Monday, August 12, 2013

Sermon on Genesis 15:1-6 and Hebrews 11:1-16, for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, "What faith is and isn't"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The strong theme that runs through all three of our readings today is faith, and we’ll look today especially at Genesis 15 and Hebrews 11 (sometimes called the great faith chapter), to better understand what faith is and isn’t. We’ll see what characteristics attend faith, and also consider those characteristics that are contrary to faith. And, most importantly, find how God supplies and strengthens our faith, as He did for the saints of old.
Hebrews 11:1 begins with the beautiful definition, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” These first two qualities of faith—assurance and conviction—quickly show us what the contrasting qualities to faith must be—doubt and uncertainty. That is to say that faith is confident and sure, it is not wavering and doubtful. It is confident and sure because it builds on the rock of our confidence—Jesus’ Christ and His Word. Yet every Christian will share that they’ve had doubts or wrestlings, and times when they wavered. These are most certainly not of faith—but do they mean that one is not a Christian?
On the night of His last supper, Jesus prayed for Peter saying, “Simon, Simon, behold Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Jesus saw that His disciple was going to come to a crisis of faith, but He would pray for Simon Peter that his faith would not fail. Jesus’ Word to Peter, and His own prayer, bolstered Peter’s faith through a crisis. After the crisis was past, Peter was to strengthen others. In the same way, we experience trials and crises of faith, but we listen to God’s Word, we pray, we pray for each other, and the Holy Spirit Himself intercedes for us. While doubts and anxieties and worries are certainly not of faith, God’s Word and promises speak faith into our hearts, to give us the confidence and assurance of faith. And prayer brings us to commit our will to God’s will.
This very thing happened to Abraham and Sarah when God renewed His promise to them that He would make Abraham into a great nation, and to be a blessing. Many years had passed since Abraham first heard the promise, and they had already been old and childless, and it seemed even more doubtful that they could have children in their advanced age. But God spoke His Word to Abraham—God’s uniquely powerful, creative, life and faith-giving Word—saying “Look toward heaven, and number the stars if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be.” God’s Word is not “fluff” or mere inspirational speech, but it’s the very creative Word that calls things into existence, and creates faith itself. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” Romans 10:17 says.
And so Abraham heard God’s Word and renewed promise and he believed. God credited Abraham’s faith as righteousness. Hearing God’s Word, Abraham was granted certainty—assurance—that is a hallmark of faith. He knew, without yet seeing how, that God would deliver on His promise to give them a child. Hebrews 11 tells us by faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past age, since she considered Him faithful who had promised.
As you’ve heard me teach before, the power of faith isn’t in itself, but in its object—who it looks to. “She considered Him faithful, who had promised.” Because God was able to do it, He rewarded their faith by keeping His promise. And, the greatest blessing Abraham received, above and beyond having a child, was when God counted his faith as righteousness. Paul uses this verse, Genesis 15:6, multiple times to show that we are justified by faith (that is declared righteous by God). Our faith too lays hold of God’s greatest promised blessing, the righteousness of Christ. This is your forgiveness, your innocence before God—Jesus’ own righteousness. Trusting in Him, your faith is placed on the One who is able to save you and keep His promises.
Turning back to Hebrews again, what else does it tell us faith believes or trusts? It understands that the universe was created by the Word of God. We believe and know by faith in His Word that God created the universe. His Word is the only account of how the world came to be written by the only One who was actually there at creation! Here again, faith is placed in the unseen, what is beyond our limited human power to understand. And, as verse 6 says, “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him.” Faith believes that God exists and that God created, even though we can’t see God. Now this doesn’t mean faith is absent of any evidence or reasons to believe. While we can’t see God, His fingerprints dot the whole creation.
Webster’s dictionary defines the word “credulity” as “a readiness or willingness to believe on uncertain or slight evidence.” That is emphatically not what faith is. The Word of God doesn’t encourage willingness to believe just anything, but rather urges us to have wisdom and discernment and knowledge. In fact, Proverbs opens by saying “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” And neither is faith “blind”—as in “blind leaps of faith.” As we’ve said before, faith is conviction and assurance. It’s a confident trust in God who is faithful to His promises. And while faith is not “blind”, neither is it “sight.” There would be no need for faith if we had full sight and complete knowledge of everything. We can’t forget that faith looks to unseen realities, and puts its confidence in God, even when we can’t fully see His plans, or how He will carry out His promises.
Some have said that the Hebrews of the Old Testament entered their future by facing their past. That they couldn’t know all the future held in store, but by looking back to God’s faithfulness to previous generations and by trusting in God’s promises, they could go into the future He held in store for them, content not to see, but to believe. Likewise, our faith is a well-founded trust in God. Mindful of salvation history—remembering these saints of the faith in Hebrews 11, and many more faithful believers who through the ages have trusted in God, and seen His faithfulness in their lives. Our own families, friends, and Christian mentors that showed us the way to live by faith. We learn and come to know that while God does not operate according to our timetables and our plans, that He never abandons His promises, and that even death cannot separate us from Him.
