“You gotta believe!” was a slogan attached to the 1973 New York Mets. The Mets had been the doormat of the National League ever since they came into existence in 1962 until their remarkable, some would say miraculous, World Series win in 1969. In 1973 they came out of nowhere to win the NL East title and NL championship. During that run they coined the slogan to remind themselves that in baseball amazing things happen. Alas, they ran up against the Oakland A’s in the ’73 World Series and lost. In 2015 they again made a late season run that again got them the NL championship, and during that run they resurrected the slogan. But you might remember that again they fell short, this time losing in the World Series to our own Kansas City Royals. Clearly, in the real world faith in yourself and in your team can give you a boost, at least temporarily, but such things as talent and know-how, mixed with a bit of luck, have to factor into the mix as well.
But if that is the case even in the mundane things of life, think about how important that is in the spiritual realm. There is a danger in thinking that the mere act of believing something is of spiritual benefit to us. “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you believe in something.” There is the mind-set even among some Christians that we should not bring the Gospel to the unbeliever, since we are intruding on their space when we do so. Yet such belief can be detrimental not just as it relates to eternal life, but also to relationships and life in this world. As Jeremiah and as Psalm 1 both note, the one who has faith, the one whose God is the LORD, is the one who thrives in this life. We have to recognize that some things people “believe” are not beneficial at all. To those who believe that sacrificing people to their gods by shedding their blood is a good thing we would have to say is wrong both because it destroys the life of one’s neighbor for no good reason and because the one sacrifice necessary for sin has already been paid by Jesus Christ. That message needs to be proclaimed to those who are deceived, both for their own eternal welfare and for the sake of the neighbor whose life we seek to save. To believe something that is not true is not beneficial to the one who believes it, either for this life or the life to come.
One other mind-set that exists out there today (and it is more than today, it has existed from time immemorial) is seen in the assertion, “I’m not a religious person, but I am spiritual.” As I’ve heard that said, and tried to unpack that statement, I want to be fair to the one who says it. There is no question but that there are a lot of “truth claims” out there, and if a person is inundated by those claims and does not have the wherewithal to determine which are true and which are not, the end result is confusion and not commitment. Back in the 70s the poem Desiderata became popular and got a lot of airplay on the radio. One of its lines went, “Be at peace with God, however you conceive Him to be.” Many self-help programs insist that in order to change you must put your trust in a “higher power,” but that higher power is left up to the individual to determine. To this we must assert, or better put, we must confess that the God who is who He is has actually said something to us and done something for us. He has provided the definitive evidence that we need, something on which we can pin our trust: that Christ was crucified for us to take away our sins and has been raised from death and will never die again. Death has no more dominion over Him, and therefore it has no more dominion over us.
It is that reality and the announcement of that Good News which provides true nourishment to our souls. Whatever the desert around us may show or may attack us with, if we are rooted in Christ those things cannot harm us or destroy us.
But there is also a very real danger involved when one has heard the truth and then turns their back on it. The warnings against this are presented both in the Jeremiah reading and in Psalm 1. When the Pharisees accused Jesus of casting out demons by the prince of demons, they placed themselves among the accursed, since they claimed to know the true God, but denied the Savior whom He had sent.
And the attacks on Jesus and His message have continued down through the generations. After Jesus ascended into heaven and His followers continued to announce His immanent return, there were many who continued the attack. Psalm 1 notes that the ones who are blessed do not walk in the council of the wicked, stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of scoffers. It is interesting to see how wickedness entraps people. One can beginning by walking with the wicked, then standing with them, then sitting down with them. One of the joking observations made about me when I went to the seminary library from my office (a distance of about 29 paces) was that I would often stop at a bookshelf or periodical shelf, and stand there browsing the chapters or articles. As long as I was standing there, I was indicating that this was just a temporary pause before I went on with my duties (even if I was standing there for ten or fifteen minutes). If I sat down, I was committed. Standing is a step along the way. Sitting down with the sinner or the scoffer means you have joined with them, and you are at least willing to listen to what they say. In 2 Peter and Jude, warnings are issued to the Church about those who scoff about the return of Christ. 2 Peter 3:3 says that scoffers in the last days will come with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” But that’s what Jesus promised, didn’t He? The last days would be just like the days of Noah, where everything went as it always had until Noah entered the ark. The scoffers, who claim to be wise, will end up showing themselves to be sanctimonious know-it-alls who do not really know it all.
The first scoffer is the father of lies Himself. He scoffed at God’s warning that Adam and Eve would surely die if they didn’t heed that warning not to eat of the tree. He demonstrates that the goal of the scoffer is not simply to cast doubt, but to actively seek the destruction of the believer; to destroy faith. Some do this out of ignorance, while others do so with the intent to deceive. Whatever their motive, the desire is the same. We must be on our guard to see scoffing for what it is, and to run from it. How much better it is to follow the example of the Emmaeus disciples on that first Easter evening, who walked with Jesus, then stood still as he expounded the Scriptures to them, and finally sat with Him, when they recognized Him in the breaking of the bread.
Even some within the Church may scoff, because they may decide that some things the Church teaches may make them uncomfortable, may tell them things they do not want to hear. Social observer in the church have referred to this as religion a la carte. They may look over the menu options and make their choices. “I like this, I don’t particularly like that, I’m allergic to this,” and so forth. There are many who have exchanged the truth for a lie. They may decide that it does not suit them, or that it does not meet their “felt needs.” Instead of the strong meat of the Gospel, they may prefer a diet of marshmallow fluff. The message must be grounded in Jesus Christ, who indeed is the Truth.
Faith is worthless unless what one trusts is in fact worthy of that trust. Faith saves because of its object, not simply by the act of believing. So often people want to take credit for the good things that come their way by saying that they believed strongly. Others are accused when not so good things happen, or when things do not go their way, of not having enough faith. In the end, the only faith that matters is the faith that puts its trust in the God who has redeemed us in Jesus Christ.
The struggles in this life arise because the one who trusts in the LORD (the one who is “blessed”) still lives in a world surrounded by sin and evil, and temptations to wander away. That is why Christ tells us to “take up our cross” and follow Him. The facets and the metaphors in Scripture abound due to the fact that true blessing does not find complete fulfilment in this life. Rather, we look for the life to come, as we just confessed in the Nicene Creed a few minutes ago. True contentment in this life comes even as we face adversity. Indeed, being rooted in Christ and partaking of the living water He provides means that we can have contentment no matter what our external circumstances might be.
If our faith is not rooted in Christ crucified for the forgiveness of our sins, we may be tempted to simply find an answer to our “felt needs.” The temptation to listen to our own desires rather than the clear external word of God is called “enthusiasm.” That word is commonly used today to refer to joyful anticipation, being wrapped up in joy about our favorite sports team, movies, literary genres, and so forth. When it is used in a more technical sense in church situations, it refers to the practice of living more for the emotion of worship and the “spiritual high” that it may bring, often at the expense of the truth. Such experience may deceive us and tempt us to look for something that is good in our own eyes rather than joyfully submitting to what God actually says.
Certainly there is nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about what we believe, but such enthusiasm often can be rootless, and it often can be focused on a lie. Luther reminds us that Adam and Eve were in fact the first enthusiasts, trusting the serpent and trusting the beauty of the fruit rather than trusting the admonitions of God. We can think also of the Israelites who made a golden calf to worship when they got impatient with Moses, when he did not come down from Mount Sinai quickly enough to suit them. The entire book of Judges centers on the theme that “there was no King in Israel, and everyone was doing what was right in their own eyes,” and the evil consequences that arose for the people when they lived that way. Elijah was forced to confront the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel in Israel when so many in Israel followed King Ahab and Jezebel, his Canaanite wife. But apostasy was not unique to Elijah’s time. Saint Paul tells young pastor Timothy to preach the Word, and to be constant in season and out of season, that is, whether it seem to be the right time or not. He notes that the time will come when people will abandon sound teaching and instead turn to popular preachers who will give them what their itching ears want to hear. A look around us shows us that we live in such a time, when the most popular preachers, the ones who bring in the largest crowds, do not in fact preach the Gospel. That’s not always the case: some actually do preach Christ, though not as clearly as He should be preached. Sadly, others prefer to preach, and their hearers prefer to listen to, messages about principles you can follow to have your best life now, or how you can name and claim your heart’s desire, rather than the message that God has provided the forgiveness of sins and the conquest of death by means of His crucified and risen Son. Only the true message of Good News can raise us up like a tree planted by streams of water and enable us to bear fruit in its season.
Since God is, and since He is Who He is, since God has said something to us and acted on our behalf, our life and relationship with Him is secure. For us to say, “I know that I am saved,” is not an act of arrogance; it is an act of confidence, for our faith is nothing other than trust in God’s promises to us, and God’s promises will never let us down. Amen.