Faith and Faithfulness: Pass it on

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,

 

4“As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.  7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

 

15God said to Abraham, “As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

 

A temporary Sunday School teacher was struggling to open a combination lock on the supply cabinet.  She had been told the combination, but couldn’t quite remember. Finally, she went to the pastor’s study and asked for help.

The pastor came into the room and began to turn the dial. After the first two numbers he paused and stared blankly for a moment, and then he looked serenely heavenward while his lips moved silently.  Suddenly he looked back at the lock and quickly turned to the final number, opening the lock.

The teacher was amazed. “I’m in awe at your faith, pastor,” she said.

“It’s really nothing,” the pastor answered. “The number is on a piece of tape on the ceiling.” http://www.cleanjokeoftheday.com/jokes-pastorceilingfaith.html

The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  That’s how the NRSV defines faith in Hebrews 11:1.  If you can see something, you don’t have faith in it.  You have empirical evidence of it.  The pastor opening the lock wasn’t relying on faith, but on a piece of tape.  If you can touch, taste, see, smell, or hear something, you don’t have faith in it, you have scientific confirmation of something’s existence.  Faith is something that you cannot prove, but you believe in it anyway. 

            I’ve never seen God.  I’ve never smelt God, or tasted God, touched God, or heard God, at least not directly.  Yet I have faith that God is real, that God exists.  Not only do I have faith that God exists, I have faith that God will do what God has promised, not only for me, but for all of the world that God so loved.

            But from whence does faith come?  How do we arrive at this illogical, un-provable choice to follow, serve, and believe in this God that we have not seen?  Today I want to look at the scripture above from Genesis and try to answer the question of “Whence faith,” from where do we get our faith and how is this tied to faithfulness?  To answer this I would like to concentrate on two areas where faith can begin: through an experience with God and from our parents/family members.  We will begin by looking at an experience with God.

            Abraham, born Abram, grew up in a family where his father, Terah, is said by Jewish tradition to have been a polytheistic idol worshiper.  But Abraham (I’ll simply call him Abraham to prevent confusion) left the faith of his father and followed the Lord, the creator of the earth and everything in it.  So what made Abraham leave behind the faith of his father for this new tradition?  He had an encounter with the Lord, God Almighty, El Shaddai. 

There is no interaction between God and Abraham before chapter 12 of Genesis, when God speaks to him saying, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  God had promised Abraham land, descendants, and that all of the world would be blessed through Abraham.  So Abraham did as God said, left behind a lot (and took a Lot) for a life full of unknowns. 

But God didn’t leave Abraham or abandon him after this initial encounter.  God continued to have conversations with Abraham throughout his life and to make covenants with Abraham.  In verses 1b-2 from our scripture for today we find God assuring Abraham that he will keep the covenant that was made.  God says, “I am God Almighty, walk before me and be blameless.  I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.”

            Abraham had a special revelation from God.  God spoke directly to him beginning in chapter 12 of Genesis and continued to do so.  Now based on our previous definition of faith, did Abraham have faith that God existed?  No, he didn’t have faith in God’s existence.  He had a direct encounter with God.  Abraham had heard God’s voice; he had experienced God directly on a number of occasions.  You don’t have faith that I exist; you can see me in person.  But if we read scripture like Romans chapter 4, Paul speaks quite freely of the faith of Abraham.

            Romans 4:22 even tells us that the faith of Abraham is what made him righteous in the eyes of God.  So it would be wrong to say that Abraham didn’t have faith.  Abraham had faith, indeed.  He had faith that God would keep his promises and that God was all powerful.  These things had not been shown to him.  Abraham didn’t have anything to base his belief in these things.  Abraham had just met God.  So to believe that God would give him land and descendants and bless the world through Abraham, that took faith.  And stepping out of his comfort zone to follow God, that took faithfulness.  And it was the faithfulness of Abraham that God wanted when God told Abraham to walk before him and be blameless.

            I would say that there is a strong connection between faith and faithfulness.  In fact, the Greek word used by Paul in Romans for faith (pistis) and faithfulness (pistos) are essentially the same root.  You cannot have faith without faithfulness.

            So the faith that Abraham has results in his faithfulness in following God, leaving his home and extended family, and believing that God would bless him with an heir through Sarah.  No, Abraham didn’t have an unwarranted faith in God’s existence.  He had heard God directly.  But he had faith in God’s promises.  Abraham had faith and faithfulness that he gained from an experience that he had with God.

            Not everyone is blessed with family that teaches them about God and his plan to redeem creation, to save humanity.  Abraham didn’t have that type of a family.  Maybe you didn’t either.  But that doesn’t mean that God cannot enter into their lives and this doesn’t mean that God can’t enter into your life.  Some of the people in this room today are examples of that.  Sometimes, like Abraham, people come to faith by encountering God.  Now I have never met anyone who has encountered God in the same way that Abraham had encountered God.  But I do believe that God is still active in our society and in the wider world.  God is not asleep, God is not dead. 

            As Moses is preparing the Israelites to cross into the Promised Land, he knows already that they are going to lose sight of the God who had brought them out of Egypt and forget the ways of the Lord.  And he predicts that the Israelites will be taken off into exile, where they will continue to grow further and further away from God.  To this Moses says in Deuteronomy 4:29, “From there you will seek the Lord your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul.”

            Moses knows that God will not give up on his people or on his promises to his people.  That is why he is saying that if they seek God, God will make himself known to them once again.  The same is true for us today.  We can have an encounter with the living God; all we must do is seek him.

