Grand Final Faith

Published: Monday, 03 October 2016

This sermon was delivered by Geoff Pound at Ashburton Baptist Church on 2 October 2016, a day after the AFL Grand Final between the Sydney Swans and the Western Bulldogs (winners). Notes related to this sermon for personal study and group discussion are posted at this link.

Scripture: Luke 17:5-10 [the sermon focuses on the first two verses] Grand Final GP 1016

17:5 The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!"

17:6 The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.

17:7 "Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table'?

17:8 Would you not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'?

17:9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?

17:10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'"

At the beginning of last week I received an SOS from an Aussie couple in the US. The details of what happened haven’t been spelt out but it seems that their three year old son got into difficulties in the water.

When he was dragged out, resuscitation was attempted, and an ambulance took him to the ICU where he’s been fighting for his life. The parents are keen Christians and they’ve asked hundreds of people to be praying for their little boy.

Unfortunately on Tuesday came a further note to say:

“It is with crippling sadness that we share the news that our little boy has died.”

When you get a prayer request like this to pray for this boy’s life and the peace of his family, you feel so inadequate. You want to cry out like the disciples of Jesus:

17:5 … "Increase our faith!" Lord, Increase our faith!

This seems like a perfectly reasonable request.

As a pastor, when someone comes and says, “How can I grow as a believer?” or, “How can I deepen my faith,” I get quite excited and encouraged because I’m hearing a yearning for growth and change and effectiveness.

Lord, increase our faith!

Sometimes we voice this cry not as an individual but collectively.

After the Western Bulldogs defeated Greater Western Sydney on the Giants’ home soil (in the preliminary final), the media has been running red, white and blue this week with stories, celebrations and hope.

Many had voiced their disbelief that they’d ever see their team in the Grand Final. And the big question all week has been: “Have we got the faith to believe that they can go one better?” Their fervent prayers have gone something like: “Lord increase our faith.” And now we know how their prayers and hopes have been answered.

Lord, increase our faith!

Christ’s response seems surprising. Is he irritated? At first his reply seems to come with a sting:

17:6 The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.

 

Jesus talked of mustard seeds on other occasions. He said it was the smallest seed of all, yet when it grows it becomes the greatest of all shrubs so that birds come, sit and nest in its branches. Then he says, “and such is the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 4:31)

A mustard seed is about the size of a pin head, so is he suggesting now that the disciples’ faith was smaller than that?

What’s wrong with the disciples request, “Lord, increase our faith?”

Throughout Luke’s Gospel, those we least expect to have faith are so often held up as models of faith. To the woman who pours ointment on Jesus’ feet he says: “Your faith has saved you.” (7:50)

He says the same thing to a blind beggar who wants to see again (18:42), to a Samaritan leper who comes back after he is healed (17:19) and a woman healed of hemorrhages (3:48). When a Roman centurion goes to great lengths to have Christ heal his servant, Jesus exclaims, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith.” (7:9)

In contrast the disciples often appear to lack faith. Earlier in the Gospel story we come across the disciples in a boat when a storm strikes. When they’re overwhelmed with terror even as Jesus sleeps beside them, they wake him, he stills the storm and asks: “Where is your faith?” (Luke 8:25).

Later he chides their limited trust when he says, “If God clothes the grass, how much more will God clothe you—you of little faith!” (Luke 12:28)

Or is Jesus stressing that effective faith isn’t about quantity but about quality? Is he saying that they have all the faith that they need and the key thing they need to do is to put it to work?

In his book, ‘The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass aged 37 & ¾’ the author records how he tried to exercise his faith and tap into the power of God.

In his diary entry of January 6th he writes:

“I’m surprised to think that Christians should be able to move mountains if they are really tuned in to God.

I waited 'till there was no one around, then practiced with a paper clip. I put it on my desk and stared at it willing it to move. Nothing! I tried commanding it in a loud voice.

Gerald came in just then and said: “What's all the shouting about Dad?” I could hardly tell him I was shouting orders at a paper clip. I said I was practicing voice projection. He said, “What for?” I said, “I don't know.” I felt really stupid.

Diary entry 7th January:

“Had another go with the paper clip tonight. I really took authority over it. Couldn't get it to budge. I told God I'd give up anything, if God would only make it move half an inch. Nothing!

All rather worrying really. If you only need faith the size of a mustard seed to move a mountain, what hope is there for me when I can't get a paper clip to do what it’s told!

The next day—Diary Entry, 8th January:

I told Ann that I'd heard about a man who tried to move a paper clip by faith and couldn't do it.

She yawned and said: “Well you always get your lunatic fringe, don't you?”

Diary Entry, Thursday 9th January:

Study group tonight. Good prayer and worship time. I forgot about the paper clip business for almost half an hour, quite distracted by thinking about Jesus.

Saturday 11 January:

Got up early to have a last go at that blasted paper clip. Ended up hissing viciously at it, trying not to wake everybody up.

When I gave up and opened the door, I found Ann and Gerald listening outside in their pajamas, looking quite anxious.

Ann said: “Darling why did you tell that paper clip you'd straighten it out if it didn't get its act together?” I explained that I'd been conducting an experiment in faith and I'd got a bit carried away when it didn't work.

