STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AUGUST 1, 2021
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Call to Worship Isaiah 43: 10 – 11
God decrees, “You are my witnesses.
You’re my handpicked servant
So that you’ll come to know and trust me,
understand both that I am and who I am.
Previous to me there was no such thing as a god, nor will there be after me.
I, yes, I am God. I’m the only Savior there is.”
Lighting of the Christ Candle
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
Eternal God – we praise you because you are our fortress and rock. You are our light. You are our breath. You are our life and our salvation. You are gracious, kind and endlessly patient. There is no god like you; no god besides you. You are. And we are in awe of you.
We praise you because you have chosen us and gifted us. First and foremost, you have blessed us with the gift of faith.
We confess that we often have doubts. Sometimes we doubt your existence and your nature. A trinitarian God is difficult to understand so we simplify and reduce you to fit our own boxes. Sometimes we doubt your love. When troubles come our way, we blame you instead of turning to you for support and guidance. We fail to trust you and are always trying to fix things ourselves. In the process, we make them worse. At times, our doubt leads to despair. We feel isolated and abandoned. Life becomes meaningless and we distract ourselves with empty pastimes. We have no vision for the future, and we doubt that your vision for your kingdom will ever come. We look at the world and at our own circumstances instead of looking to you. We are often rebellious, doubting that you are Lord. We want what we want, not what you want. Instead of submitting to you, we are filled with pride. Instead of obeying you, we act in ways that are harmful to others. We take your forgiveness for granted. We take you for granted. Lord, we believe. Help us in our doubts.
We pray today for those who in our community of believers, who encourage our faith. Be with them as we worship together.
Wash away our doubts, so that we can worship you with clean hands and pure hearts. In our worship, may we exalt you and may we love you more. We lift your holy name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon Romans 3: 22
The God-setting-things-right that we read about
has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us.
And not only for us,
but for everyone who believes in him.
Prayer for Illumination: Lord Jesus, you have saved us by grace through faith. As we hear your word, re-ignite the passion of our faith, so that we may trust in you with our whole being. Amen.
Psalm 28: 6 – 9 Responsive
Blessed be God—
he heard me praying.
He proved he’s on my side;
I’ve thrown my lot in with him.
Now I’m jumping for joy,
and shouting and singing my thanks to him.
God is all strength for his people,
ample refuge for his chosen leader;
Save your people
and bless your heritage.
Care for them;
carry them like a good shepherd.
Acts 12: 1 – 19
Mark 9: 17 – 27
Message: Being the Church – Believing
An arms manufacturer opened a factory next to a church. The congregants of the church prayed daily for those who make weapons, for those who use weapons and for those who have weapons used against them. Finally, they prayed that the factory would close. Days later, the factory was struck by lightning, caught fire, and burned to the ground. The owner sued the church claiming their prayers caused the fire. In court, the church argued that they had done nothing to start a fire. The judge reviewed the case and deliberated, “On the one hand we have an arms dealer who believes in the power of prayer; on the other hand, we have a church that does not.”
That story has been retold in various ways many times. All of us have lived it. We ask God for something, not really believing he will come through for us and a tad surprised when he does. Perhaps the first time was when a father begged Jesus to heal his son, saying, “If you can do anything, please do it” (Mark 9:22). We can hear the desperation in his voice. He knows this is a long shot, but he’s at the end of his rope, and anything is worth a try. We can also hear the humour with which Jesus confronts him, “If…if…what do you mean “if”? Have a little faith!” To which the man responds, “I believe. Help me with my doubts” (vs. 24). Jesus then proceeds to heal the boy, after which the boy turns pale as a corpse and stops moving. He appears to be dead. I imagine the father’s faith thermometer dropped drastically as his hope turned to gloom. Thinking Jesus had killed his son, his prayer may have turned completely upside down, “I doubt. Help me with my belief”. Then Jesus takes the boy by the hand and lifts him up to life, health, and wholeness.
