Monday, November 8, 2010

Anchors for the Storm: Faith Alone

Preached Sunday, November 7, 2010

Scripture readings: Genesis 15:1-12; Philippians 3:1-14; John 6:25-51

I have a confession to make. Sometimes I drive too fast (actually much more than merely sometimes). Oh, I don’t go faster than it is safe to drive (well, almost never); or I don’t think I do.

But I am a lawbreaker. I make excuses about it. A lot of people think it’s funny, and they tease me about it. But it’s true. And it is perhaps much truer than I realize (hardened sinner that I am) that I shouldn’t even be talking about it here, from the pulpit, without the convictions of a profound repentance and the desire to change my life.

I do have some claims to make as proof that, deep down, I am really ok; that I am really a good guy. One claim to virtue is that, when I am stopped by an officer of the law, I always know that I am guilty, and that it is my fault, and that I deserve a ticket.

I never pretend otherwise. I avoid making excuses. I never get mad at the officer. I do get mad at myself.

My other claim to virtue is that I never plead for mercy on the basis that I am a minister. I never tell the officer that I am a minister. Well, for one thing, I don’t believe that this would work, and I don’t believe it ought to work. So I don’t. So, I really am a good guy, or am I?

This is related to a Christian word. There is a word in the Bible and in Christian teaching: and that word is righteousness. Righteous is a funny word in the sense that we don’t use it much. It was used in slang (is it any more?): as in “That car is righteous,” or “that dude is a righteous dude.”

I may be in way over my head here, but I do think this is what righteousness is all about. A righteous car is a car that does everything that a great car, with a great engine, ought to do.

I’m not going to comment on the word “dude”. But a righteous human would be solid. You could expect fairness, and integrity, and truth, and compassion, the ability to look and listen and think things through, and see them through, and not quit. That would make a righteous dude or a dudette.

The funny thing about being truly righteous is: who can really measure up to it? I mean, we want to think of ourselves this way. Some people totally pull the wool over their own eyes about this, and those are the ones who aren’t fooling anyone but themselves; at least not for long.

We try to find excuses, to find reasons (and there are some). We try to justify ourselves. We have our good qualities. But we are not righteous; not really.
The world is the same way. There are fear-mongers and hate -mongers and anger-mongers out there. And there are real things to fear, and hate, and be angry about. There are horrible things in this world: horrible things.

But there is also beauty, and love, and tenderness, and innocence as well. There are people who love truth, and justice, and goodness and stand up for them and fight for them. The world is beautiful, righteous, and wonderful. It is horrible, and deadly. It is all of that and so are we.

The Bible tells us that this world was made to reflect the glory of God, and so were human beings (and the whole human order of things), but it is also a fallen world, and we all belong to that fallen world. We are made for the glory of God and we are fallen far short of it.

Some people will say that the world and its human inhabitants are a mixture of light and darkness, and they will counsel us to try to live within the light. But there is nothing very grand, or bold, or victorious about this.

But we believe a grand, and bold, and victorious thing. We believe that there is a righteousness from God; a righteousness that has come into the world.

It has come into a fallen world in order to make a new world possible; to make new lives possible. It has come into the lives of some of the people in this world, and it can come into us. It is “the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” (Philippians 3:9)

The righteousness that comes from God and is by faith (this righteousness that God wants to give to the whole creation) is something God started in a single family; the family of a nomad named Abram (or Abraham). Earlier in Abram’s story, the Lord spoke to him and said: 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…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

The challenge and the deep difficulty of this promise was that Abram and his wife Sarah were old and childless. Yet the promise was based on a child that they were supposed to create between them.

They were in their seventies when God first made his promise to them. The years passed. The promise was renewed over and over again, and nothing, nothing, nothing happened.

Every time the promise was repeated, and every time they thought about that promise and wished that it would come true; guess what they must have done in the privacy of their tent. Guess what they must have tried to do. And nothing, nothing, nothing happened: nothing.

Then, in the verses we read from Genesis, God does it again. After years of making this promise, God repeats the promise again, and (even at this point) there are still years to go when nothing, nothing, nothing will happen.

But one very strange thing does happen. Abram believed God. It says, “Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)
If being righteous means being all that God intended you to be, Abram and Sarah had a requirement that they lived by. There was a law from God that ruled them and gave them something they did together over, and over, and over again to make it happen, and it didn’t work. They could not be what God’s promise had promised them they would be.

What Abram and Sarah did over, and over, and over again was a kind of law for them. It was a law to them of something they should do to achieve a certain status, in order to match what God had promised them. They obeyed that law over and over, in the privacy of their tent; but something much more radical was essential.

