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Sunday October 4,
Focus Text: The Lord replied, 'If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you." [17:6]
Qualities of Faith
I. Trust: "How Much Faith is Enough Faith?"
How much faith is enough faith?
Have you ever had a time when you were faced with an incredible obstacle or a heart wrenching burden and thought, "If only I had more faith!"
I very clearly remember the anguish of a young couple who came to our church shortly after burying their eight year old son. The boy had suffered from a degenerative neurological disease for which there was no treatment. Parents and physicians alike could only watch as the disease slowly stole the boy's life. The heartbroken couple had been committed members of a church where people were taught that God would heal any illness if only those who prayed for healing had enough faith. During the wake one of the members of that church approached the mother, took her hand and said with what can only be called chastisement thinly disguised as sympathy, "If only you had been able to pray with enough faith, your son wouldn't have died."
As you might well imagine ex-members of this destructive fringe live with a horrendous sense of guilt. Can you imagine what it would be like to believe that your child died because you didn't have enough faith to save her or him?
It took months for the father of that little boy to begin to hope that his son didn't die because of his lack of faith. The mother never did get free from her guilt. When I first sat down with these parents they told me how much their former church was "based on the bible" and how the pastor quoted over and over again:
"If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you." [Lk17:6]
And Matthew's expression of the same idea:
"Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive." [Mt. 21:21-22]
Then the father looked at me and said, "Do you believe this?"
And that's exactly my question for you today. Do you believe this?
Do you have enough faith to uproot a 35 foot tree, or cause a mountain to be cast into the sea? How much faith is enough faith? Although it's a tad embarrassing to remember it now, I recall quite clearly the time I asked God to move a mountain.
[ You might substitute a similar experience of your own here. ] Every day after school in Morrisville, Vermont, I walked down the hill on which our High School sat and looked directly at Mt. Mansfield -- it's beauty dominated the southwestern sky. One fall day when the sky was bright blue and the Vermont mountains were ablaze with a riot of color, the beauty of it all struck me with a rare (for a teenager) moment of awe. My thoughts turned to God and to something I had recently heard in one of my infrequent trips to church. Jesus, according to the pastor, said, "... truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move..." [ Mt.17:20 ]
Suddenly I was possessed with a desire to "try it." I was alone at the time and this was the perfect opportunity to give a shot at moving a mountain. I didn't really expect anything to happen -- and yet deep down, there was this tiniest glimmer... could God really move the mountain? (I wonder now, how many of us approach prayer during the tough times of our living with this kind of thinking.) Nevertheless, I closed my eyes that day and asked God to move Mt. Mansfield from Stowe to Morrisville. When I opened my eyes -- sure enough, Mt. Mansfield was still firmly planted in Stowe, Vermont!
Frankly, I was a bit disappointed -- and somewhat relieved. Relieved because it would be an awesome and scary thing to experience that kind of prayer power. Disappointed because my inner adolescent logic told me that either Jesus was wrong, or I did not have enough faith -- and given that choice, the onus was squarely on my faith.
Actually, my request that day was frivolous and though I didn't know it at the time, it fell under Jesus' injunction against putting, "... the Lord your God to the test". [Mt. 4:7]
There are times when you and I do face mountains -- or deeply rooted issues in our lives we would dearly love to see removed. One of those times for me was when my eldest son became addicted to drugs. I experienced all the emotions of anger, fear, grief and self-degradation. I felt like a failure as a father and as a pastor. And I prayed... and prayed... and prayed... and nothing happened! At least nothing happened when I wanted it to happen. This mountain was not removed -- the tree not uprooted. It seemed for a time as though not even a molehill was in danger of being removed by my prayers! And -- I questioned whether I had "enough" faith.
Have you ever been in such a place in your life? The life issues are different for all of us, but the result is similar. When our prayers seem to be of no avail, it makes us feel as though we fall into the category Jesus aimed at when he said, "O ye of little faith!" At times like this, I join the disciples in today's scripture pleading with Jesus, "Increase my faith!"
Jesus response is interesting. Instead of saying, "Okay guys, here's more faith," he says in effect, "Faith isn't something you measure by quantity -- it is measured by quality. You don't need more faith... you need the right kind of faith. The short gospel lesson from Luke speaks about: 1) The Meaning of Faith, 2) Faith to Trust and 3) Faith to Serve.
1) The Meaning of Faith
The problem with the disciples' request -- as well as our own at times is that it makes faith a kind of commodity which can be measured. It is as though three pounds of faith, for instance, might be adequate to cure a bad cold, while fifty pounds of faith may be necessary to cure a difficult case of arthritis. A diagnosis of cancer, on the other hand might require something like five hundred pounds of faith to overcome!
