August 18, 2019 Sermon
Old Testament Scripture: Isaiah 5:1-7
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!
New Testament Scripture: Hebrews 11:29-12:2
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.
By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.
By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets -- who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.
Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,1 they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented -- of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,1 and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Sermon: “Faith, Pt. 2”
Last week, we began a discussion about what faith is, or rather, what it isn’t. Faith is not believing in something simply because someone slaps a Christian label on it, or because someone calls it spiritual and charges a boatload of money for it.
Faith is not believing in the power of special festivals, esoteric rituals, elemental spirits, or Benny Hinn. Faith is not buying a book by Marianna Williamson, and thinking that you will never have to go to the doctor again. Faith is not “woo”.
Which led us to the question, “Ok, Dave, you’ve made it quite clear what you don’t think faith is, now, let’s get into what you do think faith is. Let us know what you think faith is all about, now that you’ve satisfied your need to make fun of the spiritual charlatans that populate our airwaves and best-selling self-help book lists.”
To which I say, “Well, that’s a little harder.”
It’s easier, at least for me, to say what faith isn’t, rather than what it is.
Last week, I started talking about what faith is in terms of doing, of stepping out into an unknown future, of demonstrating, through your life and actions, your understanding of your relationship with God and with other people.
And I still think that, that faith is more than believing, it’s acting on that belief.
But just like faith is more than just belief, it’s also more than just action.
Faith is about growth, and change, and maturity.
We don’t believe things the same way now as we did when we were kids. We don’t listen for Santa’s reindeer on the roof. We don’t think that a Rabbit brings Easter eggs. We don’t think about things like God, and Jesus, and heaven and hell and sin and redemption the same way throughout our life. At least, I hope we don’t.
Because things change.
Our circumstances change.
Our perspective changes.
And our faith, if it is alive and healthy, changes as well.
All living things change, and if our faith is not changing, it is dead.
Now, you might think, wait, how does David get here? What scriptures is he thinking about when he talks about a changing faith? Isn’t our faith supposed to be a rock, a tower of strength, never changing, always dependable, always present in a time of danger?
And my answer is, no, it’s not. We confuse faith with God when we think that faith never changes. God doesn’t change. But our faith in God does. God is a rock. Our faith is not. It’s important to remember that our faith is in God, not in our faith itself.
And so, as I began deconstructing our faith, just a little bit, I want to remind you of the words of the Apostle Paul, who said that when we were children, we thought like children, but now, we’ve put childish things away.
And that’s OK. It doesn’t mean that we should be embarrassed about what we thought as children. It doesn’t even mean that what we thought as children was necessarily wrong.
But we change. And our faith, if it is to inform our lives in any real way, will change as well.
And our scripture today reminds us of this reality.
Today, the author of Hebrews lifts up some of the heroes of the Bible as examples of faith. Barak, Gideon, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, we know the names, we know the stories, but we rarely stop to think about their actual faith, and the way it changed in the course of their lives.
For instance, Barak. He was a great general, one of the best of all time. And yet, when it came time for God raise up a deliverer for Israel, it was not Barak, the great military commander. It was a woman, Deborah. Can you imagine the thought process Barak had to go through in order to accept the fact that he would be taking orders from a woman? There are still people today who can’t quite wrap their minds around a female pastor, never mind a female president, or female general. And back then, it was a million, billion times worse. The fact that Barak was able to yield his authority to a woman is a remarkable statement of his faith. And I’m sure it didn’t come easy.
Or Gideon. He was tasked with leading the Israelites against the Midionites, but the first time we meet him, he is hiding like a child in a cistern, hoping no one notices him. Hardly the man of faith we remember. And then, when God tells him to lead the Jewish army into battle, he needs two out three different signs from God just to make sure. Again, not the sort of faith we usually associate with great heroes. But, he continued on his journey, and he changed, and he became the man God wanted.
Samson’s faith was in his hair and in his strength, and when that was taken from him, he was nothing, until he remembered the actual source and object of his faith.
Samuel was in the strange position of anointing both Saul and David as Kings over Israel. They could not have been more different, Saul, a northern aristocrat, born to rule; David, a Southern shepherd boy with a sling and a chip on his shoulder. Try to reconcile this change in political thinking.
David may have been a man after God’s own heart, but his wandering eye, not so much. His dalliance with Bathsheba was a gross embarrassment, and ultimately resulted in a life of tragedy and regrets. David had his own moment on the road to Damascus when Samuel brought him to terms with his actions. David’s faith was messy, there’s no other word to describe it.
And Rahab, the prostitute. The very lowest class of all, a woman who has put a price on the use of her body, without power, without voice, without stature, without virtue, yet because of a simple act of hospitality, she is held up as a paragon of faith. In a Testament where woman are rarely even given the privilege of a name, she is remembered in an anthem of the highest honor.
This is what faith looked like for the heroes of the Bible. It was messy. It started one way, and ended another. It’s not consistent, it’s not even very attractive, and yet, these men and woman are held up for our consideration as those who have demonstrated what a living, changing, unexpected faith looks like.
In fact, the very nature of the Bible itself reflects a living and changing faith. The Israeli slaves left Egypt and spent 40 years in the desert discovering who they were. When they entered the land of Canaan, they were a different people, and they had a different faith.
When Jesus went into the wilderness, he went in a carpenter, and came out the Christ.
When we first meet Job, we meet a man convinced that it is his own righteousness that has convinced God to bless him, and through his suffering, he and his Biblically literate friends learn that their previous theology of blessings and curses is inadequate to address his spiritual questions.
Throughout the Bible, over and over and over, we see individuals and groups of people begin one way, with one understanding of who God is, and after a mighty upheaval, find themselves in a position where they need to rethink what they thought about God.
God has not changed.
But the way we think about him sure has.
Paul, on the road to Tarsus. Peter, after eating with the Gentile. Thomas, before touching a resurrected Jesus.
What would have happened if these heroes of the Bible had possessed a dead faith, the kind of faith that never changed, never grew, never had to accommodate a new perspective, a new understanding?
Well, Paul would still be stoning Christians to death, in the name of God, of course. Peter would have decided that only Jews could be Christians, and we would not be here today. Thomas would have walked away, with no hope in the resurrection. Deborah would not have led the Israelites in victory over the Canaanites, and the tribes would have ceased to exist right then and there. Jesus would have stayed in Nazareth, making furniture. Nice furniture, to be sure, but still.
Our faith, if is alive, will change, does change, has to change.
All of us have, and will, encounter circumstances that will challenge our faith. All of us have, or will, be faced with a situation that simply can’t be forced into our narrow theology, and something is going to have to change.
And this change is hard.
And this change is messy.
And sometimes, this change takes a long, long time. For the slaves, it took 40 years. For Paul, it took 3 days. For Peter it took three separate visions, and a couple of uncomfortable conversations with his church. For Jesus, it took 40 days with no food or water.
Allowing our faith to grow and change is not easy, and it takes time.
But it is a necessary thing, if we are to grow into the people that God wants us to be.
So, what is faith? After two weeks of looking for a description of faith, are we any closer to a definitive answer?
Well, probably not.
But there are some things we can say about faith that might be helpful: