Sunday, February 17, 2008

Open-Eyed Faith

Texts: Genesis 12:1-4a; 15:1-6; Romans 4:1-5; 13-17

IMAGINE YOU’RE A MAN OF 75 YEARS, living outside a small city called Haran in Aramea, in the plains of southern Turkey. You haven’t lived there all your life: several years ago you left your native land a thousand miles away and came here with your father, your wife, and your dead brother’s son and his wife. Your father always talked about pushing on to a land farther to the west, but somehow, you never did.

Imagine that you’d never heard of Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam-- because they didn’t exist. Imagine that you’d always worshipped a myriad of gods and goddesses. Imagine that you’d heard about a divine entity known as the Most High God, but you’d never had anything much to do with Him. Imagine that you and everyone knew the Most High God had created the world, but he’d delegated all the god duties to deities like Nannar the moon god and Ishtar goddess of fertility and Shamosh, god of the sun. Imagine that you believed that even the moon god and the sun god were too high and mighty for you, that your personal gods and goddesses were spirits of rocks and trees and hills. And imagine you believed that if you went to a new country, you’d have to start worshipping new gods, because each little deity had his own turf and didn’t have any power in another land.

And now imagine, just suppose, that one day, or one night, you become aware that God Most High--the Most High God- is talking to you. Imagine that He identifies Himself as the Lord Jehovah, the God Who Was and Is and Is to Be, the Maker of heaven and earth and all that is in them. Imagine that God Most High, the Lord Jehovah, makes it clear that those other gods and goddesses you’ve been worshipping are really nothing, and that from now on, you’re to listen to Him and Him alone.

And imagine that this exalted Jehovah, the Most Exalted God, the Great Creator, tells you directly that He has a unique and world-changing plan especially for you, but you have to trust Him totally to get the benefit of it. Imagine He commands you, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you."

But now imagine it’s not easy for you to up and leave, just like that. Suppose Haran is your forefathers’ ancestral home, even though you weren’t born there: the place where your people had always lived even though your branch had roamed off east for awhile. Suppose you fit right in back here in Haran, that you’re part of a big extended family, a tribe, and now it’s just you and your little clan that’s supposed to go blinding off into the blue with no idea where you’re all going. Suppose you’ve just become the head of your little clan, and you’re loaded with the responsibility for all your relatives and servants and slaves. And what about all your sheep and cattle? Will there be grass and water for them where the Lord Jehovah wants you to go? Where He’s taking you, will there be bandits or defensive landowners? Will the kings of those nations demand taxes or tribute from you? You have to consider all these things. It’s not a trivial thing, just to pack up and go.

So, what will you do? What’s going through your mind? Do you doubt your sanity? Do you tell yourself, "Aw, I was just hearing things!" and stay where you are? Or are you convinced you’ve really heard from the Most High God, Jehovah by Name? Will you believe He is who He says He is, and will you obey and go?

If you’re Abram son of Terah, somehow you obey. You pack up your goods and your livestock and your family and you go. You go, even though you don’t have a clue where Jehovah Most High is leading you. You go, even though the only thing your really know about Jehovah Most High is that He’s the Maker of heaven and earth and that He’s spoken directly to you. You go, and that takes a degree of faith the world has never known before or since.

There’s a reason that St. Paul calls Abraham the father of all of us who believe. We take it for granted that there’s only one God. We just assume that His power extends over the whole universe and beyond, and there’s nowhere we can go away from His presence. We know of all the mighty acts Jehovah God would do for Abraham and his descendants. God willing, we have personally experienced the saving power of the Lord when He rescued us from sin by the blood of His Son Jesus Christ. We know all this. We assume it.

But Abram didn’t assume all this. He couldn’t assume it. Until the Lord Most High called him, Abram didn’t know a thing about it at all.

One of the neatest things I learned in seminary was that all the idol-worshipping nations in the ancient Near East had some concept of a Most High God who had made the world, even though they had all sorts of bizarre ideas about Him having wives and children and doing all sorts of ungodlike things. And a neat thing I learned when I was studying for this sermon was that Abram’s people weren’t originally from Ur of the Chaldees, which is to say, from southern Iraq. They were nomadic Arameans, and though they pitched their tents wherever conditions were good for their sheep, that region up in southeastern Turkey around the headwaters of the Euphrates were their ancestral home. As Arameans, they were Semites, and they would have heard of Jehovah God, the Lord God whom alone we worship today. But their knowledge of Him would have been corrupted. Arameans like Abram would have thought that Jehovah was just another territorial or national god.

So again, think how revolutionary, how earth-shattering it was for Abram the Aramean to have Jehovah God reveal that He and God Most High are One and the Same. And not only that, but also to have Him make Abram promises that revealed that He the Lord had power over all the nations, not just the Arameans.

