• What we call faith is not the same as the dynamic and powerful faith that Jesus taught and demonstrated
The Living Word this week is all about faith — what it is in Jesus’ definition, and how we have to keep it exercised.
But we start with a grim reminder of what happens when faith is allowed to evaporate.
It’s a low point to start from, but this message from the Bible is all about raising our game higher and encouraging us to do it with God’s help, not just raising our own effort.
Faith is like the operating system of the kingdom of God. Everything works by faith, or not at all, and everything is received by grace, not earned or merited.
Grace is pretty much impossible to understand apart from faith. It’s completely at odds with the worldview we are familiar with, and with our evidence-based ‘seeing is believing’ conditioning.
That why faith can be difficult. Believing in the power of simply knowing Jesus and saying what He tells us to say can seem — precarious. So the human instinct is to seek more satisfying ways. We would rather engineer a system we can control and replicate, rather than have to work at a spiritual discipline that sometimes ‘works’ and sometimes appears not to. But Holy Spirit faith is what God works with — not our man-inspired cerebral and wordy rituals.
Read this week’s Bible Study: Oct 2: Trusting God by Exercising an Active Faith
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The Old Testament stories of Israel and Judah spell out graphically what happened to the holy nation of God’s people in their catastrophic failure of faith. They lost faith — and as a consequence, lost all.
As many church denominations debate how to manage the decline of many decades — such that some may have ceased to exist in 20 years – could this be God’s message pointing to His way of recovery? Church friends loyal to their tradition often ask why people are not attending ‘their’ church. As Scripture tells this story, it points to the answer.
The bad news is, the questions we are asking, and debating the decline we are experiencing, are both digressions from how it works in the kingdom of God. Faith is how it does work — and we have to exercise it to grow it. The good news is that the Holy Spirit joins in (if we invite Him!) to work with us, coach us and keep us trusting.
These verses from Psalm 137 speak of remembering God’s goodness even while suffering exile in a foreign land.
How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? If I forget… may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember You…
(Psalm 137: 1-6 excerpted)
This week’s story starts at a low point. It’s a time in history when generations of God’s peopple had been in a faith crisis despite countless warnings.
Israel had had its faith failure a century previously. Its southern neighbours in Judah considered themselves superior, and were sure they had God’s protection. But their worship of Him was growing more distant and divided. It wasn’t going to end well. The shame and hardship of exile beckoned. Through Jeremiah’s prophetic message in Lamentations, they learn that the Lord has allowed this grief because of their hard-hearted faithlessness.
How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! After affliction, Judah has gone into exile to dwell among the nations with no resting place. No one comes to her appointed festivals. All her gateways are desolate, her priests groan… she is in bitter anguish.
Her foes have become her masters. And the Lord has brought her grief because of her many sins.
(Lamentations 1:1-6 excerpted)
When things are going badly it’s time to remember this: God is always speaking. When things are difficult, we turn to cry out to him all the more – but this isn’t the time to be talking, it’s the time to be listening. What is God saying?
Habakkuk, a prophet, knew the importance of listening. He knew the importance of putting himself in a place to hear and to see into the distance — like a watchman stationed on a high tower. Faith was operating for him. He knew God was speaking and he knew God, who is love, always had encouragement even at the most difficult times or rebellious circumstances.
And as he listened, the message God had for him to proclaim became crystal clear.
How long, Lord, must I call for help, but You do not listen? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing where justice never prevails as the wicked hem in the righteous?
I will stand on the ramparts at my watch to see what He will say to me.
Then the Lord replied: “Write down this revelation that speaks of the end. Wait for it; it will certainly come. The enemy is puffed up, not upright — but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness.
(Habakkuk 1:2-4; 2:1-4 excerpted)
The message Habakkuk was given — that the arrogant always trip up at some point — was given fresh focus in the coming of Jesus who faced down the devil in the wilderness and robbed him of his power by being shamed on the calvary Cross.
Before that world-changing event, Jesus disciples could see that Jesus was operating on another level entirely. They could see how he trusted the Father and relied on the Father and kept close to the Father – and so they asked for an increase in their faith, thinking that this would make the difference.
But Jesus tells them that would what would actually make the difference was learning to put to work the faith they had, whether small or large.
When you have some work to do in your workshop, you can have in your hand the finest tool of Swedish steel, but it’s no use at all unless you have learnt to be proficient with it.
A craftsman is not someone who talks about his work – he may be a person of few words, but who really knows how to work with what he has, with skill and patience.
We see Jesus giving a version of this teaching. WE have to transition back into His culture which was used to having bonded-servants, people ‘in service’ who did the hard work and looked after the needs of those who instructed them without question. The point is about faith being more than a cerebral kind of belief — it is given to us to put to work and do the job it was given to do. And Jesus explains exactly how this works:
When the apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.
When your servant comes in from ploughing the field or looking after the sheep you would not invite them to sit down to eat. You would say…‘Prepare my supper… and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that, you may…
And would you thank them because they did what they were told to do?
(Luke 17:5-10 excerpted)
People in the Early Church had a faith which was centred on Jesus. They did not believe in salvation through the church. No one had thought of priests administering sacraments yet — it was all about the unseen, faith-discerned presence of Jesus.
They did not rely on belonging to a church. The stakes were high for personal faith in Jesus as Lord in a culture where this could be seen as treason against the emperor. But as Paul goes on to say, they “knew who they have believed” and they knew the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The sense of the Helper empowering them was very much part of that experience. And now we turn to Paul’s letter of instruction for Timothy, who is quite a young man. He’s Paul’s apprentice having to stand up to older and wealthier property-owning Greeks, opposing false teaching and acting as the guardian for the gospel of Jesus and His grace, which Paul had taught and imparted to them.
I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.
Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord. He has saved us and called us to a holy life — not because of anything we have done but because of His own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time and now revealed through the appearing of our Saviour, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.
I was appointed a herald and apostle of this gospel. That is why I am suffering. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed.
What you have heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.
(2 Timothy 1:1-14 excerpted)
Perhaps the key words of this passage, are in the phrase, “This Grace was given to us in Christ Jesus….”
This reminds us of the adage known by all woodworkers — to work with the grain wherever possible.
To work with the Holy Spirit, receiving what He gives freely, is the good way. To create our own doctrine or routines that satisfy our need to be doing what seems good, is working against the grain.
Living by faith — believing that God is directing and working with us — is being empowered. Like having power tools to hand, to continue the metaphor. We can go far beyond our own limited abilities this way. But we have to to step up, to make a start, to take the risk, to face the cost as Paul did.
For Jesus. Who gave His life so that we — through faith — could take hold of new life now, share it with others and have the assurance of it continuing into eternity.