Sermon: “I Believe”

In the past we have shied away from printing manuscripts or transcripts of sermons for Wesleyan Sermons. The reason behind our thinking was that we wanted to make it harder not easier for pastors to copy other people’s sermons. However, after giving it more thought, we believe that pastors who are going to copy sermons wholesale will find a way to do it whether we posts text or not. Further, some content is helpful to read in a condensed form, especially if you do not have time to listen to the entire sermon online. This week we’re posting a highly theologically focused sermon. It’s content rich so it feels like a good sermon to start our new practices with. In the future we hope to post more condensed texts of sermons like this one. Some will be contemporary, some historical.

steve.lennoxDr. Steve Lennox has more than a decade of full time pastoring experience, two decades of teaching experience, and has served as Associate Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry and the Dean of the Chapel at Indiana Wesleyan University. We hope you enjoy reading and listening to this sermon “I Believe.”

I Believe

Hebrews 11:1-2, 6

This sermon was preached on September 18, 2013 as a chapel message at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Download sermon audio here.

This is the first in a series of sermons on the Apostles creed.  It’s called the Apostles creed, not because they wrote it, but because it reflects the apostles’ teaching as it began to be condensed and combined at about the end of the first century.  Think of the Apostles Creed like the bull’s eye in a target.  It represents the core of Christianity, what we’re aiming for.  The circle around the outside of that bull’s eye would be our doctrines, and outside that circle would be our opinions.  The heart of what Christians believe is found in the creeds.

How many of you grew up in churches where reciting the creed was a regular part of your worship?  Most of us did not.  I didn’t.  I secretly looked down at the people who did.  I figured the only reason they had to read somebody else’s affirmation of faith is because they didn’t have enough faith of their own.  I’ve grown up a bit since then, and have come to understand that some things need to be learned with the right content in the right order because this represents reality.  It’s like the Periodic Table of Elements. It is arranged in that order because it represents the way things really are in the physical universe.  The colors of a prism are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, not in order of popularity, but because that represents the color spectrum of reality.

The creeds are like this. They represent reality in the spiritual realm making it essential that we learn their content. Over the course of this series, we’ll examine the creed, phrase by phrase.  For today I thought it best to start with a word used multiple times in the creed, the word, believe, or the concept, faith.  Talking about faith is not as simple as it seems.  To get our bearings, let’s turn to the faith chapter, Hebrews 11.  Our text for today is the first two verses of chapter 11, then verse 6.

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.  This is what the ancients were commended for.”  Drop down to verse 6: “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”  Right away we see that faith means being certain of something.  This leads us to our first problem: this isn’t how we use believe.  You ask your friend, “Who do the Colts play on Sunday?” and he answers, “I believe it’s the 49ers but I’ll have to check.”  We tend to use believe to refer to something we aren’t certain about.  The writer of Hebrews assumes that faith means being certain of something.

Verse two tells how certain we can be.  It speaks of “the ancients” being commended for” their faith.  The rest of chapter 11 tells about these ancients, Old Testament believers either commanded by God to do something or given a promise that God would do something.  They are in this chapter because they were certain about that; they lived by their faith.  Faith isn’t really faith unless it’s a faith with feet, unless it is put into action.

This brings up two more problems.  For many, faith involves only intellectual ascent, like a software agreement.  You skim down, click accept and use the software. For some, that’s all faith involves, checking the box that says “I agree.”  Others view faith as emotional assent. We have always believed something passionately.  But the writer of Hebrews is not talking about intellectual or emotional assent.  He is talking about a sit-down faith.  I can talk until I’m blue in the face about how this stool will hold my weight.  I can tell you why its physical properties can definitely support 185 pounds.  I can tell you all this with great passion!  But there’s only one way to prove it.  I’ve got to sit down.  This is the kind of faith the Bible calls us to possess: a sit down faith.  This is the kind of faith the ancients were commended for.

We can claim to believe God controls all that happens in human history, but the real test of our faith is how we respond to the phone call with devastating news.  We can talk passionately about how God provides all our needs but the real test of our faith is when it is time to register for classes and your bill is unpaid.

Faith is having a sit-down certainty of something, but certainty in what?  What is the content of our faith?  Let’s go back to our text. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for,” that is, what remains in the future, “and certain of what we do not see,” that is, the invisible.  Faith is being sure of something that hasn’t happened yet.  God told Noah to build a boat because there was going to be a flood.  Noah believed God and built that boat when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

The creed calls us to believe in future things, like the return of Christ, the resurrection of our bodies, and the life everlasting.  Although these haven’t happened yet, we are called to live with certainty that they will occur.  We are called to have a faith that makes decisions today based on what we believe about tomorrow.

