“Tell This Story”
Hebrews 11: 17a, 20-34
17 By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac.
20 By faith Isaac invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau. 21 By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, “bowing in worship over the top of his staff.” 22 By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions about his burial.
23 By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. 24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered abuse suffered for the Christ[h] to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward. 27 By faith he left Egypt, unafraid of the king’s anger; for he persevered as though he saw him who is invisible. 28 By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.
29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. 30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. 31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
Our scripture for today is from the book of Hebrews.
The book of Hebrews is traditionally classified as a New Testament letter. However, because Hebrews is missing some of the tell-tale signs of the Pauline letters, such as a greeting and a thank you, some scholars say this beautiful book was really sermon, and not a letter.
However, not only have scholars said the book of Hebrews is likely a sermon, but it’s a really really good sermon. My textbook calls it a “masterpiece of early christian preaching.”
Now, I do not know how often you all leave church and think to yourselves, “Man, that was a masterpiece of a sermon. That right there was the sistine chapel of preaching!,” but that seems pretty tough to top
It’s kind of hard, as a new preacher, to gear up the nerve to preach on part of someone else’s brilliant, A+, “masterpiece" sermon. However, we know that these words were cherished by the early church because they were kept and protected, which means looking at these words again is worth our time- even if only from a novice preacher.
I picked our text for today, because it happened to be part of today’s daily lectionary readings. However, as I took a closer look, I was drawn in.
You may have noticed, there was rhythm to today’s scripture reading- a cadence of sort, a repeated line. The author sets up sentence after sentence with the words “by faith,” and then inserts someone’s name, forming an Old Testament roll call of sorts, an MVP line up of the faithful.
“By faith Abraham”
“By faith Isaac”
“By faith Jacob”
“By faith Moses”
This line-up goes on and on, both before and after the segment we read today, incorporating sixteen different generations of faithful people leading to the birth of Jesus; everyone from prophets and Kings to warriors, including both men and women. It is a beautiful walk through history.
David and Samuel. Sarah, Jacob, Esau, and Noah.
The early Christians who heard these words would have known exactly who these giants of the faith were. They would have known the story of Samson and Rahab and Samuel, for these were not new stories. These were familiar words, ones they had heard time and time again.
They may even been able to complete the sentence: “by faith Abraham did what?” “Offered up Isaac.” “By faith” who? “Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah.”
I bet your family has those kinds of stories as well- those dinner table stories that show up when company is in town, overflowing with laughter and memories the ones with punch lines; the stories we could finish ourselves, because we’ve heard them so. many. times.
For my family, the more people gathered around the dinner table, the better the stories. It’s like we feed off of each other’s sense of humor, stacking memory after memory on top of each other, with every new story triggering another- laughing until our sides hurt.
If my grandfather is at the table, he might tell of the first time he saw my grandmother, recalling the silly lengths he went to to catch her eye at that church softball game. My dad might tell of the time he rode his bike through fresh asphalt as a kid, covering both himself and his new bike in a layer of tar- which he quickly found did not come off easily and did not make for a happy momma. My mom might tell of the time she and my father were in Ghana, and she tested the soup that some villagers had made them, and told him it was mild- accidentally locking him into a night of misery, eating what he claims was the world’s hottest soup, designed to make steam come out of your ears.
With each of these dinner table stories I could probably perfectly imitate the flow - knowing the rising action and the repeated catchphrases, having heard them so many times. Just like the way my dad will sometimes look at me- all grown up, and say “I used to put your head right here and your feet right here, and empty the dishwasher with this hand.” I have heard it before, and I’ll hear it again.
We all have those family favorite stories, stories that we tell and retell, because they make us who we are. They comfort us, remind us of our history, and help us learn from our mistakes.
And that is the same for the generations before us.
Take out Abraham and Sarah and add in Mommy-A and Grandaddy or mom and dad, or Brother Gene and Aunt Martha, and a good story is still a good story.
I was not there when they marched at Selma, but I have heard about it. I have heard about it from those who went before me. I know there were police on horseback. I know there were white clergy people and fellow supporters who joined in the March. And I know that far too many were severely hurt- some even killed.
I was not there when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, but I think about it every December 7th.
And I was not there for the invention of the printing press, or the landing of the Mayflower, or for the birth of our Savior in the city of David- but I have heard those stories before, and I know I will hear them again.
I will hear them again, because those stories are a part of who I am. They are part of who we are.
