Monday, January 23, 2017

January 22, 2017 Building Faith

Everyone has faith.  Everyone. 

Do you believe that?  Can you have faith in that statement?

Religious faith certainly defines the lives of many people, as it does for us, but for others it is, perhaps faith in another person, for some it might be money, for others a job, for others it might be science or technology or medicine, and for others, an institution such as government.  No one, however, is without faith in something.  Everyone has faith.

As we continue our theme of Building this week we come to the message Building Faith, and we are talking about our faith in God and how we can build that faith; how we can make that faith more authentic in our lives, and how we can live by that faith.

Our Scripture text for the morning is one of several that I like to turn to every so often.  I use some passages on more than one occasion because they are especially powerful and they are wells of inspiration and knowledge that are extra deep and we ought to draw from them often.  The passage for today is from Genesis 12:1-4, which contains the famous story of God’s call to Abram (we generally refer to him as Abraham, but his original name is Abram.  Abram means father, and Abraham means father of a multitude, signifying the role that Abram takes as the father of the Hebrew people).  When we talk about faith, Abram is the great Biblical archetype (an archetype being the first of a kind, and Abram is certainly the first of a kind when it comes to faith) who becomes to us an example.

In Romans chapter 4, Paul refers to Abraham as an example of faith, as one who against all hope, Abraham in hope believed (Romans 4:18).  I like the way Paul phrases that sentence, because faith can at times seem to be counterintuitive.  It doesn’t always make sense, and, at times, it seems to be asking us to do things that are at odds with our self-interest.  This was certainly the case with Abraham, as God asks him to leave your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you (Genesis 12:1).  Why would Abraham give up the security he enjoyed and the company of his family for an unknown destination and an unknown future?  On one hand, it doesn’t make any sense, but on the other hand, it makes all the sense in the world, because that is the nature of faith.  Faith presents to us, at times, a contradiction, because faith so often asks us to do what seems unreasonable, unwise, and uncertain.  But doing such things is a requirement of faith, because faith seldom works to its fullest capacity when we remain in comfort, security, and certainty.

Follow along as I read the text for this morning.

Genesis 12:1-4 –

1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran.

Of the many things Abraham did that serve as examples of faith, there are three in particular that I want to focus on this morning.

1.  Abraham Went.
What I find very interesting about Abraham’s call is that, as far as we know, he was just some guy living his life.  He could have been anyone.  We don’t know that there was anything particularly special about him, but he became not just special, but extraordinary, which tells us something important about God – God specializes in make the ordinary extraordinary, and that is especially true of people.  But Abraham would not have become extraordinary and he would not have been remembered by history if he had not gotten up and went, if he had not answered God’s call on his life.
In some ways, to use an analogy, worship is a classroom – a very important classroom – where we are inspired and encouraged and challenged.  It’s very easy to say, in here, a lot of things such as I love people.  All people.  But at some point, we have to leave the classroom and step out into reality and face those people, who are not always easy to love, and demonstrate the love we claim.  It doesn’t take very long, after walking out that front door, before our claims in here are put to the test.  At some point, we must move from the theoretical to the practical; from the laboratory to reality.

Faith, then, is not insular!  It does not move us into a safe bubble but out of the bubbles in which we like to live.  So, where might God be leading you to go?  What extraordinary things might he have in store for you?

2.  Abraham Advocated.
Now, I have to say that while Abraham did some extraordinary things, he was far from perfect.  He did some extraordinary things; but he also did some extraordinarily dumb things as well.  When he got things wrong, he really got them wrong, and some of Abraham’s mistakes reverberate across the millennia and continue to affect us today.  His decision to have a child, Ishmael, with Sarah’s servant Hagar, for instance, is part of the backdrop to the conflict in the Middle East.  Even though Abraham’s ill-fated decision took place millennia ago, the ramifications of it are still with us.

But when Abraham got them right, he really got them right.  And when he got things right it was because they were tied to his faith and trust in God.  One of the things Abraham got right was when he became a champion for others.  In chapter 18 of Genesis we find one of the most fascinating stories about Abraham.  In that story he pleads with God to spare Sodom.  If God were to find 50 people would he spare the city?  Yes, he would, for 50.  And the negotiating continues – 45, 40, 30, 20, and 10.
(16 When the men got up to leave, they looked down toward Sodom, and Abraham walked along with them to see them on their way.
17 Then the Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?
18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.
19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
20 Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous
21 that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”
22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord.
23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?
24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?
25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
26 The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
27 Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”  “If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”
29 Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”  He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”
30 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”  He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”
31 Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”  He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”
32 Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”  He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
33 When the Lord had finished speaking with Abraham, he left, and Abraham returned home.)

