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Building and Keeping Faith

A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on March 6, 2011.
Deuteronomy 11:18-21, 26-28

18 You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem* on your forehead. 19Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 20Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.

26 See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: 27the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today; 28and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known.

Matthew 7:21-29

Concerning Self-Deception

21 ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” 23Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

Hearers and Doers

24 ‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’

28 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

It’s important that we understand how faith develops and how it’s measured. 

For starters, faith is too important to leave its formation and development unconsidered.  When we get down to it, we are more or less extensions of the faith we believe.  Our faith systems guide how we see life, how we build and maintain relationships, the way we handle adversity and success, and even our mortality.  These realities are too important for us to not consider them seriously. 

Sadly, many people seem to live without giving serious thought to the meaning of their living.  Others appear convinced that living means getting all one can acquire, keeping what one gets, and holding it as long as one can until death comes.  Both groups might frown at any notion that their living reflects faith perspectives.  However, every life reflects a faith perspective whether we know it or not.  So how is faith developed? 

Faith begins by recognizing Ultimate Reality and Authority.  According to the passage from Deuteronomy 11, faith develops and operates in layers.  The Hebrew people understood that faith is first and fundamentally a function of the relationship between the individual and whatever that person recognizes as Ultimate Reality.  Whatever we accept as the Ultimate Reality is also Ultimate Authority.  One way or another, each person selects something or some being as Ultimate Reality and Authority.  We understand the purpose of life and decide what is true, right, fair, good, and worthwhile based on that Ultimate Reality and Authority. 

Some people recognize no Ultimate Reality or Authority beyond themselves.  Whatever the reasons, they decided not to respect any authority beyond themselves.   They make their own rules and impose those rules and the realities flowing from them onto the rest of us.  Most people understand, however, that none of us deserves to be Ultimate Reality and Authority for the rest of us.  Whatever proves I’m not fit to be Ultimate Reality and Authority for anyone else shows that I’m unfit to be my own Ultimate Reality and Authority. 

Deuteronomy 11 presents God as the Ultimate Reality and Authority for the Hebrew people as they came to terms with the meaning of their living.  God defines their sense of purpose, truth, justice, and values.  Deuteronomy 11:18 reads, You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. 

Choosing the Ultimate Reality and Authority and obeying that Ultimate Reality and Authority are personal faith decisions.  Each person must decide whether there is a reality and authority worth our ultimate allegiance.  Then we must decide, in every breath and heartbeat, whether to obey that reality and authority.  Faith is personal in that sense.  However, it doesn’t begin or end there. 

Faith begins within families.  Everyone understands that people learn to eat, talk, grab, move, and control body processes within families.  Families are also where faith begins. Unfortunately, many parents either don’t understand or are unable to provide this foundation for faith.  Their children will develop their own faith.  However, they’ll do so without the protection, nurture, instruction, and modeling best started by thoughtful and reverent parents.  

Parents are the first theologians people meet.  They’re usually the first people who direct us from ourselves to something else or some other being we learn to accept as Ultimate Reality and Authority.   So the Hebrew people were admonished to instruct their children concerning the vital relationship with God.  Teach them [God’s words, rules, commandments, values, etc.] to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise (Deut. 11:19).  Who were your first theologians?  What did they teach you?  Who are you teaching about faith?  What are they learning?

Parents pass along whatever faith they have, whether it’s sound or not.  If parents have a punitive notion of God, they’ll instill the idea in their children that God is punitive.  If parents have a loving sense of God, they’re children will learn that God is love.  If God is punitive, children grow up fearing punishment.  If God is love, children grow up claiming and trusting the love.  Parents teach faith in the normal course of life.  Although some moments are more teachable than others, every moment is a teaching moment.  So every event with a child is an opportunity to instill faith lessons. 

If children spend more time watching and listening to Common, Lil’ Wayne, Nicki Minaj, Eminem, Lady Gaga, and other popular music artists than talking and listening to parents and other elders, guess where they’ll get the strongest sense of Ultimate Reality and Authority?   When so many parents and other elders don’t or won’t spend time to talk with, listen to, and understand children, we shouldn’t be surprised that more children are entering adolescence confused about reality, authority, and what life means.

Faith is also social and public.  The notion that belief in Ultimate Reality and Authority is first nurtured by parents shows that faith is social.  Faith isn’t entirely personal, contrary to what some people claim.   So the Hebrew people were commanded to teach their children to love, trust, and obey God as Ultimate Reality and Authority.   That commandment was both personal and communal.  Every parent was to follow it and the community was to affirm it.  That way faith lessons taught at home would be reinforced and reaffirmed by the community standards set by other adults.

