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Little Faith

Matthew 14:22-33

Romans 10:5-15

Some of you may know that before I entered the ministry, I worked at a bank on Wall Street. I loved my team, I was good at my job, and I thoroughly enjoyed the work we did — but over time I developed a growing sense that God was calling me to become a minister. And now, here I am.


Without a doubt, the funniest day at the office, by far, was the morning I gave notice to my two bosses that I would be leaving the firm. This was at the height of the dot-com era so I’m sure they thought that I must be leaving for a tech start-up. But no, I informed them that I had applied to seminary and I was going to enter the ministry. You could see the wheels turning in their minds. They knew I was a smart kid, I wouldn’t do anything stupid, so I must have some kind of angle on this, right? Finally, one of them eventually blurted out what he was thinking: “Can you make money doing that?” I had to explain: That wasn’t exactly the point. And from that moment on, this particular boss nicknamed me “Rev,” short for “Reverend.


After that, a rather humorous conversation ensued between the two of them. One was, you might say, a nominal Catholic. The other was raised as a Protestant but considered himself essentially an agnostic. So the one says to the other: “I’m a little worried about you because you don’t believe. It looks like Jason will be alright because he’s going to become a minister, but what’s going to happen to you?” The other said: “Don’t worry about me. I’m sure I’ll be fine. If there is a God, He will accept me because I’m a good person. But why are you so worried about me. You are not exactly the paragon of virtue.” To which he replied, “Yes, but I go to church sometimes, and I even put a little money in the plate. You’ve got to believe. You’ve got to have faith!”


You can picture the scene as these two friends bantered with one another about their eternal destinies on the trading desk, and I just sat there and watched the show!


We all know that Christianity has something to do with faith, but what? Most people think that faith is irrational — it’s just a blind leap in the dark. As Mark Twain once quipped: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” But I would like to suggest that Christianity does not call us to put “blind faith” in God — against all the evidence. Rather we are called to put our trust in God because there are good reasons for doing so.


The gospel reading appointed for today is all about faith — and doubt. After the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus asks the disciples to get in a boat and go on ahead of him to the other side of the lake while he dismisses the crowds. The next morning he comes to them — walking on the water. Now, that’s more than a little hard to believe, so they understandably assume that this must be some kind of ghost. But Jesus tells them: “Don’t be afraid; it’s me.” And Peter—as ever—acts on impulse: “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And he does! But then he notices the strong wind and begins to sink and cries out: “Lord, save me!” So Jesus reaches out his hand and catches Peter. But then he asks him: You of little faith, why did you doubt?


Here's what I would like to do. During our time together this morning, let’s very briefly consider three questions about faith: What is it? How do we get it? Why do we need it?


I. What Is It?

First, what is faith? Let me offer you this illustration. In 1859, Charles Blondin became the first person to walk across Niagara Falls on a tightrope made entirely out of hemp — 1,300 feet long and 2 inches thick.


25,000 people showed up for the stunt, and most of the “smart money” bet that he was doomed to plunge 200 feet to a watery death below. He set out from the American side shortly before 5pm. When Blondin was one third of the way across, he sat down on the cable and signaled for the famous Maid of the Mist to anchor beneath him. He let down a rope to the ship below and then hoisted up a bottle of wine in order to enjoy a glass before getting up and running the rest of the way across the falls. On his return trip, he carried a camera and tripod on his back and stopped to snap a photo of the crowd on the American side before completing his 23 minute journey.


No one thought it could be done, but Blondin did it. And he not only did it once; he held a number of encore performances that summer. On one occasion, he walked across the rope backwards, on another he wore a sack over his entire body which blindfolded him. He once somersaulted and backflipped his way across and returned another time pushing a wheelbarrow.


After everything the people had seen, you could imagine Blondin asking: “Do you believe that I am capable of pushing someone in the wheelbarrow across the falls?” At this point, most people would have said: “Yes.” And do you agree that what I am doing is real – and not some kind of trick? Again, most would agree that this was no charade. But imagine if he asked someone to get inside the wheelbarrow. What about you? Would you do it?


Believe it or not, at the end of July in 1859, Blondin appeared on the Canadian side of the cable with his manager Harry Colcord clinging to his back. Apparently before they set out, he said to his manager: Don’t look down!


“Look up, Harry…You are no longer Colcord, you are Blondin. Until I clear this place, be a part of me, body, mind, and soul. If I sway, sway with me. Do not attempt to do any balancing yourself. If you do, we will both go to our death.” On this particular crossing, a few of the guy ropes snapped, but they made it, and we even have a photograph of the feat.


I would like to suggest that this illustrates the essence of faith. Theologians talk about three dimensions of faith: knowledge, assent, and trust. First, there is knowledge. You have to know something about God. Faith is not irrational or blind; it’s based on what we can know. We are supposed to consider the claims God has made about himself and the ways in which He has acted in the past, just as Charles Blondin demonstrated his mastery over the tightrope before asking anyone to join him on the high wire. In other words, there is real content to faith based on what God has revealed about himself. Second, you have to assent. You have to agree that this content is true — and not some kind of trick or house of mirrors. Finally, and most importantly, there is trust. You have to personally trust God with your life. It’s not enough to know a claim and assent to its truth, you’ve got to do something about it. You’ve got to get in the wheelbarrow.

