This post is from a sermon I preached back in 2007. Over the last few days I’ve had tons of hits on a sermon I preached along with the lectionary for August 1st. This inspired me to post one of my old sermons from the lectionary. In this one, I try to introduce the congregations I served not only to the message of Hebrews 11, but also to the life of John Wesley.
Living the life of faith is not always easy. In case you don’t believe me, let me tell you a little about the ministry of John Wesley. Wesley felt God’s call to inspire and challenge the Church of England, and eventually the Methodist Church developed out of that great passion for renewal, mission, and ministry. Over the years, Wesley preached all over England and kept a meticulous journal of his activities – which we still have today. Some of the entries might just surprise you. Here are a few entries from his journal that were written in the early years of the Methodist movement:
Sunday, May 7th: I preached at St. Lawrence’s in the morning, and afterward at St. Katherine Cree’s Church. I was enabled to speak strong words at both; and was therefore the less surprised at being informed that I was not to preach any more in either of those churches.
Sunday, May 14th: I preached in the morning at St. Ann’s, Aldersgate; and in the afternoon at the Savoy Chapel, free salvation by faith in the blood of Christ. I was quickly apprised that at St. Ann’s, likewise, I am to preach no more.
Friday, May 19th: I preached at St. John’s, Wapping at three and at St. Bennett’s, Paul’s Wharf, in the evening. At these churches, likewise, I am to preach no more.
Friday, November 3rd: I preached at St. Antholin’s;
Sunday, 5, in the morning, at St. Botolph’s, Bishopsgate; in the afternoon, at Islington; and in the evening, to such a congregation as I never saw before, at St. Clement’s, in the Strand. As this was the first time of my preaching here, I suppose it is to be the last.
To be honest, I think I might just give up after I was kicked out of the third or fourth church, if not sooner! There can be no denying that Wesley’s faced more than his fair share of challenges, and I have no doubt that it would have been easy for him to give up and quit.
The earliest Christians were in the same boat. They faced threats on every side because of their newfound commitment to Jesus. On one hand, they faced threats from the Imperial Government in Rome. When fires swept across Rome in 64 AD, the Emperor Nero blamed Christians for setting the blaze, and ordered their mass arrest and execution across the city. On the other hand they faced persecution from local authorities. Throughout the first three hundred years of the Church, many people felt that Christians were pagans because they only worshiped one God. In fact early Christians were often called atheists because they refused to worship the numerous gods who were worshiped. They were feared so much that many people believed having Christians in their towns would upset their gods! Tertullian, one of early Christians who observed these persecutions wrote, “if the Tiber rises to the walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields; if the sky stands still, if the earth moves, if there is famine, if there is pestilence, the cry goes up, ‘Christians to the lion.’” There are countless stories of Christians appearing before their accusers, who asked them to deny and renounce their faith!
That’s the kind of environment in which the letter of Hebrews was written. The early Christians who first read Hebrews were sorely tempted to turn their back on the faith and escape the torture, imprisonment, and execution they could easily be facing. They needed encouragement to persevere, and they needed resources that would allow them to stick with their faith even in the face of incredible odds. I believe that’s why the book of Hebrews gives one of the clearest descriptions of the kind of perseverance and endurance we’re called to have as Christians, even in the face of insurmountable challenges.
This passage from Hebrews provided those Christians with the kind of encouragement they needed to stand their ground. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for – the conviction of things not seen.” Abraham is then described as a living example of this incredible definition of faith. God called Abraham and his family to leave their home across the desert in order to travel to a land they had never seen. Even though he’d never seen this land, he trusted God in faith. It was Abraham’s faith that convinced him to move his family somewhere they had never seen. Later on, God promised he would create a great nation of people out of Abraham’s descendents, even though he and Sarah were too old for children. It was Abraham’s strong faith that convinced him of this thing that seemed impossible. It was his great faith that continually convinced him of things that he couldn’t see. Over and over again, Abraham’s faith was the only thing that gave him the confidence and assurance to keep pressing on in faith. Even though he couldn’t see the outcome, Abraham knew that God’s promises are more real than anything else in this world. His faith in God was what gave him the strength to press on, to keep the faith, to persevere.
When I was little, there were times that I would get sick and tired of something I started. I remember specifically one summer when I got tired of Little League Baseball, and I was ready to quit. My dad wouldn’t have it! He wouldn’t let me quit, and let me know in no uncertain terms that we Judkins were not quitters. This was a man who worked over forty years at the same job, so I knew not to argue! Little did I know that what my dad was trying to instill in me back then was one of the greatest resources we have in our faith. Sometimes things don’t go the way we expect in our lives, and we think it would just be easier to give up. Sometimes, we’re tossed to and fro by storms in our lives and we think it might just be easier to quit. But the message of Hebrews reminds us that faith means never giving up. Faith is what allows us to press forward even though things don’t seem to look so good. Faith is trusting God who enables us to keep pressing on in faith even when things get rough! Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen.
Wesley’s story began with him being kicked out of almost as many Churches as he preached in and it had to challenge his faith. Yet, because he had faith in the invisible God, because he trusted in God’s promises, because he trusted in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit, the things that happened in the beginning of his life did not end up being the final word. As he neared his 85th birthday, on Saturday, August 22nd, Wesley wrote in his journal as he had continued doing throughout his life:
I crossed over to Redruth and at six preached to a huge multitude, as usual, from the steps of the market house. The Word seemed to sink deep into every heart. I know not that ever I spent such a week in Cornwall before. Sunday, August 23.–I preached there again in the morning and in the evening at the amphitheater, I suppose, for the last time. My voice cannot now command the still increasing multitude. It was supposed they were now more than [five and?] twenty thousand.
Because of the power of Jesus Christ and the reality of the resurrection (the ultimate promise of faith), Wesley was able to press on in his faith, preaching a message of forgiveness and God’s power to change lives. He persevered like the great saints of old, like Abraham and Sarah. Because of his faith, Wesley never stopped proclaiming the good news. And so we find him, in the 85th year of his life, sharing the message of faith with more than 20,000 people. That is what faith is all about – it’s the reminder that God’s promises and God’s power more real than anything else in the world. When we feel like we can’t go on, when life seems so rough, we need to persevere and continue trusting in the one whose promises never fail and never end – no matter what.