12th Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16;
Gen. 15:1-6; Luke 12:32-40
THE HEART OF FAITH
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
Faith stands in between the seen and unseen. It helps us to trust especially in an unseen Creator who lies behind the creation we see. That faith comes easy when the pictures of creation we see are beautiful and inspiring — a mountain lake, springtime flowers, the smile of a baby. But what about when what we see is troubling and confusing?
The news was filled with disturbing pictures and images again this week. Hurricane Andrew victims in Miami. Famine victims in Somalia. In one place too much rain, in the other not enough. In both places, there were political complications. The people of Miami looked around at the unbelievable destruction of their neighborhoods, and they wondered why help was taking so long in coming. Lacking most of the necessities of life — shelter, food, water — this was not the time for political and bureaucratic red-tape. And the problem in Somalia is apparently one of anarchy. Bands of marauding thieves would steal the last piece of bread from a woman and her child, and there are no government forces to stop it. So we see those tragically familiar pictures of children wasting away from hunger, and we are rather helpless to get them food even if we try.
This is what we saw this week. As people of faith, our text from Hebrews says that we also live by those things we cannot see. But what do such pictures of destruction, desolation, and suffering say about that invisible reality that lies behind this visible creation? What kind of world was created by the word of God?
Scripture responds to such questions partly by telling the stories of people of faith. Hebrews 11 gives a summary of such stories from the book of Genesis, featuring Abraham, who happens to be the choice for our Old Testament lesson from Genesis, as well. But the verses we skip over in Hebrews 11 leave out some of the names in Genesis that come before Abraham: figures like Cain and Abel, Enoch, and Noah. Our passage also cuts us off before we get to people such as Jacob and Joseph. As did the writer of Hebrews, I would like us to briefly consider several of these figures this morning. For one thing, some of these other stories from Genesis better fit our stories this week of a hurricane and a famine. The first extended story about a person of faith in Genesis is that of Noah, who survived a massive flood. And the book of Genesis ends with the story of Joseph, who helps his family survive a terrible famine.
Let’s begin with the story of Noah and his family. Actually, it is a story more about God and his fundamental relationship to his creation. Here’s how the story begins:
The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created — people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” — Genesis 5:6-7
It begins as a sort of a sentencing upon creation, especially humankind. As with human law, there is punishment for crimes committed. This punishment comes on a cosmic scale. But notice here, too, that the story permits us more than just a matter of fact sentencing. It permits us a look into the heart of the judge. “It grieved him to his heart,” reads our text. God does not want to bring punishment. He is less like a tyrant and more like a parent grieving upon his children’s wrongdoings. So this story ends up being more about the drama that takes place within the heart of God. After the flood waters subside and Noah makes a sacrifice to God, we read:
And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, [again, “in his heart”!] “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.
In other words, humankind hasn’t really changed, nor will it change. The inclination of our heart is still evil. What changes in this story is God’s heart! God makes a commitment to not use such force in trying to make creation bend to the divine will. What begins as a crime and punishment story ends as a commitment never to make such forces of nature into a punishment.
So what does this story of the flood mean for our faith this week? When disaster strikes, one of our first reactions is often times to interpret the invisible forces behind the disaster as a punishment from God. That’s true of things like hurricanes and earthquakes, personal illness or death, and even plagues of sickness like AIDS. We at least wonder if such things come as punishment. This story of the flood assures us as people of faith that God, from the beginning of time — for that’s where this story lies, outside of time — God has committed himself to another way. He does not send such things as punishment. Rather, he makes promises that he has the patience to invite his creation and his creatures into another more blessed, life-filled ending. The stories of scripture carry forward these promises. After Noah, it was Abraham and Sarah, whose descendants were to multiply like the stars and be a blessing to all peoples. It carried on through Joseph, who visions and dreams saved Abraham’s great grandchildren from deadly famine, in spite of brothers who had sold him away into a life of death. It goes on through Moses and the creation of a covenant people. But the promises of God finally reach their climax, says the letter to the Hebrews, in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God’s promises reach their apex, says St. Paul, in our Lord’s rising from the grave as first fruits of God’s new creation. Jesus’ resurrection is a down-payment on God’s renewal for all of creation.
So how do we respond to the pictures of this week? It isn’t easy. Like the heart of God, our hearts in faith come to grieve the fact that all is not yet right in God’s creation. But through faith in Christ we also share in the sure and certain hope that some day all will be right in that creation. In effect, faith in Christ gives us that same look into the heart of God that we see in the story of Noah. The cross shows us God’s intense grief at the suffering and evil in his creation and, more than a promise not to punish, God’s taking the punishment on himself through God’s Son. The resurrection shows us God’s commitment that such death and suffering will not have the last word. In fact, more than just a glimpse into the heart of God, the faith of Jesus Christ is the power to know and feel God’s heart itself. God’s Holy Spirit is the power to have our hearts changed (cf. Jer. 31:33). And so in the meantime, we are moved to respond and be a part of that renewal. We are given the courage to face the powers of sin and death and the hope to engage them. Specifically, it means responding through some of the opportunities we are lifting up this morning with a special offering to help the hurricane victims. In the coming weeks, our annual CROP Walk provides another opportunity to join in the fight against hunger. On September 20 we will be lifting up the ministry of Habitat for Humanity, a chance to do something for those who lack adequate shelter. In general, faith is to have God’s heart and so to have the power to fulfill our call as stewards of this creation, caring for the earth and for one another. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Grace Lutheran,
Howell, MI, August 30, 1992