Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Journey of Faith

Sermon for Proper 14, Year C
Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

Sometimes it seems that few words have come to mean so many different things to so many different people as the word “faith.” We hear this word used all the time. Preachers, politicians, and pop stars can’t seem to get enough of it. But what does it mean?

For some, faith is exclusively about “belief.” It’s primarily a matter of the mind. It’s about giving intellectual assent to a set of propositions about God and the world.

Others talk about faith as though it has more to do with the heart than the head. For them, faith is a kind of feeling, a warm reassurance that, in spite of evidence to the contrary, everything’s alright in the world.

Others appeal to “faith” as a way to identify with those who hold the same political and moral values. And so talking about “faith” is code language for identifying with those who share the same ideals and lifestyle preferences. And perhaps it’s also a way to earn our vote.

There’s some truth in each of these ways of using the language of “faith.” But from a biblical perspective, no one of these uses is really adequate.

The letter to the Hebrews gives a helpful and famous definition of faith “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Hebrews underscores the future-oriented character of faith. Faith is about hope, and hope always looks to the future for its fulfillment. But fulfillment of what?

Here’s where Hebrews invokes an impressive roster of predecessors. These forebears in faith received promises from God that made them discontent with life as they knew it. These promises inspired them to take great risks in their search for abundant life in communion with God even when everything in their experience cried out that such a life can never be found. This is faith, not as intellectual belief, warm fuzzy feelings, or club membership. This is faith as trust in God: trust in God’s promises made in the past and trust that God will fulfill those promises in the future. And so Biblical faith lives in the tensions between past promises and future fulfillment.

There’s no better exemplar of this biblical understanding of faith than Abraham. You’ll recall that on several occasions, God promises to make Abraham’s descendants as plentiful as the stars in the sky and as numerous as the sand on the seashore. God promises to make Abraham’s descendants a great nation, a nation through which all the peoples of the earth will be blessed. All Abraham has to do is leave his country and kindred – everything and everyone he’s ever known – and head out for the land of Canaan.

Incredibly, Abraham obeys God. As Hebrews puts it, Abraham “set out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). It was a daring and courageous act of trust in God’s promises.

But there was a problem. Abraham and his wife Sarah were in their 70s with no children. How, then, could God’s promise to Abraham possibly be fulfilled?

In the rest of the story, we find out that God wasn’t kidding when he told Abraham and Sarah that nothing is too hard for the Lord (cf. Genesis 18:14). If God can create everything that is out of nothing, then it’s no problem for God to insure that Sarah gets pregnant and gives birth to a son named Isaac. That much of God’s promise comes true.

But there’s a deeper point made in the letter to the Hebrews that we don’t find in the book of Genesis. While Abraham and Sarah see the partial fulfillment of God’s promises, they never experience the final consummation. They never get to see their descendants made into a covenant people when Moses receives the Law from God on Mount Sinai. They don’t get to see Israel as a regional superpower under the leadership of kings like David and Solomon. They don’t get to experience God’s triumph over evil in the liberation of the Israelites from slavery and the return of the exiles from Babylon.

To this very day, God’s promises to Abraham still await final fulfillment. For even though Israel has been a state since 1948, the ensuing years have proven that far from being received as a blessing, Israel’s enemies abound and continue plotting her violent destruction. And to be fair, just as in the days of the great prophets, the modern state of Israel has not always acted in ways that live up to the ethical ideals of the Jewish faith.

What does it take to survive – much less to flourish – under such conditions? What does it take to come to terms with the tensions and ambiguities and uncertainties of living between past promises and future fulfillment?

It sounds almost trite to say that it takes faith. But that is the answer.

It takes faith, not merely faith as a mental exercise or the indulgence of warm, fuzzy feelings. No, living into our identity as God’s people in a hostile world and being willing to repent when we get it wrong takes a kind of faith that can only be described as radical trust. It’s trusting in a God who – despite all appearances to the contrary – remains faithful to the covenant promises.

It’s the kind of faith that keeps persons diagnosed with cancer and other diseases in the fight for their lives. It’s the kind of faith that pulls a family closer together in the wake of an unexpected loss. It’s the kind of faith that motivates a spouse to seek help for a struggling marriage. It’s the kind of faith that keeps us sharing our time, talents, and treasure in Church whose future in the world-wide Communion remains uncertain. It’s the kind of faith that keeps us committed to the path of peace even in a time of war. It’s the kind of faith we see in these words scrawled on a cellar wall in Cologne, Germany by Jews hiding from the Nazis:

I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.

I believe in love even when I do not feel it.

I believe in God even when God is silent.

In so many ways, each of our life stories is similar to Abraham’s story. We, too, are called by God to take the journey of a lifetime. Baptized into Christ, we set out on the journey of leaving behind all that binds us to the powers of fear, sin, sickness, and death. We’re headed for what Hebrews calls the “better country” – God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven (11:16). It’s a country where God’s promises to eradicate pain, grief, and death find their final consummation (cf. Rev. 21:1-4).

At many points along the way, we will feel like Abraham. We won’t really know where we’re going or how we’re going to get there. Sometimes we won’t be able to see the forest of God’s ultimate purposes for the trees of our temporary troubles. We may even question why we ever set out on this journey of faith to begin with.

But no matter where we find ourselves along the way, God’s promises still stand.

The God who speaks to Israel through the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” continues to love us (Jeremiah 31:3). God proves that this love includes not just Israel but the whole world by giving His only Son to die so that we may live (cf. John 3:16). And so the God who promises Abraham a future promises one to us, as well.

As much as we may sometimes feel like we don’t where we’re going or how to overcome our problems, our faith assures us that Jesus Christ is the Way. Jesus is the Way to the Truth. And Jesus is the Way to the Life.

It's true that we don’t know when we’ll reach our destination in the coming kingdom of God. But we do know what Jesus says to reassure us: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). And coming from Jesus, we know that those are words we can trust.

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