Today’s passage is a familiar passage to all of us. It is a passage on FAITH. Hebrews writer paints a grand, sweeping picture of our so-called ‘ancestors’ of faith. We come across familiar events and names, like the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. We hear about the great and wonderful things that were done because of faith.
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. (Hebrews 11:32-34)
These are triumphant and glorious moments. Achievements that are worth mentioning. Things we ourselves can’t even dream of doing. Shutting the mouths of lions? As the Hebrews writer says, the list can go on and on.
A ‘Perfect’ Faith
We also hear about those who suffered greatly because of faith. Those who were persecuted, tortured, and even killed because of what they believed. Compared to the beautiful and glorious image that we just saw, Hebrews writer also gives us a dark, grim, and violent picture of what the ancestors experienced.
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. (Hebrews 11:37-39)
When we see this, we can’t help but admire the faith of those who came before us. They seem to have had what we’d call a ‘perfect’ faith. Great, strong, and unwavering faith. The kind of faith that we don’t seem to see much today. We feel that way especially when we think about our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The faith we have seem to pale in comparison to the faith that they had. I felt that when we made the documentary last year for our church’s 25th anniversary. Our faith seems so small and insignificant next to theirs. We wonder if we could be the kind of witness that they were. We don’t think we have that great and perfect faith. In that sense, we can feel both inspired and removed by a passage like this. What does this even mean for us (or me)?
What we think of as perfect faith does not stand on its own. It does not come to us readymade. It is not only given to special people. That is what I realized. Faith never stands by itself, in isolation. Faith always exists in connection to something else. Behind what we see as perfect faith lies this something that we often do not notice. That is HOPE.
Let’s look at how the Hebrews writer describes faith. We know this verse very well.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)
Do you see the connection? Without hope, faith is nothing. Our faith remains lifeless and empty. Hope is what BREAKS OPEN the seed of faith. Hope of what has not yet been realized is what FUELS and SHAPES our faith. The problem is not that we don’t have enough faith; It is that we don’t have enough hope. When hope dies, faith withers as well. In that sense, life of faith is about CULTIVATING HOPE. Not losing hope, but becoming more and more hopeful.
Hope doesn’t always carry a good connotation. Some of us think of hope as kind of being weak. Sort of vague and flimsy in character. We use this expression: “HOPE FOR THE BEST” Some of us think hope and wishful thinking are the same. We liken it to cheap optimism. We don’t see much difference between the two.
But I wonder if that really is hope. Does that kind of hope have any power? I don’t think so. It doesn’t give us any strength. It doesn’t change us one bit. It only fosters an attitude of casual indifference. “If it happens, it happens – if it doesn’t, oh well.” Kind of apathy that masks our fear of experiencing more hurt and disappointment.
Genuine hope is real and powerful. It has the power to heal and move us forward. It has the power to snap us out of our complacency. It moves us to ACTION. Hope is not a theory or an intellectual musing. It brings a radical change within ourselves and in how we live our lives. It makes it possible for us to believe what we thought to be impossible.
Hope Against Hope
This is the hope that carried our ancestors in their journey. They weren’t any more brilliant and special than we are. They were imperfect and ordinary people, just like us. But they were HOPEFUL people. No matter what kind of difficulties or hardship they faced, they did NOT lose their hope. St. Paul said in Romans that Abraham HOPED AGAINST HOPE. In fact, the suffering they experienced made the power of hope even more visible. They lived with this hopeful attitude to the very end. Hope made their faith perfect. Because of their hope, we are here today.
We should never underestimate the power of hope. Hope that PERFECTS our faith. Hope that inspires and encourages those around us. Hope that allows us to be witnesses of our faith.
There is another ‘FLOW’ event coming up. The purpose behind this event is to give the young people of our community to hear the stories of our older generation – those who came before them. These stories are stories of faith. More importantly, what is deeply woven into these stories is HOPE. That is what you will be communicating. That is what our young people will ultimately take away. You may not say it explicitly, but they will feel it. That no matter how discouraging life might get at times, we can have hope. Hope of a BRIGHTER FUTURE ahead. Hope that GOD will NOT let any of our efforts go to waste. Your stories will give them strength, especially as they navigate through this post-pandemic time.
But hope isn’t only for the young. We all need it. Hebrews writer tells us—
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… (Hebrews 12:1)
We are running a race. This metaphor often appears in the New Testament. Our life of faith as a race. We are not talking about a 100-meter sprint. It is more like a MARATHON. A lifelong marathon. To run a marathon, we need great stamina. To finish a marathon, we need ENDURANCE. Hope gives us the strength to endure. Without it, we cannot persevere. We will eventually give up.
There is so much darkness that we see around us. Where do we even begin? On top of what we have to deal with in our own lives, it often feels like it’s more than we can bear. Everything we see seems like a good reason to give up. To abandon our faith. To dwell in our own cynicism. Dave Chappelle calls it the ‘Age of Spin’ – the most difficult time in human history to live in. We are caving under the weight of darkness to a point that we are tempted to stop caring altogether.
Resurrection in Hope
We cannot stop hoping. We cannot fall into despair. It is not an option. Dostoevsky said: To live without Hope is to Cease to live. We must keep on hoping. Yes, it may seem foolish. We may not be able to explain why. But there is great wisdom in such foolishness. Jesus had every reason to give up all hope when he was dying on the cross. He was in what seemed like a hopeless situation. People mocked him because God did nothing. He looked totally abandoned by God. Yet he did not abandon his hope. He held onto his hope. It only strengthened his faith. It allowed him to surrender himself completely in God’s hands.
Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. (Luke 23:46)
These are not the words of someone who has lost all hope. These are the words of someone who still has HOPE.
Without hope, there is no resurrection. Without hope, there is no tomorrow. Without hope, there is no future. We are not just a people of faith, but people of hope. We live by the power of God’s promise. Promise of a brighter future when God will bring all things to fruition. St. Paul lived with this unwavering hope. It was the source of his joy in life. He proclaimed this hope boldly in his letter to the Philippians.
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)
When we look back and see how God has been with us, that gives us hope for what is to come. Our hope gives us the confidence to confront the darkness of our present situation and cry out to God. That confidence is faith.
May we be the people of faith who hold firmly onto this hope as we continue to run the race of our life.