Faith Seeking Joy


HEBREWS 11:29-12:1-2


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When I was applying for Colleges my last year of High School I wrote many essays on Albert Einstein, who was my hero at the time. He was my hero because of his understanding of the universe.  He was my hero because others recognized and revered Einstein for his understanding and I wanted to be recognized for my understanding. People have tried to understand Einstein’s mind ever since he revolutionized our understanding of the universe with his theories of General and Special relativity in the 1915 and 1917 respectively.

In 1978 reporter Steven Levey discovered just how far people would go to unlock the secrets of Einstein’s brain. Levey was a new reporter, fresh out of college, working for the New Jersey monthly Newspaper, which was located outside of Princeton New Jersey, where Albert Einstein had lived and died after he had fled to America to escape NAZI Germany. It was a fairly boring job until one day Levey’s new editor called him into his office and told Levey, “ I want you to find Einstein’s brain.” Levey thought, “ what?”. Apparently, there had been rumors after Einstein died in 1955, that someone had stolen his brain. So Levey set out on a mission of understanding to find the brain of the man who changed our understanding of how the universe works.

How do you go about finding someone’s brain who has died decades before without any modern tools like the internet? Well Levey started by going to his local library and pulled up some old newspaper articles on microfilm, from around the time Einstein had died. And he did find an article about how Einstein’s brain had been preserved for science. Eventually, Levey discovered that the Dr. Thomas Hardy, the man who did Einstein’s autopsy, had indeed taken the brain. Hardy wanted to understand Einstein’s brilliance so badly that he took Einstein’s brain without his family’s permission.. The podcast Radiolab in the episode Relative Genius, goes through the controversy around how Einstein’s brain was stolen and what scientist learned from Einstein’s stolen brain. But the fascinating thing to me is that while Hardy was so driven to make some groundbreaking discovery about intelligence, that he stole Einstein’s brain,   it doesn’t seem that Einstein’s goal in making his discoveries, was fame, fortune, or celebrating his own intelligence.  Einstein was working as a patent clerk at the time he published his theories. And when he became famous he made plans that he would not be venerated as a scientific idol. Before he died Einstein specifically requested he be cremated because he didn’t want his graveside to be a shrine. It seems that Einstein didn’t spend years working on his theories because he wanted fame, fortune, or recognition.  He couldn’t know ahead of time that his name would become synonymous with brilliance. Instead, it seems that Einstein pursued his theories because he enjoyed doing so. While understanding was the result of his scientific pursuits joy was the reason those pursuits continued.

A popular moto in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition of the Christian Faith is “Faith Seeking Understanding.”  For those of you who took my membership class know that is what I titled the class, Faith Seeking Understanding. Indeed, the Presbyterian tradition has promoted theological education and the asking of questions. We pride ourselves on being a church where you can come with your questions and your doubts without fear of being judged for them. If the standard for committing oneself to Christ is having an airtight argument for faith, that explains how every problematic scripture relates to our modern world, I am afraid that I would have never come to faith at all, for even I as a minister still have my questions about how the Bible relates to history and science. And I am okay with that. Having faith doesn’t mean you have all the answers in this life or that you will even get all the answers in the next.

There is this idea that is popular with Christians that when we meet the Lord after we die, he will answer any questions we have about our lives. He will give us a reason for why this particular bad thing happened to us and how it worked into His overall plan for our lives and his overall plan for the redemption of the world. But I don’t see a lot of evidence for that in scripture. While deeper understanding does occur in our journey of faith I don’t think understanding is the goal of our faith because it wasn’t the goal of Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. To quote our verse from Hebrews, “ Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us., looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”  The goal of our faith is joy. And today I see good news.

The Good news: When we know the substance of our faith we shall gain the strength to run towards  joy

What is the substance of our faith?

