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Faith Matters
Text: Hebrews 11: 1-3; 23-34
Sermon Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church
Elder Bob Arnold

Faith Matters -- the title of this sermon  -- may suggest a couple of things to you: (1) that I am going to talk about matters of faith -- the doctrines -- or (2) that I am going to talk about the importance of faith -- how doctrines make a practical difference for us. In fact, I am going to be doing both.

Why does faith matter? What are the important matters of our faith as Christians in the Reformed tradition? And why do they matter? How do we nurture a faith that plays an important role in our lives -- a faith that matters?

It is appropriate that we look at these questions on this first Sunday of the Advent season as we look forward to the celebration of the birth of our Christian faith -- Christmas.

My message is simple:

Unseen things in which we believe are far more important than visible certainties in living our lives.

Let me repeat that:

Unseen things in which we believe are far more important than visible certainties in living our lives.

Faith is a practical tool -- in fact, a vital tool, which we desperately need to live in the world.

Consider, first, not our Christian faith per se, but faith, in general and how it affects our daily routines. We leave our homes in the morning for school, work, or other activities. We expect our homes to be standing when we return. We part our families confident that we will see them later. We walk or ride past familiar landmarks believing we will pass them again in a few hours.

Imagine what life would be like without this basic trust: Faith that God's hands hold the whole world. Faith that the earth will keep spinning. Faith that the laws of gravity will remain in force. We wouldn't be able to function. Faith gives us a basis for doing things.

Disasters disturb our faith -- our assumptions of basic trust. Hurricanes or earthquakes that affect many people. And personal disasters like the death of loved ones that wreck destruction on the fabric of our lives alone.

From my work in disaster response for the church, I have learned that recovery from disaster is ultimately spiritual. You can rebuild and repair homes that floods and heavy winds have damaged. But disaster survivors do not fully recover until their faith, hope, and trust disturbed by a disaster has been restored. Then and only then can they resume normal living.

So in day-to-day living, unseen things in which we believe are far more important than visible certainties in living our lives.

Our New Testament reading from the Hebrews epistle taught us a similar lesson about faith vis a vis dealing with hard times. It was sent to members of a Jewish Christian community in Rome faccing persecution by the state. They sought refuge in the visible hard-and-fast legal system of Judaism and its religious ceremonies in contrast to the more nebulous guidance of the Holy Spirit.

The epistle calls on the members of this Christian community to remain firm in the faith that living in Christ is the only way to enjoy a right relationship with God.

The letter-writer drives home the point:

"Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. By faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible."

The letter asserts that living in faith in the unseen -- the purpose of God the Creator, the hope Christ offered, the guidance of the Holy Spirit -- allows us to live confident that good things will happen and God will provide the strength we need to get through our struggles.

Only faith enables us to believe the universe is God-controlled so that we trust in God come what may. Faith in the unseen purpose of God -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- enabled Abraham, Moses, and the other great souls of Israel to build a community that has had important influence in the religious affairs of men and women.

So to get through hard times and move into the future, unseen things in which we believe are far more important than visible certainties in living our lives.

Faith matters.

As Christians in the Presbyterian/Reformed Tradition, our faith encompasses a number of key matters -- uncertainties that can make great difference in the way we live: 

How are these unseen things important?

1. The Word Incarnate. If you believe in the Word Incarnate -- the Ground of Being made flesh, you live at peace and in harmony with other people and your environment, following the way of Jesus the Christ by inviting his spirit into your heart to love others as he loved.

Jesus's way is love and forgiveness which he revealed through:

Jesus's way frees us from the consequences of our rebellion against God -- our sins and the sins of the world -- so that we do not live in alienation from God, other people, and our enviroment.

2. God in Three Persons. If you believe God reveals God's self in three persons -- as the Trinity, you can find the sacred anywhere in anything if you are open. The Doctrine of the Trinity means we can't pin God down. We can't control God. God can't be found in any one particular place. We encounter and know God as:

3. Justification by Grace through Faith. If the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is part of your belief system, you don't knock yourself out trying to make the world better to justify your existence. You don't even knock yourself out trying to make yourself believe.

The Holy Spirit brings us to the belief that the living God loved the world and became man to set us free to live life in its fullest dimension liberated from sin and death. Obedience flows from this faith and gratitude to God.

Our worthiness comes solely out of being open to God's action. The Holy Spirit leads us to and helps us to live a life that glorifies God in obedience to Jesus Christ, instructed by the Holy Scriptures, and guided by the confessions of the Church.

The Holy Spirit gives us faith to accept Christ as our Lord and Savior so we are set free to love ourselves, God, and neighbors.

