Sermon: Practicing Faith

So I’ve been a little behind lately … a lot behind. There were a few weeks of different services in there. We had a guest preacher. And life has been busy. Just. Busy. So here are a few sermons from a few weeks back.

Concert-Football Collage.jpg

Texts used – Genesis 22:1-14 and James 2:14-26

  • I’d like you to picture two scenes with me this morning.
    • FIRST: Concert hall with a full orchestra
      • Before the conductor takes the stage – moderate buzz of conversation all around punctuated by laughter here and there
      • Conductor walks out – deliberate hush washes over the crowd = silence full of anticipation for what is to come
      • Conductor bows, turns to face the orchestra, and raises the baton, and the music starts
        • Flutes trilling
        • Violins & violas singing
        • Horns resonating
        • Timpani thundering
      • As the music swells, you find yourself bathed in a wave of beauty, passion, tenderness, and dedication.
    • SECOND: Football game at a giant stadium full to capacity – Vikings vs. Packers, maybe?
      • Crowd is cheering and chanting
      • People around you are talking and laughing and whooping
      • Vendors walking up and down the aisles are hollering out their merchandise
      • Game = down to the wire → last minute and the game is close
        • Players line up
        • Ball in motion
        • Hear the pads crashing together
        • QB launches a long pass
        • Watch it sail through the air
        • See the receiver simultaneously catch the ball and slip into the end zone
        • And, as they say, the crowd goes wild!
      • In that moment, you are completely overwhelmed by this display of action, strength, endurance, and dedication.
    • Believe it or not, these two scenarios have a lot in common, especially in regards to the people involved.
      • They have a spark within them – a burning desire
        • Desire for their chosen field, be it music or sports
        • Desire to perform to the best of their abilities
        • Spark = crucial → drives them to continuously develop their particular gift
      • But in order to do that, all of these people have to practice.
    • Practice is what James is talking about in our passage for today – practicing our Christian faith to its fullest potential.
  • Practicing faith = theme woven throughout Scripture
    • Various texts:
      • Jesus in Matthew – But everybody who hears these words of mine and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built a house on sand.[1]
      • 1 John – Little children, let’s not love with words or speech but with action and truth.[2]
      • Paul in Galatians – Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter.[3]
      • Paul again, in Ephesians – We are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.[4]
      • Earlier in James: You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves.[5]
    • James even gives us an example of “being a doer”: What about Abraham, our father? Wasn’t he shown to be righteous through his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? See, his faith was at work along with his actions. In fact, his faith was made complete by his faithful actions.[6] → brings us to our OT text for today
      • Probably one of the more challenging and problematic stories in the Bible
        • God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son → gathered what they needed to perform a sacrifice → head up the mountain
      • Isaac: “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the entirely burned offering?”[7]
      • Abraham’s response: “The lamb for the entirely burned offering? God will see to it, my son.”[8]
      • Set up the altar and the pyre for the offering – text: Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice.[9] → But at the last minute, an angel stays Abraham’s hand and God provides a lamb instead.
      • This is a tough one, right? Can we even begin to imagine how Abraham must have been feeling at this point? This task loomed before him – an unthinkable act, the outcome of which seemed impossible at best. This story makes us ask difficult questions about God and obedience. “What kind of God would ask someone to do this? Is this the kind of God that I want to follow? Where am I in this story?” And so on. This Old Testament tale doesn’t seem to jive with our preferred image of God as Compassionate Parent, Loving Caretaker, Benevolent Keeper. But still, it has been a foundational text for both Jews and Christians.
        • Jews refer to text as “the Akedah” = “the binding of Isaac”[10]
          • Practicing of placing ashes on the head during fast days = “reminder of the ashes of Isaac”
          • Story read on the 2nd day of Rosh Ha-Shanah, “Jewish New Year” → ram’s horn (called the shofar) is blow – could be linked to this story as well
        • And as Christians, this is a plot line all too familiar to us. We cannot help but read the death of Jesus – God sacrificing God’s only Son – between the lines of this OT story.
      • I will name it and claim it right here: this is a story to wrestle with. We have these “bedtime Bibles” that we read with the boys before they go to bed at night – truncated, child-friendly versions of Scripture stories with colorful pictures. It probably won’t surprise you that this story isn’t one of the ones in that “bedtime Bible.” Because it’s an uncomfortable story. It’s a hard story. It is, quite frankly, a chilling story. And it’s always going to be.
        • Scholar helped shed some light on how this story can inform our conversation of how we practice our faith today: The true act of faith on the part of Abraham is not the blind faith that often has been the dominant message emerging from this text, but rather the ability to recognize God’s provision in the ordinary, especially in those circumstances when everything appears to be futile.[11]
