Serving Promises Unseen

Following is a sermon that I delivered on August 12, 2012 at Pocatello First United Methodist Church.

How many of you have been watching the Olympics?  Okay … I admit.  I get really excited when the United States does well, but what I find fascinating is how much I support the other athletes too.  Take a Bulgarian gymnast, Yourdan Youchev, 39 years old and at his sixth Olympics!  Who could help but root for the man, regardless of how he finished.  There was a diver who never expected to make the semi-finals. He was just happy to be there, thrilled to be a part of something bigger than himself, and the Olympics are filled with these stories.  Then, we, as we watch them from thousands of miles away, also become a part of this world wide experience.

In a way, this was what the audience of the book of Hebrews felt.  They were a part of a world changing movement, but … it wasn’t going as expected.  When Jesus ascended into heaven, they thought that he was going to return very soon. Paul in his earliest letters discourages people to marry because he thinks that the time would be so short (1 Cor 7:25-31).  But, there was a problem. The first generation of Christians were dying, and Jesus hadn’t returned yet. The author of Hebrews reminds them that our time is not God’s time.  He talks about their ancestors and how they were patient and had faith that God would fulfill his promises.

The word “faith” plays a prominent role in today’s Scripture passage. “By faith, Abraham obeyed … By faith, he lived … By faith, Sarah received …”

But Wait, There's More ...

Faith is often a loaded word, especially as it applies to religion and the church. As a child and a teenager, when I asked a religious person a question about Jesus, the answer was always, “You just have to have faith.” If I asked how or why, the response was, “You just have to believe,[another loaded word for me].” The bottom line in what they were telling me was that there was no decision there. It just happens, however, it’s very bad if you don’t have it. They were frustrated. I was frustrated.

In verse 11 of today’s passage, I think that we get a clue to this question about faith. It reads, “… because [Sarah] believed that the one [God] who promised was faithful.”  In other words, she trusted God, so she believed the promises.  How is faith developed?  By trusting the person who is giving the information.  Scientific knowledge and research are wonderful, and it’s great because theories can be tested through experimentation.  But, I’m not going to conduct all of those experiments myself.  I never met Albert Einstein, but I trusted my science teacher.  I don’t understand how everything about electricity works, but I expect the lights to come on when I flip a switch. I have faith.

Spiritual faith works the same way. Perhaps the reason that the people in my childhood couldn’t explain why they believed in God is because people they trusted (their parents, their minister, their Sunday School teachers) told them about it so early in their lives that they literally couldn’t remember. They could not remember a time when they didn’t believe.  Therefore, my question didn’t make any sense to them.

What if you grow up in a culture, like ours, that teaches people not to trust?  Then we have to demonstrate it, make it a part of their experience. (Experiment – Experience)  Show them the love of God. Become trustworthy. It takes time. It takes patience.  It takes the kind of patience that the author of Hebrews was talking about.

He reminds them of the story of Abraham and Sarah.  They were promised that they would have more descendents than stars in the sky, more than the grains of sand on the seashore. We may not be able to relate to a seashore around here, but you don’t have to get far out of town to look up into the night sky and see the wonder of all the stars. 

But how many children did Abraham and Sarah have at the time? Zero. Nada. Nothing, and these were not young people.  At one point, Abraham complains to God that one of his servants will be heir.  They moved their whole household to a new country that God promised their descendents would receive as an inheritance.  And it wasn’t like they could go down to the local U-Haul place and rent a truck.  This was a big deal.  Why did they do it? Because they trusted God.  They knew that they wouldn’t see the fulfillment of God’s promises. Even their child wouldn’t see it, but they had their part to play, and they did it. But what if they hadn’t taken that first step to a new land?

How does that compare to the instant gratification expectations of today?  We want it, and we want it NOW!   You know that your life is going too fast when you look at your microwave and yell, “HURRY!” … But that’s what we want, instant results, instant turnaround.

But can something great, something worthwhile be built that way?  If we ask our Olympians, the answer is a resounding NO!  Even the 15 year old Gold Medal swimmer has probably been training most of her life.  But these people are lucky, they arrived at their destination.  They’re at the Olympics.

