Faith

Pastor's Pen

For the past few months I have been wondering about what James KA Smith wonders about in his book Imagining the Kingdom.  Charles Taylor in The Secular Age has similar wonderings, (or wanderings!) as does Hunter in To Change the World, and Lose in Preaching at the Crossroads.  The wondering is this:  What does it mean to believe today?

We can look at this question in two parts.  What does it mean to believe? and secondly, how does the world of today impact how we believe?

Last night at our Wednesday Bible Study, we asked these questions.  We looked at the passage in Acts 16:25-40.  Paul and Silas have been beaten and thrown into a prison.  Rather than moping about their bad luck, they start singing hymns to God. Everyone else in the prison listens in.  Suddenly, in the middle of the night there is an earthquake.  The chains fall off the prisoners.  The doors open.

The prison guard is terrified.  He knows it is life for life.  If a prisoner escapes then he loses his head.  “What must I do to be saved?!” he cries.

“Believe in the Lord Jesus.” Says Paul.

Believe.

Sounds simple enough.  Until we stop for a moment and wonder: What is Paul asking him to do?  He is worried that he might loose his head because the prisoners might have escaped and Paul says “Believe, man… you just gotta believe.”  What is Paul asking him to do?

There are a couple answers here.  First, Paul is asking him to believe some facts about the world and about God.  Facts like: God saves people from difficult situations.  God answers prayer.  God intervenes in the world.  God sent the earthquake that freed the prisoners. The God of the Jews now invites Roman Jailers to be a part of the kingdom of his Messiah Jesus.

Secondly, Paul is asking the jailer to trust in this God, who sent his son Jesus into the world.  Now this is a little different than merely believing facts.  For example: I might believe the fact that the parachute will open and I will drift safely down to earth.  But when I jump, then I am trusting that the parachute will carry me safely down to earth.  Likewise, the Jailer is invited to trust that God will really save him and that by trusting in God, the Jailer won’t lose his head.

Third, Paul is asking the jailer to decide without a full understanding of the situation.  The faith is somewhat blind.  Paul cannot say what will happen to the Jailer.  Paul cannot say how the Jailer will be saved.  Paul can only bear witness to what God has done, and invite the Jailer to decide on the basis of Paul’s testimony.

We can imagine Paul saying something like this: Jesus made it clear to his disciples many times that they would be persecuted, jailed, and flogged.  So here we are, recovering from a flogging in jail, because we are disciples of Jesus.  Jesus also promised that he would deliver us from death.  And look, there was an earthquake and we are free from a long suffering death in prison.  Paul may have spoke of the time when Jesus spoke directly to him.  Paul is then able to draw the conclusion:  What Jesus told us would happen, did happen.  We trusted in Jesus and now we are delivered.  If you want to be delivered, you should do the same.

And that brings us to a fourth aspect of belief.  Believe in the Lord Jesus, like I do.  It is an invitation to imitation.  This is to say, the Jailer is invited not only to think different thoughts and to put his faith in a different God, he is invited to do different things.

What is the thing that Paul and Silas are doing?  They were singing praises to God.  They were worshiping God in a dungeon, because somehow they were able to imagine (see beyond) in the current situation a broader picture of God who allows his servants to suffer, but still holds them and the world in his hands.  And this singing, this worship, reinforces their belief and trust in God.  There cannot be belief and trust in God separate from worship.

Therefore, they offer an invitation to imitation.  They invite the Jailer to worship the same God they worship.  To believe and be baptized.  And when the Jailer does this, he is filled with joy… not unlike the joy experienced by Paul and Silas when they sang hymns at the beginning of the story.

Faith then, involves believing, trusting, deciding, and imitating (worshiping).  Consider one of my favorite theologians, John Calvin, on faith (all translations from the Battles ed.) :
-Faith is a sure and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence (believing)
-Knowledge of faith consists in assurance (trusting)
-Faith cannot be separated from a devout disposition (imitation and worship)
-Assurance of faith is tinged with doubt and assailed by anxiety.  It certainly feels to us like we are deciding to have faith in these moments, even though the Holy Spirit is guiding our steps.

