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Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle C (1)

 

From King Duncan

 

Where’s the Magic?
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12

Billy Joe, a good old boy from the Deep South, stopped at a convenience store. There he ran into Ricardo, an old buddy from New York City.  Billy Joe was a mischievous sort. When no one was looking he stole 3 candy bars from a store shelf.

Walking out of the store he turned to Ricardo and bragged, “Ha!  Did you see what this old Southern boy did? I stole three candy bars and got away with it. Man, I’m slick.” 

Ricardo wasn’t impressed. “That’s nothing. Let’s go back to that store and I’ll show you what slick is where I come from.”

So they returned to the convenience store. Ricardo went up to the young man behind the counter and said, “You want you see a fantastic magic trick?”

The young man said, “Well, I guess so.”

Ricardo said, “Give me a candy bar.”

The convenience store clerk gave him a candy bar, and Ricardo ate it. He asked for a second candy bar, and he ate that as well. He asked for the third candy bar, and finished that one too. “That’s it,” he said. “That’s the trick.”

The young man behind the counter was grossly disappointed.  He asked, “But where’s the magic?”

Ricardo replied: “Check in my friend’s pocket. You will find all three of the candy bars there.” And, of course, they were there. That’s a pretty good magic trick if you disregard the ethics of it all.

Have you ever sat in a worship service and thought to yourself, “Where’s the magic?” I don’t mean that when you come to worship you are expecting a magic show with a charming magician and his beautiful assistant and rabbits that appear out of no where. You may wish that was going to happen this morning, but obviously it’s not.  I have no desire to make a spectacle out of worship. What I do contend is that there ought to be a sense of expectancy when you come into this room that something special is going to happen–as if you expected this day that you would come into the presence of God.

I believe the eleventh chapter of Hebrews has that kind of magic. In it the writer seeks to define the meaning of faith and it’s clear that he believes there is magic in faith.  He begins with a definition: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see . . .”

That’s a nice sounding definition, but it’s kind of abstract. What does he mean by that—“Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see . . .”? Fortunately the writer does not stop with a dictionary definition. He shows us faith in action. “This is what the ancients were commended for,” he continues. “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” That’s a little heavy, still. “What is seen was not made out of what was visible.” But the writer is just getting warmed up. He’s taking us back to that time when God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

Then, turning to the first chapters of the Bible, he begins with Abel and shows how Abel’s offering to God was more acceptable than Cain’s because of his faith. Then he deals with Enoch and Noah and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses and even the harlot Rahab, and he shows us the importance of faith at work in their lives.

Then he adds to these the names of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets who through faith “conquered kingdoms, administered justice . . . shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies . . .” (33-34)

It is a stirring chapter filled with magic only God could perform. We see that same magic in our brief lesson for today. The writer focuses on a 99-year-old patriarch named Abraham who discovers that his 98-year-old wife is pregnant. That’s pretty fantastic all by itself. Listen as he describes this elderly couple:

“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going . . . And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children  . . . And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.”

A 99-year-old woman, way past childbearing years, bears a child whose 100-year-old father is “as good as dead” in the words of the writer of Hebrews. If that is not magic I would like to know what is! But it is not the kind of magic that a magician can perform. It is magic only God can perform. And it is magic that can be seen only through the eyes of faith.

Again the writer of Hebrews is giving us a description of the nature of faith. What is faith?  Let’s begin with the most elementary statement possible.

Faith is belief in God. However, it’s not simply that God exists, but that God is present with us and is working to our best good. In other words, faith is trusting God in all things.

That wonderful writer Max Lucado tells about spending a week years ago visiting the interior of Brazil with a long-time missionary pilot. In his work this missionary pilot flew a circuit of remote towns in a four-seat plane. The plane was not in that great a shape. Lucado says that it threatened to come undone at the slightest gust of wind. “Wilbur and Orville had a sturdier aircraft,” Lucado quips.

Lucado confesses that he could not get comfortable in that undersized plane. He kept thinking they were going to crash in some Brazilian jungle and he’d be gobbled up by piranhas or swallowed by an anaconda. He kept shifting around, looking down, and gripping his seat—as if that would help.

Finally the pilot had enough of his squirming. He looked over at Lucado and shouted over the noise of the airplane. “We won’t face anything that I can’t handle,” the pilot shouted. “You might as well trust me to fly the plane.” (1)

My friend, that is faith! You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker: “God is my co-pilot.” That’s the kind of faith the writer of Hebrews is describing. God is our co-pilot. “We won’t face anything that I can’t handle,” God says to us. “You might as well trust me to fly the plane.”

That’s faith. It’s the kind of faith that the much respected priest Father Henri Nouwen once described in a story about a family of German trapeze artists called the Flying Rodleighs. Henri Nouwen greatly admired the Flying Rodleighs. They became close friends and they even let him practice with them on the trapeze.

Once, Nouwen recalls, he asked the leader of this group of trapeze artists about flying through the air. The leader of these trapeze artists explained his craft like this: “As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher,” he said. “The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air . . . I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me . . . The worst thing the flyer can do is to try to catch the catcher. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms that his catcher will be there for him.” (2)

Do you believe that when you are flying through the air in a time of crisis that God is there, waiting to catch you? That is faith. It is not simply belief that there is a God. It is absolute trust that God cares for you and is always working to your best good.

