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04.09.17 He Stands at the Door and Knocks Psalm 24 Sermon Summary

Gates have all sorts of useful purposes, and one major drawback. Fortunately Jesus has taken care of that for us.

Summary Points

  • Two kinds of gates and why we have them
  • How Jesus enters Jerusalem’s gate as a king
  • A third religious use of the gate
  • How Jesus reverses roles to open that gate

We have friends who live in a gated neighborhood. To visit them, they have to let the attendant know we’re on our way, or we have to ask the attendant call them when we arrive. On my last overseas trip, I purchased entry into the airline’s premier club. I couldn’t get in until I showed them my boarding pass.

Why do we use gates? In neighborhoods they protect property. In communities they protect privacy.

Psalm 24 knows about these kinds of gates. It ends with call to open the gates, for God the King is coming. God is returning in victory, having vanquished other gods and the threats to God’s people. “He is the king of glory, the Lord strong and mighty, the Lord of hosts.” With property and privacy protected, and upon the King’s arrival, the gates could be opened.

This Psalm presents a conversation between those outside and those inside. It was a liturgy remembering the triumph of God over the deities of ancient Israel’s neighbors. In his Messiah, Handel depicts the antiphonal nature of these verses by contrasting men’s voices with women’s, lower voices with higher ones, vocal lines with instrumental lines—back and forth, preparing the arrival of the King of Glory.

The Gospels used Psalm 24 in narrating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we commemorate as Palm Sunday. Jesus had been preaching the “Kingdom of God.” The “kingdom” message offended political types; the “of God” message offended religious types. A conflict was imminent. The Gospel writers want us to remember the victorious king as they present Jesus entering the gates of Jerusalem to do final battle with political authorities and religious leaders.

But they present a different kind of King, and a different kind of battle. From the West, the Roman Governor Pilate was arriving in Jerusalem as he did every year during Passover. With a show of force and riding a war horse, Pilate arrived to remind the Jews that their celebration of liberation from Egypt shouldn’t get their hopes up about the same happening with Rome.

Meanwhile from the East, the Prince of Peace Jesus is processing on a donkey. . .

In the 1630’s William Laud was elevated to Archbishop of Canterbury. In an effort to retard Protestant reforms, he repositioned the Communion Table behind a rail like an altar, creating a gated space in the sanctuary. Gates protect property and privacy, and in churches they protect the holy.

Earlier in Psalm 24 it is asked who may ascend the hill of God and stand in God’s presence. Four qualifications are offered: those with clean hands, pure hearts, who have not lifted their souls to idols, and who have not sworn deceitfully. In other words, those who have done good, with pure intentions, who love God, and who love their neighbors.

Gates may be used to protect the holy, but there’s a problem: They also keep people out, or at least make people feel unwelcome. Not many of us have clean hands, pure hearts, are free from idols, and love our neighbors perfectly. So we exclude ourselves from God’s presence.

In the same way as Jesus subverts Pilate’s show of force on Palm Sunday, so he reverses the movement of the Holy. We don’t go to God; God comes to us. Jesus opens wide the gate for us, because we can’t open it and enter God’s presence by ourselves.

A compelling depiction comes from the book of Revelation. Jesus, having left holy heaven, now stands at the door of the church knocking, waiting to be let in. He is the resurrected Lord, strong and mighty, victorious in battle. Sin, death, and the devil have all been defeated. All that is left is for us to open the door.

When that door is opened, then the King of Glory will come in and lead us to have clean hands, pure hearts, true faith, and genuine love. This is what this Holy Week is all about.

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, the King of Glory, at the beginning of creation you defeated the enemy of chaos and darkness, calling forth order and light. At the beginning of redemption you entered our world through the gates of the womb of Mary, the waters of the Jordan, and the Cross of Rome. You defeated the enemies of sin, death, and the devil, and return asking us to open the gates once again to you. Give us faith to respond to your voice, to welcome you into our lives, and to submit to your reign as the King of Glory and the Prince of Peace. Amen.