The Christian tradition has emphasized these different parts of faith at different times.  The movement of Christian Apologetics in the 20th century was very interested in the believing part – the proving that the facts are true.   We see Christian movements, like Billy Graham crusades that were heavy on the deciding aspect of faith.  Make a decision for Christ!  Most of us who were born and raised Christian tend to see faith through the lens of imitation.  I pray like my father did and my pastor did.

Each of these aspects of faith don’t play well in today’s culture.  The question of believing facts quickly slips into endless debates about science and history and the reliability of the Bible.  The challenge to make a decision is less pressing in a pluralistic culture.  Why choose one faith, when I can dabble in them all, or ignore them all?  On the imitation side, there are less people to imitate.  Name five famous Christians that inspire you to be like them.  Not as easy as it once was.

What is left then is faith as trust.  This aspect of faith still resonates today.  We are looking for authenticity and credibility.  We are looking for a story that resonates.  The Jailer needed to trust Paul.  And Paul was the real deal.  He sang praises in prison and an earthquake set him free.  Put your faith in me, Paul seems to say, and I will show you where you can safely and securely put your faith and trust.  This “I believe in you and you believe in God…” may very well be the first step into the Christian faith for many people in this pluralistic age.

Photo credit: https://jamesrg.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/last-days-in-rome/

 

Notes on the 116th Psalm

Pastor's Pen

Here are some notes on the Psalm that will the sermon text for Sunday, Jan 17, 2016

I.  I believed; therefore I said, “I am greatly afflicted.”  Psalm 116:10.

Not our typical response.  More often we will hear someone say, “I am greatly afflicted… (sad, ill, depressed, worried, victimized, oppressed, hurt, wounded, angry)” Therefore I said, I don’t believe. But even that feels a little too personal for most people.

Let’s depersonalize it a bit and say “there are people in the world who are greatly afflicted.  Therefore, I don’t believe.”  And some version or another of this statement gets made all the time with varying degrees of sincerity.

The psalmist turns the statement around.  He doesn’t start with the affliction, he starts with belief.  I believe.  This is shorthand for, “I believe in the saving power of God.”     He believed before the affliction and he believes in the midst of his affliction.  The existence of the affliction doesn’t challenge his belief.

Instead…

His belief gives him permission to speak of his affliction. I believe, therefore I said.  Speaking the truth flows out of believing in the saving God, even if that truth is an ugly one.  “I said, I am greatly afflicted.”

The psalmist shows us a different way to be in the world.  Affliction doesn’t mean there no God, rather belief in God gives courage to speak honestly about affliction.

II.  Listen to the words of Affliction
-The cords of death entangled me
-The anguish of the grave came upon me
-I was overcome by trouble and sorrow.
-I was in great need
-I was in chains (vs.16 you have freed me from my chains)

III. These things happened to a believer.  His belief didn’t keep the trouble away.  Should think about that for awhile…

IV.  “I am greatly afflicted” Sounds less like a statement, and more like a prayer.  The Psalmist has a Person to whom he can take his trouble.

He prays the truth to God.  And God hears.

The sermon based on these notes is for Sunday Jan 17, 2016.  It will be posted on this website.

Christmas Message

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There is a painting by Gari Melchers entitled The Nativity.  Joseph is seated leaning forward.  His large carpenter hands are folded together.  His elbows are resting on his thighs.  He looks down with tired eyes at the baby in front of him.  Now, finally, all things are still.

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Mary is next to Joseph, sitting on the floor with her head leaning on Joseph’s side. Her legs are straight out in front of her. She is quietly gazing at the new born.

 

Both are completely exhausted and wondering what  it all could mean.

 

The child’s head glows brightly.  And the light coming from the manger reflects off of Mary’s clothing and her face.  The light also reflects off Joseph’s hands, his clothes and his brow.

 

The door to the room is open, but no light comes in from outside.  The only light in the picture radiates out from the baby.  The light shines in the darkness.  The light of the world has been born. The painting invites us to take a moment, to sit and to look.

 

For we too are exhausted, we too are tired.  But here, in that lower room, where the animals were kept, lies the light that no darkness can overcome.  We are drawn in, so that the light of the world will reflect off of our clothing and off of our faces.  In this moment, the light of the world puts no demands on us, no obligations, no duties.  The light shines without us needing to do anything at all.

 

Hear these words of grace.  The light shines without us needing to do anything at all.  Just be… Just be… The time has come, Luke puts it in 2:6.  The time has come and Jesus has been born.  The light of the world has come into the world.