            Thankfully many of us did grow up in families that taught us about faith in God.  Last Sunday during our sharing time, Ronald Friesen shared that he was thankful for Christian parents that taught him about the love of God and the saving grace of Jesus Christ.  During that same sharing time, Mim shared a prayer request for their son Douglas, who was preaching that morning at Blossom Hill Mennonite Church.  Just in that sharing time we witnessed three generations of Friesens, three generations of faithful followers of Jesus Christ.  And I am pretty sure that the next generation is off to a good start when it comes to teaching the children about God.

            Our scripture for today says in verse 7, “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”  Now this text does not explicitly say that Abraham needed to teach his offspring about God, but it does say that the Lord is to be the God of Abraham’s offspring.  I assume that Abraham knew that he was supposed to teach this to his children and his children’s children, and so on, for generation after generation.

            Teaching our children about our faith in God and Jesus is much more than telling them Bible stories at bedtime and taking them to church for Sunday school and Bible School.  Teaching our children about our faith requires words and deeds.  Teaching about faith requires our faithfulness to God’s calling.

            Yes, we need to be communicating verbally our faith to our children.  They need to know about the loving creator God that came to the earth as Jesus to show us how to live and provide the way to eternal life.  But if we are not living it out, our kids will be less likely to grow into people of faith.

            Imagine a father taking his little son to church on Sundays, to Bible School in the summer, telling him the stories from the Bible, telling his son about the teachings of Jesus, and then not living it out himself.  The father teaches his son that Jesus said we are to love our enemies in one breath and then he talks about wishing he could meet his boss in a dark alley to show him how he really felt in the next breath.  The child would soon start to question whether what the father was telling him was really true or if it was on par with stories like Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldie Locks and the Three Bears, and the Three Little Pigs.

            I believe that this is something that needs to be remembered not only when we are trying to teach our children about our faith, but also when we are trying to teach other people about our faith.  If we are not living out our faith, if the transformative powers of Jesus Christ are not evident in our lives, then we are reducing the stories and teachings of the Bible to nothing more than a fairy tale or a myth.  I put a lot more stock in Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount than I put in the story of the Three Little Pigs.  If we believe something and we want our children to believe it, or anyone else to believe it for that matter, then we sure better be a walking, talking example of the transformative message of Jesus.  Passing on our faith requires faithfulness.

            I’ll embarrass myself a little bit and humbly admit to doing something that I’m not always proud of.  It is Lent and Lent is a time for confession…I listen to a little bit of Country Music from time to time.  (Just kidding, I don’t think that listening to Country Music is a sin.)

            There was a Country song out a few years ago called “Watching You” by Rodney Atkins.  The song starts out with a father driving along as his four-year-old son sits in the back seat eating a happy meal.  Well the father has to break hard at a red light and his little boy’s fries go flying and his drink spills and the father hears him say a four letter word that starts with “s”, and he was concerned.  The father asks the son, “Where did you learn to talk like that?”  Then the refrain:

He said I’ve been watching you dad, ain’t that cool
I’m your buckaroo, I wanna be like you
And eat all my food and grow as tall as you are
We got cowboy boots and camo pants
Yeah we’re just alike, hey ain’t we dad
I wanna do everything you do
So I’ve been watching you

 

            The father realizes that he needs to step it up a bit as a father, so when he gets home he spends some time in prayer asking God for help.  Then later that evening after he puts his son to bed, he notices his son crawl out of bed, turn on his Scooby Doo nightlight, kneel beside his bed, bow his head, fold his hands, and his four-year-old begins to pray.

            The father asks his son, “Where did you learn to pray like that?”  The refrain repeats with a few minor changes.  But the point is clear…his son has been watching him, learning from his father, picking up not only his father’s bad habits, but his good habits as well.  The best way to pass on faith from one generation to the next is to teach and model our faith.  The transmission of faith requires faithfulness. 

            And we don’t stop learning from our parents just because we reach a certain age, either.  I was complaining to my mother the other day about hauling a person around town because they didn’t have a car.  I jokingly said, “This isn’t in my job description.”  My mother reminded me that it was indeed in my job description.  It is in all of our job descriptions as followers of Jesus Christ.  If anyone asks you to drive them one mile, drive them two (or something like that).

But we learn about faith from all members of our family.  Sometimes, we can even learn a little something from the younger generation.  As I have said, Abraham did not grow up in a family that worshiped God.  The Jewish tradition says that Abraham’s father Terah was an idol worshiper.  He is even said to have been a merchant of idols.

            The Jewish tradition tells the story of how Abraham believed that the practice of idol worship was silly, that they were bowing down to statues made by human hands.  So one day, when Abraham’s father was traveling, Abraham was put in charge of watching the idol store.  And Abraham took a hammer and he went and he smashed all of the idols into smithereens.  All of the idols, that is, except one, to which Abraham gave the hammer, placing it in the hands of the idol.

            When Terah returned to the place where he kept the idols and saw the destruction, he was very upset.  He went to Abraham and asked him what happened.  Abraham said it was amazing.  The idols got into a big fight and the strongest one won!  Terah replied that this was impossible, the idols were nothing more than clay.  They didn’t have any life or power.  Abraham asked him, “Then why do you worship them?”

            Sometimes learning goes both ways, doesn’t it?  We can learn from our children just as our children have learned from us.  My theological training began with those nighttime Bible stories and prayers.  I learned the basics of the Christian faith from the days that my parents took me to Sunday school and I continued to learn from my parents and from those around me as I grew up.  I still learn a few things from my parents today and I hope that they learn from me as well.

            So we begin to see some of the ways in which faith can be passed on: through direct encounters with God and through direct encounters with godly people.  But I just want to finish today by saying that faith is not an end in and of itself.  Abraham’s faith led to faithfulness.  Because Abraham believed in God Abraham followed God.  And I’m glad he did.  Abraham’s faith led to his faithfulness to God, and it is Abraham’s faithfulness that has led to faithful followers of God for generations past and generations to come.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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