Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Bring your doubts to Jesus...

Sermon for Pentecost 16, Proper 19B, preached on Sunday, September 16, 2012.

    Sometimes it seems you go to church only to get beaten up by the preacher.  You get told you are a sinner in need of repentance.  You are not trying hard enough to be holy.  You are not giving enough money.  You are not praying like you should.  Your marriage could be better and you could be better husbands, wives, and parents. On top of it, you have too many doubts and that is why your prayers are not answered and your faith is not stronger. 
    Well, maybe it is not quite that bad but that is what some think.  I certainly am not going to back off the call to repentance.  I know from my own life I do not try as hard as I could to be holy so you are probably similar.  I’ll skip commenting on the money thing for now.  Surely we could all agree to not praying as much as we want or should.  Well, if you don’t know our short comings as spouses, children, and parents, just ask our families.  They will tell you.
    What I find funny is how we lump doubts right up there with sins.  It almost seems like Thomas refusing to believe or Peter sinking after first walking on the water were just about the worst sinners of all.  On the other hand, listen to Jude who cautions the Church: "Be merciful to those who doubt."  Here is the recognition that doubts cannot be avoided, that doubt is a constant part of faith.  We can hide them but they will not disappear – only grow stronger.  It is only when we recognize and admit our doubts that we can confront them with the power of Christ.
    The Gospel lesson for today speaks to doubts – not the skeptical doubts of those who refuse any faith but the honest doubts of Christians who struggle to believe amid the troubles, trials, and temptations of everyday life.  We don’t live our faith in a vacuum but in the context of real life filled with sorrows and struggles that bring forth honest doubts and anxieties.
    Look at the Gospel reading.  Jesus' disciples were arguing.  A father had brought his mute son to them.  The boy had convulsions that terrified those who watched. But his dad looked on his son with love and compassion.  The disciples themselves were unnerved by all of this.  Their convictions were compromised by their fears and the demon proved more powerful than the disciples.  They all turned to Jesus for answers, a father seeking action and disciples seeking explanation.
    Jesus begins by decrying the faithless generation.  Jesus understands the problem here.  The problem is not an impotent God or the Word of God that is unreliable.  The problem lies with doubts which can paralyze faith. The father's doubts showed up in this way, "IF you can do something, Jesus..."  It is one thing to await the when of God's mercy but it is quite another to question if God's mercy will work.  "IF?!" Jesus says.  "All things are possible for the one who believes!"  The father wants to believe, but, like us, he has his doubts and fears.  He could have walked away and figured that Jesus would do nothing but he chose to bring those doubts to Jesus.
    "Lord, I believe."  He wants to believe.  He has tried everything else to relieve his suffering son.  Where else can the man go?  Like Peter, the man realizes that the Jesus is his only hope.  We come here today as people who have searched and tried anything and everything else but are left with only faith, only Jesus.  We  have no where else to go.  Jesus is our only hope to take away our sins and overcome death.  Jesus alone has the word of eternal life.  Is this not what we just sang?  Christ is not our first or even our best choice.  Christ is the only Savior and Redeemer.
    The disciples, however, wanted an explanation.  "Why couldn't we do it?" Jesus points to the power of prayer, to the prayer of faith that begins and ends with confidence that God not only can act but will keep His promises.  Our old Adam does not simply roll over and play dead.  He fights God's new life in us and constantly plants doubts in us that make our prayers the pitiful "what ifs" rather than the confidence "because" built upon God’s sure promises.  When we say "Lord, I believe" we acknowledge faith as God's work in us but we also acknowledge the doubts of the old Adam lingering within.  So to say “Lord, I believe” is not enough; we pray "Help my unbelief."  Doubt dogs faith at every step of the way.  It tries to separate us from Christ and leave us alone with our sin and fear.  Jesus comes not to reward those who do not doubt but to give to the doubting confidence and hope.
    Here we come week after week.  We do not hide our doubts or check them at the door.  We bring them right in here with our sins.  We bring them all to Jesus.  We have nowhere else to go.  Our hope is in Christ alone – the sinner seeking forgiveness and the doubter seeking confidence.  "Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief."  Unless we bring our doubts to Jesus, they will become the walls that isolate, tear down, and destroy our faith.  You cannot fight doubt on your own.  We face up to doubts and drive those doubts deep into the arms of Jesus.  We have nowhere else we can take them.  Jesus only.
    So we come today.  "Lord, I believe... help my unbelief."  It is not arrogant prayer of the skeptic but the honest prayer of a believer who daily struggles against doubt and fear that plots to steal our hope away.  This is the honest prayer of those who live out their faith amid the tests and trials of real life, within the tension of the old Adam of sin and the new person created in baptism.  Don't let these doubts drive you away from God's house or isolate you alone with your fears.  Bring them to Jesus.  He alone can shore up our hope.  I have know many Christians with doubts but I have never met a one who overcame them by staying away from God’s house, by removing himself from the hearing of God’s Word or by absenting himself from God’s table.
    Doubts are not faith's worst problem.  Over confidence in our own ability is our undoing.  God does not despise the weak but gives them strength.  It is the proud and haughty He sends empty away.  Beware of setting yourself up for a fall, says Scripture.  Bring your doubts to Jesus.  Bring them with your sins and your fears and your worries.  Bring them to the cross.  Let Him heal your doubting hearts.  Let Him calm your fearful souls.  Let Him be the power and peace to keep you fully planted upon Christ and Him crucified.  Far from disdaining this honest prayer –  "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief" – Jesus welcomes this prayer and welcomes the one who prays it.  Amen.

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