August 14, 2016
Last week we were blessed to hear a sermon by a seminary student, our own Amy Levinski who shared a message on faith, based on the eleventh chapter of Hebrews. Particularly, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That is verse one in chapter eleven. We read today the end of the chapter and the start of the next. In between is a long list of Old Testament heroes who are held up as examples of faith. The chapter has been called the Hall of Fame of Saints as it summarizes the lives of the greatest Old Testament people. Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob,Moses, Rahab... and our reading joins the people passing through the Red Sea escaping the slavery of Egypt.
The interesting thing about everyone on this list, they are praised for their faith but in every instance that faith was shown by their actions in obedience to God.
The pendulum of understanding in the church has often swung too far one way or the other on the scale of faith alone verses actions. Can we have faith that is not shown in action? James notably wrote in his epistle, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” And yet we know that we are saved by faith and not by works. It is a sticky question that we have struggled with for 2000 years!
This morning, I'm not going to sort that all out, it is for us each to struggle with as we grow in faith. Works should grow out of our appreciation for the gift of grace we have each received from the Lord. But what I want to start with today, what happens when our world is not all peaches and cream? Where does faith come when our life is falling apart?
I want to jump back into our Hebrews reading, “Others were tortured, refusing to accept release.... Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains 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--. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” They are here commended for their faith and also noted for the great suffering they faced. Faith and comfort do not necessarily go together. And how many have turned away from God because life got hard and they thought God owed them better? One of the first notes I wrote as I started work on this sermon was this, “Faith cannot depend on circumstances!” I get that from the passages I just read, but look at today's gospel. Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."
This is not what we like to hear. But understand that faith is not a “get out of jail free” card. Faith is trusting God even when our circumstances are not good. Faith is looking beyond the immediate to God's timing. Faith is assurance that our troubles are not the final story, the conviction that God is working things together for good.
As Amy said last week, we sometimes make our Christian faith equivalent to our wishes. That's not what she said but how I heard it. She made clear that faith is an individual understanding. You have to work out your understanding. Paul wrote this, “ work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;” (Phil. 2: 12) It doesn't mean we have the power to work for our own salvation, but that we don't stand still in our faith, we grow, we study, we learn, we question, we find answers. In the end, the Christian faith is about trusting that God is good and that God moves in hearts of people and that when we seek to serve God, God walks with us.
But I think the church has at times painted a picture of faith as a simply belief. We picture a holy person sitting by themselves simply resting in God's presence. Everything peaceful and quiet and good. But what happens to that picture of faith when the rains come and the roof leaks and the basement floods? Where is faith when a house is divided mother against daughter? What happens to faith when we “suffer mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment?” No, we cannot rely on our circumstances to determine if we believe in God's good grace. Max Lucado wrote, “the rubber of faith meets the road of reality under hardship....the trueness of one's belief is revealed in pain. Faith is at its best, not in a three piece suit on Sunday morning...but at a hospital bedside, cancer ward and cemetery.” There is a tendency, especially on media driven sources, to make faith a guarantee that everything will go the way you want it. “Name it and claim it” is one phrase used. The prosperity gospel says that our faith will lead us to wealth and health. But really, look around. We are a family of faith and every person here has had struggles, troubles, doubts and trials. Faith is not about trusting God only when things are going our way, but trusting God through the valleys and the dark times. That reading from Hebrews listed all those Old Testament heroes, but also pointed out, “though they were commended for their faith, (they) did not receive what was promised.” But we have. The Messiah has come. The promise proclaimed throughout the Hebrew scriptures has been fulfilled and by faith we are saved through the grace of the Lord.
