Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Trusting Faith

Trusting Faith
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17[1]
We live in a time when it seems that it gets harder every day to trust in the promises we hear. Of course, since the first advertisement promoted a product that was “New and Improved!” we have been subjected to a flood of “promises.” With all that racket going on, we’ve learned that those kinds of “promises” aren’t meant to be kept. They’re meant to convince us to buy something. At times, the truth is found in the “fine print” or the hastily rattled off disclaimers at the end. Unfortunately, too few of us pay attention to those details. And after not a few times of being “taken,” we get to the place where we stop trusting promises altogether.
It seems that these days the better part of wisdom is to realize that people make promises for all kinds of reasons. Some make “promises” because they want to tell us what they know we want to hear. Some make “promises” because they want to get something out of us. Some make “promises” because they just like the feeling of having the power to make someone believe something. And when these “promises” turn out to be false, we have to wonder whether they ever intended to keep them in the first place. It’s a sticky problem, because I don’t think one answer fits all. There are some who mean well and promise more than they can deliver. Then there are others who use their words to blatantly manipulate us. How do you tell the difference?
This problem of knowing which promises to trust comes into play with our faith. Our faith is one that built wholly on promises—promises are the foundation, the structure, and the shape of our faith. I wonder if sometimes it may be just as difficult to trust the promises of our faith as it is to trust the other “promises” we encounter in life. After we’ve been burned a few times, all “promises” begin to sound alike. So we tend to assume that if something sounds too good to be true, then it must be. And yet, most of the promises that serve as the basis for our faith sound “too good to be true” to a lot of people these days.
In our lesson from the letter to the Romans for today, St. Paul looks to Abraham as the prime example of one who trusted in God’s promises. That makes sense, when you think about it, because Abraham and Sarah are the place where God’s promises and our faith begin. Most of us know the story: Abraham and Sarah lived in “Ur of the Chaldees,” or what is modern-day Iraq. And at the age of 75, God called Abraham to leave the land of his family and to go to a land God would show him. And the promise was that God would make a “great nation” of Abraham, and through his offspring God would “bless all the families of the earth.”
I think if you’re looking for the personification of a faith that trusts God to keep his promises, Abraham and Sarah are pretty good candidates! I’m not sure I would have had the faith to set out on such a journey at their age. And as one passage of Scripture points out, they set out not knowing where they were going (Heb. 11:8)! That would have been difficult enough. But the promise was not just that they were headed to a land that God would show them. The promise was that from their offspring God would make a great nation. I think that was a promise that would have been difficult to trust. After all, even in that day and time, 75 was well past the age when someone could expect to have children.
So it seems reasonable for us to ask what in the world would have motivated them to set out on such a journey of faith. And St. Paul quotes from the Scriptures to answer that question: “Abraham believed God” (Rom. 4:3, quoting Gen. 15:6). Simply put, the reason is because Abraham trusted God to fulfill his promise. St. Paul defines this faith in different ways: he calls it trusting in the one who “justifies the ungodly” or “declares the guilty to be innocent” (TEV) or “accepts sinners” (CEV; Rom. 4:5). He also speaks of the faith of Abraham as trust in the God who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17). I think it’s one thing to put your faith in the promise that God forgives sinners. It’s another thing altogether to trust that God gives life to the dead!
But St. Paul insists that this is the kind of faith that opens the door to the forgiveness and acceptance and new life that God offers us all through Jesus Christ. He is convinced that trusting faith is the only way for us to have that kind of life-giving relationship with God. Experiencing the gift of new life is something we cannot “work up” by our own efforts. It comes only in response to faith. The reason for this is that Paul knows that salvation “depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace” (Rom. 4:16). New life is something that rests on God’s grace. As such it is conveyed to us by a promise. And the response to that promise is trusting faith.
I will be the first to admit that this kind of faith is not always easy. Sometimes, the circumstances of our lives seem to contradict all the promises we’ve trusted. Sometimes it just seems too good to be true that God could really be the kind of God who forgives sinners, or who brings good out of evil, or who gives life to the dead. At times it may take more faith than we can muster to trust those promises. That’s when we encounter the growing pains of our faith. That’s when we learn that we find peace in this life only by trusting God, especially when it seems beyond us. We find ourselves renewed as we take the risk of responding to God’s promises with trusting faith.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/12/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

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