Two weeks ago Becky and the boys and I went to southwestern Ohio, where I’m from, for a few days. Aubrey was moving out of her dorm for the summer and we helped her with that, and then we went further south to Wilmington, my hometown, to celebrate my Grandpa’s 90th birthday. And while we were there, we had a chance to see family members that we hadn’t seen in years. Some Becky and the kids had never met. And it was really great to spend time with my cousin who is from and lives in Florida, David. When we visit family in Wilmington, we always stay at Grandpa’s house, and he did too. So we spent quite a bit of time together. He’s 11 years older than me, and for ten years when he was growing up, his parents sent him to Ohio for the summer to work for my grandpa at his gas and service station and spend time with us. Now he lives in Gainesville, Florida, and we live all the way up here, so we don’t see each other very often any more. And we have very different preferences for the climates that we want to live in.
We text and Facebook back and forth quite a bit teasing one another. I’ll post something about frigid temps and wind and snow in January, and he’ll send me a picture of himself sitting out by his pool in shorts on a sunny day sipping lemonade or sweet tea. And then I’ll notice that it’s 3,000 degrees down there in July and I’ll send him a picture of a nice, 84 degree day at the beach here in Northern Michigan. We like our fresh water inland seas and he loves the salty air near the ocean. I’ll check in to make sure they’re ok during a hurricane and he’ll say, “At least it isn’t a blizzard.” And I’ll say, “Yeah, but water runs everywhere. Snow stays where I put it.” And he comes back with “Yeah, until it melts.” But Becky and I always end with, “There’s nothing that can eat you in our waters though.” He has gators and sharks to deal with.
But one thing that we’re both familiar with is rip tides. You know, those narrow but really strong outward tides that tend to happen on windy days. The ones where people playing in the water 20 yards from sure suddenly find themselves being sucked out into deeper water. And the tendency is to panic and try to swim back in to shore. The problem is, you can’t. Human beings can’t outmuscle a rip tide. I don’t care if you can barely swim or if you’re a competitive swimmer, you’ll loose if you try to swim against the current, against the rip tide. The way to save yourself from a rip current is to swim sideways, right? To swim parallel with the shore until you’re out of the current.
Pastor John Ortberg tells this story of his friend Jimmy. He says, “My friend, Jimmy, and his son, Davey, were playing in the ocean down in Mexico, while his family – his wife, daughters, parents, and a cousin – were on the beach. Suddenly, a rogue riptide swept Davey out to the sea. Immediately Jimmy started to do whatever he could to help Davey get back to the shore, but he, too, was soon swept away in the tide. He knew that in a few minutes, both he and Davey would drown. He tried to scream, but his family couldn’t hear him.
Jimmy’s a strong guy – an Olympic Decathlete – but he was powerless in this situation. As he was carried along by the water, he had a single, chilling thought: My wife and my daughters are going to have to have a double funeral. Meanwhile, his cousin, who understood something about the ocean, saw what was happening. He walked out into the water where he knew there was a sandbar. He had learned that if you try to fight a riptide, you will die. So, he walked to the sandbar, stood as close as he could get to Jimmy and Davey, and then he just lifted his hand up and said, “You come to me. You come to me.” If you try to go the way your gut tells you to go – the shortest distance into shore – you will die. If you think for yourself, you will die.[i] The principle, swim sideways and get out of the current, is sound, but it’s counterintuitive. Likewise faith, if it’s placed in a faithful person or true principle, is sound. It might be counterintuitive at times, but it’s sound.
In Romans 4, St. Paul tackles the topic of faith. What is faith, and why does it matter? The key isn’t the strength of your faith, but the strength of the One in whom you place your faith. Let’s turn together to Romans 4:13-25.
Unfortunately, these days faith has come to be viewed as the opposite of sound reason. Mark Twain developed a character named Pudd’nhead Wilson, an amateur detective with a strong belief only in what he could prove with his five senses. And in one essay, Pudd’nhead Wilson said “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” Sadly, this is the main definition of the word “faith” in our time – stubbornly believing what you know ain’t so. Maybe we don’t say it in those words, but for us, faith has become “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” That’s the dictionary definition of the word “faith.” Firm belief in something for which there is no proof. So in our minds, faith by definition must include a blind leap, because faith is nonrational belief. Faith and rationality have come to be viewed as opposites. And the stronger my irrational, illogical belief in something for which there is no proof, the stronger my faith. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, Paul spends most of his time not on the quality or quantity of my faith, but on the faithfulness and trustworthiness of God – the one in whom he wants me to place my faith. If we’re going to have faith in and trust the promises of God, we have to know and trust the God of the promise, and it is to the God of the promise that Paul turns his attention first. Look at V. 17. Now, as we saw last week, Abraham is often used as the prime example of faith in Scripture. He was the father of the Jewish people, but what we often miss is that there was absolutely nothing special about Abraham prior to God calling him that drew God’s attention to him. Abraham, then called Abram, was a Chaldean who worshipped the pagan gods of the Chaldeans until God called him. The Old Testament does not picture Abram as a deserving, God-fearing, good man whose goodness and righteousness drew the attention of God. He was just like any other man. And that’s why God called him – not because there was something spectacular about him but because there wasn’t. It was grace. Undeserved favor.
So God told Abram to move his family to the land of Canaan, which he did. But God also told him that he would bless all the nations of the world through Abraham and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. And that’s where things got tricky, because Abram’s wife, Sarai, was barren. She wasn’t able to conceive. She couldn’t get pregnant. No matter how hard they tried, Abraham and Sarah couldn’t get pregnant. They had no children. Abraham had no heir.
And decades later, still with no heir, he despaired. He was now nearing the age of 100. His Promised Land was experiencing famine and couldn’t support he and Sarai and their many servants and their families. His extended family that lived with them was divided by greed. His well-being and peace had been shattered by intruders, enemies who stole from his possessions.
