Monday, October 8, 2012

Faith and Works

The last time you heard a sermon on faith and works, did it mention Rahab the harlot? No? Why not? She's the perfect example! In fact, Rahab is mentioned three times in the New Testament.  Once as an ancestress of Jesus and twice in connection to the idea of faith and works (Matthew 1:5, Hebrews 11:31, and James 2:25).  Her example is one of the clearest illustrations of the connection between what we believe and what we do in all of the Bible. 
The story begins as Rahab welcomes two travelers into her establishment.  Soon word reached the king that they had come. Rumor had it that there was a nation on their doorstep that had a powerful God at its helm.   Word was that the city was doomed, that their God had the power and the will to destroy Jericho exactly like He had leveled Egypt, and stomped on Sihon and Og. The whole population of Jericho had heard the word, and one and all their courage deserted them.

Determined to eliminate the threat the king sends word to Rahab that she was to turn over the spies.  So she promptly hides them on the roof in the middle of the flax, (we can hope no one had allergies) then she lied to the messengers, telling them the spies had already escaped before the gates were closed for the night.  Before they lie down for the night, she came and told them what everybody knows, God is coming and Jericho is doomed.  Then she named her price for saving their lives and their mission: the life of her family (Joshua 2).

Have you asked yourself, what is going on here?  I mean no one imagines that Rahab, prosperous owner of a whorehouse/inn, woke up one morning converted.  She wasn't saying to herself over her morning gruel, "Perhaps I have been wrong.  I should repent not only of my immorality but also become a monotheist."  Yet something Rahab believed drove her to defy her king, lie to his messengers, hide the spies, and bargain like crazy for the life of her family.  

Faith you say? That's what Hebrews 11:31 says. "By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace."  So it must have been faith, but don't forget all of Jericho believed exactly the same thing - the God of their enemies had the power to destroy everyone in His path.

James 2:25 thinks of Rahab's actions differently, "In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?" Rahab's fear of God was a little different from the King's.  The King saw the Israelite God coming and committed his resources to destroying the spies. Rahab heard of the Israelite God and so "welcomed the spies in peace." 

The connection between faith and works is clearly demonstrated in Rahab's story. Simply believing that the God of Israel was powerful and wrathful did not save Rahab.  Remember the king?  He believed the same thing.  On the other hand in no way did saving those two spies oblige God to Rahab.  Were He simply interested in saving them, He had miraculous resources at hand.  When we combine the two though, we see in the life of a believer an inevitable cause and effect.  

Rahab believed the fact. Then she began to trust, which drove her to action.  That is what the New Testament writers generally mean by faith, a believing trust strong enough to drive a person to action, with James' sarcastic usage being perhaps an exception. When we have that kind of faith, it leads us straight to doing crazy things, like committing treason or walking around and around a wall of stone believing that it will fall down when we shout (Joshua 2 and 6).

But we aren't quite to the end of the story.  Rahab left her life of prostitution, and she married an Israelite.  She left her home securely fastened in the (doomed) walls of Jericho to throw in her lot with the wandering nomads who were conquering the land.  And she became the ancestress of Jesus Christ.  The king on the other hand fell under the ban and was slaughtered along with his subjects.  Faith changed everything.

Faith and works is something that theologians love to argue about, but for us ordinary women, I think it's a breeze to understand. We have to believe enough to do what God says, just like our kids have to trust (or fear) us enough to obey us.  A lack of obedience always indicates a lack of faith.  However the presence of obedience does not always indicate the presence of faith!  A teenager slamming dishes on to the table she was asked to set, is still in trouble, obedient or not.  God is no less fooled when our obedience is divorced from our faith.

The challenge for me is not understanding the issue, it's to search my heart.  The question is not What do I believe?  That one is too easy. The question is Whom do I trust, and do I trust Him enough to obey Him? Or maybe the question is: Do I trust Him enough to do something crazy?  Because living a life of faith, going to church, reading your bible, helping the poor, loving the hurting, the world finds that a little crazy.

Our simplest acts of obedience are radical!  Every time I explain that I believe in God like I believe in gravity, the folks around me think I'm crazy.  Every time I explain that God intended for me to nurture my family and to find my leadership in my husband, my non-christian (and some of my Christian) girl friends stare at me in disbelief!  The alcohol I don't drink, the drugs I don't do, the stuff I don't read, it all marks me as a little crazy.  What do you do, in faith, that the people around you can't understand?

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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