Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Doubt (John 20:24-29, 1 Peter 1:3-9)

November 16, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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This month we are looking at some of the challenges that face us as human beings – trouble, discouragement, and doubt. Today, in particular, I want to look with you at one of the characters and biblical texts most associated with doubt, and see what resources God offers us in the midst of that. That character and situation is Thomas trying to accept Jesus being raised from the dead, simply on the word of the other disciples.

Our doubts may range far and wide from intellectual to emotional to reacting to struggle and the “why?” questions; but I believe there is something important and universal in this story. It touches on needing and wanting answers and the intersections of faith and doubt and belief.

Is Jesus Risen?

This particular story began on Easter Sunday night. The story was that Jesus appeared to the disciples who were locked away in fear and hiding. He appeared just as the angel said and just as Mary told them when she ran from the empty tomb to find them. And Jesus came to them with the greeting of peace. He showed them his hands and side, then again spoke words of peace. He then told them he had work for them to do, and he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” It was a powerful encounter, for everyone who was there.

But one disciple wasn’t there. Thomas was not with them when this happened, and he couldn’t believe that the others had seen Jesus. Who can blame him? The story was just too fantastic! And after headstrong Peter, isn’t Thomas the disciple many of us identify with most? He declared, “Unless I see the nail prints in his hands and put my finger in them, and unless I put my hand into the wound in his side, I will not believe.”

Did you hear that last part? I will not believe. That’s the issue here – not doubt, but unbelief. That is a critical distinction! To skip to the punch line, doubt is not the opposite of faith; unbelief is the opposite of faith. Let’s consider that in more detail.

We always call him “doubting Thomas” and zero in on the doubts, but this is so much more than doubts being resolved. In that last phrase, “I will not believe,” Thomas said so much more than, “I’ve got to see this for myself.” He declared his faith and trust dependent on physical proof that Jesus was alive. His word choice – and more importantly, his choice of attitude – defines what is at stake for us as we consider an encounter with and a faith-relationship with Jesus Christ as the one we follow and the one who has rescued us.

To help make this distinction more clearly, picture two trees. One is a tree of unbelief; one is a tree of faith. One says, “Unless God does thus and so, I will not believe.” The other says, “I want to see this for myself!” The first is conditional trust, conditional faith, and conditional love; the second is faith seeking understanding, perhaps struggling with doubts, certainly not having all the answers, but seeking understanding and relationship – wanting to know and understand more.

And each tree bears certain fruit. Let’s consider the first tree – the tree of unbelief.

Unbelief and its ‘Fruits’

Unbelief is the “default state” of human beings. Because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, we are fundamentally separated from God. We are fundamentally cut off from our Source and wandering from our Home. And “planted” in this soil of sin and separation, we are naturally far from God – we are unbelieving.

I don’t really know the state of Thomas’ soul in those days after Easter Sunday. We know he was a disciple – that he had chosen to follow Jesus. And then, we hear him speak twice in the biblical account before this scene. When Jesus and the disciples were headed to Bethany after Lazarus had died, Thomas said, “Let us go then, that we might die with him.” He was anticipating more conflict with the religious authorities like what they had just left behind in Jerusalem. The other occasion for Thomas to speak is recorded in John 14, when Jesus is talking about going away to the Father and preparing a home for them there. Thomas says, “What are you talking about? We don’t know where you are going!” It may be, then, that Thomas never really understood who Jesus was. He may have been following him as a great teacher or as a revolutionary.

And so, with regard to the great promise of a Messiah – a deliverer who would rescue God’s people – it seems that Thomas was still a tree planted in the soil of sin and separation from God. He may not have experienced the life-changing encounter with the Son of God, though he had followed him for three years.

And if there is doubt on this issue, consider Jesus’ words to Thomas in John 20:27. He tells Thomas to touch his wounds, and then speaks strongly to him, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing (or faithful).” Jesus recognized that his fundamental problem was not proof, but belief. Does it seem strange that someone could be a disciple of Jesus for three years and not have that crucial faith or belief in him as the promised Messiah and Son of God?

It is no stranger than attending church all of one’s life and not ever having experienced a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. In fact, tragically, it happens all the time, particularly when churches and preachers focus on secondary issues and miss the most important message of God’s loving grace for us through his only Son, Jesus Christ.

So, I have two questions. First, how can we recognize if our own tree – that is, our own life – is rooted in something other than God’s salvation in Christ? Secondly, how can the tree of unbelief become the tree of faith – that is, if we do not know God in a saving way, how can we come to know Him in that way?

The way to recognize what kind of tree or what kind of life we have is to examine our ‘fruit.’ An unbelieving heart produces one set of characteristic ‘fruit’ just as a faithful heart produces characteristic ‘fruit.’

Consider Thomas, as described in our passage. The DOUBT that we often focus on when we read this passage is really just one fruit of his basic unbelief. How indeed, could he imagine Jesus to be alive if he never understood who Jesus was or what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of leaving them and preparing a place for them in Heaven. And Thomas’ doubt led him to make DEMANDS. “Unless… unless…” he said. Thomas was quite specific and detailed about what he required of a risen Jesus. And his unbelief also resulted in ISOLATION from the other disciples. Perhaps his unbelief was why he wasn’t with them when Jesus first came. Certainly, his response to their joyous shout of “We have seen the Lord!” would have put some kind of barrier between himself and them. Basically, to the combined testimony of 10 disciples and the women at the tomb, Thomas replied, “I don’t believe you!”

If the unbelieving heart is allowed to run unchecked, it will manifest in a person as doubt and demands, and often will result in or lead to self-imposed isolation from those who do trust in God.

