“Not By Faith…”

Heritage Presbyterian Church https://heritagepresbyterian.org

August 18, 2019
10th Sunday After Pentecost
Scripture readings – Hebrews 11:29–12:2  & Luke 12:49-56

Last Sunday I shared a sermon called “By Faith” in which I discussed how our faith serves as the bedrock of all that we know and believe and do in our relationship with the Lord.  I compared being faithful to “playing the long game” in which we worked over a long period of time, with our eyes on the ultimate prize of eternal salvation – instead of settling for short-term wins and living only for today.  It’s a worthy discussion to have at any time.

But I left some things out…particularly when our faith fails us… when things go terribly, terribly wrong…when we follow the Lord and yet seem to have little or nothing to show for it… when we ignore the lure of “today only” but struggle to keep focused on the long game that will “build up our treasure in heaven.  In those lonely and troublesome times, talk can seem very cheap because there is little that is more hurtful than for people of faith to hear than the words: “You wasted your time doing that!  You should have known better.”  Or my personal favorite: “You just didn’t have enough faith.”

What about the other times in which acting by faith seems to gain absolutely nothing?  Are we to expect salvation and grace anyway?  If so, wouldn’t that appear to support NOT acting by faith?

First, we return to the Letter to the Hebrews.  Recall that last week, we heard the example of Father Abraham who acted by faith.  He left his prosperous life and went to other places… places the Lord would show him, places that were not safe or secure or prosperous.  And he was expected to do this despite all evidence in front of him that indicated this might be a foolish move.  Yet Abraham did it.

But in today’s reading, we hear other examples in which not acting by faith also seemed to carry the day.  When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea on dry land, do you think they firmly and confidently believed they would be safe?  Or did they have no choice because a pillar of fire was behind them blocking their path?  Also, Moses had faith; Moses acted by faith; but did all the Israelites also do so?  Or were they sorta “forced” to do it and then gained faith later?

Joshua led those same Israelites to Jericho, a heavily fortified city with high, thick stone walls.  Did the Lord deliver those Israelites?  Not at first.  The Bible tells us the Israelites marched silently around Jericho for seven days before blowing their trumpets…and then the walls came a’tumbling down.

But who had faith during those seven silent marching days?  Was it the Israelites – or was it Joshua?  Or were they all so desperate that when they saw those high, thick stone walls they figured they had nothing to lose by trying what the Lord said to do? 

That’s not exactly acting by faith…that’s acting by human nature and hoping it all works out. 

And it did…then faith comes!

We are even reminded of Rahab the prostitute, who acted as a scout and a spy for Joshua.  Once again…was she acting by faith?  Or did she recognized “something” in Joshua and those nutty Israelites that led her to believe she needed to assist them?  Was she acting by faith…or was she acting in self-survival?  And can you blame her, whichever way she was acting?

And once the day was won by the Israelites, Rahab and her family were given special treatment and protected by Joshua.  Later, she was even considered a “righteous woman” in the eyes of Israel for her assistance to Joshua.

But we can still wonder if she acted by faith…or if she acted by instinct for self-survival, and then faith came later…

Looking at these examples from our nice, safe distance of history, we should easily recognize something pretty clear: when two people or two groups of people act in similar ways, perhaps the difference between them is their reliance upon the Lord and His word – no matter how the circumstances turn out.

Two groups crossed the Red Sea – the Israelites and the Egyptian army.  One made it safely…one was destroyed.

Two groups of people at Jericho – the people outside the walls and the people inside the walls.  The walls fall down and one side is proven to be under the Lord’s protection.

Rahab lives in Jericho among those people living behind the wall.  One group knows her…one group doesn’t.  She helps one group and asks for their protection.  And it works out for her and for the winners.  Who is truly with the Lord?

But did any of these people “earn” the grace of the Lord?  Or was it given despite everything that we can see for ourselves?  We don’t know everything about Rahab – do we? – but we know that in Jesus’ day, prostitutes were stoned to death for their sins.  So…what’s going on here?

