Faith: Against the Odds


On the 8th of July 1741, the Reverend Jonathan Edwards stepped into the pulpit of a church in Enfield Connecticut and delivered his most famous sermons, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.  I say famous because this sermon, of all of his countless others, has been studied and dissected, and misunderstood since the first day it had been preached.

Edwards, who happens to be my 6th cousin, was one of the great preachers from a time in our American history known as the Great Awakening, or perhaps I should say the 1st Great Awakening.  It is always difficult to pinpoint the exact start of movements such as this but historians usually use the period of the 1730’s, and 40’s so before the American Revolution.  In fact, many historians credit the Awakening for the Revolution.

The awakening began in the south and moved up the coast by various preachers and came to New England with the preaching of Rev. Edwards in his church in Northampton.  Edwards preached this sermon there first and then was asked by the pastor of the Church in Enfield to come and preach to his congregation.  It seems they had been unmoved by the awakening thus far, and the pastor was determined that his flock would be changed.

If you have never read the sermon I would suggest that you do, however, it is filled with imagery that may sound foreign to us, but the result is the same.  The entire idea behind the awakening, as any revival, is to call people back to piety and a sense of who they are as Christians.  Edwards used the image of Hell and the final judgment of individuals as a way to bring them back.  It has been reported that people shouted “how can I be saved” during the sermon.  So moved were they that a monument has been erected in Enfield on the site of the sermon.

Historians of American religious history disagree on how man awakenings have taken place in America since that time some say three some say four, but they usually follow some period of upheavals in America like a war or some such.  From these times people do become more religious if you will, but they tend not to last long as we go back, slowly but surely, to the way we were.  But we keep going on, and we keep trying.

The great religious writer Phyllis Tickle writes about, what she calls, the 500-year rummage sale of the church.  Like the awakenings, these are historical periods of time, difficult to pinpoint, when the church takes a long hard look at itself and a sense of revision or dare I say reformation, comes to the church.  We are approaching the 500th anniversary of the last one, the Great Reformation of Martin Luther, so the feeling is we are in another period of rummaging around.

These are times of change in the Church and can be refreshing.  Just a Luther brought a much-needed reform the church cannot stay the same, just as we cannot remain the same, as things change around us.  And for many this will be a test of our faith.

In the Scripture lesson today, we hear of a time when other people’s faith was tested and a reminded that we are to hold fast to that faith, and we were told of what faith can and will do.  Faith is what gave the Israelites the strength and will to cross the Red Sea when it seemed that all hope was lost, and it was a lack of faith that made it impossible for the Egyptians to follow them.  It was faith that brought down the walls of Jericho after they had been circled seven times.

In 1992 I made my fist, of what would be many trips, to Romania.  I went there as part of a group of missionaries who had been asked by the Evangelical Church in Romania to come and help them establish seminaries and training facilities for social workers and others who would help to rebuild their country.  Romania is an amazing place and a place that I call my spiritual home for many reasons.

I had the opportunity to meet with many faithful Christians in Romania and saw the devastation that occurred when the Church got too close to the government.  Each person I encountered I asked them the same question, how did you do it?  How did you survive, not only as a Christian but as human beings in what has been described as one of the most brutal dictatorships the world has even seen?

Their answer was always the same, whether they were Evangelical or Orthodox, Christian or Jew the answer was their faith is what saw them through.  Even though the institutional church had sold its soul to the government, faith is what brought them through.  Faith is what brought them through the persecution that we do not even understand in this country.  Oh sure we claim we are persecuted as Christians in this country, but we simply have no idea what that even means.

In preparing this sermon today, I looked up the word faith in the dictionary.  There are two definitions; one is that faith is complete trust or confidence in someone or something. For a Christian, that means we have full faith and confidence in God and in His Son Jesus Christ. The other definition is a belief in something unseen or something that we cannot prove.  I believe that these go together.

As Christians, we are to have this complete faith and trust in Jesus Christ.  Not in me, not in Rev. Bill, not in the Church and certainly not in the government.  We have our faith in Jesus Christ.  We cannot prove anything about it, but we believe it, that’s faith.  We have talked, in previous sermons, about how God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness with manna, and he continues to give us His manna through his word.  Can I prove any of it?  I studied it, and continue to study as has Rev. Bill, and I cannot point to anything and say there it is, that’s faith.  But I can point to what faith is.

Faith requires some things from us besides this complete trust and confidence.  Faith compels us to love, to serve, to forgive, to care, to welcome, to feed, to clothe, to a house, to visit and all of other things that Jesus left us as an enduring example.  You have heard me say this before it is not enough to profess with our lips that we are followers of Jesus we have to confess it with our actions!  What we do is far more important than what we say, as individuals, as a Church community, and as a nation.  I want you to notice one thing about all of those things that we are commanded to do, they are all verbs, action words.

Our Christian faith requires each of us to look at each other and see nothing more than a child of God created in his image and likeness.  We can no longer look at others as their color or their religion or the supposed sin for as Paul says in his Letter to the Galatians “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Our faith should be conservative because we conserve a faith that for 2,000 plus years has stood for equality, justice and mercy.  But our faith should also be liberal because for 2,000 plus years our faith has stood to liberate spiritual captives from their blindness and lead them to a liberating Christ that will free them from their sins.  A Christ that welcomes all with open arms and desires that we all come to love him and one another.  This is what faith is, and this is what faith does.

In 1741 Jonathan Edwards pointed out to those listening to him that hell was just around the corner.  Now we can debate what that means and trust me when I say theologians of all stripes continue this discussion, but what he is saying is the time is at hand.  We are no longer on the verge of an awakening we are in one, and I see the Church coming alive again and finding her voice and shouting at the top of her lungs for those who have no voice.  I see the Church marching together for those who cannot march.  And I see the Church, at long last advocating for those things that Jesus has commanded us to advocate for, love, mercy, justice, equality, and all the rest.

Dear ones, the time, is now and we, all of us here, are the chosen ones.  We have been called by God and given a mission.  We can no longer sit on the sidelines and watch it is time to get in the game!  This is what faith means and this is what faith requires.  Action!

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