“As Good As Dead”
Rev. James Rausch
Why do you suppose the writer of the book of Hebrews felt it necessary to tell his audience what faith is? If you have ever thought that the people of Bible times were perfect in faith and very different from us, here’s an example of just how those people were more like us than we know. This passage would seem to say that for those people, like us, faith was not always a natural reflex. In fact, what often makes faith difficult is our natural reflexes.
In the movie, Bambi there is a tense scene where all the animals know that hunters are present. The action focuses on a few pheasants hiding in the protection of the brush. Two of them are trying to calm a third one who was beginning to panic. She wanted so much to fly because that was her natural reflex. The others, knowing the only real safety was under the cover of the tall grass did all they could to keep her with them, but finally, she could no longer hold back what seemed like her most natural urge and she took to the air, only to fly right into the hunter’s sights.
Faith is sometimes fighting back our natural reflexes to take a different course, and it can only be done if one truly believes that. The writer of Hebrews says that faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. And he looks to their ancestors to provide examples of living by faith.
Abraham and Sarah were called to venture out on faith in God’s promise to lead them to a new home. To leave the stability of one’s home and extended family in Bible times was to take the kinds of risk that we can only imagine. Untamed wilderness, unpredictable weather, unfamiliar people. They were not told exactly where they were headed. If Sarah was anything like my wife, Chris, she was used to her husband not knowing where he was going. Head into the unknown, God said, restrain your reflexes to avoid what you perceive as dangerous risks and instead trust that I will guide you.
Some of us are in places of doubt and apprehension that stand us in need of good examples of faith. You find lots of examples in Hebrews of Biblical ancestors who showed tremendous faith. But we also have tremendous examples all around us. Some of you serve as examples of faith and trust for others among us. Father Abraham and Mother Sarah indeed did have many sons, and daughters. I am one of them, and so are you. So, let’s all praise the Lord! Sorry, I couldn’t resist. We’ve been singing that song with the pre-school students almost every week.
Where do you find the courage to do as Abraham and Sarah did? – To set out on a risky voyage without a clear destination. This reminds me of hearing stories of WWII Navy ships sailing under “sealed orders.” “Sealed orders” were top secret orders, that were given into the care of a naval commander in a sealed envelope. The envelope contained instructions about the mission of the ship and crew! To ensure absolute secrecy, the commander can only open that message once the ship has travelled far from the shore to a pre-designated point. Sailors had to head into the unknown with all its risks. Faith requires courage.
Life can be understood similarly. What will be tomorrow and after that is unknown to us. God calls us only to set sail and trust him to guide us. Trust is faith. Years ago, when I had my first experiences with flying, I’m kind of ashamed to admit how afraid I was. Whenever I would board an airplane, I would pray. Not just a little prayer – I would pray for the plane, for the pilots, for the crew, for the air traffic controllers, for the baggage loaders, for the fuel pumpers, for the weather, for the radar, for the hydraulic systems, and on and on. Finally, I would lose steam, so I concluded my prayer saying, “Lord, it’s all in your hands. Whatever happens is entirely up to you. I trust you.” After years of this phobic silliness, God finally stopped me as I was saying, “It’s all in your hands, I trust you.” And God asked me why I only prayed that prayer when I boarded a plane. That’s a prayer for everyday use. “It’s all in your hands. I trust you.”
Abraham and Sarah loaded up the donkeys and hit the trail with a faith like that. Faith is not belief. Faith is belief plus what you do with that belief. Faith is not simply saying, I believe in God. It’s letting that belief lead you to resist fear-based reflexive behaviors. It’s stowing our bag in the overhead bin and buckling up for the flight through the day, every day, one day at a time. Faith goes beyond saying, “I believe God can do all things”. Real faith is opening your eyes each day to see what things God might want to do through you.
What strikes me most about the way the writer of Hebrews teaches his readers and listeners about faith is his description of Abraham at the time God promised him descendants that would outnumber the stars. It is said that he was 100 years old, and did you catch the way the Hebrews writer described him? “As good as dead.” As it turns out, God routinely acts through us when our strength, health, wisdom, and knowledge are diminished – or almost gone altogether.
