When I worked for Snowline Hospice, we used Google Maps to find where our patients are. I discovered that Google Maps has no idea where anything is in Georgetown, CA. One time it had me turn left on a road. Except, instead of a road, it was somebody’s driveway. I had to call the patient’s house to get directions. That patient’s house was on the opposite side of Georgetown from where Google thought it should be.
Another time we were going to visit my mother in the Salt Lake area in her new apartment. It told us to turn right and as soon as we turned it told us to make a U-turn. After a few more wrong turns, we turned it off and found her place on our own.
Most of time, Google Maps gets me exactly where we need to be. I still use it. Though I am more cautious, I have faith that Google maps will get me to where I need to be.
The Letter to the Hebrews gives us a definition of faith: “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1b) We can’t see hope. I am not confusing hope with desire.
If I see someone eating an ice cream cone, and in that instant, I want an ice cream cone, that is not hope. That is desire. If I was a kid, I might hope my parents would buy me an ice cream cone or as an adult I might hope I have enough money for an ice cream cone. If I know I have enough money, then it remains a desire. Then I might ask myself, “Do I really need an ice cream cone?”
The other piece of faith is the conviction of something we don’t or can’t see. That doesn’t necessarily mean it stays unseeable. It is just currently not seen. I might have faith that I will reach my destination, even though I cannot see it yet. In the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, the author is arguing “that faith is the belief that ultimate reality lies not in the here and now or in things visible to sight, but in things yet to come and things that cannot be seen.”
We might have faith in a person. We expect that that person is truthful. That faith can be broken if we find out that the person is not truthful, or if a person doesn’t deliver on a promise.
So, it is by faith that the worlds were prepared by the word of God. (Hebrews 11:3) We weren’t around at that time, but we have faith that God prepared creation. The Greek word translated as worlds is the plural of the word, αἰών. This word can mean a long period of time. Or if referring to a place, it means the universe.
Hebrews 11:3 might be better read as the universe was prepared by the word of God. The earth was not visible when the universe was prepared, but it is visible now. In the inverse, we have faith that God prepared for the earth in the beginning before there was an earth.
I recently read that astrophysicists believe that atoms didn’t exist until some minutes after the big bang. There was still nothing to see, but the building blocks for visible matter began to take shape.
Next, we turn to the epitome of faith, Abraham.
Abraham’s hometown was in what is now Iraq in a town named Ur. It was named after the Sumerian moon god. Later his family move up the Euphrates River to Haran. Best guess on Haran’s location is in modern day Turkey near the Syrian border. After his father, Terah, died, Abraham took his wife, Sarah, and his nephew, Lot, to Canaan. Abraham was already an old man when he moved to Canaan.
Until recently when transportation was relatively cheaper, people, typically, died in the same town or city where they were born. Oftentimes, that is still the case today. Historically, it took a major event for a mass migration to happen.
Abraham’s moving his family and everything he owned to go to a place he knows little about, only because God told him to, was very rare. It was a leap of faith. God’s incentives to Abraham would be that Abraham would be blessed, be a great nation, and the whole world will be blessed through Abraham. (Genesis 12:1-3)
Basically, Abraham lived in a tent and herded sheep. He was nomad. Sheep eat to the roots, so they have to keep moving to new pasture to eat. Abraham was a really good shepherd. In his old age, he had hired help to do most the shepherding. He had so many employees that he could and did use them as his own personal army, at times.
In spite of this, the land promised to Abraham and his descendants did not belong to Abraham. There were city-states where Abraham settled. Abraham bought a burial site for Sarah, the only land he owned.
God later reiterated the promise to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky or as the sand on a seashore. Abraham believed this even though he and Sarah were very old people who had no children.
This also meant that Abraham had no heir, except, maybe, Lot. We are not told about what Abraham thought about having descendants when he had no children and no prospects of ever having children. Sarah thought it was a joke. What we are told is that Abraham had faith.
In her old age, Sarah had a son, Isaac. They had just the one son. Not exactly a number that is as great as the number of stars at night. All of their hopes and dreams were in this one son. Even then, Abraham was willing to kill his son, because God told him to do it. Isaac was spared because of Abraham’s great faith.
Isaac doubled his father’s production of sons by having twins. The younger, Jacob, had a large family. Abraham’s great-grandchildren became the start of a great nation and became to be known as Israelites. Hundreds of years later, they would establish the Jewish religion.
Abraham died without seeing any of God’s promises come true. It would take a few hundred years for that to happen.
Our stories of Abraham, typically, do not have Abraham praying. Abraham had a very personal relationship with God and he even talked to God face to face. We are not told if God’s utterances of covenant are during prayer or visions. They seem to be visions initiated by God.
We talk to God through prayer. There are various prayer forms. One of them is petitionary prayer. It basically means that we petition God for stuff. We pray not to get lost. We can pray for a good outcome of whatever we may be facing. We may do an intercessory prayer for healing for another person.
When we don’t get the outcome we wish for in a prayer, we sometimes say that our prayers were not answered. It might be more accurate to say that the answer to the prayer was not what we expected or hoped for.
I’m sure that there are people who decide to give up on prayer if it doesn’t go their way. I don’t know those people. I do know of people who after they don’t get the outcomes they desire, continue to pray anyway. That is faith.
The psalmist reminds us, “Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. Indeed, our heart rejoices in him, for in his holy Name we put our trust. Let your loving-kindness, O Lord, be upon us, as we have put our trust in you.” (Psalm 33:20-22, BCP)
We gather on Sundays and other days in faith. We believe what Jesus taught. We believe in what the author of Hebrews and other people wrote about Jesus. We have faith that what is important in life is what we cannot see and is yet to come. We have faith in the promise of everlasting life. As Jesus says “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32) We know Jesus does not lie.
I still use Google Maps. Even though it occasionally lets me down, I still have faith that it will be reliable again. I have an assurance of things hoped for. I also pray for discernment that I will know when it is wrong and to find my destination in spite of it. I am convinced that I will see what I do not yet see.
So, it is with religious faith. We can’t see God. People did see Jesus. After Jesus left, the Holy Spirit was given to us and remains with us today. We have the assurance and conviction of the Holy Spirit’s constant presence.
We may wonder where God is at times. Our faith sustains us in God’s presence in good times and bad times. And we have faith that one day we will be in God’s loving presence.
Text: Hebrews 11:1–3, 8–16 (NRSV)