Hebrews 11: 29 - 12:2.
There’s a Latin expression which has become part of the English language: it’s sine qua non, which translated literally means without which nothing. In English it means a necessary condition without which something is not possible.
Living an authentic Christian life has its sine qua non. It’s best expressed in Hebrews 11:6, which says: ‘without faith it is impossible to please God.’Faith is the one absolute condition for living a life that stays in touch with God.
My earliest memory of feeling a deep sense of faith happened when I was about 13 years of age. I was a student at Queen Mary’s Grammar School, which had a proud history stretching back to 1554 and a strong tradition of service to the nation. This ethos required all boys to be involved in groups that would develop character.
So, when the opportunity came for me to join school Scout troop I was overjoyed, because I’d always wanted to join the Scouts. However, the problem was that my mother had constantly refused to let me. I could never understand why she always seemed to prevent me doing anything that seemed a bit adventurous. It was not until after her death that my older sister told me that from my earliest years my mother had been convinced that I was going to die and had consequently taken whatever steps she could to lessen the chances.
However, eventually I got hold of an application form to join that Scout troop. I rode my bike home and, while the house was still empty, got down on my knees and prayed to God that He would cause my parents to sign it. And I got up with such a marvelous feeling of certainty that God had heard and answered my prayer that I went to a collection box for raising money for a church down our street, and I put all my pocket-money in it. Then I sat back and waited for my parents to get home and do what I knew God would cause them to do.
Well, later that afternoon they arrived, and in expectation I gave them the application form. But my mother simply said No, I’ve told you before and I won’t tell you again; you are not joining the Scouts.
Well, I was bitterly disappointed. I’d been so convinced that my prayer had been heard and that upwelling of faith in my heart had been so real that I found it hard to accept that God hadn’t made it happen. But the strange thing was, even though I couldn’t understand it, it didn’t cause me to give up on God – I think I just accepted that there was more to this than I understood.
It was my first experience of a problem we all encounter - that of faith that didn’t seem to work, even though the Bible indicated it would.
It raises the question what is faith? Well, before we can understand what it is, we have to understand what it is not.And the first thing is that faith is not mind over matter – some kind of psychic force that enables us to manipulate events. That’s magic, and no matter how much you force yourself to believe, if you’ve lost a leg, you’ll not grow another one.
And neither isfaith persuading God to do things He doesn’t want to do or explaining things to Him that He hasn’t quite grasped, as if we actually know better than He does and need to remind Him. After all, Jesus did say: ‘your Father knows what you need before you ask him.’
Furthermore, much as I believe in positive thinking, I don’t believe that it is synonymous with the sort of faith Jesus spoke about. It’s certainly part of it, but faith as Jesus taught it is more than what we today refer to as the latent power of the human mind.
One thing faith certainly is not is gullibility- believing every nonsensical thing that religious charlatans or religious systems try to sell us. Sadly, the history of the Church is full of examples of such.
So, what is faith?The book of Hebrews says: ‘Faith makes us sure of what we hope for and gives us proof of what we can't see...’which I think means that faith is a spiritual perception of something our innermost being tells us is true. It’s theintuitive understanding that, as the Apostle Paul put it,‘God is at work in all things for the good of those who love Him...’which, of course, implies those who who seek to discern and do God’s will, rather than their own.And it’s important to recognise this because our ultimate good, as God sees it, may not always be the easy and pleasant way we want things to be.
Life teaches us all that faith doesn’t always mean sunshine and deliverance from troubles. Often, faith means receiving the strength and courage to endure in times of hardship and trouble. And the New Testament is full of this teaching; especially in Hebrews chapter 11, where we read of people whose ‘faith helped them conquer kingdoms…close the jaws of lions and put out raging fires and escape from the swords of their enemies.’
But then halfway through itchanges and speaks of people who weren’t delivered from their troubles – people who were ‘beaten with whips…chained in jail…killed…were poor, mistreated and tortured …who had to wander in deserts and on mountains…’But all of them, both victors and victims‘pleased God because of their faith.’
