August 12, 2016

August 7, 2016 - Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Theme: Faith is Christ, not Control

A young man enters that phase of life where it is time to choose a career. He gravitates toward something in the medical realm, but can’t stomach the work. His father persuades him to pursue the ministry, but not because he believes in it. He’s an atheist. But the young man likes the idea and at least his mother is a Christian who supports him. This young believes the words of the Bible, he trusts in God, yet he is still apprehensive about declaring allegiance to a particular Christian Church. He is unsure. He gains some new friends, more liberal thinking friends, those who are more fast and loose with the Scriptures. The young man begins to be particularly fascinated with God’s creation, as he still understands and confesses it. He studies it more and more; he gains notoriety and popularity for his work.

The ministry fades to the background, no need to be concerned with that anymore; he has made a career for himself. God is still in his life, at least for the moment, barely hanging on. Finally, the man gets married, and begins a family. When his first-born becomes ill at age 10, her life is seriously threatened. The young man waits upon her patiently; gives her the best care he can. But in the end it is no help, his young daughter Annie dies a painful and unfair death. That was the end of God for that young man, who at that time was an old man. He would later write about his faith in God, “It never struck me how illogical it was to say that I believed in what I could not understand and what is in fact unintelligible.”

Who is this man you ask? None other than Charles Darwin, the father of the modern idea of evolution and strong proponent of naturalism and atheism. Few have had greater impact on our current culture than Charles Darwin, yet few know of his prior faith in God, his desire to be a minister, and his very personal struggle with evil and wickedness in the world. Darwin was no different than us. His experiences in life had a profound impact in shaping what he would do in life and who he would become. His biographers would later remark, “Annie’s cruel death destroyed Charles’s tatters of beliefs in a moral, just universe. Later he would say that this period chimed the final death-knell for his Christianity . . . . Charles now took his stand as an unbeliever (Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist. Adrian Desmond and James Moore).” For Darwin, his faith in God was about control. He believed so long as things in life lined up with his thinking and what he felt about truth. Throughout his life he continually doubted God’s Word and it softened his faith little by little until Annie’s death, according to his own admission, extinguished his faith entirely. Consider this sad account as we read our text for today, where God gives us his definition of faith:

Hebrews 11:1-3 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. 2 For by it the elders obtained a good testimony. 3 By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.

Hebrews 11:8-16 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; 10 for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. 11 By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised. 12 Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude-- innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore. 13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14 For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. 15 And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.

The point of our lesson this morning, and any discussion of faith and its effect in our lives, is not to diminish to sorrows we go through in life. Our hearts ache with Darwin’s when we think about what he, his daughter, and his family endured. Some of us may have experienced very similar circumstances. For others, we know our own share of pain and struggle in life, no one is immune.

Our point is not to diminish anyone’s personal experience. It is simply this, the foundation of our faith determines the reliability of that faith in times of testing and trouble. That’s precisely what God says as He defines faith in our text. Christian faith, which finds its center and source in Jesus Christ alone, is not flimsy. It is not blind. Faith is substance, Faith is evidence. But substance that we may not always recognize and evidence that we may not always see, at least with these eyes. Faith in one’s own ability to control and handle life is much different, and a lot less powerful.

Take another example, like Darwin’s, but one with a very different result:

Author, Marshall Shelley, who suffered the deaths of two of his children, wrote about it in this way:

Even as a child, I loved to read, and I quickly learned that I would most likely be confused during the opening chapters of a novel. New characters were introduced. Disparate, seemingly random events took place. Subplots were complicated and didn’t seem to make any sense in relation to the main plot. But I learned to keep reading. Why? Because you know that the author, if he or she is good, will weave them all together by the end of the book. Eventually, each element will be meaningful.

Faith in God is the same way. Even when I can’t explain why a chromosomal abnormality develops in my son, which prevents him from living on earth more than two minutes…..
Even when I can’t fathom why our daughter has to endure two years of severe and profound retardation and continual seizures…. I trust that before the book closes, the Author will make things clear.

Two similar circumstances, but two very different results. It’s the same difference between faith that is about Christ and faith that is about control.

The writer to Hebrews gives us another Biblical example of the same. Just as we had in our Scripture reading, we see how Abraham was called to leave his homeland and travel to a foreign area. The only reason God gave him was that this was His plan for Abraham. Abraham had to trust that God was in control of all the other details; essentially he had to believe or have faith.

