December 20, 2020

“A Faith Like That”

(From Luke 1: 26-38)

    “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.  You will conceive and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  These are the words the scriptures tell us the angel Gabriel spoke Mary to announce the news of her imminent pregnancy.   “How can this be?” Mary inquired of the angel.  Mary was engaged but not yet married to her betrothed, Joseph.  Pregnancy out of marriage was as scandalous a matter in Mary’s day as it is in our own modern times.  In fact, the Jewish laws regarding adultery were very severe.  This pregnancy would be viewed as adultery, because within the law of Torah, her engagement had the binding status and responsibility of marriage and Joseph was her husband.  Should Joseph choose to bring Mary to be judged, she would face a trial of public humiliation and the drinking of “bitter waters.”  Bitter waters were a mixture of holy water, dust and the ink with which the priest had written her note of curse.  If she became ill, she would be judged “guilty” and subjected to public shaming.  Then, Joseph would most likely divorce her, leaving her to fend for herself raise this child alone.  Yet, even knowing all of this to be her potential worst-case scenario, Mary replied to Gabriel, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  We pray that we may have and live a faith like the faith of Mary.

     Mary’s circumstance of unwed pregnancy was not a novel one, although it was quite extraordinary.  For Mary, unlike any of the women throughout history who had or who would make this journey of unwed motherhood, was carrying within her womb the promised Messiah—the Son of God.  The message of the angel Gabriel gave Mary cause to believe beyond the realm of her earthly circumstances.  Mary put her faith to work in the practical and ordinary living of her everyday life.  She did not merely believe in God, Mary had faith in the power and plan of God that were at work in and through her life.  As we stand on the other side of this amazing story announcing the coming of our promised Savior, God’s chosen Messiah, Jesus, we celebrate Mary, a woman of faith and a faithful servant of God.   

     Examples of a strong and uncompromising living faith, faith revealed both when and where the rubber meets the road, can be found throughout the scriptures.  One such example of extraordinary faith is found in story of Abraham and his son Isaac.  As a test of his unconditional faith in God, Abraham was instructed to take Isaac to the altar of sacrifice and offer him there as a sacrifice to God.  Isaac obeyed the word of the Lord, even as he feared the loss of his precious son at his own hand.  When they arrived at the place of sacrifice, just as Abraham drew his knife from its sheath, a ram appeared in the bushes, and God instructed Abraham to sacrifice the ram, and not his son upon the altar.  Abraham’s act of obedience, even amid the threat of great personal loss proved the depth of his faith, and through the fulfillment of God’s promise, he became the “father of many nations”.   

     Great faith is not just an attribute to be found within the great stories of scripture.  In fact, one of the greatest faith stories I have ever heard was shared with me by a colleague in ministry.  He told me a story about a man who took his son and his son’s friend on a camping trip to a nearby lake for a weekend of fishing.  The man stressed to the boys that they needed to wear their life vests when they were in the boat, but they hesitated to put on the hot and uncomfortable “gear.” What the man did not know was that his son’s friend, we’ll call him Joey, did not know how to swim.  Suddenly, while Joey attempted to reel the fish in, he lost his footing, fell overboard, and capsized the boat.  All three people were plunged into the lake.  The dad buoyed to the surface first, and immediately began looking for the boys.  His son buoyed up next, but no sign of Joey.  Then, suddenly, Joey’s head popped up, but the current had carried him a good distance away.  The dad began to swim toward him to help him, as he did not have on a life jacket and could not swim.  As he swam out toward Joey, the dad heard his son call out-he also had no life jacket on but was a good swimmer.  Then, he heard his son call out that he was caught in an undertow that was pulling him below the water’s surface.  The man paused—startled by this news. He could not realistically save both boys, as they had now both become victims of the lake’s currents.  He would likely have to make a tough choice-which boy should he swim toward to save first?  How could make such a difficult choice?  He, like Abraham, was forced to consider sacrificing his own beloved son.

     The man, a man of tremendous faith, relied on that faith in his hour of greatest need.  He knew that his son was also a person of strong faith, while his son’s friend Joey did not know the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus.  He had not received the grace of God’s saving forgiveness by faith.  So, the man continued to swim in the direction of Joey, attempting to save him first.  He was able to pull Joey to the safety of the righted boat.  Sadly, swimming as fast as his tired arms could carry him, the man was unable to reach his son in time to save him from the undertow of the lake’s current. 

     This story is not simply the story of one man’s uncompromised faith, even in the face of life-or-death peril, it is also the story of how one man’s act of faith inspired the faith of another.  You see, my colleague shared that it was Joey who had given the testimony at worship on Sunday.  He was so moved that his friend’s dad would save him so that he might have an opportunity to know the love of God in Christ, he listened to the good news of salvation that was shared so genuinely with him.  He believed and received God’s forgiveness and grace—in a word, he was saved!  It was such a powerful experience for him that Joey was moved to share his testimony in church on Sunday.  He hoped it might inspire others to hear and believe the good news of salvation by God’s grace- through the power of faith.  May we all know, and live, a faith like that!  Amen—let it be so.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” (words-Phillip Brooks, music- Lewis H. Redner)

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie, above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.  Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray, cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.  We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!