Faith


March 14, 2021 – 4th Sunday of Lent – Faith

…God who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive with Christ…For by grace we have been saved through faith, and this is not our own doing, it is the gift of God…

 

Some years ago, many years ago, I lived and worked in Kansas. It is also where after an absence of many years, I re-joined the church. One day I found myself in Wichita, KS, on business. My business taken care of I stopped at a bookstore, Eighth Day Books. One book caught my eye with its intriguing title – “The Clown in the Belfry.” 

 

The cover was a scene of a New England village with its traditional white frame church – with a belfry, of course. Underneath the picture were the words, “The Clown in the Belfry, writings on faith and fiction.” This was my introduction to Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and writer.

Over the years I have read many books by Frederick Buechner. Some writers you get to know so well that you begin to think you know them as a friend – indeed you might come to think that you know them better than some of your actual friends.

Part of our Gospel reading this morning is a phrase that is well known, so well known – so much so that for some it seemingly has lost whatever its meaning, its power, through its great familiarity. And oddly enough for me it brought to mind something Frederick Buechner had written.

I have several of his books but I couldn’t remember the particular writing I was thinking of. So, I took several of his books down from the shelves and started going through them. It took me a pretty good while because as I was searching an underlined phrase would catch my eye and I ended up re-reading an entire chapter again. (I have a habit of underlining thoughts I particularly like.) This happened several times. This was not a painful process – indeed it was great to get re-acquainted with a thoughtful writer and his insights on living a Christian life in these times.

I did find it, of course. The particular message I was thinking of was “Message in the Stars.” (1) He begins it by saying, “If God really exists, why in Heaven’s name does God not prove that he exists instead of leaving us here in our terrible uncertainty?”

A good question, if you think about it. If God exists why does he not prove it?

Buechner takes this idea and runs with it.

“Suppose, for instance, that God were to take the great, dim river of the Milky Way as we see it down from here flowing across the night sky and were to brighten it up a little and then rearrange it so that all of a sudden one night the world would step outside and look up at the heavens and see not the usual haphazard scattering of stars but, written out in letters light years tall, the sentence I REALLY EXIST, or GOD IS.”

Buechner takes this idea and really goes with it. Indeed, it’s such an alluring idea I suspect some of you have taken this idea and gone several miles down your own rabbit trail with it. Indeed, I may have lost some of you for the duration of this message. You might be thinking about how God could carry this out, what languages He could use …. other details.

Buechner brings us back by ending the story. The nightly messages continue for some time. One night the message is in French: “C’est moi, le bon Dieu.”

In a little French village a  child and his father are out one night looking at the stars. The child sees the message and then turns to his dad. The child says, “So what if God exists? What difference does that make?”

With that question instantly the starry message goes away - disappears for good., never to be seen again.

 Buechner continues, “It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want but…the experience of God’s presence.”

This past week as I was thinking about what I would say this morning I happened to be in Lonoke and stopped in the drug store there. I was with a friend who was there to get his Covid shot. There in the window by the pharmacy door as you entered was a sign for “John 3:16 Ministries.”

And “John 3:16” is sort of like Buechner’s message in the night sky. We see it everywhere, we see it at baseball games, we see it at football games, we see it so much, we’ve stopped seeing it. It is the phrase that some of us might say, “So what? What difference does it make?”

John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

So maybe this fourth Sunday of Lent – as we are nearing the end of this penitential season and we approach Holy Week and the blessed day of Easter we might think – once again - about this phrase – maybe what it really means, what should it mean to us? Our collect expresses it this way: “Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that He may live in us, and we in Him, ….”

John 3:16 begins: “For God…” Before anything else is said or explained or done it begins with an understanding – an assumption - that in this world, in this reality there is a God. There is a God. God exists. God acts.

And the phrase continues: “For God so loved the world…” In our present times there is the idea about that our being here, this world in which we find ourselves is the inexplicable result of random happenstance – nothing more.

Some would concede maybe a little more. Well, it could be the result of some powerful and unknowable force. But that force or power is no more than a great cosmic clockmaker who once having set it in motion this world,  all of this - for all intents and purposes disappeared.

 For God so loved the world tells us a great creative force, a power we call God, once having created, this world, created this world with rocks, and water, and mountains, and oceans, and stars, with the evidences of his love in the forms of goodness, of truth, of beauty – remains very much interested in his world – and us his creation.

And some would say the greatest evidence of his love for this world would be that he sent, he gave, his only begotten son.

And maybe this is the most difficult stumbling block of them all. The one we call Jesus. Yes, he may be a great teacher. Yes, he may have been a loving person, a healer, a man preaching a philosophy of love and kindness…but the Son of God?

Years ago, I was in Denver, Colorado, on business. My business done maybe about mid-afternoon, I stopped in their museum of natural history. There was a traveling exhibit of some sort and it included items from archeological studies in Israel. And among the items on display was this chunk of marble uncovered in their excavations. And on that chunk was a name in Latin – Pontius Pilate. Not a myth, not a fable, not a story from a child’s Sunday school. But rather a piece of marble excavated by scientists from our own timesthat people whose names we read in those stories did exist as real people in those times.

I asked someone whose opinion I respected who is a good authority on the Bible and the times of the Bible.He suggested the name Luke Timothy Johnson as a writer and authority on the New Testament and New Testament times. One of his books is “The Writings of the New Testament.”

It’s been a source of much information and help over the years. He discusses all the books of the New Testament. But he begins with several chapters talking about the world of the New Testament. One of those chapters deals with what he calls “The Resurrection Faith.”

He begins that chapter with a question we all want answered, “What happened?” He say there is no question that something powerful happened. “Yet it is quite another to attempt a description of that experience.” Further, “That which was experienced is not a puzzle to be solved but a frightening mystery that escapes human manipulation and refuses to be grasped by human knowledge.”

He continues,“The New Testament writings show us a variety of religious experiences, but behind them all is the first and fundamental experience…Jesus is raised. This is the one experience without which there would be no Christian movement….”

Johnson goes on and talks about several of the resurrection encounters and some of their characteristics.

These encounters are” sudden, surprising, and unmanipulated…Jesus intrudes into their midst. They do not make him present. They are frightened when he does appear. Furthermore, he is there not as a shadow of his former self but as a more powerful and commanding presence. These stories are dominated by the words spoken by Jesus. He interprets the Scripture and commands them to proclaim the message to others…. The experience of the holy leads to action; the experience of the risen Lord leads to proclamation.”

“The experience of his powerful expression was possible because he was alive and expressed it.”

“The resurrection faith, meant more than a conviction that Jesus had resumed his life for a time and appeared to some of his followers. It was a conviction, corroborated by the present experience of his power even years after his death; that he was alive in a new and powerful way; that he shared, indeed, God’s life.”

Returning to Frederick Buechner and his book “The Clown in the Belfry” in one of his essays he speaks about the Apostle Paul. (“Paul Sends His Love”)

“If death was not the end of Christ, then it was not to be the end of any of them. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” They were all of them in Christ as Christ was also in all of them, and thus life, not death, was to be the last thing for them, too.”

For those who are in Christ, whose mind is in Christ, life, not death, will be the last thing…

 

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally, and Death shall be no more’

Death thou shall die.” (John Donne)

Amen.

 

Richard Robertson

Sources and suggestions for further reading:

“The Clown in the Belfry” Frederick Buechner

“The Writings of the New Testament” Luke T. Johnson

 

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