Monday, June 17, 2019

Faith Seeking Understanding—a sermon on the spiritual gifts of Knowledge and Faith

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St John’s
Faith Seeking Understanding 
Romans 4.16-22, Daniel 1.17-20 (faith and knowledge)
16 June 2019, spiritual gifts 1

(With children)
To these four young men (Daniel, Hananiah/Shadrach, Mishael/Meshach, and Azariah/Abednego) God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.
At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring – not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations.’ He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed – the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.
Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead – since he was about a hundred years old – and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why ‘it was credited to him as righteousness.’

This summer we’ll be looking at the various gifts that the Holy Spirit gives us, and what the people of God have done with those gifts through the centuries, and praying for the Spirit to reveal what gifts we have as we follow God’s call to us, and to help us develop them to be more faithful.

It’s easy to gloss over the idea of spiritual gifts, either insisting we don’t have any, or that whatever gifts we might have are unimportant. Neither of those things is true—everyone is gifted. Paul says “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” We may not recognise our gifts, but they are there, often in abundance! And within the Body of Christ, every gift we need to fulfil God’s purpose for us will be present. Sometimes that’s one of the best ways to determine our calling, actually—to look at our gifts. Because God always gives us what we need to do what God calls us to do. Which means sometimes our gifts change throughout our lives, or as needs in the community change, or as the world around us changes.

Gifts from the Spirit are different than our own talents, though they may sometimes be related. Gifts are things we cannot earn or create or cultivate in ourselves. The Spirit chooses, and gives, and takes away. Full stop. We do not make ourselves have faith, or wisdom, or the ability to speak in tongues. So we don’t get to claim some kind of special favour when we do have those things, because they aren’t about us anyway, they are always about fulfilling God’s purpose and vision for the world, and for each place and time.

So each Sunday we’ll hear about a pair of gifts. Then on Tuesday evenings, starting the 25th of June, we’ll also have a chance to study what the Bible says about spiritual gifts, and explore what we think our gifts might be. 

Have you been able to guess what this morning’s pair of gifts is? In some ways, it was the easiest pair to put together, though in other ways it seems almost like they are opposites. 

Daniel and his four friends were gifted all kinds of knowledge, because it would help them to glorify God in the midst of the foreign king’s court. They had the gift of studying, and understanding, God’s truth through many different avenues—it says they had knowledge of literature, psychology, and all kinds of learning. It is indeed a gift, to love learning and to be able to see God in it all, to be able to gather and analyse information and use that for God’s glory. The gift of knowledge also challenges the rest of us, to seek and study, because God’s word and God’s world are endlessly fascinating, full of new things for us to explore and learn.

Daniel and his companions were already faithful. They didn’t receive the gift of knowledge in order to grow faith in themselves, but rather to demonstrate God’s faithfulness to others. But I suspect they still enjoyed the learning, and the journey of applying that knowledge to the situation they found themselves in. 

There is an old description of the Christian life, possibly written by St. Anselm, that says that what we are about is “faith seeking understanding.” In our life with God, we are always learning and growing, because both God’s faithfulness and our faith drive us to seek understanding. Not knowledge for the sake of simply knowing things, and not that information or logic can create faith. Rather that faith makes us want to know God more, in order that we may grow closer to God and better carry out God’s will.

Of course, it isn’t only knowledge that is a gift of the Spirit, but even faith itself. It can feel a little bit strange to think of faith itself as a gift of the Spirit. Yet the apostle Paul describes it that way repeatedly, even saying that no one can call Jesus Lord unless the Spirit gives them the ability, and Jesus says that no one comes to him unless drawn by the Father. To have faith is a gift. 

What is faith, exactly? Sometimes we use it to mean belief, in an intellectual sense, like in the creeds that lay out the propositions to which we are to give our assent—I believe in God, the father almighty, maker of heaven and earth. To our modern ears, it’s a statement about what we think is true, that God exists and is creator of all. Though that would probably fall more under the gift of knowledge, than of faith! Because faith is really much more than an intellectual exercise. And to believe in God is to say more than that we think God exists. 