We tell stories to keep history alive. We tell stories so we can learn from our past mistakes. We tell stories when we need the strength to carry on. And we tell stories so we know where we come from, who we are, and whose we are.
And I think, when we take a closer look at Hebrews, we’ll see that the early Christians weren’t much different from us. I think this original preacher from the book of Hebrews is putting the theology and logic aside, to tell that early congregation a story- a story of those who went before.
For when I hear the words, “By faith Abraham offered up Isaac,” “By faith Jacob,” and “By faith Moses” it sounds a lot like “Don’t you remember when…”
And when I hear the words from scripture saying, “what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David …” it sounds a lot like “Don’t even get me started on that one time… those crazy boys!”
The book of Hebrews is a beautifully articulated sermon- weaving together images of Jesus as the high priest and encouragement for early Christians who were facing persecution. But in this one passage, I think this original preacher is letting go of that logic and theology talk, to tell a story.
Martin Luther was a radical reformers of the Christian faith, and is the man first credited for translating the bible into the language of common people. In other words, he was remarkable.
Luther was remarkable, however his life was not easy. Despite the amazing things he did for the church, testament stands that Luther still struggled immensely with doubt.
One such story takes place while Luther was holed up in a castle translating scripture. Apparently, Luther often felt plagued by what he considered to be the devil- feeding him doubt and discouraging his work. So, every once in a while, you could hear Luther scream “I am Baptized,” at this invisible source of doubt, over and over again.
At the top of his lungs Luther was telling his story- yelling who he was and whose he was.
“I am baptized!” He’d say, “I am baptized!”
I think, for him, It was one of those moments where the darkness was too close. One of those moments when we have to remind ourselves of our story, of who we are and whose we are.
I think the early church could have related to Martin Luther’s darkness, and I think that’s why this story shows up in our scripture for today.
First of all, if we know our context, we know that this story speaks comfort to those who suffer- particularly those suffering from injustice.
It is likely that the early christians were being persecuted, or were afraid of persecution when this sermon was written and read. A few verses below where we read today the author mentions terrible cruelties happening to Christian people- flogging, imprisonment, being stoned to death. Therefore, we can be fairly comfortable in believing early christians were either experiencing persecution or were fearful of it, and that they had plenty of reasons to need comforting.
Thus, the early Christians might have looked at this story of Abraham and Jacob and Moses and Sarah and Sampson and David, and remembered the ways in which those who went before us in faith, survived the mountains and the valleys, the good and the dark nights, and eventually found rest with God. And I can only imagine that that would have made this Old Testament roll call some kind of comforting, helping those early christians believe that they, like Moses and David and Sarah, could make it through too.
Secondly, I think this story might have been written to help illustrate what faith looks like for us.
Back when this sermon was delivered, there were no chapters or verses, there was just manuscript. Meaning, that this piece was not written to be broken into stand alone chunks- it was one conclusive work. So, back up and look right before this story, and you’ll find a definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1. You probably know it: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
On the opposite end of our story, immediately following this old testament line up, we are left with a verse on the cloud of witnesses, Hebrews 12:1- “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
Did you catch that?! In other words, this preacher defines a faith of conviction, then jumps into a story of faith, showing us a dozen different ways to live out our faith through the stories of those who have gone before us, and then points us to the cloud of witnesses- those who will tell us this story again when we are weak. Back to back to back. That is the trajectory of this passage.
This master preacher paints a picture of a spectrum for faith; on one end pointing to a convicted faith that we can only pray to attain, and on the other, for when the suffering of the world is too much, pointing to the cloud of witnesses. And somewhere in between, on that spectrum of belief and support, there’s our story.
So, I do not think this MVP line up, roll call of the faithful, is simply a story of praise or passive good news. I think the author of Hebrews included this story knowing that there would be days when we would need comforting, and knowing that there would be days when we were grappling to understand what faith looks like in this constantly spinning world.
So friends, when the darkness presses in too close, and faith feels like an uphill struggle, take a hint from our early church preacher, and tell this story. Tell the story of the faithful before you. Tell the story of a man who loved so radically that the world could not keep him. And tell the story of why you think it matters. Tell your story yelling at the top of your lungs- “I am Baptized!” Because the fact is, our stories keep history alive. Our stories help us learn from our mistakes. Our stories give us comfort, joy, and the strength to carry on; and our stories remind us where we come from, who we are, and whose we are.