Friday, October 4, 2013

Luke 17:1 - 10 On Faith and a Mustard Seed

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
       Jesus’ brief parable of the mustard seed often gets Christian people thinking about faith. The human heart wants to believe. It’s natural for our souls to reach out to take hold of Jesus’ promises. “Increase our faith,” the disciples pleaded, and Jesus was only too willing to oblige them. He never turns anyone away – not one person – who calls out to him.
       There are different aspects of faith. First is knowledge – the facts that come to us in the Bible and that the church teaches – the facts about the life, death, resurrection, and ascension that we’ll say, for example when we recite the apostle’s creed in a few minutes. Then there is agreement that the facts are true – that Jesus is God’s Son, God himself, that he died for our sins, that he will come again to be our judge and take all believers into heaven with him. We can agree with these facts in the same way we agree that the multiplication table is true. But that’s not enough. Jesus said that even the devil has that kind of knowledge. A third aspect of faith – and the most important – is trust in our hearts, conviction in our souls that Jesus is our personal savior, that he intends good for us, now and in eternity, that our sins are washed away in his blood, and that he has claimed us as his own forever. This saving faith is a gift from God. If you find that you believe the word of God when you read it or hear it read to you, then you may trust that God’s Holy Spirit is working faith in your heart. Saving faith is not a rational act of the human mind, or a turn of mind we build up in ourselves. Faith comes from God. We are dependent on him.
       We also say that the size of faith is not what counts. The crucial point is what our faith is directed toward. A small faith in Jesus has more weight and significance than an enormous faith in anything else, such as our own abilities, say, or the goodness of humanity or an unknown God who somehow works things out. Faith in Jesus brings salvation. That’s what matters. He also looks out for our day-to-day lives.  We’ll come back to this point in a moment.
       First, we need to mention that faith doesn’t depend on feelings. We don’t say – my faith must be strong today because I’m feeling joyful or – someone said something good about me today, so I have lots of faith. Our faith clings to God’s Word – the truths and promises of the Bible, not what may be going on inside us on any particular day. Our faith is especially useful and uplifting on those days when we’re not feeling good but rotten. On the days when it feels like heaven and earth will cave in on us, we remember our Lord’s promises to us – that he has hold of us, that he will turn evil into good for us, that nothing can stand between us and him, and that his love for us will last forever. Our baptisms are a sign of his enduring love. We can turn away from Jesus, of course, but our baptisms can’t be erased or washed away. They are forever. God will not forget. He uses our baptisms to strengthen our faith.
We point out as well that the life of faith is never easy. God commands us to hold on by faith to things we cannot see or touch. The letter to Hebrews offers a well-known definition of faith – the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. We don’t see God but we believe in him. At the same time we live in a world of things that we perceive with our senses and that we think about with our logical minds. What’s more, the world is full of pride, envy, hatred, malice, lust, fighting, and wars. Our faith clashes with the conditions of earthly life. We may wonder how God’s will can possibly prevail when there is so much evil in the world. Or we may say that life with God isn’t very exciting and I want a share of the world’s excitement for myself. Or we may be in some difficulty and wonder why God doesn’t get us out of it right away. Conflicts like these make the life of faith difficult and full of challenges. At the same time, the Bible teaches us that if we are dithering, God is faithful. He won’t let go of us. He puts us in choppy seas to chasten us and test us and strengthen our faith.
       Here are two familiar examples from the Old Testament. Job, for one, suffered all kinds of physical and mental torment without losing his faith. “Oh, that my words were written...oh that they were inscribed in a book,” Job said, “for I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God...and my eyes shall behold and not another. My heart faints within me.”
       And you may remember the story of a pagan king in the book of Daniel who threatened to cast three believers into a fiery furnace. The three answered: “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace and he will deliver us out of your hand, O King.” Young people of faith, you see, whom God protected even in a furnace and brought our alive.
       We could multiply examples. Believing people hold onto God in the most trying times; their faith shines through, and he delivers them. It sometimes takes a crisis for us to get back into line and to seek the benefits of the sturdy faith that God makes possible for us in Christ.
       Now, faith in Christ is not just for this life. Otherwise, there would be no point in bothering with it. The Christian faith has a final outcome. It brings us to salvation. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John’s gospel also reports that the Savior said, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” A verse in Paul sums up the whole matter: “...if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” We live in a world of trouble, sin, and death. A better life is coming. Jesus rose from the dead to glory. So will we. The only requirement is faith in Christ.
       The Lord can use even a small amount of faith in a believer’s heart to make big things happen that are impossible for humans. Faith in Christ is one of those big things. Most of us can tell stories about miracles close to us. Sinners mend their ways and turn to Jesus. Hatred becomes love. Lazy people bestir themselves to perform good works. Forgiveness breaks down hardness of heart. God works all kinds of big things in the lives of faithful people. As we said at the beginning, it’s not the size of faith that counts but what faith is directed toward. We Christians put our faith in Jesus.
       From God’s point of view, lack of faith in him is a big problem. Unbelief has many causes, and one major one is the notion that we can do everything on our own. Our secular ways teach us to be self-reliant, and this frame of mind spills over into spiritual life. “I’m strong. I stand on my own two feet,” someone might say, “I make my own salvation and God is pleased with me.” Not so. We aren’t perfect; we stumble and fall. We shake our fists at God, which is not an act of faith but rebellion that displeases God. He loves the humble, faithful heart that relies on him for everything. The disciples learned this, so do we. Some one once asked Jesus what it means to do the work of God. He answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
       Now, Jesus didn’t discard his disciples if they let him down in favor of a better model. He forgave them, picked them up, dusted them off, and sent them out to serve him again. That’s his way. He doesn’t quit on people. He is persistent, loving, and faithful. He binds up wounds and eases consciences that are troubled by sin. He trusts his people. He believes in you and me.
       In the passage in Luke about the mulberry tree, Jesus draws a picture that we don’t take literally even though we understand its force and emphasis. “The Lord said, “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be rooted up and be planted in the sea and it would obey you.” Instead of lying uselessly at the bottom of the sea, this tree would grow in the sea and flourish and put forth fruit – not possible even for today’s advanced science. Again, Jesus is pointing out that what’s impossible for human beings is possible for God. Besides that, the tree flourishing in the salty sea stands for something.
       The apostles would soon use their faith to bring the good news that God’s kingdom of mercy and love would be transplanted from ancient Israel into the huge pagan world, a great sea of people if you come from a small country. Christian congregations sprouted up all over the Mediterranean. Faith would flourish where no one ever thought it would. God’s Word has come to midtown Toronto and other faraway places.
       It doesn’t take a mountain mover to spread the gospel, just ordinary faith, such as most of us have, and the willingness to act on God’s behalf. We read the Bible. We say our prayers. We talk to friends about Jesus and the gospel. Nothing dazzling or spectacular is required. Just persistent plugging away in the life of faith.
       This is how the Lord deals with the evil of the world – not by showy methods but by getting his Word planted in individual hearts and building us up in faith. It’s a quiet process. It doesn’t draw attention to itself. Results can be slow in coming, but God’s Word is powerful and sure. It never goes back to him empty.
       We’ll end with a question. How can we possibly stand up when the news of the day can be very depressing? God’s answer is – by faith in Jesus, who heals and lifts and builds a kingdom where you and I can feel safe and know that we are loved. We don’t see the kingdom, except when we come to church, but we take hold of it in trust and if we stop and think about it and don’t mind picture language, we’ll see that we know exactly what Jesus was talking about when he mentions the faith that can move mountains.  In His Name we give praise. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.

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