03.26.17 Let’s be Honest and Tell the Truth Psalm 22 Sermon Summary

For Christians, Psalm 22 is most famous because Jesus quotes it. Then we make the mistake of making it all about him. It isn’t.

Summary Points

  • Two most influential passages in the story of Jesus
  • Psalm 22 in Handel’s Messiah and the Gospels
  • Characteristics of Psalm 22
  • Why Psalm 22 isn’t all about Jesus

Psalm 22 comes to us in two parts, complaint and praise. In fact, the psalm covers the continuum from extreme complaint from the depths of the earth to extravagant praise like a firework, rising ever higher until it explodes in a testimony that can be seen by many far away.

Psalm 22 is one of two passages that helped the first Christians understand Jesus’ death. The other is Isaiah 53. The writers of the Newer Testament found these passages so helpful in interpreting Jesus’ death that they influence how the story is told. Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 may have supplied details, even some of the events, of the Passion narrative. For this reason Psalm 22 has been called by one commentator “the 5th Gospel account.”

Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 both appear in Part II of Handel’s Messiah. Part I contains the prophecies and the birth narratives. This is why the Messiah is so popular during Advent. It ends with the chorus from Matthew 11, “His yoke is easy and the burden is light.” Part II seeks to explain why following Jesus is “easy” and “light” for his disciples. It is because Jesus, the Lamb of God, has removed the heavy burden of sin. In putting Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 right in the middle of the Messiah, Handel is simply following the Gospel example making these two passages foundational for understanding Jesus in this way.

Not only does Jesus quote the first verse of Psalm 22 from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the Gospel writers allude to Psalm 22 when soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothing and in the taunt about God’s recuing him. Handel captures it well in the chorus “Let him deliver him.” The “li” is sung dripping with sarcasm. The scorn of the bystanders also appears to come from Psalm 22.

It was natural that the Gospel writers, and centuries of Christians after them, would identify Jesus with this psalm. The problem is that doing so contradicts the point both of the psalm’s author and of Jesus!

Psalm 22 is a Psalm of Lament. There are more lament psalms than any other genre. Lament testifies of God as savior: If God is not a savior then there is no point in lamenting.

Psalm 22 is also a piece of liturgy. It is personal but not private, like a blues song. It is not the recitation of a single person’s history but a ritual drama inviting participation by the members of the worshiping community.

This is the author’s intent: Liturgical participation in lament. What the author is trying to say is, “Life will include some suffering. God wants you to turn to him in suffering, remembering how God has saved ancestors in the past. God will also save you, and when he does, praise God and share the story.”

This is also Jesus’ intent in quoting it: “I know your life includes suffering. I suffer just like you suffer. I am with you in your suffering. I also believe God is with me, and so God is also with you in your suffering. You and I together can lament with Psalm 22.”

This is good news. This is the Gospel—that we don’t suffer alone. What is more, our suffering, like Jesus’ suffering will be redeemed.

Lament is very popular in Judaism (and other traditions). So it’s ironic that one of the most profound and exemplary expressions of faith by Jesus himself is so unpopular in Christian worship. Why has Christian worship eschewed lament? Is it because Christians no longer suffer? Hardly. It’s because another aspect of the Gospel has obscured it.

This other aspect of the Gospel asserts that Jesus suffered not in solidarity with others who suffer, but as the payment for sin. This is the emphasis of the Apostle Paul. Jesus’ suffering and death is a one-time, once-for-all, once-in-history payment for sin. From this perspective, Jesus’ suffering is not as one of us, but as unique among us.

From this perspective Psalm 22 becomes a prophecy that is fulfilled uniquely by Jesus. It applies only to Jesus. Lost is the invitation by the psalm to all who suffer. Some Christians even feel a little guilty praying Psalm 22 for themselves because they “know” it applies only to Jesus. This is exactly opposite of the author and Jesus’ intent. Their intent is to include us by being one with us, not exclude us by being so unique.

This is one of the reasons Jesus gave us the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in order that we not forget his suffering as one of us. It’s also why frequent celebration of the sacrament is crucial to Christian formation. The Table holds together suffering and redemption, death and resurrection, presence and promise—for all people, not just for one—just like Psalm 22. Verse 26 says, “The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek God shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever!”

