14 Jun June 14, 2020: Faith – Hard but Better
Faith: Hard but Better
June 14, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
Click here to access the pre-recorded service.
Last week our series in Genesis made a significant turn, as the theologically foundational primordial history of the first eleven chapters leads us to the story of Abraham. Father Abraham looms large in Scripture, with three major world religions each claiming a direct lineage from him. Jews consider Abraham to be the great patriarch of Israel. They trace their heritage through Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac and his son Jacob. Muslims trace their lineage through Ishmael, Abraham’s son born to Sarah’s servant Hagar. Islam reveres Abraham as the father of the biblical prophets. Christians share the same lineage with Jews through Isaac and Jacob, with the added caveat that Jesus is part of the family line descending from Abraham. Abraham, then, is a dominant figure not only in the Old Testament. His presence is felt throughout the New Testament, as well.
The first nine verses of chapter 12 record God’s call of Abram. We looked at that last week, as God says to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (12:2-3).
Abram calls his family together, his wife, Sarai, and nephew Lot, and tells them to pack their bags because they are headed to God-only-knows-where. In this scene and indeed, elsewhere in scripture, Abram is held up as the epitome of faith and faithfulness. There is no hesitation or ambivalence in his response to God; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Abram’s obedience is immediate and unquestioning. He simply does what God tells him to do.
And that’s why the rest of chapter 12 is so baffling. Abram, Sarai, and Lot have gotten to the Negeb, the present-day Negev desert, when a severe famine forces them to leave the region and head to Egypt. Remember the backdrop: God called and led Abram from his home in Haran to the land of promise. God has also promised him heirs and blessing. Abram has responded in complete faith, until…. until Egypt. As they prepare to enter this new land, Abram suddenly becomes afraid and he does what a lot of us do when we’re afraid: he starts playing the “what if?” game. What if the Egyptians become captivated by Sarai’s beauty? What if they decide to kill him in order to have her? Given his history with God thus far, how God has led him and provided for him along every step of his journey, you might think Abram would be able to get hold of himself. “It’s okay. God has made a promise to me, and God will fulfill that promise. I don’t have anything to worry about; God will take care of us.” But that’s not what happens.
Instead, Abram’s fear overwhelms his faith, leading him to take matters into his own hands. “You are a beautiful woman,” he says to Sarai, “and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife;’ then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you” (12:12-13). Not to put too fine a point on it, Abram is ready to lie and to jeopardize Sarai’s well-being to protect his life and his own self-interests. If this is a test of Abram’s faith, he gets a failing grade.
Sarai’s beauty does indeed attract the attention of Pharaoh’s staff, and believing her to be Abram’s sister, Sarai is taken into Pharaoh’s household, an action for which Abram is richly rewarded. Until, that is, a series of plagues afflicts Pharaoh’s household which exposes Abram’s duplicity and leads the Egyptian ruler to expel Abram’s family from his land.
Perhaps you are struck, as am I, with the way Genesis foreshadows the famine that will force the Hebrews back to Egypt in the book of Exodus, how on a mass scale they will be forced to serve the Egyptian Pharaoh, and how it will take God’s intervention through a series of plagues, to set the stage for Pharaoh’s release of his slaves and the Hebrews dramatic, defining exodus event. While the story, does indeed, remind us of these events, one critical detail is more easily overlooked. The all-important question throughout Abraham’s story is the issue of an heir.
Abram and Lot fare well during their time in Egypt. They leave as wealthy and prosperous men. In chapter 13 they journey back to Canaan, but there is no “and they lived happily ever after” ending to this story. Abram and Lot’s herdsmen quarrel over grazing land for their flocks, so Abram gives Lot first dibs in the Promised Land. Unlike what takes place in Egypt, in this scene there is an absence of any maneuvering on Abram’s part. It would certainly have been his right as the elder of the two men to choose first which part of the land he wanted to settle. Yet he graciously defers to his younger nephew. In chapter 12, Abram schemes and fails, but here he does nothing, yet comes out on top. In the first story, he lives in fear; in the second one, he lives by faith. As he enters Egypt, he doubts God’s promise; as he enters Canaan, he trusts the promise. He appears faithless in the first scene; in the second, he proves faithful.
