"Disbelieving and Still Wondering" - from Luke 24:36-48 on April 22, 2012
Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA
Sunday, April 22, 2012
Texts: Proverbs 3:1-6; Luke 24:36-48
“Disbelieving and Still Wondering”
Almost exactly 27 years ago, in the spring of my first year of Seminary, I preached my first sermon in a congregational setting.
By my rough count, I have preached more than 1000 sermons in churches since then. But you always remember your first one.
I was taking a preaching class at Union – with Welford Hobbie - and had been assigned a passage from Genesis 18. This is the passage when God appears to Abraham and Sarah, arriving at their tent in the oaks of Mamre, and God tells them that Sarah will have a baby. The text says, “now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.”
That is the Biblical way of saying that this pregnancy was not just unexpected; it was also unlikely, except that God was involved – Sarah was almost 100 years old! So the story says Sarah laughed at this news, like we would have done. And, if you recall the story, there is the question from God as they are sitting in their tent: “Is anything too wonderful for God?”
My very first sermon, on that passage, had to do with doubt and faith, centered on that question, “Is anything too wonderful for God?”
Obviously, the answer to that question is “no.” God is God and nothing is too wonderful to God – not a new baby to Abraham and Sarah, as the story goes, not the establishment of God’s people to be a blessing, as the story goes, not rescuing them from Egypt, as the story goes, or guiding them through the wilderness, or giving them the Promised Land, or a King, and all the other things that God does and keeps doing in the Bible. Nothing is too wonderful for God! That was my point – in that first sermon - and we should never doubt it. As a novice preacher in a small church in Goshen, VA, I preached my first sermon urging folks not to doubt, but to trust, like Abraham and Sarah, that nothing is too wonderful for God.
Today, I want to let you in on a secret: After 25 years in ordained ministry, and more than 1000 sermons, I have plenty of doubts.
In that first sermon, I had the notion that doubts were the opposite of faith. God asks, “is anything too wonderful for God?” We would all like to believe that. So my first sermonwas really bad as I look back at it – and those people in Goshen, VA in the Shenandoah Valley were so sweet. I tried to urge us all to trust God and set aside our doubts - so naïve and mis-directed.
Here is what I know: doubt is not the opposite of faith. Indifference is probably the opposite of faith. Lostness, and despair may be the opposite of faith. What I know more deeply and honestly is how doubt and faith are often side-by-side, never far from each other. Some level of believing and doubting are part of all of us, inside each of us, and invariably we are all trying to find our way through the maze of faith and doubt. I know I am.
I saw recently an interview with the great preacher of the last century, Billy Graham, from his home in Montreat, NC. He is more than 90 years old. Someone asked him if he believes that after he dies he will hear God say to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Billy Graham paused at that question, showing a bit of inner struggle and doubt, said, “I hope so.”
An elderly woman troubled by her own doubt approached Martin Luther, the champion of the Reformation, asking for help. “Tell me,” he asked her, “when you recite the creeds – do you believe them?” “Yes, most certainly,” she responded. “Then go in peace,” Luther told her, “You believe more and better than I do.” (see J. Ortberg, Faith & Doubt, p. 24)
Doubt and faith are often partners on the journey of life.
I recall vividly that moment at the memorial service of my father. The church in NC was full. I had worked with the pastors and my mother and siblings to plan the service. Yet when we sang the great hymns of the faith, and affirmed the words of faith, I struggled to voice them. I was grateful for a congregation who spoke them and filled the sanctuary with faith amidst my own sense of loss.
Doubt and faith are not opposites. Doubt is part of faith – at least for me and for many of us. And when we can be honest about our doubts, ask questions and struggle through doubting seasons, then faith has more depth, and more pertinence, and more meaning for our lives.
It is such a wonderful thing to hold a new baby, to see the miracle of life, the gift from God present in a new baby. We have all done this. These moments encourage faith and vision, love and commitment even. Is anything too wonderful for God? We see God’s handiwork!
It is such a terrible thing to sit and have to tell parents that their baby, a college student, was killed in a classroom. I have done that; or knock on a door and waiting for the opening only to say “the car wreck was fatal; your daughter has been killed,” or to be in so many other horrible moments of loss and heartache. Those moments create chaos, despair, doubt, and more – as some of you know so very well. We are not sure where God is or what God is doing. We are left with so much doubt and hurt.
So, we often find ourselves somewhere between clarity and perplexity, between confusion and confidence, between faith and doubt. Just under this robe that I wear for worship, and just under your Sunday clothes, our nice suits or pastel dresses, or our kind smiles, or the faces that we put on to take on the world, just under all that I think most of us can admit that our souls are less than tidy, our belief present but longing for more belief. We might have some faith, but we also carry around our doubts. We are all looking to live with more – more confidence, more sense of God, more sense that God knows and cares what we are dealing with, and more sense of purpose as God’s people.
