Faith - Sermon delivered at Trinity Lutheran Church, Saint Joseph Michigan March 1, 2015
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Posted by: Rich Rudowske 3/1/2015 4:59 AM

I do quite a bit of traveling in my line of work. In the past month I’ve flown about 20,000 miles and driven another 1150 miles, most of that in the last week. Next week I’ll be in the air again with new missionaries to Botswana to show them the ropes and help them plan to get settled in later in the year. They say that getting there is half the fun and maybe for folks who travel more for pleasure that’s true, but I’m not so sure I feel that way when I get on that plane or get behind the wheel.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy some aspects of traveling. In the car, it’s great when the whole family is getting along well and is well fed and well rested. On the plane it’s nice when you get that aisle seat with some extra room or your ‘seat neighbor’ is a no show. Which may be surprising to you, since the paradigmatic evangelism situation that we’re all supposed to be prepared for is that conversation that you’re gonna have with the person sitting next to you on the plane and you’re probably thinking, “now here’s a missionary and not only a missionary but a pastor who’s a missionary, surely he’s gonna win that seatmate for Jesus. But to be honest, I usually just want to read or sleep when I get on a plane, talking isn’t really high on the list.

Well, where are we going with all this? I want to talk to you today about faith. We had a reading from the New Testament a few minutes ago where Jesus tells a woman, that he had essentially dogged, by the way, that she has great faith. The Old Testament reading was about a promise to Abram that he was going to have to accept by faith. The reading from Romans 5 talked about how we have received peace with God through faith.

There is certainly a number of places you could turn to in the Bible to go a little deeper about what faith is and what it means, but today, I want to take a look at a traveling story and see what it has to teach us about faith. The people in this story are the nation of Israel. They have been wandering around in the wilderness for 40 years and are now starting to make progress toward finishing the journey. I’m reading from the Old Testament book of Numbers, chapter 21, starting at verse four: “From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way.”

There’s quite a bit there that needs explaining.  Just prior to the story we’re looking at today, the people of Israel had been hugely victorious in battle destroying the southern Canaanite kingdom of Arad.  They’ve conquered that territory and all they have to do is pass through a land called Edom to get to where they’re going. But they have to go around it. Why? If we flip back one chapter to Numbers 20, we see the story: The people of Edom – distant relatives of Israel, descended from Esau the brother of Jacob, had refused to let the Israelites pass through their land.  And the Edomites had sent a huge army to the border to be sure they got the point. 

When you travel, there are two big words that you don’t want to hear or see and they both start with ‘D’. DEE-lay and DEE-tour. And so Israel was being delayed by yet another detour.  Yet another delay in receiving the promised land that God was giving them. But this isn’t just any detour.  It says that they traveled from Mount Hor along to route to the Red Sea.  Does anybody catch what is so disheartening about that?  Anybody remember where the Red Sea is?  Yeah.  Back towards Egypt.  Again. . .  And this is a cruel piece of land that they have had to travel over, steep hills, blazing sun!  It says they while they went that the people became impatient.  And they began to . . . grumble.  Another disappointment, another delay . . .

Did you ever feel that way?  The Christian life is often compared to a journey.  You think you know where you’re going.  Things are running smoothly.  You feel like you’re finally making some progress after struggling for a while and then here comes another detour.  Personal sickness…death in the family…marital problems…problems with a teenager… a pink slip.  It’s so frustrating isn’t it?

And so the Israelites it says in verse 5 start speak against God and against Moses.  “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert?  There’s no bread!  There’s no water!  And we detest this miserable food!”  Now – before we blow right on by this, I want to think about this.  Is there really no water?  Well it is the desert but this group has seen or heard about the Lord providing water at least twice now if not more, the most recent right in Numbers 20.  Is there really no food?  Well, that’s not exactly what they said is it?  They said there’s no bread and we detest this miserable food.  So there is food, just not the kind of food that they want

But before we get too down on the Israelites consider how often we do the same thing.  We ignore God’s provision – both what He has previously done and even more amazingly, what He is doing right now.  It’s so easy to be so focused on what we want that we overlook what God has already given us.  As we travel through the rugged, rough and perilous terrain of "Our Detour" there are times when the path narrows, the hill climbs and the solid rocks press against our worn bodies.  And we may say in our anger and our impatience, “Why did God deliver me just to bring me out here, to the harsh barren deserts of life, just to die? There is no help! There is no one who cares! I’m all alone! Spiritually, relationally, I feel thirsty! I feel hungry! And I detest this miserable life!!