 

And that light comes on its own schedule.  When we read Luke’s gospel we notice that there are different ways to account for time.  There is, of course, the time measured in months.  So Luke tells us that the Angel Gabriel comes to Mary in the sixth month.  This is probably August, since the Roman calendar had 10 months, not 12.

 

In the beginning of Luke 2, we read that Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census.  This, Luke tells us, was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.  So we can account for time according to the reigns of rulers and governors and the great events they bring about, like moving a vast number of people to their homes to register.

 

But Luke gently hints at a third way to account for time, Luke says, “the time came.”  Or the time was fulfilled.  The word used here is indefinite, imprecise.  It is the kind of time or schedule that is unknown to us.  Pregnancy is like that.  In her book “Holy Listening” Margaret Guenther, notes that pregnancy is a sign to us that there are other times besides the hour by hour, day by day, month by month time that we live in.  Some pregnancies are short.  Some run longer than expected.  While we say nine months.  We all know that the baby comes when the baby is ready.

 

Pregnancy hints at the fact that God’s time is not our time.  Luke doesn’t tell us if Mary was overdue, or if Jesus was premature.  He only tells us that the time came.  Other great events were shaping up around Mary and Joseph.  They had to travel to Bethlehem.  They had to discover that there was no room for them.  They needed to arrive in the place the Lord had chosen to be born.  Then the time would come, in Bethlehem.  The city of David, the place where the prophet said the messiah would be born.

 

This schedule of events probably didn’t make any sense to Mary and Joseph.  Mary was probably checking off the days.  Relieved that Joseph decided to stay with her after all.  Joseph probably got wind of the news of the census and did a little math himself and realized, Uh oh… we are going to have to travel right around the due date.

 

But all the while there was this other time,  God’s timing, weaving through the events of history and through the edicts of kings to ensure that the right people were in the right place, when it was time for the baby to be born.

 

And this is still true today.  There is another time, God’s timing, that is operating along in our lives.  God’s timing cannot be measured, but there will be moments when that timing is fulfilled.  There will be moments when God will put us right in the right place at the right time and we will see his glory.

 

We too may have to wander.  We too are under authority of governors and leaders.  We too may have to go when it is inconvenient and difficult.  So we remember Mary and Joseph.  Perhaps, God is at work through all that is going on, to ensure that we are where we need to be.  So that when the light does shine in the darkness, we will see the Glory of the Lord.

 

They placed the light of the world in manger, a cattle trough.  There was not a palace, nor a temple, nor silk blankets for this king.  The glory of the Lord chose to shine in an out of the way place.  The goods and glory of this world didn’t matter.  Nothing would have been good enough anyway.  He chose the out of the way place, so that out of the way people would find him.  The angels told the shepherds, while kings rested in their palaces.

 

Think about these things as you imagine that baby in the manger today.  Light shines out from him to you.  No longer do you need to stumble around in the darkness.  He will light your path and guide you.  There is no being too early and no being too late.  We catch a glimpse of the Glory of the Lord when the time is fulfilled.  Lay down your anxieties at the manger.  He cares not how you look, or where you come from. The glory of the world matters not to the one who fashioned the stars.  He shines in the out of the way places, so that out of the way people might catch a glimpse of him.

 

He took on flesh, because the body, our physical bodies, have been formed and fashioned by his hand.  Don’t miss the point. Christianity is spiritual and intellectual, but Christianity beats with a living heart of flesh.  It is deeply physical.  It is about the God who is clothed in light, choosing to then be clothed in flesh and swaddled with cloth.

In flesh he will know both suffering and pain.  With this flesh he will die the death that destroys the power of death.  And then, he will carry this flesh, his body scared and marked, tanned by the sun, and wrinkled by the wind, once dead but now alive, up into the throne room of heaven, as a continual reminder of the physical cost of love itself.

 

For we worship the God who made his dwelling among us.  We worship the God who reveals himself, not as an idea, or an abstract concept, but as a flesh and blood child, who can cry and laugh, smile and weep.  Others may speak of God, but we know that he walked this earth and that anywhere we stand, might very well be holy ground.

 

The painter knows this, as he captures with physical paint what words fail to portray.  “She gave birth to a son, wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for him in the inn.”

 

Merry Christmas