When you think of the word ‚faithful’, do you think of an object? For some reason, the word ‘faithful’ reminds me of a rock. Probably because of the hymn, ‘On Christ the solid rock I stand.’ But that would be a false image. Faithfulness isn’t the same as being stubbornly immovable. It is in fact, quite the opposite.
Think about it. What did Abraham’s faithfulness cause him to do? It caused him to pack up all of his belongings, his family and his servants, and set them on a trek far from home – far from everything that was familiar to them. His faithfulness pushed him out of his comfort zone.
Most of us here at Church of the Ascension know exactly what that feels like. Many of us are far from our families and the culture of our childhood; that place where we felt truly able to move and communicate fully and freely. We knew the rules – even the unspoken ones – of the community. Here we know them only partially. As well as I know the German language and culture, I am still surprised by the occasional reprimand that I have behaved unseemly when I thought I was being perfectly polite. It is a harsh thing to step out of one’s zone of familiarity.
‘Faithfulness’ implies a relationship. Abraham had faith in God because God promised, and then acted faithfully on those promises. God had Abraham’s trust. Other Biblical characters, like Ruth, shows this kind of relationship to other humans. Ruth trusted Naomi, her mother-in-law. When Naomi told her to return to her people, she refused, and declared that she would follow Naomi, ‘Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God.’ Ruth had faith in Naomi that her people and her God would be just towards her.
Faithfulness is toward another being. It is the willingness to bend your will to someone else’s. We are not faithful to a dogma or a line of belief. If we were, then the image of immobility would be correct. Dan Migliore in his book Faith Seeking Understanding puts it like this:
“The act of faith is not rightly understood when it is viewed as mere assent to propositions presented to us by the church or the Bible. Christian Faith is the act of personal trust in God made known in Christ, not bare assent to propositions about God or Christ. The Reformers distinguished between two ways of believing. One way is to believe certain things about God – for example, that God exists, or that Christ performed miracles. Luther called this historical or factual knowledge rather than faith in the proper sense. The other way is to believe in God. When I put my faith in God (and here he quotes Luther), “I not only believe that what is said about God is true, but I put my trust in him, surrender myself to him.” (p. 236)
This kind of faith – believing in – presupposes a relationship, a relationship built on a history together. Abraham was considered righteous not because he always did what was right, but because he had a faithfulness in God that was based in a relationship. And that is all that is required of us. Paul says, just trust in the gift that God has so freely given. There is no need to ‘earn’ the gift, just trust it.
It is true that the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, hope, etc. will come about as a result of that relationship with God. Good works will also be a result, but one does not receive the gift of Christ’s salvation, or God’s love and attention, by notching up a certain number of good works first. You cannot earn it. You do not need to earn it. You need only accept the love and trust the Lord who continuously creates, who gives life to the trees, the grass, the fruit, the birds, the animals, the humans. The Lord who never asks if you deserve to eat the food that is so freely provided. This is the same Lord who continuously, year on year brings the dead back to life. Spring is coming.
But Abraham… and this is important… was human. He wobbled. I love this. You know those little dashboard doggies with the heads that go up and down? I would like a little Abraham that sits on my dashboard with a bobbling head as a reminder that even the great faith-filled Abraham wobbled. It is worth your time to read Abraham’s whole story. Not only did he tell Pharaoh that Sarai was his sister – out of fear for his own life – he also decided that maybe God needed a little bit of help with the whole business of descendants. Sarai was getting too old to get pregnant, so Abraham kind of second-guesses God. You know, maybe Abraham thought he needed to do more in this relationship.
You know that feeling, right? Someone close to you has promised to do something, but time is moving on, so you decide to take matters into your own hands? How well does that work out for you?
Abraham expresses his worry to Sarai, who suggests that maybe he should impregnate one of her slave girls, Hagar. Hagar does indeed get pregnant from Abraham, and she bears him a son, but she is also so angry with Sarai that discord is brought into the household. God is watching this, and shaking His head, and probably rolling His eyes. It doesn’t say that in the scripture, but the implication is there. Hagar’s child is named ‘Ishmael’. Ishmael means ‘God is hearing’.
Then 13 years later, God comes to Abraham and makes a covenant with him. Maybe he felt Abraham needed to do something this time. A promise is one-way, but a covenant is two-way. Abraham is to have all the males in his household circumcised. (Now come on, that could not have been a pretty picture!) God will then bless Sarah, and she will bear a son. The scripture actually says in Genesis 17: 17, “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” He laughed! At God. And lived. But Abraham took the covenant seriously. Abraham also asked God to bless Ishmael. God repeats his promise about Sarah, but also says, “As for Ishmael, I have heard you (remember the meaning of his name?); I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.’ And when he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.”
This was a relationship of trust, love, and negotiation. Yes, Abraham wobbled. Yes, Abraham feared. Yes, Abraham got anxious. But he never left the relationship. Being faithful means staying IN the relationship – with all its ups and downs. And that is all God asks of you: Stay with Him.