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Faith Walk: Increase Our Faith

March 13, 2011

Sermon: Faith Walk: Increase Our Faith
Text: Luke 17:5-6

This week we continue our series entitled Faith Walk.  We started the series last week with what I would call the baby steps:  trusting and obeying.  We know there is no other way.  Today, we come to the next step in this faith walk:  increasing our faith.

What does it mean for Christian people to walk by faith?  I invite your attention to Luke 17:1-9.  Hear now the Word of God.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come, but woe to that person through whom they come.  It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.  So watch yourselves.

“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.  If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.

“Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep.  Would you say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’?  Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’?  Would you thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?  So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

 

This is the Word of God for the people of God.

I recently heard a story that is brand new to me though some of you may have heard it.  An elderly lady, a very prim and proper woman, was in great distress early one morning.  She called her next-door-neighbor and asked, “Can you please come and help me?”

The neighbor asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Well, I have opened a new jigsaw puzzle, and I am looking at all these pieces.  I cannot imagine how to begin putting the puzzle together.”

The neighbor asked, “What is the puzzle supposed to be?”

“The picture on the box is a rooster.”

“I’ll come over and see what I can do to help.”

The man went over to his neighbor’s house.  He saw the box and all the pieces spread out on the table.  He suggested, “I’ll tell you what we’ll do.  Let’s just stop and take a deep breath.  Let’s sit down at the table here and have a cup of hot tea.  After we relax a moment, we will put all these cornflakes back in the box.”

That story is just a little too close for comfort.

Have you ever been so puzzled by life that you did not know where to begin?  Have you ever had no idea how to solve a perplexing problem that faced you?

The disciples must have had a similar feeling when Jesus spoke to them about sin and forgiveness in Luke 17.  Their response, “Increase our faith!” is exactly the kind of response we make when we face some very formidable circumstance, some puzzle that we cannot imagine where to begin.

I want us to look at those who are making this request of Jesus here in Luke 17.  Jesus had called these men, and perhaps some women, to follow him.  The disciples had been at Jesus’ side now for quite a while; and much of Jesus’ earthly ministry had already unfolded at this point.  If we look back to Mark 4, we see them caught in a storm on the Sea of Galilee.  On that occasion, they were so afraid that Jesus asked them, “How is it that you have no faith?”  His question comes across as a mild rebuke.  He was asking them, “How could you not know that I would calm the sea?  How could you not know that when I say, ‘Peace. Be still,’ that I am not just talking to the waves and to the wind?  I am also talking to your very heart.  Peace.  Be still.”

You would think that by now the disciples would better understand his plan, his purpose.  The disciples had seen Jesus perform amazing miracles.  They had even wondered, “What kind of man is this who can calm the wind and the waves, who has authority over demons?”

Who were these men?  Simon Peter, at one point, actually stepped out of the boat and took a few steps on the water before looking down to see how he was doing.  Thomas, after the resurrection, could not believe.  I like to say that Thomas was from Missouri.  He wanted Jesus to show him, to provide proof.  Jesus showed him the nail prints in his hands and the wound in his side.  Then Thomas believed.  When Jesus gave the disciples instructions to feed the 5000, Phillip raised the question, “How can we do that?  It would take more than a half-year’s salary.”  Even when a small boy supplied the loaves of fish, Phillip wondered how the multitude could be fed.  After the miracle, Phillip understood.  These people certainly had their doubts all along the way; but right at the very end, all of them, except perhaps the Apostle John, abandoned Jesus in his hour of deepest need.  Who were these people asking Jesus to increase their faith?  The truth is that the disciples were people just like us, people who face difficulties in life, people who come up against hard times, people who have doubts.

How much faith is enough?  When Jesus talked about faith, he often referred to a mustard seed.

I was at a conference with Kathleen Norris just a week or so ago.  She told of a time when she entered the Benedictine monastery as a visitor.  As she was making her way to her room, she protested to the elderly monk walking with her that she really did not belong there.

The monk asked, “Why do you say that you do not belong here?”

She answered, “I do not have enough faith.  I have so many doubts.”

He just laughed and said, “Doubt?  It is good that you have doubts.  They are the seeds of faith.”

What a remarkable connection between doubt and faith!  Have you ever thought about doubts as being the seeds of faith?  Jesus said that if you have faith like a mustard seed, that will be enough.

Fred Craddock interprets this passage of Scripture by saying that we do have faith like a mustard seed.  He says that the Greek construct here gives that interpretation.  We already have this faith, faith like a mustard seed.

