By Faith (Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16)

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One of the toys our kids are currently collecting are small plastic pencil-top figures called Ooshies. There are two main ways to buy Ooshies. One way is in a multi-pack where you can see what characters you’re buying, except for a mystery Ooshie which is included. You can also buy single packs called ‘blind bags’ where you don’t know what you’re getting. In either case, buying Ooshies can be thought of as an act of faith because we are hoping for something good even though we can’t see exactly what we’re getting.

In some ways, this is the kind of faith the Letter to the Hebrews talks about in chapter 11. The author looks back at Old Testament heroes and shows how their faith meant that they lived their whole lives trusting in God’s promises to them even though they couldn’t see what they were hoping for.

Hebrews 11 teaches us some important things about the nature of Christian faith:

1. Faith is grounded and grows in God’s promises
The faith of the Old Testament people in Hebrews 11 was directed towards God’s promises to them. For example, God promised Abraham a land that his descendants would inherit. To Sarah, God promised a child. As Hebrews 11 looks back at the other Old Testament heroes, in every case their faith was connected a promise God gave them. It’s the same with us. Saving faith is always grounded in and grows from God’s promises to us in Jesus. As Paul writes in Romans 10:17, ‘faith comes from hearing … the Good News about Christ’ (NLT). For us and for our faith, then, hearing God’s promises in the Bible becomes vital to a living, active and saving faith.

2. Faith makes a difference to our lives
In every example that Hebrews gives, people’s lives were changed because of their faith in God’s promises. For Abraham the change was leaving his home and living in tents in the land God had promised him. The difference to Sarah’s life was having a child and becoming a mother at the age of 99. For the rest of the people in Hebrews 11, faith in God’s promises led to some sort of action. This is very different from an understanding of faith I come across sometimes which is more about intellectually agreeing with a church’s teachings or doctrines. Good teaching and doctrine are important in a church, but their purpose is always to point us to faith in God’s promises in the gospel which changes our lives.

3. Faith generates hope
The big difference faith in God’s promises made to all the people mentioned in Hebrews was that it gave them hope. Using the examples of Abraham and Sarah, both of them found hope when they believed what God had promised them. For Abraham, the hope was that his descendants would have a homeland. Sarah’s hope was that her shame would be removed through the birth of a child. For us, too, faith creates and sustains hope in our lives. When so many people in our society are struggling for something to hope in, when we trust in God’s promises and bring that good news to others, faith in those promises will lead to a greater hope in our lives and in the lives of the people around us.

4. Faith means trusting in what we can’t see
None of the people of faith in Hebrews 11 actually received what God had promised them. In verse 13 we read, ‘they did not receive what was promised,’ and again verse 39 states, ‘none of them received all that God had promised’ (NLT). This is the most difficult thing about faith – it’s trusting that something is real and living like it’s true even though we can’t see it and don’t fully experience it. This is especially hard in a culture which teaches that ‘seeing is believing’ and that if you can’t prove or have empirical evidence of something, then it doesn’t really exist. The very nature of Christian faith is that we hope for something and live like it’s true even though we can’t see it or prove it. The best we can do is look back at the ways in which God has kept his promises in the past. Based on that evidence, we can continue to hope that God will keep his promises to us in the same way that God kept his promises to all the people of the Old Testament. This is the purpose of Hebrews 11, and in fact all of the stories in the Bible: to encourage us in our faith. As we hear how God kept his promises to the people of the past, we can trust that God will keep his promises to us in the same way.

I have known people who say that living in the way of faith is easy because there are no absolute moral standards to reach and no rules that we have to follow. I disagree. Living by faith is much harder than a rule-based or self-help life because it asks us to trust God’s promises and live like they’re true, even though our experiences in life might indicate something different. Faith means hoping for what God promises, even though we can’t see it.

When I buy an Ooshie for my kids it’s an act of faith. We are hoping for something good, even though we can’t see what we’re getting. God makes us amazing, life-giving promises in Jesus. He asks us to trust him enough to live like what he promises is true, even though we might not be able to see what he promises us. As we read Hebrews 11 and look back at the heroes of faith from the Old Testament, God is showing us that he can be trusted so our faith can grow and we can bring the hope he gives to the people of the world, even when we can’t see it.

