Monday, November 21, 2011

God's Power: Our Strength

Preached on Sunday, November 20, 2011

Scripture readings: Romans 16:25-27

I want to tell you one of the odd ways I learned about faith and trust. One of my jobs, in my college days, was being a tutor in a number of subjects. To be a tutor you had to know your subject, but there was a lot more to it than that. You had to help people who were struggling with that subject.

In order to help them, you had to understand that they were not struggling because they were incapable of learning. They were struggling, usually, either because they were afraid of the subject, or because they hated the subject.

Because this was during the early nineteen-seventies, part of our training by the college was in the form of what they called “sensitivity training”. These were emotional exercises that were popular in those years. It was a hippy sort of thing.

The exercises that come to mind were the trust building exercises. A group of us would stand close together in a circle and one of us would stand in the middle, close our eyes, and fall. And the people in the circle were supposed to catch us before we fell to the ground.

Another exercise was to split into pairs. The one in front would close their eyes, or be blindfolded. The one holding onto their shoulders from behind would guide them around the campus.

We laughed at these exercises. We thought they were silly. Also we thought they made us look silly, especially when we did them outdoors in the quadrangle of the campus. I was eighteen and nineteen years old, and I didn’t like looking silly. But I tried to laugh it off, like the rest.

But we knew what these exercises were about. They were about trust. The college professors sent failing students to us, and those students needed to trust us. We needed to imagine what it felt like to trust someone else, to put your well being in their hands, as the students were doing with us. We needed to know what it meant to be responsible for bringing a student face to face with a subject they feared or hated.

I suppose we also needed to learn to respect the student who came to us, and to be on the alert to whatever they were going through. It could be that there were things going wrong in their lives that were making them struggle with their studies.

But the point of this respect and alertness was to help us build trust in the student. By building trust the student would find the freedom that he or she needed to study, and learn, and succeed.

Paul began his letter by describing where the ultimate trust comes from. When Paul, and the other writers of the scriptures, speak of faith and belief, they mean a relationship with a God who is faithful; a God you can trust.

The ultimate faith is never about our selves. It is always about God. Faith is about trusting God.

Trust came from the great things that God has done in Jesus Christ. God came into the world in Jesus and gave us a new life through his life, and through his death on the cross and his resurrection.

Through the cross and the resurrection God has defeated sin and death, and rescued those who trust him, and reached out to the whole world that is damaged and infected by sin and death. This is the great work that enables, establishes, and strengthens those who trust (or have faith) in what God has done in Christ. In Christ we die to our selves and rise to a new life.

These great things are the gospel; and the gospel means the good news. At the beginning of his letter to the Romans Paul describes this good news as “the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” (Romans 1:16)

In the end of his letter, Paul puts his readers in the hands of “him who is able”. And so he is right back to thinking of the good news as “the power of God”; the one “who is able”.

Paul ends his letter with a statement of praise that gives glory to God as the one who is able. Right there, Paul is telling us that we can live by trust. We can live by faith.

Paul says that God is able to “establish” you. This is another way of saying that God is able to make you strong through the good news; through the great things that God has done for us, and for the whole world, in Christ.

Jesus is God coming and dying to our sins and rising to new life, and the message about this is the news of events that are so big they are able to take us up into them. We live those events even though we were not present at the cross or at the empty tomb.

There are events in history that are so big that they take everyone in. The events of nine-eleven took in everyone who was old enough to comprehend them. They formed a kind of news that was bad news for us. The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (sixty years ago) was news of the same sort for another generation.

The news of God coming in Jesus to share our sin and death, and to defeat them, is good news for all time. And it is good news because it works the opposite way from all the other news in this world. It is good news that lasts. It is good news that keeps getting better.

The gospel is news that was able to exist even before it happened. It was the good news of the prophets that Paul talks about. They knew the good news long ago. The people of faith trusted in that good news centuries and ages before a baby named Jesus was born and laid to rest in a stable in Bethlehem. It reaches back to Adam and Eve and makes them new.

The good news of God in Christ takes us in and makes us new. It will do the same for those who come after us until the end of time

It reaches out to all people and makes them God’s chosen people when they are people of faith and trust in God. God is the maker of this ancient heaven and earth; and what God has done in time, in Jesus, will be powerful enough to make a new heaven and a new earth. The good news will make us fit for everlasting life.

The good news is such a big story that you can never get to the end of it, and you can never grow out of it. It never stops being the message of your life.