For if Jesus’ suffering is unique among us and not in solidarity with us, then he is alone in his suffering—and so are we. And that is bad news.

But “God does not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted. God does not hide his face from them.” We who are afflicted and who experience suffering can give thanks. And we who follow Christ shall not hide our faces either.

Eulogy for Kati

This morning my friend’s daughter Kati was discovered in her car, dead by suicide. She was seventeen. We are filled with sadness. We have so many questions. Death naturally ignites our grief and its companions: Regret (“I should have spent more time with her”); anger (“How could this have happened?”); confusion (“Why did God allow this?”). Death by suicide can exacerbate all these feelings while also adding guilt (“I could have done more”) and blame (“Why didn’t anyone notice?”).

The obituary will read, “She was preceded in death by her mother, and is survived by her father and her three younger sisters.” These are members of Kati’s immediate family. But it’s also true that the rest of us have experienced death too soon, and are also her survivors. None of us wanted to survive her. We wanted to watch her grow up, see her enjoy a full life, say goodbye when it was our time, and take joy in the fact that she would survive us. Part of our anger in untimely death arises from this injustice that has been committed.

Part of our grief is related to the fact that Kati will never know how things might have turned out. We can’t know for sure what in her experience caused her to conclude that death was the better alternative. But none of us will ever know now if it would have gotten better, if it could have gotten better, if together we might have made it better. Those optimistic outcomes are gone now for us, after Kati’s death. Somehow in her mind they were gone already.

Those of us with faith in the mysteries of redemption and the triumph of life over death can draw some comfort and strength in hope. We can imagine Kati free from the burden which ultimately killed her and be grateful. We can envision a reconciliation with her in some existence beyond the present one in which she is now absent and rejoice. We can hope for a settlement of all our confused and conflicting feelings into a state of peace and endure.

In the meantime, outside this hope, we also have each other, and our memories of Kati, and the opportunity to watch others grow up, enjoy a full life, and make things better together. In addition to all the other gifts we received from Kati, this one does not die with her, but continues to live and give life.

03.19.17 It’s All Relative—To God Psalm 2 Sermon Summary

Psalm 2 not only gives us a key to appreciating the rest of the book of Psalms, it serves the same purpose for the whole of the New Testament, and thus, all of Christianity.

Summary Points

  • How Psalms 1 and 2 introduce the life of faith
  • Five places where Psalm 2 is used in the Newer Testament and what this suggests
  • The biblical image of the king
  • Two aspects of the biblical king: laughter and anger
  • How the sixth place Psalm 2 is used in the Newer Testament calls us to God’s Kingdom

The book of Psalms is rightly seen as the prayer book of the Bible. It is the Older Testament book most quoted in the Newer Testament. For the early Reformers Johns Calvin and Knox, it was the only hymnal used in worship.

Psalm 2, coupled with Psalm 1, serves as an introduction to the Psalms. Psalm 1 introduces the “two ways.” There are those who delight in the Law of the Lord and are blessed. And there are those who walk with the wicked and perish. Psalm 2 urges God’s people to align their lives with the Lord’s anointed. On this basis, the rest of the Psalms are to be understood.

Sixty percent of Psalm 2 is quoted or alluded to in the Newer Testament. This means that Psalm 2 was an important interpretive key for the early Christians. Here are five instances of its use in the Newer Testament and what they mean.

  1. Jesus Baptism. As Jesus was baptized, a voice from the heavens declared, “You are my son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) This statement combines Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. Some early manuscripts of Luke and some early baptismal liturgies quote Psalm 2:7 in its entirety: “You are my son; today I have begotten you.”

The significance here is that Jesus was anointed by God, at his baptism, by God’s Spirit, to be the Messiah—the long awaited King of Psalm 2.

