Sermon for Sunday, July 4th, Independence Day
The Lessons: Deuteronomy 10:17-21; Psalm 145; Hebrews 11:8-16; Matthew 5:43-48
The Text: Hebrews 11:8-16
The Topic: Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ
A far-famed tightrope walker came to Niagara Falls and stretched his rope across the thunderous currents from Canada to the United States. Before the breathless multitudes, he walked, then ran, across the falls. He did the same blindfolded, with drums rolling. Then, still blindfolded, he pushed a wheelbarrow across the falls.
The crowds went wild, and the aerialist shouted to them, “Who believes I can push a man in this wheelbarrow across these falls?”
A gentleman in the front waved his hands, shouting, “I do! I believe!”
“Then,” said the walker, “come and get in the wheelbarrow.”
To no surprise, the man’s intellectual assent failed to translate into personal faith.
Today we celebrate the faith that the founding fathers brought to the shores of this country. It is easy to take for granted the faith of the colonists in settling in this land, and to forget that many of them came to live here so that they could freely live as Christians in the traditions of Christianity to which they had been accustomed, and not endure continual persecution from Christians of other traditions, or from the Church of England. One of these groups was the Puritans, who wanted to reform the Church of England. From 1630 about 20,000 Puritans emigrated from England to America for the sake of religious freedom. Another group that sought refuge in America was the Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), who could be regarded as radical Puritans, 10,000 of whom had been imprisoned in England by 1680. Many Quakers came to live in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Faith in God was required for all these immigrants to set sail in ships that carried them to a land they had never seen before. After the 1776 Declaration of Independence, faith was needed that the United States of America would eventually win the war against England and be officially recognized as an independent country.
It is therefore appropriate for there to be included in the Scripture readings for Independence Day this selection from the Epistle to the Hebrews on faith. If we begin to say that everything is now established and our freedoms are intact, and we can easily live as the Church, the community of faith, we must remember that today we live in a culture in which more and more attacks are being levelled against Christianity and the freedom to express it and live by it. We must ask ourselves the question where in the world could we go if this freedom were to be taken away from us by the very government that should be upholding it?
THE HEROES OF THE FAITH
Really, the answer to this question is that we should do what a hero of the faith would do, following and obeying the call of God. Our Epistle today directs us first to the example of Abraham whom God called to leave Haran and to go to Canaan (Genesis 12:1-6). The obedience of Abraham to God’s call results from his faith in God. Abraham really believed not only that it was God calling him, but also that God would make good on his promises. Abraham did not know where he was going, and it was not as if he refused to look at the map and kept on going. There was no map, and there was no virtual tour of Canaan. He really did not know where he was going (Hebrews 11:8b). Not only that, but he, as well as his son Isaac and grandson Jacob, lived in tents as in a foreign country, and did not in his lifetime receive the fulfilment of God’s promises. What was Abraham waiting for? It was for “the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10b, NKJV). The city with foundations is a metaphor for heaven, or the heavenly Jerusalem. Indeed, Diaspora Jews of the first century A.D. wrote of Heaven as “the mother city” designed and built by God. Christians took up the same metaphor for heaven, and this is reflected in St. Augustine’s book The City of God. But Abraham did not sit and wait in Haran for this heavenly city to come, but by faith obeyed God and left Haran, left behind his relatives and extended family, and journeyed to Canaan. His perspective on God’s faithfulness to do what he had promised led not to inaction, but to obedience to God’s call to leave everything behind and go to a land he had never seen or known. If Abraham had relied on the fulfilment of God’s promises in his own lifetime, he would have been disappointed. It was his faith in God and his belief that there is an eternal city of God that inspired his earthly life and journey into Canaan, as well as his continuing sojourn in a tent in a foreign land. Many of the early colonists that settled in this country had a dream, that somehow here they would succeed in practicing their traditions of Christianity to such good effect that the governments of countries where they had previously been persecuted would sit up and take notice and imitate the good example they were setting. They were motivated by the dream of a perfect society where every Christian could practice his religion freely without interference or persecution from others.
It was not as if Abraham and the patriarchs tried to bring about this heavenly city by their own efforts, though. They simply looked forward to the heavenly city as the fulfilment of all God’s promises. They never allowed earthly goals and realities or their situations in this world to diminish their faith in God and in the heavenly city with firm foundations, designed and built by God.
SARAH’S EXAMPLE OF FAITH
Though in the Genesis record, Sarah is not described as having faith (Genesis 18:12-15), but even laughing within herself at the idea of having a child when she is so old, here it is recorded that by faith Sarah received the strength to conceive and bore a child though past the age of childbearing, since she judged God faithful who had given her this promise (Hebrews 11:11). Though Abraham was so old as to be described as “as good as dead” (Hebrews 11:12a, KJV), his descendants were innumerable.
THE MINDSET OF THE HEROES OF THE FAITH
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
(Hebrews 11:13, NKJV)
Referring to Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews depicts these heroes of the faith as having died in faith, not having received the promises, but seeing them in the distance and being assured of them, they embraced them, while regarding themselves as strangers and pilgrims on the earth. If Abraham and the patriarchs had been unhappy in the land to which God called them, they could have returned to their land of origin, but they did not. Instead, they showed that they were looking for a better homeland, a heavenly one. God, therefore, is not ashamed to be called their God for he has prepared the heavenly city for them, and for all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.
THE CITIZENSHIP OF HEAVEN
It is this citizenship of heaven that must be more important to us Christians than our earthly citizenship. We may be proud of our earthly citizenship, but we must bear in mind that our citizenship of heaven is eternal, and that God has prepared for all who love him many things beyond our understanding, too wonderful and beautiful for words. It is this joyful anticipation of our heavenly inheritance that must motivate our lives here as good citizens of the United States of America. For here on this earth, freedoms which are enjoyed now can easily be eroded by all sorts of insidious evils at work in society and government. In place of fear, let us be bold in our faith. Like the heroes of the faith and the first colonists who left everything behind in their homelands in the belief that God would give them new life and freedom in the United States, let us step out in faith!
 p. 288, Robert J. Morgan: Preacher’s Sourcebook of Creative Sermon Illustrations. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2007.