Faith also means being sure about the invisible.  Hebrews 11 talks about Moses standing fearlessly in the presence of Pharaoh, the most powerful man of his day.  Moses did not fear Pharaoh, we’re told, because Moses saw Him who is invisible (11:27). Though he could not see God at that moment, Moses believed God was present. This certainty gave him the courage to face down Pharaoh.  The creed calls for belief in the invisible, such as things that happened in the past: Jesus Christ “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, buried.”  The creed also talks about believing things that are real, but invisible, things like “one holy, universal Church.”  What we see now are multiple denominations, divisions, disobedience; we don’t see “one holy, universal Church.”  But we are called to believe in the invisible reality, this church which is more than meets the eye.  If you really believe that the Church is one, unified body of believers, you will put feet to your faith by getting involved and making the church an important part of your life.

Faith calls us to have a certainty about things we cannot see and things still to come.  But if we can’t see it and if it hasn’t happened yet, how do we know what we are supposed to be certain about?  Let me suggest two criteria.  First, you can be certain of anything God has promised.  God promised Abram and Sarah they would have a son and from that son would come a whole nation.  They accepted that promise with certainty, even though it hadn’t happened yet and seemed like it never would.   God has made promises to us as His people: that He would never forsake us, He would provide for our needs, He would turn all things to His glory and our good.

Second, you can be certain of whatever flows naturally and essentially from God’s character.  Take Abraham on Mount Moriah.  He remembers God’s promise that the same boy who lies on the altar bound like a sacrificial animal will be the one through whom a great nation comes.  In other words, Isaac would have to be alive. Yet God was commanding Abram to kill Isaac.  What does Abram do?  He “reasoned.” That’s what it says in Hebrews 11:19.  Abram reasoned. The Greek word describes the process of calculation.  Abram added things up and reasoned that though he must kill Isaac, God would then raise Isaac from the dead, enabling him to fulfill God’s promise.  None of us will ever have to face a dilemma like that, but we will have our own conundrums. When we do, like Abraham we can be certain of what flows naturally and essentially from God’s character.  He is all-powerful and can do anything.  He is all-loving and will only ever allow what He can turn to good.

I like this phrase, “Abraham reasoned,” because it silences the claim that faith and reason are incompatible.  It was Abraham’s faith that allowed him to reason.  C.S. Lewis illustrates the compatibility of faith and reason by describing a poem being given to a person who cannot read.  Lewis writes,

One who contended that a poem was nothing but black marks on white paper would be unanswerable if he addressed an audience who couldn’t read.  Look at it through microscopes, analyse the printer’s ink and the paper, study it (in that way) as long as you like; you will never find something over and above all the products of analysis whereof you can say ‘This is the poem’.  Those who can read, however, will continue to say the poem exists.

Reason allows us to become experts in analyzing the marks on the paper, but faith allows us to read the poem.

God intends faith and reason to be kept together.  In fact, faith keeps reason reasonable.  Without faith, reason gets away with a lot of mischief.  Smart people lacking faith can do dumb things.  When our emotions have our reason’s arm twisted behind its back, faith reminds you of what you cannot see, an eternity of joy awaiting the faithful.

One final thing from this passage: “without faith, it is impossible to please God.”  Faith is not an option, but a necessity.  Faith is like the operating system on your computer.  Without it, your computer is just attractive plastic.  It can’t do anything. The keyboard can’t talk to the monitor and no one gets any help from the central processing unit.  But install the operating system and the hardware works as designed.  This is what faith does for us. It makes it possible to please God.

When you hear that faith is essential, you might respond, “but Steve, you don’t know about my doubts.”  Don’t worry about your doubts, worry about your fears.  The opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear, and fear weakens us.  We know what we ought to do but we’re afraid to do it.  Fear can kill you, but doubts are harmless.  Abram is known as the father of those who believe. In the same chapter where Abram first expressed doubts about God’s plan, Abram’s faith was most directly affirmed.  “People do not have their faith snatched away from them by force of argument,” said Lewis.  “They just forget where they put it.” Your doubts are not only harmless, they’re inevitable.  Pannenberg said doubt is only the shadow cast by faith.  Just get used to praying the prayer of the father in the gospels: “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.”  If you must doubt, follow the advice of G.K. Chesterton: when doubting, doubt boldly.  Doubt fervently.  Doubt daily.  Doubt everything, until you begin to doubt your doubts, and finally, doubt the doubter.

Let’s pray.  We don’t need much of it, Lord Christ, a mustard seed worth will do.  But if with that little faith we take you at your word, you can do great things through us.  Give us the certainty to have a sit-down faith until we find you faithful to your people of faith.  In the name of Christ we pray.  Amen.

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