How Much Faith?

Photo by Sebastian Herrmann on Unsplash

In his sermon “The Law and the Promise,” Tim Keller offers his response to those who come asking, “How much do I have to trust God in order to be saved?”

Keller said:

If you are about to fall off a cliff, maybe you’ve already fallen, you’re falling off and you’re on your way to your death, you look up and see a branch sticking out of the side of the cliff, you look up at that thing, and I want to know, “How much faith do you have to have in order for it to save you?”

The answer is, “Just enough faith to grab it.” Because, your faith does not save you at all. It’s not the strength of your faith…it would be the strength of the branch that would save you, not the strength of your faith. If the branch is strong enough to save you, you’re saved.

It is not the quality of your faith, but the object of your faith, that saves you. Trust in God, who is mighty to save.

Message in a Bottle

Image by Antonios Ntoumas from Pixabay

One evening many years ago, a retreat guest who was staying in Black Bluff (that 7 room-building that hangs over the Frio River) wanted to chill a bottle of wine. He secured the bottle to the end of a string and carefully lowered it down the side of the building into the water below. Pleased with himself, he made his way to the Great Hall for the evening session.

The session came and went. Our guest, with a spring in his step, returned to his room and quietly hoisted the bottle up from the dark water. To his bewilderment, the bottle was empty, except for a handwritten note that read:

The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.

From a Laity Lodge newsletter, “Lighten Up

Study

Study is a specific kind of experience in which through careful attention to reality the mind is enabled to move in a certain direction. Remember, the mind will always take on an order conforming to the order upon which it concentrates. Perhaps we observe a tree or we read a book. We see it, feel it, understand it, draw conclusions from it. And as we do, our thought processes take on an order conforming to the order in the tree or book. When this is done with concentration, perception, and repetition, ingrained habits of thought are formed.

Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, p. 63

Foster claims there are two “books” to be studied: the verbal and nonverbal. We reads books and lectures, and we observe nature, events, and actions. Book smarts and street smarts. Knowledge and wisdom. We apply ourselves. We take the posture of a student. We open ourselves, and learn.

The study of these “books” can take on various shapes, but Foster thinks the discipline involves four steps: 1) repetition, 2) concentration, 3) comprehension, and 4) reflection.

In Romans 12:1-2, Paul writes:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Hit the “books.” Ask God, through study, to transform your mind.

Sermon: A Lasting Peace

This sermon was delivered to the First Baptist Church of Valley Mills, Texas on October 10, 2021.

Scripture Reading: Joshua 11:16-19

So Joshua took this entire land: the hill country, all the Negev, the whole region of Goshen, the western foothills, the Arabah and the mountains of Israel with their foothills, 17 from Mount Halak, which rises toward Seir, to Baal Gad in the Valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon. He captured all their kings and put them to death. 18 Joshua waged war against all these kings for a long time. 19 Except for the Hivites living in Gibeon, not one city made a treaty of peace with the Israelites, who took them all in battle.

Sermon: A Lasting Peace

First Baptist Church of Valley Mills, good morning. It is good to be together in fellowship, it is good to worship God, and it is good to come together in search of what is good, lasting, edifying, beautiful, praiseworthy, and true. 

Now, I trust that many of us together in this room know God. But for those that aren’t so certain, for those who are seeking, for those who might be wondering if God is there or if God can be known, well, it is my prayer this morning that God would draw near to us all, not so much that we would find God, but that God would find us and help us not only to see a path forward for how we should live, but that we would see God, that we would encounter Jesus, and that we would all, together, more fully trust him.

I want to tell you how I came to be here today. 

About ten days ago Pastor John Wheatley called me. I missed his call because I was in class, and then I went to lunch with a friend. I had left my cell phone in my desk drawer. 

When I came back from lunch, John came walking down the hall on the second floor at Truett Seminary, and stopped by my office. He then said, “Hey buddy, I normally give a little bit more lead time when I need someone to step in and preach, but I was wondering if you knew anyone who could come and offer the message at FBC Valley Mills on October 10.”