Abraham and Sarah also had to trust God’s promise that they would have a child. We spoke about this a few weeks ago. Abraham was 99 and Sarah was 90 when this promise came true. Talk about a situation that is beyond human control! If their faith was only in what they could imagine or handle on their own, it would have dropped out underneath them because it would have had nothing left to stand on. So many things in life are similar in this regard; they are beyond our control. If faith is worth anything, it must be able to go beyond our own power. It must be able to help us in the most difficult of circumstances. Without that quality it really isn’t much help and furthermore it really isn’t faith as God defines it.
This doesn’t mean we’ll always pass God’s tests with flying colors. Both Abraham and Sarah doubted God’s promise. Isaac was the name given to the child because it means “laughter,” thereby reminding Sarah of her moment of doubt behind the tent curtains when she smirked at God’s promise. And yet, even this situation, one which Abraham and Sarah stumbled through in life, it is listed in the chapter of the heroes of faith and held up as a Godly example for you and me.

This leads us to our final and most important point about faith. It helps us with more than what we go through right now. It has eternal blessings. Ultimately, faith in Jesus is the attachment of forgiveness through the gracious words of life in the Scriptures. This is why the writer goes on to say that all heroes of faith, that is, all believers, ultimately hope for a home in heaven; what he calls the “better, heavenly country” which God prepares for them. Even in Genesis, this truth was known about Abraham’s life. The Spirit recorded this, “Abraham believed in the LORD, and the LORD accounted it to him for righteousness (Genesis 15:6).” This is a simple, yet profound statement, especially for an Old Testament believer. Abraham believed, literally, had faith, and God credited righteousness to him. This was not sentimental hope in some abstract promise from God. This was not blind trust that was contingent on how much Abraham felt it. This was not just a feel good moment that lasted as long as Abraham could control what was happening in his life. This was complete reliance upon God’s promise of a Savior from sin, a Savior that would freely give Abraham forgiveness by wiping his record clean and inserting His own holy life in its place. This was faith that was power in Christ, and because it was it was stronger than even the direst moments of Abraham’s life that were out of his control. And it is only through this faith that Abraham was given the title of a “father of many nations.” He is father of much more than a single race of people. He is the father of that group of “heavenly country” dwellers. He is the model and example for all believers, those who desire a better home, one with God in heaven.  

A prominent Lutheran pastor has authored a book called, 7 “Christian” rules every Christian ought to break as often as possible. Kind of a compelling title, don’t you think? I haven’t read the book, but if it isn’t included, our discussion on faith should really be added as rule number 8. So many Christians are under the impression that their faith must measure up to a certain level before it is effective. But, the sad irony is that this level is a man-made construct, usually centering around our own control of situations. What a sad burden for so many to carry. Faith is not only as effective as it is strong in the person’s heart and in their convictions. Faith is powerful no matter how strong or weak it may be in our hearts. Faith is about Christ, not about our control.

This does not allow us the right to neglect the nurturing and strengthening of faith. Certainly, the stronger we are the more we can withstand in the moment without succumbing to doubt. But, as it pertains strictly to faith’s worth and its attachment to Christ’s righteousness; it is entirely dependent on God and not ourselves. To preach or believe anything more or less than Christ alone in the place of sinners, is a tragedy and a falsehood.

Life is full of uncontrollable moments. Faith gets us through those moments; strong or weak. Sometimes it takes longer than it should. Sometimes we drag along the way. Sometimes we resist God’s power and influence. But faith is Jesus is the same from beginning to end, from weak to strong, from the first day of conversion to the last day of confession. Anything other than that is a product of man-made efforts at control.   

Thinking about Charles Darwin again, one researcher concluded his study of his life with this thought: “Charles Darwin is honored by the world because he thought like the world. The tragedy was that this godless search for truth left him unable to understand the world in which he lived. What a lesson for our culture today (“Darwin’s Sad Legacy” Dr. Tommy Mitchell).” Such is the path of all who replace Christ with their own control. They seek for answers. They desire truth. But they fall further from it. A desire for more control and understanding of our world with a result of total loss of meaning and truth. You have gone through similar trials and be aware that you will continue so long as you serve God in this life. Keep your faith in Christ and remember what that means. It’s not a flimsy, sentimental thought without any substance. It’s doesn’t mean you’ll have all the answers right when you want them. It certainly doesn’t mean you’ll have a carefree life without pain or struggle. It means this one thing: You have a better home waiting for you: heaven. To gain this was beyond your control. It was out of your reach. You couldn’t grasp this on your own. But Jesus came for you and controlled what you could not. He is with you forevermore now, today and into eternity. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen. 

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