My Mum’s family were very keen on taking and keeping photos. Her Dad wasn’t the greatest photographer though and most of them have the top of the heads chopped off, or half a person to one side, or a finger part-way over the lens. However, these photos were precious and kept in a box rather than thrown away.
And I have a family album kept by my mum’s great-grandparents. They are studio photos, some of which must have been taken not long after photography became commercially available in the mid to late 19th Century.
I’ve hardly anything on my father’s side. And the same goes for family trees. When I was at primary school, I could go back centuries on my Mother’s side, thanks to her Mum and her family bible. But my Father’s side went back as far as his Dad and that was it.
Genealogy websites have allowed me to fill in a lot of those blanks and turned up some surprises too. A Huguenot refugee from France in the late 17th Century, sailors from Scotland, farmers in Devon, teachers in Hampshire, soldiers from Gloucester, alcoholics, teetotallers, reverends, painters and decorators, gardeners and possible bigamists. They, and a lot more besides, make up my physical DNA.
Our faith family tree
Our passage in Hebrews 11 gives us a ‘faith’ family tree or photo album. The reading was a little odd in parts wasn’t it? The section we had today was just a small part of a long list in the chapter.
The author starts off by giving us great detail of the characters on his list but then seems to run out of puff or out of ink. He gives less and less information, eventually even leaving out the names and just saying what happened to them – some of which is violent in the extreme.
Like my photo album or family tree there are gaps and bits missing in this history of faith – but here too there are some surprising inclusions.
We have Rahab, described here as a prostitute but could have been the madam of a brothel. She wasn’t Jewish but was a Canaanite, living in the land that the children of Israel thought of as their ‘promised’ land. Someone from a different tribe with different beliefs. But she showed faith and makes it on the list.
There is Barak, a military commander who insisted on having a political leader called Deborah alongside him whenever he went into battle. It might make politicians think twice if the same happened today. And Jephthah, born without knowing who his father was. An outlaw who came to rule his country but whose rash pledge affected the life of his only daughter (Judges 11).
The usual suspects
Then we have the unnamed mothers of the children brought back to life by Elijah and Elisha. They are there too alongside a whole litany of other anonymous people who suffered all sorts of tortures and indignities for their faith.
These are in addition to those earlier in the chapter but missed off our reading today. All the usual suspects that we’d expect to be there. The Noah’s, the Abraham’s, the Moses’… Great figures of faith but, when you think about it, they each have their own serious character flaws. A drunk, a pimp, a murderer…
And, so, we have people listed here that you’d think twice before picking to be godparents let alone as heroes of faith (1). Some without names and some in professions that we wouldn’t want our daughters or granddaughters to go into. Some who don’t have the same beliefs and none with the same ethnicity as us here in church today. And that should make us sit up and pay attention as well as give us amazing assurance, shouldn’t it?
Heroes of faith/faithfulness
Philip Yancey, wrote: ‘Exodus identifies by name the two Hebrew midwives who helped save Moses’ life, but it does not bother to record the name of the Pharaoh ruling Egypt… God does not seem impressed by size or power or wealth. Faith is what he wants, and the heroes who emerge are heroes of faith, not strength or wealth’. (2)
Faith here isn’t believing in a set of doctrines that we can’t quite remember. It’s about who we are and we do. Doing the do, rather than talking the talk. We would probably be better translating the word as ‘faithfulness’ rather than ‘faith’ (3). Being honest, resilient, dogged. Engaging with our doubts rather than ignoring them.
On the list?
So these rum characters are strands of our spiritual DNA. They make us what we are. I’m sure you can add to the list yourself. People from your own past who had an impact on you, who helped get you spiritually to where you are today. I imagine most of us have at least one person we can think of, who over a number of years or perhaps at just one special moment in time, either said something or lived in some way that demonstrated to us the love of God. Somehow, they showed us God’s care or his majesty and splendour in a way which affected us deeply.
And if that list of faithful heroes was being drawn up now, would we be on it? You and me with our own mix of dodgy backgrounds and experiences. In a few years’ time would someone be putting our names down as someone who influenced them, either because of one single act or through a lifetime of how we’ve lived?
Or perhaps we are the unnamed ones? People have seen something that we’ve said or done or endured which has helped them in some way – but they’ve never known our names.
And don’t think you’re disqualified because of something unsavoury that you’ve done in the past. There isn’t anything that you’ve done that someone in Hebrews 11 hasn’t done before you!
We’re links in a chain
I ask about being on that list of faith or faithfulness because I’m particularly struck by a couple of images that the writer of Hebrews leaves us with.
Firstly, he says that on their own all these heroes of faith are not complete. They don’t quite make it. It’s only with us, with you and me, that things get finished off: “only together with us would they be made perfect”. What an incredible thought! Only together with you and me would they be made perfect.
Then there’s the picture of a relay race, like you’d have in the Olympics. These past heroes have handed on the baton to us to complete the next stage. Rahab and Abraham have passed the baton to you and me. Now they’re all here, shouting encouragement and willing us on. Enoch, Sarah, Jacob – and those from our own list – in that crowd of witnesses, behind us all the way. And Jesus is there waiting for us at the finish. He’s run the race already.
What amazing illustrations! You and me, with all our flaws and shortcomings, are links in a chain, part of a continuum of faithfulness going back thousands of years… So, who will we pass the baton on to? Who will be next? Who will look back at us and thank God for our faithfulness and the impact that we’ve had on them? Amen
‘You gotta have faithfulness’ was given by Ian Banks at St James, Heywood and later at Four Lane Ends Congregational on August 18th 2019. It’s based on Hebrews 11:29-12:2. For Ian’s next talk, on God and the Golden Calf – or Moses and the Goldfish, please press here. For more by Ian please follow this link.
- Take a look at the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 – there’s an interesting mix of characters there too…
- Philip Yancey: ‘The Bible Jesus read’.
- See Steve Chalke’s exploration of how best to define the New Testament use of the Greek word ‘pistis’ in ‘The Lost message of Paul’. Is it ‘faith’ or ‘faithfulness’?