I said that I might be able to do it. I also said that I’d need to talk it over with my wife, Molly, because if you are married, well, maybe, well, you might understand.

So, the question is whether or not John meant “me” by “anyone,” or if he meant “anyone else.” 

Regardless, I’m here. For the record, I did receive clearance from my wife, Molly, to come and be present with you. And I’m glad to be here. My wife is a United Methodist minister, and she is preaching this morning at First Methodist Killeen. Maybe she is planning to say some things about me in her sermon this morning and wanted me out of the way. I guess I’ll have to watch it later on YouTube to find out.

At George’ Restaurant this past Monday John and I had lunch, and he told me what you’ve been up to. He shared that you have been reading the book of Joshua. He shared that you’re moving through the conquest. He had said to me that if I wanted to preach another text, if I wanted to break up the march that had begun with the comforting of Joshua and the crossing of the Jordan and the capture of Jericho, that I could. But I said that I would be happy for us to continue on, to keep going, to take the next steps with Joshua and the people of Israel, and to see what we might learn together.

I want to commend this congregation for reading this book together, chapter by chapter and verse by verse. In Joshua 1, Joshua is not only told by God to “be strong and very courageous,” but he is also told, “Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then, you will be prosperous and successful.”

That’s a command with a promise. 

Aside from plain, straightforward obedience to that command, some of you might wonder from time to time, “Why in the world do we read these Old Testament stories?” Some of you younger people, in particular, may think as I did in a few, but not all, of my history classes, “These lists of difficult to pronounce names, the foreign geography, these ancient events…why should I care?”

That’s a good question. Let me give you a couple of reasons why we should care. First, we should care because these stories reveal something to us about the human condition, the nature of humanity, and the difficulties of life. Our world continues to be one of conflict, warfare, and strife. While each of us in this room may feel this to be true by differing degrees, that is the world we live in, one that is “not as it should be.” Facing reality is a first step toward wisdom.

But there is a second reason, a theological reason, that I’ll put to you very briefly, and very simply, though it could be the subject for a whole other sermon. 

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. And in Luke’s gospel, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus told his two traveling companions that everything written in Moses and the Prophets somehow pointed to him. The remainder of the New Testament contains citations and allusions to the Old Testament. Without knowledge of the Old Testament, we will not very well understand the New.

We must tend to the book of Joshua, and all of the other books of the Old Testament, not only so that we can better understand history, not only so that we can better understand the world of Jesus in the first century, a world that was steeped in these stories and narratives, but in order that we might more fully understand the character of God as it is revealed in all of Scripture. 

The stories of the Old Testament become our stories in and through our faith in Jesus, and by knowing these stories, by studying these narratives, by searching these words and considering them prayerfully, it is our hope that God might bring us to greater maturity and a deeper faith.

With that end in view, let’s turn our hearts and minds, together, to the reading for today. In today’s portion, we read Joshua and Israelite armies had been victorious in battle. This is not Israel’s first victory, nor will it be their last battle. But it is a significant moment. 

The “kings” with whom Joshua had been fighting, those whom we are told he captured and put to death, were Jabin, king of Hazor, Jobab, king of Madon, the kings of Shimron and Akshaph in the western foothills of Mt. Tabor. We know that Israel also faced the Canaanites in the east and west, the Ammonites, Hittites, Perizzites, and Jebusites in the hill country, and the Hivites, who lived at the base of Mount Hermon. We read this in Joshua 11:1-5. We receive a few further details about the kings whom the Israelites conquered in Joshua 12. 

These kings were defeated. According to Joshua 11:19, only one city “made peace” with Israel, the Hivites, who were the inhabitants of Gibeon. The remainder were defeated on the battlefield.

Joshua 11:23 says, “So Joshua took the entire land, just as the Lord had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions. Then the land had rest from war.”

We might think of this as “peace.”

