November 20, 2011

Stepping Out, but Not Blind

Good morning.  If you were not able to be with us last week, we started a new sermon series on faith.  We are taking a three-week, snapshot approach in which we are not going to attempt to fully dissect all the various elements of faith, but rather we are going to look at three of its most basic aspects.  The goal of these three weeks is to assemble a good working definition of faith on which we can all agree.  The first aspect of faith we examined last week was its beginning point.  Through the story of David and Goliath we discovered that faith begins when we trust in God’s character.  In this sense, the amount of faith we have is limited to the character of the God we serve.  If we serve a god who is not all-powerful and all-wise and all-good and all-knowing and all-present, then we neither can nor should put much trust in him because he will let us down at some point.  But, if we serve a God who can truly do all things, who has no limits on His ability to accomplish His purposes, and who has proved Himself in a myriad of ways, we can have a faith which stands strong regardless of hard experiences in this life.  Ultimately, we saw that David succeed when he trusted in God’s character.  Our faith begins when we do.

In the course of our conversation last week, I made reference to the fact that our culture often proclaims a vision of faith in which it is a blind trust in someone or something.  It is jumping off a cliff with no assurances of being caught—and without prior knowledge that anyone has ever been caught.  This understanding of faith often works its way quietly into the church where professed followers of Jesus begin to develop the idea that because they have never encountered God in a way measurable by their five senses (a position called empiricism), their faith in Him is blind in this way.  This tragic mindset has left the faith of many in the church in shambles.  Their heart falsely tells them that they must have this kind of blind faith in order to really call themselves Christians, while their head rightly tells them that this kind of faith seems awfully fishy sounding.  The most common result is that they stop walking by faith altogether and operate entirely by sight.  They strive to be very faithful to the commands of God, but don’t exercise very much faith.  The trick is that you can only be so faithful in the absence of faith.  And because deep in their psyche there is this battle raging between their false equation of faithfulness and faith and the fact that salvation is by faith alone, they will defend themselves vigorously and even angrily if their faith is ever questioned.

The heart of this issue, and the snapshot of faith I want to examine with you this morning, is the question of the basic nature of faith.  What is the basic nature of faith?  Well, as we have been doing a lot this fall, we are going to explore this question with the help of yet another story.  If you have your Bibles handy, open them to Matthew 14.  We are going to look at the story of Peter walking on the Lake of Galilee with Jesus this morning.  This is certainly a familiar story to many of you.  It is perhaps nearly as familiar as the story of David and Goliath was last week.  This means we’ll have to pay extra close attention so that our familiarity doesn’t lead us to miss anything.  Because in this story I think we are given a huge clue as to the basic nature of faith.  Let’s look together to see what it is.  Follow along with me as I read starting in v. 22.

“Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.”  Let me give you some context.  This story begins right after Jesus has miraculously fed somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 people.  This happened on the shores of the Lake of Galilee.  Once the meal had ended and the disciples had collected the twelve baskets of leftovers, it really was time to send everyone home.  Jesus volunteered to handle this part and so sent the disciples in their boat on ahead of him.  They were to row to the other side of the lake where He would meet up with them.  Continuing in v. 23: “And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray.  When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them.  And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea.  But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, ‘It is a ghost!’ and they cried out in fear.  But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘Take heart; it is I.  Do not be afraid.’”