The lesson Abraham learns is that God’s work is to act redemptively on behalf of people.  Abraham needed to learn the necessity of taking up for people, and working for them and for their good, the lesson of advocating for people, and the lesson of allowing faith to move us into the lives of other people to work on their behalf.

Faith is personal, but it is not solitary.  Faith has a communal aspect. Faith, without that communal aspect, James reminds us, is not fully alive. 
(James 2:14-18 –
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.
16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?
17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.)
James says, in essence, that talk is not just cheap; talk is generally not worth much if it is not attached to something.  People want to see words demonstrated by action.  If we say for instance, that we love people, but we do nothing about their circumstances and do nothing to demonstrate that love, we have done little more than utter cheap and worthless words.
Jesus, in Matthew 25, also tells us about the importance of advocating on the behalf of others –
(Matthew 25:31-44 –
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne.
32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.
35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,
36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?
38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?
39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,
43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Faith is action, not just words. Martin Luther King, Jr. often spoke of what he called the beloved community.  I love the image of that phrase.  The church, the people of God, are called to become that beloved community, the community that will advocate on behalf of those who have no advocate, the place that will stand up for those who have no one to stand for them, and the place that will speak on behalf of those who have no voice.  To do this brings a much-needed authenticity to faith.

3.  Abraham Trusted.
One of my biggest issues with skeptics is the claim they often make that faith is “blind;” that is, it is without questions and doubts, but if you do have any questions and doubts they will claim you don’t really have faith.  Here is an important point, however – faith is not without questions and it is not without doubts.  Abraham had doubts and questions.  Sometimes, in our modern era, we put too much emphasis on answers, and the need for answers.  We are uncomfortable with questions and with mystery.  Perhaps that is one of the results of living in a technological and scientific age – we fall for the false premise that every answer not only has an answer, but must have an answer.  Having doubts and questions is not wrong.  Too many people – wherever they fall on the belief/unbelief spectrum – will say that doubt and questions are a sign that your faith is failing. I would say that having doubts and questions is the sign not of a struggling faith but of a healthy faith.

To use another analogy, people often say they will get married when they can afford it.  How much money do you have to have before you can afford to get married?  Many people, in fact, look so fondly on their early years of marriage – when they had nothing – as their favorite time in marriage!  Some people also say they will wait to have children until they can afford them.  Do you know when that day comes?  Never!  In the same way, you don’t need every question answered before you can have faith.  You don’t have to say, when I get all my questions answered I’ll have faith.

Now, allow me to add another point, and it is that faith is not the same as belief.  Faith and belief are two different things.  Belief is agreement of and ascent to a list of doctrines and dogmas.  That is not the same as faith. I read an interesting article in the New York Times recently that illustrated this point.  The article was written by Nicholas Kristoff and titled, Am I A Christian, Pastor Timothy Keller?  (Timothy Keller is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.  You can read the article at –  I wrote a response to Mr. Kristoff, though I’m sure I won’t hear back from him).

The difference between faith and belief can be explained in this way – belief agrees that love exists and is important to practice.  Belief says I believe in love.  I believe that it is patient, and kind, and all those other descriptive adjectives that are given in I Corinthians 13.  Faith, however, is living out that love according to the way it is described in I Corinthians 13.  Belief says I believe in trusting God and I believe that God asks us to forgive.  Faith is actually doing those things.

Belief is relatively easy; faith, on the other hand, is tough.  And perhaps that is why some corners of the church prefer to insist on belief much more than faith, because it is easier to sign off on a creed or statement of belief than it is to actually practice faith.  Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not in any way denigrating belief; I think there are some things that are very important to believe, but faith puts the hands and feet to our beliefs.

Let’s be like Abraham.  Let’s allow God to make our ordinary into extraordinary.  Let’s go, as Abraham did, where God leads us.  Let’s advocate on behalf of the people who need an advocate.  And let us, in all things, trust God as we live out our faith!

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