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Sermon for 6 October 2013

FIRST READING Habakkuk 1:1–4; 2:1–4

Chapter 1 1 The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw. 2 O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? 3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. 4 So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous — therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

Chapter 2 1 I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. 2 Then the LORD answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. 3 For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. 4 Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

PSALM Psalm 37:1–9

1 Do not be provoked by evildoers; do not be jealous of those who do wrong. 2 For they shall soon wither like the grass, and like the green grass fade away. 3 Put your trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and find safe pasture. 4 Take delight in the LORD, who shall give you your heart’s desire. 5 Commit your way to the LORD; put your trust in the LORD, and see what God will do. 6 The LORD will make your vindication as clear as the light and the justice of your case like the noonday sun. 7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently. Do not be provoked by the one who prospers, the one who succeeds in evil schemes. 8 Refrain from anger, leave rage alone; do not be provoked; it leads only to evil. 9 For evildoers shall be cut off, but those who hope in the LORD shall possess the land.

SECOND READING 2 Timothy 1:1–14

1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, 2 To Timothy, my beloved child: Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. 3 I am grateful to God — whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did — when I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. 6 For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; 7 for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. 8 Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, 9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, 12 and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. 13 Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

GOSPEL Luke 17:5–10

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”


In 1987 Adrian Plass authored a book he called his Sacred Diary. In it, he tells how he once bought a book on faith that told him that real Christians should be able to move mountains by faith. So he decided to try it. He decided to start out small so he practiced with a paper clip. He put the paperclip on his desk and willed it to move. Nothing happened. He tried commanding it in a loud voice: Still nothing. He tried it again the next day. The paper clip still wouldn’t budge. He next promised God he would change his life if the clip would move just a little: Still nothing.
A few days later he got up early in the morning to have one last go at that paper clip. He concentrated as hard as he could and ended up hissing loudly at the paper clip, but nothing worked. He saw himself as a failure. How would he ever move a mountain, with his faith, if he couldn’t move a mere paper clip? Finally giving up, he opened the door of his study to find his wife and son outside listening. Looking quite distressed his wife said, “Darling, why didn’t you tell that paper clip you’d straighten it out for evermore, if it didn’t get its act together?” The problem was Adrian didn’t understand faith.
Some folks don’t know the difference between faith and telekinesis. Telekinesis, by definition, is the alleged ability to move and bend objects with your mind. In days past, it was a favorite tool of would-be psychics and mediums. Examined closely, it was revealed to be nothing more than a magic trick. In case any of you want to try it for yourself when you get home, a quick internet search using your favorite internet search engine will give you the facts and reveal that there’s no such thing as telekinesis. By the way, there are a good number of internet sites that will supposedly teach you how to perform telekinesis. And despite my previous statement, it does works to one extent. Magically these purveyors of “mind over matter” will remove money from your wallet. The bottom line is there’s a big difference between telekinesis and faith.
This notion of having enough faith to move mountains isn’t a new idea. The original thought came from the teachings of Jesus. It comes after the strange little story of Jesus cursing the fig tree. Matthew tells us that it was early in the morning. Jesus was on His way back to the city and He was hungry. As you know there were no fast food restaurants and no drive-through where He and the disciples could stop for a quick bite. Seeing a fig tree by the road, Jesus went up to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. Then He said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered.
When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked. Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done” (Matthew 21:19-21).
Some may wonder, why settle for moving a paper clip when you can move a mountain? After all, that is what Jesus said. In one way Jesus was being literal: if the Son of God, the creator of all, including the laws that govern our universe, wanted the mountain to be moved, then the mountain would absolutely be thrown into the sea. Of this, there is no question. However, for the most part, Jesus was being metaphorical and saying that by placing our faith in God, we will do, what appears to us to be, astounding things. The disciples saw Jesus do some pretty amazing things: He healed the sick, cast out demons and raised the dead. Now He was instructing them in the things He needed them to do after He was gone. And this worried the disciples. How could they possibly do any of the things that He was telling them to do? He had the faith and power to move mountains, but they certainly didn’t. They were still spiritual infants. Metaphorically speaking, they couldn’t move a paper clip much less a mountain.