Ann said: “But sweetheart, being a Christian isn't like joining a Magic Club. Why would God want you to make a paper clip move by faith?”

Gerald wiped his eyes and said: “Dad, I think you're wonderful. I wouldn't swap you for anything.”

As Adrian Plass discovered, faith isn't for us to play around with. The exercise of faith isn’t given just so we can do some religious tricks. Faith is to be engaged in our real and everyday lives.

17:6 The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.”

I’m not wanting mulberry trees to be thrown into the sea.

I want to see cancer thrown into the sea.

I want to see joblessness thrown into the sea.

What about heaving addiction into the sea?

That’s a better use of our faith.

While we’re at it, let’s cast violence and war into the sea.

I’m sure we could add a whole host of our unanswered prayers onto this list.

Tim Costello’s latest book launched last month is entitled, ‘Faith’.[1] I love the way he helps his readers to see the connection between faith and the public sphere. Yes, he sees faith as a personal resource but also with great breadth he urges us to exercise faith in relation to the big issues in the public sphere and the international arena. Things such as the refugee crisis, the challenge of climate care and economic morality.

So Jesus is not emphasizing quantity of faith but the quality of our faith and what we put our faith in. Our faith is only as good as the object of our faith.

If I was shown a small flimsy chair, and told to ‘take a seat’, I’d be doubtful. Diffident. I don’t trust it to support me. I don’t have the faith. There’s no point in asking, “Increase my faith”f in that chair.

If I was given a strong chair and told to sit here, I’d have faith. I am trusting that chair. I believe it will hold me. It will support me. I entrust myself.

So it’s not a matter of needing more faith. It all depends on the object of our faith.

Jesus encourages us to place our faith in the power of God.

You see how my faith in that chair is an action. It’s a doing. Or using Christ’s vivid image of a mustard seed, it requires a planting. So it’s as if Jesus is saying, “You don’t need more faith. You have enough faith. Just put it into practice.”

So if faith is like a muscle, how well have we been exercising our faith? And where are we being challenged to put our trust in God’s strength? God’s support? God’s direction?

It may be that we’ve been invited to take on a new role, and that new opportunity for service scares us. It makes us feel inadequate. This is the challenge to trust God for strength and peace. To trust in a reordering of our priorities so we’ll have the time for this new task.

Our challenge may be a new opportunity to learn, to have the faith that with God’s help we can do it.

It may be a new opportunity to trust God in the area of our finance.

If faith is like a muscle, we’re not being asked to run before we can crawl. I love the way David the shepherd boy spoke about his growing faith when King Saul questioned his ability to fight the giant.

David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” (1 Sam 17: 37) See the progression?

In other words he was saying, each new challenge was a new opportunity to call on the strength of God and as the muscle of faith grew, they prepared him for the giant challenge. The smaller victories increased his faith in God’s power and so he believed he could knock Goliath off.

If faith is like a muscle, remember, if we don’t use it, we lose it. The good news is that if our limbs are stiff, over days and weeks of exercise we may find ourselves getting supple, becoming able.

Jesus said, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much…” (Luke 16:10) This means beginning small. Trust God to help us to do the job. Be faithful in the small and God will trust you in something that is bigger. And so the muscle of our faith will grow.[2]

As we look towards this new week and the new term stretched out before us, there may be some who are confronted with some giant sized challenge, that’s taunting you and sapping your health and peace.

But it may well be that the challenges before us are much smaller yet our fears have a tricky way of magnifying these challenges and making them appear like a giant.

We spoke earlier of how our faith is being challenged collectively.

What is it that we’re being asked to be and do together as a church?

What are the giants that need slaying?

The walls that need rebuilding?

Today’s Scripture teaches us that the best prayer to cry out is not, ‘Lord increase our faith’ but ‘Increase our faith in your will, in your purposes, in your strength, in your love and goodness.’

The American playwright, Matthew Lopez, describes himself as ‘a foxhole Episcopalian’.[3] That’s the person that never darkens the door of the church unless something terrible happens. Foxhole faith is only active when the rockets are raining down and the bazookas are firing.

It’s OK to call out to God when a little boy’s life teeters in the balance or when we’re being tossed around in the storm but if accident and emergency is the only time and place that our faith comes to the fore, we are missing out on lots that God has to offer us in the ordinary and everyday.

If prayer is only about asking God to get us out of our foxhole alive, that’s not the way to build a life of prayer and faith. As Thomas Merton said in one of his last talks:

“In prayer we discover what we already have.

We start where we are, and we deepen what we already have, and we realize that we are already there.”

“We already have everything, but we don't know it and we don't experience it. Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess.”[4]

So let’s take the time to do this.

Thanks be to God.

 


[1] Tim Costello, Faith: Embracing Life in all its Uncertainty (Melbourne: Hardie Grants, 2016).

[2] Colin Powell puts it like this: “If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.”

[3] Felicia R Lee, Writing the Play His Curiosity Led Him to, New York Times, 27 January 2011.

[4] Thomas Merton, Monastic Studies (Mount Saviour Monastery, Pine City, NY; 1969.