Sermon delivered on Trinity 8C, Sunday, August 11, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 1.1, 10-20; Psalm 50.1-8, 22-23; Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16; Luke 12.32-40.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In our epistle lesson this morning, the writer of Hebrews speaks about faith. Given that the NT writers claim that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, it is vital for us to understand what genuine biblical faith looks like on the ground. This is what I want us to look at this morning.
“Faith,” says the writer of Hebrews, “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” St. James tells us that faith without works is dead and useless, and St. Paul tells us in several of his letters that we are only made right with God by having faith in Christ’s atoning death and resurrection. But what does that all mean? To answer this question, we start by looking at what faith isn’t. When the biblical writers speak of faith, they didn’t have in mind some kind of spirituality that is an entity unto itself (she’s a person of faith). Neither did they have in mind some kind of resolute belief that their faith would guarantee them wealth (gee, I’ve got faith so God will surely make me rich). Nor did the biblical writers define faith as a blind leap against known facts. Atheists and other critics of the Christian faith often parrot this latter understanding of faith when ridiculing those of us who have faith. But these criticisms are patently false and inaccurate because this is not what the Bible means when it speaks of faith.
Faith, as the writer of the letter to the Hebrews articulates, involves confident action in response to what God has made known to us through his word in Scripture and through his involvement in his created order. Faith is closely related to hope in Scripture, with both terms often used synonymously. And before we go any further, we need to be clear as to what the biblical writers meant by hope. Hope in Scripture is not wishful thinking or whistling through the graveyard. No, hope as the biblical writers use it, means a sure and certain expectation that something is going to happen in the future based on what has happened in the past. Our Christian hope of forgiveness of sins and new creation, a future hope, is based on the death and resurrection of Christ, past historical events. Without these past events, we really would be fools to believe in a future new world made perfect as well as the resurrection of the body. There would be no historical basis on which to pin our hope on God’s promised new world. But because we believe that Christ was raised from the dead, we believe that instead of judgment for our sins after we die, we will find mercy and new bodily life when Christ returns to finish his saving work because in baptism we share in Christ’s death and resurrection. We weren’t witnesses to these latter events but we believe the testimony contained in the NT of those who were. This is what the writer of Hebrews is talking about. We have faith in the power of our baptism to bind us to Christ and have the hope of bodily resurrection and new creation because the word of God promises such, both in the story of Christ and the subsequent testimony of those who witnessed these saving events. And because we trust God’s character, we trust God’s word and believe it to be truthful. Obviously if we do not know God, we will have a hard time knowing God’s character and trusting God’s word. But if we know the story of God’s salvation contained in Scripture, if we have a robust prayer life, if we are firmly ensconced in the household of God, i.e., the Church, even with all its warts, if we pay attention to how God works through human agency, then we have the basis for trust. This is why we have the assurance of things hoped for and why Christian hope is always a sure and certain expectation.
Faith therefore is never blind because it is always based on the promises of God contained in the OT and NT, nor are we called to have a blind faith. If we do not know God, it is impossible to have a mature biblical faith because there will always be doubt in our minds as to whether God is really trustworthy, especially when things go south for us or our world. It would be really easy, e.g., for us to look at the chaos of the seemingly never-ending mass shootings and conclude God’s promise to heal and redeem his broken and sinful world and its creatures is false and unbelievable. But this mindset is present- and human-oriented. True biblical faith by contrast is always God- and future-oriented because it is based on known instances of God’s mighty power, goodness, mercy and justice at work. That is why when faith is threatened by doubt—always a threat to us, especially in the ever increasingly chaotic world in which we live—Scripture exhorts us to remember, just as the writer of Hebrews does in our lesson. Listen to these following examples taken from the psalms:
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? / Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief. / Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. / Our ancestors trusted in you, and you rescued them. / They cried out to you and were saved. They trusted in you and were never disgraced (Ps 22.1-5, NLT).
I cry out to God; yes, I shout. Oh, that God would listen to me! / When I was in deep trouble, I searched for the Lord. / All night long I prayed, with hands lifted toward heaven, but my soul was not comforted. / I think of God, and I moan, overwhelmed with longing for his help./ And I said, “This is my fate; the Most High has turned his hand against me.” / But then I recall all you have done, O Lord; I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago. / They are constantly in my thoughts. I cannot stop thinking about your mighty works (Psalm 77.1-3, 10-12, NLT).