It took faith for Abram to pack up and go. He could have said, "Jehovah, how do I know You have any power beyond my own country? You might abandon me!" He could have called on another god to frustrate God Most High in his plans-- after all, some legends said that the sky and the earth were the sons of this god, and they’d gotten away with rebelling against him. Abram could have tried to bribe the Lord with sacrifices to make Him change His mind and let him stay in Haran.

But Abram took the Lord God at His word. He didn’t quail, he didn’t debate, he didn’t demand signs and wonders and evidence. Abram simply believed that Jehovah God was Who He said He was, that He was a righteous God, and that He had the power to keep the promises He had made to His servant Abram.

That is faith. That is the faith that pleases God. As it says in the letter to the Hebrews, "Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." We can argue that Abram wasn’t really seeking Jehovah when Jehovah called him. So much the more we should look up to our father Abraham, because he trusted in the Lord’s existence and His power to reward as soon as the Lord revealed Himself to him.

But was Abram’s faith was some meritorious deed that the Lord had to reward him for? Not at all. Abram merely did what we all ought to do, he trusted God implicitly. But even though Abram didn’t "earn" anything by his faith, the Lord by His free grace chose to reckon or credit it to him as righteousness. God declared the sinner Abram worthy to be His servant and to walk in friendship with Him. For unless God has imputed His own righteousness to us, none of us sinners can stand in His presence.

We read in Genesis 12 that the Lord promised to make of Abram a great nation. That means children, descendants of his own body. But several years later, Abram and Sarai still had no offspring. We see that by chapter 15, Abram is bold to question the Lord on how He is going to keep His promise to make him a great nation. Will it be through an adopted son, a slave like Eliezar of Damascus?

Does this mean Abram was wavering in his faith?

No, not really. For again, he demands no signs and wonders, no miraculous proof. The Lord simply assures Abram that the sons and daughters of his body will be like the stars of heaven, and again, Abram simply takes God at His word. As the Scripture says, "And he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness."

Is that blind faith? Maybe for Abram it was. But if you’re blind and you put your trust in a faithful guide, that’s not like putting your faith in nothing at all. The path is still there and the destination is still at the end of it, even when you have to rely on someone else to get you where you have to go.

It’s like I was telling the children. A blind person with a guide dog trains with that dog. He gets to know that dog. He lives with that dog twenty-four hours a day. He relies on that dog to keep him on the right path, to get him around obstacles so he won’t bark his shins or step out into traffic. Our blind friends may not be able to see the road ahead, but the eyes of their hearts are very open to the trustworthiness of their faithful dogs. And so they snap on the leash and step out in faith.

Our God is much greater than any Seeing Eye dog. But He is not less than a Seeing Eye dog. Whatever trust a blind person can have in her dog, Abram had exponentially more trust in the Lord Jehovah, God Most High. Whatever trustworthiness a trained guide dog might have, the trustworthiness of the Lord God of heaven and earth is infinitely more.

Abram believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Abram knew he was blind to what would happen to him in the future, but he put his life and the life of all he had in the hands of the God Who Sees.

And because he did, we do not have to rely on blind faith. We don’t have to screw up our guts or our emotions and believe in believing. We don’t have to generate "faith" as if it were some force to keep Tinkerbell alive. We don’t have to manufacture faith as if faith itself were a form of work that God has to pay or reward us for. We can simply look at everything our Lord Jehovah did for Abraham and his descendants. We can receive the testimony of what He did for centuries to save and defend His people the Jews. We can trust in the overwhelming power of what Jesus the Son of God did for us on the cross.

We still need faith, but our faith is not blind. We trust in the sure word and working of our Lord Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave His life for us. We trust that we are spiritual children of Abraham and Sarah, reckoned through their blessed offspring Son Jesus of Nazareth. And because we are their descendants in Christ, we share in the promises that the Lord God promised Abram from the very beginning. We inherit the promise of belonging to a great nation-- which is the kingdom of God. We can claim the promise of God’s blessing-- the blessing of being made a child of the eternal Father Almighty. The promise of a great name-- the great name of Jesus our Lord, at whose name every knee shall bow. The promise of many sharers in our blessing-- people of every language and nation and tribe whom God shall call into the fellowship of His Church. The promise of ultimate vindication-- the final defeat of death and the devil and of all those who follow and serve Satan, the Enemy of our souls.

All these blessings we share, because Abram that day in Haran long ago believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. All these blessings we share, because we walk in Abraham’s footsteps and believe God when He tells us that faith in Jesus alone is the only way to please Him. All these blessings we share, because we trust in the blood of the Cross to wash away our sins so we can be reckoned righteous in His sight.

