• The key to experiencing God’s promises day by day
This week is about how God changes our lives, and the ‘secret sauce’ is something called faith. What is faith? It’s a word that means different things to different people.
If you believe in the Church as an institution, then to you, faith may be about subscribing to the customs and practices of that institution.
You may even contrast e.g. ‘Anglican faith’ with belonging to ‘Methodist faith’ or being of the ‘Catholic Faith’ as if they are in competition with one another. And, on that level, they may be.
But let’s talk about Jesus — and how He talked about faith. If you have come into a more personal way of believing and trusting Jesus as Your Redeemer and Lord, then faith is all about that personal believing and trusting. You might recall Bible sayings like ‘Without faith you cannot please God’. That cannot be about institutional faith, because that came centuries later. So it points to a heart response that connects with God. He looks for it. And when He finds that response in us — He changes our life. It may be a lot, or it may be a bit at a time.
Jesus often chided His disciples for having little faith. What did He mean?
I’m not going to reply to that, but as our story unfolds, so does the answer.
We’re going to look back to Abraham and learn how he heard God and responded to Him, and how God counted him as righteous because of his faith.
Then we’ll look in on a conversation between Jesus and a devout Pharisee of renowned scholarship, and how there was something missing in his spiritual life — he needed to take a particular step of faith.
And we’ll finish up with teaching for the early church, who — like us — were learning to put all the pieces together in the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Here were Jews brought up on the Old Testament law, and Gentiles who were completely new to the experience of the Living God. Both were learning that this new Spirit-led life is not about keeping rules or following rituals or even trying to live a good life. It’s all about a special relationship with unseen but always present Almighty God, and that comes about by this thing called faith.
To start us off, there’s a great big hint about knowing God in a way that trusts Him and depends on Him, as we hear in this excerpt from Psalm 121:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains — where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip… The Lord watches over you — the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm — He will watch over… your coming and going… now and forevermore.Psalm 121 NIV excerpted
The story of the faith connection that enables us to live in the experience of those promises, begins with someone who was extraordinarily good at doing that. He was someone who had let God turn his life upside down. His name was Abram, better known to us as Abraham, which is how God renamed him. But that is getting ahead of ourselves…
Long before Abraham arrived in Canaan, he seems to have had a relationship with God and to have listened to Him.
Let’s hear this part of the story from Genesis 12:
The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran.Genesis 12:1-4
We may wonder, why did Abraham have such extraordinary favour with God, and why God did choose him to be the father of the nation?
I think the answer is in the words we have just heard: “So Abram went, as the LORD had told him…”
Listening to God is quite a big thing for many of us, but Abraham went further. He seems to have had an extraordinary capacity of responding to what God says — and simply acting on it.
He’s not one to question God. He’s not one to create his own version of what God told him to do. He believes what God tells him and is able to trust God for the details not yet revealed – in this case, the destination and what he will do when he gets there!
He’s a model of not controlling his life and fortunes, but letting go and letting God. He is able to trust God in leaving his ancestral family, the culture he has grown up in, the familiar variants of the Middle Eastern languages in use at that time, and every bit of security he has ever known.
He is able to trust God and God alone as his Provider and Protecter, not to mention his reliable Guide as he navigates a country with no roads, no signposts and, in desert areas, few recognisable landmarks.
Listening to God is key.
The Lord loves us all, but He especially likes to work with people who are easy for Him to work with. We might say the same thing! So people who will listen carefully and then trust Him and just do what He says, are for Almighty God easy and pleasant people to work with.
What do you think it took for Abraham to be that kind of person? What is the quality in him that makes him a good listener, and which makes him trusting in his response?
Answer that, and you are already exploring how God can change your life. You’ve already gone some way to answering the question we started with, when we were recalling how Jesus ribbed His disciples for having little faith — and we asked, what exactly did He mean?
Next we’re going to eavesdrop a conversation that Jesus had with an older man, a Pharisee Bible teacher called Nicodemus. Nicodemus clearly was a man of faith — of a certain kind of faith, at least. But this seems to have been a rather institutional kind of faith, placing security in who he was as a descendant of Abraham, as well as having knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, that’s what we call Old Testament, which was the Bible that they had at that time.
Jesus doesn’t call out Nicodemus for having little faith— to do — that would have been disrespectful — but Jesus knew exactly what He needed and He addresses it by encouraging him.
Let’s hear about Jesus and Nicodemus now in a very well-known passage in John 3:
...A Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council… came to Jesus at night. He said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
”You should not be surprised at My saying, ‘You must be born again.’
”The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from, or where it is going. So it is, with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.
”I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven — the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.”
For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.John 3:1-17
What’s going on here? Jesus is telling Nicodemus how to move from an institutional faith to a dynamic, relational faith. Another way of putting this, is moving faith from head to heart.
Nicodemus has many a counterpart in today’s church. There are lots of good people who would claim to be people of faith, but it’s fair to ask what their faith is really in. Sometimes on examination it can seem that what they believe and trust is more ‘churchianity’ than Christianity. It is rooted more in what is comfortable and familiar in the worship tradition of their choice, than it is about talking about their Saviour and Lord and their walk with Him.