Okay, put yourself in the disciples’ shoes for just a minute.  You are worn out from serving food for 15,000 people and then picking up the leftovers.  You are looking forward to sending all the people away and collapsing.  And then Jesus says: “You guys go ahead and row to the other side of the lake.  I’ll meet you there.”  Hasn’t He been equating Himself to God?  Doesn’t that mean He was involved in creating the Lake of Galilee?  Doesn’t He realize how far it is to the other side?  That’s four and a half miles of rowing when you’re already tired!  Furthermore, it’s the Lake of Galilee.  At night.  Jesus is a local.  He knows that storms tend to blow up unexpectedly at night.  This sounds like lots of fun: rowing four and a half miles across the lake, in a storm, against the wind, in the middle of the night.  Yet they are the disciples and He is the master so they go.  And things happen pretty much like they thought.  They set out, a storm blows up, and they’re rowing all night.  They are tired and scared and lost and starting to wonder whether or not Jesus knew He was sending them to their deaths.  Maybe this is Philip’s fault for not having enough faith to believe Jesus could feed all those people.  Finally as morning was approaching, just when they were ready to give up, they see someone walking across the lake.  Given their state of mind, no wonder they cried ghost.  Then things got really weird. The ghost wasn’t a ghost at all.  It was Jesus.  Walking.  On the lake.  In the storm.  Just so we’re clear: there really wasn’t any room for this sort of thing in their worldview.  There weren’t a bunch of stories circulating around of people walking on water back then.  To a man they were all thinking: really?  And so Peter (of course) speaks up.

Stay with me in the text in v. 28: “And Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’  He said, ‘Come.’  So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.  But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’  Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’  And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.  And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’”

Now let’s be clear on something here.  In the culture of discipleship in the first century, disciples wanted more than anything else in the world to be like their master.  They wanted to do everything their master did in the same way he did it.  They would follow their master to the latrine just to see whether or not he relieved himself in a special way or if he said a special prayer when he was finished.  (And if you haven’t ever thought much about offering God a prayer of thanks every time you left the bathroom, imagine—and some of you don’t have to—if those systems weren’t working right.)  Given this and Peter’s brash personality we shouldn’t be surprised at all that he wanted to get out on the water with Jesus.  We should be surprised that they all didn’t ask to get out of the boat and on to the water.  Well, at Jesus’ command Peter gets out of the boat, walks on water for a minute.  By the way, if you ever hear anyone try to excuse some mistake they have made by commenting that only one person ever walked on water, you can gently remind them that actually two people walked on water.  One of them was perfect—Jesus.  The other was far from perfect; he just kept his eyes on Jesus.  Upon rescuing him, Jesus chastises his small faith and asks why he doubts.  The point here is that Peter had some faith, just not very much.

So then, what does this have to do with helping us understand the basic nature of faith?  Well, to answer this we need to go back to Peter’s decision to get out of the boat.   Why did he do it?  Let’s think about this for a minute.  It’s easy to respond to this by mumbling something about Peter believing that he could do it because Jesus was.  We could praise his incredible faith…until we remember that Jesus calls him out for not having enough faith.  Let me bring back to the front of your minds a point I made a few minutes ago.  There was nothing in Peter’s worldview that would have suggested he could have gotten out on the water with Jesus.  People don’t walk on water.  They never have.  In all likelihood they won’t ever again.  If you get out of a boat in the water, you’re getting wet.  This ranks in the same category as if you jump off a cliff, you’re going to fall.  Yes, they saw Jesus standing out there in the water, but they had also seen Jesus command a storm to stop and it did.  They had just seen him feed some 15,000 people with five loaves and two small fish.  They were starting to slowly wrap their minds around who Jesus really was so while this blew their minds, it didn’t blow their worldviews.  But they weren’t Jesus.  We can make all the arguments in the world to the contrary, but the fact is that when Peter stepped out of that boat, he was stepping into the unknown.  Indeed, the basic nature of faith is to step into the unknown.  It is to venture out into territory that is totally unfamiliar to us.  It is to commit ourselves to actions that have no guarantees of success in this world.  It’s to sell the house when we don’t have another.  It’s to pledge the money before we know it will be in the bank.  It’s to leap and look later.