How much faith is enough faith? Let me ask you -- which is more difficult for God to cure -- a bad cold -- or a case of terminal cancer? Think about it... Does this question begin to shed a little light on our struggle? God doesn't grunt and groan over burdens we consider arduous while agreeing with us that some difficulties are a piece of cake! As Jesus said to his disciples on another occasion, "... with God all things are possible." [Mt. 19:26]
There is another important consideration that figures into the equation here. The fact that all things are "possible" with God does not mean that all things are "permissible" with God -- or that all things suit the "purposes" of God! Mt. Mansfield suddenly jumping from Stowe to Morrisville, Vermont did not suit the purposes of God nor was it permissible with God. During that toughest time in my life... my son's recovery did not suit God's purposes nor timing when I asked for it -- it did come four years later -- but the answer to my prayer was sure delayed in my estimation! Even so, it was not an issue of needing "more" faith but of having "correct faith". And that takes us to the second issue which is:
2) Faith to Trust
If we were to amplify the meaning of verse six in our gospel reading and include the best sense of Jesus' overall teaching in the gospels, it would come out something like this:
"It is not a matter of needing more faith, it is a matter of having correct faith. Place your trust in God's ability not your own. If God wanted a tree or a mountain to jump into the sea -- it would jump into the sea! Nothing is impossible with God. Faith is not something within your folio of skills and abilities that you need more of -- faith is trusting God's ability."
The genuine life of faith consists of trusting God's ability. Our prayers in the face of tremendous burdens are our attempt to direct God's ability to the problem and trust God for the outcome. It is not so much, "God give me more faith," as it is "God help me to trust you in this!"
The faith that is enough is faith that trusts in God's ability.
3) Faith to Serve
The words of our scripture sound a bit harsh here. "We are worthless slaves... we have done only what we ought to have done." Let me try to give you a sense for what Jesus' intent here is -- the response of the servant to their master is:
"We've done nothing especially meritorious by serving you .. serving is what we do!"
It is like the husband who comes home from work, puts the trash out for the morning pick up and comes into the house thinking that he's done something quite laudable. He expects a bit of praise at the least. "Gee, did you notice what I did honey?" I remember a woman in the parish asking at a our women's bible study, "Why is it guys expect something like the congressional medal of honor when they take out the trash!"
Jesus might tell the husband to simply say to himself: "I did nothing especially meritorious here -- I did only what a considerate husband would do." So also the person of faith does not expect trusting and serving God to lead to praise. Trusting God and serving God are the joys of the Christian's life. Jesus' words translate to a very simple premise. Trusting God and serving God are the norm for Christian living. What is enough faith? Faith that trusts and serves God is enough!
1. Has there ever been a time when you wished you had "more" faith? It was likely a time when you felt powerless in the face of some tremendous difficulty.
2. The next time you come to a really difficult time -- try praying something like this, "Lord, help me trust in your ability to work in this situation. I lift it up to you -- I give it to you -- and I pray for peace that your purposes will prevail in the end. Amen."
Notes On The Text
Notes on Luke
v.5 Verses 1-10 are considered by many commentators as various unrelated teachings of Jesus. There is, however, a thread that runs through these verses if the request of verse five is seen as a response to the amazing statement Jesus made about forgiveness. "Who in the world can forgive like that?" a disciple might be asking and then come out with the request that means, "There's no way we can forgive like that -- increase our faith. Jesus' response in verses 6-10 speaks of enough faith to trust God and enough faith to serve God. i.e. "Tree uprooting faith" and "serving faith" are normative for followers of Jesus Christ.
"Increase" = "prostithemi" Literally "To lay along side of in addition to" or increase -- add to.
v.6 The mulberry (sycamine fr. gr. "sukaminos" ) tree has an amazingly strong and extensive root system. It was supposed the tree could stand in the earth for six hundred years and ancient rabbis said the untangled roots would stretch out for 600 miles.
v.10 The translation "We are worthless slaves" is difficult to receive. The more moderate "We are unprofitable servants" (KJV) or "unworthy servants" (NIV) contains a negative kind of sense. The Greek: "achreios" in its root words containing the alpha privative ("a") along with "kreia" = "meritorious" would mean: "We've done nothing especially meritorious by serving you .. serving is what we do!"
Notes on Habakkuk
No information on about the person behind the book we now know as Habakkuk is known. There are almost as many views of the nature and unity of this book as there are scholars who write about it. The most likely conjectures are that chapters one and two belong together and may come from the period around 600 B.C. and speaks to the Chaldeans rise to power. The Dead Sea Scrolls provided a scroll of chapters 1 & 2 which dates from the first century B.C. This discovery in 1947-48 took the earliest witness to the book of Habakkuk back by several centuries. The Third chapter is likely a later addition which speaks to the questions raised in the first two chapters.
In spite of the scarcity of knowledge about the person behind this book, this is the source of the frequently quoted, "the just shall live by faith" [2:4] and, "the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him" [2:20]
The passage in today's lectionary provides an opportunity for a message on joy in the midst of trial with a conclusion from 3:18-19, "Yet I will rejoice in the Lord..." [See Alternate Sermon Ideas for this week]
Notes on Timothy
II Timothy, as a part of the "pastoral epistles", has not enjoyed great confidence as "Pauline" since the advent of critical scholarship. Indeed, the "pastorals" were not included in some of the earliest lists in the formation of the N.T. Canon. Initial difficulties with Pauline authorship of the letters to Timothy and Titus had to do with 1) The Activities of Paul -- the letter requiring a release from the Roman imprisonment at the end of Acts -- and -- 2) The language of the letter -- being quite un-Pauline to linguistic analysts.
