Hebrews 11:9-10, 17-23, 32-40
9 Brethren, by faith Abraham 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:
10 For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
17 By faith, Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,
18 Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called:
19 Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received in him a figure.
20 By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come.
21 By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed both the sons of Joseph; and worshipped, leaning upon the top of his staff.
22 By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones.
23 By faith Moses, when he was born, was hid three months of his parents, because they saw he was a proper child; and they were not afraid of the king’s commandment.
32 And what shall I more say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthah; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets:
33 Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions.
34 Quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.
35 Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection:
36 And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment:
37 They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented;
38 (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
39 And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise:
40 God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be!

We were struck with two long lists of names this morning, both in the Epistle reading and especially in the Gospel (Matthew 1:1-25). Both St. Paul and the Evangelist Matthew recount those who were in the lineage of the coming Messiah, and those who awaiting the Advent of the Saviour with Faith. Almost every verse of the Epistle speaks specifically about the faith of those who awaited the coming of the Messiah. And this gives us the perfect opportunity, as we prepare to greet that Messiah at His birth, to ask—what is faith? When, as Christians, we’re called to have faith in Christ, what does that mean? We can look at this question not “theologically” this morning, but by seeing how the men of faith that St. Paul mentions in the Epistle reading actually lived. How was their faith lived?—and from this we can begin to learn how to live lives of faith as well.

For our example we’ll take the Patriarch Abraham. Both St. Matthew and St. Paul begin their list with Abraham, the father of the people of God. Abraham is identified by many of the Fathers of the Church, and even several places in the Scriptures, as the greatest example of faith in history. We have to learn from the best examples we can find, and so Abraham is the perfect choice.. St. Gregory of Nyssa calls him the “father of faith” in the True God. So following Archbishop DMITRI’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, we can identify at least three characteristics of faith from the life of Abraham.

Firstly—obedience. God called Abraham to leave all that he knew, his kin and his homeland, and to travel to a place that he would be led (Hebrews 11:8). Abraham doesn’t know where he’s going, and in fact he doesn’t even know this God that’s called him. God visits Abraham in a land where many deities are worshipped, and He says ‘I’ll be your God if you’ll be my people.’ And with no questioning, Abraham obeys.

The second characteristic of faith we see very clearly in Abraham’s life are patience and endurance. St. Paul writes, “by faith Abraham sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob” (Hebrews 11:9). Even once he arrives in the land that God has promised him, he and his descendants continue to live a nomadic life. They live in tents as if visitors in a foreign country. Because “he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God “ (Hebrews 11:10). Abraham had a much deeper understanding of God’s promise than simply a new place to live. He never seems concerned with the material possessions and wealth that this new land of promise could provide. Remember the scene with his relative Lot—Abraham lets Lot choose the best pasture land for himself. Abraham is not interested in the land or the riches, because he’s seeking a city whose builder and maker is God. Not the cities of the Canaanites, but the city of God, the Heavenly Jerusalem. With patient endurance Abraham waits for the time when God will faithfully fulfill His promise.

And the final characteristic of faith we can see clearly in St. Paul’s synopsis of the life of Abraham is sacrifice. St. Paul reminds us of the trials of Abraham, his calling to the promised land, all the trials he went through to get to the land of God’s promise, and finally his living in tents in this land of promise. And now we turn to the greatest test of the faith of Abraham. “By faith, Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called” (Hebrews 11:17-18). One of God’s promises to Abraham was that his descendants would become a great nation, more numerous than the stars of the sky. Isaac was Abraham’s only heir, his only son (Ishmael and his mother had been sent out of the house of Abraham, and therefore he was cut off from the promise of Abraham). So the only way that Abraham saw the promise being fulfilled, in his son Isaac, he was asked to offer that son as a sacrifice to his God. In spite of the seeming absurdity of the request, Abraham’s faith remains unshaken, and he obeys. It’s this act of willing sacrifice that solidifies Abraham’s place as the model of faith for all generations. No matter how the will of God seems to contradict logic and sanity, Abraham is willing to sacrifice everything to follow his God.

His faith in God is absolute. And in the very act of sacrifice, as his hand held the knife and was raised above his head to offer his only son to the Lord, his hand was stayed. And the one who was sacrificed was returned, and another way was provided. The promise of God to Abraham was preserved because Abraham’s faith was in God, and not in the ways of man. St. Paul even goes so far as to say that Abraham “account[ed] that God was able to raise [Isaac] up, even from the dead; from whence also he received in him a figure” (Hebrews 11:19). Abraham knew that all things were possible with God, and he acted accordingly. In the act of giving what was most precious to him to God, Abraham was taught by the very hand of God. The Fathers teach that the mystery of Christ (the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham), the mystery of Christ was revealed to Abraham on the top of the mountain that day. St. Cyril of Alexandria writes, “[Abraham was taught] that God is able to raise again, even from the dead. And, moreover, he learned what is more important, and more worthy of account, I mean the mystery of Christ; that for the salvation and life of world God the Father was about to yield His own Son to the sacrifice; even Him, Who by nature was beloved, that is, Christ” (The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary, Archbishop DMITRI, SVS Press, 2003, p. 188).

These three characteristics of faith we see in the life of Abraham give us a very good idea of what it means to have faith in God. Abraham not only said “I believe,” but he acted on that belief—and in that action lies true faith. “Faith without works is dead,” St. James writes. Abraham’s acts did not earn him salvation, but true faith naturally flows out of us in actions well pleasing to God.

Obedience—to go with God. No matter how strange God’s will may seem to our human minds, the person of faith always strives to fulfill the way of Christ regardless of the consequences on a human level. Abraham’s first act of faith was to leave his homeland and travel to the promised land. St. Gregory of Nyssa says this journey is a call from the earthly and carnal mind to the mind and the ways of God. Our obedience to God, and to the commandments He gave us, helps impart in our souls the way and the mind of Christ. The commandments of God are life, and obedience is our participation in life.

Patience and endurance—we are sojourners on this earth (1 Peter 2:11). This theme is presented constantly throughout the Holy Scriptures. Our home, our destination, is the Kingdom. So our satisfaction can’t be with the things of this world, and this requires the patience to seek God’s will, to live in the place where God has put us, to wait for God to bring us to fulfillment (just like Abraham had to wait for the fulfillment of the promise), and this waiting also requires an incredible endurance. Imagine what it took Abraham to live in tents when the cities of the Canaanites could have been his. We patiently endure all the evils and tribulations of this world, always remembering that our glory is in the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God

And finally, Sacrifice. God’s ways are not our ways. Abraham had to give up home, family, everything he knew to follow a God he didn’t know. And then he was asked to give up everything God had promised him in Isaac. And only in sacrificing everything for God was Abraham blessed with the fulfillment of God’s promise. Following God demands sacrifice, putting off our will and our desires and our way. Constantly responding to God, “Thy will be done.” And like Abraham was taught by the very mouth of God in faith, so also our living faith brings us face to face with our Creator, where we’re allowed to see some small bit into the mysteries and the magnificence of God.

The promise of God to mankind was first given to Abraham, the father of the people of God, the father of faith. This promise was lived and experienced by all the men and women of faith, St. Paul gives us a short list of those names and also indicates that there are more who lived the promise than he can list, and more than we ever can know. And ultimately, in the fullness of time God’s promise to redeem and deliver mankind was fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. Now our faith, as Christians, rests totally on the person of Christ—our Lord and God and Saviour. And we’re reminded this morning that even in Christ we’re required to live lives of faith as did Abraham and all the Old Testament saints, so that we can be inheritors of the promise made perfect in Christ.

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!