Why We Keep Believing

Hebrews 11:13-16

If you don’t believe in heaven, you can skip this sermon.

That may seem like an odd way to begin, but it’s a true statement, and truth is always a good place to start. Everything in this sermon is about heaven. And if you don’t believe in heaven, then a lot of this sermon won’t make any sense to you because there are lots of things that Christians do that can only be explained because we believe in heaven.

And therein lies the problem. We believe in a place that you can’t see, feel, touch, or otherwise apprehend using your five senses. Heaven by definition lies beyond the veil of this visible, seen, touchable, tangible, extremely real-to-us world. And since this world is the only world we are sure of, then how can we say or believe or imagine that there is another world out there somewhere, beyond the horizon (or “beyond the sunset” as a Christian song puts it), not provable by any of the means we ordinarily use when we talk about proof? I mean, how do we know there is a heaven?

Answering that question isn’t really the burden of this sermon because it is not the burden of my text. If you study Hebrews 11:13-16, you quickly see that it appears in this chapter as a kind of parenthesis, as if the writer has been extolling the faith-virtues of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah (vv. 4-12), and then suddenly thinks to himself, “People will never believe this so I’d better explain it.”

Like John Wayne at the Alamo

That’s what’s going on here. The writer wants us to consider why certain people do what they do, that is, why they decide to live in a way that seems radically different from the rest of the world. If you go back to Hebrews 10:32-34, you find a description of the early days of the church, when new believers encountered enormous hardships because of their faith:

1) They remained faithful in spite of terrible suffering (v. 32).
2) They were exposed to public ridicule (v. 33).
3) They were persecuted (v. 33).
4) They helped others who suffered the same way (v. 33).
5) They showed sympathy to those thrown in jail (v. 34).
6) They lost all that they had (v. 34).

And here’s the kicker . . .

7) They accepted it with joy (v. 34).

That’s the hard part—the accepting all this with joy. I can imagine going through some of those things and enduring it with gritty determination and a tight jaw. You know, “Hang tough, boys. This can’t last forever.” Like John Wayne at the Alamo, or something like that. Sometimes life comes down to the tough-minded, not-gonna-turn-back-now decision to keep on following Jesus even when the world collapses around you. Sometimes that’s the best you can do—and I’m always in awe of people who can say, “I’m not giving up,” when quitting would be easier.
I’m always in awe of people who can say, “I’m not giving up,” when quitting would be easier.
But that’s not exactly what the writer is talking about. He’s somewhere beyond that when he says that they (the first readers) had accepted it all with joy. Now that’s hard to do. But this way of living—this smiling when you are robbed—that’s how Christians live. Again, that’s a tough topic to get your mind around, and I think the writer knew that so that’s why he added this word of explanation in Hebrews 10:34. “For you knew you had a much more solid and lasting treasure in heaven” (Phillips). Other translations use phrases like “a better and enduring possession” (NKJV). I like how the CEV puts it. You endured this “because you knew you had something better, something that would last forever.”

Something better.
Something that would last forever.

That’s a good description of heaven. It’s better than anything we have on earth. And unlike the things on earth, heaven lasts forever. So we give up what we have here because we can’t keep it anyway and we know we’ve got something better coming that will never be taken away from us.
On our first trip to Beijing, we saw an inscription on the backside of the large sign that marks the center run by the English Language Institute of China. As you approach the building, you see the sign that announces the building. But as you exit the building, you see inscribed on the back of the sign the famous words of Jim Elliott, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” It is precisely that spirit that has animated the spread of the gospel for 2000 years, and it explains as well as anything can why Christians live the way they do.

It’s all about heaven. So if you don’t believe in heaven, you won’t live like a Christian, and it won’t make much sense to you at all.

But if you do believe in heaven . . .
He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.
That’s what’s on the writer’s mind in Hebrews 11:13-16. He interrupts his long list of heroes who lived by faith to take us behind the scenes so we can ask some questions . . .

