8/28/2016 Sermon: What is Faith?

Hebrews 11:1-12

Faith is hard, harder even than it seems.

There’s a story in Mark 9 about a man and his demon-possessed son.  Jesus and the father go back and forth on whether or not it’s possible for his son to be healed, until the man blurts out this profound confession of faith:  “I believe; help my unbelief!”

The first time I came across those words my soul breathed a sigh of relief.  Yes:  “I believe; help my unbelief!”  And for me, exactly in that order.

From my earliest memories, I believed.  I grew up actively participating in the whole she-bang that church has to offer, from Sunday mornings to Tuesday nights back around to Sunday evenings.  My family bowed our heads before meals and dropped to our knees before bed.  I believed in God, in Jesus, in church.  It was simple and unquestioning.

And then one day I was surprised by unbelief.

It came in the form of a question:  “Is this “Christianity” thing really real, or does it just seem real because it’s what I’ve been told my whole life?”  And just like that the scales of childhood faith fell from my eyes.  I saw my religious affiliation as a humanly-constructed belief system.  The floodgates had opened, and now many questions were rushing in:  Do I really believe?  If I die, will I go to hell?  If I don’t believe, then why am I even worried about hell?

Lord, help my unbelief!

I wanted to find the truth, so I researched other religions as best I could.  The initial results of my feeble intellectual quest pointed me back toward Christianity.  I recognized that the guilt I carried for my sins needed a solution.  I could see that solution in the Jesus-occupied cross.  I came to the conclusion that Christianity was in fact true.  But then, when I wanted to put my faith back on, I found it wasn’t so easy.

Lord, help my unbelief.

After hearing about my struggle for faith, a mentor in church handed me Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict.  This 387-page volume is filled with facts, blessed facts that point toward God’s existence.  It’s even written in outline form; the format itself cries out, “Just the facts, man!”  Finally, the key to regaining my faith!  A mountain of facts!

But you know; they didn’t do it.

I read those facts over and over.  I could see the evidence, and I wanted to believe it.  But those facts did not give me faith.

Lord, help my unbelief.

Around this time I started reading through the Bible, one chapter a day.  At the advice of my youth director I began with the gospel of Matthew and worked my way through the New Testament.  This leads me to believe that I had not yet reached the book of Hebrews, found close to the end of the Bible.  I hadn’t yet read through its message to a community of Christians in crisis; I hadn’t yet sorted through its clarification of who Jesus is and why he did what he did.

And I most likely had not yet read the manifesto of faith in Hebrews 11, which would have explained so much of what I was feeling.

Faith, Hebrews 11 tells us, looks something like this:

Abraham was 75-years-old.  He was married to Sarah, but they had no kids.  It just hadn’t happened for them, which was heartbreaking – but you learn to live with these things if you have to.  They were settled and resigned to their stage of life.

And then one day, God called Abraham (whose name, back then, was Abram):  “Go from your country and your people and your father’s house to a land that I will show you.  I’ll make you a great nation.  I’ll bless you and make your name great.  Through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (see Genesis 12:1-3).

Abraham and Sarah couldn’t see any of this.  They couldn’t pull up Google Earth and see the land God was talking about.  They had no children – zero – so didn’t have the first evidence that their offspring could lead to a “great nation.”  There was no child to begin to carry on the family name, let alone make it great.  It was just Abraham and Sarah – a small family – and they were supposed to believe that through them all families would be blessed.

There was no proof, no book outlining the evidence to support God’s wild promise.  To the contrary, all evidence pointed that God’s blessing was impossible.  And yet, Abraham and Sarah chose to pack up and go.  They bet their whole lives that what God was saying was somehow true.

That is what faith looks like.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

Notice:  faith is not having enough evidence to prove what you believe.  Faith is a leap, a gap that cannot be completely bridged by reason or exhibits or even our own eyesight.  And at some point, we just have to jump – most likely with our eyes shut and while whispering a prayer:

“I do believe; help my unbelief!”

Here’s what it looked like when I jumped.

It was “youth week” at my home church.  A travelling ministry came to town called “Cross and Crown,” a bunch of college students led by a husband and wife team.  They were fun and seemingly overflowing with this faith I’d been searching for.  We went to the beach, played silly games, did little mission projects – you know, typical 90’s youth group stuff.

At the end of the week “Cross and Crown” hosted a concert.  The couple leading the ministry – Gee and Sandy Sprague, now co-founders of a really cool Methodist Church – have legit musical skills, so this is no ragamuffin affair.  There were keyboards and guitars and hand motions and all.

Toward the end of the concert Gee sings a slower song as a solo.  I have no idea which song or what it was about.  All I remember is the look on his face:  eyes closed and eyebrows furrowed, like he was concentrating very hard on something that couldn’t be seen.  His faith was all over his face.

And in that moment I thought:  I do believe.

My doubts had not disappeared.  They were still there, filling my head with question marks.  But in Gee’s expression I saw my own faith, like a mirror being held up.  Somewhere in the recent past I had jumped without realizing it.  I had faith and I had doubts.

“I believe; help my unbelief!”

Faith isn’t something that hits 100%.  It’s something that can hover between 10% and 90% (depending on the day).  The Holy Spirit will step in to fill the gap… if we are able to step out and take the leap.

Do you believe?

You might also not believe, and that’s ok.  But… do you believe?  A little?

Then I offer you the advice of someone who has taken the leap:  Go for it.  Your faith isn’t big enough, but God is.

Go ahead and believe, and God will help your unbelief.

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