Strength for the Journey (Ninth Sunday after Pentecost)

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A few weeks ago, I took a trip to Florida.  I drove down, and so it involved enduring many hours of Interstate 95.  Many of you have driven this road also, and if so, I’m sorry!  I feel your pain!

It’s long.  It’s boring.  And lately, it’s also full of what I refer to as “bad billboard theology!”  These are billboards put up by people who seem to think that they can convert people to Christianity essentially by putting up billboards that tell people they’ll go to hell if they don’t get their act together.

Virtually all of these billboards are perversions of Christian faith.  Many clearly misunderstand the Bible quotes they’re referencing.  And worst of all, if you’re not a Christian and wondered if maybe there was something to this Jesus stuff, these signs will surely drive you away from Jesus faster than you want to drive off of I-95!

But as I read a few of these signs, it occurred to me that they often reflect popular misunderstandings of things in the Bible.  For example, faith and believing are almost always portrayed on these billboards as a threat.  “Believe this thing – or ELSE!” And the “or else” part seems to mean that if you agree to the right thing, then God doesn’t send you to hell when you die.

But if you actually read the Bible, that’s not what faith and believing are all about. Faith is not about saying you believe an idea.  And believing is never a response to a threat.

Take Abraham for example.  In today’s first reading, Abram – as he’s called back then – has only recently begun to have encounters with God.  And God has made a bunch of promises to Abram – that he’s going to be given a land flowing with milk and honey, and that his descendants will be more than the stars in the sky.

God makes these promises because God decides to do so.  Abram has done nothing to merit them.  And moreover, Abram is old.  He’s beyond the point where he thinks there’s much future in front of him.  And both he and his wife are old, so kids don’t even seem possible anymore.

And yet when God makes these promises, Abram “believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  But “believing” wasn’t something Abram did at the end of the journey, just before he died.  Instead, this is actually the beginning of the story.  And believing isn’t a response to a threat – God doesn’t threaten Abram with anything.  But it’s this believing that gives Abram strength for the journey ahead – the journey of this life.

In fact, believing is how Abram lives into his relationship with God, and that’s really what “righteousness” actually means – it’s about living in a right relationship with God.  But because it’s a relationship, it’s not really about agreeing to some intellectual proposition or doctrine.  Instead, Abram’s “believing” is about:

  • Taking what we might call a “leap of faith” – Abram actually has no idea how God is going to pull this stuff off; God never tells him how or when.  Moreover, Abram has no track record with God.  And Abram never says, “I have no doubts or fears or reservations whatsoever!”  Indeed, as the story goes on, Abram has all of those things.  And yet, Abram is willing to give it a shot. He’s willing to take the leap of faith that God does have a future in store for him.  And so he says, in effect, “OK God – let’s see what you’ve got for me.”  And he doesn’t walk away, even when the promises seem unlikely…
  • Paying attention throughout the journey – believing isn’t a “once and done” thing, but an active relationship in which Abram listens for God; watches what’s happening around him; and continues to question God.  Personally, when I’m told to go someplace, I’ve become very addicted to Google Maps.  I want to know exactly where it is and how to get there.  And I want to look at “streetview” so I know what the place will look like when I arrive.  God never tells Abram where he’s going, how he’s gonna get there or how long it will take.  And so part of believing had to involve continually watching, listening and questioning so that Abram could continue on this journey…
  • Moving forward – Abram can’t simply sit back and say, “OK God, I’ll sit back and wait for you to bring it all to me!”  Abram has to get up and move forward, even when he’s not sure exactly what the future holds.  Sometimes, we get the impression that “believing” is something we think in our heads, or maybe even feel in our hearts.  Those things may be part of it, but Abram’s story points out that “believing” can often only happen when we’re willing to move from where we are to where God is calling us to be…

For us, too, having faith isn’t something that gets us a reward at the end of our life’s journey.  Instead, as it was with Abram, faith is the relationship we have with God that gives us strength for the journey of this life.  And so for us, too, the call to faith – the call to “believe” – is often about:

  • Taking a “leap of faith” – and sometimes, the biggest leap of faith we’re called to take is the one like Abram took – it’s the courage to trust that God actually does have a future in store for us, even when things in life seem bleak and getting worse. Martin Luther used to say that whenever a Christian felt like there was no hope, they should remind themselves, “but I am baptized!”  That is, God has made a promise to me.  I have a future and God is with me, no matter what happened yesterday and no matter what happens today.  It doesn’t mean that I think today will be easy or even happy.  But sometimes, a leap of faith simply means, like Abram, the willingness to say, “I don’t know how you’re gonna get me through this God, but OK, let’s see what you got…!”
  • Paying attention to the journey of this life – what are the subtle signs of God’s presence and guidance that I might miss?  Who did something today that gave me a glimmer of hope?  Who spoke a word to me that I really needed to hear?  What did I see that caused me to think about something in a different way?  Could those be the very things that God is using to guide and lead me to the next point of my journey?  Faith isn’t necessarily the ability to see some kind of supernatural sign, but rather the practice of growing in seeing God’s hand in the routine and the ordinary.  And sometimes, the realization that God did in fact point me in certain way gives me the courage to keep on going, and that’s really the point of believing…
  • Continuing to move forward – often, we read the Bible and we hear about great transitional moments for people like Abram.  But most days, moving forward just meant getting up, getting dressed, packing and unpacking the tent and doing the daily stuff necessary for the day’s journey.  Often, that’s what faith looks like for us, too.  Even and especially when we’re not sure where God is leading us, the simple willingness to get up and keep doing our regular things is often a sign of faith.  “Plugging along” doesn’t sound exciting, but often it’s a necessary process God uses to move us to a different place – whether that’s a physical, emotional or spiritual place in our lives …

For us, as well as for folks in the Bible, faith is about growing in a relationship with God.  It’s about living into the journey of this life with the constant presence and promise of God in our lives.  And actually, when we come to better appreciate that God’s promises and presence never leave us, that also gives us hope for the life to come as well.

But since faith is a relationship, believing is something we grow into with God’s help each day.  And that growth can happen whenever, through the Spirit, God gives us the courage to take a leap of faith that God does indeed have a future in store for us.  That growth can happen whenever, through the Spirit, God helps us to see and hear and feel the signs of God’s presence and guidance in the midst of our daily journey of life.  And that growth can happen whenever, through the Spirit, God gives us strength to get up and keep moving so that God can move us from where we are to the new and better place where God wants us to be.