That is why I like this story so much from Luke today, especially that line that serves as the sermon title – “they were disbelieving and still wondering.” After Jesus appeared to them, after Jesus said “peace be with you” (don’t we all long for God’s peace to cover us!), even after he asked them “why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts.” He showed them his body again as proof that he was really there. Then it says, “while in their joy, they were disbelieving and still wondering.”
That is often how we are – disbelieving and still wondering.
And I love how the passage unfolds. Jesus does not scold them in their doubt or disbelief – like a novice preacher might do and urge them to trust that “nothing is too wonderful for God.” Jesus does not condemn them for disbelieving and wondering, like lots of religion might be inclined to do. He sits with them to enjoy a meal. The gospel writer even wants us to know that the menu was broiled fish – not fried and bad for heart and cholesterol – but broiled. And they ate together. It was an act of community and compassion, of patience and care.
Doubts and faith are not opposites. They go along together in life, even for disciples dining with the Lord, and for us as well.
And then it says “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,” and he challenged them to go and be witnesses. He ate with them and loved them, helped them learn and understand so that faith could take root in their doubts and they would be empowered to live and serve as witnesses.
And I must say that this is something like what has happened in my own heart and life through the years. Disbelieving and still wondering, when it also includes fellowship with God and God’s people, and listening and learning, my faith has deepened. As I have listened and learned about God – who God is, what God is doing, where God might be present and at work, faith has blossomed, even alongside doubt. The more I learn, the more I can trust God. The more I can trust God, the more I can see God present, even in the worst situations. The more I know about what God has done through the ages, and in people’s lives, the better I can see God present and at work in my life. A little faith, tended and nurtured, especially through patience and special people, generates more faith. Then the more I listen to God’s promises fulfilled in the Scriptures, with Abraham and Sarah, with hurting people of the Bible and in life, through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, the more I can sense God present and at work in my life and challenges, in heartache and setback, in pastoral moments and even working in difficult places around the world. Life is such a journey – with doubt and faith, with perplexity and clarity – but just as Jesus is powerfully present with those disciples along the road, disbelieving and still wondering, the risen Jesus is present and keeps walking with us, wherever we find ourselves, never leaving us, loving us through all things, even our disbelieving and wondering, and saying, come along, “you too are my witnesses.”
This past week I sat in the hospital room of a very dear member of this church. This lady has lived for 90 years. Her cancer has returned and she knows she is coming near the end of her life. She is the last one in her family. And she continues to live as she has always lived, with faith and dignity, with compassion for others, with sincere interest in so many things beyond herself – like this church and what is happening here in these days.
After talking for a time, she paused for a moment and then asked, “Alex, what do you think heaven is like?” In her situation, this is not just at theoretical or theological question.
After my own pause, I told her how much I like a certain prayer in the Presbyterian Book of Worship that I often use at memorial services. The prayer is part of a longer prayer of thanksgiving for the gift of life, and faith, and God’s abiding love through all things. And the prayer says, “and dear Lord, we look forward to that glad reunion in the life to come.” I told her that was my sense of heaven – the glad reunion in the life to come. That remains my image of God and God’s people – in some way, with real presence and life and peace – and our loved ones and God’s loved ones all together. And in her gracious, quiet way, she said, “I like that. Yes, I like that too.”
We all have our doubts. But we also are surrounded by faith. And we are surrounded by God, who never lets us go. So when our hearts are open, even as we are “disbelieving and still wondering,” we get a taste of refreshment for our parched souls. We get a reminder that, indeed, God continues to be at work, right in our lives, right where we need it –
- we can look forward to that glad reunion in the life to come with all those dear ones who are no longer with us;
- we can sense that even our deepest heartache is somehow known and held by God, who walks among us in Jesus, eats with us, and teaches us what we need to know;
- we can appreciate that our biggest worries, about our lives, our children, our parents, whatever, are held in God’s care;
- we can know that following Jesus – striving to love as he loved, serve as he served, help and care as he did – that is the only life worth living;
- we can seek to be witnesses too – to God’s presence and promises in this hurting world.
Friends, these banners affirm for us that Christ is risen, indeed. We seek to live with faith, even in our doubts, and love and serve, bringing healing and light, to one another, and to the city and the world. Jesus has faith in us; may we live with enough faith that the loving and light-filled reign of God emerges in, through and around us, today and forever. Alleluia. Amen
Prayer of Commitment: O Lord, we believe; help our unbelief. Amen
Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA, preached this sermon during morning worship on Sunday, April 22, 2012. This is a rough manuscript.