Sermon series: Inner Workings
Developing a Heart for God - 1 Samuel 16
Assuring Your Knowledge of God - Hebrews 6
Living By Faith in God - Hebrews 11
Hungering for the Righteousness of God - Matthew 5
"It's the faith, Brother."
That's what Tim Russert said to Jon Meacham when he invited him to appear on Meet the Press to debate noted atheist Christopher Hitchens. "You gotta come down and defend the faith, Brother." He wanted Meacham, an Episcopalian, to defend the Christian faith against the sulfuric criticism of Christopher Hitchens. Even though he was a devout Catholic (a fact he never tried to hide), Russert as moderator couldn't take sides so he wanted Meacham to take up the cause.
"It's the faith, Brother."
That's a good statement any way you look at it, and it gains new poignancy after the sudden death of Tim Russert. Later in the day that Russert died Howard Fineman of Newsweek magazine made this observation during a television interview: "Tim Russert Did Not Pursue False Gods, He Pursued the Real One."
That's as fine a tribute as you are likely to find, and not just about a public figure.
When Meacham wrote about Russert's invitation, and the phrase, "It's the faith, Brother," he drew this conclusion: "In that brief chat the many sides of Russert were on display: he was cajoling and charming, playing it straight, pushing others to be braver and bolder, all in the service of creating an interesting conversation about the things that matter most."
Tim Russert was 100-percent right. It's the faith. It's what we believe about the things that matter most. Take that faith away and we have nothing left.
The writer of Hebrews 11 would surely say agree to that. If what we believe makes any difference, then it has to change the way we live. That's what the phrase "by faith" (repeated over and over again in this chapter) is all about. To go back to Howard Fineman's quote, it's all about pursuing (a great biblical concept) the one true God.
However, do we take faith as seriously as we ought?
In 1860 the motto "In God We Trust" was added to our currency. In 1954 the phrase "under God" was added to our pledge of allegiance. Are we a nation "under God" can we really say, "In God We Trust"? We are not a very trusting people. We don't trust our government officials, we don't trust our bosses, we don't trust our neighbors, we don't trust our doctors, we don't trust our pastors. We don't even trust God.
For George Carlin, the comedian, religion and God weren't high on his list. He said the following about God: "Something is wrong here: War, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption and the Ice Capades. Something is definitely wrong. This is not good work. If this is the best God can do, I am not impressed. Results like these do not belong on the resume of a supreme being. This is the kinda (expletive) you'd expect from an office temp with a bad attitude."
The truth is that God is not responsible for many of those things, fallen man is. Yet a lot of people feel that way? They just aren't brave enough to say it.
I often wonder if I would be a Christian if I hadn't been born in a Christina home, reared by Christian parents, lived next to a Christian church, surrounded by Christian people. Would you?
I think we take faith for granted. We think it's easy to believe and easy to keep believing, but it's not - not for most of us. I am sure there are some people to whom God has given such grace that believing is never a challenge, even in the midst of extreme circumstances. But the rest of us struggle to believe at least part of the time. Robert Rayburn expresses this very directly:
Think of what must be believed in order to become a Christian. That you are God's creature, that you have rebelled, that he is holy and you are guilty as a sinner before him, that he sent Jesus Christ into the world to atone for sin, that by believing in Jesus his righteousness and the virtue of his death are imputed to you so that your guilt is swept away and you are accounted righteous in God's sight, that, if you believe in Jesus, you have been made a new creature in Christ, have been given a summons to live a new life and the power to live it, that when you die and your body is laid in the ground, your soul will be immediately and gloriously in the presence of God in heaven, and Jesus Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead and to vindicate those who have trusted in him, and that endless bliss and perfect satisfaction of human life, body and soul, awaits, at the resurrection, those who have trusted Jesus Christ.
You can't see any of this. You can't prove it in a laboratory. No one ever comes back from the other world to tell us of how things are there. The evidence of our eyes is against all of this. We can't see sins forgiven, we have to believe it. We can't see the soul in heaven. We have to believe it. We have to believe it all on the strength of God's promise. Christ said he would return, but it has been 2,000 years! We must believe that he will keep his promise.
Then he adds, "That's a lot to believe." He's right! And without God's help, we would never believe all of that. We couldn't. It's just not in us to believe those things. Faith comes down to us as a gift from God. And we must exercise the faith we have or it will begin to wither and die on the vine.
