examples of Ruby, Pandita, Joni, Shi, Sojourner, William Ferry, and, yes, also Maddie. We have countless examples of people who will never win awards, have biographies in the library, or show up on Wikipedia. Still, we are part of this great faith that drives us forward even when circumstances are stacked against us. By faith, we move forward into the unknown but trusting that God has a better homeland in store for us too.