A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on September 5, 2010.
We confess, our Father, that our faith is not always what we want it to be. We confess that we have not always finished the commitments that we started. We have not always acted or thought about others in a way that truly reflects your love. O God, our failures of faith are ever before us. They come to us in the night and keep us awake. They come to us in unsuspecting moments and haunt our days. As we confess our failures, we pray that you would help us to remember that the pain these remembrances bring to our hearts are but a reflection of how very much we desire to follow you and be faithful. Help us to see that if we did not love you so much we would not care about the times we have fallen short. Leave us not in our despair but revive our hearts with some renewal of grace. Speak forgiveness to us and remind us that your grace is truly greater than our sin. Speak strength to us and lift us up out of the pit. Restore to our hearts the hope of joy in believing. Remind us this day of moments when we have indeed kept our commitments, times when we have ministered in your name, times when we have encouraged others by the faith that was in us. Remind us of the best moments in our love for you and inspire us to seek them again. O God, we do believe for we have heard your voice, we have felt your joy, and we have known your peace. If we are weak, then teach us to trust that your strength is sufficient. If our spirits fail, then may your Holy Spirit come powerfully upon us and supply our every need. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
One of the most common remarks made to clergy comes from those who say “I wish I had as much faith as you do.” Yet another group tends toward a note of hopelessness. “I don’t think I’m ever going to have enough faith.” A third group interests me especially, because a lot of people dear to me are in it. It can be very frustrating to talk to them. They have this idea that a certain specific amount of faith is required, and they are convinced that whatever the necessary amount is, they don’t have it and they aren’t ever going to have it.
–Fleming Rutledge in Help My Unbelief
Peter, James and John had been with Jesus up on a high mountain for six days. The text for today begins when Peter, James, and John came back down from the mountain and rejoined the other disciples. It reminds us that we are actually picking up in mid-story. What has come before has been what we call the Transfiguration. You may not be familiar with that particular story in scripture but chances are you have seen an Episcopal, Lutheran or Catholic church called “The Church of the Transfiguration.”
It was a moment in which Jesus and the inner circle of disciples—Peter, James, and John—were up on a mountain. While they were up on this mountain, the glory of God poured into Christ and he glowed like the sun. I think one of the gospel writers says that his clothes shone brighter than any dry cleaner could make them. It was just absolutely amazing.
Elijah and Moses appeared and he had a conversation. The disciples heard a voice come down out of heaven saying, “This is my son. Listen to him.”
You might have been on a retreat somewhere and thought, “If I could just stay here with my friends, we could have this sense of God’s presence forever. Let’s just stay here.” That is what Peter wanted to do, but Jesus said, “No, we have to go back.” It is so true to life. Have you ever had a spiritual experience where you sensed God’s fullness and richness and you made a commitment? Let’s just say it was on a Sunday. It was a wonderful Sunday and you were ready to be the full Christian you always thought you should be. You went to work on Monday and people were just as grippy as they had ever been and it just wore you out. By the time the day was over, you thought, “Where did my commitment go?”
Maybe you are ready to do what Christ commands. Then on Sunday night, the baby will not sleep. That spiritual glow of Sunday winds up being sleep-deprived Monday and where is the commitment now? This is what happened in the story. Jesus came down, and when they came to where the other disciples were, there was a rowdy crowd. Jesus said, “What’s going on here? What are you arguing about?”
One man stepped out of the crowd and said, “Master, I have brought my son.” He described the circumstances. Our best guess is that this was a primitive way of understanding seizures or something similar to epilepsy. They understood that it was something contrary to God’s will for the boy in that a demon had a hold of him.
As it has been pointed out, the man said, “If you can do anything about this.” We get this terribly intimate picture of the humanity of Christ who was experiencing perhaps what we have experienced after those spiritual highs when we come back and, all of a sudden, we are faced with the reality of things. There does seem to be a burden on Christ.
“If? If? Do you not understand that if you believe, all things are possible?”
In the King James version, the father responded, “I believe. Help my unbelief.” In the New International Version, it says, “I believe. Help me overcome my belief. I believe a little. Help me believe more. I believe some. Help me believe all the way. Help me finish this faith. Jesus, I have good faith days and bad faith days, and right now I’m struggling. I want to believe more. I want to believe completely”. That is where we come to.
Doesn’t it seem that the way of faith, once upon a time, was easier than it is now? Now it seems that many people are just holding on by the thinnest of threads. Life today is so much more complex and filled with stress. In our jobs, we are required to do more in a shorter period of time. We are required to do more with less. The stress on families and the burdens that families are supposed to bear just sometimes seems to want to break down on us. Like the man in the story, we would like to say, “We believe but today may not be a good faith day. I believe. Help my unbelief.”