That’s a message I’d like you to remember from today’s sermon. You may have encountered times when you thought of yourself “as good as dead.” We may encounter times like that in our future. Human limitations can catch the proud by dreadful surprise. But for those who have practiced a daily surrender that says, “Lord, it’s all in your hands. I trust you,” are better prepared to “let go and let God.”
There’s a story of radical trust in God above human strength and capability in the book of Judges. It’s the story of Gideon and the Battle of Midian. The tribes of Israel were facing annihilation as the Midianites gathered an army of 135,000 warriors. Gideon was only able to muster a force of 32,000. They would be outnumbered by more than 4 to 1. Those odds will drive a commander to his knees in prayer nearly every time. And as Gideon prayed for more strength, God answered the prayer with a shocking blow to Gideon’s long held trust in the strength of more soldiers and more swords.
God said, “You have too many warriors with you. If I let all of you fight the Midianites, the Israelites will boast to me that they saved themselves by their own strength. Therefore, tell the people, ‘Whoever is timid or afraid may leave this mountain and go home.'” So, 22,000 of them went home, leaving only 10,000 who were willing to fight. Really, God? That’s your answer to my prayer for strength to face this massive army?
But God said, “I’m not done yet. There are still too many! Bring them down to the spring, and divide the men into two groups. In one group put all those who cup water in their hands and lap it up with their tongues like dogs. In the other group put all those who kneel down and drink with their mouths in the stream.” Only 300 of the men drank from their hands. All the others got down on their knees and drank with their mouths in the stream. The LORD told Gideon, “With these 300 men I will rescue you and give you victory over the Midianites. Send all the others home.” I have heard some military people who look to this passage as an early predecessor of special forces. Those who brought the water up with cupped hands a lapped were naturally inclined to maintain awareness of their surroundings in ways that those who ducked their heads down to the water were not. God told Gideon through a dream to trust Him, and he did.
The 300 soldiers took rams horns with them and snuck into the Midianite camp while they were sleeping. When they all sounded their horns, the Midianite Army arose in a panic and began to fight one another thinking that they were enemy intruders all around them. This story gave me courage when I accepted my first call as a pastor. I knew my abilities, strengths, and character were far too poor to guide a congregation. My self-doubts lead me to think to myself, “If this poor church is standing after a year with me as pastor, they’ll be lucky.”
But the story of Gideon taught me that it was not about my leadership, it was what God could do through me and in spite of me.
The church as we have known it most of our lives has lost a lot of strength. We don’t have the numbers we used to. We don’t have the influence or prestige we did before. Most of our young people have pulled away, just like the 12,000 soldiers who went home when given the chance. To many observers, the church could be compared to old Abraham – as good as dead.
So, students of the Bible know that God likely has us right where he wants us. And what God does by calling us to trust, and continue on in our weakened state, will be, when future miracles and victories are revealed, attributable not to us, but to God working through the likes of us. It’s all in God’s hands. We trust God, and take the next step – face the next day – pray the next prayer – love the next neighbor-in-need, and let our self-reliance gradually fade into total faith in God.
Can you imagine a tightrope stretched over a quarter of a mile and spanning the breadth of Niagara Falls? The thundering sound of the pounding water drowning out all other sounds as you watch a man step onto the rope and walk across! This stunning feat made Charles Blondin famous in the summer of 1859. He walked 160 feet above the falls several times back and forth between Canada and the United States as huge crowds on both sides looked on with shock and awe. Once he crossed in a sack, once on stilts, another time on a bicycle, and once he even carried a stove and cooked an omelet!
On July 15, Blondin walked backward across the tightrope to Canada and returned pushing a wheelbarrow. The crowds had watched and “Ooooohed” and “Aaaaahed!” He had proven that he could do it; of that, there was no doubt. It is said that he asked his audience, “Do you believe I can do it again?” “Of course,” the crowd shouted. Yes, they believed! “Okay,” Blondin said, “then one of you, get in.” Apparently, there were no takers. Although his manager, Harry Colcord, did take the trip one time riding piggy-back on Blondin.
Our journey through life and into the eternity we don’t understand and can’t predict, may be as impossible-sounding as a wheelbarrow ride across a 1,000-foot tightrope. But it’s Jesus who is calling us to get in. Better to trust in the Lord with all our strength, and lean not on our own understanding, as Proverbs 3:5 says.