And so in Luke’s gospel we read that the apostles come to the Master and said, “Increase our faith!” When we read this story their request sounds like a desperate plea. “Hey, Lord. You’re asking us to love people we would normally hate. You’re asking us to forgive people who have hurt us time and time again. You’re asking us to feed the hungry and to work for justice in the world. You’re asking us to heal the sick and cast out demons; Master, we’re not You. How can we move the mountains all around us, when we haven’t got a thimble full of faith among us all? To this Jesus 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.”
This of course brings us to the age old question, what is faith? To begin to understand this question, we must first recognize that faith is both a verb and a noun. Faith simply put is a belief in someone or something. While you can’t see it, touch it or hear it, faith is measurable. Jesus said, “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed.” So faith can be quantified. However, most importantly, faith is an action. Faith isn’t something that exists on its own, the faith or strong belief, given by the Holy Spirit, must be placed in something for it to be effective. This is what James was talking about when he said, “faith without works is dead”. (James 2:14-26) We must place our God given faith in something, for it to be of any use. And of course that something is God. Consider what Jesus is saying here. The mustard seed is known for its small size, yet it grows to be one of the largest bushes. Picture a mustard seed lying in your hand. It’s really quite small. Yet imagine the potential for growth. Faith is like that, said Jesus.
I recently read a story about Olga Deane, a famous Australian entertainer, socialite and show business personality. Her scrapbooks are in the Australian National Museum as a significant part of that country’s show business history. Olga Deane was known as “The Mustard Seed Lady.” Throughout the last 30 years of her life she was so transformed by faith in Jesus Christ, that she made it a habit to write cards to prominent public persons in Australian society, and she would tape a mustard seed to each card! She wrote to those people whenever they were facing problems or difficulties with these words of promise from the Master: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed . . .”
This then leaves some of us to ask, what is this faith that has so much power?
Another metaphor I like to use is, to me faith is like turning on a light switch. You don’t stop and wonder if the light will come on, you just know that it does. As a matter of fact, we’re surprised when it doesn’t! And the faith that Jesus was describing is even more than that. J. G. Stipe once said that, “Faith is like a toothbrush. Every man should have one and use it regularly, but he shouldn’t try to use someone else’s.” Rather odd analogy, but there’s truth there as well. This leaves us to ask, is faith then an attitude? Is it the same thing as positive thinking?
Well, yes and no. Attitude is important. Our attitudes can change our perception of reality and it can help us deal with reality in a more effective way. By changing our attitude, we can change our level of confidence, which can help steady us when we’re facing a difficult assignment. Coaches certainly understand the impact attitude can have on a person.
The story’s told about much-beloved basketball coach Jim Valvano who was seeking to lead NC State to the 1983 ACC championship. Freshman Lorenzo Charles was going to the free throw line in the closing seconds. Valvano called for a time out. “After Lo hits these two free throws,” the coach said to his team, “I want us to guard the inbound pass . . .” The team broke from the huddle and walked toward the free-throw lane. At the last second, Coach Valvano is rumored to have pulled point guard Sidney Lowe aside and whispered, “If Lo misses these two shots . . .” and he proceeded to tell him what to do in that case.
It’s clear that Valvano didn’t want to plant the idea in Lorenzo Charles’ mind that he might miss, even though Charles was only a 67% shooter. He knew the freshman needed a shot of confidence. That’s why he said, “After Lo hits these two free throws…”
Charles’ first attempt missed the rim, it wasn’t even close. But his second shot fell through the net. State won the game and went on to win the national championship. Maybe Valvono’s positive affirmation helped Lorenzo Charles at that critical moment. Who knows? Studies have shown that attitudes are powerful. Attitudes can be life-changing even when they’re misguided.
It’s like the story about a man who walked with a cane. One time some of his mischievous friends snuck his cane away from him and cut about 1/4” off of it. When he didn’t seem to notice, they kept cutting a 1/4” off each day. They kept doing this for some time. One day they saw him and they noticed he was real restless. He finally got up the courage to say, “You guys may think I am crazy, but I think I am getting taller!” Of course we know the truth; his cane was simply getting shorter.