Abel, why would you offer a better sacrifice and end up getting killed by your brother? (v. 4)
Enoch, why would you walk with God and then disappear? (vv. 5-6)
Noah, why would you build an ark when everyone except your family thought you were nuts? (v. 7)
Abraham, why would you leave the security of Ur to trek off into the unknown? (v. 8)
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, why would you live in tents for generations? (vv. 9-10)
Abraham and Sarah, why would you dream of having a baby when you are 100 and 90 years old? (vv. 11-12)

These are not hypothetical questions. They go to the heart of why we do what we do—including why we do some things that the world regards as utterly ridiculous.

So how do we explain ourselves? The answer is, it’s all about heaven, and if heaven isn’t real, then we have wasted our lives chasing after a dream that turns out to be nothing at all. To say it another way, why do we keep believing? Hebrews 11:13-16 offers three answers to that question.

I. We Live by a Different Standard.

“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth” (v. 13). What he means is, all the heroes of faith lived and died without ever fully entering into what God had promised them. They were like sailors who saw the shoreline a great distance away, and stood at the rail waving and shouting and saying, “See, there it is! What a beautiful land! And look at all those people! They are waving back at us.” The sailors see the land, but their ship never reaches the shore. So they sail on, left with their memories of a harbor they never seem to reach.

Christians are aliens and strangers on earth. In our shrinking, flat, and increasingly crowded world, we are all continually reminded that “we aren’t from around here.” If we get on a bus in a strange city, we look for someone who looks like us. And traveling in a large city overseas can be a scary experience if we don’t speak the language—and sometimes even if we do, especially when we see people looking at us, whispering to each other, sometimes laughing at us, sometimes pointing. During our last visit to Jerusalem, as our group made its way through the Old City, we were accosted by a very angry man who began shouting at us, waving his arms, making various political statements, and uttering vague threats. Now that’s unnerving because you can’t engage a man like that in a discussion or things will quickly escalate. All you can do is keep walking—and remember, “We’re not from around here.”

Christians are truly “not from around here.” That’s the whole point of verse 13. We are from somewhere else, a realm not visible or touchable. We’ve got a green card that says, “Citizen of Heaven.”

II. We Die with a Different Hope.

But there’s more to this story. “People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (vv. 14-16a). John Wesley, the father of the Methodist movement, used to say, “Our people die well.” Dying well is something of a lost art today. We don’t talk about it or preach about it or think about it, and we certainly don’t train our people in how to do it. We have “grief recovery” classes that help those who have lost loved ones. But when was the last time you attended a class on how to die well?

We’ve got a green card that says, “Citizen of Heaven.”

The Puritans saw things differently. They preached a great deal to their people about how to die well—full of faith and hope and joy in the Lord. By this they did not mean how to plan your own death, nor did they intend to suggest that you could somehow avoid the sudden death that comes to so many people. But they meant to train their people so that they would live with conscious, abiding faith in Jesus Christ to the very end of life, and that they would give a joyful testimony to the watching world they left behind.

In an essay called You’d Cry Too If It Happened to You, Peggy Noonan ponders what happens when we lose our faith in a world beyond this world. After considering the many advancements of the last 500 years, she concludes that while life in every way is much easier nowadays, we are not happier people. “I believe we are just cleaner, more attractive sad people than we used to be.”

I think we have lost the old knowledge that happiness is overrated—that, in a way, life is overrated. We have lost, somehow, a sense of mystery—about us, our purpose, our meaning, our role. Our ancestors believed in two worlds, and understood this to be the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short one. We are the first generations of man that actually expected to find happiness here on earth, and our search for it has caused such unhappiness. The reason: If you do not believe in another, higher world, if you believe only in the flat material world around you, if you believe that this is your only chance at happiness—if that is what you believe, then you are not disappointed when the world does not give you a good measure of its riches, you are despairing.

The writer to the Hebrews is making the same point in his own way. In earlier generations people believed in two worlds, and they knew that the next world was the “real” world, the one that would last forever. And so they lived in this world (the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short one) with one eye looking forward to the next one. They understood that this world could not, cannot, and does not bring you ultimate happiness.

We are just cleaner, more attractive sad people than we used to be.

