Have you ever thought about how impossible faith is? How there is really no good, demonstrable reason that we should believe anything the Bible says? How none of us have seen with our own eyes the people and events on which the Christian faith is based? If you stop and think about everything that is working against faith – it’s nothing short of miraculous that anyone living in 2019 has it. And so today we’re going to talk about the miracle of faith.
Our text for today relates a portion of the life of Abraham, or Abram, as he was still called. Scripture regularly presents Abraham as “the father of faith,” a prime example of someone who was sure of what [he hoped] for and certain of what [he did] not see (Hebrews 11:1). And the final verse of our text tells us why: Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. Abraham believed God’s promises, staked his life and his eternity on them – and through this hand of faith God gave Abraham the righteousness that he needed to be saved from final judgment and receive the gift of eternal life. Through faith, God gave himself to Abraham as his shield and reward. This is also why for centuries Lutherans have claimed the motto of sola fide, “faith alone.” When we discuss true, biblical faith, we are not discussing some trivial element of Christianity, we aren’t talking about personal feelings and opinions, and God forbid we ever equate Christian faith with other so-called “faiths” in the world. When we talk about faith, we are talking about the one thing that can save sinners from God’s wrath, the one thing that divides the world into those who are saved and those who are damned forever. Because faith is so important and yet can sometimes seem to be some nebulous, indescribable thing, God has put Abraham forward as a living and breathing example of faith.
I’m not sure that Abraham would have been my first choice. Just think about everything that was working against him. Back in chapter 12, the Lord called him from out of the blue and told him to leave his family, leave his home and go to a land he had never seen. How quick would you be to pack up everything and leave based on literally nothing more than the promise of God? On top of that, the Lord told Abram that he would make him into a great nation – as innumerable as the stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5). And you know what obstacle stood in front of that promise, right? Abraham was 75 and his wife, Sarah, was 65 – and they had been childless the entire time. We’ve been blessed with lots of babies in recent years at Risen Savior, but none from mothers who were eligible for social security benefits. Certainly, by all appearances, the deck of reality was stacked against God’s promises.
From that perspective, the purely human perspective, there’s no way Abraham should have believed these wild promises. And at certain times, Abraham showed that he didn’t – at least not perfectly. He got impatient with God. He challenged God: you haven’t given me any children. He didn’t trust God’s plan or timeline. He tried to take matters into his own hands; sleeping with his wife’s servant to work around God (Genesis 16). Does that sound familiar? Do we ever get impatient with God – expecting him to act on our timetable – and when he doesn’t, to take matters into our own hands? But this is meant to comfort us. To show us that not even the “father of faith” was by any means the perfect believer – especially in the face of real, seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle believers face today in holding onto faith is that they’ve been led to believe the wrong thing, for example, that when you put your faith in God then life will automatically get better (that having faith is like having an all-powerful genie on your side to make life go according to plan). Perhaps more believers have fallen from faith in recent decades because they believed this lie than any other single reason. The truth is that faith is not a guarantee that your life will get better – in fact it means that you will face more challenges in your life than you otherwise would. Don’t be surprised by this, because Jesus didn’t say “take up your La-Z-Boy and follow me.” He said take up your cross and follow me (Luke 9:23).
Take another one of the heroes of faith found in Hebrews 11, Abel, for example. This is what God says about Abel: by faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead (Hebrews 11:4). Abel is a hero of faith. He’s still speaking to us. What is he saying? “There I was, minding my own business, bringing my offering to the Lord. But then my brother got jealous of me and one day he invited me to go out into his field and guess what happened! He killed me! That’s what I got for trusting the promises of the Lord!” Did God fail Abel? Absolutely not! He rescued him from this awful world where a man could do that to his brother. Sadly, Abel’s example is not unique. Throughout Bible and church history, the greatest challenge countless believers have faced have been the people closest to them. Again, the lesson is that we shouldn’t expect the life of faith to be smooth. In fact, we should expect just the opposite. But that doesn’t make it easy, does it? It still presents an obstacle because in those hard moments, the devil tempts us to believe that God isn’t good and doesn’t care about us and isn’t serious about keeping his promises.
What happens when those temptations come to you? What happens when God doesn’t come through for you in the way or in the time you expect? What happens to faith when your world comes crashing down around you and there’s no magical happy ending? When the biopsy comes back “malignant”? When you get laid off from work because they’re looking for someone younger and cheaper? When the pension or social security you were counting on fails? When your spouse says “I don’t love you anymore”? When the child you raised to fear and love the Lord decides to marry a Mormon or comes out as homosexual or attempts suicide? Has God failed? Is your faith shaken? And these aren’t just theoretical obstacles either, are they? Some of you are facing challenges like them right now.
