Faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing.Martin Luther
“Do not be afraid, little flock,” Jesus tells us in today’s gospel reading (Luke 12:32-40). “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The Lord said something like this to Abram back in Genesis, in today’s first reading (Genesis 15:1-6): “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield.”
Today’s readings seem like they are all about not being afraid, which is an important message for our fear-filled world these days. But these readings are not really about not being afraid; they are about having faith. It is our faith and trust in God that keeps us from being afraid. But faith is hard to hold onto these days, isn’t it? We live in a distrustful world. It’s hard to know what to believe. There are so many competing worldviews. So many different claims on the truth. So many religions. It can cause our heads to spin.
What is true? What do we believe? And how do we hold onto what we believe in a world filled with doubt? These are important questions, always, but especially in the times in which we live. And so, today, I thought I would devote this sermon to the basic concept of faith. Because I believe that it is only through faith that we are freed from fear.
Faith Begins the Journey
Let’s start with the reading in Genesis, and the story of Abram and Sarai, later to be renamed Abraham and Sarah. Their story begins in Genesis 12, when the Lord said to Abram,
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
The whole thing, in some ways, begins here. The story of God’s chosen people. But it starts with a decision for Abram and Sarai: To obey, and go, or to stay where they are. To trust, or not to trust. To be ruled by fear, or to live by faith.
It’s never easy to pack up and move, as many of us know, especially without knowing where you are going or how you will survive, as was true for Abram and Sarai. It kind of reminds of what Bilbo Baggins used to say to Frodo, in that great quote from The Lord of the Rings:
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
Abraham and Sarah knew this to be true. But still, they obeyed. They stepped onto the road. As we heard it summarized in our second reading from Hebrews (Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16),
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.”
Faith is what gets us out the door. That’s true in general, of course. We would never step onto the road of life without faith in something, or someone. But it is faith in God that starts us on the journey of the Christian. Faith that God loves us. Trusting Jesus. This is what gives us the courage to live our lives for God. Martin Luther describes this faith in a memorable way in his Preface to the Romans. He wrote that:
“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes [us] glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures.
And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown him this grace.”
This is the faith that gets us out the door, and gives us the courage to live our lives for God and for God’s creation. This is the faith that led Abraham and Sarah to go, as Genesis teaches us. The faith that started it all.
Faith Sometimes Means Staying Home
But faith doesn’t just mean to go, of course. We can’t all be Abraham and Sarah, packing our bags and heading out on a great adventure. Faith, and obeying God’s call, can also mean to stay, if that is God’s desire for us. And so, in Hebrews 11:9, the author reminds us that:
“By faith [Abraham and Sarah also] stayed for a time in the land [they] had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents.”
It wasn’t easy for them, I am sure, but they stayed. Sometimes faith can lead to something much less dramatic and exciting than going to a strange, new land. I remember coming across these words in Mother Teresa’s book, “A Simple Path,” that I have thought about often:
“I always say that love starts at home: family first, and then your own town or city. It is easy to love people who are far away but it is not always so easy to love those who live with us or right next to us. I do not agree with the big way of doing things – love needs to start with an individual.”
And what I think she meant by this is that we don’t have to go to Calcutta (like she did) to love in the way of Jesus. We can love the poor that are all around us. We can begin at home, and in our own community. This, too, is what being faithful can look like: staying where we are, and loving those we are with, in the way that Jesus loves.
Faith Means Looking Forward with Hope
While Abraham and Sarah stayed in that place, Hebrews 11:10 reminds us that they: “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Faith teaches us to go when called, to stay when needed, but also to look forward. Faith teaches us hope, in other words. When we look ahead in faith, we look ahead with hope. And hope is essential to our Christian life.
Hope is not an escape from this world, a distracted desire for heaven to hurry up and get here. Hope is what gives us the patience to live through the trials of this life. It gives us the confidence that better days await. And that can give us the courage to make needed changes in our life. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. When we have this blessed assurance, there is nothing that we cannot face with faith and trust in God.
Faith Leads to New Life
There is one more thing that we learn of Abraham and Sarah in that Hebrews passage:
“By faith [Abraham] received power of procreation, even though he was too old – and Sarah herself was barren.”
There is an interesting debate about how to translate this passage (Hebrews 11:11). Is it about Abraham, or about Sarah? I just read our NRSV translation, which makes it about Abraham. But here is another translation, the NASB, which makes it about Sarah:
“By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised.”
Both translations are faithful to the original Greek (pun intended!), and together they remind us that both Abraham and Sarah have much to teach us about faith, about trusting God, even when it is hard to trust God.
We often think that it is harder to trust in God these days, simply because it is harder to trust in anything these days. And there is some truth in that. But if the Bible teaches us anything, it teaches us that we are not alone when we struggle to trust. There are people of little faith scattered throughout Scripture. We are not alone when our faith seems small.
But the Bible does not teach us only about our small faith, but also about our great God. And even faith the size of a mustard seed is big enough, when it is faith that is placed in God. God can work wonders even with mustard seed-sized faith. Abraham and Sarah had enough faith to trust in God, even in the midst of their doubt. And God had enough faith in Abraham and Sarah to entrust them with a child, to fulfill God’s promise. And the rest is history. Our history, the history that culminates with the birth of our Savior. Abraham and Sarah are in the family tree of Jesus himself. But they would not meet Jesus on this earth. And this brings us to one more aspect of faith that the author of Hebrews wrestles with in today’s passage.
Dying with Faith
After spending more time in this chapter giving examples of what faith looks like in the Old Testament, the author then concludes by writing,
“All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”
Isn’t that a poignant thing to say about faith, and about what it looks like in our world? The promise of God that faith clings to, the ultimate promise, lies beyond the grave. None of us will see it in this life, unless Jesus returns in our lifetime. If that doesn’t happen, we will “die in faith without having received the promises,” as Hebrews reminds us. But we see this promise from a distance. We see it and greet it. We trust God. And we do so, on this journey called life, toward the place that is promised us all. We believe the Lord, and we go. Just like Abraham and Sarah.
Back in Genesis, today’s Old Testament reading concludes with this famous statement, that Martin Luther quoted often:
“Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
None of us are ever going to get it right in this life. But you know what? Neither did Abraham. Just read Genesis to see all the mistakes that he made. We won’t get it right. We can’t get it right. But we can believe. And believing is what God is asking us to do. Believe God. Trust in God. And trust that God will even make things right, will make us right, in the end.
By the way, the Hebrew word for faith that is used of Abraham is a famous one. It is “aman,” from which we get the word “Amen.” Every time that we say “Amen,” we are really saying that we believe. We believe you, God. We trust you.
And so, we will go when we are called, stay when needed, look forward to all that you have promised, and work to bring new life to our family, church, and community. Just like all those who have gone before us in the faith. We believe. Help us to be faithful. Amen.