And so we believe there is another world. Hebrews 11 calls it a “a country of their own” and “a better  country—a heavenly one.” We are destined to live and die feeling slightly (and maybe more than slightly) out of place. A famous Southern gospel song called This World Is Not My Home says it this way:

This world is not my home I’m just a passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore

O Lord, I know, I have no friend like you
If heaven’s not my home O lord what can I do
The angel’s beck on me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.

What difference does it make—this vision of a world beyond this world? There are many answers, I suppose, but the one in verse 15 is extremely satisfying. That vision of heaven keeps us moving forward when it would be easier to give up and go back. Spurgeon has a marvelous sermon on this text call, simply, Go Back, Never! He points out that if you want a way out, you’ll always find one. Quitters always have an excuse. So do backsliders and complainers and compromisers. When we get entangled with the world—as we all do from time to time—we find that it does not satisfy the way we thought it would. No one is more miserable than a Christian living in sin. We can sin—and we certainly do—and we can make really stupid choices—and we do—and sometimes we can persist in sinful ways for a long time—but (mark this carefully) true Christians cannot be truly happy in sin. Having pledged to follow Jesus, we will not be happy hanging with the devil’s crowd.

Quitters always have an excuse.

Spurgeon gives us his whole message in just one sentence: “Our expectations are our largest possessions.” That’s really good. Those six words sum up the whole Christian life and why we keep believing. We have “expectations” of something much better than anything this world has to offer. Near the end of his sermon Spurgeon applies the text this way:

Don’t expect the men of this world to treat you as one of themselves—if they do, be afraid. Dogs don’t bark when a man goes by that they know—they bark at strangers. When people slander and persecute you no longer, be afraid. If you are a stranger, they naturally bark at you. Don’t expect to find comforts in this world that your flesh would long for. This is our inn, not our home. We tarry here a night; we are away in the morning.

That’s why we don’t go back.
That’s why we won’t turn around.
That’s why we keep our eyes always on heaven.

We live by a different standard and we die with a different hope. Death for the believer is not what it is for the unbeliever. For those who know Jesus, death is going home, to our real home, our eternal home, to the place where when we get there, we will say, “This is where I belong.”

III. We Look for a Different Reward.

Our text ends with a word about our hope for the future. “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (v. 16).

Hebrews 11 twice mentions the idea of a city. Verse 10 says that Abraham was looking for “a city” with eternal foundations, designed and built by God. Now in verse 16 we are told that God has prepared that city already. We can glean many things from this, but let’s focus on what cities are all about. They are all about people! If you have ever lived in a large city, then you know what I mean. Cities are crowded places. That was hard for me to get used to when we first moved to Chicago. After growing up in a small town in Alabama, I wasn’t prepared for the hustle and bustle. It’s hard to used to living in the midst of eight million people. I can still remember my total consternation when we purchased our first home in Oak Park. It was a tiny house on a tiny lot. The neighbors were too close for my comfort, a fact I learned the hard way when I was singing in the shower one morning and I heard someone next door sarcastically yell out, “Nice voice.” I remembered to shut the window next time.

I’m resting my hope on the fact that Christ died for me while I was still a sinner.

The concept of the heavenly city means that we won’t be alone any longer. We will be with the Lord and with his people forever. And all that we need will be right at our fingertips. Not long ago Harry Bollback told me he was a member of the Heavenly Fruit of the Month Club. What’s that? Revelation 22:2 says that in the New Jerusalem, there is a great river flowing from the throne of God down the middle of Main Street. “On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month.” Just think of it as God’s provision for all his people, always and forever.

Our text ends with this wonderful thought. “God is not ashamed to called their God.” Sometimes we are ashamed of each other, more often we are ashamed of ourselves. There are moments—plenty of them—when we look in the mirror and say, “You ought to be a better person by now.” Who among us has not felt that way this very week?

You asked forgiveness—and then you did it again.
You lost your temper.
You ate too much.
You said something unkind about a friend.
You broke a promise and then covered it up.
You blamed someone else.
You exaggerated to make yourself look good.
You couldn’t stop complaining.
You neglected to pray.
You sinned in secret.
You murdered in your mind.
You committed adultery in your heart.
You were harsh with your children.
You broke your vows to God.