The surprising and radical thing that God wanted was faith. Faith was essential to make them what God wanted them to be. Faith was like the hinge on a door that enables that door to swing open. (John Calvin “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, 3.11.1)

Some people, even some Christians, seem to think that faith is something you do as part of a bargain to get God to do something for you, or that faith is something you give to God so that God can give you something in return: like the thing we call salvation, or like the things we call the answers to our prayers, or like the things we want that have to do with success and peace and plenty.

Faith has very little to do with anything we want. It has everything to do with what God wants.

But even that said does not go far enough. Faith has everything to do with who God is and who God promises to be for us. When you are in the middle of a storm in life; when you are struggling under a weight of worry, or fear, or anger, or failure, or pain, or loss, and you can’t sleep at night for the anguish you feel, faith has everything to do with who God is, and who God promises that he will be for you, in the time to come.

Faith is like a fire within that does not light itself. Faith is the gift of fire that comes from seeing the love of God and the new life that is promised by God’s love. Faith is God’s gift of fire to a life without a spark. It is not your gift to God. It is God’s gift to you.

Paul says it in Ephesians 2:8. “For it is by grace that you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.”

The fire of faith gives you light to see what you cannot see without it. It gives you warmth to thaw you out; so that the mind of faith can think, so that the heart of faith can love, so that the feet of faith may take you where God wants you to go, so that the hands of faith enable you to do the work God has given you to do.

The fire of faith gives you the warmth of an inner life that sets you free to move and live. Faith gives something from God through you so that you can help others see and live in God’s light and warmth.

You can guard that fire of faith and feed it; but not light it. As long as it burns it will never cease to do the work that a living faith does. It will make you grow in its warmth. It will help others grow. It will do what is good, and helpful, and useful. It will be a force of good in the world around you.

Faith is always based not on who you are and what you can do; but based on who God is, and what God does. And we meet God in Christ. We see who God is and what God does in Jesus.

In the gospel of John, Jesus doesn’t call this gift “fire” but he calls it food. What God does through Christ is the food that the Father and the Son give to all who come to him, and we come to him by believing. We come to him by faith.

This is why he says. “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” And Jesus says, “Don’t work for the food that spoils, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the son of Man (he means himself) will give you.” (John 6:27-29) And he says, “I am the bread of life.” (6:35)

Working for the food that spoils means doing what you think will make you all that you can be. But believing that Jesus is the bread of life is completely different.
Believing means having faith. It means trusting in God as he is (as we meet him in Jesus).

And this is the work that is not work. This is the work that abandons itself and trusts in God’s work. Faith is not your gift to God but your journey out of yourself and into the gift of what God is, and into the life that God can give you.

Faith is based on God, knowing God as he is. What we know about God is what we see in Christ, in his life, his death, and his resurrection. We know God by seeing his sacrifice for our sins on the cross. We know God by seeing the power of the resurrection.

Paul speaks of this in Philippians. He says, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:8-11)

The Jews worked to prove their status as God’s people by keeping the Old Testament law (the Torah). This was the work they thought would prepare them and mark them for the Kingdom of God. But that preparation accomplished nothing but hardness of heart, and pride, and the inability to be the blessing to the nations that God had called Abraham to be.

Faith was the heart of the promise; and God had come, in Christ, to give the power of his righteousness to those who saw what God had done; to those who made the daring surrender of faith.

Those who trust in Christ have new forces at work within them. They have the cross of Jesus working in them. They have the resurrection working in them.

We can never bargain for this. There is no gift we can give for this. We can only believe what God has done. Then it goes to work in us.

Paul wrote, “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” (3:7-8)

Faith means going outside ourselves, in Christ: letting go of ourselves, and so there are things that are worth losing for his sake. There is the obvious rubbish of our selfishness and our lovelessness; the obvious rubbish of our sins.

Then there is the rubbish of good things. I am a hereditary saver and hoarder. I have thousands of books, and trinkets, and artifacts, and memorabilia. Perhaps much of it is nothing but refuse. There may be habits and marks of my character that are not bad in themselves, but they stand in the way of my love for God and for others.

There are things we think of as our strengths or our rights that get in the way of loving God with all that is in us, and loving others as ourselves. These things are not the great good things we think they are, no matter how much we think about them and hold onto them.

We think of them as our strengths, when they may be nothing but strong crutches, and we don’t have enough faith to part with them. We don’t want to replace them with the strength of God that comes from faith.

The author George MacDonald imagined God saying this: “My child, you must be strong in my strength. I have no other strength to give you.” This is “the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” There is no other way for it to come. It is faith alone.


  1. Hi Pastor Dennis,

    Another inspirational read.
    Thanks so much for sharing it.
    You just gave me peace in my soul.
    So thank you for that.

    "The true believer does not ask why he should trust God, he asks. How can I trust God more fully.

    Have a great week ahead!


  2. And thanks so much for your wonderful and meaningful comments and support.
    It means the absolute world!


  3. Betty, thanks for your supportiveness, and I like your quotation about trust.
    You have a great week, too!