A woman named Edna Butterfield tells about her husband, Ron, who once taught a class of mentally impaired teenagers. Looking at his students’ capabilities rather than their limitations, Ron taught them all kinds of marvelous things. He got them to play chess, restore furniture and repair electrical appliances—things that many people thought they were incapable of. Most important, though, he taught them to believe in themselves.

There was one young fellow named Bobby who in a very short time proved how well he had learned the lesson of believing in himself. One day he brought in a broken toaster to repair. He carried the toaster tucked under one arm, and a half-loaf of bread under the other.  That’s the way you show that you have confidence you can fix a toaster—bring some bread to place in it after it is fixed. (3) 

Faith in God is like that. Don’t bring a toaster in for repair if you don’t have the faith to bring a loaf of bread. Faith is the belief that not only does God exist, but that He cares for you and will provide for your needs.

That brings us to the second thing that faith is:  Since we trust God, faith is also living in obedience to God’s will. Here’s where the rubber hits the road. Abraham didn’t just believe in the existence of God. Because he trusted God Abraham went where God told him to go and did what God wanted him to do. He obeyed God.

Do you believe in God, we ask? “Of course I believe in God. Everybody believes in God.”

Do you believe in Jesus Christ? “Well, of course I believe in Jesus Christ. I went to Sunday school. He was quite a man.”

Have you ever fully committed your life to Jesus—enough so that you will commit all you are and all you have to him? “Now hold on there, I’m not a religious fanatic, if that is what you mean. But I’m a Christian. I believe.” 

 Is that what it is all about—simply saying, “I believe?” Somehow as I read these words from the letter to the Hebrews—as I read about the victories that were won and the persecutions that were endured—I cannot help but believe that faith is much, much more than simply saying, “I believe.”

The writer of James says, “Even the demons believe—and shudder.” (2:19) Faith is more than believing.

The story is told of a lazy boy who went with his mother and aunt on a blueberry-picking hike into the woods. The boy carried the smallest pail possible. While the others worked hard at picking berries, he lolled about, chasing a butterfly and playing hide-and-seek with a squirrel.

Soon it was approaching time to leave. In a panic, he filled his pail mostly with moss and then topped it off with a thin layer of berries, so that the pail looked full of berries. His mother and aunt commended him highly for his effort.

The next morning his mother baked some pies, and she made a special “saucer-sized” pie just for the boy. He could hardly wait for the pie to cool. Blueberry was his favorite! He could see the plump berries oozing through a slit in the crust, and his mouth watered in anticipation.

As he sunk his fork into the flaky crust, however, he found . . . mostly moss! (4) That’s what he had gathered and so that is what he received.

If there doesn’t seem to be much magic in the church today maybe it is because our pies are mostly moss. Faith is a total commitment of all we are and all we hope to be to God through faith in Jesus Christ.

This list of the heroes of the Old Testament provided by the writer of Hebrews is a list of persons who put their lives on the line because of their convictions about God. Faith is not simply intellectual assent to an idea. It is a life-changing choice to walk where God would have you go.

But there’s one thing more we need to see: Faith is also that unshakable sense of trust that keeps us going through life’s dark and difficult valleys.  All of us walk through the valley under a dark shadow at some time in our lives.

It’s like the man that humorist Harry Hershfield once told about who had become so discouraged with life that he bought a loaf of bread at a store, then went to a railroad crossing and stretched himself out across the tracks.

A policeman saw this bewildering sight and rushed up to him asking, “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Waiting for the train to run over me,” the man replied.

“But why the loaf of bread?” the policeman asked.

“The way the trains run here,” the man answered, “you could starve to death while waiting for one.” (5)

We all get discouraged at some time in our lives. No one is exempt. But that doesn’t mean we give up. There is always a way out if we allow God’s Spirit to guide us. Faith is a commitment of all we are and hope to be to God. Faith is an assurance that the God who created us is with us in every battle we may face. Faith is also that unshakable sense of trust that keeps us going through life’s dark and difficult valleys.

But there is one thing more found in our lesson for today: Faith is a promise that, as Abraham described it, there is a “city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

We speak far less about heaven than did our fathers and mothers. We are the secular society—our kingdom is the here and now. No wonder we have so little joy. No wonder our lives exude so little magic.  No wonder so many of us dread the process of aging and are haunted by the fear of death. How foolish we are to denigrate the most blessed hope that the Christian possesses. How shallow we are to conclude that life ends at the grave. Faith—to really be faith—always has a forward look, a positive expectation, an unquenchable hope. 

Such a spirit comes from a lifetime of commitment and trust. It doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t come easily. There are good days and there are bad, but there is always that belief that no matter what, life goes on.

Do you believe in God? Yes, we say, of course I believe in God. Do you have the faith that Abraham had—belief in the promises of God? Do you believe that God will always be with you regardless of the obstacles that you may face . . . even unto eternity? That’s faith.

 

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1. Max Lucado, Anxious for Nothing: Finding Calm in a Chaotic World (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017), p. 33.

2. Robert A. Jonas, Henri Nouwen: Spirituality and Practice, Orbis Books, 1998. Cited by The Rev. Dr. Casey Baggott, http://day1.org/6463-parked_beliefs.

3. https://www.sermonsearch.com/sermon-illustrations/2237/the-toaster/.

4. God’s Devotional Book Inspiration and Motivation for the Seasons of Life (Colorado Springs: Cook Communications Ministries, 1984), p. 300.

5. Van Varner, Daily Guideposts (New York: Guideposts, 1983), p. 318.