By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flowing, and evens chairs and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Few, if any, of us plan to come to church in order to be astonished. Sure, we might be moved to tears or clapping by a song, there might be a line in a prayer that lingers in our hearts, we might ooh and ahh over the wayward comment of a kid during the children’s message. We might even say “amen” out loud in the midst of a sermon.
Miracles do happen after all.
No thank you.
We don’t have time for astonishment in our manicured machinations on Sunday morning. We like our church, just like we like our God, within our control. We appreciate boundaries and expectations and predicability.
And yet, we come to church today, we gather before the throne of God, we open up and the good book, and what do we find?
“By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.”
How dare the writer of Hebrews! We’ve got the young, and the restless, present in worship. This isn’t the place for such vulgarities!
Other translations soften the blow by calling Rahab a harlot, which is what my grandmother would call her. Whereas other translations up the ante by calling her a, well, I can’t even bring myself to say that word.
But there it is. Clear as day in the strange new world of the Bible: Rahab the prostitute and her faith.
Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, they’re all good and fine, we can handle their stories and we can even understand their faith.
Do you know her story?
Listen: Joshua has guided the people Israel to the edge of the Promised Land. He sends two spies into occupied territory to assess the situation. They approach Jericho, big city, and they wind up, of all places, at Rahab’s in the red light district.
I wonder why they went there…
Anyway, the king receives word that foreign spies have infiltrated his domain, and he dispatches some rough and tough foot soldiers to weed them out. They knock on Rahab’s door, she knows everyone after all, and she lies right to their faces.
“Sure,” she says, “I saw some fellas like you’re describing, but they paid their tabs and left.”
Meanwhile, our little hardworking harlot has actually hidden the spies within the thatch of her roof. She returns to them and says, “I’ve heard of your God and I would appreciate a little mercy begin flung my way when the walls come down.”
She hangs a scarlet thread from her window as a reminder to the spies and their people and, sure enough, when Joshua and the army of God enter Jericho, the red threaded house in the red light district is the only one spared in the entire city.
So, to be clear, Rahab is a prostitute, a lair, and a traitor to her own people.
And the writer of Hebrews includes her in the faith hall of fame!
It’s downright astonishing!
But maybe it isn’t. At least, not really. Because if you spend even the slightest among of time in the strange new world of the Bible you quickly discover that Rahab’s story isn’t unique. Noah gets naked, Abraham abandons, Moses murders, David deceives, Peter perjures, on and on and on.
Apparently, faith is the recognition, oddly enough, that no matter what we’ve done or left undone in the past, God can still use us now and in the future.
The writer of Hebrews is calling to our attention the astonishing fact that if someone like Rahab can be used for the purposes of the Kingdom, just imagine what God can do with someone like you, or even like me.
But then everything shifts. We read of these heroes from the faith, some of whom don’t really seem like heroes in the first place, we read about the abject terror and suffering that the faithful experienced in their response to God, we read of extremely serious and staggering details of the cost of discipleship and and then they all vanish into the great cloud of witness.
We are addressed. Across the great centuries of the church, the writer address us. You and me.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Their stories come to fruition in us. We are the fruit of the seeds planted long ago.
Look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who mounted the hard wood of the cross on our behalf, and who now rules at the right hand of God.
In short: you and me, we’re not alone.
We are bound to those from the past, those in the present, and those in the future in ways we can scarcely imagine. We are caught up in the triumph of the Trinity and are no longer defined by our sins and our shortcomings, but only by the grace and peace made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ.
All these verses in Hebrews, the faith hall of fame, they ring out for everyone to hear: our faith is not in us.
What rotten luck it would be if our faith was in us.
Have you watched the news recently? Paul is right, none of us is righteous, no, not one.
We are not the pioneers and perfecters of the faith. Jesus is.
And what wondrous Good News it is to hear of Jesus as our pioneer and perfecter. Particularly at a time when we spend most of our time thinking about, talking about, going backward.
Jesus is ahead of us, beckoning us into a new and astonishing reality.
What we might call, the church of tomorrow.
Christianity, contrary to how we might understand it, isn’t actually a religion. Religions are systems of beliefs and rituals that get the divine to do something for us. Whereas Christianity is the story of the God who does the unimaginable for us without us having to do anything in return.
The Lord is not waiting with arms crossed until we get our acts together. Instead, God condescends to our miserable estate and gathers us together and says, “follow me.”
To be the church in the world today is a strange endeavor. If we find ourselves concerned only with matters of life after death, or if we are consumed only by thoughts of holy figures and sacred rituals, we are not the church. We may be and do those things, but to be the church means being part of an alternative way of being in the world right now.
Put simply: we’re different.
We’re different in terms of space because we are geared in an outward matter. We are different in terms of story because we understand who we are not as something we earn or achieve, but instead a gift received. And we are different in terms of time because we believe God’s future is already overlapping with the present.
We are people who have received new pasts, in which our faults and failures no longer define who we are, and we have receive new future in which impossible possibilities rain down for nothing.
We are different. We are like Rahab: with the tiniest pinch of faith, we step into a future, God’s future, and everything is changed.
It’s too easy, at times, to lose sight of how weird it is to be part of the church. For many years we have endeavored to appear as appealing as possible to those outside. Whereas the real test of whether or not the church is the church is if we are sufficiently unacceptable to the world.
We are not yet another club or social gathering that provides a needed distraction from all that is wrong in the world.
We are the body of Christ for the world – we model God’s future in the present.
We live, oddly enough, by grace. We practice trust and honesty and forgiveness in the midst of a time in which those things sound like fairytales.
The church is God’s parable for the world.
We are the wild and weird story for a time and place that is desperate for a new narrative, albeit one that leaves people scratching their heads.
The kingdom of God is like a woman walking down the hallway at the hospital in the middle of the night, having just received word that her husband needs emergency surgery in order to survive. And as she walks, all alone, and the terror of the moment starts to sink in, she steps into the waiting room with nothing but fear, until she realizes the room is full to brim with the people from church who have come out in the middle of the night, simply to make sure she knows she’s not alone.
The kingdom of God is like a parent in the midst of Vacation Bible School who approaches a certain bald and bearded pastor, incredulous that the church would be willing not only to watch her children for a week, but that we would also love them, feed them, and teach them about Jesus for free.
The kingdom of God is like the man who shuffled down the center aisle last week, and approached the aforementioned pastor, with tears streaming down his face and his hands outstretched for the gifts of God. The same man who, when the pastor approached him after worship to make sure he was okay, declared, “Tears of joy. They were tears of joy!”
I don’t know if you knew what you were getting into when you walked into the church. Whether you’ve been here for decades or this is your first Sunday. The truth is, none of us really knows what’s in store once we hear the call of God.
The Gospels make it wonderfully clear that the disciples had not the foggiest idea of what was going to happen next. With a simple, “follow me” Jesus invites ordinary, if not awful, people to come out and be part of an adventure, a journey, that astonishes at every turn.
You and me, we’re not alone. We are all surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, people like Rahab, who brought us to where we are right now. And because we are caught up in their story, because it is being perfected in us, we can do wild and wonderful things, we can cast away the works of darkness, we can be the place where loneliness is eradicated, we can befriend the friendless and love the loveless, we can do all these things because the grace of Jesus Christ really is the difference that makes all the difference.
Welcome to the church of tomorrow – it’s astonishing. Amen.