Read on in that Letter to the Hebrews…because next we are given a list of some pretty weak people who served the Lord but did so in very weak and unfaithful ways:

  • Gideon was timid and hesitant.  He required three miracles from the Lord before he would follow instructions…not exactly someone who acted by faith.
  • Barak had to be shamed into action.  Deborah had faith in him well before he had any faith of his own.
  • Jephthah – wasn’t know for faith but rather for making a rash oath; after winning a great battle against the enemies of the Lord, he promised to slay the first person who came through a door from his house…turned out to be his daughter.
  • Sampson – the Hercules of the Old Testament…known for his great faith?  No!  He was known for his great strength.  He was weak in his mind and was easily manipulated into revealing the secret to his great strength.  In the end, when it was almost too late, he begged the Lord for one more burst of strength so he could destroy the Lord’s enemies by bringing down the entire building on top of all of them…that’s not faith…that’s desperation!

We can gain faith by reading and considering these various stories.  That seems to be the best we can hope for in hearing them.

In Luke’s Gospel reading, Jesus is also not referring to anyone acting by faith; in fact, Jesus is calling out the people who were listening and challenging them for their lack of faith.  He first does this by revealing that his presence will cause divisions within everyone, even within families.  Some will choose him, and some will not.  That is a fact that we know even two thousand years later.

But Jesus is not done just yet…then he compares reading the signs for changing weather to reading signs for the trouble to come.  Everyone in Jesus’ day knew how to read the clouds, the changes in the wind, the temperatures in order to predict what was going to happen.  That was not a matter of faith; it was a practice for survival that was known and used by everyone. 

Yet Jesus used that analogy to illustrate that interpreting signs can also lead believers to know what to do in their lives of faith.  In doing so, Jesus makes us aware of the following:

  • Some will ignore the obvious.
  • Some don’t know how to read signs – or they don’t want to know.
  • Some hope the signs are somehow wrong.
  • Some refuse to believe anything until it affects them personally.

It reminds me of a scene in a funny movie I saw many years ago.  A group of people are trapped on an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean.  One of the members of that group notices that the ice floe seems to be sinking.  The others tell him not to worry or say anything…he is just being negative.  He pouts for a minute and then remarks, “When the water reaches my upper lip, then I’m gonna say something!”

I think Jesus is making a similar point: how much evidence do we require, how many signs do we need before we will admit what should have been admitted by faith?

People of faith don’t always act by faith.  Sometimes they seem to act not by faith.

But is that the end of it?  Sometimes we get it right when we act faithfully, and sometimes it works out anyway even we don’t act by faith?  And other times we are punished for refusing to have faith at all?

Let us all be reminded of three things that may help us with our own faith:

  1.  Faith vs. good works is an ongoing debate in the Christian church.  If we have no faith – or if our faith is weak – we can always do deeds that help others.  We can always do good works to serve the Kingdom.  Nothing we do could possibly hurt our eternal salvation –

as long as we are not trying to earn out way into Heaven.  By helping others, by loving others, by obeying Jesus’ new commandment to “love one another” we are serving – perhaps well before we have any faith at all.

  • We often receive unexpected grace from the Lord.  Again, consider that Rahab the prostitute had done little or nothing in her life to earn any grace from the Lord. But when she had the opportunity to help Joshua and the Israelites gain entry into the fortified city of Jericho, she took the chance and safeguarded her family.  She had no reason to expect any grace from the Lord – but she received it anyway.  Who’s to say any of us would not receive a little unexpected grace from the Lord too?
  •   Finally, we get to the word I have purposefully avoided until now: Hope!  When our faith falters, or when we seem to have no faith at all, we can still have hope.  Hope can rally at a moment’s notice, especially if just a little something happens that’s good. 

Hope can show up at the most desperate times.  Hope can remind us just how weak and fallible we truly are.  Hope is there when faith has left the building.  Hope is sometimes all that believers have.

Ultimately, hope helps us recognize that the Lord is mightier than any problem we can face.  And we never face them alone.

Scripture remind us that we are surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses.”  This is not necessarily a cloud of perfectly faithful believers; it might be a cloud of fallible human beings just trying the best they know how to live lives worthy of the Lord’s love and grace – and all the while, understanding that we can never deserve or earn the grace the Lord offers on a daily basis.

Endurance leads to hope.

Hope leads to faith.

Faith leads us to the Lord.

Sometimes we break that pattern – and it all works out in the end – because all things work for the Lord’s glory and power.

Even when we are not acting by faith.