And so it happens that at the very time when we need the Lord the most, the very time that only He can help that we often run away from Him instead.  Or worse yet, we try to take things into our own hands and figure a way through it without God.  He must not be able to do it this time, I’m going to have to do it myself.  And so we find fault with someone.  Or we blame our loved ones.  Or we say something that we know we’ll regret saying later.  Or we cheat or micromanage or become a control freak.  And if you ‘re not sure if you do these things or not ask someone in your family.  They’ll tell ya.  And often we make it worse.  Much worse than if we had leaned on God at that point and sought Him, admitting that we don’t know what to do at this point.  We can only lean on you at this point.  We don’t know where this is going but we do know who we’re following so give us strength to follow O Lord and wisdom to make good decisions Lord.  But we don’t say that, we don’t do that, we try our own way first.  And it gets worse.

For the Israelites it got worse, verse 6, the Lord sent snakes – fiery serpents it says in the Hebrew text, and they bit the people, so that many of the people of Israel died.  Finally the people reached the end of their rope – they got the message – they understood that trust in the Lord was the only way out of this so they said (verse 7), “We have sinned for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

Notice what happens.  Numbers 21:8 “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”  Verse 9 “So Moses made a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole and anyone who was bitten by a snake and looked up at the bronze snake, he lived.”  I know this is a relatively familiar story if you went to Sunday School when you were a kid, but don’t over look something very important.  God didn’t take away the snakes.  The painful situations of life – often resulting from our own attempts to ‘fix’ things ourselves - God allows them to remain sometimes.  We still have to live through them and endure them and seek the wisdom of God.  But he provides a way to be healed and live.  So too the snakes in Numbers 21.  They were still there.  They were still biting.  It still hurts.  It still leaves a mark.  But God did provide a way to live.  Look at the bronze snake. 

So picture yourself in this primitive camp hiking in this remote desert region with snakes biting people all over and people dying and you are told, ‘hey!  If (or more likely when) you get bit look at that snake on the bronze pole and you’ll be alright – you’ll live!’  What would you do?  Seriously?!  There’s no logical reason it should work.  There’s no proof that it’s going to work.  The only reason you’re going to look at that snake is because you take a leap of . . . faith.

Or is it?  Is it really such an incredible leap?  What if you know that you are the redeemed child of God?  What if you stop and think about all that you’ve seen and heard of Him?  What if you remember the great things He had done and remember all the times that He has provided for you?  What if you think about how even in the midst of this detour and in this very present crisis He is still providing for you?  Then looking at the snake is almost reasonable isn’t it? 

Faith – although frequently used in our church vocabulary is probably one of the most misunderstood words and concepts.  It is, first and foremost, the gift of God that leads to eternal life as stated in Ephesians 2:8 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”

But let’s be clear:  faith is not a blind belief with no foundation in reality.  It is a belief based firmly on events which occurred in reality – a God who interrupted history to become man in the person of Jesus Christ – who was Himself lifted up like the bronze snake that all who would look to Him would live.  And our faith is based on words that He Himself spoke that are written in this book.  Our faith is based on how we’ve seen God act in the past, how He has promised to act in the present, and that He will continue to act in the future as He Himself has stated in the words of this book.  So when Romans 10:17 says that, faith comes by hearing the message and the message is heard through the word of Christ, he’s not just talking about some spiritual phenomenon called faith that just appears there – although that does happen too, but the message builds and strengthens faith as we hear of God’s mighty works on behalf of His people to reconcile the world to Himself.  The word is the basis of our faith, that is, the message of what God has done and continues to do in Jesus Christ.

And Faith is also not just some ticket for eternity with no real application now.  John 5:24 says that he that believes has eternal life already, he has passed from death to life.  Faith is the tool that God has given us so that we can begin to live the eternal kind of life now.  So what does that look like?  It is a life of struggle lived in two worlds, where we are fully in Christ and fully struggling with the desires and effects of sin in our bodies and lives.  It is a life with many detours that don’t go according to the way we think they should sometimes.  It’s a life of pain where things don’t always makes sense but the One we follow is always good and right.  It is, in short, a life lived by faith – faith that trusts in the Lord we serve and follows where he leads.  Faith that acts, in accordance with the will of God WHICH is often contrary to our natural response.  Where is the will of God found?  In the scriptures. 

And as it turns out those detours are not a distraction from our journey – they are the journey of our life and as we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to exercise our faith we will find that His way is always so much better than the way of temptation, blame, anger, grumbling, cheating, lying, and grudges.  So when we resist temptation, we exercise our faith – when we take responsibility, we exercise our faith – when we are content in difficult circumstances, we exercise our faith – when we tell the truth, when we forgive, and when we love unconditionally, we exercise our faith.  And when we fail at these or other things, the pain is not always taken away but in faith, we look to the cross, we listen to the word, we receive the sacrament and He exercises our faith and restores us once more.

May the Holy Spirit  grant us that faith in great measure once more as we travel this Lenten season with Jesus to the cross.  Amen.

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