May 29, 2016

2nd Sunday of PENTECOST
‘UNCONDITIONAL FAITH’

BIBLE READINGS
1 Kings 18:20-39

Luke 7:1-10

REFLECTION

Vincere, which means win in Italian, is a 2009 movie about the fascist leader, Benito Mussolini. In the opening part of the movie, young Mussolini, a proud atheist, was in a room packed with people and he is given the time to prove to the audience that God does not exist. Mussolini presents his case by first asking for a watch from one of the audience in the room. He then puts the watch on the table and declares that he challenges God. He gives God five minutes to strike him dead. If he is still alive after five minutes, it means that God does not exist. As you can expect, he is still alive after the time is up and he proudly declares to the audience that God does not exist.

Indeed, friends, today it is believers like us, living in a secular world, who are often jeered at because of what we believe. “Why pray for healing when you can always go to the doctor and ask for medicine,” some people say. “Why believe in God whom you can’t see or touch?” others say. And just like Mussolini and the people of Israel in our reading today from first book of the Kings, many people ask for proof before they can believe in God. But if we believe in God only if we can see the proof that we want, then such faith is not really worth aspiring to.

Let us go back again to the passage that we have today from the first book of the Kings. We will be forgiven to think that the passage was a passage about Elijah against the prophets of Baal. But we often forget that the passage was really about the people of Israel themselves. The contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal was held to win the heart of the people of Israel. The contest was like the fairytale of an ancient tournament where princes of different kingdoms fought one another to win the heart of a much-wanted princess.

But there was nothing romantic about this contest. The people of Israel were nothing like a beautiful princess that exudes innocence and perfection in ancient lore. No, the people of Israel were far from being innocent or perfect. They had lost their way. They had followed the locals in the land Canaan and worshipped the gods that they worshipped. “At least we could see and touch and smelled the statues of the gods that the people in Canaan worshiped,” some people in Israel must have reasoned. “Yahweh, on the other hand, could not be seen or touched or smelled.”

So when the prophet Elijah asked them to repent and return to the faith of their forefathers, his call was met with silence. It was like telling a joke to a crowd and nobody laughs (it happens to me many times). You don’t really know whether or not the people understand your joke or whether they just don’t find it funny at all. In that kind of situation, most people would usually proceed to explain the joke, telling people why the joke is supposed to be funny. And that is the worst thing that you can do when you tell a joke. I mean, once a joke has to be explained, it’s not technically a joke any longer. So you have to be quite desperate to explain your joke to someone.

It’s the same with the prophet Elijah. He must have come to the point of desperation that he resorted to putting Yahweh in a contest against Baal to convince his people. Indeed Israel’s faith had become so weak that they needed a proof to believe.

This is in stark contrast to the officer of the Roman army in Luke’s Gospel. He did not need proof to believe in Jesus. Indeed he believed even before he met Jesus himself!

No, the man was nothing like what common people used to think of the Romans - brutal occupiers who would do anything to break the spirit of the people under their control - let alone an officer in the Roman army. We are told that he respected the Jewish people and their tradition and built a synagogue for them (v.5).

It was likely that he was a ‘worshiper of God’ - a term given to those Gentiles who embrace Judaism as their religion. Indeed he seemed to know that as a Jewish Rabbi, Jesus would be rendered unclean if he entered the house of a Gentile like him. That was why he told Jesus that he was not worthy to accept Jesus in his house.

But there was another reason why he did not ask Jesus to come to his house. This man must have found it unnecessary for Jesus to come to his house to heal his beloved servant. No, he didn’t have the need to see Jesus to believe in him. Indeed, this Roman officer matched Jesus’ description of a happy person, in John’s Gospel, who believes without seeing (John 20:29).

And it was not only about believe or not believe, just like whether we believe there is an alien living amongst us or not. No. The word belief/believe does not occur in the passage. What we have is the word order, which implies authority. The officer acknowledged that Jesus had the authority to give the order that could heal his beloved servant. And by doing that, he put himself, and the fate of his beloved servant, under Jesus’ authority.

This is the true meaning of faith. Having faith in someone is to trust someone so much so that we are willing to put ourselves under that someone’s authority. And Jesus commended the officer’s faith because he gave himself under Jesus’ authority even before he met Jesus himself. Indeed the officer was nothing like the people of Israel, at the time of Elijah, who needed proof before they could give their life under Yahweh’s authority.

And there was only one person who was amazed in the passage; that person was not the Roman officer or a Jewish elder, but Jesus himself. Jesus was amazed by the quality of the officer’s faith; the kind of quality that he had never encountered even amongst his own Jewish people. This non-Jewish man, an officer of the despised Roman army, had shown to the Jewish people what it means to have faith.

Friends, Jesus once told a parable about a sower who goes out one day to scatter seed. Some of the seeds fall on fertile ground and sprout and grow. The sun cannot not burn them because their roots have gone deep into the soil. The bush cannot not choke them because they grow into strong and healthy plans. And the bird cannot eat them because the good soil provides enough protection. So the seeds sprout and grow and produce grains, plenty of grains.[1]

Indeed a strong faith is like seeds that fall into good soil. Once they grow into healthy plans, they can withstand all kinds of situation.

We see this kind of faith in the life of Job in the book of Job. Here is a man who is ‘blameless’ and whose life is fully devoted to God and his family. And he is blessed with many children and much wealth.

But, one day, everything that he has is taken away from him. Bandits come and rob all of his assets and kill almost all of his servants. That’s not the end. Soon a natural disaster strikes and kills all of his children. Yet, no curse comes out of Job’s mouth. In his sorrow he declares, “I came to this world with nothing, I’ll leave it with nothing. The LORD gives and the LORD takes and I’ll always praise His name.”

But that is still not the end of Job’s misery. Soon a terrible disease plagues his whole body. And his condition has become so desperate that his wife asks him to curse God and then die! But Job refuses to follow his wife’s ‘advice’.

Being a married man, I know now that it takes a lot of courage to refuse your own wife. After all, someone who has been married for almost half a century approached me and told me, half-jokingly, that the secret for a long-lasting marriage is a happy wife.  “Happy wife, happy life,” she said. And I was so impressed by her advice that I asked the words to be put on our wedding cake.

But Job knows that there is a limit to this ‘wisdom’. He loves his wife, but he cannot blame God for all the terrible things that have happened to their life. Yes, Job is as faithful as he has always been to God even after all the terrible things that happen to him.[2]

Indeed, like I said earlier, a faith that needs constant proof or reward to survive is not really worth that much. But a faith that does not only survive, but thrives in all kinds of conditions; in all kinds of trials that life can throw at us, is the kind of faith that is worth pursuing.

So, looking back to my Kids Talk this morning, which are we? Are we carrots that become soggy and limp once they are boiled in hot water? Are we eggs that become hard when they are boiled? Or are we bags of tea that enrich and give colour to the boiling water itself, to the environment and community where we live in?

A strong faith does not require proof or reward to survive. A strong faith that survives and thrives in all kinds of condition is the proof that people need to accept and worship God.

Amen.

Rev. Toby Keva

[1] See Mark 4:1-20; Matthew 13:1-23

[2] See Job 1-2