Have Faith in God
These words from Jesus (Mark 11: 22), delivered a few days before his death, have become a watchword in our congregation over many years. They have been an invaluable source of help and encouragement during the last two ministries, in both happy and adverse circumstances. During the vacancy, they have been our constant companion. In the present uncertainties and confusion ahead of us it has been good to remind ourselves that our confidence lies not in ourselves and in our wisdom but in a higher source, who has proved himself so worthy of our trust.
In our studies in John’s gospel on Sunday mornings we are placing the emphasis on true and real religion. The adjective ‘true’ appears frequently in the sermon titles (e.g. ‘True discipleship’, ‘True religion’, ‘The true light’, ‘The true shepherd’, ‘True devotion’). There is a danger of faith becoming a merely historic or received phenomenon rather than a vibrant reality in our daily lives. The exhortation from Jesus to exercise faith was given after the disciples had witnessed at first-hand a graphic illustration of the consequences of unbelief or of bad faith. The failure of the Israel of old to acknowledge the Saviour whom God had provided (Mark 11: 21-22) would lead to their exclusion and to the later fall of Jerusalem.
The fig tree which Jesus had cursed the previous day had ‘withered from the roots’. While the image of the fig-tree would be less familiar to people in the UK, and, in particular, to those living in Scotland, the equation of the withering of the fig-tree and the judgment of God on the sin of his people would have been accessible to those versed in the scriptures of the Old Testament (e.g. Isaiah 34: 4, Joel 1: 12; Hosea 2: 12). We may not see examples of the laying waste of vines and of fig-trees in our own agricultural economy. However, the closing of church buildings which once resounded with praise to God, and the all too apparent decline, numerical and spiritual, in so many others, in both the Church of Scotland and in other denominations, caution us against the dangers of unbelief in our times. We may say that such illustrations can never apply to congregations like ours. However, the history of our church, particularly during the inter-war period, and the years afterwards until 1956, charts the effects of unbelief and of departing from God and gives salutary warnings of what can happen if we fail to heed the words of Jesus.
However, the focus of the words of Jesus is a very positive one. One of the problems is to tease out what is meant by the term ‘faith’, which is used loosely today. The term has been exploited by the advertising world to sell products as disparate as women’s shoes (there is, apparently, a make called ‘Faith’) and popular music, in which the language of religion has been transferred to secular objects. Faith is also used generically as a synonym of confidence. In this sense, it is based on a calculation of probabilities or of risks. The term has been particularly appropriated in this way by journalists in the financial sector, whose frequent headlines during the recession have served to highlight the loss of confidence in the banks and/or the markets.
However, the faith which Jesus is identifying is in God. This exhortation or invitation is counter-cultural today in an age in which we are encouraged to believe that the path to success lies in expressing confidence in ourselves and in telling people how wonderful we are.
How different, too, the faith that Jesus is talking about and the easy believism which can be mistaken for it. True faith is, in the words of the much cited acronym, putting our complete trust in God:
However, unlike others who often betray our trust, God alone will never let us down. The disciples had already so much evidence of the trustworthiness of Jesus. We, too, in our experience have found him in rain and in sunshine to be a ‘friend who sticks closer than a brother’ (Proverbs18: 24). In fact, as Martin Allen suggested recently, in his exposition of the story of Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21, perhaps the best translation of these words of Jesus ‘have faith in God’ is the one given by Hudson Taylor: ‘Hold on to the faithfulness of God’.
Why then should we be fearful about the future? Admittedly, some are facing situations or issues which are of real concern; some are suffering physically (and we are prisoners in the body); some are experiencing other trials; some are wondering what the future holds for them. Jesus was preparing his disciples for such eventualities. However, they were slow to lay hold of the encouragement Jesus was giving. They believed Jesus, but took time to trust wholeheartedly and to take Jesus at his word. We too can be guilty of what has been called ‘practical infidelity’.
The power of faith
The disciples had to extend their vision with regard to the unlimited power of God (Mark 11: 23-24):
Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours
Now I have not heard of any literal fulfillment of this promise, though, as we have seen in recent times from the effects of the various tsunami and earthquakes, even what seems to be built on solid foundations can be swept away in an instant. The mountains in the ancient world were regarded as a symbol of challenge. Jesus is saying to his disciples that believing prayer can remove the high mountains which we cannot climb and which stand in the way of the progress of the work of the gospel, or can help us face some of the seemingly intractable problems which loom large in personal situations.
An immediate application can be with regard to the situation facing so many congregations – for both those leaving and those staying in the Church of Scotland. God is inviting us to exercise this mountain-removing faith. Not that the faith itself is the most important thing – as Jesus said elsewhere, it is not the amount of faith but the infinite capacity of the One in whom it is placed:
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. (Luke 17: 6)
Jesus was trying to enlarge the minds and hearts of the disciples with regard to the work ahead. He was reminding them that nothing was impossible with God. Even the most difficult challenges may be overcome.
Lord, increase our faith
In fact, the large challenges become, with faith in God, major opportunities. As David Philip was reminding us in our bible study in Exodus this last Wednesday, ‘the fields of our parish are white unto harvest’. But have we the workers for this particular challenge?
God is encouraging us to be ambitious for the work of the gospel. As William Carey, who has been regarded as the father of modern missions, said in an epigram, used by C. T. Studd and by Spurgeon:
Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.
This does not mean that God is offering us a blank cheque. The ‘receiving whatever you ask’ is guaranteed if it accords with God’s good and perfect will. In a parallel saying, Jesus qualifies the promise with the exhortation to align ourselves completely with him:
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. (John 15: 7)
To experience more of such answers to prayer we need to think as Jesus thinks, to feel as he feels and to will what he wills. In early modern English usage, we need to abide in Jesus and to let him abide in us. In this way, we will be able to make our requests truly in the name of Jesus, which means ‘representing him’. It is as if our prayers are being signed off by Jesus himself. (A Welsh preacher, Elwin Davies, urged his congregation at one time to stop using the formula ‘in the name of Jesus;’ unless they were confident that the requests were in obedience to Christ.)
If ever there is a need in our land for proving the promise of Jesus with regard to mountain-removing faith it is now. To do this, we may all have to look afresh at our prayer commitments, both corporate and individual. Perhaps our lives are too busy? I heard recently that in one African village the place of prayer for each household was a hut separated from a noisy overcrowded house, and approached along a narrow path, lined with shrubs. The vitality of the prayer house could be gauged by the amount of growth of the foliage bordering the paths. In some cases, the hut could be seen clearly by all who passed by at the end of the path; in others, the path to the prayer house looked inaccessible. Do we need to trim back some of the foliage which is hindering our access to the seat of power and preventing us from proving that God can remove mountains? May we be encouraged in the months ahead as we take up the gracious invitation and challenge of Jesus to ‘have faith in God’.
With very best wishes
Noël Peacock, Session ClerkView All Letters