New Year 2016
2. Why We Keep Believing
Hebrews 11: 13 - 16
If you don't believe in heaven, you can switch off now. That may seem like an odd way to begin, but it's a true statement, and truth is always a good place to start. Everything in this sermon is about heaven. If you don't believe in heaven, then a lot of this sermon won't make any sense to you because there are lots of things that Christians do that can only be explained because we believe in heaven.
Therein lies the problem. We believe in a place that you can't see, feel, touch or otherwise lay hold of using your 5 senses. Heaven by definition lies beyond the veil of this visible, seen, touchable, tangible, extremely real-to-us world. Since this world is the only world we are sure of, then how can we say or believe or imagine that there is another world out there somewhere, beyond the horizon not provable by any of the means we ordinarily use when we talk about proof? I mean, how do we know there is a heaven?
The writer has been upholding the faith-virtues of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah and then suddenly thinks to himself, "People will never believe this so I'd better explain it." That's what's going on here. The writer wants us to consider why certain people do what they do. Why do some people decide to live in a way that seems radically different from the rest of the world?
If you go to Hebrews 10: 32 - 34, you find a description of the early days of the church, when new believers encountered enormous hardships because of their faith: They remained faithful in spite of terrible suffering (v. 32). They were exposed to public ridicule (v. 33). They were persecuted (v. 33). They helped others who suffered the same way (v. 33). They showed sympathy to those thrown in jail (v. 34). They lost all that they had (v. 34). And here's the punch line…They accepted it with joy (v. 34).
That's the hard part -the accepting all this with joy. I can imagine going through some of those things and enduring it with gritty determination and a tight jaw. But that's not exactly what the writer is talking about. He's somewhere beyond that when he says that they had accepted it all with joy. Now that's hard to do. That's why he added this word of explanation in Hebrews 10:34. "For you knew you had a much more solid and lasting treasure in heaven" (Phillips). CEV - You endured this "because you knew you had something better, something that would last forever."
Something better. Something that would last forever. That's a good description of heaven. It's better than anything we have on earth. And unlike the things on earth, heaven lasts forever. So we give up what we have here because we can't keep it anyway and we know we've got something better coming that will never be taken away from us.
Jim Elliott - "He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." It's all about heaven. So if you don't believe in heaven, you won't live like a Christian, and it won't make much sense to you at all.
But if you do believe in heaven…That's what's on the writer's mind - He interrupts his long list of heroes who lived by faith to take us behind the scenes so we can ask some questions…Abel, why would you offer a better sacrifice and end up getting killed by your brother? Enoch, why would you walk with God and then disappear? Noah, why would you build an ark when everyone except your family thought you were nuts? Abraham, why would you leave the security of Ur to trek off into the unknown? Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, why would you live in tents for generations? Abraham and Sarah, why would you dream of having a baby when you are 100 and 90 years old?
These are not hypothetical questions. They go to the heart of why we do what we do - including why we do some things that the world regards as utterly ridiculous. So how do we explain ourselves? The answer is, it's all about heaven, and if heaven isn't real, then we have wasted our lives chasing after a dream that turns out to be nothing at all. To say it another way, why do we keep believing? 3 answers to that -
1. We Live by a Different Standard v. 13
What he means is, all the heroes of faith lived and died without ever fully entering into what God had promised them. They were like sailors who saw the shoreline a great distance away, and stood at the rail waving and shouting and saying, "See, there it is! What a beautiful land! And look at all those people! They are waving back at us." The sailors see the land, but their ship never reaches the shore. So they sail on, left with their memories of a harbour they never seem to reach.
Christians are aliens and strangers on earth. In our shrinking and increasingly crowded world, we are all continually reminded that "we aren't from around here." We are from somewhere else, a realm not visible or touchable. We've got a passport that says, "Citizen of Heaven."
2. We Die with a Different Hope v. 14 – 16a
John Wesley, the father of the Methodist movement, used to say, "Our people die well." Dying well is something of a lost art today. We don't talk about it or preach about it or think about it, and we certainly don't train our people in how to do it. We have "grief recovery" classes that help those who have lost loved ones. But when was the last time you attended a class on how to die well?
God’s people should know about how to die well - full of faith and hope and joy in the Lord. The writer to the Hebrews is making this point in his own way. In earlier generations people believed in two worlds, and they knew that the next world was the "real" world, the one that would last forever. So they lived in this world with one eye looking forward to the next one. They understood that this world could not, cannot, and does not bring you ultimate happiness. And so we believe there is another world. Hebrews 11 calls it "a country of their own" and "a better country - a heavenly one." We are destined to live and die feeling slightly out of place.
