From a sermon by Jack Cabaness
Katonah Presbyterian Church
September 18, 2016
Originally titled: "The Faith of Abraham"
Text: Genesis 15:1-6
The late Fred Craddock was a wonderful preacher and storyteller. One story in particular that has stuck with me is a story that he told about his childhood. Fred recalls:
When I was a boy, once I was taken out of the house and to the backyard and was allowed to lie on the grass and chew the tender stems of grass. You know how you do on a summer evening, just lie there, chew the tender grass, and look up at the sky.
And my father said to me, "Son, how far can you think?
I said, "What?"
He said, "How far can you think?"
"Well, I don't know what you mean."
"Just think as far as you can think up toward the stars."
I screwed my imagination down, and I said, "I'm thinking ... I'm thinking ... I'm thinking."
He said, "Think as far as you can think."
"I'm thinking as far as I can think."
He said, "Well, drive down a stake out there now. In your mind, drive down a stake. Have you driven down the stake? That's how far you can think.
I said, "Yes, sir."
He said, "Now what's on the other side of your stake?"
I said, "Well, there's more sky."
He said, "Move your stake."
And we spent the evening moving my stake out there. It was a crazy thing to do, but I will never thank him enough for doing it. (as quoted in Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories)
There are times in the life of faith when we are called to "move our stake." That’s what happened to Abraham in today’s reading. When we first encounter Abraham in Genesis chapter 12, a voice comes out of nowhere and tells 75-year-old Abram to leave behind the only home he has ever known and to journey forward to a land that God will show him. God promises to make of Abraham a great nation, and that all of the families of the earth will be blessed through him.
And Abraham and his wife Sarah do exactly what they were told. They pack up and leave their old lives behind. As we read Abraham’s story in Genesis chapters 12, 13, and 14, we learn of their adventures in and out of Egypt, and we also watch how Abraham and Sarah grow even older and continue to remain childless, even though God has promised to make of them a great nation.
And even apart from God’s outlandish promise, there is the question of legacy. Without a chosen heir, how can they have any legacy at all? For people of Abraham’s time, no matter how much prosperity or land you might store up, unless you have offspring who will continue to work the land and care for you as you age, your legacy and prosperity become as fleeting as crops that wither in a season.
When Abraham cries out to God, “O Lord God what will you give me! You have given me no offspring!” he is in pain. He is questioning his faith, doubting God's care for him, wondering if Sarah and he would ever have a child of their own. This is a moment of despair.
God listens, and then he tells Abraham to look at the night sky and move his stake. Specifically, God says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:5-6)
What do we mean when we say that Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness? What do we mean when we talk about Abraham’s faith? What do we mean when we talk about our faith?
The sixteenth century Reformer John Calvin once wrote that we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.2.7)
|John Calvin (1509-1564)|
I’ve always loved how Calvin refuses to mince words … we shall possess a right definition of faith! as opposed to a wrong or a misguided or incomplete definition.
But I love even more what Calvin actually had to say about faith. Faith is a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence—God’s goodness--toward us. It’s not a highly specialized knowledge of theological minutia about God …It’s a firm and certain knowledge of God’s goodness toward us.
And Calvin goes on to say that it is revealed to our minds, and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit. There is both a head aspect of faith and a heart aspect of faith. These are two sides of the same coin.
Regarding the head side of the coin, what we actually believe about God—the content of our faith—is important. Just because God is a big mystery doesn’t mean that we can’t say anything at all. One of my favorite theology professors Doug Ottati would often tell us not to appeal to mystery at the top of the third inning. Play your nine innings of theological baseball. Say what you do know, namely, that in spite of everything and even in the face of seemingly contradictory evidence, God is good, all the time, all the time, God is good.
Faith is a firm and certain knowledge of God’s goodness to us. The content of faith is important, and sometimes it’s necessary to challenge someone regarding the content of faith.
Rodger Nishioka is a Presbyterian seminary professor with years of experience in youth ministry. He recalls attending a worship service in a church when the youth group was reporting back about a recent mission trip to Mexico. One young woman was describing their experiences, and she reflected on the poverty that they had witnessed in Mexico, and she said, “God must love us more, because he has given us so many more blessings.”
Rodger was shocked. He realized that this was one of those times when it was necessary to challenge someone’s speech about God. If the content of your faith only enables you to see God’s goodness to you and not to others, then it’s time to move your stake.
Go back and read the stories of the Bible again. Read what Old Testament prophets like Joel and Amos had to say about greed and riches and poverty, and think twice before you say that God must love rich people more.
Thus, the head aspect of faith enables us to speak convincingly about God’s goodness toward us and others. There is also the heart aspect of faith, which is the aspect that enables us to trust. In the words of one preacher, this aspect of faith is perhaps best expressed as a verb and not so much as a noun. In other words, we might say, “I faith sometimes. I wish I could faith more often. And I am working toward faithing in God in all that I do.” (from Martin Copenhaver, Living Faith While Holding Doubts)
There’s a poignant scene in J. D. Vance’s haunting and moving memoir Hillbilly Elegy. J. D. writes honestly about his mother’s struggle with addiction, and being raised by his grandparents, who had a complicated relationship to each other and to the rest of the family. One day J.D. asked his grandmother, whom he called Mamaw, “Mamaw, Does God love us?” She hung her head, gave him a hug, and began to cry.
The question wounded Mamaw because the Christian faith stood at the center of their lives, especially hers. She knew that this wasn’t a head knowledge question about God’s love; this was a heart question about God’s love for them: Given all that has happened to us, does God really love us after all?
The remarkable thing about the story of Abraham is that even after his nighttime astronomy session with the Lord, Abraham and Sarah continued childless for many more years.
When it came to trusting in God, Abraham and Sarah were always being challenged to move their stake a little more, to trust a little deeper.
J.D. Vance had this to say about his grandmother:
The theology she taught was unsophisticated, but it provided a message I needed to hear. To coast through life was to squander my God-given talent, so I had to work hard. I had to take care of my family because Christian duty demanded it. I needed to forgive, not just for my mother’s sake but for my own. I should never despair, for God had a plan. (from J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy)
When the New Testament author of the Book of Hebrews reflects on the heroes of our faith, he writes about Abraham and Sarah and all the heroes of the faith, saying, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.”
The writer James Michener recounted that medieval pilgrims who traveled the long road from France to the Cathedral of Saint James in Spain would, as they neared the end of their demanding journey, strain their eyes toward the horizon, hoping to see the towers of the long-sought cathedral in the distance. The first one to see would shout, “My joy!” (Michener, Iberia)
|The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages and the reputed burial place of St. James the Great, one of Jesus' Apostles.|
With our heads, we believe that God is good to us.
With our hearts, we trust that the same God who has brought us this far will carry us on to the end of our journey, and, in the meantime, we take one step at a time, putting one foot in front of the other, anticipating that moment when at long last one of us will shout for all to hear: My joy! My joy!
All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.