“But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6).*
n my final year at Helderberg College in South Africa I shared a small flat with a friend. One day, as I was studying, I suddenly caught, in my peripheral vision, a small shadow moving swiftly through our kitchen. I watched motionlessly . . . and then . . . ?I saw it: a mouse was living in the kitchen. I decided I needed a pro, an experienced hit man for my mouse problem. The couple in the next house owned two cats. I borrowed one of them. The cat’s assignment was clear: You are a cat, there is a mouse in my kitchen—kill it! I knew the mouse was under the fridge, so I took the cat and put it in front of the fridge. The cat stood there pretty disinterested. Well, perhaps it needs to see it, I thought, and with some effort managed to move the fridge to get the mouse out from under it.
Suddenly, the mouse shot out from under the fridge and into the next room—right in front of the cat. Nothing happened. To cut the story short: for an hour or so I moved every piece of furniture in that room so that the cat would see the mouse. Finally, the mouse fled under a fold of the carpet. I barricaded every possible escape route and took the cat, sat it on the floor, lifted the edge of the carpet, and said: “Monsieur, dinner is served!” The mouse looked at the cat, and the cat looked at the mouse. The cat wouldn’t even bother.
Mouse, Cats—and Grace
This is a sermon about proclaiming grace, and there are two lessons in that story. The first is: If you are an Advent?ist, but you don’t know what grace is, you are like that cat. It was a beautiful cat with good manners, but it didn’t do what a cat is supposed to do. It had no vision, no mission. And you might have guessed the second lesson: That very night the mouse experienced grace. I took it outside and let it go.
The scripture that we will study together this evening comes from Hebrews 11—the hall of fame of the faithful.
We All Want to Please God
The language and mode of thinking of Hebrews is far different from our way of thinking. Where I come from, people rarely speak of doing anything in order to please God. Don’t be misled; all of us who believe that He is (verse 6) want to somehow please God. But as Adventists we are steeped in the language of Paul and Luther. We don’t do things in order to please God because it smacks of legalism.
But biblically speaking, pleasing God and being rewarded is somehow built into us. It is a basic human desire to please God. As such there is nothing wrong with it. However, we often do not correctly understand what pleases God. In fact, many questions in our personal ethics, and many a skirmish in our churches, revolve around just this question.
There is a clear progression of thought in Hebrews 11. It starts out with a somewhat static definition of faith. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). This is true—and profound. However, it requires real-life illustrations. The biblical author begins to enumerate: Abel, Enoch, and we would all agree that the martyr and the saint are good choices to illustrate faith. But then the author pulls a surprise move on us. Abel is not an example of faith because he died. Enoch is not an example of faith because he was a saint. They had faith in God’s abundant grace. They realized that whatever the martyr could suffer and with whatever determination to please God the saint goes about living, the nonnegotiable condition to please God is faith in His grace. Without faith we are like that useless cat.
Pleasing Is No Means in Itself—Being Together Is
Have you ever wondered why we want to please God? Is it just because we want to get something from Him, or because it makes us feel better? Pleasing God is not a means in itself; pleasing has a direction. If we are ready to strip off our selfish motivations for pleasing God we will discover that what we desire most is to rest in His embrace. We want to hear God tell us: “I like you. I would like to spend eternity with you.” We want to please God because we yearn for words of grace.
You know what makes Hebrews 11 so special? It’s not the list. It’s not the fact of hearing again the stories of the heroes of faith. It’s because it tells us that by faith we too may enter that hall of fame; that He has achieved what we could have never managed. Grace is not a concept to be defined, but a name to be confessed: Jesus Christ—God with us.
Seeing Grace Where We Don’t Expect It
This is why the text speaks of God as a rewarder. When we think of a reward we think of benefits. When God thinks of a reward, He thinks of fellowship. God’s reward consists of helping us see grace where we don’t. In my ministry I discovered one thing: I am naturally blind to grace. The reward God gives us often consists of helping us see grace. This is why the text speaks about diligently seeking Him. Grace doesn’t come to us naturally. If we want to understand it, we have to look for it.
As a pastor I enjoy celebrating Communion with the sick and elderly. I always wanted to make this experience a solemn moment. I would open my Bible, and pray with the people. I even sang hymns with them. People were polite—but it did not always turn out to be a holy moment.
Micky is a 24-year-old woman who struggles with addictions and psychological trauma. I had baptized her some years ago. One day I realized that she had never had Communion. She can’t attend church because of her condition, so I offered to have Communion with her. I took bread and grape juice and went to her place. I wanted to make God’s grace palpable. Before we started, she said: “I have been reading the Bible with my neighbor, a single mother, just down the hallway. She has never seen a pastor. Would you mind her coming over and having Communion with us?” Five minutes later our group had grown: the Adventist pastor with his bread and juice; a 24-year-old woman treated miserably by life; a single mother living off welfare; her 2-year-old son; and a huge dog. The son was playing on the floor, interrupting us every other minute. The huge dog was relentlessly trying to jump onto my lap. The neighbor shot all the questions at me that someone has who has never seen a pastor. Then there was Dennis Meier, the pastor commissioned to have Communion with that group.
I tried in vain to create the appropriate atmosphere. The dog was almost eating me. The cell phone rang. The kid had a ball on the floor. I had to answer why God permits so much suffering in this world. Inside I complained, God, I can’t work like that! I can’t remember how I managed, but finally I had read from Scripture, prayed, given out bread and juice, said my farewells, and got into my car. As I drove off I felt like a failure. You were supposed to make them see the grace of God!
Then a short message from Micky arrived on my cell phone: “Thank you for that special moment with God. It meant so much to us.”
God was there with all His grace and I had failed to see it. I had just witnessed what Jesus did when He went into the homes of people. Normal, downtrodden, miserable homes—transformed by God’s grace. I had seen God at work. Without faith it is impossible to please God. There was faith and God was pleased.
If we want to proclaim grace we must ask God to open our eyes to see it. That is the biggest reward and challenge of being a church with a mission of grace.
*Bible texts in this message are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Dennis Meier is the senior pastor of the Grindelberg Church, in Hamburg, Germany.