This world is not my home I'm just a passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven's open door
And I can't feel at home in this world anymore
O Lord, I know, I have no friend like you
If heaven’s not my home O lord what can I do
The angel’s beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
What difference does it make - this vision of a world beyond this world? There are many answers, I suppose, but the one in v. 15 is extremely satisfying. That vision of heaven keeps us moving forward when it would be easier to give up and go back. Spurgeon has a marvellous sermon on this text – “Go Back, Never!” He points out that if you want a way out, you'll always find one.
No one is more miserable than a Christian living in sin. We can sin - and we certainly do - and we can make really stupid choices- and we do - and sometimes we can persist in sinful ways for a long time - but true Christians cannot be truly happy in sin. Having pledged to follow Jesus, we will not be happy hanging with the devil's crowd.
Spurgeon gives us his whole message in just one sentence: "Our expectations are our largest possessions." Those 6 words sum up the whole Christian life and why we keep believing. We have "expectations" of something much better than anything this world has to offer. That's why we don't go back. That's why we won't turn around. That's why we keep our eyes always on heaven.
We live by a different standard and we die with a different hope. Death for the believer is not what it is for the unbeliever. For those who know Jesus, death is going home, to our real home, our eternal home, to the place where when we get there, we will say, "This is where I belong."
3. We Look for a Different Reward v. 16
Hebrews 11 twice mentions the idea of a city. v.10 - Abraham was looking for "a city" with eternal foundations, designed and built by God. Now in v.16 we are told that God has prepared that city already. We can take many things from this, but let's focus on what cities are all about. They are all about people! Cities are crowded places.
The concept of the heavenly city means that we won't be alone any longer. We will be with the Lord and with his people forever. All that we need will be right at our fingertips. Revelation 22: 2 says that in the New Jerusalem, there is a great river flowing from the throne of God down the middle of Main Street. "On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing 12 crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month." Just think of it as God's provision for all his people, always and forever.
What a wonderful thought. "God is not ashamed to be called their God." Sometimes we are ashamed of each other, more often we are ashamed of ourselves. There are moments - plenty of them - when we look in the mirror and say, "You ought to be a better person by now." Who among us has not felt that way this very week?
You asked forgiveness - and then you did it again. You lost your temper. You ate too much. You said something unkind about a friend. You broke a promise and then covered it up. You blamed someone else. You exaggerated to make yourself look good. You couldn't stop complaining. You neglected to pray. You sinned in secret. You murdered in your mind. You committed adultery in your heart. You were harsh with your children. You broke your vows to God.
So how is it that God is not ashamed of us when we are so ashamed of ourselves? It has to do entirely with his grace. When you start out in the Christian life, you realise that you have a long way to go, but you think to yourself, "I've got a lifetime to grow in grace." Even though you know you'll never reach perfection in this life, you assume that over the years, you will grow much closer to God. While you struggle with various sins, bad habits, and a long list of negative tendencies, you think, "Someday I'm going to be a better person." After all, when someone points out a weakness to us, what do we usually say? "I'm working on that," which means, "Give me time and I'll get better." But what if you don't live long enough to make even the elementary progress you planned on making? That's a shocking and sobering truth.
All of us who believe, even the best among us, have so far to go that we'll never live long enough to get there on our own. Someone else has to do the work for us.
Believing in Jesus means trusting him so much that if he can't take me to heaven, I'm not going to go there. Believing in Jesus means risking it all on Him. I don't have a Plan B. Jesus is my only hope of heaven.
Romans 10:12 says that those who trust in Jesus will never be put to shame. Hebrews 11:16 tells us something even more wonderful. God is not ashamed to be the God of very imperfect people who put their trust in him. He never looks down from heaven and says, "You are such a loser. I'm through with you." He is not ashamed to be the God of those who trust in him. When I typed those words, I started smiling because they give me so much hope.
Why do we keep believing? Because there is no God like our God and no Saviour like Jesus. He does not judge us by what we are, but by what we will someday be. He has destined us for heaven, and no matter how many mistakes we may make along the way, his grace is more than sufficient to cover them all. He intends to take all his redeemed children to heaven - and not one of them will fail to make it. Some of us will run triumphantly; others will stumble across the finish line. But by grace we will prevail because God is not ashamed to be our God today, tomorrow and forever. Amen.