The first four words

Romans 4:18-21

Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.

“I believe in God.”

If you can confess those first four words of the Creed, “I believe in God”—as a faith statement—a trust statement—the rest is actually fairly easy.

But we rarely confess faith simply “in God”.  We go on to list the details, get down to the nitty-gritty of the everyday, and think about this aspect of God or that aspect of God.  We tend to break down “God” into applicable, conceptual “pieces of God”—creation, salvation, comfort, ruler, guide—not denying the nature of the Trinity or anything like that—but making what is incomprehensible somehow a bit more comprehensible, a bit more manageable.

We rarely simply confess a faith in “God”—revealed, known— yet beyond knowing, beyond understanding, beyond even our capacity to imagine.

But if and when, on those rare occasions, we confess “God”—somehow stretching our imagination and comprehension to bursting point and then realizing that we haven’t even started to scratch the surface—then we enter into that experience of faith where one might, as the reading suggests, “hope against hope”.  In so thinking—no, in so confessing—we step out of the limits of what is our “thinking” and into what is “God”.

Human beings both long to do this and loathe doing this.  The patterns of our society and culture have us constantly trying to work things out—especially with respect to our own identity, meaning in life, what our future is all about.  And whenever we reach the limits we rail against ‘something’—we fight against the very concept of limits—we get angry that there isn’t ‘more’ that we can figure out, more that we can define, more that we can do.

“I believe in God.”

A song from a couple of years ago [by an indie rock/folk rock group called “Bright Eyes”; a song called “We are Nowhere and It’s Now”] grabbed my attention in thinking about this constant struggle we have to keep control of what may be beyond our control, to comprehend something that is incomprehensible—grabbed my attention with these lines:
If you hate the taste of wine why do you drink it till you’re blind?
And if you swear that there’s no truth and who cares how come you say it like
you’re right?
Why are you scared to dream of God when it’s salvation that you want?
You see stars that clear have been dead for years but the idea just lives on…

You and I can look at the night sky and see stars that no longer exist.  They burnt out years ago, and yet we can see their light, marvel at them, sing nursery rhymes about them.  We can’t even tell which ones still are burning brightly and which ones are simply a memory of God’s “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky”.

But they are all God’s!  God called them, out of nothing, on that day when, as Job writes, “the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy”.

And looking to those stars God commands the old Abraham and the barren Sarah—their plans, their purposes, their identity, their future “already as good as dead”—God commands them to count the stars and know their descendants—in their “already as good as dead” barrenness to know the life of the lives that will follow—in their nothingness to know the fullness…of God.

That is not a lesson in astrophysics…nor in the science of creation…nor in the complexities of genealogy and social history—it is a lesson in “God”.

“I believe in God.”

“Hoping against hope, he believed…”  The biblical concept of hope is about an absolute confidence in the future outcome.  The phrase that Paul uses here—“hoping against hope”—pits that absolute confidence about a future outcome over and against the realities of reason, of sight, of human control and human possibility and even human imagination.  It names the tension that is always there when we stand on the absolute edge of our limits, and yet the promise is still in front of us.

God’s promise.

Christians get dragged into discussions—often interesting, sometimes even necessary—about creation, about resurrection, about other kinds of miracles, about what actually makes a miracle—you know the list—and then we drag in all the evidence (biblical, scientific, intuition, experience) and sort it into conclusive ‘proofs’.  And then a bit later we realise that we haven’t proved anything; we have simply slotted what we know into what we don’t know, but believe.

And always when we come to the end of what we know, of what we can pin down, of what we can prove….

In the Gospel reading today there are three people who, like Abraham of old, hope against hope:  a woman suffering with bleeding; a ruler grieving his daughter; an outcast tax collector.  The woman touched Jesus’ cloak.  The ruler knelt before Jesus.  The tax collector received Jesus’ invitation.  Each had an absurd hope; but each trusted Jesus.

Paul writes of Abraham, “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

God…able to do.

I believe in God.  That Christian confession immediately and simply and clearly leads, and progresses from “I” to “God”.  We do, of course, have an understanding of what we mean by “God”; and it is good that we go on to describe God (and I deliberately say “describe”, not “define”).  Interestingly, the confession of God’s people has always been that it is God who creates.  That is an incredibly liberating confession!  After God creates—which of God’s promises is then too difficult?  Which path impassable?  Which storm too violent?  Which barrenness beyond God’s provision?  Which pain beyond God’s comfort?  Which plan beyond God’s implementation?  Which sin too big to forgive?  Which life beyond resurrection?  Which creature (all his creations!) beyond God’s love?

That phrase “hoping against hope” makes it clear that we must always be clear about certain concepts:
“Hope” is certainty in God; not the obvious outcome of what is visible to me.
“Faith” is trust in the power and purpose (love!) of God; not in my own capacity to deal with everything.
“Righteousness” is God’s capacity to put things right, often when I can’t.
“Grace” is God’s capacity to love beyond reasonable lovability.

“I believe in God” is to let God be God and let me be his creature, fully convinced that God is able to do what he has promised.

Which is why we use the Creed primarily as an act of worship—as a doxology.  Abraham “grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God”.

Confess those first four words of the Creed, “I believe in God”—as a faith statement—a trust statement—and the rest is actually over to God.