August 11, 2019, Faith in a Vacuum (Luke 12:32-40) – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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What does a person of great faith look like? A person of great faith accomplishes great things for God. A pastor of great faith preaches sermons that change lives, and grows his or her church. A pastor of great faith fills the pews. A person of great faith shares their faith courageously and winsomely. A person of great faith saves souls. A person of great faith prospers in everything they do, because God is with them. A person of great faith prays powerfully so that things happen and people are healed. Go to any healing service and you can see who has a reputation for great faith by all the people that stand in line to be prayed for by them instead of all the plain old garden-variety Christians on the other teams. Because everybody knows that God listens to a person who has great faith. A life of great faith is a victorious life. Most people would agree with that. And most of us would also agree that by this definition of a person of faith, we are not people of particularly great faith. But that doesn’t mean we are bad Christians; it means our definition of a great Christian is just plain wrong.
Today’s Old Testament reading was about Abram, a.k.a. Abraham, who is the Father of all the faithful. But if we look closely at the life of Abraham, it doesn’t necessarily fit the profile for the life of a great man of faith. Abraham was your average ordinary pagan guy when he heard the voice of God calling him to leave his family and his homeland and pack up his wife and his considerable wealth and head out to parts unknown. And God promised Abraham that he was going to make a great nation of him. Abraham was 75 years old when God called him, and it must have been hard to believe that God could or would keep his promise to make a great nation of him since his wife was barren. After probably a half century of marriage they didn’t have a single child, and the only heir to all Abraham’s fortune was his head servant. Still, Abraham obeyed God, heading out into the wilderness.
Some years later, God appeared to Abraham again. Abraham was somewhere in his 80’s at this point, and God renewed his promise. He took Abraham out to look up at the night sky. God said, “Look up at the stars and count them, if you can. That’s how many descendants I’m going to give you.” It was getting a little harder to keep believing that promise after so many years, so Sarah, being a resourceful woman, came up with an idea to help God along with his promise, giving Abraham her maidservant to sleep with. And it worked – the servant, Hagar, got pregnant, and Abraham finally had a son of his own.
Another decade or so goes by. Abraham has built up an army of his servants, and established himself as a person of some standing. He’s 99 years old now, and his son Ishmael is a teenager. Abraham seems to have things under control. But God shows up again, and he says to Abraham. “I’m going to make a great nation of you. But not with the son of the maidservant. I’m going to bring forth a great nation from you and your wife Sara.” And lo and behold, one year later, much to the amazement of both Abraham and Sara, their son Isaac is born.
Isaac is the miraculous first child of Abraham and Sara, but he’s also the last. When Abraham dies at the ripe old age of 175, he has one legitimate son and two teenage grandsons. Not much of a great nation, by most standards. Not even close to being as uncountable as the stars in the desert sky. God did bring forth the nation of Israel from his descendants, but as for Abraham, he died without ever seeing the fulfillment of God’s promise to him. In the meantime, he amassed a fortune in goats and sheep, he put his wife in awkward situations a few times to save his own skin, he did battle with his neighbors to rescue his nephew. He didn’t preach or evangelize or heal or perform any miracles. Abraham’s whole entire claim to being the Father of all who have faith rests in three short words: “Abraham believed God.” And that is enough.
There is an expression you may have heard that says things don’t happen in a vacuum. What people mean by that is that there is rarely a single cause or explanation for any given thing. We don’t make choices in a vacuum, we say: all kinds of factors influence the choices we make, whether we know it or not. Relationships don’t happen in a vacuum: everybody brings some kind of baggage into the mix that makes things much more complex than just a meeting of two individuals. This is all quite true. But a very good case could be made for saying that faith is something that does happen in a kind of vacuum. Abraham believed God when there was absolutely not one shred of hope from any other source than that promise. He and Sara had been trying to conceive a child for decade after decade. And with every passing year the hope dwindled. By the time God made his promise for the third time Abraham was 99 years old. There was no reasonable hope left. And that is exactly where faith really happens, in that vacuum where every reasonable shred of hope has been abandoned, and nothing whatsoever is left to hold onto except God alone.
Today’s Psalm, Psalm 33, talked about that kind of hope vacuum: “There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army; a strong man is not delivered by his great strength. The horse is a vain hope for deliverance; for all its strength it cannot save. Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him, on those who wait upon his love.” The ruler who has faith is the one who has been forced to realize that there is no hope in all his mighty armies; there is no hope in human strength at all. When every other hope is gone, then we hold fast to the one and only hope, to the Lord, who is our help and our shield. Then there is faith. And then, the psalmist says, our heart rejoices in him. Because when we get to the very bottom of our hopelessness, we find that we have hold of everything.
The point is that faith stands alone. Faith is never satisfied with being faith and…. If our future hope rests in our faith and our retirement plan, we haven’t yet reached the point of real faith. If our safety rests in our faith and a strong military, we haven’t yet reached the point of real faith. If our self-worth rests in our faith and recognition for our accomplishments, we haven’t yet reached the point of real faith. But when every other possible hope has failed, when we find ourselves hanging by what feels like a thread to God because he is the only thing that is left to hang onto – then we have found true faith. Have you ever noticed that very often we look back on our darkest and most difficult times as times of sweetness and blessing – not because there is anything noble or good about suffering, but because so often it is only in the vacuum of hopelessness that we finally let go of every other hope and cling tight to the one and only source of our life and joy and peace. That reaching out and taking hold, even in desperation, maybe especially in desperation – that’s faith. “Abraham believed God.” And that was all.
Abraham wasn’t a dynamic preacher or a powerful healer. He didn’t start any revivals or convert thousands of people. He just did one thing. “Abraham believed God.” There wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of God making good on his promise, humanly speaking. Abraham and Sara were clearly destined to remain childless. But against all likelihood, against all reason, within the total vacuum of all human hope, Abraham believed God. It didn’t happen all at once. He left his homeland and his family to follow God’s call, but he brought a lot of security along for the ride: servants, flocks and herds. For a nomad, Abraham was quite a wealthy man. But that didn’t have any meaning for him without an heir. When he had given up all hope in Sara’s barren womb, he put his hope in her maidservant, fathering Ishmael. It took years, it took decades, before Abraham was ready to let go of every other source of security. But in the end we know that he was even willing to sacrifice his own son, he was willing to give up even the promise itself, so great was his faith in the One who made the promise to him. Because Abraham learned, after a lifetime with God, that God was everything he needed.
Real faith isn’t some kind of superpower for the spiritually gifted. Real faith happens in the absence of every other source of hope. When we are without the least shred of hope in ourselves or in the world: when we are way past our prime, when we are physically or emotionally weak, when our finances are shaky or worse, when we are afraid, when we are failures, despised or rejected or abandoned, or all of the above – then we are prime candidates to be people of real faith, as we hang on to God in the midst of the vacuum of hopelessness. Faith starts small, maybe only as big as the tiniest seed. We’re so often like the disciples that Jesus used to call “little-faiths” – affectionately, I think – who lost their grip over and over again, looking to find their security in other things: who was the greatest, or how were they going to survive the storm at sea, or how could they possibly feed all these people? Our faith starts so small we can hardly see it sometimes. But it grows. And it grows best of all in the vacuum of hopelessness, when we’re forced to let go of “faith and”, when we finally realize that every hope the world holds out to us is useless. Like the psalmist says about the great war horse, “it is a vain hope for deliverance; for all its strength it cannot save.” But faith of any size, if it is faith in God, is everything we need.