Monday, September 15, 2014

Anchors for the Storm - Faith Alone (2nd Edition)

Preached on Sunday, September 14, 2014

Scripture readings: Genesis 15:1-6; Philippians 3:1-11; John 6:25-51

A faithful home above Vantage, WA:
September, 2014
I have a confession to make. Sometimes I drive too fast (actually more than sometimes). I never drive faster than it is safe to drive (well, almost never).
But I am a lawbreaker. I make excuses about it. Some people think it’s funny, and they tease me about it. But it’s true. And it is perhaps much truer than I realize that I shouldn’t even be talking about it from the pulpit without true repentance and the desire to change. I am sharing this because it is the very least of so many ways I am a puzzle to myself.
In this little puzzle to my life, what if I were to claim that my speeding wasn’t so bad because I make up for it by the fact 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, but my anger is aimed at my self.
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. For one thing, I don’t believe that this would work, and I don’t believe it ought to work. So I don’t. And yet I really am a puzzle to my self.
This puzzle brings me to a Christian word. It’s a Bible word. That word is righteousness.
Righteous is a funny word, in the sense that we don’t use it much outside of church: except as slang. Isn’t it still used to say something like, “That car is righteous,” or “That dude is a righteous dude”?
I believe that this righteous slang word gets it right. This is what righteousness is all about. A righteous car is a car that does everything that a great well-maintained car ought to do.
I’m not going to comment on the word “dude”. But a righteous dude should be what a great human ought to be. In the world as it is, the slang righteousness is the only thing that saves righteousness from sounding like self-righteousness.
Righteousness is not weirdness, or what we call being “goody-goody”. It’s about being solid and real in the best way. You could expect fairness, and integrity, and truth, and compassion. You could expect the ability to look, and listen, and think things through, and to see them through, and not to quit. You could expect some degree of fearlessness. That would make a righteous dude or a righteous dudette.
The funny thing about being truly righteous is: who can 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: not for long.
We try to make 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 to hate, and to be angry about. There are horrible things in this world: terrible things.
But there is also beauty, and love, and tenderness, and innocence, and faithfulness as well. There are people who love truth, and justice, and goodness; and these people stand up for the righteous things and fight for them.
The world is beautiful, and wonderful, and righteous. The world 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. The whole human order of things in this world, with marriage and family, and with friendship and community, was created to reflect the glory and beauty of God: to be righteous.
But it is also a fallen world. We all belong to that fallen world. We are made for the glory of God and we all fall short of it.
Some people will say that the world and its human inhabitants are a mixture of light and darkness, and they will advise 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 from the outside.
It has come into a fallen world in order to make a new world possible; to make new lives possible. This righteousness 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 desert 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 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 at all happened.
Every time the promise was repeated they thought about that promise and they wished that it would come true. Every time the promise was repeated, guess what they must have done in the privacy of their tent. Guess what they must (at least) have tried to do. And nothing, nothing at all 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 at all, will happen.
But one very strange thing does happen. This time we are told that Abram believed God. This was a very strange thing. It was a miracle. Here is how the Bible puts it: “Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6) The Lord made faith to count as if it were righteous.
If being righteous required you to do what it took to be all that God intended you to be, then Abram and Sarah had a requirement that they had to live by. There was a law from God that ruled them. It gave them something they had to do together over, and over, and over again to make it happen, and it didn’t work. No matter how they tried, they could not be what God’s promise had promised them they would be.
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 before they could become 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, and happiness.
Faith has very little to do with anything we want. It has everything to do with what God wants. Real faith only wants what God wants. That’s why God will give anything to those who only want what God wants.
But even saying that 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 the weight of worry, or fear, or anger, or failure, or pain, or loss, and your stomach hurts, and your heart palpitates, and you can’t sleep at night because of 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 whatever the work is that God wants you to do. Faith makes you alive so God can give life to others through you.
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 give to others in their great need. It will do what is good, and helpful, and useful. It will be a force for good in the world around you.
Faith is always based not on who you are or on 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). It means trusting the cross and trusting the resurrection.
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 his power to defeat sin, and death, and hell.
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 for the Kingdom of God and to make that kingdom come. But that preparation accomplished nothing but hardness of heart, and pride, and the inability to be the blessing to every nation 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. They have the Holy Spirit.
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 (the garbage) of good things. I am a hereditary saver and hoarder of good things. I have thousands of books, and trinkets, and artifacts, and memorabilia. Some day my treasures will be someone else’s garbage. There may be habits and marks of my character that are not bad in themselves, but they are clutter: sheer clutter. They stand in the way of my love for God and for others.
All Christians are called to be disciples. All disciples are sent out into the world as witnesses of Jesus in their words and actions and lives. We are all missionaries; whether we are officially ministers, or elders, or so called ordinary church members.
We are not called to be church members. The church matters, but church can turn into a club where we preach, and pray, and sing hymns, and take offerings. We are called to be members of Jesus: his arms, hands, feet, voice, and living presence. The organization and the responsibilities we assign each other can become clutter and an escape from being Jesus in this world. They become a substitute (or a crutch) for living as a disciple of Jesus by faith.
There are things we think of as our treasures, our strengths or our rights or our dignity. These get in our way of loving God with all we’ve got, and loving others as ourselves. These are not the great good things we think, no matter how tight we 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.
There are people who say that faith is a crutch, but faith actually requires us to throw away our crutches. Faith gives us freedom from all our bad limitations and from all our good clutter. Faith makes us free indeed.
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 by faith alone.

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