Even our faith in the most important thing of all, Jesus’ death and resurrection, is not unfounded blind trust, but believing the actual historic events in a particular time and place, with an empty tomb, eyewitnesses, and resurrection appearances. The apostles again and again called attention to the fact that they were eyewitnesses of these things, and had to testify to the truth. They died for it. Faith is not the mere knowledge of these historical facts, but it is the confidence and assurance that Jesus in fact died and rose for you. Faith incorporates knowledge, but it is not mere knowledge alone. And the knowledge that faith holds above all else is the revealed knowledge that God tells us in His holy Word. Faith doesn’t belong in one isolated sector of our life (i.e. our heart or our intellect or our emotions) that we give over to God, while He remains absent from the rest. But rather it encompasses the whole of our life. Our heart, soul, mind and strength are to be committed to the Lord.
Faith is a personal trust and willingness to follow Jesus Christ, as pilgrims and travelers journeying through a foreign land, like Abraham and the others who followed God by faith, to promises yet unseen and yet to be received. Faith recognizes that this life isn’t a final destination, and that our trust in God determines our final destination. By faith we outlive death, like Abel, whose life still speaks beyond death of the righteousness of faith—God being pleased with his worship or sacrifice, because it was done in faith. And so faith waits for those rewards that come beyond the grave, looking forward to the heavenly city God has promised. Like we said last week, this upward, heavenly calling leads us to live life differently in the here and now, making use of what God has given us on earth for His purposes, and not selfishly for our own. We live in the world, but not of it. Our attitude is as travelers who have not reached our final destination.
Perhaps one more comparison and contrast to faith is “fear.” In our readings today, fear is used in two different ways—both positively and negatively. In the positive way, it’s a synonym for faith—“by faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household.” In reverent fear. “Fear of the Lord” is a more common expression in the Old Testament, and is a synonym for faith. It means to have a deep sense of the holiness and awe of God. Respect for His power and might, that He holds life and death, judgment and salvation in His hand. So when Noah built the ark out of reverent fear, this moved his dutiful obedience. He was not willing to offend or disobey God. Contrast that to whether or not we fear God, or tremble at the thought of offending Him. How casually we take His name in vain, or disregard His commands. Yet this reverent fear of the Lord is not contrary to love of God. Rather it trusts that God exists and rewards those who seek Him.
In the negative use, fear is described as the opposite of faith. For example, God tells Abraham, “Fear not, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great”; or Jesus tells us “fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” In these cases, fear is like the doubt, uncertainty, apprehension, that doesn’t trust God or that He can keep His promises. Consistently throughout the Bible, Old and New Testament, God uses His comforting word of Gospel, “Fear not!” to drive this kind of fear away. God wants us to know Him as our Heavenly Father, One whom we can love and trust as always having the best plan for us. Whenever fear or cowardice takes hold of us, God’s Word speaks faith and strength to our heart.
We’ve heard many examples of what faith is not. We’ve seen that faith isn’t doubt or uncertainty, isn’t cowardice or fear. It isn’t blindness, and yet it isn’t physical sight either. Faith isn’t ignorance, nor irreverence, nor a host of other things that would threaten our trust in God, or set us against Him. Rather, faith is conviction and assurance, it is confidence and trust, it is the knowledge of God’s faithfulness, and the knowledge of God’s Son Jesus Christ, who makes God known to us. It’s a holy fear that knows God’s power, but a deep love that knows He exercises that power for our protection and our good. It’s the confident trust that if everything, even death should stand against us, that nothing can separate us from His love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Whenever any of faith’s “opposites” try to grasp us or creep into our life, God’s faith-giving remedy is always the same—“faith comes by hearing, and hearing the word of Christ.” The powerful Word of God always speaks faith and life into our sin-darkened hearts. It speaks forgiveness to repentant souls that have doubted or been afraid. And it establishes in us the trust that will never let go of God’s promises, as we “greet them from afar”—knowing that God has “prepared for [us] a city”—the heavenly city that is our eternal homeland. By faith in Jesus Christ who will bring us there, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Our three readings today present many contrasting qualities to faith. See how many you can identify. (hints: Genesis 15:1, 3; Hebrews 11:15; Luke 12:22, 25, 29). Can you add to your list other things that are the opposite of faith? Why do these qualities or feelings exist or persist in us? 1 Corinthians 2:14; Genesis 6:5; James 1:6-8.
  2. Now list as many descriptions or synonyms of faith that you can find in the three readings. How is faith described? What does it believe or trust in? What is it able to do, and by whose power? In what contexts is “fear” a positive synonym for faith (ex. Hebrews 11:7; Psalm 34:9; Proverbs 1:7) and when is it a negative contrast to faith (Genesis 15:1; Luke 12:32)?
  3. The Bible teaches that faith is a gift of God, and doesn’t come by our works, so that we cannot boast. Ephesians 2:8-9. How does this faith come to us? Romans 10:17; Galatians 3:2, 5-6. How does this hearing the Word with faith, drive out doubt, fear, unbelief, etc?
  4. Why is it therefore vital that we stay connected to God’s Word and Christ Jesus, to supply and strengthen our faith? John 15:5-7.
  5. What does faith receive from God? Find as many answers in the three readings as you can, but especially Genesis 15:6; Heb. 11:7.
  6. What gives faith the confidence to trust in God, when things are unseen? How does the history of God’s people through the ages testify of His faithfulness?
  7. How does a Christian “greet from afar” the promises of God, and when do we see and experience them in fullness? Hebrews 11:13-16. How do we live differently by faith in this life, when realizing that earth is not our ultimate home?      

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