It also says: ‘They were weak people who were given strength.’None of us start out as giants of faith. We all learn as we go. The life of faith is a series of experiences, each of which calls us to step out from our comfort zone to where God wants us to be. And it doesn’t get easier as we go. But, like the heroes of the Bible, we learn to be people of faith by taking those first faltering steps, and like them, ‘out of weakness we are made strong.’
Speaking of stepping out of our comfort zone, I remember a fellow Army chaplain describing his first parachute jump to me. He went through the three-week course in parachuting which eventually led to the point where he and the other trainees had to do a series of day and night-time jumps from an aircraft, in darkness and all sorts of weather conditions, loaded up with weapons and equipment.
He told me how they were all pumped up and ready to go - until the time for the first jump. It was then that he, and the others, realised what it was like to be pushed to the threshold of one’s fear.
As the aircraft approached the dropping zone a red light came on and they stood up, clipped their release strap to the static line, checked the equipment of the man in front and waited for the green light to come on. Then, as they stood there, tense and afraid, their instructor simply called out: ‘forget what you’re feeling, trust what you’ve been taught.’
Then the green light came on and they began to step into nothingness. ‘As I stepped out of the aircraft,’ he said, ‘There was just the sound of the rushing air until suddenly I was yanked back by the straps on my shoulders. I looked up and there was the canopy of my parachute above me, and my fear turned to exhilaration as I floated to earth.’
‘Forget what you’re feeling, trust what you’ve been taught.’ And what is it that the Scriptures teach about faith? Well, there are many aspects to it, but at the bottom of it all is that great statement of Romans 8:28 We know that in all things God is at work for the good of those who love Him. And so, we step out beyond our security to where we sense God is calling us to be and, as we take that step, come what may, whether it be deliverance or endurance, we find that Jesus is there with us, just as he always was.
Now you may be wondering what all this has to do with that first experience of faith I mentioned at the start of this sermon – the one where I prayed for God to make my mother let me join the Boy Scouts. Well, a few months later my parents received a letter from the school informing them that it was a requirement for all boys, except those who were members of the scout troop, to join the Combined Cadet Force, previously known as the Officer Training Corps.
Queen Mary’s had a long history of providing junior officers for the armed services, witnessed to by the boards that covered two sides of the Great Hall containing the names of scores of former pupils killed in the two world wars, Korea and Malaya.
And so, much to my mother’s distress – and my joy - I got recruited into a military environment that I fell in love with. I became one of a small number of boys contemptuously know as keen types, who lived for Fridays when we went to school in army uniform and participated in training, went off to field days where wew learned about camouflage and minor infantry tactics, and camps and courses where we fire blanks from old .303 rifles and live rounds from modern .22s.
I tried to follow it up when we got to Australia by applying to go to the Royal Military College Duntroon, except that my mother again refused to allow my father to sign the papers. However, he did tell me that he would sign them anyway when I turned 18, if I still wanted to.
However, by that time I’d become a committed Christian and was convinced that God was calling me to missionary service. So, I continued to work in a bank, save my money and, at age 20 went into Bible College and theological college and then into the ministry.
But I never lost my interest in the army, and then, at the age of 30, out the blue I was approached about joining the Army Reserve as a chaplain; and I jumped at it. And for the next 34 years the army became my missionary service, followed by a further six years on the body that had oversight of all Army Navy and Air Force chaplaincy.
Looking back, I realize that left to my own devices I could not have organized it better. But God knew, way back when I was 13 years of age, desperate to join the Boy Scouts, and had my first moment of glorious faith, only to see it evaporate before my eyes. But God had bigger plans that far surpassed what I thought was best. And so, that first sublime experience of joyful faith was realized, but not in the limited fashion I envisaged.
Faith is not magic that makes our hopes and dreams instantly come true. Faith is letting of go of fear and trusting what the totality of Scripture, rather that the odd isolated verse, teaches us; and which is most powerfully expressed in Paul’s great statement: ‘And we know that God is at work in all things for the good of those who love Him’
Faith is aligning our wills with God’s will.
And so it is that this passage in Hebrews, as translated in a modern paraphrase, with its description of all those heroes of faith who have gone before watching us from heaven, concludes with these words: ‘Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it... Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—he could put up with anything along the way: And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again …it will shoot adrenaline into your souls!’