Back to Nicodemus, and we see both his sincere seeking and also his struggle, as Jesus gently tells him that all his knowledge and experience only takes him so far: like all of us, he needs a new spiritual start. This will move his focus from his tradition — and put it trustingly in a Person who he has met face to face, and whose ministry he has seen for himself.
For us, it comes a little differently because it is the Holy Spirit who makes Jesus real to us. It is the Person of the Holy Spirit who helps us place our trust in Jesus.
When Jesus told Nicodemus he needs to be born again, Nicodemus didn’t get it. And Jesus explained to him, that what he was teaching was difficult to grasp without a particular spiritual insight.
It’s a bit of a catch-22 situation. We can’t properly understand what it is until we have got it.
And we can’t take hold of it, until we realise we need it – whatever it is! To the unspiritual mind, this is just a form of words.
Religious but unspiritual people over the centuries have explained this away in various ways, even claiming that words spoken over a baby who has been christened effect this new spiritual birth in them. It’s much easier to believe in salvation by sacraments than it is to receive the reality of new life by faith and trust in Jesus. But only one way answers the question How God Can Change My Life
These are two different and divergent tracks. One can satisfy human logic as a form of words. The other — the one Jesus taught — satisfies neither logic nor reason. It’s tough, but the way Jesus taught it is the way that is life-transforming. The way that Jesus is encouraging us in, is how He can open up to us a spiritual dimension that we simply couldn’t see before.
We move now to the next part of our story where the scene has changed. From a night-time visit and face to face physical discussion with Jesus, we move forward to the time after His death on a cross, and resurrection to evident new life in a resurrection body, and ascension to heaven.
The people in Rome that Paul is writing to have not met Jesus in the way that Nicodemus did. However, they have been born again spiritually, and so every one of them knows Jesus in their hearts. Each one has has the spiritual regeneration that Jesus spoke about.
Now, he is explaining the deep roots of that kind of faith. This goes right back to a man who God Himself counted righteous because of the trusting, believing faith he showed.
This is absolutely fundamental to Christian belief. Let’s hear this part of the story as Paul tells it in Romans 4:
Abraham was, humanly speaking, the founder of our Jewish nation. What did he discover about being made right with God? If his good deeds had made him acceptable to God, he would have had something to boast about. But that was not God’s way. For the Scriptures tell us, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.”
When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned. But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners.
Clearly, God’s promise to give the whole earth to Abraham and his descendants was based not on his obedience to God’s law, but on a right relationship with God that comes by faith. If God’s promise is only for those who obey the law, then faith is not necessary and the promise is pointless. For the law always brings punishment on those who try to obey it…. So the promise is received by faith. It is given as a free gift. And we are all certain to receive it, whether or not we live according to the law of Moses, if we have faith like Abraham’s.
For Abraham is the father of all who believe. That is what the Scriptures mean when God told him, “I have made you the father of many nations.” This happened because Abraham believed in the God who brings the dead back to life, and who creates new things out of nothing.Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 NLT excerpted
Abraham — like us — had not seen God. But he had heard God and taken Him at His word. And — just in case you were not sure where this is going — hearing God and taking Him at His word is what we are to do.
Abraham also demonstrated a right relationship with God in being able to receive what God gives, a favour given out of grace rather than a reward earned.
We don’t like receiving what we have not earned or paid for. That seems like charity! And that’s because, in its way, it is.
Up to now, the story has been of us doing the seeking and the asking, and Jesus telling us “everyone who believes may have eternal life”. So we do the believing as well — and so far, this is all on us.
But — there’s a dimension of what is happening here which is not on us. It’s a big dimension. And it is not on us — at all.
Paul talks about whether God’s promise is for those who obey the law — that’s work, that’s doing and earning. To use different language, that is what religion is about — any religion.
And Paul is clear that God is the One who does the work, and His process is completely different!
If it’s about keeping to the rules and doing the right things, the promise — he says — is pointless.
He says: “The promise is received by faith. It is given as a free gift. And we are all certain to receive it… if we have faith like Abraham’s.”
He says that people are counted righteous by God, not because it’s something they have earned, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners and gives us this gift of life, creating what is new and good — out of nothing.
This is how God can change my life and yours. By us being willing to receive it. To believe and trust Him for it.
We started with God being our Helper and the One who watches over us. Then we saw how Abraham heard God tell him to go on a journey, and he upped sticks and went — and discovered not only a new land but the fulfilment of a new destiny. Then we heard how Jesus received someone who was on a faith journey, but heading in the wrong direction. And Jesus gave him a new start. Finally, we grappled with the sheer goodness of God, wanting to give us what we don’t deserve, caring not whether we think we’ve earned it or not, but willing us to stretch out our hands to Him and take His offer in Jesus, for us to be made right with Him in new life.
This is how God Can Change My Life and Yours. And it is also the key to us experiencing God’s good, no-strings promises day by day.
Father, I thank You for Abraham, a giant of faith who continues to coach me by his example.
And I thank You for giving us what we do not deserve and could never earn — by revealing who Jesus is, and what He has done in our place.
Once again I surrender my unbelief and my pride and accept Your gift, graciously given — for me to be able to invite Jesus to be my Saviour and my Lord and know His friendship and guidance day by day. Amen.