The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

SPIRITUAL EXCELLENCE: FAITHFULNESS

Delivered 8/10/97
Text: Eph. 6:10-17 (Lamentations 3:22-24)
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

This week the world remembered the events of 52 years ago, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought Japan to its knees and prompted the end of World War II. Hard to imagine now. After all, Japan in 1997 is one of America's staunchest allies. How things change.

Archeologists were digging in the ancient ruins of the Middle East. They came upon some pottery fragments with some difficult letters to decipher. They called in the language experts to help. Do you know what it said? "Alas, alas, things are not what they used to be." Someone has said, "I am 100 percent in favor of progress...It's all this change I'm against."(1)

But change is a part of life, isn't it? According to Harper's Index, the average American will hold eight different jobs and will live in THIRTY different homes. An estimated 4,000 scientific words creep into our language each year. Westinghouse calculates that the so-called half-life of an engineer is only ten years - one-half of what an engineer learns in college will be outdated within a decade.(2) Half the nations on earth did not exist in their present form just 25 years ago. Change. It is no wonder that people have such trouble coping.

Now we are in the midst of summer. Our search for spiritual excellence continues as we focus on the equipment the Lord has given us to succeed in that quest...the armor of God. We began with the Belt of Truth, DIVINE truth that God loves this world and sent Jesus to redeem it. Then the Breastplate of Righteousness, GOD's righteousness, the promise of a relationship with this world God loves that will never falter. On to the Shoes of the Gospel of Peace, GOD's peace, the peace that passes understanding, the peace that a child feels snuggled up to Mommy or Daddy in the midst of a midnight storm.

As we have been pointing out over these weeks, this armor of which Paul speaks is GOD's armor, not ours. If we rely on OUR truth to hold us together, we are often led down the primrose path - our truth is often relative (Was Japan an enemy or a friend?). If we trust OUR righteousness, scripture reminds us that it is worth nothing but filthy rags. If we try to calm ourselves with OUR peace, there is no calm at all - things change too much and too quickly.

But this week we come to the Shield of Faith and are suddenly confronted with a problem. If this is God's armor, what in the world is God's faith? That makes no sense. Well, this is one of those rare times when I am very glad that Presbyterians require Hebrew and Greek as a part of a minister's training. In this case, the Greek clears up the problem. The word we have translated as FAITH here is translated equally well as FAITHFULNESS. Nowhere in scripture do we ever find reference to God's FAITH, but those sacred pages have God's FAITHFULNESS writ large between every line.

It starts in the very beginning, the story of creation. No matter how someone chooses to interpret those stories in the early chapters of Genesis, the message is that this world did not just happen. There was a divine purpose behind it and a divine order to it.

Years ago, there was a children's book which bore the fascinating title, The Chance World. It described a creation in which nothing could be counted on. The sun might rise or it might not; or it might appear at any hour; or the moon might come up instead. When children were born they might have one head or a dozen heads, and those heads might not be on their shoulders - there might not be any shoulders - but arranged somewhere in place of a hand or foot. If a boy jumped up in the air it was impossible to predict whether he would ever come down again. That he came down yesterday was no guarantee that he would do it tomorrow. Things were different everyday - gravitation and everything else changed from hour to hour. Today a child's body might be so light that it would be impossible to get down from the chair to the floor, but tomorrow, the force might be so great as to drive it through a three-story house and dash it to pieces somewhere near the center of the earth. In this chance world cause and effect were wiped out; natural law was annihilated. What would happen in a "chance world?" Everyone would go crazy.(3)

But we do not live in a chance world. The sun DOES come up in the morning and the moon comes out at night. Natural law is not repealed, whether we understand it or not. America's most famous inventor, Thomas Edison, once said, "No one can study chemistry and see the wonderful way in which certain elements combine with the nicety of the most delicate machine ever invented, and not come to the inevitable conclusion that there is a Big Engineer who is running this universe."(4)

Is that the faithfulness that Paul says will shield us from all the evil that would bring us down? Part of it, perhaps. But as Jesus said, "He he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous."(5) The orderliness of creation is nothing more than EVIDENCE of the faithfulness of God. But for believers, there is more.

To explain that, we can focus on two parables, one from the Old Testament, one from the New. In the Old Testament, there is a remarkable story about the faithfulness of God in the little book of Hosea. If you recall the details, the prophet Hosea was instructed to take himself a wife - not some sweet young thing, but a prostitute named Gomer. No doubt he started off with high hopes, but they were soon dashed - this leopard was not about to change her spots. She ran off. He went after her. He gave her presents. She ran off again. He went after her again. She bore three children, presumably NOT Hosea's, but none of that mattered. Hosea never gave up on Gomer. The message of the book is that God never gives up on the covenant people, no matter how low they go. No matter how UNfaithful we are, GOD will ALWAYS be faithful.

The New Testament parable is the one which has been called the greatest short story ever written, the Prodigal Son. As you recall, the boy came to Daddy and asked for his portion of the inheritance. Loving father that he was, and no doubt against his better judgment, Dad gave it to him, a major sacrifice in a day when the only security in old age was in the form of accumulated assets. Junior took off, blew the money in what scripture calls "riotous living." He ended up so down and out that he was reduced to trying to survive by caring for pigs, about the most degrading thing a good Jewish boy who would have never eaten pork could have imagined. Finally, as he sat in the slop of the pig sty, the Bible says "he came to himself." He woke up to the fact that life had not been so bad back home - even the servants lived FAR better than he was living. So he headed back.