Isn’t it fascinating how scripture juxtaposes these two stories of faithfulness and faithlessness? I wonder why. They do certainly portray faith the way it really is. This unvarnished picture of Abram, the father of three world religions, depicts him as a curious amalgam of faith and fear. One moment he is hustling to get what he wants. The next moment, he is willing to trust God’s promise. Faith obviously doesn’t come easily to Abram, and it doesn’t come easily to us, either. We move in and out of faith continuously.
There is a chapter in C.S. Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity, entitled “Is Christianity hard or easy?” Lewis points out that sometimes Jesus describes the life of faith as hard, like when he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Yet, there are other times when Jesus almost makes it sound easy, like when he says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30).
Lewis points out that the Christian life is simultaneously hard and easy. “It may initially seem like a hard thing, an almost impossible thing, to hand over your whole self—all your wishes and precautions—to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves,’ to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be ‘good.’ We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way—centered on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, in spite of this, to behave honestly and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do. If I am a field that contains nothing but grass seed, I cannot produce wheat. Cutting the grass may keep it short, but I shall still produce grass and no wheat. If I want to produce wheat, the change must go deeper than the surface. I must be plowed up and re-sown.”
It may seem like an impossibly hard thing to do to entrust your life to Christ. Before you take this step, it may seem like an enormous leap of faith. Yet it is easier to entrust your whole self to Christ than to try to hold onto your life and at the same time give it away. That’s why Lewis says we need to be plowed up and re-sown. Yes, faith is hard, agonizingly hard at times. But keep at it. With time, with patience and practice, it will come easier to you.
I think I was in college when I was given the book A Severe Mercy written by Sheldon Vanauken. The book is, to this day, in my office library. Sheldon and his wife, Davy, became Christians while studying at Oxford University in England. They began what ended up being a life-long correspondence with C.S. Lewis, which Vanauken references in A Severe Mercy. Sheldon and Davy came to the U.S. so Sheldon could begin a teaching post at Lynchburg College. Sheldon writes about Davy pouring herself into her newfound faith and then says, “I, too, was serving [Christ], going to church and the like…Christianity was first in my concerns. Intellectually, I was wholly committed to its truth. And yet I was holding something back. What did I want? I wanted the fine keen bow of a schooner cutting the waves with just Davy and me…Well, there was nothing unchristian about that, as long as God was there, too, and as long as we were neglecting no service of love. But, though I wouldn’t have admitted it, even to myself, I didn’t want God aboard. He was too heavy. I wanted Him approving from a considerable distance. I wanted to be free. I wanted Christ now and then, like a loved poem I could read when I wanted to. I didn’t want us to be swallowed up in God. I wanted holidays from the school of Christ.”
I think most of us can related to Sheldon Vanauken. There are times when we don’t want to be swallowed up by God. We, too, want a holiday from the “school of Christ.” We don’t always want to be reminded of our duty to take up the cause of the poor and disenfranchised. It’s dispiriting to speak truth to power. We find it incredibly hard to turn the other cheek or walk the second mile or to practice forgiveness 70 times 7 or to love our enemies. It’s easier to live entirely self-centered, absorbed in our own pursuits, or so we think. But you can only binge-watch so many Netflix series or tune into so much cable news before you yearn for something more. Even though life in community with others is challenging, being quarantined has reminded us of how much we miss one another and the limits of living only for ourselves.
Sometimes, following Christ will confound you. “God, what are you doing in my life? Why don’t you answer my prayers? Can’t you give me a sign? Can’t you make this a little bit easier?” Faith does not mean we get a “pass” on the difficulties of life. Life is hard. And faith is hard. But, life without faith is much, much harder. It is in the life of faith that we experience God’s presence and peace. It is the life of faith that compels us to grow and to grow up, to be re-sown as men and women of compassion and mercy. It is faith that grounds us in the good and eternal purposes of God which give our lives meaning, as we learn what it means to be the fully alive human beings God designed us to be. It is faith that immerses us in God’s love and from which all hope springs. Yes, faith is hard, but it is better. Much, much better.
Thanks be to God. Amen.