  1. Paul quotes Psalm 2:7 in his sermon in Perga (Acts 13:29-45). Here he identifies Jesus’ resurrection as the fulfilment of the Psalm. In this passage, the resurrection proves that Jesus is the Messiah King of Psalm 2.
  2. Hebrews relates Christ’s kingship to his Ascension (1:5 and 5:5). That Jesus is God’s Son is revealed by Jesus’ ongoing high priestly ministry of intercession on our behalf. This ministry establishes Jesus as the fulfillment of Psalm 2.
  3. Psalm 2 is alluded to at the end of Mark, during the “Big Reveal.” Throughout this gospel, Jesus’ identity as God’s anointed son is kept a secret. It is only at the end that Mark allows a Roman centurion’s testimony to be made public: “Surely this was the Son of God.” Earlier in his life, this Roman soldier would have pledged allegiance to Caesar Augustus, the son of God. Here, the Roman centurion confesses that Jesus, not Caesar, is son, king, lord, and savior.
  4. Revelation chapters 19, 11, and 2 also quote or allude to Psalm 2. These chapters depict Jesus as the King of Psalm 2 who reigns supreme over all other kings and kingdoms.

What does the biblical image of “the king” entail? In instances like Psalm 2, which probably reflects the inauguration of an actual king, the text is really best understood as ideal or confessional. This means it refers to the way the perfect king should be, not what the present king actually is. In other words, Psalm 2 is not historical, not specific, but rather speaks of the role of an ideal King.

The ideal king is a representative of God. This is why God “begets” kings through adoption. Such a king is a warrior protector of the people, and a faithful provider for their needs. This king is a representative to the nations, and a witness in the world of God’s reign.

Two images from this psalm make for interesting conversation about God as King. The first has to do with faithful laughter. The Psalm says the one who sits in the heavens “laughs” and holds “in derision” those kings and rulers who plot against God and God’s anointed. God laughs not out of delight, but because he knows the outcome.

It’s easier to accept, even find humor in, present situations when we take the larger view. In Isaiah 40:15 the prophet reminds us that, “Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales.” It is an expression of our Ash Wednesday acknowledgement with Genesis 3:19 that, “From dust you came, to dust you shall return.” The kings and rulers, and we also, to the extent we are striving against our dust-nature, we are “chasing after the wind.” (See Ecclesiastes 12:7, and throughout the book.) God sees this and is amused.

The second intriguing image of the ideal king found in Psalm 2 has to do with divine wrath. It’s fascinating that in the span of two verses we find a laughing God and a furious God. God’s wrath is best understood as divine passion with a purpose. Wrath as it applies to God is not primarily emotional anger, but judgment upon sin. Here I’m talking about sin as the distortion of God’s intention for creation.

The reminder of our dust-nature was necessary only after the introduction of sin in Genesis 3.  Only after sin distorted our divine image, and as part of “the curse,” did we begin striving against it. This situation frustrates God’s intention for us and all creation, and it results in divine wrath. (You also get angry when your intentions are frustrated.)

While God is angry about it, his response is not one of punishment, but of salvation and redemption. This is best depicted in Jesus’ ministry. The distortion of his creation upsets God, and out of love for his creation God saves and redeems it. That’s the true nature of divine wrath.

Returning, now, to Israel’s kings and all they represent. Eventually the kingdom is split into two, and then lost altogether. In this calamity, the scriptures transfer the role of the king to the people of God as a community. It is God’s people who assume the role of God’s anointed. All of us represent God, provide for and protect others, and bear witness of God’s kingdom.

This evolution is nowhere more obvious than in the Church where, in the absence of our King Jesus Christ, we have been given the Spirit. We are now, according to the Newer Testament, the Body of Christ. We are God’s anointed. Through baptism we are God’s children; in that day God adopted us.

  1. There is a sixth time when Psalm 2 is quoted in the Newer Testament. While describing the events of Jesus’ betrayal in Acts 4, Peter and John list the kings and rulers who opposed God’s anointed king: Pilate of Rome, other Gentiles, Herod of Jerusalem, and even the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ time. In other words, no one is exempt, not even us religious folk. All of us can find ourselves opposing “the Lord and his anointed.”