While Christians regularly recite The Apostle’s Creed, the most commonplace expression of faith is likely, “I believe. Help me with my doubts”. In the book of Acts, the persecution of Jesus’ disciples was heating up. James, the brother of John, (the Sons of Thunder) had been beheaded with a sword by Herod Agrippa 1 of Judaea, the grandson of Herod the Great. Seeing this pleased people, Herod arrested Peter and sentenced him to death as well. However, the Jewish commemoration of Passover had begun, and Herod couldn’t execute a prisoner during a holy festival. Herod held Peter chained up in prison until the feast was done. To ensure there wouldn’t be a prison break, Herod had four squads of soldiers who were to guard Peter 24/7. To be certain nothing could go wrong, two guards were shackled to Peter, one on each side. Things didn’t look good for Peter. Away from the prison, a group of Christians gathered in the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, (the missionary and gospel writer). Reeling with grief over the death of James, and worried sick about Peter, they prayed fervently for Peter’s release. In the meantime, an angel had been sent to Peter to mastermind a prison break. When Peter saw the angel, he thought he was dreaming but, after his vision of the unclean food, he’d learn to roll with his hallucinations. Peter’s chains fell off, he grabbed his shoes and coat and slipped past another two sets of guards and out through the city gate. The angel took his leave. That’s when Peter realized it wasn’t a dream. This had really happened. He was free and safe. He headed to Mary’s house and knocked on the door. It was answered by a young woman named Rhoda. Being careful, in case this was a raid by Herod’s soldiers, Rhoda called through the door for the person to identify himself. When she heard Peter’s voice, she was so excited she forgot to open the door. She ran back in to tell the others Peter was at the door, that their prayers had been answered. Their response? They didn’t believe her. They had had enough faith and desperation to spend days in fervent prayer, but not enough to imagine their prayers would be answered. “I believe. Help me with my doubts”. Rhoda was so insistent that they finally got up and answered the door, and, sure enough, there stood Peter.
It’s a great story. First, for the way God protected and liberated Peter and secondly, because of its irony. The disciples ask God to intervene and when he does, they don’t believe it. It’s interesting that Luke chose to record this as accurately as he did. Why wasn’t the disciples’ doubt swept under the carpet and left unmentioned? It must have been embarrassing for this group of staunch believers to have their lack of faith exposed. Perhaps they were mature enough to laugh at themselves – we certainly laugh at them. Or maybe they knew that everyone wrestles with uncertainties and thought it might help people with their doubt. Who among us has never prayed, “I believe. Help me with my doubts”? Faith casts a shadow of doubt. They are the flip sides of the same coin. A person who claims to never have a moment of doubt is simply not truthful. It may flash on our consciousness for a split second, and we may quickly put it in its place, but doubt is part of our human experience. We’d be much more peaceful if it wasn’t, but it is.
To understand and minimalize our doubts, it’s important to understand belief. Belief has many layers. One of those layers is intellectual assent. When we first encounter the concept of an eternal, supreme being – let alone one that loves us, it stretches our imagination. When we first hear the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, logic wants to filter it out. We are faced with a decision. Is there room in our world view for the unproveable? For that which is not verifiable? Lots of people get stuck right there. They cannot bring themselves to allow for anything that isn’t tangible. Their doubt causes them to conclude that people who believe in God, let alone Jesus, are irrational and delusional. Yet there are many things we know are real which we cannot see or touch. Air, for starters. Germs. Joy, love, hope, forgiveness cannot be seen or proven. I can point out the country of Nauru on a map and you’ll believe it’s real without going there yourself. You trust the eyewitnesses and the map makers. A picture of a planet through a telescope is more easily faked than an eyewitness account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. People don’t normally die for something they know isn’t real and people died for their belief in Jesus. At some point we need to decide if there’s room in our world view for mystery. Can we live without certainty? Can we take what Kierkegaard described as “a leap of faith”? A leap of faith is needed when a person is faced with a choice that cannot be justified rationally and he therefore must leap into it. Paradoxically, one needs faith to make a leap of faith.
But rational assent is only the beginning. For belief to be dynamic, we need to move beyond the intellectual. We need trust. As the story goes, it’s one thing to think a many can cross Niagara Falls on a wire, it’s another thing to jump on his back when he does it. It’s one thing to believe that God exists, it’s another to trust that his love for you is so great that he longs to have an interactive relationship with you. It’s one thing to believe Jesus died and rose again, it’s another to trust that his death was your death, and his resurrection will be your resurrection. That his sacrifice atoned for your sin and his resurrection opens the way to abundant and eternal life. It’s one thing to agree that the Holy Spirit exists, it’s another to turn to the Spirit to guide you, reform you and comfort you. It’s one thing to pray, it’s another thing to open the door. Trust happens when we place our lives and our future in God’s hands and when we turn to him, not only in time of need, but because we know we will be welcomed and loved, much like a child with his or her parents. We believe God will love us and meet our needs and so we rush into his loving arms. That is trust.
Another word that describes our belief is faith. In Hebrews 11:1 we read, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. This sense of certainty is what allows us to look at creation and know deep within us that the universe is not here by accident. It’s here because someone greater than creation imagined and willed it into being. There is someone bigger, more powerful, and more creative than the big bang. That someone is God our creator. I don’t think scripture and science are incompatible; whatever process God used to create the cosmos he is the one who came before it and sustains it. Faith is that deep sense of peace that, against all appearances, all will be well. Faith is the confidence that God desires good for us and not harm; that our needs will be provided for; that the sun will come up; that whether I live or die, I belong to Christ. Faith is the certainty that when I pray, God is open, welcoming and listening. And it the assurance that God will answer those prayers with love, wisdom, and mercy. Faith is also the assurance that if God doesn’t answer my prayers, that life is still in his hands and that he will strengthen me in times of trouble. Faith allows me to hope for the best, and to work for the best. Faith provides the hope that this life is not the only life and that something better awaits us.