Your life gets taken up into the story of the dying and rising of God. Because you know about dying and rising, you can wrestle with some struggle or some issue in your life that has gone on for so long old that you have given up on it, and you can face it as a new person. You can take failure and build something new out of the ashes.

What God is able to do on the cross and through the empty tomb; that same God is able to work through you. This “establishes” you and makes you strong, just as Paul says; but it is the strength of trust.

God came into human life in Jesus so as to be able to come into your life and live in you. And you are able because God is able. The gospel is the power of God, as Paul says, and it doesn’t stop being the power of God, but it becomes the power of God in you.

Some people see faith as if it were a spiritual muscle of some sort. They say that, if your spiritual muscle is strong enough, God will answer your prayers. They say that, if your spiritual muscle is strong enough, you will prosper in this world.

But faith is not a spiritual muscle. It is our response to a reality and a power that we cannot contain. That reality and power can only be contained by the one who made us and who carried the sins, and the injustices, and the death of the world on his shoulders.

I think this is what Paul means by “the obedience of faith”. In the translation we use, Paul seems to use the phrase and thought that the good news has been revealed by God so that all the nations “might believe and obey him.” (Romans 16:26) But believing and obeying (in this case) are not two separate things. In the Greek language, as Paul uses it, they are connected and they belong to each other, and we would understand them better as “the obedience of faith”.

Faith is what we see in a baby learning to walk. Their mom or dad is standing in front of them. The parent smiles and beckons to their child. The child gets up on its feet and steps, and falls, and rises, and steps, and steps, and falls, and rises, and walks into the father’s/the mother’s arms.

It’s true that the baby will most likely grow up to be an adult who walks without thinking, but is that entirely a good thing? When I was a child, I knew a girl who walked with a terrible limp as a result of polio. I know people with degenerative diseases. I know people bound to wheel chairs.

I often think about the wonder of walking. Wonder takes us into the world of miracles, and faith, and trust. We should never outgrow this.

We think that most of us are made to walk. Faith is doing what we are made to do while walking into the Lord’s arms.

The toddler is joyful, but never proud. There is power in its legs, but there is also power in the smile and the outreaching arms of the parent. A neglected child, locked in a closet will not walk, because there is no faithful parent there to trust. This is the truth.

It is also true that, when we live by faith, our life will be hard work. We have to practice a lot at life. We have to step, and fall, and step, and step, and fall, and step into God’s arms (and into each others arms, as well). But faith is not the work itself. Faith is the vision behind the work; the vision beyond the work.

It is like playing an instrument. You have to work the music out, sometimes. You have to practice something new when it demands something new from you. You may have to struggle with it. But the practice and the struggle is not the faith.

The faith is the vision of the music. You have to hear the music within you, and love that music, in order to really play. It is the same with singing. I suspect it is the same with sports and with all of life.

There was a girl I knew in seminary who loved to dance. I loved being with this girl, and I was growing to love her. I was not a dancer, and I am even less a dancer now. But it was the nineteen-seventies and it had become the age of disco dancing. Dubuque had a place with a disco floor made from colored panels, lighted from underneath. There was a giant mirror ball spinning overhead that flashed its lights on the dancers.

Donna and I would go there with some of our friends, and I would dance with her, and I would forget that I didn’t feel comfortable dancing. The discomfort went away when I danced with Donna. I even loved it. But she made me love it. I probably looked like a fool; but she didn’t look at me as though I was a fool. This dancing was like faith.

When we live by faith, there is a reason why we can do it. When we are established and strengthened there is a reason why.

It is because of “him who is able”. It is because there is a law in the kingdom of God that goes against the laws of this world that grind us down and wear us out, or frighten us, or anger and embitter us.

The law of the kingdom of God is the law of grace. It is the law of dying and rising from the dead. It is the law of God making us right. It is the law of God promising to make the whole world right in Christ.

Paul closes his letter and sends his readers out into a world where God is able. He does not tell us exactly what will happen next, but he tells us who God is, and why we can live by faith. This is what establishes and strengthens us; and for this we can be thankful.

1 comment:

  1. Good morning.
    has everything to do with the trust and faith in God ... we must believe not only believe but leave everything in God's hands, without reserve, in an unconditional way ...

    The "post" on my blog was about false people ...
    I like to read you... I belong to the Baptist Church and I know what it is to read the Holy Bible.

    Here, I have much to learn as well, and so I thank you, Pastor

    God be with you ..