Monday, January 23, 2017

Sunday's Sermon – Spiritual Growth for Short People: Trusting the Lord

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, January 22, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can find a podcast of this sermon on the Cove Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website (covepresbyterian.org) for more church information.

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.


Well, it’s good to see y’all this week, as we talk a little bit about spiritual growth. Now in case you don’t know it, last week we started a six-week series that should help us all grow in our understanding of God and our relationship with him. And I’ll tell you, frankly, I think this is something we can all use, because when you’re talking about becoming the kind of men and women that God created us to be, well, I think it’s natural to feel a little short in the spiritual department. And so that’s what we’ll be doing for the next month or so.

And we started last week by talking about step one, you know, how spiritual growth really starts when we recognize our limits. And like I said, that only makes sense. When we acknowledge that we’re not omnipotent nor omnipresent nor omniscient nor any other omni word you can think of, in other words, when we accept that we’re not God, we’re able to move into spiritual growth with expectations that are more realistic and an approach that’s more focused and a sense of faith that’s a whole lot more patient than if we assume that we can have it all and have it right now. Now that was last week.

And this week, well, we’re going to focus on what I think is the second step, and I’m talking about how, if we want to grow spiritual, we really need to trust the Lord. And to do that, we’re going to look at what faith actually is and how it starts and why it’s absolutely essential to growing in our understanding of  and relationship with God. And to get this started, we’re going to look at the shortest passage I’ve ever used for a sermon. But I’ll tell you, what it lacks in words, it makes up in power. It’s from the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, printed there in your bulletins and up on the screen. Hear the word of God. “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.”

You see, what I was talking about. I’m telling you, this is some powerful stuff right here. And I’ll tell you something else, I think it’s really important for us to hear, because even though “faith” is one of those words that Christians are always using, I’m not at all sure they always understand that it means. I know I didn’t, back when I was a teenager and thought I was entering the Christian faith for the first time. Now, I use the word “thought” because when I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I really thought I was having a conversion experience; in other words, at that one particular moment, I moved from dark to light, from damned to saved, from Hell to Heaven. You see, although I really thought that happened right after the our JV basketball game with Norfolk Catholic, I now believe that from birth I was always in God’s hands and that he always loved me and that for as dramatic as the experience was, it was just one step in a faith journey that started with mom and dad had me baptized at about six months and continued during Sunday School at Ocean View Presbyterian Church.

But be-that-as-it-may, back in the day, even though I’d become a Christian with a capital “C”, I really had some, well, some questionable ideas about faith. You see, I really thought faith involved knowing a lot about God and Jesus and stuff like that. And the more I knew or better, the more I could convince you about what I knew, the more faith I had, right? Well that’s what I thought. I also thought that faith started with this really dramatic, emotional conversion experience, you know, something you might have at church camp or on a mission trip or maybe even playing for an evangelical coach after a basketball game. I believed faith starts on mountain tops or maybe on a road to Damascus or some other place different from where a guy spends most of his life. Or at least, that’s what I thought. Just like I thought that faith enabled me to do three things. First, it would get me to heaven. I mean, dah. And second, it made me feel pretty darn good when I felt I had enough to get me to heaven and third, absolutely miserable when I was sure I didn’t. Now for me, that’s what faith was all about. And I’ll tell you, I believed that stuff for along time, because I didn’t have anybody in my life to tell me different.

But you know, that’s really not what I believe now. And even though I’m glad I went through that period of my life, I’m also glad I got to other side. And I’ll tell you why. You see, looking back, what I believed before, man, it was static and oppressive and frankly, not very Biblical. And I can tell you, that ain’t good. But that was then. For me now, faith is dynamic and liberating and exciting, while at the same time being right in line with the Bible. And that’s why I believe it essential for spiritual growth and for me, this relationship between faith and growth, well it comes down to three very clear and straightforward faith-related truths. And here they are.

You see, first, faith is trust. It’s being confident. It’s believing in a promise or a person. Man, that’s what faith is. It’s not knowing a bunch of stuff. And it’s not using a lot of words. And I’ll tell you, it sure isn’t about either being certain or pretending that you are. As a matter of fact, if you’re certain, if you have absolutely no doubt, if you are 100% sure, man, you don’t need faith, because you already know. You see, I don’t need faith to believe that gravity is going to prevent me from floating around the sanctuary or that right now I’m surrounded by oxygen or that, win or lose, Belcheck is going to mumble through his press conference after the game. Man, this is stuff I already know. But it takes faith to believe that Debbie will still need me and will still feed me when I’m sixty-four, a question I think about every time she calls me on my cell. (It’s her ring tone.) And it takes faith to trust that the three B’s will be able to out score the single B who quarterbacks the Patriots. And I’m telling you right here and now, it takes faith to be a Christian, not certainty, but trust. Of course, I’m not saying that what we’re called to believe is groundless, you know, silly or stupid; I’m not saying that at all. Still, we’re called to trust that God is the creator, that somehow, someway he brought and he continues to bring order out of chaos and that using whatever word or image or metaphor floats your boat, that he holds everything together because he’s perfect in both his freedom and love. Believing that takes faith. And we’re called to trust that Jesus Christ is our redeemer, that somehow, someway when he died on the cross we died too and that when he was raised not only can we get a glimpse of our future in his empty tomb but that we can experience a little taste of that resurrection life right now. Believing that takes faith. And we’re called to trust that through the Holy Spirit, the continuing presence of God, we’re constantly being inspiring, that we can only believe that God is the creator and that Jesus is the redeemer because somehow, someway our eyes and our minds and our hearts were opened, and that because of that presence flowing around us and through us all, not only does the story of God written down in the Bible speak to a constantly changing world with relevance and authority, but that we’ve been brought together, at this place and this time, to do his work. Believing that takes faith. You see, when I say that I’m confident that all this is right, I’m not saying what I know. Rather I’m stating what I believe, what I trust to be true. Because that’s what faith is; it’s trust. And that’s one.