But hold on a just a minute.  That sounds an awful lot like the blind faith I’ve been preaching against.  So then which is it?  Is faith blind or does it involve sight?  Neither.  Look even more closely at Peter’s climbing out of the boat.  He had two things going for him when he acted.  First, he had confidence in who Jesus was.  He had a pretty good idea of Jesus’ character.  In other words, as we established last week, he had a beginning point for his faith.  The other thing he had here was Jesus’ command.  What did he say to Jesus again in v. 28: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  Jesus did.  This was the same Jesus who had healed chronic illness, cast out demons, raised the dead, stilled a storm, multiplied food many thousands of times over; if He commanded Peter to come to Him on the water, Peter was going to be able to come to Him on the water.  Peter had confidence in Jesus’ character and Jesus’ command to act.  Together these two things form the basic nature, the basic operating principle of faith.  Faith is to step out into the unknown with confidence in and the commands of Christ.  And when I first wrote that sentence I thought about adding the words “in action.”  But the truth of the matter is that there’s no such thing as faith not in action.  A person claiming to have faith and then not doing anything to demonstrate that faith is a liar.  Jesus’ brother James makes that clear in his letter.  The person living by faith, the person in possession of a robust, vibrant faith is actively pursuing a radical obedience to the commands of Christ.  Such a person is actively ministering to the needs of the least, last, and lost around them.  He is showing love to his enemies in the name of Jesus.  She is actively denying herself and her fleshly desires for the sake of those around her, trusting God to meet her needs, and not ever holding her gift against them.  He is giving sacrificially, setting and reaching goals for generosity which by all accounts are beyond his ability.  Such a person is stepping out into the unknown on confidence and commands.  Indeed, faith operates on confidence and commands.

Faith pursued in this manner is obviously not blind.  But neither is it sight.  Yes, Peter could see Jesus standing on the water.  But that was Jesus.  He knew that normal people don’t walk on water.   God didn’t design the world to work that way.  But he did know Jesus’ character.  Perhaps most importantly, though, He was possessed by an all-consuming desire to be like Jesus.  You know the old adage your mom threw at you when you wanted something your friends had: “If you’re friends jumped off a bridge would you?”  If Jesus had jumped off a bridge, the disciples would have had a fist fight to see who could have been the first over the side.  That’s what it meant to be a disciple.  You were possessed of an absolute confidence in who your master was and you knew without hesitation or doubt that if He commanded something there was a reason for it.  Yours was not to dither about questioning the validity of the command or his authority to make it.  Yours was to do it and hope you found out why later.  And when we are clear that our master is Jesus, the Lord of all Creation who made all things visible and invisible by the power of His word, if He commands something, it’s not merely possible, it is going to happen.  Doubt in this sense means we don’t know Him well enough to know all of that.  If we haven’t had the opportunity to learn His character to such an extent yet He will always come and lovingly reveal more of Himself to us.  But at some point He expects us to act on what we should have already learned.  If we want to learn more, we’ve got to get out of the boat.  We’ve got to demonstrate our confidence in His character and our belief in the power of His commands.  Faith operates on confidence and commands.

We can and should make our plans.  We should budget and save.  We should be frugal.  We should lock our cars and houses.  We should lay out contingencies in case life doesn’t go the way we expect.  Those are all good things.  But they’re not faith.  When God calls us to act, all of our plans become meaningless.  All of our savings won’t get us there.  Our contingencies no longer matter.  He didn’t tell Abram to move his whole village so he had a support system to bring with him.  He didn’t tell Gideon to hide the extra 31,700 men at the bottom of the hill in case the Midianites didn’t bite on the torch and trumpet trick.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego didn’t don their fireproof suits before walking calmly into the furnace.  Verse 29 doesn’t tell us that Peter put on his life vest and tied a rope around his waist just in case before getting out of the boat.  It simply says: “Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.”   Faith is a leap into the unknown.  There’s simply no getting around that.  God doesn’t call us to be involved with what we can accomplish.  He doesn’t call us to give what we are capable of giving.  He doesn’t call us to spread His kingdom in places we are capable of reaching.  He calls us to be involved with what only He can do.  We follow Him in faith because we know who He is and that He’ll do what He commands.  Faith operates on confidence and commands.

