Faith, Doubt, and Imagination.
As a young person, I was a bit of a skeptic about Christianity.
When I went to college, I decided that I would take some religion classes
to see if I believed all I’d been taught.
But as I studied world religions, I found more common themes than unique truths.
I learned that the bible was an amalgam of different literary genres, and not all historical truth.
I found that I had more questions than answers, and instead of confirming my faith, I felt on rather shaky ground.
Then I read Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling for philosophy class.
Kierkegaard was a 19th century philosopher and theologian, who explored the levels of existence, Believing that the religious level brought one into contact with the infinite,
and thus was the highest plane of existence.
The model of this level of existence was the biblical character of Abraham.
Kierkegaard called Abraham a ‘knight of faith,’ that is, someone who has such trust in God
That he could act freely and independently from the expectations of the world.
Kierkegaard focused in on the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, When Abraham took his son Isaac up the mountain to slay him at God’s command. It is the culmination of the Abraham story, and the ultimate test of faith.
As I read, I felt a lightbulb come on:
Perhaps faith was not something I would figure out with my intellect.
Perhaps it was more a decision, or maybe simply a desire.
I suddenly saw if I wanted belief, I would not find it historical data or empirical evidence
I need to make a leap of faith and decide to believe-- and trust that God would catch me on the other side.
In our OT lesson today, we get an earlier piece of Abraham’s story.
But in these early chapters of the story, Abraham is not so much a hero of faith as he is struggling with it.
Do you remember the story? It begins in chapter 12 with Abraham,
well into his what should have been his retirement years,
When God comes and says to him, “Go to the country I will show you, and I will make you a great nation.”
So Abraham picked up his whole family and moved, not knowing where he was going.
Years pass as Abraham and Sarah travel through Syria, Egypt and the plain of Jordan.
Challenges arise as they encounter enemy kings, Sarah is temporarily made part of Pharaoh’s harem, and nephew Lot is kidnapped. Throughout God helps Abraham out of every scrape, but there is remains one problem: Abraham and Sarah are still childless.
In our passage for today, Abraham and God have a heart to heart.
“O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue to childless,
and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus, my slave!”
The fear and doubt in his words is almost audible: fear that he’d thrown his life away
doubt that he would be able to father a family
pain that what he and Sarah wanted so much—a child—continued to be denied them.
If you think about it, it is not surprising that Abraham had this moment of doubt.
After all, Abraham had acted on a conversation with a God whom he could not see.
He had dragged his family far from home, endangering them and himself.
Now it was looking like that had been a big mistake.
When would they reach that country God had promised them?
And how exactly would he become the father of a nation if he and Sarah couldn’t have even one child?
Was it all madness?
A lot of time we think of faith as confident trust in God—
that was the Abraham I met in Keirkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.
But here we see a very different face of faith.
We see the face of struggle and doubt in the faith of Abraham.
As if faith and doubt are not separate, but a part of the same process of trusting in God.
In my training for ministry I spent a summer as a hospital chaplain.
During the course of my duties, I met a retired Presbyterian minister.
His family was very upset because no chaplain had been to see him.
He had just been diagnosed with liver cancer and didn’t have much time to live.
When I went to visit with him, I read him a psalm and prayed with him for God’s presence.
After we finished praying, he looked at me and said,
“I know that God is always with me.
I’ve told people in situations like mine countless times before.
I’ve always believed it.
But right now it doesn’t seem like enough.”
“Right now it doesn’t seem like enough.”
They are honest words.
Sometimes it is a struggle to believe that God has a purpose and a plan,
especially when someone is suffering
or when there is just no optimal solution
or when we pray and hear no answer.
Sometimes our doubts and questions seem antithetical to our faith, foreign compared the closeness and warmth we have felt with God before.
I think we can take courage from Abraham’s conversation with God in today’s lesson.
First of all, God comes to Abraham, saying,
“Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
God does not leave Abraham to figure it out all on his own;
God initiates conversation and provides reassurance.
For us, it could be a vision or a spiritual experience that comes unbidden, like Abraham;
Or it might be a conversation with a friend or stranger that touches us.
What is significant is that God makes the first move;
Doubt is not a sign of God’s absence or judgment, but an invitation to deeper relationship.
The second thing to notice is that Abraham lays out his complaint before God in total honesty. Like the Presbyterian minister, Abraham needs something more in the face of difficulty and doubt. Abraham minces no words, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I remain childless?”
Come on, God, make good on your promise! And just to make sure God heard him, Abe reiterates his complaint:
“A slave in my house is to be my heir!”
Abraham is bold to point out the injustice of his situation, and to hold God to God’s part of the deal.
God promised him a land and a people, and that means a pregnancy.
You might expect that God would not appreciate such demands.
But instead of striking down Abraham for his insolence, God reassures Abraham, repeating the promise:
“Your very own issue shall be your heir.”
And God shows Abraham the stars, saying, “So shall your descendants be.”
When it comes right down to it, God could have fulfilled the promise right then—
God could have told Abraham that Sarah was pregnant, and give both Abe and Sarah something tangible. But that isn’t what God does. God instead invites their holy imagination—
to see the stars, and visualize the end result of the promise A family big enough to be a nation, descendants as numerous as the stars.
This is what God invites us to in our times of struggle.
Our doubts are not the opposite of faith, but an opportunity to enlarge our vision.
God invites our imagination when we run into a road block or experience an unexpected turn of events
God invites us to look up and see the message of God’s faithfulness that is all around us.
God calls us to be a community that imagines a new future together,
One that holds God’s promises of life and faithfulness at the center.
And when we, like the Presbyterian minister, feel it isn’t enough, God calls us to let the faith of others carry us
Knowing that God welcomes our doubts and fears as well as our courage and belief.