The season of Lent calls us to remember that we are the people of God, it reminds us that we are called to “serve God and to kiss the feet of his anointed” in the words of Psalm 2. And in this time of political posturing in our country and throughout the world, I find myself drawn to this image in prayer. How transformed our world would be if not only the church worshiped God, but Vladimir Putin knelt and kissed the feet of Jesus? Same for Assad, Netanyahu, Abbas, Jong-un, Khamenei, and even and especially Donald Trump?

Psalm 2 was written to guide the kings of the earth, and us as well, to the right worship of God. For Presbyterians, we are also guided by the Confession of 1967. In a time when we were appreciating that our country is both a country of nations and a leader of nations, the church confessed what it means to be a Christian in the United States:

“The church, in its own life, is called to practice the forgiveness of enemies and to commend to the nations as practical politics the search for cooperation and peace. . . Although nations may serve God’s purposes in history, the church which identifies the sovereignty of any one nation or any one way of life with the cause of God denies the Lordship of Christ and betrays its calling.” (9.45)

In Psalm 2 God laughs and cautions and says, “I have set my king upon Zion, my holy hill.” The Hebrew word for “set” includes the image of “setting up,” like a cake or jello or hot wax cooling into form. It refers to the pouring out of a sacrifice.

Jesus is God’s anointed because he sacrificed himself in love. Jesus was poured out for God’s purpose and that allowed him to “set up,” to be established as God’s anointed, as the King in God’s realm. And God calls us to that same kingdom.

Almighty God, at the top of every political system, a peak that is difficult for us to see sometimes, you have established your King on your holy hill. We thank you that your King, our Lord Jesus Christ, came as one who serves. Though we may struggle to see him atop the monarchies, dictatorships, and democracies of this world, we know we can find him lowly providing for the needy and protecting the vulnerable. Help us to seek and find your King and your Kingdom, and to live as those who faithfully worship you alone. Send your Spirit to melt down our hardened hearts and stiffened necks, that we may be a people of God poured out for the love of the world, as we follow Jesus Christ our Lord and King, in whose name we pray. Amen.

 

03.05.17 The Three Great Lenten Anchors Matthew 6:1-8, 16-18 Sermon Summary

Even though Jesus warns us against doing so, there are some rewards of practicing piety before others so they can see us. We may win their admiration. It may produce good feelings within us. It can also cover over social blemishes, like when celebrities engage in charitable works to help us forget their atrocious behavior.

But Jesus tells us that when we practice piety with an eye towards others, we forfeit the Father’s reward. The Father sees what is done in secret and rewards us. What benefit is there in that?

Secrecy implies a very personal relationship. Secret rewards lead to mutual intimacy, friendship, even a love relationship with God. Romantic couples become close by the relationship they share in secret.

The Father’s reward develops particularly Christian identity. Otherwise our identities are determined by social mirroring. We determine who we are by what others think of us. This leads to a fragmented, unstable self. Jesus wants us to be rooted in God’s love, and to grow strong in his image.

The Father’s reward reveals and practices grace. Piety in public has a transactional nature. We expect something for the good we do. But piety in secret rejects this attitude. Secret piety leads to gratitude to God for the rewards we receive from him—rewards not based on merit, which is the definition of grace. But receiving this grace through God’s rewards requires trust.

Take, for example, Jesus’ urging to more silent prayer. “Don’t heap up phrases like the Gentiles do,” he says. “They think they will be heard because of their many words.” Instead, his disciples are to remember that God knows what they need even before they ask.

Jesus’ disciples know the Father, in contrast to the Gentiles who do not. They are not anxious to convince God by their prayers, for they trust that the Father knows what they need—even better than they know themselves. So they are happy to rest in God, to receive from God, and at least listen first, before speaking.

Stephen R. Covey says that Habit 5, “seek first to understand then to be understood,” is the simplest to practice, yields the greatest results, and is the most easily underestimated. But it really does work with people, and it works with God. Jesus calls us to more silence in our prayers, to more listening, so that we may better understand who God is.