At birth he had been given the name “Abram,” which means Exalted Father. But in the dream God had changed his name to Abraham, “Father of Multitudes.” And he changed Sarai, which means “Contentious,” to Sarah, “Princess.” Identities changed not because it was deserved, but by grace. You see, so deep was their despair that Abram and Sarai decided that God needed a little help keeping his promise. So Sarai gave one of her servants, a woman named Hagar, to Abram as another wife, and he slept with her and conceived a child, which he named Ishmael. So he had an heir. But this wasn’t the child God had promised. It wasn’t a child of Abram and Sarai. So God appeared to him in a dream and reminded him of his promise and took another step, giving them new names, new identities. But still no promised child.
In fact, in Genesis we read that as a result of this dream, “Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” (Gen. 17:17-18). God’s promise seemed so absurd that Abraham LAUGHED AT GOD! Sarah’s womb had never been productive. She’d never been able to conceive, even when she was young. And now they were both old. Too old. Sarah was 90, Abraham was about 100. Not only was Sarah unable to conceive, she had now gone through menopause. And if, by some miracle she did manage to get pregnant, what would labor do to Sarah’s 90-year-old body? Too old to have a child. Too old to raise a child. It was hopeless. But God in grace said, “Even though you tried to take matters into your own hands and did have a child, I am going to give you the child I promised you.”
But God is a God who brings life from death. And God is a God who creates something from nothing. Look again at V. 17. Abraham didn’t know it, couldn’t know it, but a descendent of his, who would be God incarnate, God in the flesh, would walk this earth calling life from death – the widow’s son, Jairus’ daughter, and Lazarus. And then Christ himself was raised from the dead, living proof of God’s victory over sin and death. How fitting that God’s saving work for all would begin by bringing life from the twice dead womb of Sarah.
You see, Abraham’s faith wasn’t in Abraham. He knew darn well that he couldn’t make this happen no matter how hard he tried. It was beyond the capacity of ANY human being to bring this about. But his faith was in the God of the promise – the God who brings life from death and who creates something from nothing. Abraham doesn’t deny reality. Look at V. 19. Faith does not deny reality. Faith is not just positive thinking. Faith isn’t breezy optimism. Abraham knew what he was up against. He didn’t deny it. In many Christian circles these days it’s popular to say that having faith means claiming your healing, even if you’re still showing symptoms. Like a refusal to consider that healing may not have happened. Now, sometimes healing is a process and happens over time. But my healing and my salvation do not depend on my ability to think positively about God, to hold onto the promises of God. My healing and my salvation depend on the God of the promise, in his ability to bring life from death, to create something from nothing. I can hold onto the promises of God because the God of the promise has ahold of me!!
Abraham and Sarah’s faith was at times a wobbly faith. They took matters into their own hands. They tried to make God’s promise come about the only way they knew how. They failed. But God didn’t quit on them. God didn’t turn his back on them, even when they couldn’t see how God could possibly bring about his promise in their lives. Our faith wobbles. God’s faithfulness is rock solid.
Look at Vv. 20-21. Abraham and Sarah experienced unbelief. Their minds were going in all sorts of directions as they aged, as Sarah’s barren womb went through menopause. In Sarah’s giving Hagar to Abraham as a younger wife and Abraham’s fathering Ishmael with Hagar, both showed at times a lack of faith and trust in God. But faith isn’t just thinking. Faith is living, and they trajectory of their lives kept them moving in the direction God was taking them, sometimes without doubt, often in spite of their doubts. That’s faith. That’s trust. And the one thing Abraham and Sarah never doubted was that God COULD, miraculously, do what he had promised. That, they knew. Sometimes they wondered if God WOULD do it. But their faith grew. Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith any more than fear is the opposite of courage. And just as courage needs fear to exist, so faith needs doubt to be faith. We keep trusting, even as we wonder what in the world God is up to. Abraham experienced unbelief. He experienced doubt. But he didn’t waver in his belief that God would bring this about. Somehow. Some way. He was tempted to vacillate. But he never did, even as he doubted.
And when Abraham, the Exalted Father, the Father of Many, died, he had two sons. One was the promised son with Sarah. His name was Isaac, which means “He laughed.” Abraham laughed. It’s not that he didn’t think God could do it. He just couldn’t see how. And so he laughed. And they gave that name to Isaac, a reminder that God was faithful, even when they wandered and wondered what God was up to.
There was an article in the Opinion Journal about Kenneth Helphand, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Oregon. A little while ago, he purchased an old stereopticon at a flea market. It depicted a scene of shelters in French military trenches surrounded by gardens. After a great deal of research, he discovered that gardens were often created in times of war. Gardens flanked the Western front during World War I, Jewish ghettos during World War II, German POW camps, Japanese-American internment camps in the U.S., and war-torn areas of Sarajevo. Today, gardens are sprouting up in the deserts of Iraq.
The gardens symbolize survival – life – in the most difficult of circumstances. They are “an obdurate refusal to give in to the horror of the hell so close at hand.” In fact, Helphand calls them “defiant gardens.”[ii] Faith is a defiant garden. Defiant not because it denies reality. Not because it is a stubborn persistence of belief in something you know ain’t true. Faith is a defiant garden because it is placed in the one who IS Truth, who is Faithful. Faith is a defiant garden when it is placed in the one who calls life from death and creates something out of nothing. We all have faith. We all believe in something or someone. In whom have you placed your faith? In the one who calls life from death, or in something or someone else? Let us pray.
[i] John Ortberg, in the sermon The Way of Wisdom
[ii] Jane Garmey, “Planting Hope: Gardening in Times of War,” www.opinionjournal.com (3-21-07)