Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that great 20th-Century theologian and pastor, had some pretty strong words for pastors when they were doing pastoral counseling, and one of the most interesting things he said was that when someone came to see the pastor and said, “I just feel like I’m losing my faith,” he said that’s when you stop listening. I remember reading that once and just thinking, “What the heck kind of pastoral advice is this?” He said instead of listening and messing around in the morass of the feeling of faith, to take out the Ten Commandments and go down the list, one by one, and say, “Which one aren’t you doing?” His point is that sin separates us from God, and sometimes, when we persist in it to the point of habit, we don’t even know that we are, and we have to change, not on our own, but through the hammer of God’s word. In his book Discipleship, he explored the idea through a paradox of sorts—only the obedient person believes, and only the believing person obeys, he says. It takes a while to think about what Bonhoeffer was trying to say, but I think he was trying to get at the idea the obedience to God and faith in God are a whole thing—one does not precede the other. They belong together. They are the two legs of a single human walk.
I think Jesus is needling his disciples here. How much faith to do you want? How much faith do you think you need? Let me put it another way, a way that makes sense to me, at least, and maybe will help you. I think Jesus, in sense is asking, do you think faith is like growing tomatoes? If you have the right soil, the right sunlight, the right seedlings? The disciples are asking for fertilizer, for the secret of the perfect ripe tomato. But Jesus is saying that tomato is a gift from God. It’s as if your neighbor came to your door with some big, beautiful juicy tomatoes and said, “Here have these. Eat them—they’re really good with some olive oil.” If you had God’s power, you could tell a mulberry tree where to go and what to do. But that’s not the way it works with faith. God gives you all the faith you need, but with that faith God gives you a call to love your brothers and sisters.
That’s why Jesus makes the immediate move to obedience. It’s actually a very rabbinical move. I remember meeting with one of the rabbis around here shortly after I moved to this neighborhood, and we were talking about something or another, and I got really excited and mentioned the word ‘faith’. And the rabbi said, “Faith. That’s not exactly what we’re worried about. I mean, for us it’s not really an important question. I pray five times a day,” and he kept talking but I was stuck right there when he just skipped right by the question of faith like it was no big deal. But there it was. He skipped it and went straight to obedience. Kind of like this other Rabbi, Jesus. Only the one who obeys believes, and only the believer obeys.
Now we hear from the prophet Habakkuk today who says, “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous will live by faith.” If I remember correctly, this is the first mention of faith in the Hebrew Bible. And notice that the stress of the sentence isn’t only on faith itself, but on living by faith. Both Jesus and the prophet point to this, something that my grandfather, old servant of God that he is, told me a long time ago—faith is not a way of believing, faith is a way of living.
It’s hard for us to wrap our minds around that I think. We are used to thinking of faith as a kind of belief, perhaps like axioms or first principles. Sometimes we think of faith as an emotion, something you feel deep inside. Sometimes we just think it’s something we need to have but don’t, something we wish we had but don’t, something that we feel we need, but can’t get. But faith is given to us—and something we find in obeying God. When we feel like we’ve lost faith, or when we feel like the faith we have is not enough, look to obedience. Look to the way you live, and find where God is calling you to make a move.
There’s a line from our passage in 2nd Timothy that speaks to this—“Do not be ashamed, then of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join me in the suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace.” God’s grace gives us faith—and God gives us the faith we need to do to the work according his purpose. Now, I know these words have a lot of valences we might not like—it sounds a little Rick Warren/Purpose-Driven Lifey, a little megachurchy, maybe. But that doesn’t mean that God does not have a purpose. God does have a purpose for this whole created order, and you find your purpose in communion with God’s purpose.
And this is really freeing. Instead of trying so hard to figure out your authentic self, instead losing yourself in a morass of contradicting messages from culture, school, work, television and other media, instead of trying to build yourself all the broken parts of this world, God’s grace makes you whole in God’s purpose for you and for this world. God gives us the spirit of power and love and self-discipline—this is the spirit of action in this world. It is the spirit of a holy calling. It is holy because as we act in the compass of God’s grace in the spirit of love for this world, in the power of God’s saving love for this world, we open for the world the love of God. God’s purpose is peace, justice, unity—and God’s purpose for us is to work for those things in the ways God calls us to do that work. And ironically, obedience to God frees us.
I was recently given a book called Hands Are Not For Hitting. It’s a toddler book. But it says—what are hands for? Building, dressing, playing, taking care. Hands are not for hitting. It’s a great book because it shows how many wonderful things hands can do—and you discover that hitting hurts all these other things. This is like obeying God. What is life for? Serving, loving, caring, playing, rejoicing—life is not for wasting on some dead end. Life is a gift from God, and by God’s grace, we are a people of a holy calling that gives God glory in our work. Amen.
Reverend John Flack