In my own prayer practice, I am finding more and more that I have fewer and fewer words. I find I am more often left speechless when I try to pray. This is easier to accept because I have been practicing silent prayer. In silent prayer I trust God, not my own words, and I let the Spirit pray for me as Paul said she would in Romans 8.

And here is a key insight to the concept of discipline. We’re called to spiritual discipline like an athlete is called to physical discipline. Athletes discipline their bodies over and over in practice for when they need their bodies to perform in competition.

Fasting is Jesus’ example. The reason we fast now, by choice as a discipline, is so that when we experience deprivation in the future, we aren’t anxious about it. We won’t doubt God’s providence because we’ve been practicing for this experience by our discipline of fasting. We’ll have cultivated a habit of trusting God’s providence.

And it is vitally important to practice, because a time is coming when the practice will pay off—when prayers cease and eternal praise begins, when our physical appetites no longer determine us, when we’ll have to be as generous as God is. This is why Jesus instructs us in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

We practice living in God’s kingdom now, even in secret, so we can be ready to join others in the kingdom later.

03.01.17 Coming Home (Ash Wednesday) Luke 15:11-24

Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth, but when it was time to go home, he went to Jerusalem. In the very famous hinge in Luke’s Gospel (9:51) we’re told, “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

No prophet or a prophecy was required to know that Jesus was on a collision course with the Temple. There the Priests were aligned with Rome. Jerusalem was the junction of these two streams of power: Political and religious.

In Jerusalem, Jesus would be betrayed by a friend, abandoned by his disciples, and falsely accused, tried, and convicted. His body would be tortured, then hung in public humiliation and excruciating pain as a human warning poster.

Jesus would die in Jerusalem; his body placed in a cave, and expected to return to dust. One of the first truths of the Bible comes from the opening chapters where it says, “from dust we were created, and to dust we will return.”

Lent is often referred to as a “journey.” It is indeed one leg of our homecoming, a time we intentionally walk with Jesus towards Jerusalem—toward his cross, towards his death and resurrection which is our death and resurrection.

Remembering this is sobering. It weans us off our drunkenness.

The Prodigal Son was drunk with “dissolute living.” We rightly imagine feasting, parties, and luxury. It’s like going on vacation, the purpose of which is forgetting home for a while.

Eventually the Prodigal desires to come home. And to his surprise, he receives a joyful welcome with a festive reception.

Likewise, Jesus came to a far country and served in the mud and muck of our lives. (Yes, we’re the pigs in this story.) He was motivated by divine love.

Jesus enjoyed much of his time with us. His first miracle prolonged a wedding celebration by providing more wine. He hosted a party at Zacchaeus’ house. Of course his healings led to celebrations. Jesus enjoyed feeding thousands at a time. He was friends with prostitutes, and was accused of drunkenness. His time in the far country with us was a joy to him.

But eventually Jesus heads for home, and he turns his face to Jerusalem. His earthly journey culminated in death, as ours does too. But unlike the Prodigal, when Jesus looked to home he anticipates the joyful reunion with his Father. It does not come as a surprise.

This is what awaits Jesus on the other side of his sojourn with us. It is what awaits us on the other side of our sojourn with Jesus.

Lent is the time we join Jesus on his journey, when we walk with him towards his home, where he goes to prepare a place for us, so that where he is, we may be also. “Walk with me,” Jesus says. “Come home.”

02.26.17 Our Faithful Response Philippians 4:4-7 Sermon Summary

What does it mean to be faithful? There are many answers, beginning with all the ones found in the Bible.

Summary Points

  • “Having faith” during the Reformation and the Enlightenment
  • “Faith” in the biblical sense
  • Ways our faith is like Abraham’s
  • Ways Paul exercises faith
  • The fruit of biblical faith—spiritual peace and joy

Figuring out what it means to be faithful is especially challenging in hard times. But it’s also a challenge during good times. One of the hardest times to determine faithfulness is when we are experiencing doubt. From one perspective, the Bible is simply a compendium of answers to question of faithfulness, answered by diverse people in a variety of circumstances.

