Questions about Faith Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40 Dr. Christopher C. F. Chapman First Baptist Church, Raleigh August 7, 2016

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1 Questions about Faith Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40 Dr. Christopher C. F. Chapman First Baptist Church, Raleigh August 7, 2016 There is a common faith story that goes something like this. I was in a tough place. It seemed like there was no way out. Maybe the feared diagnosis was confirmed, maybe I faced an impossible challenge at work, maybe I was in a dangerous situation. But though I was consumed by fear, I put my trust in God, I prayed, and everything worked out O.K. Thanks be to God! So, the lesson is just have faith when times get hard, let go and let God, and everything will be alright. Many of us have had experiences like this. They can be defining for us and inspiring to others which is why many such stories have been shared in worship over the years as a part of various emphases. I do not mean to disparage them in any way. The Prayer of Jabez movement, based upon 1 Chronicles 4:10 and pushed forward by Bruce Wilkinson s book, has its place. Faith involves trust in God and this basic trust can lead to many good things. But is it really this simple - pray and I get what I want? Is this what faith is all about? And does this mean that, if I do not get what I want healing for my sickness, the new and better job, a way home to safety then my faith is somehow inadequate? In response to the first question, I would say - yes and no... There is a simplicity to faith, at least faith in God, which is what I am talking about. Faith is about a basic trust in God no matter what; a basic belief in God s goodness; a simple confidence in God even when there seems to be no concrete evidence for why we should have confidence. This is the kind of faith Abram reveals in the reading from Genesis. Earlier in the Genesis narrative (12:1-4f), God tells Abram to leave his homeland with the promise that God will make a great nation of him. There is no proof that God will do this, just a promise, but Abram trusts God, and so he goes. 1

2 Now Abram begins to wonder about this promise because he doesn t have a single rightful heir. How can he become the father of a great nation when he doesn t have a single child? God assures him that the promise is still good and asks Abram to count the stars in the heavens - stars God has made, by the way - and trust that he will have an heir and eventually through him give birth to a nation. Again, amazingly, even though here is no hard evidence, no real proof, Abram believes, he trusts God, he has faith. And because he does, the text says the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. Abram is praised because he trusts in God without any real proof that God will do what God promises to do. This is what the author of Hebrews says faith is all about. It is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. And he goes on to name a number of heroes of faith, like Abram or Abraham, as he comes to be known, because they reveal this kind of faith. Even Jesus, in the reading from Luke, speaks of faith in this way. He tells his followers to have no fear in the face of present threats because God will give them the kingdom. It is a future-oriented promise designed to free them from worry about where their next meal is coming from or how they might escape the dangers of Pharisees and Romans. In all of these texts and many more, faith is about something very simple and straightforward, placing trust in God no matter what. I think of the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy has to pass a third and final test to get to the Holy Grail and have a chance to save his father. He stands at what appears to be the end of the trail though a mountain. He sees the opening where the Grail is, but there is a deep canyon between him and the opening. There is no bridge in sight and it is too far to jump. His clue to moving forward is, Only in the leap from the Lion s Head will he prove his worth. He can t leap that far, but what is required is a leap of faith, not Olympic jumping ability. And so, he takes a step out, and as he does, as he throws all of his weight forward, risking a sudden fall to death, a bridge appears beneath him, and he walks across to the other side. This is what faith is, it is about a basic act of trust without any proof. It is a very simple thing 2

3 Except when it isn t That is, Abram questions God in our reading from Genesis 15 and even after this reading. He trusts in God, or at least wants to, but the more time passes without a child being born, the more he wonders whether he can trust God s promises. Among other things, this story makes clear the reality that the presence of faith does not mean the absence of questions. Furthermore, while we know that Abraham eventually has a child with Sarah, Isaac is his name, he does not live to see the complete fulfillment of God s promise the birth of a nation. In fact, the author of Hebrews says that all of these died in faith without having received the promises That is, they had faith, even amidst their questions and doubts, and they glimpsed a foretaste of what they longed for and were promised, but they did not experience the fulfillment of their hope. So, there is no simple formula here, like have faith and you will get what you want. Faith is required of us, but it is no guarantee of any specific outcome. But this does raise a question. Which is the greater faith faith that presumes a guaranteed outcome or faith that trusts in God even when we do not get what we want? I think of many people I have known over the years who have revealed this latter kind of faith, people who prayed for a miracle they did not receive, people who did not get their dream job, people who remained stuck in some miserable situation, and yet never gave up on their belief in the goodness of God. Job was like this in his suffering, Jesus too as he prayed in the Garden for another way. The faith of the richly blessed can be a source of encouragement and inspiration, but the faith of those who suffer much and yet still refuse to give up hope and trust can be a source of even greater encouragement and inspiration. Consider the story behind the hymn of devotion we have sung today, Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus. It sounds like the kind of hymn that could have been written by someone who had only good experiences in trusting God, but the author, Louisa M. R. Stead, wrote this hymn after she lost her beloved husband in a tragic accident. She was born in Dover, England but came to America when she was 21. She became a Christian at an early age and felt a call to mission 3

