Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Faith Hall of Fame

Read the celebrated faith hall of fame in Hebrews (Hebrews 11:1-40). It gives the accounts of Old Testament figures who demonstrated great faith in God as examples for Christians to follow. Among them is Abraham, who is listed for his willingness to kill his son Isaac at God’s request. It is an incredible and almost unbelievable story that shatters normal religious conventions. God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, so he traveled to a mountaintop with Isaac to carry it out. At the last minute, with knife in hand and Isaac tied up, God stopped Abraham and provided a ram for the offering instead. It was a test of allegiance, whether Abraham valued his beloved son more than his loyalty to God. He passed. What an awful decision to have to make, and what amazing faith! (By the way, Abraham thought that God would raise Isaac from the dead because he had promised Isaac would be his heir.) Now, consider this story in the light of any moral framework you wish – Old Testaments laws, New Testament moral teachings, civil codes or one’s conscience. If sacrificing one’s own child does not violate every rule imaginable, I do not know what does. Yet God asked him to do it, and the Bible upholds Abraham as a model of faith for his willingness. Is that not confounding? It seems that the ultimate factor of faith is a person’s direct trust and responsiveness to God above and beyond anything else.

Read further in the same chapter about the example of Rahab, a prostitute who harbored Israelite spies. She lived in the city of Jericho as Israel was planning to conquer it as part its campaign to inhabit the Promised Land. Rahab heard about how God had parted the Red Sea for the Israelites and enabled them to conquer other local kings. She believed God was with them and decided to side with the Almighty. (Always a good call!) Therefore, she hid the spies in her house when they came to survey Jericho. The civil authorities came to question her, and she lied and said the Israelites had already left, sending them on a wild goose chase. However, the spies were still in her house, and then she helped them escape from the city in the middle of the night. In return, the spies agreed not to harm her household when Israel conquered the city. This is a story of great faith. Rahab risked everything because she believed God was with the Israelites. On another level, it is as confounding as the story of Abraham because Rahab was a prostitute who lied to the authorities and betrayed her own people. Yet it is listed as an example of faith for Christians to follow.

The Bible showcases people who apparently broke all the rules except one, acting upon an ultimate trust in God. If you think that the Christian faith is primarily about keeping a set of rules, whatever you have come to believe those are, then this message is troubling. It should be upsetting, shocking, even scandalous. These examples of faith are not reconcilable with a rules-based viewpoint. Some may try to explain them away with elaborate philosophy and reasoning, perhaps saying they took place in a different era and somehow do not apply to us today. But they are right there in the New Testament! As is Jesus’ statement that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. As is the Apostle Paul’s repeated claim that Christians live by the Spirit, not law. The Bible speaks plainly here. It is right there in full view.

The point is that faith is not merely following a set of religious rules. It is more than that and sometimes even in spite of that. Faith is a positive response to God from the heart – an act of trust, love, and service. This is living by the Spirit.

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