          • In text, Abraham names the place “the Lord sees” – Heb. “see” = can also mean “provide”
          • So in terms of our faith and how we practice it, even the most challenging, the most unthinkable situations are opportunities for us to practice our faith – for us to rely on God and trust in God’s presence and provision.
            • Another scholar: The story of the akedah makes a claim on us: All that we have, even our own lives and those of the ones most dear to us, belong ultimately to God, who gave them to us in the first place. The story of the akedah assures us that God will provide, that God will be present.[12] → This belief inspires our faith. It strengthens our faith. It informs and transforms our faith so that we may practice it in new and different ways every day.
  • Now, turning back to our New Testament text for this morning, this is also a text with which we need to be a little bit careful. In this passage, and with this example, James isn’t saying that good works in and of themselves provide our salvation.
    • Previously stated in James: it is “the implanted word that has the power to save your souls”[13]
    • Salvation by faith comes up again in today’s text: So the scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and God regarded him as righteous. What is more, Abraham was called God’s friend.[14]
      • Abraham believed → not earned, not claimed, not worked for
      • Scholars
        • Interpretation: “There is no salvation for the person who stops short of discipleship. If faith is only intellectual … it will not save.”[15]
        • Question: “What would faith look like without any deeds?”[16]
  • I want to turn that question around. What would faith look like with deeds?
    • James begins by borrowing Jesus’ own words as an e.g.: Text: Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat. What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs?[17] → Sounds a lot like Jesus in the gospel of Matthew:
      • I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me. … I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.[18] → This teaching of Jesus’ comes from a parable that he told – the parable of the sheep and the goats – words that would have been circulated endless throughout his followers. They would have been so familiar with this parable that they would have heard it echoing as they read James’ words. And Jesus’ implications are pretty clear: love people (help them, care for them, provide for them) as you love me.
    • But let’s look at Abraham’s example again. James: See, [Abraham’s] faith was working along with his actions. In fact, his faith was made complete by his faithful actions.[19]
      • Faith was already there, already working
        • Wasn’t a question of a conversion moment → didn’t go from no faith to faith in 10 seconds flat
        • Question of maturity → Abraham’s faith was made complete – a faith maturing through works … through practice
        • Scholar: “There is a mutuality: Faith informs and motivates action; action matures faith. James is not rejecting one for the other but is instead insisting that the two are totally inseparable.”[20]
    • Think back to the professional musicians and athletes that we talked about earlier.
      • In order to live into their fullest potential, all of them have to practice – to continue to develop and mature their God-given talents.
        • Spurred on by the initial spark within
        • Practice → fruits of their labor: beauty, passion, tenderness, action, strength, endurance, and dedication
      • So how does this translate into our lives?
        • Beauty: worship – praise God in song, Word, and prayer
        • Passion: reading and learning about God’s Word
        • Tenderness: caring and praying for one another
        • Action: mission
        • Strength: sense of Christian community
        • Endurance: even in those lowest of moment, those most difficult and depleting of moments, we turn our face to God
          • May cry out “help”
          • May cry out “why”
          • May cry out all sorts of things
          • But we cry them out to God, having faith that God will be present with us every single, ugly, slogged-through step of the way.
        • Dedication: following Christ’s example – prayer, hospitality, compassion, discipleship, etc.
  • We need to practice our faith, not just talk about it – to continue to develop it and help it mature. That initial spark of faith within us is a gift from God, and by practicing our faith, that spark can grow into a powerful, warming, light-giving flame. Amen.

 

[1] Mt 7:26

[2] 1 Jn 3:18

[3] Gal 5:6

[4] Eph 2:10.

[5] Jas 1:22.

[6] Jas 2:21-22.

[7] Gen 22:7.

[8] Gen 22:8.

[9] Gen 22:10.

[10] “Judaism: Akedah” from Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0001_0_00627.html, accessed Oct. 30, 2016.

[11] Juliana Claassens. “Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14” from Working Preaching, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=965 (emphasis added). Posted June 26, 2011, accessed Oct. 30, 2016.

[12] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker. “Commentary on Genesis 22:1-14” from Working Preaching, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2138. Posted June 29, 2014, accessed Oct. 30, 2016.

[13] Jas 1:21.

[14] Jas 2:23.

[15] Peter H. Davids. James (New International Biblical Commentary series). (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1983), 64.

[16] Luke Timothy Johnson. “James” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 12. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), 198.

[17] Jas 2:15-16.

[18] Mt 25:35-36, 40.

[19] Jas 2:22.

[20] Davids, 69.

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