Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday of Lent, 25th February 2018

Genesis 12:1-9, Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16

‘Faith is being sure about what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’. That’s how one modern translation of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it. ‘… the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen’, as we read it. Richard Robinson, the Oxford philosopher, wrote in 1964, ‘This is obviously unintelligible.’ [Robinson, R., 1964, An Atheist’s Values, Oxford, OUP, p118f.]

He was shooting at Christianity. His challenge was similar to what other Oxford philosophers of the time, in the early 1960s – such as what Sir Alfred Ayer, in his book, ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ was writing. Namely that religious words like ‘God’ can’t be understood in the same way as other words. The word ‘God’ doesn’t stand for anything tangible in the way that the word ‘table’ does. And therefore, they argued, that kind of reasoning, religious belief, wasn’t proper reasoning at all.

Those philosophers would say the word ‘god’ does not have meaning in the same way as the word ‘table’: you can’t say that the word ‘god’ means that there is something, a thing, out there which you can see and touch, just as you can touch a table. Arguably, not. You can’t touch God in the same way you could touch a table.

These philosophers argued that, because the word ‘God’ doesn’t have the same kind of meaning as ‘table’ or ‘chair’ – in particular because you can’t say what God isn’t, in the same way you could, with a mundane non-theological statement: ‘That is a black cat’, say. You can understand what it would mean not to be a black cat: but not, what it would mean not to be God. At least, not in the same way. And that means, they said, that god-statements, religious propositions, are meaningless. They are unintelligible.

But that doesn’t sound very convincing these days. If you recite this wonderful passage from chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews (almost certainly it wasn’t a letter by St Paul, and also not really a letter so much as a sermon, or string of sermons, but that doesn’t matter) if you recite this litany of legends about men – and women – of faith, this isn’t a lot of fairy stories. This is people, in history, as Moses and Abraham and the others mentioned were historic figures, doing momentous things because they had a ‘sure and certain hope’, as we put it in the funeral service. They had faith.

‘By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.
By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise:
…. Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised.
Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable.
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them…’

By contrast, according to the atheists like Richard Robinson, faith is just a leap, a leap in the dark, to a conclusion which you can’t prove, which you can’t logically reach. But faith, in the Bible, in Christianity, isn’t just some kind of second-rate form of knowledge. The Greek word, πιστις, means faith in, trust, belief in something, or belief that something is the case.

So it’s not the case that a Christian believer has ‘faith’ only in a weak sense, where they can’t prove something.

The letter to the Hebrews harks back to the story in Genesis about the Lord appearing to Abram (Abram, who became Abraham later), when ‘the Lord appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land ..’ [Genesis 12:7].

In Hebrews this is remembered: ‘By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive as an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went’. [Hebrews 11:8]

And Hebrews celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, trusting, having faith, that it would turn out for the best, and that God had power to raise up the dead: ‘Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead’. That’sverse 19, just after our lesson tonight.Indeed, Abraham couldn’t prove that. But he relied on it. He trusted, he pinned his faith on it. He was sure it was true.

Actually, there are lots of leaps of faith that we make, even in the ordinary course of life. How do you know that you will wake up in the morning? You don’t. But you don’t think that it’s peculiar for someone to expect to wake up in the morning. The expectation that it will happen isn’t unreasonable. So faith in things, faith that certain things happen, isn’t automatically counterintuitive.

I believe, I have faith, that the sun will rise tomorrow. But also ‘I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth …’ Two articles of faith. They are different: but maybe not that much different.

The atheists think of faith as a sort of mental fall-back, when actual knowledge is not possible, for one reason or another. When you can’t know for certain. Then, you can believe. For them, it’s a sort of second-rate knowledge, mere faith.

That’s much more tentative than the tone of the letter to the Hebrews. You wouldn’t organise a mass exodus and resettlement in another country, as Abraham did, just because, on a balance of probabilities, you reasonably expected it to turn out all right. You certainly wouldn’t risk killing your own son with a knife, if you thought it was 50-50 whether he’d make it; if you thought that it was just a matter of luck that he’d be saved if you knifed him. Abraham wasn’t a homicidal monster. He trusted God to make things turn out all right.

Of course we should be a bit discerning. It would give faith a bad name if we said we had faith in blue moons or green beer or ‘somewhere over the rainbow.’ If something isn’t even vaguely likely, or if indeed it’s logically impossible, then we ought not to have faith in it. That’s not what faith is all about. Our faith is, or should be, more like the early Christians, who weren’t there when Jesus came back from the dead and appeared to the apostles, but who nevertheless saw how they had been affected. Something had happened, something momentous. Think of Doubting Thomas. ‘Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’ [John 20:29]

Where does that leave us? In this time of reflection in Lent, how strongly do we believe? The challenge is, that the stronger our belief, the more sure and certain our hope, our faith, the more we can do. Jesus said, we can move mountains. [Matt.17:20]

I would like to think that we can do more about poverty, war and disease. I would like to think that, starting in our own country, we would stop talking about how much money things cost, and started to think what it would be to follow Jesus’ command, to love our neighbours as ourselves.

So, just as I have a roof over my head, there should not be a homeless man dying on the steps of parliament. Just as I live in a house with a proper fire alarm, other people shouldn’t have to live 20 floors up in a block with no sprinkler system and only one stairway to get out. And because we are all made in the image of God, wherever we are born, just as I have a passport and am able to go more or less anywhere, so a Syrian who has no home, no relatives left alive and no means of sustenance, should not be turned away at our border, in case he tries to get a job here. And if he ought not to be turned away, how much less ought his children to be kept out? There are 2,000 children fending for themselves in France, who all have relatives or friends here. Why?

We have faith. We believe. We believe in one God, maker of heaven and earth: and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord. So let us show that we have that faith, that faith which can move mountains. Let us do something to show it.