"Faith Makes Something Out Of Nothing"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 1/17/1999
Isaiah 49:1-6; John 1:35-42
More than any other element of our lives, the concept of faith is the most relative. The word "faith" can mean anything anyone wants it to mean. Faith very often becomes the focus of our praise or blame when life presents us with the unexpected. We have heard people say, "It was my faith that helped me get through my husband's death." What exactly is such a comment giving credit to?
Does faith mean understanding? Does faith mean our religious beliefs? Does faith mean an ability to detach ourselves from life's challenging events? Does faith mean an understanding that all is well even during circumstances which would normally distress and frustrate others? Does faith describe the belief system of a person who has totally surrendered himself to Jesus Christ?
What is interesting is that faith can be defined in all of these and many more ways. And it is precisely this variety of definitions that can easily confuse our conversation about this subject. We often do not know if our faith failed us or if we are merely ventilating our frustrations with life.
What I have found during my travels and studies is that many people have been taught to define faith as "correct beliefs." And since having "correct beliefs" is often given a high priority, we can understand why people struggle when such a faith fails them. Emotionally, they can easily move to punishing themselves with thoughts that some insight has escaped their learning. They think, "A person of strong faith would not have such feelings and thoughts."
Those who maintain that faith means correct beliefs, give tremendous energy to defending their faith—particularly when they are faced with others who have dared to understand God's created order differently. Thus by defining faith as "correct beliefs," believers have made theology the slowest of all disciplines to change. People are not likely to alter their thinking if they sincerely believe that their eternal destiny depends on their being right.
For example, some devoted Christians earnestly believe that upon their death, Hindus and the Buddhists will not be admitted into the circle of God's love. And there are probably an equal number of Hindus and Buddhists who are absolutely delighted about that prospect. The Church of God in several regions of America believe the same thing about the Baptists. Certain branches of the Presbyterian church believe the same thing about the Jews and the Roman Catholics. By having to be right in order to be saved, believers become the ones who create the barriers. Is this what Jesus came to announce with his life? Is this the Good News?
Can any of us sincerely and honestly believe that our all-loving Creator has allowed our eternal destiny to be determined by our being right about anything? Think of the implications of that question. Who is in charge here, we or God? Has not truth changed as our understanding of it grew? Think of the outcome in other disciplines if primitive thoughts had never been allowed to be challenged.
Suppose, for example, the medical profession years ago had refused to admit the existence of tiny disease causing micro-organisms? Suppose the commercial shipping industry had refused to sail beyond the sight of the shoreline out of fear for their physical safety? The medical community and the commercial seamen would have been absolutely correct according to their fundamental beliefs. As time progressed, however, those early beliefs were proven to be incorrect.
What eventually helped people to devote increased energy to research was the growing belief that there was much more to learn and understand about the created order. Discoveries were made on every frontier once people realized that nothing was going to happen to them if they questioned the world's best thinking on any subject.
Once this understanding began to spread, the Church's authority began to diminish because of its refusal to admit that it had been wrong. The Pope asserted his authority, for example, by maintaining that the earth was the center of the solar system. Further, he threatened to put one of humanity's pioneering astronomers to death when Galileo dared to challenge the Pope's assertions with scientific evidence.
It is interesting that every discipline has practiced what Jesus taught except the Church? Jesus said, "Seek and you will find. Knock and it will be opened to you." In essence, Jesus was teaching, "God has placed everything in creation under your dominion. God desires for you to have it all as soon as you are ready to discover and understand it."
If we have ever wondered why our faith is not working, it may be that we have placed our hope in a definition of faith that has stubbornly refused to change because of the authority believers have given it. Again, religion is the only discipline that fearfully clings to many of its original interpretations of reality. And interpretations are just that -- interpretations.
The Bible contains far more insight, more inspiration and more information than many believers are prepared to admit. Therein lies the problem. The reason that many believers cannot change is out of fear that such a shift in thinking might not be of God. No other discipline has been so fiercely governed by fear than that of our religious beliefs.
What about your definition of faith? Think of the moments in life when we have miscarried babies, when our loved ones have died tragically or unexpectedly, or when we have applied for a work position which appeared to be an answer to our prayer only to be " bumped" by someone with more seniority. Think of the times we have prayed and the heavens appeared silent, or when we have longed to be given insight as to why life has appeared to be such an up-hill struggle. How does our definition of faith carry us through such crucifixions while at the same time preserving our ability to radiate the loving energy Jesus referred to as "light"?
The answer is that Jesus showed us and taught us how to experience all our crucifixions without allowing the world to mold us into its image. He taught us how to sing love songs from our crosses long after the world has done its worst to defeat us.
Let us now consider a different definition of faith, one that actually requires very little from us. It is a definition that does not depend on how well we understand God's revelations. This definition has little to do with specific "essential" beliefs. This definition does not even take into account how much Scripture we know. And this definition of faith certainly does not presume to know or is worried about who is saved and who is not.
