February 15, 2015

It’s a Question of Faith

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Please note: There is no audio available for this week's sermon.

There are moments, (often extremely rare moments), when the scales fall away and we see reality as it really is.

Astronomers have recently had just such an experience. They’ve been looking at a picture taken by the Hubble telescope. They’ve dubbed it, ‘the largest photo ever taken’. It shows in amazing detail the billions upon billions of stars in the universe. A reporter, commenting on the picture, said:- “it makes you realize just how small we really are.”

I guess that’s how many people feel when they consider the vastness of space. And it’s true, so long as you focus only upon that vastness of the universe, you are bound to feel insignificant and unimportant. After all, our earth is a mere speck in a solar system that is dwarfed in comparison to so many others that abound in the universe.

Centuries ago, the Psalmist gazing up at the night sky didn’t have the benefit of a Hubble telescope, but he did see the heavens in a way that most of us will never see them today. When he looked up at the sky, his vision wasn’t distorted by the brilliance of light reflecting upward from the cities and towns of our world. For him, the night sky was pitch black, so he was able to see a vast array of tiny lights from countless stars shining in the night.

So how did he respond to the enormous magnitude of that sky? Listen to what he wrote:
Lord, “ when I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?”

But he didn’t stop there, he went on to say:
“You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
The Psalmist didn’t let the spectacle of the heavens belittle him. In stead, he looked beyond the heavens - to the Creator of all things; a Creator whom he was confident had formed him in the very image and likeness of God. (Genesis 1:26)

When you leave God out of the picture, the meaning and value of all humanity shrinks. We become little more than animals, formed by mindless evolution. We have no meaning and no purpose to our lives, beyond the struggle to survive as a species.

Stephen Hawking, the world renowned physicist who has managed to stay alive despite the ravages of ALS, has no belief in God. Neither does he think the human race will have a role in history for very much longer. As he sees it, in the not-to-distant future, human beings are going to create an artificial intelligence that will surpass our mental capabilities, thus making us obsolete. We will simply no longer have a useful role to play, and so we will fade into obscurity like the dinosaurs.

Hawking’s atheistic beliefs lead him to see humanity as having such little importance that we can be simply be replaced by a computer. That’s the kind of thinking you end up with when you take God out of the picture. Humanity is reduced to the level of all other animals struggling to survive.
Of course, Stephen Hawking isn’t the only one dismissing God from the story of life. We’re living in a society which is constantly attacking faith in God.

Teachers face disciplinary action if they dare to speak about their faith in the classroom.

Young people are encouraged to believe that sexual gratification overrides Christian morality which would have them reserve sex for a truly committed life-long relationship and for the building of a family.

Children are taught that mindless evolution is the only explanation for life on earth.

The media is forever addressing issues of:
youth violence in schools;
cyber bullying;
date rape; and
countless other social issues,

yet rarely, in the discussion that follows does anyone suggest that developing a faith in God might be a significant factor in changing behaviour.

The slow, but steady secularization of western society is also having a serious impact on parents leading even those who have been raised in the church, to consider bringing their children to worship, not worth the effort.

The Apostle Paul, no doubt concerned about the lack of faith in his world, said:
“The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the Gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:4)

These words might very well have been addressed to our generation, for it’s obvious that the vast majority of people living in our country today are incapable of really understanding the importance of having a faith in Jesus Christ. They are much more likely to agree with Karl Marx who said that “religion is the opiate of the people;” - of little value accept to provide comfort for the weak or for those who are afraid.

We can learn a great deal about how we should respond as Christians when we encounter opposition, by listening to Paul’s response to it. Here’s what he said:-

“it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)

In other words, according to Scripture, if we let Christ into our hearts, His love and compassion will reflect out to others so powerfully that it will change society for the better.

Well then, if it is as simple as that, why aren’t Christians more involved in changing society today? Why do we so rarely here the Church speaking out on social issues? I think it’s a question of faith! Let me explain.

This is Transfiguration Sunday; the day we remember when Jesus took Peter, James and John up onto a high mountain, where they could be alone together. What happened on that summit, changed forever, how those three men regarded Jesus.

They’d expected to go to a quiet place for prayer, but what they saw when they reached the top of that mountain was a transformation in the appearance of their Lord. As he prayed, his face began to shine like the sun and His clothes turned brilliantly white. And then, to their amazement, they saw Jesus talking to two men, whom they assumed were Moses and Elijah.

But, before they had time to digest the meaning of what they were seeing, they were stunned by a voice coming out of a cloud, saying:- “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” In fear and awe, they fell to the ground, astounded by what they were witnessing.
The next thing they remembered was the calming hand of Jesus reaching out to touch them and His gentle voice saying: “Don’t be afraid.”

They had no idea how to respond, because what they had witnessed was beyond their understanding. But one thing had been made certain, this Jesus, who they were following, was no ordinary human being. He was truly the Son of God.

As they prepared to go back down the mountain and rejoin the other disciples, Jesus cautioned them to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man was raised from the dead.
Peter, James and John may not have really understood what they had seen, but one thing was certain, it changed forever their relationship with Christ. Never again would they question His credentials, or hesitate to call Him Lord, for now they knew beyond any doubt that He was the long awaited Messiah.

Now compare that to what was happening at base of the mountain.

A father had brought his epileptic son to the nine disciples who had been left behind, asking that they to cure his affliction. But try as they might, they were unable to help the poor lad.
When Jesus returned and was told what had happened, He spoke harshly to those disciples, calling them a faithless and perverse generation. Then He proceeded to cure the boy with but a word.
When the disciples asked why they had failed to heal the child, Jesus replied: “Because of your little faith!”

These disciples had been with Jesus nearly 3 years.
They’d sat at His feet listening to His teaching.
They’d watched Him perform miracle after miracle.
They’d even called Him Lord and Master.

But obviously, deep down they were still unsure of who He was.

Friends, I think that Jesus’ words could very well be addressed to the majority of people in the Christian Church throughout North America; because it has become far too easy to call one’s self, a Christian. It requires very little commitment. In Fact, any of those who call themselves Christians, haven’t even read the source book of our faith; - the Bible. So it is easy to understand why the Christian community is so ineffective in changing our modern world.

But there is good news! Once you get to know Christ on a personal level; and once you open your hearts to the power of His Holy Spirit, you will be inspired to speak out forcefully on behalf of Christ, and when that happens, things will begin to change in our community and the world around us.

I’d like to tell you the story about one Torontonian who, because of his commitment to Christ, has made a very significant contribution to people living in the Dominican Republic.

His name is Elio Madonia, a Toronto businessman who has spent much of his life working in the city and building a successful business. From his youth, he’s been involved in the church, and has developed a strong and vibrant faith in Jesus Christ. About 23 years ago, shortly before he was to retire, Elio and his wife holidayed at an exclusive resort in the Dominican Republic. The trip was a celebration of his retirement.

While at the resort one afternoon, he and his wife went for a walk outside the resort compound in the town of Puerto Plata. On their walk, they accidently made a wrong turn and found themselves surrounded by the most appalling poverty they had ever seen. Elio was absolutely stunned by what he was seeing. All around him were people living in tiny shacks strung together with scraps of tin and old boards. These were people who were at the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

That night, Elio says, - he had a serious conversation with God in prayer. He questioned why God would let people live in such appalling conditions. During that prayer, he received what he felt was a powerful message from God. He distinctly heard God speaking to him, and saying: “I want you to help them.”

Today in his 80’s, Elio says: “I was stunned. I had never seen anything like it. I couldn’t get the image of those people living in such dreadful situations out of my mind. I knew I had to do something to help.”

Before finishing his vacation, Elio made contact with a local pastor who had a small congregation in that slum. When he met the pastor, he asked him if any of the members of his congregation lived in such terrible conditions as he had witnessed. The pastor’s reply shocked him: “I live there myself,” he said. “Come and visit my home.”

The pastor’s home was also a miserable shack. The pastor then invited him to stroll through the neighbourhood where they saw countless other shacks sheltering families in need.

So overwhelmed by all this, was Elio that he immediately promised the pastor that he’d build him a proper house; which in the next few months he did. But Elio couldn’t leave it with just building one home, and so he returned to the Dominican Republic a few months later; - bought a piece of land, and began to organize the building of more homes, which soon mounted up to 25 houses; each one donated to a family from the pastor’s congregation.

One day, as the project was nearing an end, a little boy approached Elio and begged him to come to where he lived to see his sick mother. When they arrived at the shack, the desperate mother pleaded with Elio to give her one of the new house he’d just completed, but unfortunately they’d already given them to other deserving families. At that moment, it became very clear to Elio that he couldn’t stop with just 25 homes, he had to press on. So he promptly purchased two acres of land, in anticipation of building more homes.

By now, word was beginning to spread about the good work that Elio was doing in the Dominican Republic. Friends began to send him money so that he could enlarge his project. And gradual, over the next few years, an organization developed to carry on this ministry, which Elio had started. Today, Elio and his wife, with the help of others, have built more than 9 complete villages (each with a church, a school and a medical center), and turned over more than 1,000 homes to destitute families, so that they can have a new start in life.

That’s what can happen when committed Christians are inspired by Holy Spirit and have the courage to respond to that guidance. As Jesus once said:- “I tell you the truth, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will; for nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matt. 17:20)

The point I’m trying to make friends is that if we nurture our faith; and if we open our hearts to the Holy Spirit, we too can accomplish great things. It’s just a question of faith.