Think about the people who built many of the European Cathedrals in the Middle Ages.  Depending on how you calculate it, Notre Dame, in Paris, took anywhere from about 80 to 180 years to complete.  In any case, it took at least several generations.  Can you imagine being a part of that project mid-way through?  You see the form and the shape of the building.  Pillars and supports are completed.  Perhaps the nave in the front of the church is filled in, so that worship services could be held as construction continued, but there is still so much to be done.

And, you are working on one small statue that helps to support the base of a column.  You know that the cathedral won’t be done in your lifetime, but you also know that this part of the building could crumble without your work.  The idea of knowing that you are contributing to something that is larger than yourself, where you probably won’t see the end, but to know that your role is vital even if it seems so small.

And, here we are, two thousand years after the writer of Hebrews and almost a thousand years after Notre Dame was started,  and we are still waiting for Jesus’ return.  The people at the time of the book of Hebrews were in despair because Jesus had not returned, so they could not begin their eternal life with God.  As we still wait, what are we called to do in the meantime?

Back in January, we had a leadership summit here at the church where we came up with a purpose statement that you can read at the top of your bulletin.  Will you read it out loud along with me? …. “The purpose of Pocatello First United Methodist Church is to build a caring community of Christians where we accept, renew, and change lives in ways that make a difference in our world.” …

It’s a nice statement.  It’s more than that; it’s GREAT.  It’s a description of how we understand Jesus’ final instructions to the disciples.  But how do we do that?

By sharing the Good News.  The Good News that the kingdom of heaven has come near … with as many people as possible.  But what does that even mean?

When people encountered Jesus, they were near the kingdom of heaven.  What we can do is demonstrate that nearness as Jesus Christ’s representatives … by doing what he did:  heal the sick (or help to provide medical care); feed the hungry; teach about God and how to be in relationship with God.  But most important of all is telling people how they are loved by God and forgiven, no matter what their circumstances, not matter what they’ve done or what has happened in their lives.

Our job isn’t complete until we have shared this Good News with Everyone!  Oh, I can hear what you’re thinking, “Cherie, that’s not possible.  That’s not practical.  Everybody?”  Yes, every  body.

Our job as the whole church, the body of Christ on earth, is to share the Good News of the Amazing Grace of God with everyone.  What they do with that information is up to them.  Is it beyond the reach of Pocatello First United Methodist Church right now?  Yes.  But, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be stretching and growing towards that goal.

Why do we think that it’s impossible?  Because, we think that we are doing it on our own, our own way.  Our expectation, our demand is for instant gratification.  Anything else is failure, so why bother to try when it looks so hopeless.  But, as God shows us over and over again, it doesn’t work that way.  We need to do our part.  We are standing on the shoulders of those who have come before. We are just as important as they were, and yet, we are still a link in the chain to those who will come after us.

What we have to understand is that we are the tools.  We are the means.  It is God who does the building.  It is God who changes hearts and lives.

Are you familiar with the story of Esther from the OT?  She was a Jewish girl in Persia, who was chosen among the people to be queen, but she kept her Jewish background a secret.

When the Jewish people were facing annihilation, she was afraid to go to the king and speak out, but her uncle, Mordecai, said, “if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place … and who knows but that you have come to royal power for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)

Esther rose to the challenge, and the Jewish people were saved.

We are called to expand the kingdom, to support each other, and to share it with as many people as possible.  The Good News is that we don’t have to do it alone.  It is God who is the architect.  It is Jesus who saves; we are but the tools.

Perhaps, the Congregational Care Class speaks to you.  Maybe, you’d like to help in our growing Sunday School program or be a mentor to a confirmation candidate.  We have many wonderful ministries in the church.  Does something else excite you?  Some of our greatest ministries were started by someone with a new idea, someone passionate about a new way to serve.  Possibly, you’ve taken a break, and it’s time to get back in the game.  The race is not over. 

Recently, I saw a poster on Facebook that said, “If you’re waiting for a sign (from God), this is it.”

Though we cannot see the end, we can know that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.  We can be part of the change.  We can help to bring forth the Kingdom of God.  Perhaps, you were brought here for such a time as this?  How will you respond?



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