Jesus once told a parable that begins with these words: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?”‘ And we all should know that he tore down all his old barns, and replaced them with bigger and better barns, all the better to store his riches. But when he gained this additional wealth, it went straight to his head. It was all he could think about. He had plans, oh, did he have plans. It was as if all of the dreams that he had for himself had suddenly come true. He had an absolutely clear vision of what he was going to do with all of his new-found riches. The only problem was that none of those plans and visions included anyone but himself. He was so totally consumed with himself that he completely missed the fact that God’s grace had entered into his life in a most marvelous and wonderful way. He did not realize that his sudden increase in wealth had almost nothing to do with him or with his efforts to secure this wealth. He completely forgot that sun, rain and soil and the blessings of God had gloriously combined to bring him to this happy place in his life. He only saw the end result, and he claimed it as his own. And because he failed to see the activity of God in his life, because he refused to understand the obvious blessings of God, he lost everything as suddenly as he had gained it. His own greed strangled him to death. He was snuffed by his stuff. The stranglehold that he held on the things of this world kept him from the wealth and the riches and the joys of eternity. He couldn’t let go of the things of this world, and so he had no vision of that which is to come. He was not rich toward God.
In our passage this morning we are looking at some folks who were not only rich toward God, but who also were people who had learned to let go of the things of this world, and who as a result, gained a greater vision of eternity. If First Corinthians chapter thirteen is known as the “love chapter”, then Hebrews chapter eleven is famous as the “faith chapter”.
The chapter begins with a glorious definition of faith that every one of us would do well not only to memorize, but also to internalize as a permanent part of our world and life view. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” But what follows is just as important when it comes to ordering our lives, because it forces us back to the very foundations of essential reality. Hear this: “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” Essential reality cannot be seen with human eyes. Every thing that surrounds us, every thing that we can see, touch, smell, taste or handle is non-essential reality. This is where the happy rich guy that Jesus told the parable about messed up. His reality was only what he could hold onto, and tragically, he discovered that everything quickly slipped from his grasp, and he ended up holding on to nothing. Essential reality can only be perceived by the eyes of faith. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
Now, how in the world does this bizarre concept work out in real life? Fortunately for us, the writer of the Book of Hebrews, after introducing us to this really mind-boggling stuff, gives us some examples from every day life for us to consider. I’ll be focusing on Abraham this morning, but there’s plenty of other stuff left here for personal study and meditation.
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.” It is no accident, I think, that Abraham, like the happy rich guy, was a very wealthy man by the standards of his day. And yet, he got the call to move on, and he moved on. The call came from an invisible source. The call came from God. The word of God came to Abraham, and Abraham obeyed the call, even though Abraham had no clue where he was going. The only thing that God said to Abraham was, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) That was it. Just “go”. And Abraham went. We all know that it was the Promised Land that Abraham was headed for, but he didn’t know that. He was moving along, only because he had a conviction that he was doing what he was supposed to be doing. Do we imagine that that was an easy thing for Abraham to do? God was calling him to leave behind everything that had substance and meaning for him. God was calling him to forswear his roots, his heritage, and everything that tied him to place and history. Just go, God said, and I will show you something better. I will give you a different inheritance from the one that you had been counting on.
Now we know that that inheritance that God had in mind for Abraham was a wonderful inheritance. It was the Promised Land. It was the place where God would establish a people who would enjoy a special covenantal relationship with the God of all creation. To this very day, even though the Promised Land has been won and lost and won and lost multiple times over multiple generations of Hebrew people, the land, the inheritance, still holds a special place in the hearts of the Hebrew people.
But interestingly, that land, that awesome inheritance, isn’t really all that important to the writer of the Book of Hebrews. And this is all the more remarkable, because this writer is a Hebrew, writing to people who are Hebrews by birth. He is writing to people who look back upon the gift of that land as one of the greatest things that God has done in all of human history. That land is the source of their roots and of their history and of their substance, and perhaps even of their faith.
So why is it not that important? It’s not that important because the writer says that as Abraham journeyed toward that Promised Land that he could not yet see, that he had a greater destination imprinted on his heart that he could only see through the eyes of his faith. That greater destination was eternity. The writer says that Abraham “…looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” The Promised Land for Abraham was just a stopping off spot midway through his journey. The real destination, the real substance was something that Abraham could see only by faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, conviction of things not seen.”
I absolutely love verse thirteen. “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” Oh dear, that’s too bad isn’t it? All of that faith, all of that forward looking vision, and they missed it! No they didn’t! For them, the dying was a good thing! Dying was that great portal through which they passed that transfigured them. Dying brought their visions of faith to true and essential substance and reality. Dying was the arrival at the place to which their hearts had long since departed!
It seems kind of unnecessary for the writer to remind us that these folks had no permanent connection to this planet. They understood with all of their hearts that they were strangers and foreigners and exiles on this earth. They knew that they did not belong here. They knew that their citizenship was somewhere else. And they knew this, because they could see their real destination through the eyes of their faith. This is a lesson that I am trying really hard to learn. I have to keep reminding myself that my next destination isn’t retirement. Retirement is only something that I can see with these two eyes right here.
People of substantive faith never look back. Abraham could easily have turned around and gone back home, had he wished. He could have gone back to that which was familiar and comfortable. He could have returned to the land of his history and of his roots. He could have shut his eyes of faith and exchanged it all for that which he knew and loved. But in doing so, he would have turned his back on God. He would have forfeited the promises of true substance and essential reality.
He didn’t do that because he realized that he was on a journey of faith. It was a journey that was moving him from the shadow of this world to the substance of eternity. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
What is it that we strive to hold on to? What is it that we struggle to preserve? What is it that we wish that we could retain in a bigger and better barn? What is it that seduces the eyes of our faith to gaze upon the lesser things of this life? What is it that we will never let go of, even though it keeps us from continuing our journey?
The choice is ours. We can return to that which is behind us anytime we desire. No one will stop us. But this we should know: if we choose to go back, if we choose to return to the known and the comfortable, if we choose to hold on to the past, we will discover that the more tightly we hold on, the more tenuous our grip will become. We cannot hold on to things that are continuously passing away. Better to open our eyes of faith. Better to look far ahead. Better to realize that we are but strangers and foreigners on this earth. Better to “…desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”