It has now been more than 2009 years since the birth of Jesus. The Middle East remains at the swirling center of worlds news. The descendants of Abraham and Sarah are still fighting over a small strip of land.
Many of us see the rockets going into and out of Gaza as being linked, not only to the most important story ever told, but in some mysterious way, to our own lives as well
Some of what happens next seems fairly predictable. Publicly the UN will call for a cease fire, while behind closed doors, government leaders around the world will try to exploit the political instability for their own purposes. Israeli forces will exact disproportionate destruction upon the small but deadly guns of Hamas. Yet Jewish people living on their island in a sea of Arab nations will see themselves as the people of the Holocaust and the undersized but courageous David against Goliath. Both Jewish and Palestinian families will bear the agony of loss one child at a time.
Many observing the violence from a safe distance will see the ongoing conflict as confirming of their faith in either the Bible or the Koran. Others will see any indication of a faith-based war as one more reason to reject all religion. And some of us will try once again to apply the troubled faith of Abraham and Sarah to our own hopes, dreams, and heartaches.
So in an attempt to see the difference between the right and wrong use of faith, I’ve been looking once again at the 11th chapter of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews. Among other things, this section of the Bible answers the question:
“What is faith?” The author goes on to write, “It is the confident assurance that what we hope for is going to happen. It is the evidence of things we cannot yet see… By faith we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen…So, you see, it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that there is a God and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him… Abel …Enoch …Noah …Abraham…Sarah… Isaac…Jacob… … All these faithful ones died without receiving what God had promised them, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed the promises of God. They agreed that they were no more than foreigners and nomads here on earth” (Hebrews 11:1,3,6,13 NLT).
With these inspired words in mind, I’ve been weighing questions like:
1. How can we show a faith that pleases God rather than a faith that will end up hurting not only others but the name of our God in the process? What do the personal illustrations of Hebrews 11 show us? Seems to me that no one could believe “the entire universe was formed at God’s command” without a reliance on something that God himself took the initiative to reveal about himself. In Paul’s letter to the Romans he wrote, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17).
But as the ongoing bloodshed in the Middle East shows, our minds and hearts have great capacity for self-deception. All sides of a conflict are inclined to morph the image of God into our own likeness by misquoting and misapplying what he has said, to believe what we want to believe.
2. When Hebrews says anyone who comes to God must “believe that he is, and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him,” does “reward” imply that we have to earn the answers God promises? Since broken and humbled persons know they have fallen far short of the love and peace of God, the idea of “reward” can only refer to what God graciously gives to those who sincerely seek what they know they don’t deserve.
But, as the ongoing conflict in the Middle East shows, it goes against our human nature to seek God just because of who he is rather than for the results that we hope our prayers and tears are earning.
3. Why does the inspired author emphasize that his models of faith “died without receiving what God had promised them?” The answer some of us don’t like to hear is that the real meaning of life as we know it cannot be found in what we now see. Rather the real meaning of this life is found by whether we will use our “traveler status” to look for the promised, yet unseen, “city”/goal of our journey. That confidence of faith rests in the assurance of who God is rather than in what he will do for us… when…and how.
But, as the ongoing unsolvable problem in the Middle East shows, we are far more inclined to use our faith to justify our strategies for immediate answers. Our natural, self-protective, if blind, instincts are to kill the children of our enemies, while unintentionally losing our own sons and daughters in the process.
Seems like these are reasons to keep talking together about what it takes to clarify the meaning of faith that pleases God… rather than one that gives him a bad name… in our town… and the middle east.