Text Heb 11:1-16
“And without faith it is impossible to please God.” Heb 11:6
“If you had more faith your child would have not been born with Downs syndrome.” “If you had more faith your church would be larger.” “If you had more faith you wouldn’t have these money problems.” “If you had more faith your husband wouldn’t have left you.”
These and many more like these are the kinds of comments about faith that I have heard over the years. They reveal an appalling misunderstanding of faith and given how important faith is to God, it is a misunderstanding that we cannot afford to have. So let’s dig a little deeper into the topic of faith and ask the classic questions of “what?” “why?” and “how?”
In answering the “what” of faith let’s first make a clarification. As the earlier comments “if you had more faith….” reveal, it is a common notion that faith is something that you quantify. If you have little of it then nothing happens but if you have more then things start to pop. My guess is that this notion comes from the expression in the Bible, “Oh ye of little faith.” Doesn’t it sounds like they needed to get some more?
The problem with this view of faith is that it opens the door to all kinds of false narratives about God. Faith becomes quarters and God becomes a slot machine and if we just put in enough quarters then God will pay out eventually. Or instead of being coworkers with God, this falty view of faith puts it all on our shoulders. God would like to bless us but He can’t because we haven’t yet piled up enough faith to tip the scales in our direction. So God wanted to heal me but since I didn’t have enough faith then He couldn’t. Question. How much faith did Lazarus have right before Jesus raised Him from the dead?
Faith is not about quantity. Jesus said all we need is faith the size of a mustard seed to move mountains. Sure faith grows and matures but all we need is the faith of a child to enter the kingdom of God. So the real issue of faith is not how much you have but in what or in whom it is placed.
I was at the Outlet Mall in Lebanon and while in the restroom observed two Muslims washing up for prayers. I followed them out and they went to their car and pulled out some cardboard to use as prayer rugs. They figured out which way Mecca was and they knelt and said their prayers right there in the parking lot. While I admire such faith and devotion and admit that this is more faith and devotion than many Christians exhibit, nevertheless it is my understanding of Scripture that Mohammed will not get them to the kingdom of God. So again, it’s not the amount of faith but in what or in whom it is placed.
Our lesson from Hebrews gives us the definition of faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The New Living Translation make is clearer to me. “Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.”
So faith is confidence that gives assurance. We exercise faith every day and we do it in pretty profound ways. Think of all the ways that we put our lives in danger without giving it a second thought. When we get into our cars, when we get on an elevator, when we board a plane we have confidence that the ones who build these things have done it correctly and so we assure ourselves that we will arrive safely. We do this even without having the first clue who these guys are that built these things.
A principle point of Jesus’ ministry was to reveal a God in whom we can place our faith. He is not an anonymous union worker up north putting parts together. He is a heavenly Father who like all fathers wants the best for His children. What an astonishing line in Luke’s Gospel. “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” I saw a great quote. “ ‘Do not be afraid’ is said 365 times in the Bible so it is a daily reminder that God wants us to live each day courageously.” But even more than that, not only does God not want us to be afraid, He wants us to understand that He has gladly determined to give us His kingdom. If we could embrace that thought we would have no difficulty placing our faith in this Lord.
Through parables and teachings and demonstrations of mercy Jesus showed us a God in whom we can trust. We place our confidence in Him because He has a character worthy of such trust and because He is the same yesterday, today and forever, we have assurance, we can rest in Him.
That is the “what” of faith. Let’s consider the “why” of it. Why is faith so important for us? One reason is because faith leads to obedience. The text in Hebrews says, “By faith Abraham obeyed God when he was called to set out…and he set out not knowing where he was going” (and because he was a man he refused to stop and ask for directions). Abraham did not know where he was going but he had faith that God did so he obeyed. Here we see the facet of faith that is trust.
Some of you may not know the story of George Mueller but you should because he is such a great example of a man who had father Abraham’s kind of trust in God. Muller pastored a church in England for 60 years in the 1800’s but he also began an orphanage that cared for more than 10,000 orphans. What was amazing about this was that he purposed to never ask for money nor could any of his coworkers. He believed that if it was God’s work then God would provide and over the years he prayed in millions of pounds. One day he was told that they had completely run out of food and there was nothing to serve for breakfast. Trusting in God to provide, Muller had the orphans assembled in the dining hall and he said grace. Hearing a loud crash they ran out of the orphanage to discover that a bread wagon had collided with a milk wagon and this became breakfast for the orphans. The important lesson for us is Muller’s motives that were combined with his faith. Muller wrote, “The first and primary object of the work was and still is that God might be magnified…..” He exercised his faith in order to give God an opportunity to demonstrate His power so that God would be glorified. This is very different than sending in money that you don’t have to the TV preacher so that you can get your miracle.