It is always a struggle to find an illustration that works in a sermon. Michael supplied one as we visited after Session Tuesday night. Did you all know that Michael and Rhonda and Sierra went sky diving on their vacation to California? They did a tandem jump which means they were each connected to an experienced diver and he/she would take care of them on the way down. I asked Michael if it wasn't a bit scary? He said no...well, maybe taking that final step out of the plane was tough. That is an illustration of faith. Stepping out of an airplane, putting your trust in your partner and your parachute. There is no sky diving without stepping out of that plane in faith. There is not relationship with Jesus Christ without stepping out in faith and saying, “Yes, I believe and I will follow you as Lord and Savior”. And that sounds easy, but it means following the leading of Jesus in every area of our lives. And it especially means living for others because that was what the life of Jesus was all about. Amy said it this way, “This man rejected religious and social norms and openly invited everyone into relationship. He opened relationship with God to those that his own religion considered untouchable. Jesus’ love and acceptance of the leper, the outcast, women, children, servants, Gentiles, (and) Samaritans confused those that understood right relationship as a purity law. Jesus reframed right relationship as loving kindness, respecting the body and acceptance of the person. And it is our faith that requires us to respond like Christ to each and every single person we came in contact with.” That's not just scary, that hard.
Continuing with Michael's experience, he explained that the free fall was loud and hard to control and very, very wind blown. And our stepping out in faith can be like that. Hard to control, topsy-turvy, out of control, and just plain overwhelming. But then the chute was pulled and things became perfectly quiet and peaceful. Their vision cleared and the view was beautiful. They floated comfortably down in a peaceful drift. And that is perhaps more like what our vision of the faith life could look like. It's like this banner over in the choir loft...be still and know I am God...peaceful, quiet, just you and God. And often that is what our faith life looks like, but not always.
See, faith is all of these things. It is hard and scary and peaceful and joyful and topsy-turvy and beautiful. But it does take that step...out of the airplane, out of our comfort zone, the steps of following Jesus.
A final illustration: There was a man who got lost in the desert. After wandering around for a long time his throat became very dry, about that time he saw a little shack in the distance. He made his way over to the shack. He rested a bit in the shade of the building when he notice a water pump a short distance from the house. He stumbled over to it, grabbed the handle and began to pump...nothing came out. Then he noticed there was a small jug of water and a note. The note read: “Pour all the water into the top of the pump to prime it, if you do this you will get all the water you need”.
Now the man had a choice to make, if he trusted the note and poured the water in and it worked he would have all the water he needed. If it didn't work he would still be thirsty and he might die. Or he could choose to drink the water in the jug and get immediate satisfaction. After all, the pump was old and it might not work . After thinking about it the man decided to put his faith in the words of that note. He poured the entire jug into the pump and began to pump. Squeak, squeak, squeak. Still, nothing came out and he was getting a little scared but he kept going and water started coming out. So much water came out he drank all he wanted and filled all the containers he could find.
Finally, he refilled the jug for the next traveler. He filled it to the top, popped the cork back in and added this little note, “Have faith, it really works!”
The man would have died without putting his faith into action and pouring out the water. Michael and his family wouldn't have experienced the thrill of sky diving without stepping out that open plane door. We will not experience the comfort and joys and peace that faith in our Lord brings unless we actually step out in faith. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Live out the faith he showed, loving and befriending others. Trust in the words of the Lord for salvation, for peace, for joy.
Faith is...every part of our lives. It isn't just church on Sunday morning or times when we pray. It isn't just the peace of worship or the grief of a funeral. It isn't just being still and knowing the presence of God or times when we lash out at God in anger. It is all of these things and everything else. It is life... lived in the knowledge and presence of Jesus Christ. Our epistle lesson ends with these words of Paul, “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.” Run the race, look to Jesus. Action words meaning we are not just sitting on our hands and saying we have faith. We are out on the race track, out in the world looking to Jesus so we know how to love our neighbor as Jesus loved the people in his day and loves us today. Faith calls us to action. We gather here to grow in faith and to seek ways to touch the world for God. May we step out from here in faith and look to Jesus as we live out our faith in the joy and the love of Christ. Amen.
Hymn: Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine 341 PH