This definition of faith is so utterly simple that it will confound believers whose need is to have the exclusive insight into truth. This different definition was taught by Jesus. Jesus once taught with these words, "I assure you that whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it." After all the theology we have been taught through the centuries, could Jesus be correct? After all, what do children know about anything? That was precisely his point. None of us knows much about anything, and our sin is that we think we do. It has been from our ignorance that we have dared to judge the worthiness of other people in God's sight.
Children are very dear to me. They frequently help me return to my center when I am concerned about something. I enjoy talking to them. However, a number of teachers in our Early Education Center prefer that I keep my distance from the children. These teachers never tell me this, of course, but I can read their facial expressions. At times they wear a mask of quiet tolerance of me. They have good reason for that. I occasionally interrupt their control over the children.
A teacher may have the children well organized in a quiet line. The children might be walking with their fingers over their lips so as to remind themselves that silence is golden while they make their way to the playground. They are so dear that I find it difficult to resist the temptation to talk with them.
I have been known to sit on the narthex floor as the children are waiting their turn to use the bathroom. Everyone is lined up and quietly. When I sit down, I need say nothing. They immediately break out of their formation and surrou waiting nd me. I am a stranger to many of them, but even the shy ones will reach out to me with their words. "Do you like my new shirt?" one will ask. "I got these shoes for Christmas." After one or two have taken the risk to talk to me, others immediately follow. "My Mommie cut my hair last night." "I have new glasses." They all have something to share.
In children, there is such trust, such innocence, such curiosity, such wanting to share who they are, and such a desire to connect with people. Could these be the qualities Jesus felt were so essential to the Kingdom life? Children display a simple trust that life is unfolding as it should. Their questions come from their natural curiosity. They bring so few judgments. When they get hurt, they know that a simple kiss from Mommie's lips will make it better. Truly, everything we need to know we learned in kindergarten.
My sermon title this morning is "Faith Makes Something Out Of Nothing." Jesus definition of faith will do just that. In our lesson today we heard that Simon was a fisherman. Had Jesus not come into his life, Simon probably would have remained in that profession until he was too feeble to continue. In one sense, Simon was nothing special. He was an ordinary person doing tasks which his father had taught him.
Jesus intervened and redefined Simon. Jesus said, "Your name is Simon son of John, but from now on you will be known as Cephas. (This is the same as Peter and means 'a rock')." Peter's future resulted from his desire and ability to place his trust completely in God for the outcome of all things. Interestingly enough, Peter did not develop such total trust until after Jesus' resurrection.
The same experience is awaiting all of us. Jesus said, "I assure you that whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a child will never enter it." Just suppose that you began trusting that your life was unfolding exactly as it should. Suppose you began trusting that life's unexpected events were the perfect vehicles to take you where you need to be. Suppose that you began understanding that everyone entering your life had the purpose of enhancing who you were becoming? If we all assumed such a child-like understanding, we would understand life and accept it much differently than most of us do now with our more sophisticated logic.
This definition of faith works every day and in every experience. If all of us brought this spirit to life, our faith, our trust would rise to meet all occasions. Just like a child, we do not have to know what anything means in order for us to face it with total confidence that God's will is being done. After all, can anything God wills not be accomplished? All we have to do is trust that God's process is unfolding in our lives. Jesus did. Shouldn't we?
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Eternal and ever faithful God, we come knowing that trusting you gives us confidence to face the uncertainty of the future. Fortunes change. Parents, spouses and children leave us. Friends move away. And the energy of more youthful days eventually fades. What an incredible comfort it is to know that we are always safe, always loved and always secure in your care. We thank you that the inspiration of your calling can cause us to move mountains. We are grateful that the healing of our memories helps us give purpose to them. We appreciate how you change our failures into stepping stones and our unexpected events into life-changing surprises. Remind us that the meanings we give to our experiences are mirror reflections of our inner world. Help us deepen our trust in you, so that every day we are prepared to celebrate life with gratitude. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving and ever faithful God, we come from a week of gyrating stock markets, of great uncertainty about weather conditions, of concerns over so many of our neighbors in adjoining counties who are without electricity and of having all of these issues happening against the back-drop of what some have called "the trial of the century."
Sometimes we find that the many voices have blended into a humming noise which will probably never leave our hearing until we leave these bodies. And yet in the midst of that humming noise, there is the comfort and the assurance that you walk beside us. You are always ready to consult with us, and always ready to speak to us when we consciously turn down the volume on all that humming noise.
When we are tempted to give importance to any of the voices, help us to detach our energy so that we may stand peacefully in the midst of the storms instead of being a part of the swirling wind and rain. Help us remember that lighthouses do not move and that is why they are effective in guiding ships during the night.
Lead us to prize above all things our relationship with You. Lead us to develop that innocent childlike trust which remains confident that You are in charge of creation. Help us learn that it is not up to us understand your grand design before we become eager participants, playing our role in making it all happen. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .