Prefatory remark – This message, and the one that follows it, were preached at Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Edmonton, on February 11th and 18th respectively. This first installment of the two messages came as the closing message on Faith-based on the characters mentioned in Hebrews 11. The second installment introduces an agreed Lenten focus on the suffering of Jesus. Please note that the Scriptures used in this sermon are quoted at the end of this text.
An elderly lady was well-known for her faith and for her boldness in talking about it. She would stand on her front porch and shout “PRAISE THE LORD!” Next door to her lived an atheist who would get so angry at her proclamations he would shout, “There ain’t no Lord!!”
Hard times set in on the elderly lady, and she prayed for GOD to send her some assistance. She stood on her porch and shouted “PRAISE THE LORD. GOD, I NEED FOOD!! I AM HAVING A HARD TIME. PLEASE, LORD, SEND ME SOME GROCERIES!!” The next morning the lady went out on her porch and noted a large bag of groceries and shouted, “PRAISE THE LORD.”
The neighbor jumped from behind a bush and said, “Aha! I told you there was no Lord. I bought those groceries, God didn’t.” The lady started jumping up and down and clapping her hands and said, “PRAISE THE LORD. He not only sent me groceries, but He made the devil pay for them.
Why does faith matter? Our scientific culture tends to push us to a train of thought that tries to prove the existence of God. I attended and taught religious philosophy courses for many years and at the beginning of those courses we marched through all the mental proofs for the existence of God. The teleological, cosmological, and ontological proofs for God were carefully outlined including the steps, the objections, the answers, and the conclusions. Not once did a student have an “A-HA!” moment, and suddenly believed.
In answering the question of why faith matters, my suggestion is: don’t look for proof. If you try to account for faith via proofs it will likely sound all wrong as soon as it comes out of your mouth, even if they happen to convince someone. They will always feel insufficient for the task of understanding why faith matters.
Most of my life has nothing to do with proofs. The music of my daughter’s laugh, the tangible excitement of my son as he gazed upon a blood-red, blue, and supermoon, the thrill of reading a profound thought, the experience of a child who suddenly realizes that they can read, or that they need not be anxious about learning, reconnecting with a long-time friend, a quiet moment with Air. Who could prove that these are important? Who would wish to prove it? The most profound, most healing, and most meaningful experiences in life are the fruit of love, not reason.
The primary purpose of what I say today is to suggest that the usual objections to faith – that it is disproven, irrational, and it is dangerous – are simply not true. The objections can’t be dismissed because they are inaccurate; they are dubious because they operate on an epistemic commitment to security and control that we simply do not have. Rather, in questioning and reverence, in agreement with the great Jewish existential writer Martin Buber who said, “all real living is meeting,” lies the possibility of meeting the living God. I am not talking about the God on a page, or in an ancient miracle, not the God of campaigns or on coins. Rather, today I want us to become aware of the living God, the one that whispers inside us, the powerful force that inspires us to goodness, and that transforms us with peace. Our God is the God who can be intuited and felt and is the living God. Our relationship with that God is what I want to put in the foreground today.
In keeping with our theme of highlighting the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, I would like to look at the circumstances of Jephthah whose story is told in Judges 11.
First, let us be reminded of the fact that Jephthah was the child of a prostitute, and as such, was excluded from the traditional structure of inheritance and belonging predominant at the time. God works through the margins. Jephthah is called by those who excluded him, because of his skills as a mighty warrior and leader. He demonstrates his leadership by availing himself and those who originally excluded him of an oath made before the Lord that he will in fact be head over the Gilead, throughout and after the defeat of the Ammonites, but also in his simple negotiations with the Ammonites where he not only tries to avert an imminent war but also in establishing the rightful claim to the land. His argument is simple and full of faith. God gave us this land, and for three hundred years that claim was unchallenged. His leadership is on full display.
But the root of that leadership, as the story is told, is rooted in two moments of striking similarity, THEY BOTH HAPPEN IN THE PRESENCE OF THE LORD!
The notorious vow, which results in his daughter being offered to the Lord, and the vow made to make him leader of Gilead, happen before the Lord.
For present purposes, I will address neither the long dispute of whether a child sacrifice is performed or even the foolish nature of the vow. What is scarcely mentioned at all, in all the commentary on this passage, is the experienced reality of such a vow. Have you ever felt like the words you said were accountable to a Living God? What is it like to consider our agreements and engagements with one another as happening before the Lord?
The phrase “before the Lord” expresses the complete and thorough awareness that God is present. And it is perhaps this one phrase that challenges our complacency in our relationship with the world around us. God is here and now. God is present as I speak these words; God is present when you drive to church; God is present when you talk to your children and colleagues. God is present. Are the words we say, and the lives we lead worthy to the sacredness of that reality?
Before you answer “No,” or “Maybe”, and start thinking about all the sinful things said or done, I want us to consider how this reality leads to joy and to hope, and that it emerges from a faithful relationship that Jephthah has with God. Jephthah had offered the first thing that comes out of his house after he returns from victory to the Lord. It happens to be his daughter. How did Jephthah respond when she emerged from the house dancing? He tore his clothes and exclaimed how miserable and wretched he had become.
He makes no excuses. He realizes the significance of his vow. It was made before the Lord, and the reality of that vow touches the very person whom he loves most. The response is immediate, and the response takes in the very reality of the words he has spoken before the Lord. His words to the Lord have the very same tangible reality as the food in our belly, as the emotions we feel.