Belief also includes being able to give one’s self to Christ, aligning with his will and finding purpose in life as he leads. It is not enough to say we believe, to trust in God to meet our needs or even to have faith in the hope of heaven. True believers are so grateful to God that we want to live in ways that please him. When we submit our willfulness to Christ’s will, it allows us to let go and relax, knowing he is in charge. This affiliation is what brings meaning to life. Our values become clear. We contribute to Christ’s kingdom, living in ‘God’s world, God’s way’. We can discern what is just and right and offer our support to it. We can find our way forward and see our next steps because Jesus lights our path. Standing with Christ is not easy. It also means we will need to look deep within ourselves and confess what is not aligned with Christ. Rather than dodging those shadows or brushing them off, we move towards the Spirit in humility asking for cleansing, correction, and the ability to self-discipline. It also means that we take a stand in the world. We are loyal to Christ, and we identify ourselves with him. We die to self as we embrace the fact that life is not about us, it’s about God. We are not the essence of God’s duty; God is the essence of our duty. While that may sound like too much self-denial, it is also the path to living fully and joyfully. Faith leads us to that path.
When we say, “I believe”, we are acknowledging the reality of God and the grace he has offered us in Jesus Christ. When we believe we put our lives and our futures in God’s hands because we trust those hands more than any other – God has always got us. When we believe we are filled with faith and hope. Going against the odds, we confidently step out into the Red Sea sure that the water will part. We know something better is waiting for us on the other side. Saying “I believe” is short form for saying we’re choosing to live in ways that are pleasing to God and devoting ourselves to his vision of what this life should and could be. With every faith-filled step we take towards Christ, the Spirit helps us with our “unbelief”. Our faith becomes more, and our doubt becomes less, until, one day, doubt completely disappears and faith is no longer needed, because then, as when the disciples opened the door to find Peter standing before them, a door will be opened for us, and we will see Christ face to face.
Silent Prayer and Reflection
Holy God, it is with faith that we bring our gifts today. Help us to be generous so that others will know your provision and care. We offer you ourselves, asking you to use us so that others my believe and trust in your grace, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
God our Creator, in whom we live and move and have our being:
Thank you for your faithfulness to each of us
and to your whole creation.
Thank you for choosing us and giving us the gift of faith.
Thank you that we have died with Christ, that our sins have been removed and that we have the hope of eternal life.
Thank you for calling us to share in your mission in our world.
We pray that your kingdom would come on Earth as it is in Heaven and that you would use each of us to make that happen.
Thank you that our lives have purpose.
Thank you for your Spirit within us, leading us and comforting us.
Thank you for all those we love, and for those who love us.
We are aware of the challenges in our lives,
and in the lives of those we care about,
and in the lives of people we don’t know and can’t see.
Show us how our care and concern for the world and for each other
can respond to the needs we name before you today:
We pray for those people and places that have been in the headlines this past week,
for those situations in the world and in our country that concern us deeply,
and for all whose lives cry out to you and to us for help…
We pray for those who are suffering in our community –
the many people who are without housing and food.
Those who struggle to find work and to make ends meet.
Those whose homes are not places of safety and trust.
We pray for those who are struggling with the effects of the pandemic:
those who are ill and those who are bereaved,
those whose employment or business have changed,
and those who are lonely.
We pray for those looking forward to a new beginning this fall:
those hoping for a school year with fewer pandemic interruptions;
those starting at a new school, a new program or going to a new college or university,
those beginning new jobs or new activities,
those welcoming new members into the family through birth or marriage,
those moving into new homes or new cities.
We pray for our congregation in a time of reorganizing
after months of pandemic restrictions.
Give us a hunger and thirst to once again worship you.
Gather us in to new and renewed friendships.
Help us see where you call us to reach out with your love and generosity.
We also lay before you those we love who are ill, in body, mind or spirit. We name them before you now:
And we pause to invite you into the deeply personal concerns that are on our hearts.
Equip us to meet every challenge we face with believing minds, trusting spirits, hearts full of faith, and with a renewed commitment to you.
Hear us as we pray in the way Christ taught:
The Lord’s Prayer
Invitation to Mission
We go from here,
believing that Jesus is risen.
Trusting the Spirit is with us.
Faithful to our Father to the end.
Benediction May the Triune God bless you and keep you. Amen.