Do you see faith in action here? The psalmist is riddled with doubt. It feels like God has abandoned him and he is in danger of giving up and losing his faith. But then he remembers. He remembers God’s mighty intervention on behalf of his people at the Red Sea. In God’s dealing with his people, the psalmist is reminded of God’s character and trustworthiness. We aren’t told how the crisis the psalmist faced turned out. We simply see him working to maintain his faith, the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. When things are desperately dark in your life or when news of current events threatens to overwhelm you with its reporting of new evil and perversity, seemingly every day, do you keep your eyes on God by remembering his mighty works on your behalf (Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit to name but two examples) to help you maintain your faith, or do you let the darkness overwhelm you by focusing on it?
Notice carefully in these examples from the psalms that the focus of biblical faith is on God’s promises contained in the story of his rescue of his good world gone terribly wrong. God created this world. Our faith tells us this is true because Genesis proclaims that God is our Creator and the psalms reinforce this belief. Consider Psalm 19, for example:
The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship. / Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. / They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. / Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world (v.1-4).
This same God, Creator of all that is, is perfect, good, loving, just, merciful, and holy. God created humans in his image to run his good creation on God’s behalf and when we failed that call and our sin allowed Evil and Death to enter and corrupt God’s good world and us, God declared he would rescue us through a human family, Abraham and his ultimate descendent Jesus Christ! This totally unexpected plan is fitting for the dignity of human beings and is another sign that God honors us and wants us to return to him. Along the way, Scripture tells us the story of how God repeatedly came to his people Israel’s rescue, requiring them to choose between the old covenant’s blessings and curses outlined most notably in Deuteronomy 27-28. Covenant curses are God’s judgment on his people’s lack of faith; they chose not to submit to his way of living, in part, because they don’t believe God’s promises to them. Covenant blessings, on the other hand, result from God honoring right living which is indicative of faith in the God who promised his people to be their God and commanded them to live by his laws (more about that anon). This is what was going on in our OT lesson today. The Lord through his prophet Isaiah exhorts his people to faith by living righteously according to his laws. If God’s people Israel really had faith in God, the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen, they would have behaved accordingly. But Israel didn’t have faith in God because they choose to worship and follow false gods. This is why true worship of God the Father requires faith. Nothing else will do in God’s eyes. By worshiping false gods, Israel in Isaiah’s day showed where their faith really was focused, and it wasn’t on the God who called them out of their slavery in Egypt and gave them the Promised Land as a base of operation for their saving mission. They could therefore expect nothing but exile and death, the ultimate covenant curses, just like we can expect nothing but judgment and death when we fail to put our hope (faith) in Christ.
The NT modifies and completes the OT theme of covenant blessings and curses by proclaiming that Jesus Christ ultimately rescued us from exile and death, even after we had fallen away. Jesus Christ was and is the game-changer because lack of faith cannot fully explain human rebellion against God. We all know that from personal experience! We rebel against God, in part, because we lack faith and, in part, because we are held captive by the power of Sin and unable to break free from its grip. So God broke Sin’s power over us on the cross and accomplished his justice. We believe this because we believe God raised Jesus from the dead and in doing so, vindicated his death. And while God has not consummated his rescue of his sin-sick world and creatures, we know it’s coming because we believe in the efficacy of Christ’s saving death and resurrection and are convinced it comes from God. With St. Paul, we believe in the God who creates things out of nothing and who raises the dead; therefore we have hope against hope (God’s hope vs. human hope) that our salvation is assured. As St. Paul also reminds us, our life with Christ is hidden with him in heaven (Col 3.3). We cannot currently see him, but we will see him one day when he returns and so we have the sure and certain expectation (hope) that he will finish what he started. In having this hope in Christ and trusting he is God incarnate because the NT writers proclaim him to be, we demonstrate our faith in the power of God and his revealed word. Simply put, our faith is based on Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead. Only God is capable of doing this as the whole story of Scripture attests. Our future is linked to God’s power and we are gradually transformed by it.
