Super-Size Your Faith
“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…in a most delightful way”
How many of you can hear Mary Poppins singing that?
How many of you have no idea who Mary Poppins is?
There’s the generational divide right in front of us…although Broadway has just introduced a new “Mary Poppins” musical to catch those of you who only know the more postmodern Nannie McPhee version of the story.
[Here’s the link if you want to play it . . . to remind some and acquaint others www.youtube.com/watch]
Nanny Mary Poppins sang this song in the 1964 movie to get her employers’ closed-mouth children to open up and swallow down their daily dose of nasty-tasting stuff. Could any nanny get away with that today? Given the skyrocketing rate of childhood obesity, I suspect that any child-care worker caught shoveling spoonfuls of sugar down their charge’s throats would be instantly sacked.
Still, we “sugarcoat” everything. “It smells like money” is how we sugarcoat the sickening stench of a slaughterhouse or the cloud of sulphur dioxide that spews out of paper-mill smoke stacks. Ironically, in the case of pulp mills, we are sugar-coating the release of sugars (and sulphur) in the wood.
“Sugar-coating” is our attempt to disguise that which is truly awful with an artificial top-coat of sticky sweetness. We do this with everything from chocolate-dipped grasshoppers to 5 mpg SUV’s that run on Big Diesel. We love to take our sourest lemons and turn them into lemonade.
But this attempt to “sugar-coat” the negative is not a part of biblical faith. A faith that is founded on the crucifixion of its founder as a blasphemous criminal cannot be good at cutesy coverups.
Jesus never sugarcoated. He spoke openly to his admittedly uncomprehending, sugar-jonesing disciples about his impending arrest, conviction, and execution. Jesus baldly declared that “the poor will always be with you” and advised the rich, young man that the cost of discipleship was to “sell everything” if he wished to follow Jesus. Discipleship was never advertised as anything but a big-ticket item by Jesus, a commitment that, as its reward, demanded that followers “take up their cross,” embrace the real probability of suffering and death.
Paul had first-hand, hard-core, hard-time experiences of the “hardship” that discipleship could bring to one’s life. Paul never sugar-coated the cost of discipleship, because Paul knew through his own experience that whatever the “cost of discipleship” it was still a great, deep-discount deal. That’s why Paul was always trying to put the discipline in discipleship.
In today’s text Paul itemizes some of the costs:
As one who had already personally experienced all of these “costs” except the final death blows of “the sword,” Paul could personally testify that none of these pogroms could “separate us from the love of Christ.” The “love of Christ” was the saving, sacrificial, redeeming work of Christ on the cross, the “work” that brought salvation and eternal life to all who believe. There is no need to “sugarcoat” the Christ story because the ending it offers is the miraculous, splendid sweetness of salvation.
How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? No one knows. As the ads testify, the unknown answer is demonstrated by “lick-one, lick-two, lick-three . . CRUNCH!”
We DO know, though, what it takes to get to the sweet spot of salvation. All it takes is faith. Paul doesn’t pretend that following Jesus will be a trouble-free ride. In fact, following Jesus almost certainly guarantees that hardship, persecution, and peril will be constant bedfellows. If you’re looking for a safety-first, risk-free existence, don’t follow Jesus. The center of God’s will is not the center of fame and fortune and praise.
What Paul wants his first century readers in Rome and his twenty-first century readers in Duluth [insert your city here] to know is that despite all that happens to us, faith itself is the ultimate victory, the supreme triumph. Whatever the battle is we face, the final outcome is never in question if we stay connected to Christ. The world’s eyes may record distress, famine, and even death. But the eyes of faith see that there is nothing “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” — I repeat, there is nothing in the universe that “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 38-39).
Just as the art world proclaims “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” people of faith know that faith IS the victory. An ancient symbol of the victory of faith over the “powers” that sought to slay it is the palm branch. The reason that when Jesus approached Jerusalem he was greeted by a cheering crowd waving palm branches is because the palm branch symbolized and celebrated the defeat of the spiritual enemies of Israel. The palm branch was like the checkered flag to a Nascar driver, the ultimate symbol of undisputed victory. After the Maccabean revolt of 66 CE the triumphant reclamation of the citadel of Jerusalem was marked with “praise and palm branches . . . because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel” (1 Maccabees 13:51). To commemorate this victory of faith over the Roman presence the Jews minted coins sporting not spears or soldiers, but bearing three palm branches, the symbols of a victory of faith.