And second, faith always, and I mean, always starts with a decision, and I’m talking about a decision on our part. You see, even though it may be exciting as all get out, faith doesn’t start on a mountain top nor on the road to Damascus. It doesn’t start, because someone goes to church camp or a mission trip. And it sure doesn’t start when a guy gets a sudden thrill. That may be love, but it’s not faith. Now don’t get me wrong, all those things may be nice; man, they may even be important. But being in a certain place or having a certain experience, that’s not how faith starts, because I’m telling you, faith starts with a decision, a decision to believe, a decision to trust. My gosh, Jesus Christ himself could walk through those doors right now, come up front and say, “Hi, my name is Jesus”, but all that wouldn’t be worth a bucket of spit if we didn’t decide that he was telling the truth, which, by the way, most people didn’t do when he actually did come and I’m not sure we’re whole lot smarter or more spiritual then they were. It’s about our decision to trust. A great theologian compared faith to stepping into a strange room that’s pitch black. It’s shown by the decision to trust that there’s a floor on the other side of the door. You see, if we’re not willing to trust that God is loving and gracious and his will for us and all humanity is mercy and compassion and if we’re not willing to trust that through Jesus Christ our past has been cleansed and our future secured and if we’re not willing to trust that in the meantime we are never and I mean never alone, if we’re not willing to make the decision to trust in an “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, than we may be wonderful people, we may fun at parties, we may exceptionable dancers, but we just don’t have faith. Why? Because faith starts with a decision, and that’s two.


And third, I believe faith frees us to explore. And I’ll tell you, that’s the reason it’s absolutely essential if we want to grow spiritually. You see, if, for me, faith is just knowing a lot of facts or accepting a lot of stuff or using a lot of words, then my perspective may become deeper but not broader. And if faith starts with experiencing a certain feeling or making a certain promise, then I’m probably going spend the rest of my trying to relive the feeling or to repeat the promise. But I’m not going to grow. I’m not going to change. I’m not going to become anything different from what I already am. I remember, years ago, I saw a video encouraging folks to give to a certain campus ministry. And in that video, they interviewed a senior who said that thanks to this particular organization, he’d gone through college and hadn’t changed at all. Praise the Lord. Well, when I heard it, one thing ran through my mind: I sure hope he doesn’t go on to medical school. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my doctor to say to me before starting brain surgery, “Don’t worry about a thing, Mr. Rudiger. I haven’t changed since high school.” Of course, I understood that the guy on camera was talking about his religious life. But still, shouldn’t we be growing there too? I think so. And you know, I believe faith is what enables us to do that, you know, to grow.  I mean, just think about what faith can do. Faith can free us from fear, or at least it should. It’s like Paul wrote to the Romans, and this is exactly what he believed, “What can we say about all this? If God is on our side, can anyone be against us? God did not keep back his own Son, but he gave him for us. If God did this, won’t he freely give us everything else? If God says his chosen ones are acceptable to him, can anyone bring charges against them? Or can anyone condemn them? No indeed! Christ died and was raised to life, and now he is at God’s right side, speaking to him for us. Can anything separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble, suffering, and hard times, or hunger and nakedness, or danger and death? In everything we have won more than a victory because of Christ who loves us. I am sure that nothing can separate us from God’s love—not life or death, not angels or spirits, not the present or the future, and not powers above or powers below. Nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love for us in Christ Jesus our Lord!” I’m telling you, the decision to trust should free us from fear. Which means, now we’re free to consider new ideas, and I’m talking about listening to thoughts and opinions that may even confront rather than to conform with what we already believe and entertaining possibilities that may, at first glance, seem strange, maybe even a little scary and accepting some perspectives and interpretations that just seem right and consistent with following the Lord Jesus Christ while rejecting others. Faith frees us to do that sort of stuff, without being afraid that if we go too far, we’re going to blow it. Put another way, I guess you could say that faith offers us the freedom to change, to have a few successes and to make a few mistakes, in other words, to grow into the men and women we were created to be, and that’s going to demand that we change, because that’s what growth means. I’m telling you, faith frees us to explore, and because of that, I think it’s essential if we want to grow spiritually.

Now, if I could go back to the teenage Ed and tell him what I told y’all, something nobody ever did for years, I honestly believe I would have rejected everything that I said, because I already knew exactly what faith was and exactly how it starts. Of course, I didn’t know how it could lead to growth, because for me back then, growth demands change, and change was something no real Christian should want much less seek, not if you didn’t want to jeopardize your eternal future or your standing in certain on-campus ministries. But looking back, that’s alright, you know, that no one told me, because it I hadn’t been there, I would be here. And I kind of like where I am, although I’m not finished growing, not yet. And tell you, there’s something else I like.  I really like understanding that faith is actually trust and that it starts with a decision and that it actually frees us to grow emotionally and intellectually and most definitely spiritually.

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