What is our brother Paul’s concern? His concern is that we stop trusting in our own works to make us pleasing to God. He doesn’t even want us to have faith in faith, as if that were a work we did to make us pleasing to God. No, our brother Paul wants us to open our eyes and simply receive the gift that God is giving us, the gift of eternal life and righteousness won for us by the saving death of God’s Son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

It’s true, we can’t see the consequences of trusting God and receiving that gift. But we see Jesus, who bore the cross for our sake. We see what God did for us through Him. We can have open-eyed faith that Christ is trustworthy and will fulfil all God’s promises to our father Abraham in us. We can have open-eyed faith that He is the One true God, the righteous Lord Jehovah, God Most High. And we can trust Jesus our Lord to bring us at last to the Promised Land, to the very heart and arms of our Father in heaven.

To whose Name be honor and power, blessing and glory, through Christ, with the Holy Spirit, One God, now and forever. Amen.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Not So Fast!

Texts: Isaiah 58:1-12; Matthew 6:1-4; 16-18

LAST YEAR IN LATE MARCH, I stood in this pulpit and asked how many of you had made specials vows for Lent.

If you were there, you may recall that no hands were raised. At least, I didn’t see any.

I guess it’s not a Presbyterian thing to give things up for Lent. That’s for the Roman Catholics, or maybe for the High Church Episcopalians. We Presbyterians don’t feel bound to observe special times and seasons. We’re not obligated to deny ourselves for any set period just because the Church says it’s a good idea.

And you know what? We aren’t bound from the outside to give things up for Lent. No church authority can tell us we must stop eating meat or chocolate or indulging in any good gift of God we happen to enjoy, for religious purposes. No human being has the right to tell us we must fast or pray or do acts of Christian love and service at any particular place or time.

Nevertheless, the Lord our God speaking in His Holy Scriptures assumes that from time to time we will set aside times deliberately to fast and pray. Moreover, He assumes that the exercise of physical and spiritual discipline will be good for us.

We have just read what the Holy Spirit says, speaking through the Prophet Isaiah, about the true nature of a fast that is pleasing to God. And in our reading from St. Matthew, our Lord Jesus tells us how we are to carry out our spiritual and physical discipline, when, not if we do it.
In both our readings, we have to pay attention to what our Lord tells us about how not to fast.

Now, at the beginning of Isaiah 58, we have to wonder what God is objecting to. I mean, His people are acting really zealous and devoted to Him! They aren’t just claiming to go hungry for religion’s sake, they’re actually doing it! As Jesus would put it, look at their uncombed hair and unwashed faces! See how somber they look! Look, some of them have even disfigured and cut themselves, to prove how sincerely they’re seeking God, how eager they are to know His ways! They’ve really humbled themselves, haven’t they? What more does the Lord want?

"Why have we fasted," they complain to God, "and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you, O Lord, have not noticed?"

But that’s the problem. God’s people want Him to notice them. They’re treating Him like Baal or Astoreth or some other pagan god. They expect to bribe the Lord with their religious devotion, to make Him cough up whatever it is they want.

The pagan idea was that if you starved or disfigured yourself or screamed or wailed or whatever, you’d get your idol’s attention and he or she would be obliged to do what you wanted. If you were really desperate, you’d sacrifice your own children to your false god. For the pagans, fasting was all about making the gods perform. It was about bribing or coercing them to do what you wanted. And now the Israelites say, "Boohoo, no fair, Lord God of Israel! We’re doing our part, why aren’t You doing Yours?"

It must not be so with us. When-- not if-- you and I deprive ourselves of good things for the sake of religion or godliness, we must never, ever imagine that we’re putting God in our debt by it, or forcing Him to give us our way.

Another way not to fast is what Jesus points out-- doing your fasting or other acts of religion so other people will see you and exclaim over how pious and holy you are. Such public fasting is all about us. It has nothing to do with God-- why should He respond to it?

In our modern culture, we do such a good job avoiding this error, that the very words "pious" and "righteous" and "religious" are insults!

But have we in the West really stopped showing off our good deeds to be seen by others? How many of us do volunteer work not out of love, but because it’ll look good on our resumes or university applications? How many multi-millionaires do you know who donate a building and don’t expect their name to be on it?

It must not be so with us. When-- not if-- you and I fast or deny ourselves to give more to charity or when we make a deliberate effort to spend more time in prayer, we must do all we can to keep it between ourselves and God. And when we cannot, God must receive all the glory.