His perception had been changed, but not his reality. Jesus was talking about something much more powerful than a changed attitude . . . Looking again at Jesus and the fig tree, Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. Having a changed attitude is an important part of authentic faith.
Pastor Lee Barstow tells a wonderful story about a man who was driving home from work one day. He came upon the crest of a hill and beheld the most beautiful sunset he’d ever seen. He was so moved by the sight that he pulled over and got out of his car to better take it in. A couple of minutes later, another driver was also captivated by the beauty of the sunset, and he too stopped his car to sit and drink in the beauty. Emerging from his car he remarked to the first man that the sight was amazing.
The first man agreed and they sat there for a few minutes in blissful wonder. “This is happening because the sun is low,” said the second man, “and so the light has to make its way through more of the atmosphere. As it does, it refracts into colors, kind of like a rainbow.” The first man was annoyed by the second man’s explanation. “Actually,” he said, “It’s not really refraction. The water droplets in the air act like prisms, and this is what causes the colors.” “But I read about this last year in National Geographic,” said the second man, “and it called it refraction. The article said the atmosphere acts like a colored filter covering a stage light in a theater.” The two went on like this for some time. By the time they looked up again, the glory of the sunset had passed.
How different that story would have been, says Pastor Barstow, if the two had avoided talking about the external facts about rainbows and had instead focused on their own internal experience. Imagine the second man saying, “Boy, I really needed this. I had a horrible day at work, and this is reminding me there’s more to life than that argument I had with my co-worker just before I left.” “Yeah,” says the first man, “I wasn’t looking forward to going home, and the sunset made me think of an amazing sunset my wife and I saw during our honeymoon. Now I’m looking forward to telling her about it.” They could have then turned to watch the sunset slowly fade, and leave each other with friendly goodbyes.
In Pastor Barstow’s two scenarios we have the same sunset, but in the first one, it leads to a mild argument. In the second, it leads to some positive feelings and perhaps some positive changes in life situations. Positive attitudes are important. But what is it that makes positive attitudes sustainable? Positive attitudes ultimately are the result of a confidence about life that comes from one source, being grounded in faith that the universe is friendly, because behind this universe there is a living and loving God.
In the book 450 Stories for Life, Gust Anderson tells about visiting a church in a farming community of eastern Alberta, Canada, where there had been 8 years of drought. The farmers were deep in debt, and their economic situation looked hopeless. In spite of their poverty, however, many of them continued to meet together to worship and praise God. Anderson was especially impressed by the testimony of one of these farmers.
Dressed in overalls and an old coat, the best clothes he had, this man stood up and quoted Habakkuk 3:17-18. With deep meaning he recited the words from the Hebrew Bible: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior..” That dear saint, thought Anderson, has found the secret of real joy!
Joy comes from more than a positive attitude. True joy comes from God. Can a positive attitude be sustained through endless years of poor crops? I doubt it. Sooner or later we will, as we say, have to face reality. But faith in a loving God is reality. If we’re grounded in the knowledge that, regardless of our circumstances, God will not forget us or forsake us, we can endure any hardship, overcome any obstacle. And should we feel called by God to turn the world upside down, then we will discover what real faith and real power is.
Jesus wanted His disciples to understand that faith is a powerful force. The disciples, though, felt their faith was too weak to ever accomplish the things Jesus was asking them to do. Jesus assured them, they did have enough faith; they simply needed to place their faith and trust in God. What really matters is, it’s not the size of our faith, but the size of our God. A little faith in a great God can change the world.
Faith is a matter of aligning our lives with the purposes of God in the same way that a free-hanging bar magnet will align itself with the magnetic pulls of the North and South Poles. What kind of world does God want? Deep in our hearts we know that God’s wants a world where everyone lives in peace and harmony and dignity together. And that’s the kind of world we will have one day. It’s inevitable. God’s kingdom is coming; the kingdom of justice and righteousness, the kingdom of peace and love. If we want to see mountains moved, or mulberry trees thrown into the sea, we need to align ourselves with the purposes of God. Again, it has nothing to do with the size of our faith, but the size of the One in whom we trust.
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” Jesus 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.” How about it? Could we have just a little bit of faith in the God of Jesus? If so, then get ready for miracles. Mountains, mulberry trees, even paper clips, if that’s what God desires, all will one day be moved. Jesus promised, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

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