Surely the disciples had some faith.  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says that faith like a mustard seed would pull up a sycamore tree.  Have you ever tried to get rid of a sycamore tree?  It has deep, deep roots that are impossible to destroy.  They go deep into the ground and become entangled.  If you are not careful, they will get tangled up in your septic tank.

Jesus picked the right kind of tree to illustrate his point about mustard-seed faith.  If you have just that amount of faith, you can say to the sycamore tree, “Be moved to the ocean and plant there.”  Jesus was using Aramaic hyperbole, exaggeration.  Jesus said that a mustard seed grows into a plant as big as a tree.  Even birds can roost in the plant.  Mustard seed faith has that much power.

I have heard people suggest soaking okra seeds before planting them.  Others suggest putting one okra seed in each compartment of an ice tray, filling it with water, and freezing the water.  The ice cubes containing the seeds are then planted.  One fellow told me, “I tried that suggestion.  My okra grew so tall the deer had to knock the stalks down to eat the buds off the end.”

You can imagine why the story of an epileptic boy in Mark 9 is one of my favorite stories about faith.  Jesus had been on the mountain of transfiguration with Peter, James, and John.  When he returned to the other disciples, he heard a great discussion and asked, “What are you talking about?”

The father engaged in the discussion told Jesus, “I have brought my son to you.  Heal him.  He has a demon that throws him in the fire, that throws him in the water.  He foams at the mouth.”  About that time, the boy actually had a seizure.  Anyone who has ever seen a grand mal seizure can tell by the description in the Gospel that this son is an epileptic.  The father cried out to Jesus, “If you can do anything, please help us” (Mark 9:22).

Jesus responded, “‘If you can.’  All things are possible to those who believe” (Mark 9:23).

This father then offered one of the most remarkable affirmations of faith in the entire Scriptures:  “Lord, I believe.  Help Thou my unbelief.”

We are just like that father in that we are betwixt and between faith and doubt, between belief and unbelief.  I have found myself there so many times.  My guess is that you have, too.

How much faith does it take?  Jesus said that we are to start with a little bit.

In another place, Jesus said, “If you have faith like a mustard seed, you can move a mountain” (Matthew 17:20).  His statement about moving mountains is interesting.  A conservative Christian named Robert Letourneau developed heavy earth-moving equipment.  The motto of his company was, “We have what it takes to move mountains.”  We also have what it takes to move mountains.  The little bit of faith that we have can move mountains.

Jesus’ reference to moving mountains was popular among rabbis at that time.  The comparison was intended to describe a rabbi’s ability to persuade a pupil that was particularly stubborn, hard-headed, and filled with doubt.  A rabbi was said to move mountains if he could teach in such a persuasive way, even a gentle way, that he broke through the wall of doubt in the mind of that student.  The same is true in our own minds.  We all have doubts.  Every time the Lord Jesus breaks through that wall of doubt – to whatever extent – he is able to move mountains in our minds.

When I was preparing this sermon, I read the story about a small church building a sanctuary, a beginning building, on land given by a church member.  The plot of land was so small that no room was available for a parking lot.  When the building inspector came out for the final assessment, he told the pastor, “You cannot have services here until you provide sufficient parking.

The pastor asked, “How are we going to do that?”

“Do you own any more land?”

“We own this big rocky hill behind the church.”

“You will have to take that hill down and pave the area to make a parking lot.”

The pastor said, “We are supposed to have the first service Sunday.  There is no way we can afford to have that hill moved.”

The inspector reiterated, “You cannot have a service until you provide parking.”

The pastor called the congregation together and told the members, “I want anyone who has faith like a mustard seed to meet me here in the Sanctuary.  We are going to pray that God will find a way to move this mountain.”

Out of the three-hundred-member congregation, twenty-four people came to the meeting and prayed for about three hours.

The next morning when the pastor arrived at the church, a fellow wearing a hard hat met him at the door.  He explained, “We are building a shopping center nearby, and we need some fill dirt.  I wondered if you would let us move that big hill of dirt and rock behind the church to that location.  We will pay you for it.”

The pastor answered, “We’ll be glad to sell that hill to you.”  Within two or three days, the hill had been leveled, and the church had received enough money from the construction company to pave the parking lot.

Faith does not always happen that way, does it?  Sometimes it is not that dramatic.  The story itself proves that a little bit of faith can go a long, long way.  God wants us to understand the power of faith.

How did Jesus react when the disciples said, “Lord, increase our faith!”?  Did he put his hands on them and say, “Increase!”  Did he snap his fingers and say, “OK, you will have more faith”?  No, if we look at this in context, we can see two sides of this issue.  First, when Jesus was teaching them about sin and forgiveness, he used the word skandalon, which is translated “stumbling block.”  The word “scandal” comes from the Greek skandalon. Jesus prompted, “Do not be a stumbling block.  Do not create problems for other people.  If sin comes, as it surely will, do not let it come through you.  Do not be scandalous.”