And those are just some external obstacles. Think about the internal obstacles. So you say you believe that Jesus of Nazareth is really true God in the flesh and your Savior? Have you ever seen this Jesus guy? Have you seen any evidence of those fantastic miracles he’s said to have performed? Can you explain to me how a Jew dying as a criminal on a cross 2000 years ago has any impact on your life, much less wipes out everything you’ve ever done wrong? And then you believe that he rose from the dead? Tell me, when was the last time you saw somebody rise from the dead? You really believe all this? Do you see how impossible this faith thing really is? And yet, you believe. You’ve staked your life and your eternity on a man you’ve never met, who died as a convicted criminal on a cross because he supposedly escaped a sealed tomb and rose to life. There are only two options: either faith is a miracle – or we’re all crazy.
Faith faces a huge test when we’re faced with obstacles like that – obstacles that seem to come with more frequency and ferocity as this world spirals down the drain to Judgment. And we need to be honest about these obstacles. It doesn’t do anyone any good to simply walk around with a stupid smile on our faces pretending that these challenges don’t exist. That kind of shallow, superficial faith will quickly wilt in the face of trials and temptations (Matthew 13:21). Faith has to be able to deal head-on with these challenges.
How? The first way is to recognize that that all of those obstacles – as real as they are – are only obstacles “humanly speaking.” These challenges are only insurmountable from our limited, human point of view. For Abraham to trust that he could find a safe home in a place he had never seen or heard of, that Sarah could bear a son post-menopause, and that one of his offspring would be the Savior of the world – was, indeed, impossible from his limited, human perspective. But we don’t talk about faith from a human point of view. Humanly speaking, faith in God’s promises is exactly what the world calls it: a foolish, unintelligent, delusional dream. But faith is not a matter of humans speaking; faith is a matter of God speaking – and that’s what really matters. Because when God speaks, all sorts of “impossible” things happen: everything comes from nothing (Genesis 1), highways appear in seas (Exodus 14), virgins give birth (Luke 2), and former pagans like Abraham believe! And that’s the real reason we call faith a miracle – not because you’ve got to be crazy, but because it’s God’s work from start to finish. And so when our faith is challenged, what do we need? More of God’s Word! Like Abraham, we need to hear God repeat his promises over and over to sustain our faith.
Faith is a miracle because faith is God’s work. For most of us, that miracle first happened in baptism – which is a beautiful picture of this. There at the baptismal font, God used nothing but his Word and some water to adopt us into his family, wash away our sins, plant the seed of faith and write our names in the book of life. That’s why, both the authors of the NT and faithful Christian teachers go back to baptism so frequently, especially in times of trouble. When your faith is tested and challenged, even by death itself, the very best thing to do is ask yourself: am I baptized? Did God promise me in that sacrament that he would never leave or forsake me (Hebrews 13:5)? Has he ever revoked or nullified that promise? Is there anything in this world that can separate me from the love of my God who is bigger than the world and whose grace is greater than any of my sins (Romans 8:38-39)?
Putting us into circumstances that make us ask those questions is how God exercises our faith. He puts obstacles into our lives in order to strengthen our faith, by forcing us back into his word and promises. Because in the end, faith is not an emotion, it’s not the mere knowledge of some Biblical facts, it’s not some vague belief in a generic “god.” The demons have that kind of faith (James 2:19). That’s not saving faith. Saving faith starts with a specific knowledge of what the one true God – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – has said and promised in his Word (which is why, if you don’t know your Bible, you can’t really have faith!). Then, saving faith agrees with those words and promises. Faith agrees or confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, the Christ, that his death has wiped away the sins of the world, that he did, in fact, rise from the dead after three days and will return again to judge the living and the dead. And finally, saving faith trusts these things, making them personal. Saving faith trusts that Jesus loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20), that he is my shield from judgment, my very great, eternal reward. Saving faith is trust in the promises of God and saving faith recognizes that all of God’s promises find their center and their answer in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20).
This is faith that lasts. This is faith that is unshaken by challenges and obstacles because this faith is not rooted in me and my ever-changing circumstances but in God and what he has done for me in Christ – and that will never change, not even when this body and this world are destroyed (Isaiah 54:10). You will be tested, of that you can be sure – just like Abraham, just like the apostles, just like every saint who has gone before you. But this faith does the impossible: it trusts God’s promises in spite of challenging circumstances because it sees beyond the present to the ultimate, unshakeable proof of God’s goodness: the cross of Christ. The cross is the one thing you can, you must hold onto – because it will not move, even when the rest of life is falling apart around you.
Yes, this faith is a marvelous and miraculous thing. Not because you’ve got to be crazy to believe it, but because it is all God’s doing, from beginning to end, through his powerful Word. This miracle of faith will see you through every obstacle you face in life and by this faith you will be shielded and rewarded on the Last Day. If you haven’t in a while, take some time today to thank God for his miraculous, powerful gift of faith! Amen.