Chapter 11 of Hebrews is one of those familiar parts of the Bible. It has an almost musical repetition of the word 'faith' as it enumerates the great heroes of the Bible. As is always the case, it is probably helpful to see what is not there and to compare this list with similar lists in the Jewish writings (among many others; Sirach 44-49 is an extensive list, Wisdom 10 omits names but is similar). In the Jewish Annotated New Testament (NRSV, p421) they note the absence of priests and kings (except David in passing at the end) from the list as it reflects some "unusual choices." The reason seems to be a focus on characters who had a brush with death, had insight into the future and acted faithfully, and are alienated from their own generation. This is a helpful insight as it provides us with a key to understanding the situation of the church being addressed. They are feeling alienated and under threat. In our own times, it is especially helpful.
Faith is the substance (hypostatis) of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 1:1) gives us a key for understanding the faith of the many heroes listed. The word faith means both trusting and being faithful, it has, as in English, a connection to believing something (conviction) and acting on that belief (entrusting). As Hebrews repeats the "by faith" we see, over and over, the active engagement with God by those who received His gracious kindness. In the particular focus on Abraham today, we see summarized part of the key story of salvation. God's choice of this man, Abram, ends up for our benefit. All of us. Salvation motivated the act of God, not just a man who wanted an heir. The allusion to the "city of God" reminds us that our dissatisfaction with life (even the best of days) is a reflection of our eternal destiny. We are out of place, in a foreign land. As my dad always said, we were created to live in Eden and are not ever at home here. By faith Abraham obeyed, the active and submissive are combined in faith. God initiates (Creator/Savior) while we live out the demands of the covenant blessings.
The challenge is fidelity to an invisible God who has made unrealized promises is difficult. (see verse 13) They all died before the promise of Messiah was received, and we will most likely join them before the final consummation of judgment day. Faith is confident assurance in response to promises which are still in the future. No wonder so many lose their way, distracted by this city, here and now, rather than daring to "desire a better city" and hope for "a heavenly one" (even if we are laughed at as believing in an imaginary being). A city is prepared for us. We do not need to doubt that. We need to live today as sojourners waiting to arrive at our destination.
I think the author of Hebrews knew that we get discouraged, we are prone to disappointment and despair. As we remember the past heroes, it is best to think of them as people like us, rather than super powered. Being faithful is a call of all, not a select few. The excuse that "I am not a saint..." is actually a confession of sin; all of us are set apart to be holy. All. Hebrews reminds us to live with courage and intensity trusting God is keeping and will fully keep His promise.