  1. Believing that God Exists.
  2. Sacrifice
  3. Courage

Our section from the lectionary today comes at the end of a chapter 11, a chapter that is often called the “hall of faith”.  Unlike sports and music hall of fames, where people are remembered for their skills, accomplishments, or character, Hebrews chapter 11 is a chapter where people are remembered for their faith in the living God. If you find yourself today to be a person of mixed motivations who’s life is like a bag of mixed jelly beans, with some really good flavors, and some other flavors you rather pick out and throw away, you will find similar stories to yours in the hall of faith. Even in our passage today we have Rahab a prostitute who betrayed her own people by saving the Israelite spies, as they did some recon before the battle of Jericho.  The book of Joshua tells us that Rahab didn’t start with deep theology, or a deep love of God. She betrayed her own people because she believed that the Israelite God existed and that He was powerful. She did what she did out of fear. Rahab told Joshua’s spies why she hid them. To quote Rahab, “ I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt,” (Joshua 2:8-10).  Rahab tells us why she helped the Israelites defeat her own people. She did so because she believed there God existed. She did so because she believed there God was powerful. She did so because she feared and respected the living God. Her faith wasn’t complicated. It was profoundly self interested and simple. And yet she is remembered in the hall of faith . As Proverbs 9:10, “ The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge”.

Belief that God exists, from a biblical perspective, isn’t really about whether you can come up with a logical or scientific argument to produce evidence for the existence of God. To quote the beginning of Hebrews 11, “ Now faith is the substance of things hoped for the conviction of things unseen.” Some of your translations may use the words assurance and evidence. But from my study has convinced me that substance and conviction are more appropriate. Faith is the substance that holds our view of the world together. From our experience we make logical assumptions about what will happen tomorrow. The sun came up this morning so we have faith it will do so tomorrow. The mass of the Earth causes a contraction of space and time, which we call gravity, which has thus far never failed to stop us from floating off into space. We have faith that what we have observed as the laws of physics will be the same tomorrow as they are today but we have no way of knowing that for certain.

Most of our arguments against god have to do with our fear that there might be a personal God who has a right to tell us what to do. A God who has power over our lives. And none of us like to feel powerless. But Rahab admitted that she was powerless and God was powerful. She had fear for the LORD and this was the beginning of spiritual knowledge. But this was not the end of spiritual knowledge. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom but it is not the full picture. One of the first names Hebrews chapter 11 mentions in the hall of faith is Enoch. To quote Hebrews 11:5, “By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him.” All the book of Genesis says about Enoch is that he walked with God and yet he is included in the hall of faith (Genesis 5:24).

The Bible uses the metaphor walking with God in a similar way that we might use the term walking with a friend. When we say we walk with someone we are saying we have made a commitment to them through the highs and lows. In a real way we are showing our love for them through our continual and close presence with them.  The fear of the LORD begins our relationship with God but our love of the LORD is what allows us to walk out that relationship. All of this depends upon believing that the God is as real as the sun. As the C.S Lewis, a popular Christian writer once put it, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

Second, we see that the substance of our faith is sacrifice. I find it interesting that the writer of Hebrews mentions the sacrifice of Abel first and makes Abel’s sacrifice as important as the sacrifices of other people mentioned in the hall of faith. Abel and Cain were the two sons of Adam and Eve. All we are told about Cain is he was a farmer of vegetables and that Abel was a keeper of sheep. Cain brought the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground while Abel brought the LORD an offering of the firstfruit of his flock. The LORD accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s offering.  Because of this Cain became jealous and killed his brother Abel.  Cain tries to hide this murder from the LORD but God says Abel’s blood is crying out from the ground. (Genesis 4). The text suggests that Abel’s offering cost him more, because it was the first fruits of his flock, and he had to kill a sheep that he had spent years raising. It also suggests that somehow Abel had perceived spiritually sacrifice would please the LORD, though he had no way of knowing for certain,  since there were no examples of sacrifice prior to Cain and Abel. Abel’s name literally means vapor. He never speaks when he is alive, only his blood cries out from the ground after he is murdered. We know barely anything about him except that he made a sacrifice to God that cost him and he had no prior experience to suggest that God would accept the sacrifice. Abel’s sacrifice wasn’t based on prior experience. Instead, Hebrews suggests it was based on unseen things, things that God had yet to make obvious.