“Peace” is something, certainly, I think all of us desire. While we may not be fighting a physical battle, as Joshua and the Israelites did, we certainly face inner, spiritual battles day by day. These inner battles may arise first as a wrestling within ourselves. But often we find these battles–what begins on the inside–can bring us into conflict with those around us–manifesting themselves on the outside.

Because of this, we continue to long for “rest” from war. We long for peace. And I’d wager a few of us are in a place of unrest today, if not outright war.

So this morning, in light of our reading, we’re going to consider peace: what it is not, what it is, and how we can have it.

Peace: What It Is Not

First, peace: what it isn’t.

Our English word “peace” has a particular connotation. We associate peace with the absence of battle, the cessation of fighting, a declared end to open conflict. And in a sense, this definition is helpful. Peace does include the absence of strife and hostility between warring factions, a declared end to struggle.

But I think together we can immediately recognize this definition has its limits. We have found ourselves in circumstances where a physical battle is absent, but a mental, emotional, spiritual, or social struggle rages on. In the same way that a lake can appear calm on the surface while underneath and at depth there is turbulence, we’ve seen how appearances can be deceiving. Even within ourselves, we know that while outwardly we can appear to be at peace, inwardly our mind, our emotions, and our spirit can be unsettled. Tumultuous. At war.

I once heard Paul W. Powell, former Dean of Truett Seminary and pastor of Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, tell a story of a fight he had with his wife, Cathy. They did not exchange blows. But Paul did say that things became frosty. Paul said Cathy was tough, stubborn. And as they drove down the road, they passed a field where there were a couple of mules, and Paul looked out the window, pointed, and said to Cathy, “Relatives of yours?”

And she said, “Yes. By marriage.”

Now that’s an old joke, one that Paul put to his own purposes. But it is an example of an absence of peace.

Peace is not merely the absence of outward, physical conflict. 

There is another biblical word that can broaden our understanding of peace and help us to better envision the kind of “rest,” the kind of “peace” that we are longing for.

And that leads us to turn to our second question. What is peace?

Peace: What It Is

In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “peace” is “shalom.”

“Shalom” encompasses wholeness of the body, or physical health. It encompasses peace and wholeness between two parties, or “right relationship,” whether of groups of people or individuals, and even between people and God. “Shalom” refers to prosperity, success, or fulfillment, what we might otherwise call “human flourishing.” And finally, “shalom” refers to the absence of conflict, or the cessation of war.

In Judges 6:24, we read that Gideon constructed an altar to God and called it “Yahweh Shalom,” or “The Lord is Peace.”

In Numbers 6:24-26, the Lord tells Moses to tell Aaron and his descendants to bless the people of Israel by saying: 


“The Lord bless you

    and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you

    and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you

    and give you peace.”’

This blessing is so that Israel might be reminded that they are under a covenant of “shalom” with God.

Isaiah 9:6 is a familiar text for many of us, where we read:

For to us a child is born,

    to us a son is given,

    and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called

    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

This passage promises a coming Messiah who would establish God’s rule, and is understood today by followers of Jesus as having been fulfilled in him.

In Romans 5:1-2, Paul writes, “since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” Trusting Jesus, by faith, yields peace.

In Ephesians 2:14-18, we read, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.”

Here, Paul writes that Jesus is our peace, and in him, former divisions are overcome, and unity is found, in God.

Some of you are now saying, “So what, Ben, what does this all mean?”

Briefly, what it means is that peace is not merely a state of mind. Peace is a person. Jesus is our peace. The exhortation to be “at peace” that we find in Scripture is not merely an invitation for us to consider self-help techniques or strategies for resolving conflict or wisdom on how best to navigate the difficulties of life. Rather, the promise of peace is rooted in an invitation to relationship, to be reconciled to the one who grounds us in God’s reality, announced by Jesus as God’s kingdom. There, we find that we reside in an “unshakeable” kingdom, and we rest in a person who has won for us ultimate victory, a victory that is final and complete.

