Sermon: Second Sunday in Lent, 12 March 2017, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 12th March 2017


Rev. Paul Weaver

(Genesis 12:1-4; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17)

“Faith is believing something when you know it’s not true.” A fairly cynical definition of faith, which was attributed to a child when I first heard it! The Letter to the Hebrews has a different definition: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith goes beyond what we can literally see or touch or prove, and finds a deep reality to hold on to.

Actually faith is part of ordinary life. We put faith in our cars or public transport, and their drivers. We put faith in those who provide and prepare the food we eat. We put faith in our life partner, and the teachers of our children. We can’t check everything out ourselves. Life would be impossible.

I can’t prove that there is nothing bad in the sandwich I bought, but I eat it, acting in faith, based on my previous experience that sandwiches from the shop have normally been quite safe to eat. Sometimes they are even quite tasty!

I normally trust a bus driver, but if I see that he can’t be more than 5 years old, or that he is acting as if he is under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs, my faith will be put under pressure.

But what about Christian faith?

People have different reasons for holding a Christian faith. It may be to do with their upbringing or their experience, or their own personal reasons for holding onto faith. Perhaps they are just unwilling to ask questions about it. I hold onto my Christian faith because it makes sense to me: it makes sense of life, and the message of the scriptures makes sense to me. Like so many aspects of life, I can’t prove it beyond any question, but I have what I find are very satisfying reasons for holding onto my faith.

Faith is the theme linking our readings today. In Genesis we read of Abram’s faith. God spoke to him, and he trusted God, and he trusted God’s amazing promises. God promised Abram that he would make him a great nation, and that through him all the nations of the world would be blessed. But he must travel to a new home, to a land that God would show him. That would be a huge act of faith. He couldn’t see or prove that God would keep his promises, or even keep him safe, but he acted in faith

In fact, he never saw the complete fulfilment of God’s promises, but many centuries later, in that land God had led him to, one of Abram’s descendants died on a cross and rose from death, bringing hope and new life to all the world. God did keep his wonderful promises to Abram. Abram’s faith and his acts of faith were rewarded. Faith is not a theoretical thing, but it is expressed in our lives and our actions.

Our Psalm also expresses this theme of faith. “I lift up my eyes to the hills”, says the Psalmist. What will he find there? Will he find safety or danger? Will he find the high places, where the pagan false gods were worshipped? He won’t find his real needs met just by going up to the hills. No, his true help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth: the one who made those hills to which he has been looking. The Lord is always there, always awake and alert, always aware of what is happening. The Lord cares for his people, looking after their well-being.

Now that’s all very well, we might say. But would God’s care really stop him ever getting sunburnt? How could he be sure that he would never go crazy, something which the moon was believed to cause? Why would he never trip himself up or suffer any injury? Did the Psalmist live in the real world where there is pain and suffering, and where things go wrong? Of course he did. He used poetic pictorial language to express his faith in God, who was always ready to help him and his people. Did that help automatically mean that nothing ever went wrong for him, or that all his problems were magically solved? I’m sure he knew that it didn’t. But he used this language to express his conviction that no matter the circumstances, the Lord was there with him, was there for him, helping and supporting him even when things were tough. He knew that faith was no magic pill, no fairy godmother’s wand. Faith linked him up to the God who is there, the God who is with us and helps us in time of need, whose purpose is ultimately to bring us his rich blessing – even when his help doesn’t neatly and immediately solve all our problems and difficulties.

The apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans also emphasizes that faith is at the heart of our relationship with God. Much of this letter focuses on the question of how we who are sinners can have a relationship with a God who is holy, and has nothing to do with sin. It is natural for people to ask “how good do I have to be, what good things must I do, to be OK with God?” Paul makes it clear that this is the wrong question, and always has been.

Paul goes back to that story of Abram – or Abraham, as he became. Was it because of his obedience to God’s call that Abraham became one of God’s people? No, says Paul, and he quotes from the book of Genesis to prove his point. “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” It was faith which brought him into a right relationship with God. It was faith which made him OK with God. His relationship with God and the blessings he received were not some payment or wage for services rendered: it was the appropriate outcome of faith. Faith is opening up to the blessings God offers his people. Faith recognizes what God offers his people, and says “I want your blessing, I trust that blessing is for me, I depend on you and look to you for that blessing.”

Paul wants us to see that the way we link up with God is not by trying to be really good or really obedient to his laws or really religious or even really regular at church. It is not even by making sure that your doctrine is correct and that you can demonstrate an outstanding knowledge of the Bible and that you are free from heresy in your theological understanding. It is simply trusting that God really does want to have a loving relationship with you, and accepting this wonderful privilege. Forgiveness is never something we can earn or deserve: forgiveness is always a gift. Faith opens us up to God’s forgiveness, which comes to us through Jesus Christ and his death for us on the cross. Faith links us up with God, and his generous love for us.

And then we have John’s account of that famous conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus tried to show that he took Jesus seriously as a teacher sent from God, but Jesus immediately cut to the chase. “You must be born again”, he said. “To enter the kingdom of God, you must be born from above.” If you heard John Barr from West Epping Uniting Church this week, you may remember him saying that being born again, or being born from above, was something God does for us.

It seems to me that Jesus’ powerful words have almost been hijacked by some people. Being born again is not necessarily about having a dramatic spiritual experience. Nor is it necessarily about being baptized or going forward at an evangelistic meeting. Being born again is about God giving us new life as members of his family: it is something God does for us.

And how does Jesus say that we receive this wonderful new life? “Everyone who believes – or puts their faith – in the Son of God receives eternal life.” Once again, faith is the key. We place our trust in the God whose Son Jesus Christ died on the cross to bring us forgiveness.

So here we have these four readings: each of them in their own way bringing out the importance of faith, of trusting in Jesus, of accepting God’s gift of forgiveness and new life, depending on Jesus.

Faith is trust, dependence, openness to God and the blessings he offers. Faith is not just believing that there must be something or someone out there. It is more than putting a tick alongside a list of doctrines. It is depending on Jesus, as Abraham depended on God. And like Abraham, faith for us leads to action. Real faith is always put into practice. If I trust that the food is safe, I will eat it. If I trust that the driver is competent, I will travel with him. If I trust in Jesus, I will follow him. If I trust in Jesus, I will seek to live as a member of his family. But when I again fall short, my faith is that God will still love me and forgive me, and stay true to his promises.

Faith is the key. And as we enter a new stage of our story here at St.Alban’s, and as we share in our Annual Meeting today, God’s call is to keep trusting him. He cares for his family in Christ, and he has great things to do for us here at St.Alban’s, and great things for us to do. Faith is the key. Let’s hold onto that faith, and put our faith into practice, trusting God’s continuing faithfulness as we follow Jesus. Amen.

Paul Weaver