4. The Authority of Scripture. If the Holy Scriptures are the basis for authority in the church, your decisions about what to believe and the way to live are personal ones coming out of meditation and reflection on the scriptures in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Secular and church powers, scholars, other people of faith, friends, and family may influence you, but they have no authority over you.

The authority of scripture doctrine is powerful in the freedom it gives us, but we can't treat scripture simplistically if we are to exercise this freedom responsibly. We can't use scripture to justify our prejudices. We must confront its contradictions. We must grapple with things it says which we don't like.

We make a mistake if we take the Scriptures literally -- word for word -- as factual scientific documents and if we give everything it says equal weight. Men and women conditioned by their own circumstances and inspired by the Holy Spirit wrote the scripture.

They recorded God's inter-action with and relationship to creation and humanity through history. They witnessed the life and ministry of Jesus Christ as the one sufficient revelation of God.

As Christians, our primary obligation is seeking to be obedient to Jesus Christ. Within this context, what the Scriptures say about Him is most important. Through this lens, we need to read and think about scripture to use it responsibly.

The Sovereignty of God. If the sovereignty of God is one of your beliefs, you seek not only personal salvation, but to serve the Lord in the world.

You believe God rules over everything in the universe -- all of life, nature, the earthly powers and principalities. This doctrine is not unique to the Reformed tradition of Christianity, but Reformed theologians and churches have placed unique emphasis on it.

In the theoretical realm, the idea that God chose those who would be saved even before creation of the universe -- predestination or election -- affirms and underscores God's unquestioned sovereignty. It asserts that God has an inviolable plan that no one has the power to change. It asserts that only God ultimately has the power over life and death.

Although the concept of predestination is found in other traditions of the Christian faith, it probably is associated most prominently with the Reformed faith and John Calvin.

In the practical realm, Reformed churches demonstrate the emphasis on God's sovereignty in their concern about mission focused on human rights, environmental, peacemaking, and social justice issues. Reformed churches exist first and primarily to serve the Lord of Life.

Personal salvation, piety, and meditation are important in the Reformed tradition, but human action in obedience to the sovereign God is a major emphasis. Those of us who are in the Reformed tradition believe God calls us to be stewards of creation through caring work that respects, preserves, and even enhances nature and life.

In seeking to obey God and to be faithful stewards, idolatry just naturally becomes an important issue. Who are we following? What are we following? To whom are we listening? God? God's will? The Holy Spirit? Or our own will grounded in selfish desires? Money? Power? Prestige?

The Word Incarnate. The Trinity. Justification of by Grace through Faith. The Authority of Scripture. The Sovereignty of God. These are the key matters of the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition of the Christian faith.

They are far more than theological constructs that can stimulate debate among ivory tower scholars. World-changing behavior comes out of knowing that sin and death have been conquered, you can find the sacred anywhere you walk, you are free from the law and authority of men, you are called to serve God and neighbor.

The knowledge of faith makes a big difference in the ways you think, feel, and act. You are probably more joyful than depressed. In general, you live life confidently. You are highly independent, but at the same time genuinely concerned about other people and justice in the world -- which are reflected in the way you live.

So in our attitudes toward life and in the ways we live, unseen things in which we believe are far more important than visible certainties in living our lives.

Most of us, I dare say, would like to live as if our faith mattered all the time. But we fall short. Sometimes our lives reflect our faith. But we become depressed. We can be overly-cautious, even cowardly. We can be too dependent on the direction and approval of other persons. Our behavior often flows out of selfish concerns.

Faith requires nurture. How should we tend to it?

The process is both simple and, at the same time, difficult. We have to let go and let God.

Place yourself in the presence of God through worship, personal prayer, meditation, and an openness to the Holy Spirit in all areas of your life. A developing relationship with God nurtures your faith. Going to church is a good place to start. We meet God in the Church of Jesus Christ -- the community of believers bound together by the Holy Spirit -- where (1) the Holy Scriptures are read and interpreted in light of their witness to the ministry and life of Christ and (2) the sacraments instituted by Christ -- Baptism and Holy Communion -- are administered regularly.

Faith starts and grows as you act as though you believe. Martin Luther, in fact, saw faith and action as two sides of the same coin. "To obey is to believe and to believe is to obey," he said. As you act and discover your faith works, your faith grows.

Kierkegaard described the initial step as a "leap of faith." You jump from certainties that lead to despair to uncertainties that make it possible to live life joyfully and meaningfully. It's a big jump. But faith matters matter. They matter a whole lot!

Unseen things in which we believe are far more important than visible certainties in living our lives.

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