So God commanded that the Hebrew people make faith a public concern.  Write them [God’s commandments, values, and truths] on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, …(Deut. 11:20).  What is right, valid, and true for the household should be right, valid, and true for the neighborhood.  If people don’t learn to respect others at home, other homes and the neighborhood still should be places of instruction.  And if people won’t respect others at home, they’ll be disrespectful in other homes and in the community.  Then respect for others must be affirmed by the community through corrective action. 

When any community, be it religious or secular, doesn’t set clear standards for acceptable living, people can’t know what’s acceptable.  But when the standards are set and not enforced, people will think they don’t matter.   The Hebrew people were commanded to publicize God’s standards at the entrances to their houses and villages so people would know the standards for living.   Are the standards for life in your home clear and plain?  Are you living so that God’s standards are clear and plain on your street, in your neighborhood, and your community?

The Hebrew people also understood that their cultural and public survival and welfare was connected to their allegiance to and obedience of God.  Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heaves are above the earth… (Deut. 11:20-21).  Obedience to Ultimate Reality and Authority seems to be related to the length and strength of life. 

Family and public nurture of faith make a difference.  People are living longer but not better these days, and there’s mounting evidence that we’re beginning to not live as long as we might or should.  The prisons are overcrowded with people who’ve been unable to abide by community standards.  School discipline is a concern everywhere.  Violence, abuse, and oppression within families seem to be growing.  More people are not enjoying life on the land they occupy, be it rural or urban land.  That’s to be expected when people disrespect and disregard Ultimate Reality and Authority.

Faith is only worthwhile if it’s lived and outlasts our storms.  Jesus wrapped up the Sermon on the Mount with a very important message.  Faith is about how we live, not what we say.  Evangelicals have made a big thing about “professions of faith.”   They seem to have conveniently forgotten what Jesus said.  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name?’  Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'” (Matthew 7:21-23). 

Jesus used a construction and weather metaphor to drive the point home.  Professing faith in God’s grace and truth that we don’t live is like building a house on sand.  Living according to God’s grace and truth is like building a house on rock.  What we do demonstrates what we believe, not what we say about our beliefs.  With all due respect to the evangelists who’ve traveled the world urging people to make professions of faith, that’s not the standard Jesus used for our standing with God.  Living, and what we truly believe, is defined by what we do!

And the ultimate test of every life, and the faith it stands on, is defined by what we do when life turns stormy.  To borrow from a slang saying, “Storms happen.”  Whoever we are and whatever faith we may profess, living will become stormy.  Storms happen to every house. 

Stormy weather isn’t a good time to build a house or choose a construction site.  Ouch!  People raised in stormy situations by parents who weren’t good builders need lots of help and nurture in re-shaping their faith.  Their outlook on life and living has often been distorted during the construction phase. 

Smart builders don’t build on shaky ground or use material that can’t withstand thunderstorms, snow, ice, frost, summer heat, and fierce winds. 

Houses are built to solid foundations because houses are where people live and the living must endure storms!   Jesus said all houses must face storms, but some houses aren’t storm-worthy because they’re built on nothing more than professions of faith.  Professing a faith we won’t live is self-deceiving and pretentious.

 And when storms come, as they always do in every life and for every house, stay home!  Don’t run outdoors.  Find the deepest and lowest and strongest place in your house—the praying ground—and wait out the storm.  Wait out the storm with confidence because you’ve trusted God as your Ultimate Reality and Authority.  Wait out the storm with courage knowing that God is your every present help and shelter in every trouble.  Stay home! 

Stay home with God when the winds of life buffet you.  Stay home with God when life turns cold.  Stay home with God when life turns dull and dry.  Keep the faith and stay home. 

Stay home because the storm is not the Ultimate Reality and Authority of your life.  The storm will pass, but God will stay.  The seasons will change, but God’s promises are always true.  Trends and fashions change, but God’s truth lasts forever.  Stay home!  Keep on trusting God.  Keep on following God.  Keep on praising God. 

This is what Jesus came to show us.  This is what Jesus expects of us as children of God.   This is the ultimate personal, social, and public expression of our faith.  And this is how we inspire others to trust and obey God as Ultimate Reality and Authority for their living.