As we saw earlier, St. James reminds us that faith must be actionable because our actions are usually consistent with and based on our beliefs. Our faithful actions are always consistent with God’s clear commands to us to live rightly, both as individuals and as communities. That is why we forgive when wronged, are generous with our resources, show grace where none is deserved, advocate for families and life, demonstrate love for all, and pursue real justice based on God’s laws. We will live like that in God’s new world and are given a chance to show our faith in our future citizenship there by how we act in this present world. Much of faithful living is counter-intuitive and runs against our natural grain because we are all sin-corrupted and self-centered by nature. That’s the sad outcome of the Fall that Genesis 3ff describe, so faithful living does not come naturally or easily for us. But God the Father is greater than our sin-sickness and gives us his Spirit to help us answer his call to us to be truly free to live as fully human beings made in his image, a life patterned after the perfect life of Jesus Christ our Lord. And here again we must be clear that living faithful lives, however imperfectly that may manifest itself, does not guarantee us health, wealth, and prosperity. God’s blessing there will be for our faithful living, but that blessing does not guarantee or automatically lead to health, wealth, and power, even if the ancient Israelites often saw it doing so, a mistaken notion that our Lord himself repeatedly had to correct (see, e.g., Mk 10.17-27; Mt 16.24-27). No, living faithful lives can (and often does) result in ridicule and persecution as our actions and words challenge the fallen and death-dealing ways of our culture and the world. Even the writer of Hebrews admits that the exemplars of faith he cites died without seeing the promise of their faith fulfilled; and barring Christ’s return before we die, we too will not live to see the promise of our faith in Christ fulfilled. But we believe it nevertheless because we believe in the God who creates things out of nothing and raises the dead to life. Nothing is impossible for this God and he has the track record to prove it.
Having said this, we must also acknowledge that God promises to reward faithful living and this promise of reward makes many of us very uncomfortable. Our reluctance to count the importance of rewards as a motivator for faith stems from a mistaken notion that real Christians shouldn’t desire a reward for faithful living, that doing so is selfish. But that thinking would have surprised the biblical writers and our Lord Jesus himself (think for example about our gospel lesson this morning or about the parable of the ten talents found in Mt 25.14-30). Why then should we blush or apologize for seeking to be rewarded for our faith? We seek all kinds of lesser rewards in the things we do, things that will pass away. Why not seek the ultimate prize of living with and loving God forever as our most desired-reward?
With all this in mind, we can see that the theme of faith runs through all our lessons today. For example, when we look at Christ’s parable in our gospel lesson through the lens of faith, we see him calling us to faith. Be ready for the Master’s return (Christ himself), he tells us. Demonstrate your faith by doing the things that show God and others where your true riches are, by demonstrating your hope and trust in God’s love and power. It gives the Father great pleasure to give you the kingdom where you will have light and life forever. Don’t let the darkness of this world lead you astray so that you follow its values and dehumanize yourself. If you live faithfully, you will find your reward. The master will serve you when he returns (think Jesus washing the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper in St. John’s gospel). So demonstrate your assurance of things hoped for and your conviction of things not seen by living in ways that are consistent with the Father’s great love for you. Don’t make money or sex or power or security your gods. Make me your God by following and imitating me for I am God become man. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. Don’t let the darkness of this world fool you. I am going to die to rescue you from God’s terrible judgment on your sins and reconcile you to the Father, and my Father will raise me from the dead to prove to you that this unbelievable promise is really true. And what do we require from you? Faith made manifest in your living according to our will for you. My Father loves you and wants to rescue and restore you to your rightful place in his creation and has sent me to accomplish what you cannot accomplish for yourself. Please have the wisdom and humility to accept our gracious gift to you.
This is what real faith is all about, my beloved. As with all things from God it is rich, multifaceted, complex, and often challenging because we are mere mortals with limited understanding who live in a dark and challenging world in the midst of our own conflicting fallen and noble desires. So do what the biblical writers tell you to do when your faith is challenged. Remember, so that your assurance of things hoped for and your conviction of things not seen—forgiveness of sins and your place in God’s new creation—will not be overcome by people or forces who hate you and want to destroy you. Remember that it is the Father’s pleasure to give you his kingdom, so focus often and regularly on this God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and raised from the dead. This is the God who creates things out of nothing and gives life to the dead. He is the same God who wants to give you a place in his kingdom forever, starting right now and culminating fully when he raises you from the dead at his Son’s return to finish his saving work on your behalf. That’s a faith worth living and dying for, even as we live constantly in a world of uncertainty and enigma. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.