Hebrews 11.1-16, Luke 12.32-40
When God told Abraham, who was a hundred at the time, that at the age of ninety his wife Sarah was finally going to have a baby, Abraham came close to knocking himself out "fell on his face and laughed," as Genesis (17:17) puts it. In another version of the story (18:8 fr.), Sarah is hiding behind the door eavesdropping, and here it's Sarah herself who nearly splits [her sides] - although when God asks her about it afterward, she denies it. "No, but you did laugh," God says, thus having the last word as well as the first. God doesn't seem to hold their outbursts against them, however. On the contrary, he tells them the baby's going to be a boy and that he wants them to name him Isaac. Isaac in Hebrew means laughter.
Why did the two old crocks laugh? They laughed because they knew only a fool would believe that a woman with one foot in the grave was soon going to have her other foot in the maternity ward. They laughed because God expected them to believe it anyway. They laughed because God seemed to believe it. They laughed because they half-believed it themselves. They laughed because laughing felt better than crying. They laughed because if by some crazy chance it just happened to come true, they would really have something to laugh about, and in the meanwhile it helped keep them going. [Buechner, FAITH]
As it happened, as we know, it did come true: and as the writer of Hebrews, who we heard read to us earlier, said,
By faith [Abraham] received [the] power of procreation, even though he was too old - and Sarah herself was barren - because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, 'as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.' [Hebrews 11.11-12]
Faith is "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen," says the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:1). Faith is laughter at the promise of a child called laughter.
If someone had come up to Jesus when he was on the cross and asked him if it hurt, he might have answered, like the man in the old joke, "Only when I laugh." But he wouldn't have been joking. Faith dies, as it lives, laughing.
Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you're going, but going anyway. A journey without maps. Tillich said that doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. [Buechner, FAITH]
This is really important because sometimes we think that to be a genuine Christian we have to be certain about what we believe in. This is not true. 'Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith': our doubts raise honest questions about life and God and faith - and God is happy to hear our questions, help us find the answers, and in that way wegrow in confidence in faith.
Think of it this way:
I have faith that my friend is my friend. It is possible that all his motives are ulterior. It is possible that what he is secretly drawn to is not me but my wife or my money. But there's something about the way I feel when he's around, about the way he looks me in the eye, about the way we can talk to each other without pretence and be silent together without embarrassment, that makes me willing to put my life in his hands as I do each time I call him friend.
I can't prove the friendship of my friend. When I experience it, I don't need to prove it. When I don't experience it, no proof will do. If I tried to put his friendship to the test somehow, that could [threaten or compromise] the friendship I was testing[: I wouldn't want to do that]. So it is with the Godness of God.
The five so-called proofs for the existence of God will never prove to [unbelievers] that God exists. They are merely five ways of describing the existence of the God you have faith in already. [Buechner, FAITH]
It was St. Thomas Aquinas who coined Five Proofs for the Existence of God, and they are worth looking up if you are keen to explore this further. They are philosophical arguments to do with the cause of creation: because we are in motion and the world is in motion then there must be a prime mover. Popular unbelievers like Richard Dawkins sell lots of books which argue with Thomas Aquinas, and other people have been selling other books which argue against Richard Dawkins.
Ultimately the believers and the unbelievers all have to put their faith in one conviction or another. This week's sermon owes a lot to the writer Frederick Buechner, who in his book Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC, gives four reasons for the faith which he has:
1. There must be a God because since the beginning of history, [an enormous variety and] majority of people have [...] believed there was;
2. There must be a God because it is hard to consider the vast and complex structure of the universe in general and of the human mind in particular without considering the possibility that they issued from some ultimate source, itself vast, complex, and somehow mindful;
3. There must be a God because built into the very being of even the most primitive man there seems to be a profound psychophysical need or hunger for something like truth, goodness, love, and-under one alias or another-for God;
4. There must be a God because every age and culture has produced mystics who have experienced a Reality beyond reality and have come back using different words and images but obviously and without collusion describing with awed adoration the same Indescribability.
Statements of this sort and others like them have been advanced for several thousand years as proofs of the existence of God. A twelve-year-old child can see that no one of them is watertight. And even all of them taken together won't convince any of us unless [we want] to be convinced [more than we don't] to be. [Buechner, GOD]
Almost nothing that makes any real difference can be proved. I can prove the law of gravity by dropping a shoe out the window. I can prove that the world is round if I'm clever at that sort of thing-that the radio works, that light travels faster than sound. I [can't] prove that life is better than death or love better than hate. I [can't] prove the greatness of the great or the beauty of the beautiful. I [can't] even prove my own free will [...]
Faith can't prove a damned thing. Or a blessed thing either. [Buechner, FAITH]
But proof isn't the point. Life is the point. The important thing about faith is how it makes us live. That's why the writer of Hebrews wrote a list of people whose faith made their lives remarkable - Abraham and Sarah who laughed with God at the way he'd decided to make a barren old couple the father and mother of a great nation; Abel who offered the work of his hands to God, Enoch whose life was pleasing to God, Noah who listened to God's warnings and saved himself and others... 'God is not ashamed to be called their God', Hebrews tells us. What a lovely tribute to people of faith, something we would love to have people saying about ourselves.
God is not ashamed to be called their God: the writer of Hebrews worte a list of people of faith like this. I'm sure we can all make our own lists in our heads of people of faith who we think that would well describe.
God is not ashamed to be called their God: the people who have shown us by the way they have behaved towards us, the Christian life in action.
God is not ashamed to be called their God: the people who have loved us and helped us and maybe disciplined us when we've needed it. The people who we have laughed with, the same way Abraham, Sarah and God laughed together.
God is not ashamed to be called their God: the people of faith who have enriched our lives. We give thanks for them today. We would like to be like them, so that others might say about us in turn: God is not ashamed to be called their God.
'Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom,' said Jesus [in Luke 12.32]. 'Sell your possessions, and give to the poor,' he said. In other words, let your faith change the way you live. Let your belief influence all the things you do.
After performing a miracle on a boy possessed, Jesus said "Everything is possible for him who believes". And that boy's father, who saw what Jesus had done, said, "Lord, I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" [Mark 9.23-24]
Lord, I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief. Perhaps that's the prayer which will help you and me to grow in our faith. Lord, I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief. Perhaps that's the prayer which will help you and me let our faith make a change in our lives.
This sermon owes an enormous amount to Frederick Buechner: Wishful Thinking, a Seeker's ABC