The diagnosis of cancer comes, and many days, we think, “I believe and I trust, and I know that with God’s help I am going to whip this.” Then the day comes when we just can’t quite work up that sense of faith and it is not a good faith day.
Then there are things that happen outside of our control like the economic crisis. We think, “With God’s help, I am going to make it.” Then the day comes when we despair, and we think, “Am I going to be able to keep my business? Am I going to be able to keep my house? Am I going to be able to take care of my family?”
Maybe it is depression. We think we are about to beat that dark beast, and all of a sudden, it seems to suck us back down into its pit.
The meditation text today is by Fleming Rutledge. It talks about people who have the idea that a specific amount of faith is required. They are convinced that whatever it is, they are never going to have it. Do you ever feel that way?
Jesus’ reply in the scripture for today does sound a little angry, doesn’t it? I think it was frustration, disappointment, and sadness. Jesus had just had an overwhelming experience and triumph. He came back and it was as it had been before. Jesus came in to shoulder the burden and do the heavy lifting. Jesus came in to resolve the tension. He said, “Bring the boy to me.” I think it is critical that we notice that he healed the boy. He had spoken to the father and to the crowd. He said, “If you believe, this will happen.” The man confessed, “I believe some, but help me believe all the way.” It was not a game and it was not something that we measured. It was not that we just had enough. It was enough what this man said to Jesus and the boy was healed. The witness of the New Testament is that we don’t have to measure up.
Jesus said in another place, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed.” I thought about buying some mustard seed. They are so small that I probably could hold a thousand in my hand.
I remember as a child my mother had a charm bracelet with a crystal charm. Inside the charm was a mustard seed that was so small you had to look at it very closely to see the mustard seed inside. Is that all the faith we need? That’s all?
In one of the Apostle Paul’s letters he said, “Imitate me.” In 2 Corinthians, he said, “and things were so bad we despaired of life itself.” What was he saying? He was saying that he was having a bad faith day. One moment he was saying, “Imitate me,” and the next moment he was confessing that he was about to give up but yet God used him.
Let us make a commitment today not to put the burden on ourselves or friends that we know by implying that if somehow we just believed more that certain things would not have happened in life. If we had just believed more, a parent, a spouse or a child would not have died. The message of the New Testament is that this is not a game. God is not measuring pounds or yards of faith or anything like that. God simply wants us to love him. In this story, this father’s half faith, this father’s desire to love God more, is enough.
Once again, I draw attention to the fact that we are embarking on this year-long journey. Now that I believe—what is expected? We spent three weeks just talking about the most basic beliefs, and this week, we turn toward what the expectations are, what the changes are, what the things are that God wants to work in my life now that I believe.
I think it is important that on this Sunday at this juncture, we recognize that none of us think of ourselves as outside the circle of that faith. None of us think we are somehow shortchanging God on faith and, therefore, the blessings and expectations of faith don’t apply to us. We all have enough faith for God to work in us. We all have enough faith for God to hear our prayers. We all have enough faith to call ourselves Christians and followers of God.
There is a wonderful story by the English preacher, Leslie Weatherhead. He was very prominent in London during World War II and thereafter. He tells the story of a man in Africa who was lost in the jungle at night. You can imagine the sheer terror of being alone and listening to those sounds, stumbling over roots, being slapped by branches, cut by vines, and not being able to see very far in front of you. He describes that terror and panic. Then he tells how he came out onto a road. When he saw the road, he was so glad he could have knelt down and kissed it. He said, “I knew I had come to the end of my wandering and the beginning of my journey.”
Now that I believe is a journey. It is a journey for those who believe in Jesus Christ and those of us who sometimes think of ourselves as second class believes because we don’t measure up. We, too, are a part of this. There is no exclusion. The only beginning point is the acceptance of Christ. That is the finding the road. And now, we are all invited to the journey of discovering what God would make of us, to the journey of discovering what God would do for us, the journey of discovering what God does, indeed, expect of us.
Now that I believe, don’t make the mistake of thinking, “That can’t mean me.” Don’t make the mistake of thinking, “Somehow I am outside the circle. My faith is not enough.”
Do you love Jesus? Do you want to? Then welcome to the journey where we begin with a certain amount of faith and we don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t have to have our theology in order and we certainly don’t have to have life without failure. The grace of the Gospels calls each of us to the end of our wandering and to the beginning of this path. Let us walk it with gladness. Let us walk it with expectation. Let us walk it knowing that God, through Christ, has called each one of us by name to follow along.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.