Life beween the verses

February 10, 2008

Reading the assigned texts for this week overwhelms me. The call of
Abram is told like a Haiku—just a few words, yet the mystery of our
life as God’s people hinges on this ancient call and response. After
the spare text in Genesis, the passages in Romans and John read like
dense thickets of complicated sentences and layered metaphors. Together
the texts wrestle with the need for faith, the longing for faith, the
mystery of faith.

I panic. Of course we need faith. It goes
without saying. Yet how will I speak in a way that does not turn our
believing in God into just another good work? Paul knows that such
trust in God does not earn the label “righteous” (Rom. 4:4-5). Jesus
tells Nicodemus that this trust is a new life given “from above” by the
Holy Spirit (John 3:5-6). Faith is God’s gift, and the sign of God’s
faithfulness. Yet as soon as I begin to speak about faith in Bible
studies or in sermons I sense people feeling guilty because they do not
believe “enough.”

A great change occurred in my own
preaching when I realized this: I had mistakenly assumed that I was
preaching to a company of believers. I had thought of my task as giving
them direction on what to do now that they believed. But
electricity began to run through my preaching when I began to preach to
a people who live everyday somewhere between verse one and verse two of
Psalm 121. “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help
come?” “My help comes from the Lord.”

In a sermon years ago,
a preacher said that when we recite this psalm there should be a long
silence after verse one. This is a psalm for pilgrims making the
arduous climb up to Jerusalem—a pilgrimage not unlike our journey from
Ash Wednesday to Holy Week. In the biblical journey the pilgrims saw
Canaanite temples to Ba’al on every hilltop between Galilee and
Jerusalem. When they looked to the hills they saw the promises of idols
scraping the sky. I imagine my congregation going to work downtown in a
similar landscape of idolatry.

Naming this tension freed me
to claim our life together as a life of resistance—resisting those
forces, those idols, that would deny us the gift of God’s faith. I
began to realize that I did not need to tell people what to do, but
rather, in this post-Christian location on the North American
continent, my preaching is more like that of a missionary—announcing
that our lives “rest on grace” (Rom. 4:16). To my delight, once they
accept this truth, disciples regularly discover what it is that Christ
calls them to do as a sign of God’s new creation.

The rest of
Psalm 121 seems very assured, like a great hymn of certitude in God,
but it is actually a suspense-filled drama in which the story of God’s
faithfulness is at great risk. This is not a psalm of philosophical
certitude; it is a daring love song that is sung in the face of the
idols to ward off the doubt and disbelief that pulls us from God like
an unseen magnetic force. Perhaps that is the shape of a faith and a
sermon and a people that is reckoned as righteousness—not philosophical
certitude but passionate love for God.