Let us acknowledge the fact that not only is Jephthah grieved by his vow, he fully keeps the vow (with the courageous help of his daughter). The reality of it is never questioned. In Hebrews, what makes Jephthah a hero of faith is that his relationship with God is never questioned, despite the impending harm that would be wrought on his daughter, and on Jephthah’s legacy. In other words, his faithfulness consists precisely in the fact that he fully realizes he lives in God’s world, and instead of being a matter of proof, this faithfulness is what makes him great.
As Kirk made clear last week, it isn’t assent, a mental agreement, that constitutes faith. Instead, being faithful honours in word and deed, the real and living relationship with our beautiful and all-powerful God. Our relationship with God guides our words and actions, and it inhabits our entire being. The real character of faith is thus a real relationship with the living Lord.
In the case of Jephthah, a hero of faith is the son of a prostitute. In the case of Jephthah, a hero of faith has made a foolish vow to the Lord who surely didn’t require it of him. In the case of Jephthah, a hero of faith is someone who keeps his word, because his words and his actions are of the very same reality – and that reality is not owned by him, but rather is the reality that is the Lord’s kingdom.
How far is this from our experience? When people who attend churches are asked, “How is God working in your life?”, they have a hard time answering. They look to offer proof of how God is working. They, as a matter of assumption, think that the person who asks is skeptical about the existence of God. They immediately believe themselves to be in the context of a secular, Godless world. How far is that from the world of Jephthah who understood God to be as real and as tangible as their best friends?
How far is the real and living God from the pains you now experience? God is near and present. How far do you feel from God when you need a medical operation? God is near and present. Where is God from your broken relationships with your closest family members? God is there. Is God present when you labor for 14 hours a day, only to sleep for 5 hours and repeat the cycle? God is there. Where is God when you are ostracized? God is especially there.
If we turn now to Elihu’s advice to Job, who seeks to answer the ever-since question, “Why do the innocent suffer?” we see a piece of advice that we should indeed hear today. “God does all these things to a person repeatedly to turn back their soul from the pit, that the light of life may shine on in that person. The person prays to God and finds favour. The person meets God and shouts for joy. That person is restored to God in a righteous state!”
And this is today’s good news: that in meeting the God who is present, we too can have the light of truth shone upon us, and we are turned away from the pit, and that we too can be restored in faithfulness.
Love models the intimacy of a faithful relationship with God. God feels suddenly real, inexplicably present, in a flash of closeness, a sudden flush of love. In this context, it is the statements of proof that seem wildly out of place. In faith, questions do not disappear; instead, they come before the One who receives them. In a relationship, answers are not solutions, but affirmations of worth and closeness.
The Jewish theologian Martin Buber explained relationships using the term “I-Thou.” The I does not exist in isolation; we are always in a relationship with others – our family, friends, and loved ones – even if they are not present. We are always in a relationship with the living God. The quality of our lives is in the quality of our ties to others and to God.
When observing a couple during their wedding, I am often struck by those gathered around them. A couple does not come under the wedding canopy alone. Parents, siblings, and friends have all combined to create the people who are pledging themselves to one another. For a moment, we can see the normally imperceptible, i.e. the metaphorical ligaments which bind us together.
Still, the bride and groom, at that moment, are most real to one another. I-Thou represents relationships at their most intense. I-Thou occurs in moments when we are fully present. For an instant I think of the other person not in terms of what I need, but rather, I give completely of myself to know another. It is a complete encounter. It is the encounter that is reflected in Jephthah’s mournful response in seeing his daughter. It is the completeness reflected in Job’s encounter in the face of immense suffering. It is a complete encounter. We must be prepared for such a moment of intimacy, but we cannot force it. As with all of life, the noblest spots of time are when we are prepared for the marvels that await us.
Faith…..faithfulness, comes not out of fear or even goodness. Faith comes out of a yearning and an experience of closeness. Faith is a relationship with the living God, and it is the source of all relationships. When Job declares to God, “I heard you with my ears but now I see you with my eyes,” it is the moment of awakening. God becomes alive to us not for what we “get” but for the inexpressible joy of communion with God.
Communion with God does not only happen in extraordinary moments. The recognition of my partner, the birth of my children, the meeting of God at my conversion were such moments. Yet, walking down the street, observing the rising sun, a hug from a family member or friend can be such miracles, Standing before God is not a condition of the world, but a condition of the soul. Communion can be felt in the most unlikely of times. Not for a moment should we believe that this everyday ecstasy begin with us as individuals. It is there always, there to be felt, to move through us. We receive God, and give God forth; we are both cisterns and fountains.
Judges 11: 10 – 11; 29-40
10 And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “The Lord will be a witness between us; we will surely do as you say.” 11 So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them; and Jephthah spoke all his words before the Lord at Mizpah.
29 Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31 then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” 32 So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. 33 He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah, and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” 36 She said to him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.” 37 And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander[b] on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.” 38 “Go,” he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. 39 At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that 40 for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
Job 33: 23 – 30
23 Then, if there should be for one of them an angel,
a mediator, one of a thousand,
one who declares a person upright,
24 and he is gracious to that person, and says,
‘Deliver him from going down into the Pit;
I have found a ransom;
25 let his flesh become fresh with youth;
let him return to the days of his youthful vigor’;
26 then he prays to God, and is accepted by him,
he comes into his presence with joy,
and God repays him for his righteousness.
27 That person sings to others and says,
‘I sinned, and perverted what was right,
and it was not paid back to me.
28 He has redeemed my soul from going down to the Pit,
and my life shall see the light.’
29 “God indeed does all these things,
twice, three times, with mortals,
30 to bring back their souls from the Pit,
so that they may see the light of life.