More to think about:

  • I’ve heard it said that everyone has faith – what’s important is in what you have faith. Would you agree with that statement? Why or why not?
  • What do you have faith in? Why do you have faith in it? What does it promise you? Can it actually deliver what it promises?
  • As you read Hebrews 11, which is your favourite Old Testament character? Why is that person your favourite?
  • I’m suggesting there are four things we can learn about faith from Hebrews 11. What was the promise your favourite character received from God? What difference did it make to his/her life? How did s/he find hope through faith in the promise? Why did s/he never see what was promised?
  • What are some promises God makes you in Jesus?
  • What difference might having faith in those promises make in your life?
  • How might those promises give you a greater sense of hope?
  • How might you be able to live like those promises are true, even if you can’t see them?
  • Who is someone you know whose life might change for the better through faith in God’s promises to them? How might you be able to share a promise form God with them this week?
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Ruth (Ruth 3:1-5,4:13-17)

 

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Promises are an important part of life. We all make promises and others make promises to us. We usually make them with the best of intentions to keep them, but at some stage I suppose that we have all broken promises and have had people break their promises to us. It can leave us pretty suspicious or cynical, even to the point where we don’t think that promises mean anything. Our default position can be to assume that people will break their promises rather than keep them.

But what would it be like to have someone in your life who always kept their promises and followed through with what they said they were going to do?

The story of Ruth from the Old Testament of the Bible centres on the promise a young widow made to her older mother-in-law. Naomi had moved with her husband and two sons from Bethlehem in Israel to the foreign country of Moab. While they were living there, her sons married Moabite women but then, after some time, her husband and sons all died. Naomi was about to travel back home to Bethlehem when Ruth made her this promise:

“Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” (1:16,17 NLT)

If you have a daughter-in-law, can you imagine her making a promise like this to you? Or if you are married, could you imagine making a promise like this to your mother-in-law?

Ruth didn’t need to make this promise to Naomi, but it shows a level of commitment that exceeds what we usually expect or even hope for from others. The rest of Ruth’s story tells how Ruth kept her promise and was faithful to Naomi. It cost Ruth a lot and she worked hard to support herself and her mother-in-law. The result was that Ruth married Boaz, a close family member of Naomi, they became the great-grandparents of King David, and eventually Jesus was born into their family line (Matthew 1:5).

We can learn a lot from Ruth’s story, but there are two main points I want to explore. The first is that Ruth is a great example of what can happen when we keep the promises we make to each other. Keeping promises can be hard work and can cost us, especially when circumstances change and life gets difficult. Ruth experienced that but still did what she needed to in order to keep the promise she made to Naomi. Because of Ruth’s faithfulness, God was faithful to her and Naomi and provided them with a home, a family and a future.

When we are finding it difficult to keep our promises, Ruth’s story can encourage us to remain faithful. God is faithful to us when we are faithful to each other and will give us what we need so we can keep our promises. Most of the time, he will do this in very ordinary ways. One commentator I looked at pointed out that God isn’t really mentioned in the story of Ruth, but we can see God in the background, putting things in place and setting things up to provide for those who are faithful. When keeping our promises is hard, Ruth’s story can remind us that God will be faithful to us so we can be faithful to others.

I completely understand, though, that there are also times in life when things happen which make it impossible for us to keep the promises we make. We need to acknowledge and confess that without carrying the burden of guilt over it. We are imperfect people living in an imperfect world, and despite our best intentions and efforts, sometimes life just don’t happen the way we hoped or planned. That’s where the second key focus of this story becomes so important to hear.

Ruth’s faithfulness points us to God’s faithfulness when he keeps his promises to us in Jesus. All the way through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, God promises to redeem, restore and renew us and everything that he has created. Throughout Scripture, God promises to forgive sinners, heal the broken, bring peace where there is conflict, and extend grace to those who need it. I firmly believe that an essential part of living as Jesus’ followers is to learn how to hear God’s promises in his Word. The Bible comes alive as the Holy Spirit speaks words of peace, joy and hope into our lives through God’s promises to us. For example, in Ruth’s promise to Naomi we can also hear God promising us that he will be with us every day of our lives. He will go where we go, live where we live, our family will be his family and even at the point of death God will never leave us or forsake us. Hearing this promise becomes vital, especially during those times in life when it seems like we’re on our own and God has forgotten about us.

God keeps all of his promises to us in Jesus. He is with us as he entered our humanity in his birth. Our human family became God’s family as Jesus experienced life as a human with all of its joys, struggles, pain and hope. God kept his promise to forgive and redeem us when Jesus died on the cross, carrying our guilt, shame and broken promises. God began to restore us and all of creation in the resurrection of Jesus, keeping his promise to give new life into the world. Just like Ruth kept her promise to Naomi even though it wasn’t easy and involved hard work, in Jesus God kept all of his promises to us even though it cost him his life. Jesus’ resurrection is the seal of God’s faithfulness to us. If we ever start to doubt that God will keep his promises, we can go back to the empty tomb and see once and for all that God always does what he says he will.

We have someone in our lives who always keeps his promises to us. Jesus promises to travel with us through life, forgives us for our wrongs, love us unconditionally and be faithful to us, no matter what. The promises we make to others become ways in which they can experience the faithfulness of God through our faithfulness to them. There will always be times when we fail to keep the promises we make, but Ruth’s story tells us that God always keeps his promises to us, no matter what the cost.