"It's the faith, Brother."
So it is. And that's why we've got to take it seriously. It has to make a difference. It has to change the way we live.
It did for three men: Abel, Enoch, and Noah. For them it was all about the faith. We learn from them that:
I. Without faith you cannot be accepted by God (v. 4)
The story of Cain and Abel, recorded in Genesis 4, is a tale that is so well known that many people who never read the Bible know that Cain killed Abel. It has even entered our language as a synonym for troublemaking - Raising Cain. The phrase is appropriate because this story is dark and tragic from beginning to end.
It is the first murder in human history. One brother kills another in an outburst of rage and envy. Obviously sibling rivalry was present from the beginning. Cain farmed the soil while Abel raised livestock. Cain brought an offering from his crops while Abel brought a sacrifice of the best of his herd. God accepted Abel's offering because it was brought in faith.
There are many mysteries about this story. There is much we don't know that we wish we knew. What is the age difference between Cain and Abel? What were their growing-up years like? Why did one choose to be a farmer and the other a shepherd? How did they know to bring an offering to God? How did Cain know Abel's sacrifice had been accepted and his had not? What exactly had Adam taught his sons about the proper way to approach God? I suspect that Adam had explained that God required a sacrifice. Certainly Cain represents all those people in the world who believe they can make up their own religion.
In The Greenville (SC) News, (June 24, 2008) a story about a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life portrays our nation as one of "free-flowing spirituality" with a declining adherence to dogma "stunning." Pew Forum director Luis Lugo says, "You no longer have an alignment of affiliation, belief and behavior. Instead we find complexity, and diversity not only between religious communities but within it as well." In other words, people are believing what they want and doing what they want and thinking what they want.
They are making up their own religion. I dare say many people in our churches have made up their own religion. It is reflected in their giving, their truth-telling, their church attendance, their integrity.
Let me remind you that you may believe what you want, think what you want, act like you want, but there is only one way to God and that is through faith in his Son, Jesus Christ. It is about the faith and that faith must be in Jesus. His standard for living is clearly laid out in scripture.
Whatever we may say about the two offering of Cain and Abel, the real difference was in the heart. Abel had faith; Cain did not. Abel trusted in God and offered the best that he had; Cain lacked faith and apparently just went through the motions. Genesis 4:4 says that God looked with favor on Abel and his offering. The order is crucial: first the man, then the offering. Ditto for Cain. Man looks on the outward and makes his judgments that way. God always looks to the heart first and foremost. When he looked at Abel's heart, he found faith there, and it was faith that he rewarded.
II. Without faith you cannot please God (vv. 5-6)
If the story of Cain and Abel seems short, the story of Enoch is minuscule by comparison. In just four brief verses (Genesis 5:21-24), we have his entire life history. For 65 years he lived for himself, but when his son Methuselah was born, he began to walk with God. And for 300 more years he walked with God until "he was no more, because God took him away" (v. 24). If the story of Abel is about our quest for acceptance, then the story of Enoch is the familiar metaphor of the journey. All of us are on a journey going somewhere. We are looking for something - meaning, purpose, identity, fulfillment, satisfaction - and many people spend a lifetime engaged in a literal journey from one place to another, and sometimes from one relationship to another, seeking something that seems just out of our reach.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God has put eternity inside every human heart. That is, God has placed in us a hunger to know who we are and where we fit in the universe. And all our striving after career goals, worldly success, financial independence, and even our jumping from one relationship to another, those things are but symptoms of our deeper need to find our place in the universe.
The French philosopher Pascal said that there is a "God-shaped vacuum" inside every human heart. Since nature abhors a vacuum, if we don't fill it with God, we will fill it with something else. So many of us have filled our hearts with the junk food of the world. No wonder we are so unhappy. No wonder we jump from one job to another and from one relationship to another. Augustine said, "O Lord, you have made us for yourself. Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you." How true that is.
Enoch's journey led him to God, and when he found God, he walked with him. He began walking with God after the birth of his son Methuselah. Perhaps he was like many men who don't get serious until they look into the face of their firstborn son or daughter. Suddenly they realize the heavy weight of responsibility that is upon them. Perhaps that's what happened to Enoch. In any case he walked with God for 300 years.
