As a child, one of my favorite Disney movies, and a favorite story in general, was Peter Pan. Who wouldn’t want to be boy forever, with little worries or cares? Who could fly and play all day long? I remember watching a play of Peter Pan on Television when I was young, and there was this part that they often do in the live performance. There is a scene where Tinkerbell has died, and she is brought back to life just because the audience believes. The audience’s applause is encouraged, and grows, until it finally gives power to Tinkerbelle rise up again.
While this is one of the most heartwarming scenes in Peter Pan, it does highlight somewhat of a problem. We often hear people say, “You just gotta have faith,” as though faith has some sort of power within itself. If you just believe enough, if your faith is great enough, you can do wonderful things. Maybe you’ve even heard a sermon or two this where you leave wondering what you can do to increase your faith this week.
The problem with this, is that the Bible doesn’t speak of faith as something you do. Abraham’s faith is not a ‘Tinkerbelle faith.’ It is not a generic belief, and certainly not one that is dependent upon how hard Abraham himself tried. In fact, St. Paul makes the argument that Abraham’s works did not do anything, could not do anything, and were nothing to boast about before God.
One thing that we often tend to forget about Abraham is that he began his life as an idol worshipper. Joshua reviewed Abraham’s origins after the Israelites settled in the land of Canaan. [Joshua 24:1–3] “Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel. And they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan, and made his offspring many.”
Our Old Testament reading informs us that it was God who called Abraham out of idolatry. Abraham did not act righteously; God declared him righteous because of his faith. Abraham did not decide to call God. Abraham simply believed in the Lord who had called Him, and it was counted to him as righteousness. Paul informs us that the righteousness that Abraham had was a gift from God and not something that Abraham earned.
Nicodemus in our Gospel reading wasn’t all that different either. As a leader in Israel, Nicodemus could trace his genealogy back to Abraham. It actually is pretty special to be a biological descendant of Abraham. It would be the same as a U.S. citizen being able to trace his genealogy back to George Washington. It’s interesting. It’s special. But, when it comes to salvation, it means zilch … zero … nada … nothing.
Jesus told Nicodemus that the Kingdom of God comes to those who are born again or born from above. Just as none of the energy needed for childbirth comes from the baby, so also nothing about becoming a Christian comes from the Christian. It all comes from outside of us. It all comes from God. We do not have a say about the Kingdom of God. In the case of Abraham, Nicodemus, and us, it is the Kingdom of God that comes to us. Jesus did not teach us to pray, “Let us make our way into Thy Kingdom.” Instead He taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come.” We do not go to the Kingdom of God. It is God who brings His Kingdom to us. He brings it with His Word. He brings it in the water with the washing of rebirth. He brings it with His body and blood in the Sacrament. Without these, there is only ungodliness.
This was the problem with the Pharisees and others who scorned Jesus – their refusal to acknowledge their own ungodliness. Don’t get me wrong, they had faith. They had faith in themselves. They had faith in their works. They had faith that if they clapped hard and long enough, they could make and keep themselves alive. The problem is, dead hands can’t clap. Our God is one who declares the ungodly righteous.
If you worry about your faith, if it is strong enough, if it good enough, if you have enough, look to Jesus, the one in which justifying faith is placed. Faith alone obtains the grace promised to Abraham, a promise that is yours by virtue of you Baptism into Christ. This is how St. Paul can say, “That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring.”
No, it is not your faith that gives God permission to save you. Instead, it is God the Holy Spirit who works faith in you in order to give you the salvation that Jesus earned with His death on the cross. It is not the sincerity of faith that saves. Instead, it is the object of faith that saves. Faith may vary in strength, but even a weak faith justifies because of Christ’s work. You can have a faith with a sincerity that transcends the universe, but if it is not in a specific man who died on a specific cross outside the City of Jerusalem, that faith is useless. The faith that the Holy Spirit gives has a specific object … Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins.
Tonight you are called to repent. Repent of the idol worship focused on yourself. Repent of thinking that because you grew up Lutheran that you know, and believe, it all perfectly. Repent of your faith in your faith, and not in Christ. Repent of those times you thought or acted as though you could move mountains by the sheer force of your will. Repent of those times you try to give your works a role in our salvation, and steal some of the credit from Jesus’ death on the cross. If you can save yourself, then Jesus is not the Savior. It is as plain and simple as that. Let us put away talk about faith, and let us focus our hearts and minds on the author and perfector of our faith – Jesus Christ.
But Jesus has come to call you out of your idolatry through the rebirth o Baptism, by the power of His Word. He gathers you to Himself, for His faithfulness is never wavering, never doubting. So that you can stand firm before the judgment seat of God, righteous because Christ has died, and been raised, for you.