The oak tree over our swing set is forty years old — taller than our maples, cedars, and even its pin oak siblings. Mr. Adams planted it when our neighborhood was still his field and my mom was a kid who ran through it.
Planting a tree is always an act of faith, but it’s also a selfless thing to do. You can’t help but think forty years down the line. I wonder if Mr. Adams knew we’d build a swing set under it; that Trent, Christophe, and I would tie ropes to the limbs and haul up buckets of our things; that Mom’s grandkids would now run to play around its big trunk. Maybe he knew, but probably he didn’t. He just trusted the earth with a seed, and forty years later, kids he never knew are playing in the branches.
There are a lot of people in Hebrews 11 who trusted God with the seeds he’d given them — people who waited longer than forty years to see a harvest. The seeds they planted weren’t so much oak trees as they were sequoias that took centuries to root and branch.
Hywel Jones calls Hebrews 11 “a record of what people did” because the verbs are active and the people are working:
By faith, Abel offered.
Abraham obeyed and left home.
Moses refused and fled Egyptian luxury.
Rahab hid spies.
Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, and put foreign armies to flight (see Heb. 11:32-34).
“Faith apart from works is dead,” says James, and his counter examples are Abraham and Rahab (James 2:21-26). Hebrews 11 shows us a faith that plants and waters and sweats and suffers and transplants if need be. But there’s something missing from the work and stories of these saints (Mr. Adams missed it, too):
Where’s the harvest? When do we read the end of the book, where all the hard, heavy work pays off?
“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised” (Heb. 11:39).
“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised” (Heb. 11:13).
They lived in faith, and they died in faith, and they never saw kids playing in the trees they planted. But that’s the thing about faith: it takes a shovel out to the field anyway.
God promised Abraham a shoreline of children, yet Abraham took his one grain of sand, Isaac, and just about threw him back into the sea, because he trusted God at his Word when he promised, “I have something better for you.”
Rahab wasn’t an Israelite, yet she hid strangers in her home because she believed the stories were true:
“And as soon as we heard it our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Josh. 2:11).
Though she had not seen him, she believed in him, and so God entrusted her – a prostitute – with a child who brought the Messiah one day closer. Rahab carried a seed, even though she’d never see the tree that would bloom and branch and shelter the birds of the air (Matt. 13:32).
Hebrews 11:37 lists those who “were stoned,” like Stephen. Rocks bruised him as he cried: “Lord do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). He fell into the dust and died, like a seed that falls into a dark hole. He never knew the man who held his clothes, who watched him collapse, who Jesus blindsided and healed, who wrote letters to the churches that sang with God’s truth. Stephen died at Saul’s hands, but he never met Paul.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
Faith is foresight. It’s the assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of what you can’t see. And in the meantime, it’s slow and steady work toward that end, called faithfulness. Before he preached his last (and possibly first) sermon in Acts 7, Stephen served the widows’ tables in Acts 6. Before he died in faith, he lived in faith, because Jesus was just as worthy of his serving food and he was of his stoning.
This is what Hebrews 11 tells us about faith: whether you die by it (you get pierced or beaten) or you live by it (you go to work or feed your kids), the reason and reward for faith never changes:
“[Look] to Jesus,” Hebrews 12:2 commands, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross.”
Jesus isn’t one more saint on the list (though he’s surely an example of joyful endurance in suffering). Jesus is the founder, perfector, and prize on the other side of our longsuffering faith. His death and life are the only reasons Abraham and Rahab and Stephen and every other saint could ever die and live again. Their not-receiving-what-was-promised ended with God providing “something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect” (Heb. 11:40, emphasis added).
And so we continue the story, with Jesus as our “something better.” He’s worth living and dying for, because today’s bit of faithfulness is a seed in a hole — the first sequoia in a forest we just can’t see yet.
“So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it…
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.”
– Wendell Berry