And then, God’s people were using their fast and their fast day as an excuse to be rude, cranky, and downright mean. They were quarrelling and fighting and claiming, "Well, it’s not my fault, I’m hungry and I’m in a bad mood." Their fasting wasn’t drawing them closer to God or making them more loving towards their neighbor; no, it was driving them further away.

It must not be so with us. When-- not if-- we fast and deny ourselves, we must use it as an occasion for love and charity towards God and our neighbor.

Now, we think we’ve got this problem solved. We think we can avoid doing all these bad things by never fasting at all. But that’s not our Lord’s idea of how to solve the problem. He wants us to understand what fasting really is, and for us to grasp all the good things it can actually get us.

In our reading from Isaiah, we see that "fasting" is really a code word for self-denial and self-discipline. It’s about giving up our will and our wants so the will of God may be done, on earth as it is in heaven. As Jesus would say, it’s taking up our cross and following Him. The self-denial that the Lord wants isn’t only about not doing certain things, it’s also about doing certain things, things that are hard, things that are inconvenient, things that are awkward, for the sake of God and His glory.

Awkward things like speaking out against injustice wherever we find it, and liberating the exploited and oppressed--regardless of what political party we support. Inconvenient things like feeding the hungry and housing the homeless-- even if they are dirty and disgusting and ungrateful. Hard things like always treating the members of your own family with grace and kindness and never, ever taking them for granted.

So why can’t we just do that instead of denying ourselves physically? Let’s just exercise social justice and charity and forget about fasting and prayer!

But God knows we need both. We need to learn to deny ourselves in our bodies and spirits, so we can draw closer to Him. We need to experience denying ourselves in our money, time, efforts, and attitudes, so we can draw closer to our neighbors. As Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, giving to the needy on one hand and fasting and prayer on the other hand go-- well, hand in hand. One is first towards God and one is first towards our neighbor. Both, if undertaken in true humility and faith can make us more holy and more like Him.

Both kinds of self-denial draw us closer to God and make us more aware of our need for Him. If you’ve ever made a sincere vow to give up something good for the Lord’s sake, or if you’ve ever decided deliberately to do good, you know what I mean. You begin well, but then it gets hard. You really want to eat that food or indulge in that amusement. Maybe the people you’re really doing good for aren’t grateful, or people question your good motives. The tempting little voice in your head starts saying, "Oh, go ahead, give up. God won’t care! He won’t make you keep your promise!" But you did promise God, and the only way you can be faithful is to cry out to the Lord and say, "Father, help me do this! I can’t keep it up without you!" Both kinds of self-denial show us God’s strength and our weakness-- and that’s good.

Both kinds of self-denial open our ears to listen for the Lord’s voice and guidance. It’s easy to say we’re going to be good to our neighbor all the time, and yes, we should be. But when you deliberately choose for a time to do something in particular for Jesus’ sake and in Jesus’ name, you become more aware of working side by side with Him, of being His disciple and accepting His teaching. You become humble when you realize how far you are from conforming to His image, and hopeful when time and again He comforts you with His sanctifying Spirit.

Both kinds of self-denial help us enter into the suffering and struggles of our Lord Jesus Christ as He faced the Cross for the sake of you and me. Going without a meal or meat or chocolate for a time seems absurdly like nothing compared to what He went through. But it’s all about saying No to our flesh and Yes to God and becoming more like our Master who prayed, "Not My will, Father, but Yours be done." Denying our flesh and going out of our way even for our enemies helps us to grasp a little of what Jesus Christ gave up and did for us and fill us with gratitude and praise.

Exercised in faith and total dependence upon Almighty God, both kinds of fasting bring us into the pleasure and delight of our Lord. As He says through Isaiah, if we fast as He requires,

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.

Jesus says that when we fast and pray and do our acts of charity to please God and to benefit our neighbor, our Father in heaven will reward us. Our spiritual ancestors the ancient Jews wanted to be rewarded by God, but they were after the wrong reward-- worldly security and riches and the freedom to do whatever they pleased. But the reward of God is so much better than that! The reward of God is His eternal presence with us. The reward of God is life and meaning like a spring whose waters never fail. The reward of God is light in darkness and comfort in need. The reward of God is God Himself.

You may decide to undertake a special act of self-denial or service this Lent. Or you may decide to do it at some other time. No one in the Presbyterian Church-- not I, not your interim pastor, not the Moderator of the General Assembly-- can order you when or where or how. But when-- not if-- you give to the needy; when-- not if--you spend special times in prayer; when-- not if-- you fast, do it to the glory of God and for the good of your neighbor, confiding in the strength of Jesus your crucified and risen Lord. And your Father in heaven will be your great and glorious reward.
Preached at an Ash Wednesday service of penitence and Holy Communion