Then he added, “If someone sins against you and they are willing to repent, you must forgive him, even if it is seven times in one day.”  Forgiving somebody who keeps hurting you is hard.  Jesus’ point is that as Christians, we are to forgive in the same way that we have been forgiven.  We prayed this morning, “Forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Doing so is hard, but Jesus expects us to forgive.  After he gave that teaching, the disciples said, “Increase our faith!”  You can see why they made this request.  Jesus had told them to do something that was very hard.

How does God increase our faith?  Think about your physical body.  It needs to be nourished in order to grow.  How can your faith grow?  It can grow only through nourishment.  Several times the Scriptures talk about receiving spiritual milk as a little baby.  We must start at the beginning as little children by trusting and obeying.  The Scriptures say we must develop beyond the basic, the elemental.  We must move beyond milk.  Christian maturity means that at some point we are ready for something more substantial, more nourishing.  We are ready to be nourished with meat, meat that is often hard to chew, hard to digest.  We are ready to progress to other issues like forgiveness.

How does our strength as Christians increase?  You will be surprised at the number of times I have come by the church on a Saturday and heard Paula Joye playing this organ.  Paula comes here and practices.  This orchestra practices.  The choir practices.  People do not just do something well spontaneously.  They must work at it.  If you want to grow strong physically, you have to exercise.  If you want to grow spiritually, you have to exercise your faith.  It only stands to reason to think of our spiritual selves like we think of our physical selves.  This is the reason the disciples made the request.  Jesus told them, “You must exercise your faith.”  One way you do that is through forgiveness.  We are fed through reading and studying the Bible and fed through engaging in the life of prayer.

After the father made his confession, “Lord, help Thou my unbelief,” the disciples asked Jesus, “Why couldn’t we cure this man’s son?  Why couldn’t we cast out this demon?”

Jesus answered them, “This kind can only be dealt with by prayer.”  Some things you only learn through the spiritual nourishment of prayer in Scripture.  You have to exercise faith.  Every time you do something in faith, your faith will grow stronger.  It is confirmed in God.

Faith is not just belief.  It is an attitude.

Jesus went on to tell these disciples a parable about a servant in order to make several points.  A servant does not need to expect any great applause for doing a job.  A servant needs no approval for doing what is expected.  Faith requires a servant’s heart, a servant’s mentality.  We are not put on this earth to please ourselves.  We are not here for God to serve us, though He has done that.  We are here to serve God.  This servant mentality, taught by Jesus in this parable, goes beyond that kind of mentality.  Living as a servant means that we see possibilities in the Master that others do not see.

A shoe company sent a salesperson to a South Pacific island.  The salesperson sent a telegram back and said, “I’m coming home.  The people here do not wear shoes.”

The shoe company sent a second salesman to the same location.  This salesman sent a telegram back and said, “Send many order forms.  The people here do not wear shoes.  Many shoes can be sold here.”

Faith will allow us to see the possibilities.  Faith will allow us to have vision.  Faith will allow us to see what God can do.  Let me be very honest with you.  The nature of the vote this morning is simply taking the next step, seeing the possibilities that God has in mind for Morningside.  We have two choices:  we can be pessimistic about the possibilities, or we can catch the vision and see what God intends to do.  This servant attitude understands the power of God.

The disciples learned the power of God.  Following Jesus’ resurrection and his return to heaven, they received the power of the Holy Spirit.  These same people had started sinking when they tried to walk on water.  They had shown their doubts about the resurrection.  They had been skeptical about feeding 5000 people.  When the Holy Spirit came upon them, however, they became known as the people who turned the world upside down.  They understood the power of God because of their faith.  Only faith can see beyond our human limitations.  Only faith can allow us to see what God can do.

Writing from prison on death row, the Apostle Paul said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).  If you want other Scripture passages about faith, turn to Philippians 4.  It is chocked full of faith passages.

The Chinese have a saying, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”  Last Sunday, we talked about the first step – trust and obey.  Today, we talked about the second step – “Lord, increase our faith.”  We take whatever mustard seed faith we have – caught there between belief and unbelief – and allow God to work in our lives.  As we live by faith and take one step after another, I promise that our faith will increase.

I have so much to learn about this life of faith.  We all have a lot to learn.  For some of you, you are still at the beginning.  The place you begin is by acknowledging Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.  Acknowledge him today and begin your walk of faith.  If you have never made that decision, could I invite you to do that this morning?  Respond as God leads.

 

Kirk H. Neely
© March 2011

 

 

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