Writing to the Romans, Paul describes the story of Abraham by first pointing out that, intellectually, Abraham knew there was no hope. The facts were against him, and against God, frankly. He’d been promised many offspring, but both he and his wife were too old. He’d been promised land, and yet they were wanderers. He had left everything, and by all accounts it seemed to be for nothing. 

And yet, Paul writes, Abraham was “fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.”

In other words, Abraham didn’t simply believe in God, he believed God. Faith may seek understanding, but faith itself is not really about the facts, it’s about trust—which is the marker of a relationship, not a thought process. And this kind of faith is indeed a gift. We can’t force trust, nor can we think our way into it. It comes through the Spirit, continually showing us God’s faithfulness.

The promise comes by faith, so that it will be clear to everyone that this is grace—it is gift, not earned by effort. And the gift of faith ties us together with all God’s people, from Abraham until now—a faithline, rather than a bloodline, with all who are also persuaded that God has the power to do what God has promised.

Simply reading this little bit of Paul’s letter to the Romans, we might think that Abraham’s faith was unshakeable and maybe even naive. But that wasn’t the case—even Abraham is an example of faith seeking understanding, though it’s not clear whether he was given the gift of knowledge. Abraham asked God a lot of questions, he always wanted to know more. He tried to take matters into his own hands, ensuring an heir by other means, because he believed God’s promise but wasn’t always 100% certain that God could deliver through the usual methods. To stand in the faithline of Abraham’s descendants is also to be willing to know the whole story, to study the scriptures and see how God and God’s people have walked together throughout the ages. When we seek that knowledge, our faith will be deepened, as we see God at work in people just like us, in circumstances we recognise, in this life.

To say that faith—in the sense of unshakeable trust that allows us to be fully persuaded that God is able to deliver on God’s promises—is a gift is to admit that not everyone will receive this particular gift, or even that it might be given for only a season of life. Which means those who do have it cannot boast, and those who have doubts, or who have the gift Abraham-style, looking for ways to enact God’s promises themselves, or those who need more information before they will believe, are not inferior. All of us have gifts, and all the gifts work together in the Body of Christ to accomplish God’s goals for us and for the world. Those with the gift of faith can encourage us all, remind us of God’s promises and power, and guide us as we hold fast to those promises in times of storm. And those with the gift of knowledge can encourage us all in study and help us to seek understanding that will deepen our connection to God and perhaps lead us toward greater faithfulness—by which I mean acting in accordance with God’s will whatever our current state of mind or heart might be.

I had a terribly difficult time choosing a hymn that might encapsulate these gifts, especially faith, because there are so many to choose from but few that seem to encompass both. Which makes sense, as it’s easy to imagine that faith and knowledge are opposite gifts—one taking things without any proof, and one seeking and analysing and looking for information. But I think they really are complementary gifts, not opposites. Within any community, we need both. We need the people who can sing with complete heartfelt conviction “no storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that Rock I’m clinging” and “safe in the shadow of the Lord, possessed by love divine, I trust in him, I trust in him, and meet his love with mine.” And we also need those who earnestly sing the prayer “may the mind of Christ our Saviour live in me from day to day” and “let our minds be sharp to read you in sight or sound or printed page.”

As we stand in the faithline of both Abraham and Daniel, and countless others through the millennia, I hope we can see the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, the gift-giver, throughout their stories and ours. And so we sing the hymn Faith Begins By Letting Go, recalling that Abraham and Sarah’s faith included letting go...and Daniel’s involved holding on...and praying that all of us would be gifted with the ability to see God’s grace in the commonplace. If you are comfortable doing so, I invite you to stand as we sing together.

(Words by Carl P. Daw)
Faith begins by letting go,
giving up what had seemed sure,
taking risks and pressing on,
though the way feels less secure:
pilgrimage both right and odd, 
trusting all our life to God.

Faith endures by holding on,
keeping memory’s roots alive
so that hope may bear its fruit;
promise-fed, our souls will thrive,
not through merit we possess
but by God’s great faithfulness.

Faith matures by reaching out, 
stretching minds, enlarging hearts,
sharing struggles, living prayer,
binding up the broken parts;
till we find the commonplace

ripe with witness to God’s grace. 

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