If you look in the mirror long enough, you are bound to feel bad about yourself. Romans 3:23 applies to Christians too. That’s why Martin Luther stressed justification by faith as the chief doctrine of the faith. It is our only hope of heaven. If we plan to make it by moral reformation, we’ll never get there.

If you look in the mirror long enough, you are bound to feel bad about yourself. 

So how it is that God is not ashamed of us when we are so ashamed of ourselves? It has to do entirely with his grace. I remember reading a few years ago about a pastor in his early 30s who was diagnosed with cancer. (You can read more of his story at Surprised by Death.) After many tests, the doctors gave him the worst possible news. He was dying of cancer—and sooner rather than later. It turned out as the doctors had said. He lived for several more years and then he died. But as long as he was able to preach, he spoke to his people about what he was learning. The young pastor was given an insight that he shared with his congregation. It went something like this.

Twenty Seconds—And the Clock is Running!

When you start out in the Christian life, you realize that you have a long way to go, but you think to yourself, “I’ve got a lifetime to grow in grace.” Even though you know you’ll never reach perfection in this life, you assume that over the years, you will grow much closer to God. And while you struggle with various sins, bad habits, and a long list negative tendencies, you think, “Someday I’m going to be a better person.” After all, when someone points out a weakness to us, what do we usually say? “I’m working on that,” which means, “Give me time and I’ll get better."  But what if you don’t live long enough to make even the elementary progress you planned on making? That’s the dilemma the young pastor faced, knowing that he didn’t have long to live. And it was precisely at this point that he gained wisdom from God.

He realized, “I’m not going to live long enough to get any better. I’m going to have to die the way I am right now.” That’s a shocking and sobering truth. Suddenly you look up at the scoreboard and where you thought you were in the middle of the second quarter, with plenty of time left in the game, to your dismay the clock shows 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter. And the clock is running!

What do you do then? It’s either the grace of God or it’s nothing at all. The young pastor shared with his congregation a fresh insight from Romans 5:8, a verse we normally use in our evangelism to the unsaved.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Did you see the word “still"?
Still sinners.

The word “still” comes from a tiny Greek word—eti. Christ died for us while we were “still” sinners. But that little word eti applies to us too. We were and are “still” sinners. The dying pastor got up and said something like this. “I realize for the first time that I’m going to heaven because of that little Greek word eti. I am still a sinner, and I don’t have any time to get better, and when I die, I’m resting my hope on the fact that Christ died for me while I was still a sinner.”  

That’s the true gospel of Christ.
That’s what being saved really means.
That’s our entire hope of heaven.

All of us who believe, even the best among us, have so far to go that we’ll never live long enough to get there on our own. Someone else has to do the work for us.

Just this week I received a letter from a prisoner who read my book An Anchor for the Soul. She wrote to thank me and to say that she was pondering the words of a little poem that appears near the end of the book.

Upon a life I did not live,
Upon a death I did not die,
I stake my whole eternity.

Lewis Sperry Chafer said that believing in Jesus means trusting him so much that if he can’t take me to heaven, I’m not going to go there. I like that. Believing in Jesus means risking it all on him. I don’t have a Plan B. Jesus is my only hope of heaven.

Romans 10:12 says that those who trust in Jesus will never be put to shame. Hebrews 11:16 tells us something even more wonderful. God is not ashamed to be the God of very imperfect people who put their trust in him. He never looks down from heaven and says, “You are such a loser. I’m through with you.”

Believing in Jesus means trusting him so much that if he can’t take me to heaven, I’m not going to go there. 

He is not ashamed to be the God of those who trust in him. When I typed those words, I started smiling because they give me so much hope.

Why do we keep believing? Because there is no God like our God and no Savior like Jesus. He does not judge us by what we are, but by what we will some day be. He has destined us for heaven, and no matter how many mistakes we may make along the way, his grace is more than sufficient to cover them all. He intends to take all his redeemed children to heaven—and not one of them will fail to make it. Some of us will run triumphantly; others will stumble across the finish line. But by grace we will prevail because God is not ashamed to be our God today, tomorrow and forever. Amen.

2008-08-12-Why-We-Keep-Believing

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