Saturday Night Theologian
12 August 2007

Genesis 15:1-6

Many Christians today think that others who claim to be Christians are destined for hell because they don't believe the right things. They, of course, are going to heaven, because they have recognized the truth and put their faith in it. What are the right things? Well, it depends whom you ask. For a classical fundamentalist, five doctrines are sacrosanct: the infallibility of Scripture, the virgin birth, the substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and the second coming. Others might list dispensational premillennialism among the truths that were necessary to believe to be a Christian, or young earth creationism, or the orthodox view of the Trinity. The Bible certainly has a lot to say about faith, but rarely, if ever, is the faith the Bible talks about belief in a set of doctrines. Today's reading from Genesis says that Abram believed God and God reckoned it to him as righteousness. What does that mean? First, "reckon" is commonly used in the South in phrases like this: "I reckon I'm fixin' to go in to supper" (add a drawl while reading this for the full effect). It means more than just "I think"; it means "I've made up my mind to do something." When God reckons Abram's faith as righteousness, it means that God has decided that Abram's faith is solid enough to count as righteousness, or that it's basically equivalent to righteousness. And what is Abram's faith? It isn't the simple belief that God will do what God promised. It includes that belief, but it's much more. Abram's faith is an active trust in God, not a simple belief that God has told the truth about something. Abram trusted God so much that he left his homeland and family and journeyed to a distant land in search of an inheritance that he would never fully realize. Abram's faith was more a matter of action than a matter of thought. Rather than assent to a belief, Abram's faith proved itself by taking concrete actions in support of his belief. As a result, God reckoned, or equated, his faith with righteousness. Abram was righteous not because he accepted a particular doctrine about God but because he acted on his inner belief in God. God calls us today to leave the land of comfortable belief and easy religion and take concrete steps to enter the promised land, a land of danger and adventure and uncertainty. It's easier to stay behind and believe what we've always believed, what we were taught as children, whether or not we ever act on those beliefs, but God calls us to have a mature faith, based on mature, adult reflection, shaped by our actions in support of our faith. Assent to a set of doctrines is a poor substitute for a faith that grows and develops and shapes our lives and we live it out in the world.

Psalm 33:12-22

News stories this week report that British troops in the southern Iraqi province of Basra will probably begin to pull out within a fairly short period of time, perhaps a couple of months, because they have failed to suppressed the Shiite militias in the region. Meanwhile, the U.S. troop surge in and around Baghdad has brought troop levels to around 162,000, the highest since the war began, yet despite a slight drop in American casualties last month ("only" 79 killed in July), the casualty rate is still much higher than it was a year ago at this time. The tragic lesson is beginning to sink into the minds of even the most ardent supporters of the war: despite the military might of "the world's only superpower," the war on Iraq is being lost. Christian supporters of the war should not be surprised at this turn of events, though many seem to be. "How could God turn against us and our righteous cause?" they ask. The psalmist reminds them, and us: "A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save." In other words, "shock and awe" may cause a lot of destruction and kill a lot of people, but it does not guarantee victory. That it sometimes brings victory is certainly true, but victory in battle does not equate with the justice of the cause. God calls on people of faith to put their trust in God, not in guns, bombs, and missiles. That doesn't mean that we should trust in God to deliver our adversaries into our hands. Rather, we should trust in God to give us the wisdom to convert our adversaries into allies or, barring that, at least into non-bellicose opponents. God's people put their trust in God's "holy name" not by sending over a hundred thousand troops halfway around the world to pound a smaller, weaker country into submission. Dropping bombs is easy, but it shows no faith in God, and in fact it is contrary to the teachings of Jesus to love one's enemies. God's people show their trust by working for peace and justice, through nonviolent means whenever possible.

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 (first published 8 August 2004)

Acting on faith is scary, but it's also exciting. My family recently packed up and moved 1000 miles, so we've experienced some of the feeling that the author of Hebrews describes when discussing the faith of Abraham. Like Abraham, we decided to move without knowing exactly what lay before us. Although I was assured of one income stream that might best be described as sporadic, I had no guarantees, and my wife had to quit her job a couple of months early in order to finish her college degree during summer school, and there were no definite prospects awaiting her. Despite the uncertainties, we were sure that the move was what God wanted us to do. Within a couple of months of deciding to move, two part-time teaching jobs opened up for me, and after six weeks in our new location, my wife starts her new job on Monday. "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going." Conventional wisdom says, "Plan ahead; look before you leap." Faith says, "Follow God--period." Faith should not be confused with impulsiveness. Before we moved, we spent several months thinking and praying and talking about it, and we were convinced that if we wanted to follow God, it was time to go. Abraham was similarly convinced that God was leading him and his family into an unfamiliar land. It's hard to describe to people who haven't ever make a decision based purely on faith why we did what we did, but when we meet others who have stepped out on faith themselves, no explanation is necessary. The opening verse of the chapter says, "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Living by faith can be nerve-rattling, and at times it's difficult, but faith gives meaning and excitement and joy to life. As Christians we can choose to play it safe and live by sight rather than by faith, but why would we want to?

Luke 12:32-40 (first published 8 August 2004)

In my Jeep, I carry the following items: a spare pocketknife (in addition to the one in my pocket), a compass, a full canteen, a poncho, a flashlight, extra batteries, a Q-beam lantern, a hammer, two or three screwdrivers, wire, string, rope, matches, a lighter, a book, a pen, a pencil, paper, two hats, duct tape, and WD-40, among other things (including a spare tire and a jack, of course!). I was an Eagle Scout, and I've never forgotten the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared! Jesus also urged his disciples to be prepared for life as his followers. Some people think hoarding wealth is the way to prepare themselves for the unknown eventualities of life, but Jesus taught just the opposite: "Sell what you have and give it to the poor." His reasoning was simple: "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." The world today is so materialistic, particularly in the West, that we have a hard time understanding this teaching, much less putting it into practice. Westerners, particularly Protestants and Evangelicals, often either ridicule those in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions who have chosen the monastic life, or maybe they just shake their heads in condescension. "Monks are just trying to escape from the world," they say. They rarely even try to come to grips with the tremendous sacrifice and discipline that is required to live such a life, and there is little attempt to emulate it. Have you ever wondered why there are no Protestant monastic orders, with the exception of such experiments as the Koinonia Farm? Jesus told his disciples to be ready for action, like a servant anxiously awaiting his master's return. While the specific illustration in the gospel suggests the early Christian belief in an immanent Parousia, the thrust of the parable is still relevant. Maybe Jesus won't return tomorrow, but God just might call us tomorrow to go on mission for the kingdom. If we have too many ties to the world, how will we accomplish what God has called us to do? Ties to the world are something that I continue to struggle with. I want to provide for my family, and I want my children to have educational opportunities and life experiences that will mold them and prepare them for what lies ahead. At the same time, I want to teach them to rely on God rather than on their possessions. There is a tension in life between self-reliance and relying on God, between planning ahead and living by faith, between living in the world and living in the kingdom of God. As we tread these lines and do our best to be faithful to God's call on our lives, let us always be led by Jesus' exhortation: "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."