Peace: How We Can Have It

On the piece of paper you received on your way in today is a quote from Dwight L. Moody, which says, “Take your stand on the Rock of Ages. Let death, let judgement come: the victory is Christ’s and yours through him.” How, then, do we receive that victory? How do we live in that peace?

If peace is not merely the absence of outward conflict, but peace is also the presence of lasting, sustained wholeness in our relationships, encompassing our relationship with God, with other people and with ourselves, how do we get it?

In the Book of Joshua, we read of a people who experienced a momentary peace, an end to battle, a cessation of outward conflict. Through Joshua, God delivered Israel and established the Israelites in the Promised Land.

Jesus Christ is a conqueror greater than Joshua. In him, we receive eternal peace. We live in the confidence that the final victory over sin, evil, and death has already been won, that on a lonely hill in a time, relatively speaking, not too long ago on a wooden cross, where the skies darkened and where all hope appeared to be lost, Jesus took upon himself the sin of the world and opened the way to an eternal land of promise, and repaired a rift between us and God, making possible reconciliation, forgiveness, healing, and everlasting peace.

When Jesus’ friends and disciples watched him die upon the cross, they did not know that three days later Jesus would emerge from the grave in resurrected form. But he did. Jesus was vindicated by the Father, and raised in power by the Spirit. He revealed himself to his disciples, first to the women, and then also to what remained of the Twelve. He was with them for forty days. He taught them concerning the kingdom of God. He commissioned them to go and share good news. It is that same good news we celebrate today. Jesus is alive.

In John 20:21-23, we’re told the resurrected Christ appeared to the disciples and said to them “‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’”

2 Corinthians 5:17-21 tells us, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Having been reconciled to God, we become ambassadors of his peace.

Furthermore, Galatians 5:22-23 tells us, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” The Spirit of God is at work within us, transforming us, healing us, renewing us, and bringing forth evidence that we have been reconciled to God. And that others can be reconciled, too.

How do we receive the peace of God? By trusting in Christ, the one who won for us a  lasting peace, eternal life. The one who offered us the gift of friendship. The one who invites us all to trust him, to follow him.

Do you trust him? Do you want to trust him?

Even if you want to, but don’t yet, that’s a sign he’s calling. Keep seeking. Maybe, today is the day.

Do you want peace? That’s what Christ offers.

May God help us to be “strong and courageous.” It takes strength, and courage, to trust that Jesus Christ is for us our peace, the one in whom we have victory. 

Today, trust that in Jesus we have received peace, and that as a people who have been extended the gift of peace with God, we might bear witness to that peace, inviting all we encounter to likewise trust in God, the one who has given us eternal rest, and who has welcomed us into his eternal kingdom, and who has promised us that we are “more than conquerors” in Christ Jesus.

Let us pray. 

Glass Full, Glass Empty

Photo by Joseph Greve on Unsplash

A couple of weeks ago at a taekwondo class an instructor walked up to me and said, “Have you ever heard the ‘glass full, glass empty’ talk?”

As someone who has heard their fair share of illustrations, it sounded familiar. But I wasn’t sure. “Say more,” I invited.

He continued, “It’s a talk given to students who are so filled with information that you can’t give them anything more. It can apply either to a person who is on overload, or a person who has such an inflated sense of their own know-how that they’re in need of a reset.”

“‘What you do is you take a full glass of water, filled to the brim, and set on a tabletop.’ Then, you say, ‘This is you.’ Afterward, you take a full pitcher of water, and you say, ‘This is what I’m trying to offer you.’ Then, you proceed to pour. Overflow occurs. A mess is made. Water is wasted. The point becomes obvious: just as the cup is unable to receive and retain the inflow of water from the pitcher, so too is the student unable to receive, retain, and then apply new information, insight, and knowledge from their instructor.”

“Then what?” I asked.

“‘Then, you pour the water out of the cup,’ he said. ‘You set it down on the table, point to it, and tell them to be more like the empty cup.'”

