Readings: Isaiah 5:1–7, Hebrews 11:29–12:2 & Luke 12:49–59
The focus of my sermon at St Andrew’s last Sunday morning was on the passage from chapter 11 of the Letter to the Hebrews, and in particular its theme of faith and perseverance. The opening verse of that passage was as follows: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
To provide some context, I talked about one of my favourite movies, Field of Dreams, because the central character in that movie demonstrates the type of faith described in last week’s passage from Hebrews. But it isn’t a faith that is necessarily derived from a belief in God. You don’t get any sense of that in the movie.
As I said last Sunday, there are two definitions that can be used for the term ‘faith’. One is “complete trust or confidence”, which is the type of faith demonstrated by the character in Field of Dreams, which may or may not be derived from any belief in God. The other is “a strong, religious belief not based on proof”, which is evident through people like us, who have a religious belief that there is a God, even though we can’t necessarily prove there is.
And as I said last week, I would argue that having a faith, that is, having a belief in God, makes it easier to have faith, which is to have complete trust or confidence in something or someone.
The example I used to demonstrate this was Martin Luther King Jr, the American Baptist minister and civil rights activist who was assassinated by white extremists in 1968 because of his campaign for racial equality for African Americans.
However our reading this morning, from the Book of Isaiah, provides us with an example of where having a faith, that is, having a belief in God, didn’t result in people having complete trust or confidence. The prophet uses an allegory of Israel as a vineyard, God as the vineyard owner, and Judah as the “choicest plantings” in the vineyard, to describe the faithlessness of the nations of Israel and Judah.
The early chapters of the Book of Isaiah were written during the 8th century BCE when the Assyrian Empire was the dominant power in the Ancient Near East. The nations of Israel and Aram were both vassal states of the Assyrian Empire, but they decided to break away. They tried to coerce the nation of Judah to unite with them against the Assyrians, but when they refused, Israel and Aram attacked Judah. Going against the advice of Isaiah, who prophesied to King Ahaz of Judah to trust in God to defend them against their attackers, Ahaz instead turned to the Assyrians for help.
The Assyrians defeated Israel and Aram, and subsequently demanded that in turn for their support, Judah pay an annual tribute, which included treasures from the Temple in Jerusalem and the royal treasury. In addition to this, Ahaz then also built idols of Assyrian gods in Judah to find favour with his new ally. The actions of both Israel and Judah demonstrated that they lacked faith, even though, they actually had A faith.
Our passage this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews continues the theme of faith and perseverance from last week’s reading, with the author offering up a long list of both events and people where faith prevailed over adversity and even death itself. The author concludes the passage by encouraging us to embrace the example of these many witnesses, to help us to overcome the challenges and adversity that we will face in our lives, and to put our trust in Jesus, who is the ultimate example of faithful service to God.
Interestingly, in today’s gospel passage from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells his disciples and the crowds who are following him, what some of those challenges and adversity might be. He begins by telling them that he has come, not only to bring the good news of the Kingdom of God, but that he has also come to bring judgement to the world.
That judgement is the “fire to the earth” that he mentions. He gives some context to this judgement though, by talking to them about his own impending death, which is the “baptism with which he is to be baptised”, and what a burden he carries until he completes the mission he has been sent to carry out.
He then tells his disciples and the crowd that he has not come just to bring peace to the earth, but division also. What he is really saying to them is yes, it is true that he is bringing good news to the world, but there is also a cost associated with the good news. Specifically, the cost he refers to will be the breakdown of family relationships.
The good news is that through Jesus people will be reconciled to God in a loving relationship, but the transformation that is required of people to remain faithful to God, may result in the breakdown of relationships with loved ones, as people may have to do things that contravene the traditions and beliefs held by these family members.
Jesus then turns his attention more specifically to the crowds following him, who are not able to see that his coming and teaching, are signs of the coming of the Kingdom of God that was prophesied about by the prophets of Israel. These “weather-wise” Palestinian farmers are able to read the meteorological signs, since their livelihood depended on it. Clouds from the west, from the direction of the Mediterranean Sea, foretold of impending rain; the prognosis of southerly and southwesterly winds, from the direction of the desert, was scorching heat. Jesus criticises their lack of “religious sensitiveness” by contrasting it with their prowess in “meteorological sensitiveness”.
In a reference to the coming of the Kingdom of God, Jesus finishes this particular discourse with the analogy of a legal case, which seems to be that of a debtor being dragged to court. Jesus urges his audience to discern the urgency of the time and to settle all accounts lest they be left in a hopeless situation with no way out. This means they are to put their house in order in respect of their relationship with God, so that when the time of judgement comes, they will not be found wanting.
As Jesus himself alluded to, being a follower or disciple of his will not always be easy, and we have all no doubt experienced that for ourselves at different times in our lives. But in those times, our faith, that is our belief in God, enables us to persevere through difficulty, and allows us to have faith; to have complete trust and confidence that God is with us; and we have the witness of people like Martin Luther King Jr, and countless others, like those mentioned in the Letter to the Hebrews, to assure us of this.