Now, all of that is absolutely true, but it’s still rather abstract.  What does this actually look like?  I mean, yes, we have examples in the Bible, but if we’re honest, most of us don’t put the stories of God acting in amazing ways in the Bible in the category of “that could really happen today.”   We should.  But we don’t.  So let me close things out this morning with a story of a couple acting in faith that will hopefully put things in terms everyone here can grasp.  This is a true story about a real couple who have followed God in faith to be involved in what only He can do.  I think their story demonstrates in a powerful way that faith operates by confidence and commands.

The West African nation of Nigeria is one of several majority Christian nations on the continent.  A number of years ago there was a Christian man named Jacob who had a good job working for the President of Nigeria.  His wife’s name was Rachel.  One day Jacob was beginning his day as he always did: opening his computer to check his e-mail.  This morning, however, he felt an overwhelming sense of the presence of God.  He heard God say to him: “Do not open your computer.  Go to work this morning and turn in your letter of resignation.  I will give you more instructions after you have done that.  What would you do?  Jacob went to work, turned in his resignation, and spent his commute home trying to figure out how to break the news to his wife that he had just quit one of the best jobs in the entire country.  When he arrived home, Rachel met him at the door and said, “No need to explain what you did.  The Spirit of God already told me that you were to quit your job today.”  A week later—can you imagine how long that week was?—they heard the Spirit speak yet again.  They were to go to Burkina Faso—a much poorer, smaller nation north and east of Nigeria—and were not to make any plans to return to Nigeria.  Several weeks later they found themselves homeless with their two children and all of their belongings they could pack in the Burkina Faso airport.  The Spirit spoke to them a third time: “Find a bus, get tickets, ride the bus, and I will tell you where to get off.”  They rode for four hours out into the country.  Finally, God told them to get off.  They found a home to stay in and the next morning Jacob received yet another word from the Lord.  He was to take a walk and on his walk he would discover the reason he had quit his job, sold his house, left his homeland, broke ties with his family, threw off all the security and contingency plans he had laid, and come to one of the poorest, smallest nations in Africa.  During his walk the first person he encountered was a prostitute.  When he saw her the Spirit spoke a final time: “This is why I have sent you here.  Invite her into your home and then I will tell you how to live your life.”  Take just a second and let your minds wrap around all of that.  The couple has been at work there since and has rescued many women from the sex industry.  They have been busily at work spreading the message of the kingdom to folks who are truly the least, last, and lost in this world.  But none of it would have happened without their initial steps into the unknown.  Like Peter, they took a step which as far as the world around them was concerned didn’t make any sense at all.  They had two things going for them.  They knew the God they served and a as result they trusted that His commands were possible.  Indeed, faith operates on confidence and commands.

Our faith begins when we trust God’s character.  It comes to actually mean something when we take that trust and put it into action by acting in obedience to God’s commands.  This is exactly what Peter did.  He trusted in the character of his Lord and put that trust into action by acting on Jesus’ command to come join Him on the water.  By the way, a secondary, though no less important, point is the fact that Jesus was out on the water.  If God calls us to obedience, it’s because He’s already there and is calling us out to join Him.  This is the basic nature of faith.  Faith operates on confidence and commands.  It acts on the confidence in obedience to the commands and steps out into the unknown of God’s full capabilities.  Peter’s unknown was out on the water.  For Jacob and Rachel it was found in leaving behind all they knew as secure and familiar to go to a new land.  Your unknowns may not be so grand seeming as those, but they are no less important to the kingdom.  It could be that your unknown is to have a spiritually sensitive conversation with a coworker.  It could be for your family to set a giving goal for the remainder of this year or next year that goes far beyond what you think is possible.  It could be to give less time to a pastime that doesn’t tend to foster a deeper relationship with God in favor of intentionally pursuing some of the spiritual disciplines.  It also could be that God doesn’t have any new commands for you, but rather is calling you to live out those He’s already given in His word in ways you’re not.  Whatever it is, it will only happen when you act on your trust in God’s character in obedience to His commands.   This is the essence of faith.  Faith operates on confidence and commands.  May you take this step.