Long before the Maccabean revolt, when Israel was a fledgling family of faith, there was another confrontation between power and faith. Everyone who ever went to Sunday school knows it, and if you didn’t go to Sunday school you’ve heard it with different names. The story of David and Goliath, or maybe Luke vs. Darth Vader, or maybe Harry Potter vs. Voldemort, are all about the victory of faith over power. The seemingly small and weak, ultimately triumph over the vast and vigorous.
Yet for Christians, for those whose conviction to act lies “in Christ,” the moment of triumph is distinctly different. With the eighth Harry Potter movie, Voldemort is finally defeated in a to-the-death match which Harry, of course, wins. In the Star Wars saga the triumph of the Alliance is complete when the Empire and its evil leader are destroyed.
But there is no definitive action, there is no final battle that marks the point of “victory” for men and women of faith. In the confrontation between living as a person who is “in Christ,” and the faithless “powers” of the world, there is no crushing, mortal blow Christians can claim as a “victory.” Battles, confrontations, head-butting contests, genocidal horrors and holocausts do not determine “who wins.”
The only “win” Christians may ever claim in this world is the victory of faith. Faith that is so secure and so sure that it knows neither “hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” (v. 35) can defeat it. Faith that believes that there is absolutely nothing that is “able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v.39).
A faith victory is not counted on the battlefield. It sprouts in the Spirit. David’s victory over Goliath didn’t occur when the great warrior fell. David’s victory came when a scrawny shepherd boy listened to the Lord, stepped out in faith and scooped up stones needed for a sling. David’s faith was the victory over the powers that would destroy God’s mission. Everything that happened after David’s stooping down to pick up those stones was but a commentary on a victory that had already been won. It may have taken years, or even lifetimes, for that Goliath to come tumbling down. That was not the victory. The victory was won when David had the faith to step out and take up the mission.
Christians are not promised triumph on the battlefield. Christians are promised the triumph of faith. Followers of Jesus find victory in trusting and obeying God. We are “great faith” people.
I want to end with as politically incorrect an image as Mary Poppins’ “spoonfuls of sugar.” I am calling you to “super-size” our faith. We are “great faith” people. Being “in Christ” is the one super-size that is good for your heart, not bad for it. With a super-sized faith in the love of God through Christ Jesus there is nothing no power, no life or death, no height or depth that can place a divide between our faith and the salvation that Christ’s death and resurrection have offered us.
[To conclude your sermon, either pass out coinage with palm-branches for people to keep as little icons of remembrance that “faith IS the victory,” or sing the Ira D. Sankey gospel song, “Faith is the Victory”]
Note: I encourage you to consider passing out some kind of coinage with palm branches to every person in the congregation. This could even be a paper or card-board cut-out. But the palm branches coinage would be something that your congregation could keep on them, in their wallets and purses, to remind them that even when they seem to be losing battles and skirmishes in the struggle against evil and injustice, the battle has already been won. Jesus won the victory over evil and death in his death and resurrection. We participate in that victory when he take steps and leaps of faith to join Jesus in his ongoing mission in the world.
This old song would be a great way to conclude your sermon.
Ira D. Sankey’s “Faith is the Victory”
Encamped along the hills of light
Ye Christian soldiers, rise
And press the battle are the night
Shall veil the glowing skies
Against the foe in vales below
Let all our strength be hurled
Faith is the victory, we know
That overcomes the world
Chorus: Faith is the victory!
Faith is the victory!
Oh, glorious victory
That overcomes the world
His banner over us is love
Our sword the Word of God
We tread the road the saints above
With shouts of triumph trod
By faith they, like a whirlwind’s breath
Swept on o’er ev’ry field
The faith by which they conquered Death
Is still our shining shield
Leonard Sweet Sermons, Leonard Sweet, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., 2011, 0-000-1415