4 service, but because of frail health, had to postpone her calling. In 1875, she married Stead and they had a daughter named Lily. While they were on a picnic, her husband drowned in an attempt to save a drowning boy. Left to fend for herself and her daughter, rather than getting stuck in anger and giving up on faith, Louisa deepened her trust in God and wrote this hymn as a kind testimony. She and her daughter eventually went to South Africa and served as missionaries for many years. Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, just to take him at his word How do you respond to the death of a spouse with these words? Only by faith, a deep trust in God that is not dependent on the details of life. So, the answer to our first question is complicated. Is faith really so simple as many make it out to be? Yes and no What is required of us complete trust in God is pretty simple and straightforward, though not easy but where this trust leads is anything but simple. But what about the second question is this what faith is about, trusting in God so that we can get what we want? No. Faith is not a quid pro quo arrangement wherein we do something for God believe, have faith, have trust, obey certain rules so that God will do something good for us answer our prayers, give us what we want, keep us safe, make us rich, preserve our health. That s actually the definition of magic, manipulating the gods to get what we want, as opposed to faith which is trusting God so that we can give God what God wants. But not only is this not what faith is; this also begins with a false premise the idea that we are on a level playing field with God, or to put it another way, the score between us is even. The reality is that we are already in debt up to our ears. God has given us life and everything else that matters. In Christian faith, we say that we are saved by grace, that Christ died for us while were sinners, but the truth is every covenant in the Bible is a covenant of grace. God makes a covenant with Abram before he demonstrates any faithfulness. God delivers the people from bondage in Egypt before the people pledge to follow any commandments. So, to begin with the assumption that, if we do something for God, God owes us something in return is bad theological accounting. God doesn t owe us anything. 4

5 I think of some community leaders in a part of Kenya near the border with Somalia I met while working with CBF missionaries Sam and Melody Harrell. The Harrells were building Integrated Child Development Centers in the most remote part of each Kenyan province. The centers would provide education, healthcare, agricultural and micro industry development. The goal was to use partnerships to begin each ICDC, but for each community eventually to take ownership. So, from the beginning Sam insisted that each community be invested in the work in terms of labor and money or something tangible. The work was being done with them, not for them, and the Harrells and other partners, were investing a great deal. It just made sense and each community got it, but it took a while in this community. The Somali-Kenyans are like the Forengi of the Star Trek world, they are traders, wheeler-dealers. When Sam asked them to contribute gravel and concrete for the foundation, they wanted something in return. Something in return? They were getting everything else! But they didn t see it that way. Sam stood his ground, but in a savvy way. He agreed to make purchases from businesses the leaders wanted to use and their need was accommodated. It was a fascinating experience and the center, like the others, was built, and many children are benefitting. But something in return? How could they not realize what they were receiving already? How can we not realize what God has given us already, starting with life itself and the people who matter most to us, every ability we have and every opportunity in life, not to mention what Jesus did in entering this world, showing us how to live, dying on a cross for us and then being raised to give us hope for eternal life. Faith is about trusting in God, no matter what. Sometimes we get what we want, what we pray for, and sometimes we do not, but given what we have already received, we can t really complain. Abram doesn t live to see the nation of Israel built, but he sees enough, he experiences plenty of blessings. So do we. Which brings us to the third and final question when things do not go our way, does this mean that our faith is somehow inadequate? Well, is this Job s problem? Is this why he suffers so? Is this Jesus 5

6 problem? Is this why he dies on a cross? Of course not, but how often people assume that when they suffer, they have done something wrong and thus God is either punishing them or refusing to bless them! To be clear, sometimes we make poor decisions and pay the price for them, but these are natural consequences, like gravity pulling us to the ground after a fall; not a loving God reaching down to zap us. God does not do this nor does God withhold a blessing because we don t pray just the right words in just the right way with just the right faith. One person prays and a loved one gets well. Another prays and a loved one does not. Does this mean that one person has greater faith than the other? I m not sure what kind of God would work that way. Prayer doesn t work that mechanically, there are no guarantees for specific outcomes, there are things we don t understand, which causes some to ask what is the point? If we don t get what we want, no matter how great our faith, why bother? There are a number of ways to answer this question. We have already been blessed in ways too numerous to count. In prayer, we have God s companionship, which may be the greatest blessing of all. So, even if we do not get a specific outcome, we get God, which is pretty good. But the other thing faith offers is something more than this life. When Jesus tells his followers not to fear, not to worry about possessions, but to store up treasure in heaven, what he means is that while there are no guarantees in this life, there is more than this life, and we can trust God to care for us in eternity. In the film The Mission some priests give witness to the Gospel in a mountain community in 18 th -century South America and try to deliver the native people from slavery. Those who are invested in the slave trade, including a couple of nations, and the established church, which will not stand up to these nations, are not thrilled. When the priests refuse to change their course, they are attacked, but still they will not give up their faith even when their lives are threatened. From where does this courage come? From a deep trust in God no matter how dangerous the path and no matter what the outcome, and from the conviction that this life is not all there is. They die in the end, but this is not evidence of their lack of faith. Quite the contrary! 6

7 Near the end of the Gospel according to John (20:29), the resurrected Jesus says to Thomas, Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. I imagine him saying something similar to many who hold on to faith in the midst of struggle. Do some have faith because they have been delivered from every hardship? Well and good But blessed are those who have not been delivered and yet still believe. Their treasure is in heaven and nothing can take that away. 7

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