By Faith, Abraham . . .
The Eleventh Sunday After Trinity
By Faith, Abraham . . .
When we first encounter Abraham he seems a pretty ordinary guy. He doesn’t dash into a phone booth to change into a cape and soar away; he doesn’t whistle up the Batmobile for a quick lift. But he is mobile.
He’s minding his business one day in his hometown of Ur and God calls out to him. We can find no reason to think Abraham knows this God named Yahweh, or for that matter has ever heard of him.
Yet when God tells him to pack up and move out, Abraham shuts down his laptop, throws everything he owns into his SUV and hits the road, bound for some strange place named Haran.
So the one thing that sets Abraham apart from the rest of the world’s population is that he trusts everything God tells him. He’s certainly not without flaws but this one distinguishing characteristic marks him as God’s main man: His faith in God never fails.
God tells him: “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5). And Abraham buys it.
“And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (15:6).
This codger is in his 80s by now; he’s even older than me. His wife, Sarah, is almost as old as he is. And, just by the way, she’s barren. Yet when God tells him he’ll have more descendants than he could ever count Abraham says, “O.K., Lord. Why not?”
Well, sure enough, in the course of time Sarah bears a son. But while the boy is a teenager God tells Abraham to take him up on a mountain and sacrifice him. With no way on earth of knowing how he will become the father of multitudes with his sole and childless heir dead, Abraham trusts the God of heaven and obeys.
God stays his hand, of course, and Isaac survives and begets Jacob, who begets the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel. By this time, Abraham has already sired Ishmael by the Egyptian maid Hagar. Ishmael will become the father of all the Arabs.
His unbending, unending faith in God’s word is Abraham’s righteousness. One thing we must not fail to note here is that by this time God has tested Abraham repeatedly. And Abraham – despite some missteps – has passed those tests.
Our faith is like our biceps. The more we exercise it, the stronger it becomes.
Abraham’s faith calls to mind what, in the New Testament, Jesus terms the faith of a child. This faith does not depend on reason. This faith trusts even in spite of reason.
Miracles? Surely you don’t expect me to believe in miracles. I maintain that God took on human flesh when a virgin gave birth to Him, died on a cross and three days later walked out of His tomb, ascended in His body and arrived back in heaven, whence He came, to sit down at His Father’s side.
But don’t talk to me about miracles. Or even Christ’s real presence in the bread and wine.
I submit that the faith of Abraham has virtually vanished from the church of the West. First the Reformation and then the Enlightenment told us we must believe only what we can prove.
The Reformation cut the ground out from under the reality of the sacraments. The historic church had held them – based on God’s word – as effective for salvation.
In their zeal to undo everything the Church of Rome had ever taught, Protestants swept away transubstantiation, the idea of Christ’s physical presence in the Eucharist.
And so they should have done, but they did not stop there. They went on to deplete the sacrament until virtually nothing of the Lord remains in it. Many Protestant churches, including even some of the most orthodox of them, now celebrate Holy Communion only occasionally, or not at all.
They cannot muster the faith to locate our Lord’s real, spiritual presence in the bread and wine.
The Enlightenment gave us the scientific method, and a great boon to progress it has been. Trouble is, the church has followed the culture in turning it back on God. The God who stands above science, who gave man the means of exploring and understanding the creation, must now pass man’s test to earn his trust.
President Thomas Jefferson edited the Bible to remove all of our Lord’s miracles. Any rational person knows a dead man cannot return to life.
And so we find ourselves, you and I, out of time, stuck with faith in the age of reason. The Bible is quite insistent in advancing faith as the primary requisite for merging our life with our Lord’s. The culture is equally certain that anything that can’t be proved can’t be trusted.
Post-Christian America, having renounced faith and denounced God, has enthroned man. When we fired God, we told Him to get lost and to take His Ten Commandments and His Great Commandment and His new commandment (1 John 3:23) with Him. Our society has developed other methods for achieving its ends, legislation and education.
Our elected leaders will craft solutions to our problems and bless us with them from their perches in Washington and the various state capitals. The wisdom of man has supplanted the wisdom of God. Legislators can marshal their collective knowledge to find answers and bring them to bear on our trouble spots.
The spectacular failure of this approach appears not to have eroded the national confidence in it in the least. Problems proliferate and our wise ones slumber and feud, and feud and slumber. Occasionally, they declare a new education initiative.
About a month ago, I found on page one of the “Tulsa World” a story headlined, “Number of state’s inmates skyrockets.” The story revealed that Oklahoma’s inmate population had increased 14 times faster than the general adult population over a 33-year period ending in 2013.
I learned that spending on prisons and jails had grown almost five times more than expenditure on education. In the nation overall, that number was a less imposing but still substantial 2.5 times.
It seemed a curious approach to a report on corrections spending. Why compare it to education spending rather than, say, that on roads or pensions? The issue came into focus with the revelation that the information came from a report issued by the Department of Education in Washington.
Secretary John King stressed the need to shift dollars from prisons to schools, arguing that billions of tax dollars should be moved from the former to the latter. It was worthy of notice that over the period under review all 50 states had increased per-pupil education spending, even when adjusted for inflation.
The rub came because only two of the 50 had bumped up education expenditures to keep pace with corrections spending. This imbalance produced devastating consequences. I read that “King said education is proven to reduce crime and arrest rates.”