Faith and its ‘Fruits’

A life (or tree) of faith is also known by its ‘fruit.’ Please note that faithful and believing people struggle with doubt as well, but our doubts should spur us towards seeking and understanding, saying, “I want to find out more.” But notice, too, that the fruit of a believing heart isn’t certainty or lack of doubt, but other qualities and characteristics. For example, Psalm 1 tells us that such a tree is planted or rooted in the Law of the Lord, or the Word of God – the Bible. The other passage we heard this morning from 1 Peter describes a number of ‘fruits’ of the faithful heart. You may want to turn to 1 Peter 7-9 to follow along.

The faithful heart LOVES God – even though we may not have seen God with our own eyes. Faith and trust grow, are nurtured, and are refined into something precious and strong because we love God through worship and praise. The faithful heart expresses itself through BELIEF in Jesus Christ. We trust in God’s promises and in Jesus as the one sent by God. And though we do not see Him now, faith results in active belief. The faithful heart is characterized by and produces inexpressible JOY because of the presence of God in the human life. We are literally, filled with the glory of God – with God’s Holy Spirit, which produces joy in us, even in the face of sorrow and suffering. And Peter tells us that the outcome of such a faith and faithful heart is the SALVATION of the soul.

Finally, and most importantly, the chief fruit of a faithful heart is WORSHIP. We see this back in the passage with Thomas and Jesus. Worship is the combination of the other fruit as well – it is love expressed, belief demonstrated, joy experienced, and salvation celebrated. And in the moment that Jesus appeared to Thomas, something happened. Though Jesus offered to meet his demands for proof, Thomas’ doubts and demands were dropped, and his isolation ended immediately. His ‘tree’ was transformed on the spot, because he did not respond by taking Jesus up on the offer to touch the wounds. He did not rush over to examine Jesus’ scars, hands, and side. He simply exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus confirmed that this happened by saying, “Because you have seen me, have you believed?” Thomas took one look at Jesus, perhaps simply recognizing him, and declared one of the most simple and complete sentences of worship in the New Testament. Jesus was “my Lord” – leader, ruler, king, master, the one Thomas would serve and follow, and it was personal and specific to him. And Jesus was “my God” – not just teacher/Rabbi, but GOD, personal and specific to him.

A Changed Tree (Life)

The faithful heart and the unbelieving heart face the same life conditions, the same struggles, the same questions, and even the same doubts. Both have parents die; both get cancer; both wonder why bad things happen to good people; both wonder why the evil sometimes prosper. Both the faithful heart and the unbelieving heart are born into the same world. But their roots, their support, their nourishment, and their hope are entirely different.

Faith is rooted in trust and love. If I love and trust someone (including God), I will take my doubt and seek understanding. If I do not believe in someone (including God), my doubts will turn into demands and will eventually cut me off and isolate me even more.

Faith is rooted in the Word and promises of God. If I don’t understand something, if I struggle, if I am discouraged, but am rooted in God’s Word, I will seek out God’s promise to me and trust in Him, even in times of shadow and darkness – ESPECIALLY in those times. If I am rooted in unbelief, I dangle helplessly, battered by all that life throws at me.

So maybe we can tell the difference. Maybe we can see areas in our own life – little plantings in our life that are unbelieving rather than faithful. Or maybe some have realized that more than an area of life needs to be transformed – the whole tree needs to change! We may have an idea now how to identify our ‘tree’ and its ‘fruit’ – our life and core commitment. But how can we change? How does one tree – one life – change from one to the other? What happened to Thomas and how can it happen to me – either in whole or in areas where I still cling to unbelief? What can I tell my friend or my parent or my child who struggles so with doubts or demands of God?

There are many ways to describe the transformation that is salvation. But I’ll stick with the tree analogy for today.

The process of salvation or ‘rescue’ is what Jesus made possible through his death on the cross. We either seek or are found by God – and God promises that if we earnestly seek Him, He will be found! And then, a realization of just who God is – HOLY – causes us to realize just how big is the gulf between us and God. This realization is CONVICTION – being ‘pierced through to the core’ by the realization that things are not right between me and God, and that will be the end of me. Often, along with conviction, CONFESSION means naming or presenting myself to God. From that condition of realizing and confessing that I am undone, REPENTANCE means desiring to change or be changed. God offers FORGIVENESS and CLEANSING from sin and disobedience through his Son, Jesus Christ. And then God CALLS us to follow and serve Him.

What does that mean for our discussion? It answers the question of “How do I change trees?” This is the change God desires, requires, and accomplishes for all who would be in right relationship with Him. The process of conviction, confession, and repentance is the process of having our ‘tree’ cut down. It means being leveled before God, realizing that apart from God’s help, we are undone. And God is the One who makes us new. Through Jesus Christ, God re-plants us and causes new growth in our lives.

That’s why Thomas was transformed on the spot. The life-changer himself, Jesus Christ, appeared to him and spoke the convicting words, “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Jesus offered him the opportunity to remain in unbelief and come fulfill his demands to touch the wounds. But Thomas experienced transformation in a moment what Isaiah did: he was convicted and repentant, and he believed with faith. And so he declared, “My Lord and my God!”

Do you desire a “tree-change?” Do you desire to be faithful rather than unbelieving? Do you want your heart to be governed by love, belief, joy, salvation, and worship, rather than by doubt, demands, and isolation?

If you do, then join me in your heart as I pray this prayer:

Holy God, help me to see and understand who you are. Help me to see and understand exactly who I am. Help me to see and understand the great separation between us. God, save me, for I am lost without you! God, thank you for the way you have made through Jesus. Help me to trust him and follow him; Help me to believe him and serve him; and help me to grow in faith and love of you. Thank you for loving me; thank you for forgiving me; thank you for making me clean and right, my Lord and my God. Amen.

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