The applications of this illustration are wide. For the Christ-follower, self-emptying opens up the possibility to receive from Christ the wisdom he offers concerning a life well-lived, as well as the gift of life itself. He fills us with good things, and imparts to us the gift of the Spirit, who not only satisfies our soul, but also wells up, and so springs forth from us an overflow of the eternal kind of life.

“It’s Good to Be Seen”

Photo by Edi Libedinsky on Unsplash

I say to people, quite often really, “It is good to see you.”

And a few of my friends return their customary greeting, “It’s good to be seen.”

Most of those friends are older. They might add, “I’d rather be seen than be viewed.” In their stage of life, they go to their share of visitations and funerals. They’re happy to count one more day as a gift.

But there is another way this riposte could be interpreted. Not everyone feels seen. Some people feel isolated, alone.

A greeting, offered in kindness, could then be a salve, a healing balm, a reminder to another human being that they are valued, loved, welcomed, and included.

It’s good to see people.

And it’s good to be seen.

The Laboratory of Life

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Isaiah 55:6 says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.”

Proverbs 8:17 promises, “I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me.”

Jeremiah 29:13, likewise, promises, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

1 Chronicles 16:11 exhorts us, “Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually!”

Perhaps most famously, Jesus, in Matthew 7:7-12, says, ““Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Jesus then assures his hearers of God’s goodness, saying, ““Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

But then interestingly, right on the tails of his invitation to ask God for anything, Jesus offers a command: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Seeking doesn’t only involve asking, it involves acting.

Seeking is an invitation. And it is open to everyone. I can respond to the invitation to seek everyday. I can ask, and I can act. Then, I can see what happens. Just like in lab work, I can develop a hypothesis, I can conduct an experiment, I can make observations, and I can evaluate the results. The hypothesis is simple: God is active and at work in our world and in my life, invites me to seek him, and in seeking him, I will find him.

In Letters by a Modern Mystic, Frank Laubach put this to the test. In his ministry, he saw those of another faith seeking obedience to God. He was challenged, not only as a human being, but as a Christian. He wanted to be in fellowship with God, and to live a life of faithfulness. He believed Christianity was true. Since he believed God was active and at work in the world, inviting us to seek him, and that in seeking him, we could find him, he gave it a try. In his journals, Laubach wrote:

But this year I have started out trying to live all my walking moments in conscious listening to the inner voice, asking without ceasing, ‘What, Father, do you desire said? What, Father, do you desire done this minute?’

It is clear that this is exactly what Jesus was doing all day every day. But it is not what His followers have been doing in very large numbers.

What would occur if more of Jesus followers did this every day, all day?

It sounds like a worthwhile experiment. Let’s try it, and see.

Constant Vigilance

HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, Brendan Gleeson, 2007. ©Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

In the Harry Potter books and movies there is a character named Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody. While there is debate among fans as to whether or not Moody actually said and encouraged “constant vigilance” against those who have committed themselves to the “dark arts” of magic, it is a phrase widely attributed to him. Hermione Granger attributes the saying to him, which is good enough for me.

The phrase came up in a conversation awhile ago, while I was talking to a friend about the insidious nature of sin and the dangers of temptation. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Philippians 4:7 promises, “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” We stand sentry. But so does Jesus.

The spiritual life is active, not passive. Be on guard. Be active. Constant vigilance.

The Communion Cup Slam Dunk

Photo by Geda Žyvatkauskaitė on Unsplash

A couple of weeks ago our congregation celebrated World Communion Sunday, and like many other congregations, each person received what I’ll call a “personalized wafer/grape juice combo pack” upon entering the sanctuary.

After we received the elements together as a congregation late in the order of service, I was amused when I caught sight of a young boy, maybe around eleven or twelve years old, make his way to the nearest trash can at the rear of the worship space, take a final swig of his juice, and windmill slam the container into the bottom of the can. Two points. And with authority.

I also found it funny to observe another boy, maybe around six, double-fisting his communion cups, gulping down the juice representing the blood of Christ first from his left hand, then from his right. This is the Lord’s table, where an abundance is found.