It’s helpful to begin with what we mean by “having faith.” The period of Reformation which began 500 years ago can be understood as the disagreement on the interpretation of Scripture. During this time “faith” referred to matters of practice. It answered questions about how we hear the Bible, and what the sacraments contribute.

Two hundred years later during the Enlightenment, the questions were about the authority of Scripture. During this time “faith” referred to matters of doctrine. “Faith” was what one “believed in,” and that usually meant “believing in” something unscientific, for example, that the earth is 6000 years old. This is still the way fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist atheists define faith.

Biblical faith, more than practices or a doctrines, is best understood as a matter of perspective. It is a way of viewing the world, a way that is characterized by openness to God and the response that follows. Sometimes biblical faith is unscientific. There are times when revelation supersedes reality. But even in these extraordinary situations, faith still begins with openness and elicits a response.

In a word, faith is the response to God’s promise. Sometimes God’s promises are irrational, but more often they are quite rational, like the faith that claims that God is present with us in love, or that God desires us to do good and be just, or that God has blessed us and expects us to bless others. These are rational perspectives shared by people of faith and people of no faith. And because they seem so ordinary, such rational instances of faith make faith hard to discern and practice sometimes.

Biblical faith isn’t characterized primarily by irrational belief, or doctrinal adherence, or upholding a behavioral moral code. It is responding to God’s promises.

Today’s texts give us a couple of examples. First there is the covenant with Abraham and Sarah. Their whole lives they have been childless. About a decade before, they had already been “chosen” to pilgrimage from their homeland to the Land of Promise, which included the promise of children. Now they had begun to despair.

It is at this time that God gives Abraham what theologians call a “special revelation.” In visions, dreams, and trances, God assures Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars at night. The Bible tells us Abraham, “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteous.” Abraham’s faith was one of responding to God’s promise, and this is the right way to relate to God.

Not all of us can expect special revelation, or visions, or even dreams. I know very few people who have them. But we can believe nonetheless. And when we do, it counts to us as righteousness. There are other aspects of faith we can share with Abraham. Like Abraham, even though we believe, we still have questions. After about a decade, Abraham asks God, “How am I to know that I shall possess the land?” Faith as response still allows questions.

And like Abraham, we observe ritual. All the next day Abraham cut animals in two, arranging the pieces in a special way, chasing away scavengers, and waiting patiently for God. And eventually, like Abraham, we see the fulfilment of God’s promises.

The second example of faith is given to us by Paul in Philippians. In this letter, Paul offers some faithful practices to help in mediating conflict in the church. On one hand, there are tensions in the community coming from the outside. Rival preachers are taking advantage of Paul’s imprisonment to proclaim the gospel differently than he does. Paul’s response? He is thankful that, regardless of the motives, Christ is still being proclaimed.

On the other hand, there are tensions arising from within the community. There appears to be a power struggle between two female pastors, Euodia and Syntyche. To guide them to reconciliation, Paul quotes a hymn of Christ’s humility and how we should also adopt his mindset. Paul urges them to follow his example in finding his contentment, not in his accomplishments, but in Christ. He says his only ambition is to take hold of Christ.

Whatever the challenges, Paul depends on faith which keeps Christ at the center. This faith allows Paul to “rejoice in the Lord always.” He urges us to gentleness. And he commends prayer and supplication with thanksgiving as practices of faith to guide our lives. We can do these things, Paul says, because the Lord is near.

And what is the result of such faith? It is spiritual peace. This is not the absence of conflict, or the absence of doubt, or the absence of questions. Spiritual peace exists in uncertainty because spiritual peace is the assurance of God’s presence. Faith leads to peace, because faith is the response to God’s promise to be present throughout our lives in every situation in which we find ourselves.

Psalm 67 invites all people and even creation to praise God. It does so on the basis of God’s grace and blessing, and the basis of God’s justice. We praise God for God’s guidance and providence. In short, all people can praise God for all the reasons we can have faith. People of faith believe God’s promises, and act according to them, with joy, confidence, thanksgiving, and peace.