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Delivered By
Pr. David Fleener
Delivered On
December 10, 2017 at 10:45 AM
Central Passage
Genesis 17:1-22

Pr. David Fleener

Sermon: Advent 2, December 10, 2017

Genesis 17:1-22; 2 Timothy 1:1-7; Luke 1:26-38


Whose Faith?


            Here’s an old joke that’s been kicking around the so-called mainline churches for fifty or sixty years. A pastor once had a colony of bats living in the belfry of the church building. He called another pastor, at his wit’s end for what to do. The other pastor replied, “I had the same problem a few years ago. Like you, I thought I had tried everything to get rid of them. I figured they were here to stay. Maybe they’d boost the membership rolls a bit. But once I confirmed them, they flew off and haven’t returned!


            One of the great, painful puzzles that we in the mainline churches have struggled with is the question on why faith doesn’t always seem to “stick”. Out of my own confirmation class of six or seven in 1995, I know of only three of us who worship regularly (two if you take me out of the equation, since coming to worship is part of my job!). For all our theology about faith coming through hearing, and for the Lutheran dedication to teaching the catechism, many young people either fell away from the faith of the church or decided that the institution of the church was not the best place to practice it. All this effort put into teaching the faith of our mothers and fathers, and what do we have to show for it? It can leave us feeling utterly powerless and dejected. And our anxiety ramps up. Who is going to be there to carry on the faith after we die?


            The stories we are about to hear – all three readings from the Old and New Testaments – speak to this anxiety about faith and the next generation.


            Twenty-four years after God first gave Abraham the promise of many descendants and to be made into “a great nation”, God speaks once again, reiterating that promise. Only this time, God is more  specific. The son of the promise will be born from Sarah, and will be named Isaac. This causes two reactions in Abraham. The first is disbelief. After twenty-four years of disappointment, God is now going to make it possible for Abraham and Sarah to have a child? They seemed to have resigned themselves to not having any children at all. Sarah even takes the extraordinary step of giving Abraham her servant Hagar as a wife to have a child (a move that causes a great deal of pain in Abraham’s family). Hagar gives birth to a son, Ishmael – and at the time of our reading, is about thirteen years old. Which brings us to Abraham’s second reaction – fear. Abraham will plead with God, “Oh that Ishmael might live in your sight!” Abraham already has a son and heir. Isn’t that enough for God? If Abraham and Sarah have a child, what will become of Ishmael and Hagar?


            God, however, is determined to bring salvation to the world through Isaac’s line. Ishmael still has a place. He will be the patriarch of a great nation. But the promise will live on through Isaac – a child not yet conceived. Abraham trusts that God is a God of his word, and enacts the sign of the covenant we will hear about. Abraham owns his faith.


            Isaac’s line, as we heard last week in Matthew’s genealogy, will continue down to Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. And today, we hear Luke’s story of the annunciation of Gabriel to Mary – a story that appears nowhere else in Scripture. An ancient monarchy, long dead, will be revived in the child that Mary will bear. The promises of 2nd Samuel 7, in which God, through the prophet Nathan, promises that David will always have a descendant on the throne in Jerusalem, will be radically transformed. This child will be an eternal king of Jacob’s line – a line that includes all who have faith, not just those of blood and ancestry.


            Of course, there must have been great anxiety in Mary. Who would believe that the child in her was from the Holy Spirit? It would certainly take a specially called husband to believe that – no ordinary man would ever believe this story! She faced, at the very least, social ostracism by saying yes to God’s purposes for her. At the worst, she could be stoned to death. Saying yes to God’s purposes in her required an extraordinary amount of trust in the One who made the promise; that God would bring his purposes to fruition, that God would protect her and her child. Mary made her faith her own.


            Timothy has faith. But unlike Abraham, it doesn’t come from God out of the blue. It doesn’t come in visions and spoken promises (that we know of). Instead, it comes through his family – through his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice – those who trusted in Christ first. The faith described in 2 Timothy is the closest analogue to the faith we experience today. Faith, in that case, is something handed down. Faith is passed on, mother to daughter, then mother to son.


            And yet, there certainly was anxiety with Paul and Timothy as well. Paul urges Timothy to rekindle this gift of God that was placed within him.  In later verses, he urges Timothy to remain strong in faith, sharing in suffering. In other words, Paul urges Timothy to continue to make his faith, handed down to him by his mother and grandmother, his own faith.


            God grants us faith in many ways. And in this time where involvement in the institutional church continues to drop, we can find ourselves incredibly anxious and fearful about where the church may go. We fear that God has left the building, that we are abandoned to our own devices.


            The truth is that this moment, this moment in which the future seems so bleak for the Western church, is precisely an opportunity given to us by God to make the faith he put within us our own. This is the moment where we truly walk by faith and not by sight. We, as the famous mystic and monk Thomas Merton wrote, have no idea where we are going. But that is because we are following a living Christ. When we were baptized, God put faith within us. God strengthened that faith through our families who brought us to this place to worship, to hear the Word of God and receive the Sacrament. Now, God calls us, as he called our ancestors in faith, to own the faith he gives. A 99-year old man. A 14-year old girl. A young man, recently ordained to God’s service. Our mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers. All these trusted God. Through the strength of the Holy Spirit, may we be able to put aside our anxieties and fears and do the same. Amen.


© 2017, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.