By all means, then, we must reorder our priorities and reallocate our dollars. Or must we?
On the opinion page of the “World” the very next day I read of a report authored by a sociologist that arrived at a conclusion very much in conflict with that of Secretary King. Here’s one salient paragraph:
“One implication stands out above all: That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.”
This report had been issued 50 years ago. I suppose we can’t be surprised that Secretary King couldn’t connect it to his own apparently flawed perception five decades later. Many would not relate this column to the story that appeared the preceding day.
Another report from another social scientist of the same era found a “tangle” of pathologies linked to high rates of out-of-wedlock births and absent fathers. The schools had not and could not heal these festering sores. In fact, the sores were transforming the mission of the schools to place less emphasis on teaching in favor of more on enforcing discipline. Fifty years ago.
Beloved, the things of the spirit are spiritually discerned. St. Paul tells us that, “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Our nation’s defection from trust in God and His word to reliance on the methods of man makes us look, to the spiritually discerning eye, terribly foolish. We are trying to fight a war with a scalpel, heal a cancer patient with a machine gun.
When ignorance is the problem, education may indeed provide a solution. When sin is the problem, confession and heartfelt repentance and faith in a God who knows more about man than man knows about man will yield the desired result.
So as to avoid any confusion, let me make plain that I am not arguing against education, and certainly not vocational education for inmates. In many years of jail and prison ministry I have come to see that a whole-person approach that includes training in job skills gives the released offender the greatest chance to live a healthy and productive life on the outside.
But that is not the issue here. The idea that pouring more and ever more money into school buildings and teachers’ salaries will change the trajectory of young people who are sprinting toward the big house was discredited decades ago.
The big problem isn’t ignorance; it’s sin. When we fired God, we threw out the example of Abraham, who placed his faith – childlike faith; blind faith, as many would call it today – in God and His commandments. Young people raised to trust in the methods of man are grasping at a rope coated with grease.
I’ve watched men leave prison with their hearts crying out to sons and younger brothers and nephews: Don’t follow in my footsteps; don’t make the mistakes I’ve made. And without exception those pleas fell on deaf ears.
The younger ones had soaked in too much of the world’s wisdom to change course now. Those glittering sins of the street had seduced them and no volume of preaching would change their course. Drug money and fast cars and fancy ladies sang the songs that enchanted them.
Education? Excellent teachers might laud Longfellow and explicate Euclid to a fare-thee-well. The horse had left the barn. No one was listening.
But the faith of Abraham has not quite evaporated, even in our skeptical age. Prison ministry also brought me in contact with a person who evidenced that faith as vividly as anyone I have known. Her name is Dru and she began by teaching classes in the prison ministry outside Houston in which I was involved at the time.
Dru had been active for many years in church and Bible study and as a volunteer in various ministries. Still, she said, “I kept thinking there must be more to loving Jesus and the Christian life than this. I professed to believe in God but not much I did required real faith.
“What if what Jesus says in the gospels He really means? What if His commands are to be taken quite seriously?”
Dru is an accountant. She had ordered her life in such a way, she said, that it “would not have looked much different if I had suddenly stopped believing in God. Security was a big idol for me. I came to see that as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ my life should be markedly, visibly different from those who don’t believe.”
Having invested her soul, she took the money she had set aside for her kids’ college education and her own retirement and invested her cash to make Soli Deo Gloria House happen.
The name comes from the Reformation catchphrase meaning “Glory to God Alone.” Dru bought a decrepit fourplex in an inner-city neighborhood long since gone to seed. The savings she liquidated and the additional money she was able to raise from friends didn’t begin to cover the cost of the project. She went to work.
She swept out the dead roaches and the rat droppings. With help from a cast of volunteers, she scrubbed and painted and acquired new furniture and décor. She groomed the grounds to give residents a home they could take pride in as they learned to live in humility before their Lord.
Then she threw open the doors to men leaving the prison in which she taught classes, men who had passed through a discipleship program operated by Prison Fellowship and demonstrated that a new life with God beckoned them.
“It was a chance,” Dru told me, “to trade in my idol of security for a secure place for others. God asked me to trust Him, to walk by faith and not by sight. What a privilege! What a Savior! Soli Deo Gloria!”
Does her story humble you? I pray it does. It humbles me.
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). The author of Hebrews won’t let go of this wispy notion. He gives us Abraham as its exemplar:
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.
“By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born as many as the stars of the sky in multitude — innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore” (11:8-12).
But Abraham never saw them. Their very existence, a matter of fact to us, was a matter of faith to him.
“These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland.
“And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them” (11:13-16).
Is God ashamed to be called your God? Like Abraham, we come to faith in God only when we confess that we are not god. We are of a different substance from His, and so in desperate need of Him.
But we are unlike Abraham as well. We have less need of utter trust. For Abraham did not know Christ, not as we know Christ. In communion with Him we enter into union with Him. Isn’t that what we say: He in us and we in Him.
For our culture, faith is the substance not of things hoped for but of superstition, a flight of fancy by a foot-loose fellow who will not face up to his responsibilities and accept the role of god and fix the world.
For the Christian, the faith the world cannot summon procures the peace the world cannot know.
Follow Abraham, flawed but faithful, and he will lead you the faithful one to God. Amen.Posted on: August 7, 2016Ed Fowler