Monday, March 21, 2011
Faith rests on grace -- grace that gives LIFE!
One of the big issues before us as Lutheran Christians is the fact that the script of our faith is too often written by others. Christian books and the internet give us a tempting and yet inaccurate reflection of what we believe, teach and confess. In the same way, if faith has a soundtrack, then what we listen to can often contradict and distance us from the faith we confess from the Scriptures and the solid foundation of God's grace in Christ.
An example of this is the way we define what faith is. For many Christians, faith is defined in terms of knowledge, understanding, and consent. Too many Lutherans listen to this and get thrown off the Scriptural trail when it comes to defining what faith is or who can believe. Some of those churches that claim to be Biblical, ditch the Scriptures when they defy reason and let their reason triumph. It sounds good to us – surely God wants us to know Him in our hearts, to understand Him in our minds and explain Him to others, and to heed or obey Him in our daily lives. But what faith is in the Bible is trust – trust given by the Spirit from which these things then flow.
It is our great temptation to confuse faith with knowledge, to confuse knowledge with understanding, and to confuse understanding with consent. Does God require us to know and understand Him before we can believe in Him or is faith the deepest level of trust that trusts in what is not understood? Perhaps part of the problem is that we yearn to understand God and His ways. We want to understand Him so that He is predictable, explainable. However, God regularly reminds us that His ways are far and above ours and that our relationship with God rests not upon intellectual knowledge or understanding but trust – trust that has confidence in His grace when our eyes do not see that grace and our minds do not understand it.
Today we encounter two very different people. Take a look at Nicodemus and Abraham. Abraham's righteousness was not from His understanding of God but from His trust in the Lord. Nicodemus sought to understand God and he came to Jesus looking to be instructed to know and understand Him. Jesus, on the other hand, was not looking for Nicodemus to understand God or His ways but for Him to trust in Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. Nicodemus wanted to build a staircase of reason and understanding to lead Him to heaven but Jesus was there on earth, the divine and heavenly Son of God was standing before him. Jesus confronts Nicodemus with things that only confuse Him – born again from my mother's womb? How can this be?
Faith rests not on a reasoned understanding of God nor our agreement with the Lord or His ways. Faith rests upon confidence in His grace and trust in that grace. This confidence intervenes when our eyes do not see and our minds do not understand God's word and His ways. God said to Abraham "go" and he went; you shall be the father of many nations and yet at age 75 he was still childless. Abraham trusted not in His understanding of God but in God's gracious Word alone. We do not meet God on a level playing field of knowledge but in the midst of grace that both scandalizes and surprises us. God is not reasonable and His grace is unpredictably generous.
God spoke to Abraham simply to call Him to faith. He did not disclose to Abraham the how or why but invited him simply to trust. When Nicodemus visits Jesus by night, Nicodemus thought he would get answers but instead he got the same call to trust in which he could not yet see or understand.
Nicodemus was undoubtedly a better man than Abraham. He was rigorious where Abraham was lazy. He was well schooled as a Pharisee where Abraham was an amateur student of God and His ways. Nicodemus had lived an exemplary life while Abraham had serious defects and sins. But Abraham got grace. Abraham knew his unworthiness and if God was willing to give, Abraham was willing to receive that gift. Nicodemus, on the other hand, wanted to with understanding before committing and trusting grace.
Trust rests upon pure and unadulterated grace and grace imparts life – life when all we see is death or all we imagine is this life. Grace gives the life that is now lived out in the context of mercy – where sins that should be punished are forgiven and forgiveness that should be given out sparingly is poured out lavishly and generously on the unworthy. Grace to pray not only for friends but for enemies. Grace to forgive not the worthy and the deserving but particularly the unworthy and the undeserving. This is how God deals with us so this is how we deal with others.
Abraham is credited with righteousness not because he was a good and holy man but because he trusted God to do what He promised. Abraham, with all his faults and failings, lived out his life in the context of God's rich and undeserved mercy. Nicodemus wanted more – he wanted to figure God out. So when Jesus offers him new birth, he wants to know how. When Jesus offers him heavens treasures, Nicodemus wants to know why. Yet according to Romans, it is Abraham who is declared righteous by virtue of faith while Nicodemus is left with his questions. I wonder if that does not well describe our dilemma today. We have all sorts of books purporting to explain God but it is mostly guess and opinion – and whose to say theirs is better than ours.
Infant baptism clarifies the arguments. Abraham would say, "It is up to you God, if you say infants have faith, I believe you gave it to them." While at the same time Nicodemus would say, "How can infants believe if they do not understand?" And so we find the Lutheran dilemma – do we rest our faith on understanding God or do we simply trust what God says in His Word? We wrestle with such things as a six day creation and then breeze through the greater mystery of how God became flesh and blood in a baby to die on a cross for sinners and then to rise again to life on the third day.
Abraham was inferior to Nicodemus in nearly every way. But Abraham trusted the Lord and was declared righteous. Nicodemus was stuck on the issue of how and why. Jesus throws all it all back upon Nicodemus – "You cannot understand earthly things; how do you expect to understand heavenly things?" We are always tempted to believe that God is shopping for great intellect or wisdom when that which He seeks is simple faith and the fruit of the Spirit's work in us is the same simple faith. For now this trust escaped Nicodemus; but the vision of the cross must have finally broken through to him as we shall hear later this Lent.
Where we meet God is not on the level playing field of our knowledge or our understanding or even our obedience. Rather, we meet God where the question of "how can this be" gives way to the trust that says, "let it be to me as You have said, Lord." The ground on which faith walks is pure grace – scandalous because it is so generous and surprising because it shows up where you least expect it and in the least deserving people.
Moses lifted up a snake on a stick and the people who trusted in that ridiculous vision were healed. And those who wondered why and how, remained sick and died. God raised up His own Son in the dying flesh and blood of Jesus on the pole of a cross and all who trust in the vision of that saving cross are healed for life now and for eternal life to come. What will it be for YOU? The cross stands before us calling us to trust in what Jesus accomplished there for us and our salvation. The baptismal water, the voice of absolution, the bread and wine of the Holy Supper all call out to us – trust and receive... Meet God where He is... meet Him with faith and trust in Him... nothing more and nothing less. Can we do that? The Lutheran way, while not particularly elegant is to meet God where God has chosen to reveal Himself and communicate His grace – in the Word and Sacraments. So will we stand with Nicodemus who wants an explanation or will we stand with Abraham who prays, "Let it be to me as You have said, Lord. Amen."