A second reason that faith is so important is because it focuses our lives. The reason that Abraham could leave his homeland is because by faith he could see a better one before him. The text says, “For he looked forward to the city that has foundations whose architect and builder is God.” The reason that the Apostles could sell their possessions and follow Christ was because they had just been told that it was the Father’s delight to give them the kingdom. It’s like meeting someone for lunch with a bologna sandwich in hand only to discover that they have prepared for you a steak dinner. By faith we can see that what the world offers us cannot compare with what God has in store so it is not really a burden to leave the world behind.
Lastly we need to ask the “how” of faith. How do we grow and mature in the faith? If faith has to do with convictions and assurances that are based in the character of God, where do we best learn about the character of God?
First we learn best about the character of God through the Scriptures. The Bible says, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.” Some translations say “and hearing by the word of Christ.” To put it another way, we learn about God best by listening to what Jesus said about Him.
There are so many false narratives about God in the world and even at times in the Church that it is very easy to have a distorted image of Him. This in turn makes it difficult to place our faith in Him. It took me forever to rid myself of my childhood image of God as a big cop in the sky who was looking for an excuse to punish me. That He would delight to give me His kingdom never entered my imagination. It took years of study for that truth to replace the childish false narrative and sometimes it still is a battle. The point of the Scriptures is not so that we can debate about fine points of theology, the point of the Scriptures is so that God can reveal Himself to us so that we can place our faith in Him. Bottom line is that you will never grow and mature in faith if you are ignorant of God’s Word.
Second we learn best about the character of God through prayer. What has especially helped me has been using the Book of Common Prayer for decades. The prayers and liturgies of that book have taught me about God and His will for us. In the morning we pray, “O God who are the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom…..” What did we just learn? We learned that God loves peace and concord and so I better not put on Facebook my response to my commie pinko friend. I learned that knowing God gives us eternal life so it’s not the end of the world if I don’t know the difference between a cruet and a ciborium. I learned that rather than being a burden serving God it is how I find the freedom that I seek. If we can get all of that from one half of one prayer, imagine what is formed in us as we pray many of these prayers day after day and year after year.
A third way that we learn best about God is through His Church. Why is that? It is because the Church is the Body of Christ. One of the things I enjoy about Bible Study is when we get together we represent different parts of the Body of Christ. And these different parts will see in the Scriptures things that I would never see only coming from my perspective. So the other parts of Christ’ Body give me a more full picture of this God who is revealing Himself to us and it is why lone ranger Christianity does not work.
There is a dangerous sentiment on the rise that the Body of Christ is optional. It is becoming more and more popular for Churches to stream their services live so folks can stay home and watch it on the computer but they will soon discover that is a huge mistake. Not only can you not receive the Sacrament through a computer screen, you also cannot wash anyone’s feet. God so loved the world that He did not become a Facebook friend. A religion based on the incarnation of God Himself requires that we spend real time with real people in order to love and serve one another.
Strengthened by these first three ways, a fourth best way that we learn about the character of God and grow our faith is through patient suffering. You probably don’t want to hear that and I really did not want to have to say it but the Scriptures compel me to do so. The Bible says that if we are His children He will discipline us and although no discipline seems pleasant at the moment it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace (Heb 12). Like the guy who had seven theories and no children, and then had seven children and no theories, I have learned not to trust an authority who is not a wounded healer. Jesus was the suffering servant of Isaiah and so it follows that His followers will also be suffering servants. It is only as we are in the valley of the shadow of death that we truly learn that His rod and staff will comfort us. Up until then it is a nice verse on a plaque. As the saying goes, “mountain tops are wonderful but the fruit only grows in the valley.” It is when we are in the valley, in times of suffering, that we learn more deeply about who God is if we will turn to Him in those times.
“And without faith it is impossible to please God.” So the opposite must also be true. This means that our faith pleases God even faith the size of a mustard seed. Jesus asks us to place our faith in the One who delights to give us His kingdom even though we have not earned it nor do we even deserve it. So let’s be God pleasers and place our full trust in Him. Amen.