Yet, some such as William Barclay (see his DSB) hold to a close connection with Paul citing Tertullian and Eusebius who give witness to Pauline connection if not authorship of the pastorals, as does the Muratorian Cannon. Chrysostom and Jerome posit a Pauline trip to Spain which would require release from the Roman imprisonment.
Nevertheless, strong support for the inclusion of the pastoral epistles comes from many across the spectrum of biblical scholarship. (See F.F.Bruce in "The Canon of Scripture" a great study of the formation of the canon which included scholarship from every quarter.) It is "Pauline" in the best sense of Paul's concern for the church which "Christ loved and gave himself for..." They have spoken to the church in troubled times throughout ages past and hold a strong word for a changing church in a changing era. The end of the second millenium will witness a growing number of spiritual notions that are not unlike the Gnosticism which threatened the church during the second century A.D. The pastoral epistles brought stability and structure to a church which needed strong foundations.
This can be the basis for a four part series on II Timothy using the four lectionary passages from II Timothy during October. See below for first outline / sermon suggestion in series: "Foundations for the Church".
Alternate Sermon Ideas
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 ~ Living by Faith In The Tough Times
Habakkuk points to the faith that unites our lectionary readings. "The just," he says, "live by faith." An yet that faith is tested sorely. How do we live by faith in the tough times?
1. Troubles All Around (1:1-4)
Two things trouble the one who prays here. "I cry for help and no one answers". Prayers that seem to go unheard. And secondly, "I see wrong-doing all around..." Wrong seems to go unpunished and the right goes unrewarded.
2. God Will Answer (2:1-4)
Those who are "right with God" live by their faith. They trust that God's justice will prevail in the end. No matter what things may appear to be, the one who trusts God knows that finally God will redeem and things will be made right.
3. The Affirmation of the Faithful
The prayer at the end of the short book is the key to faithful living. "No matter what," the writer says, "I will rejoice in the Lord!"
3: 17 Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation. 19 GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights."
The words of William Temple with regard to Psalm 73 applies to the one who gave us the concluding affirmation of Habakkuk:
"In his fellowship with God he has found that nothing matters in comparison with that fellowship. He had been perplexed that the ungodly should prosper, and almost thought of throwing in his lot with them. But, now he knows that however great their possessions, they are truly destitute, while the man who has found fellowship with God is rich through he possesses nothing. That is the real solution -- not an answer to the riddle, but the attainment of a state of mind in which there is no desire to ask it." (W. Temple: Nature, Man and God, MacMillan and Co, 1934)
II Timothy 1:1-14 ~ Foundations for the Church - I. The Certainty
This is the first in a series based on the lectionary passages from II Timothy during October. The four parts to this series are: I. The Certainty, II. The Promise, III. The Basis, IV. The Prize
This would be an excellent series for pastors beginning their ministry or at the time of a call to a new church where the foundations for ministry and life together can be set down. Congregations which have Sunday evening or other additional services might use this in addition to the full text sermons. Another idea is to use this as an outline for a bible study series.
I. The Call
I. We Have a Certain Call
1. The key to this passage is Paul's¹ strong sense of "call". (vv. 1, 9 & 13)
2. This call is affirmed in the ministry of Timothy. (vv.6, 9 & 14)
II. We Have a Certain Faith
1. The importance of models for our faith (v.5)
2. The certainty of our faith is in the One we trust - "He is able..." (v.12)
III. We have a Certain Power
1. The key to our ministry is the power God gives to us...
We are not on our own. (v.7)
2. Power to endure (v.8)
3. The power of faithfulness to our call comes from the Holy Spirit
who dwells within (v.14)
¹ For this series we take the approach that the letter is from Paul / Paul's students / or at the least from the strong influence of Paul on the life of the developing church.)
A Unison Prayer of Invocation
We come to worship you O Lord our God, to declare our trust in you and rejoice in the light of your love. Quiet our hearts and make us still in our spirits that we might know the wonder of who you are. We wait upon you, O Source of all joy -- we wait upon you and commit the moments of this holy hour into your hands. Amen.
A Prayer of Dedication
Thank you Lord, for loving us before we ever dreamed of bringing gifts to you. We pray that in the ministry made possible by these gifts, the world might come to know the blessings you have given to us. Amen.
A Litany for World Communion Sunday
Leader: O Lord, our gracious God, from all
around the world this day,
People: May a joyful shout of praise rise to your holy presence!
Leader: From our brothers and sister of every tongue and every tribe,
People: From men and women, boys and girls,
Leader: May the gladness of our God fill every breast!
People: As we gather round your table O Christ,
Leader: Your people rejoice in your salvation!
People: May the whole world know that you alone are God!
[Sing: He's Got the Whole World]