Finally, we see that our faith consists of courage. The hall of faith mentions many people like Moses and Joshua, who stepped out in faith, who had a lot of courage, and they were obviously victorious over their enemies. In this way the hall of faith starts like many of our hall of fames might start out, with people who are obviously successful and victorious.  Our passage today mentions those who were insulted, flogged, thrown into prison, stripped of their possessions, wandering in the desert dressed in goat and sheep skins. If this is the hall of faith many of might rather choose the hall of fame. But the writer of Hebrews says, “ the world was not worthy of them.” Faith is a free gift given to us by God. But if others are to see that gift at work in the world it will cost us something, indeed it may cost us everything. It is easy to be courageous when you are getting paid by whatever organization to speak talking points that your audience agrees with. It is when our convictions go against the grain of our audience when our faith will be tested.

Yet, while all of those mentioned in the hall of faith, were commended for their faith, they had yet to receive the fullness of the promises of God. Their faith had yet to been made complete, it had yet to be perfected.  Our reading today that we as believers in Christ have stepped into the arena of faith. And all the great heroes of the Bible are watching us from the stands. They did not have a chance to see what was beyond the finish line. But we have been given the ability to finish the race of joy thanks to Jesus. Jesus is the only one who can lead us to true joy because he is the only one who has seen true joy, for he came from the bosom of the father to save us.  The writer of Hebrews says that all those who came before in the Old Testament only saw God at Mount Sini, a mountain filled with dark smoke. The people were so afraid of God that they could not bare to hear God’s voice without Moses interceding for them. But this is not the mountain that we as believers in Christ have come to. To quote the writer of Hebrews, “ But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

Belief that God is real, sacrifice, and courage, this is the character of our faith. And Jesus shows us the object of our faith, why we make sacrifices, why we endure suffering, it is because of the joy set before us. We know that joy is an important attribute in the Christian life.  The Apostle Paul tells us that the fruit of the spirit is, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23). People have often debated what the difference is between happiness and joy is. I think C.S gets it write in his autobiography, Surprised By Joy: The Shape of My Early Life.  Lewis says this about Joy, “ it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished from Happiness and from pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic ,and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has taste it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasure in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.” (Lewis, pg 18).

Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is. I think that describes joy better than I ever could. Joy is impossible to capture or predict. We work for it, we run for it, and when we reach it we never want to leave. Joy is frustrating because it is so satisfying but impossible to control. Pleasure is frustrating because it is so easy to control yet so unsatisfying. I know one reason I work so hard in preaching is I want to get to that place, that place where I fall away, and there is only the Word, God, and us, together as one body, being stirred by the Spirit deeper into faith, strengthening us to run towards joy. Yet, despite all my work that magical moment in preaching is beyond my control.

As I talk to people about joy in their lives what they most often describe to me is the birth of their children.  This is not a joy I have experienced personally, but when I met my Nephew Rowan it was as if I had entered the outer orbit of joy. Holding him in my arms for the first time it was as if I was holding a world of joy. I was part of that joy but the joy did not belong to me. And as I think of the character of faith, as I think about belief, sacrifice, and courage, I think that describes the way many of you approach parenting in this church, with conviction, and sacrifice, and courage. So perhaps you don’t know all the fancy words or historical context that seminary has taught me, but because you have tasted joy, perhaps you know more about faith than you think you do. You don’t have to have a big brain or big muscles to be in the hall of faith. Excellence is not required to compete in this race. Understanding is not the goal. Jesus shows us that ours is a faith that is seeking joy. And as Jesus says seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.



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