Lenten Theme: The Art of Living by Faith
Text: Romans 4:13-25
“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” When the church says this to our face, while applying ashes to our face, it is reminding us, in the starkest and most direct of manners, that we are mortal. Ash Wednesday symbolically slaps us in the face with the message that we are going to die.
Some of us need that reminder. We’re busy living life with great health and success, or at least busy pursuing those aims.
Others of us know of our mortality all too well. We feel the pains of age and of failure. We’ve experienced the death of others close to us. We sense that our time may not be far away.
The ashes on our forehead might be delivering a hard and heavy message, but they are also delivering a message of hope – for those ashes are drawn in the shape of a cross. The church on this day reminds us of more than our mortality—it also reminds us that we live with faith. We have faith that our death will be overcome. Death is not the end for us. Jesus, who died on the cross, did so in order that we might rise from the dead to life everlasting. That is our faith.
This year during the Wednesdays in Lent we will consider a progression of messages entitled “The Art of Living by Faith.” The idea behind the title is that living by faith is more art than science. The church can give general principles, based on the scriptures, that guide our life choices. But every situation we face in life is unique. Negotiating life with faith calls us to be creative. It consists of many judgment calls.
Think of it this way. A class on the art of cooking seeks to move us beyond simply following a recipe. Cooking as art pushes us toward that which is not just functional but also beautiful. It moves us to consider taste, health, presentation. So also with the life of faith. We wish our lives to be one of beauty, not simply survival.
The art of cooking also implies that sometimes we need to come up with Plan B. We may not have all the necessary ingredients for a recipe. We may not have time for a run to the store. In fact, these situations are more often the norm than the exception.
When you have practiced the art of cooking you can come up with a meal on the fly. It may not always be beautiful, but it serves its purpose. So also with the life of faith. When Plan A is not working, those who are practiced in the art of faith can adjust, maintain hope, and move forward with confidence.
We wish to be a people who are skilled in the art of living by faith so that we can negotiate life’s challenges. In tonight’s sermon, we will consider three essential skills for living by faith.
The first of these skills is the one that Ash Wednesday lifts up for us in the strongest of manners. Repentance. Repentance is an essential skill for meeting life’s challenges and an ingredient we should always keep on hand as we seek to live by faith.
Earlier this evening the church led us in a very extended time of repentance. We offered more than our usual number of pleas for God’s mercy. And yet, though longer, today’s liturgy merely echoes that which we do on a regular basis. In our Sunday liturgy and in our messages, we regularly call on people to repent. In fact, we normally do this at the beginning of our services, just as Jesus began his ministry by calling people to “repent.”
To repent is to fall on our knees – figuratively, and perhaps also literally—and admit that we have failed to live as we ought. Repentance is central to who we are, because it is something we continually need. We recall the statement of our dear brother Luther, whose first thesis nailed to the Wittenberg church door said: “When our Lord Jesus called us to repent, he willed that the whole life of the believer should be one of repentance.”
Repentance is an expression of sorrow over sin. And, repentance is a turning to the Lord as our source of hope. On Ash Wednesday we hear God say, through the prophet Joel, “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning—rending your hearts and not your garments.”
We return to the Lord for “he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Repentance as a regular discipline, and repentance as an immediate reaction to our sin, learned through the urging of the church, is an essential skill for the art of living by faith.
A second essential skill is that of knowing the story. Lent is a 40-day journey that focuses the church on the passion of our Lord Jesus—the events of his life which include and surround his death and resurrection. 40 days is a good chunk of time, yet it’s still only a small percentage of the year. By contrast, the story of Christ’s passion makes up fully one-third of the Synoptic Gospel accounts, and one-half of John. To understand Jesus is to understand the story of his passion. It is central to his message.
Likewise, the Bible itself is filled with many stories of God working in the lives of his people, and they are all helpful to know. Each of them can encourage us and teach us as we seek to live by faith. But we must see all of them in their relationship to the central story—the death and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.
In this year of remembering the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, begun when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses calling the church to debate, we do well to remember that the Reformation took place because the church had lost sight of the central message of the story. The story of Christ had become diluted and distorted in such a way that it had stopped being a gospel story—a story of good news. The focus of Jesus’ story shifted from what Jesus did for us to what we must do for ourselves. It had become a moralistic story in which we were urged to imitate Christ and become like Christ if we had any hope of being saved.
Thankfully, Luther and the reformers strongly asserted that our hope for salvation is based on what Christ did on the cross. On the cross Christ died to pay the price for our sins. This is the clear teaching not only of Luther and the reformers but of those like St. Paul whose inspired writings make up the rest of the New Testament. In our second reading, we heard Paul clearly state that Jesus was “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” He says this in the midst of teaching that our salvation comes by God’s grace, through our faith and not our works. “The law brings wrath,” he explains. But righteousness “depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace.” Faith is “counted as righteousness… it will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord.”
When we know the story of what God has done for us in the passion of our Lord Jesus, we are fully equipped for the art of living by faith. There is no more important story for us to know.
That being said, to know the story is not the same as trusting it. There are plenty of people who know it but don’t believe it. That’s why we would add that a further essential ingredient for the art of living by faith is to trust the promise given in that story.
In our reading from Romans, Paul lifts up Abraham as one who trusted in God’s promises. Abraham heard the promise of God that he would have an heir someday. At Abraham’s advanced age this promise would be difficult to believe. But Abraham had already stepped out in faith a few times before when he had heard God’s Word, and God had always come through for Abraham. Abraham’s faith was not perfect – there were times when he failed – but he continued in his relationship with God, and God blessed him once again. As God promised, Abraham was given an heir – his beautiful son Isaac.
We trust God’s promises when we maintain our relationship with Him—when we listen to Him, when we pray to Him, and when we resolve to follow His commands.
Faith comes as we hear the story of Jesus and note what it promises. The story is not just about the action of God in Christ—it is about the action of God in Christ for you. God has promised to save you. God has promised to protect and defend you. God has promised to equip and strengthen you.
Paul notes that Abraham “grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” As we give glory to God we also grow strong in faith. God is a God of promises, and He moves us to live by faith.
Dr. Charles Arand, who wrote extensive notes for this sermon series, says: “In some ways [the word] promise is a better word for Gospel than good news.”
News, he notes, is often impersonal and abstract. News is just something that is new. It’s information. We read about it and hear about it constantly, especially in this “information age.” In the Gospel, however, God speaks to us very personally. He’s not just telling us something that may or may not have an impact on us. Rather, he’s promising that something good has been done for us.
Also, when we think of news we think of something that happened in the past. The Gospel is a promise that points to the present and future. It is a promise that God is with us now. And, it is a promise that on the last day, when Christ returns, we will pass through the Day of Judgment unscathed and enter into the New Creation.
The art of living by faith is the art of living in dependence on the promises of God. To do this well, God helps us develop the skills of repentance, knowing the story and trusting the promise. These skills lead to a life that is beautiful. And, these skills lead to a life that can adjust, adapt and carry us through the greatest of challenges.
May our God who is the ultimate and true Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier work in us a faith that endures to the end and a life which reflects His glory. Amen.