There is a similar story, this one NOT from the Bible, but an ancient Oriental legend which tells of a man who had a wild and impetuous son.(6) He became involved with the ruffians of the village who persuaded him to join them in the robbery of his father's treasury house. After the robbery was over, his friends fled with the stolen booty and left him to face the guilt of the crime alone. The young man was desperate. He was deserted by his friends and had betrayed the trust of his father. But his greatest crime was that he had brought public dishonor on the family name. In a culture where ancestors were worshiped and family integrity is a sacred trust, this was the worst wrong of all.

Broken and deeply repentant, he went to his father and begged forgiveness. Graciously, it was granted. The father called all the members of the family together to celebrate the reconciliation and the return of his son. When all had enjoyed the banquet to the fullest, the father stood and lifted his cup of rice wine for a toast. But as the son drank deep the contents of his cup, he suddenly grabbed his throat, and with a look of pain and disbelief on his face, he fell lifeless across the table. The son had been poisoned. The father with ceremonial dignity nodded to the guests. Each in turn graciously and politely bowed to the father as they silently left the banquet hall. All was now put right. The son had paid the price of his pardon with poison. His honor had been restored. The family integrity was reestablished. The unfortunate incident was closed.

As you know, the Prodigal Son in Jesus' story was also welcomed back by his father. There was a banquet. The boy was given the honor of the best robe, a ring to signify a place of authority in the household, shoes to lift him from the status of barefoot slave. No, there was no poison this time, just more love than that boy would have ever imagined. The point of the story was the same as that with Hosea and Gomer: no matter how UNfaithful WE are, God is ALWAYS faithful, and God's love for us never changes. Lamentations sings it: "The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 'The LORD is my portion,' says my soul, 'therefore I will hope in him.'"(7) And the hymn writer echoes back:

Great is Thy faithfulness,
Great is Thy faithfulness,
Morning by morning new mercies I see.(8)

There is a verse you probably learned in Sunday School which you hear regularly when it comes time for the Prayer of Confession in worship. It comes I John: "If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness."(9) God is FAITHFUL...to forgive. This is the Shield of Faithfulness that Paul says will protect us if spiritual excellence is what we want. Our own faithfulness will not do it - it falters too often. Even the best of us are forced to admit how often we fail.

Some of you may have heard me tell of the legend of the man who came to the pearly gates and was told that to gain admittance to the celestial city, he would have to ascend a flight of stairs. He was handed a piece of chalk and instructed to write one sin or shortcoming from his life on each step as he moved higher. No problem...for awhile. After a bit, he stopped - he could not think of any more sins he had committed. As he stood there, he saw a figure coming down the steps toward him. With a start, he recognized the Archbishop of Canterbury. "Your grace," he called out, "have they turned you away from the city?"

"Not at all, my son," he gruffly replied as he hurried past, "I am just coming down for some more chalk." Even the best of us.

The Shield of Faithfulness...GOD's faithfulness. God hangs in there with us, ready to restore the relationship broken by our own failing, even when, like the Prodigal Son, we hit rock bottom.

There is a true story of a Catholic priest living in the Philippines, a much-beloved man of God who once carried a secret burden of long-past sin buried deep in his heart. He had committed that sin once, many years before, during his time in seminary. No one else knew of this sin. He had repented of it, but had suffered years of remorse for it, had felt no peace, no inner joy, no sense of God's forgiveness.

There was a woman in this priest's parish who deeply loved God, and who claimed to have visions in which she spoke with Christ, and he with her. As might be expected, the priest was skeptical of her claims, so to test her visions he said to her, "You say you actually speak with Christ in your visions. Let me ask you a favor. The next time you have one of these visions, I want you to ask him what sin your priest committed while he was in seminary."

The woman agreed and went home. When she returned to the church a few days later, the priest asked, "Well, did Christ visit you in your dreams?"

"Yes, he did," she replied.

"And did you ask him what sin I committed in seminary?"

"Yes, I asked him."

"Well, what did he say?"

"He said, `I don't remember.'"(10)

"If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." The great truth of the gospel is that, even though we are compelled to acknowledge our sins - guilt feelings are part and parcel of human nature - we are not condemned to bear them forever. The faithfulness of God's forgiveness is a shield against being beaten down into the moral mud of the pig sty of this world's evil. Best of all, that awful day at Calvary has freed us from our sins' eternal consequence.

Yes, it is sometimes difficult to cope, to barely hang in there, much less pursue any spiritual excellence. Life sometimes seems as if it tumbles in around us - nothing is nailed down anymore. Enemies become friends. Jobs change; homes change; truths change; people change. Only God never changes, and that is the shield that protects us from everything...even ourselves.

Great is Thy Faithfulness
Lord unto me.(11)

Let us pray.

O God, we confess to our own unfaithfulness. We do our level best to be obedient servants, but fail more often than we care to admit. We are grateful that you are faithful. Help us to share that good news with a world that needs to hear. In the name of Jesus. Amen!


1. Pastors' Professional Research Service, 1/89-2/89

2. Pastors' Professional Research Service, 9/88-10/88

3. Paul Lee Tan, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, (Rockville, MD, Assurance Publishers,1979), p. 487

4. ibid., p. 484

5. Matthew 5:45

6. from Richard Carl Hoefler, And he Told Them a Story, (Lima, OH, C.S.S. Publishing, 1979), p. 70

7. Lamentations 3:22-24

8. Thomas O. Chisholm, Copyright 1923, Renewal 1951, Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL

9. I John 1:9

10. Bruce Larson in Robert Lee Davis's, A Forgiving God in an Unforgiving World, (Eugene, OR, Harvest House Publishers, 1984)

11. T. O. Chisholm

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