Here's the point. The fundamental message of Christianity is that we human beings are not the people we’re supposed to be. We’ve made a mess of things. And there’s nothing we can do to make things right again with God – with other people – with our world – and even within ourselves; not ultimately. In our quieter moments of reflection, we know that’s true. We can’t entirely rid ourselves of feelings of regret and shame, we can’t completely eradicate evil and injustice in the world around us (no matter how hard we try), and we certainly can’t defeat suffering and death. But the gospel is that God can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

So here's the simplest way I can put it. Faith involves a transfer of trust. To be a Christian means that you transfer your trust from yourself to God for your life, your future, your standing before God. Rather than relying on yourself (your record, your ability, your performance), you rely on Jesus Christ (his record, his ability, his performance) for your relationship with God. It’s just like what Blondin said to his manager: You’ve got to trust me with your life. Don’t look down. Look up!...Be a part of me, body, mind, and soul. If I sway, sway with me. Do no attempt to do it yourself.


So what is faith? Faith consists of knowledge, assent, and — above all — trust. To have faith involves a personal transfer of trust.


II. How Do We Get It?

If that is what faith is, then how do we get it? The answer is: we have to take the focus off ourselves and place it on Jesus. That’s what the gospel reading illustrates for us. When Peter listens to Jesus’ voice and focuses his attention on him, he can do anything. Peter can literally walk on water! But the moment he takes his eyes off Jesus and notices the strong wind — that’s when he gets frightened and begins to sink.


That’s the point. Most of the time, our natural tendency is to focus our attention on ourselves and our circumstances, or on other people and the difficult situations in which we find ourselves. Our thoughts our consumed by a demanding job, a strained relationship, a troubling diagnosis, or a heart-wrenching death. We’ve lost sight of Jesus, and all we can see are our problems – which we tend to blame on other people or our circumstances. We think to ourselves: “If only he would do this…or if only she hadn’t done that…or if only this were different…” It’s no wonder, we’re sinking. The challenge is to figure out how to take the focus off ourselves and our circumstances and fix our eyes on God instead. That’s when our faith — our trust — grows.


After Jesus reaches out his hand to rescue Peter from the swelling waves, he asks him: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” On another occasion, Jesus asks his panicky disciples: “Where is your faith?” (Luke 8.5). It is interesting to note the different ways in which faith is described in the New Testament. Faith can be little or — as Jesus’ question to his disciples’ suggests — it can be missing altogether. Faith can also be described as great (Matthew 15.28) or strong (Romans 4.20). But the encouraging thing is that whether faith is great or small, even the tiniest little bit of faith will work, because the decisive factor is not the strength of your faith, but the object of your faith.


Let me explain what I mean by that with another analogy. A few years ago, our family came up to the lake for Thanksgiving, and we all remember this moment. The temperature plunged over night, and the next morning the entire lake was covered with a very thin layer of ice. Since the entire lake froze all at once, at the same time, and it was completely still, with absolutely no wind – the ice looked like a perfectly clear, spotless piece of glass. It was beautiful.


Now, you could have walked down to the lake on that cold, November morning with great faith that the ice could hold you up. And some of my children were tempted to demonstrate such faith! But I told them they couldn’t. If you walked out on to the ice that morning, you would have found out very quickly that your faith was seriously misplaced. That ice was less than an inch thick. You would have fallen right through.


But there have been other times when we’ve come up to the lake in the middle of February — after weeks and weeks of subzero temperatures. And on those occasions, the ice is at least a foot thick.


But let’s say you had a bad experience with ice in the past. You once stepped out on to the ice when it was too thin, and you fell through. That would be terrifying, wouldn’t it? So now even though the ice is a foot thick during the coldest part of the winter, you’ve got serious doubts about ice. Based on past experience, you don’t have much faith. But that doesn’t matter. If you have even the tiniest bit of faith that the ice will hold you, all you have to do is step out on to the ice, and you will stand. Do you see that? The decisive factor is not the relative strength of your faith, but the object of your faith. Is your faith well-placed?

That’s why faith in the Bible is never considered irrational or a blind leap into the dark. We’re not supposed to believe against all the evidence, but rather we’re supposed to believe in light of who God has revealed himself to be. In other words, there are good reasons to believe. When it comes to the Christian faith, we’re not supposed to turn our brains off, we’re supposed to turn them on! We’re supposed to consider what we have seen and heard about God for ourselves. That’s why our New Testament lesson from Romans 10 reminds us that faith comes from hearing — and specifically from hearing the message of the gospel. And that’s why I’ve dedicated my life to the ministry — because I want to give people the opportunity to consider the claims of the Christian faith for themselves so that they might discover the true power of faith. If you put even the tiniest little bit of faith in God, you will stand. The real question is not whether your faith is weak or strong, but where it is placed. No matter how weak your faith, He is strong enough to hold you up.

As it was for Peter so it is for you. Whatever problems you might be facing in life this morning, don’t focus on the wind and the waves; focus on him. The way in which your faith grows is by looking away from yourself and your circumstances, and by looking at Jesus. The more you study him, the more reasons you find to trust him.


III. Why Do We Need It?

So what is faith? It is a transfer of trust. Rather than solely trusting in yourself, you learn to trust God with your life and your future. Like Charles Blondin’s manager, you wrap your arms around him saying: “I can’t, but he can.” And how do you get it? Don’t look down. Look up! Look away from yourself and look to him.


But here’s the last and perhaps most important question.


Why do we need faith? Here’s your answer: Because that is when the adventure begins. As one author put it: If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat!


So this week, consider the reasons to trust God, look away from yourself and your circumstances, and take the next step in the adventure of faith.


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


Amen.

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