One day Enoch and God had walked so far that God said, "Why don't you come home with me?" And Enoch walked beyond space and time into eternity. He "was not" because God took him off the earth and allowed him to enter heaven without experiencing death. He is one of only two people in the Bible who did not die - the other being Elijah. Enoch's story teaches us that death for the believer is not a traumatic event - though on earth it often seems traumatic. For the believer in Jesus, death is a transition from this life to the next. As John Stott remarked, death is a "trivial episode" to the believer. It is the doorway through which we enter the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.
III. Without faith you cannot stand against the world (v. 7)
Finally we have the story of Noah (Gen. 6-9). All of us know about the great flood, the massive ark, and the gathering of the animals. And we know how Noah saved his family while the world around him perished. Here we see another side of the life of faith.
Abel pictures the quest for acceptance.
Enoch pictures the journey to find God.
Noah pictures the power of courage.
The Bible calls Noah a preacher of righteousness but he didn't have much to show for his efforts. For 120 years he preached the truth and called the society around him to repentance. When the flood finally came, only eight people were saved: Noah and his wife, his three sons and their wives. He managed to save his own family - and no one else.
By faith he preached when no one would listen.
By faith he built when people ridiculed.
By faith he continued year after year.
By faith he believed God regarding things he had not yet seen.
Here is a message especially for all the men. Fathers, listen up. Sons and brothers, pay attention. Husbands, observe this carefully. Single men, take notice. All men and all boys, heed this word. Noah was a righteous man who had great faith in God. His faith saved his entire family. But note this. Not one word is ever said about the faith of his wife or the faith of Shem, Ham or Japheth or their wives. But they must have had some faith. How do I know that?
When Noah entered the ark, his wife went with him.
When Noah and Mrs. Noah entered the ark, their boys went with them.
When the boys entered the ark, their wives went with them.
I don't know how much faith they had, but they had enough to follow the head of the family. And Noah had enough faith to inspire all of them to follow his example. That's the power of a godly leader. Noah's faith saved his entire family. He believed so deeply and obeyed so completely and walked so intimately with God that it was natural for his entire family to do what he did. They believed because he believed.
This is the power of a godly example. It is also the power of a godly husband and father. Men, God holds you accountable to set the pace for your entire family. And if you live out your faith every day, it's natural and normal to expect your family to follow in your steps.
And for all of us, men and women alike, take heart from Noah's example. You can be godly in a very ungodly world. Let's stop complaining about the evil of the present day. As bad as things are, they were worse in Noah's day. Back then, there were only eight true believers in the whole world. We have far more spiritual advantages than Noah had. All we need is the courage to do what Noah did and to believe what God has said.
So what do we have when we stand back and look at these three men who lived before the flood?
Abel found the righteousness that comes by faith. He trusted in God.
Enoch walked with God and went straight to heaven. He trusted in God.
Noah had the courage to stand against the unbelieving world. He trusted in God.
From Abel to Enoch to Noah - what joins these men together? What they did, they did by faith. And God honored them because of their faith.
I need not try to convince you of anything. Without faith you will not believe it anyway. But true faith, faith that rests on God and his Word and believes all that he has said, true faith sees the unseen and say, "Yes, it is true."
"It's the faith, Brother."
Yes, it is. Faith taken seriously makes a difference in our world and changes the way we live.
In November of 1994, Scott and Janet Willis, along with their six children, were traveling in their minivan from their home on the south side of Chicago to Milwaukee on Interstate 94. The minivan ran over a large chunk of metal that had broken off the back of a truck. It punctured the van's gas tank and set off an explosion that ripped a hole through the backseat floor. Scot and Janet escaped the blaze with burns, but they couldn't save their children: Ben, 13, Joe, 11, Sam, 9, Hank, 6, Elizabeth, 3, and Peter, six weeks old.
Seen through the eyes of a public that gasped at the enormity of their tragedy, Scott and Janet Willis faced unendurable grief. Today their grief is wrenching and unremitting, yet they continue on by faith. It is their faith that gets them out of bed in the morning and lets them enjoy the memories of their children rather than be haunted by their memories of them.
"It is the faith, Brother."
Taken seriously, makes a difference, changes the way we live.
This leads me to ask two questions: Do you have it? Will you live it?