God is always speaking, always moving, and always present around us. Sometimes, it can be challenging to see God at work, yet if we pay attention, we can hear the divine voice in the world. Karl Barth wrote, “God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen…if [God] really does.”[i] I like that quote but hesitated to use it for two reasons. First, the idea of God speaking through a dead dog is not only unsettling; it’s crass. The idea that God would choose a repulsive conduit for a theophany sounds unlikely, and that’s Barth’s point.
Second, the idea of God speaking through anything Russian seems tone deaf right now. With the naked aggression they’ve shown in Ukraine, most of the world has rallied to the Ukrainians’ side. However, if we believe God loves everyone, then there must be something redemptive or redeemable in everyone. Barth wrote of this mishmash in the 1930s, during the time of Stalin’s Russia. If God could speak in Stalin’s Russia, then we can have faith God is still speaking today.
Faith is a dialogue. It’s an encounter with God in which we grow, change, and affect the world around us. In this dialogue, we both listen and speak. We listen to hear God’s voice. We believe God can and does speak through everything in the world around us, and we are careful to hear it. Then, we speak. We tell God what we are really thinking. We are honest. When we feel the world pressing in, we tell our loving creator. When we struggle, we cry to the holy sustainer. When we are lost, we shout to the redeemer. God listens and responds.
Many years ago, in an old episode of the television show, The Simpsons, there was a construction site at the edge the fictional town Springfield. When they found a skeleton that looked like an angel, they started an archaeological dig. Of course, Homer tried to make money by charging people to see the angel skeleton. Everyone in town thought it was a real angel, except always rational Lisa. She tried to persuade them that there must be a scientific explanation. At one point, her mother Marge told Lisa to have faith. Marge explained that faith means there is something “more to life than what we see.” She went on, and said, “It is important to make a leap of faith now and then because everyone needs something to believe in.” Marge described a personal faith that leads to individual benefit. That doesn’t seem like the kind of faith we find described in the Bible. For instance, in our Old Testament lesson today, when we read about Abram’s encounter with God in Genesis 15, faith is belief in God’s trustworthiness. Abram didn’t believe because he thought he would gain something through this divine encounter. He entered a dialogue with God and changed.
Up to this point,
God spoke. Abram listened.
God promised. Abram believed.
God commanded. Abram went.
And, in Genesis 15, we reach the moment where this dialogue between God and Abram touches a growing edge. Abram said, “Wait a minute. I have a question.” Saying, “I have a question,” isn’t a violation of faith. Asking questions of God reflects our engagement with the divine. When God reassures Abram in Genesis 15.5, Abram responds by believing (15.6). We live in world that struggles with belief. When I talk about transformation, I treat belief or God’s existence as prima face. We can talk about transformation because we accept God’s existence as a given.
But what if we didn’t? Or, what if we have people in our orbit who don’t?
Talking about transformation in Christ wouldn’t make much sense if Jesus were just another rabbi who lived and died a couple thousand years ago. We can talk about faith by living it. Our lives are already a daily testimony of what we believe, whether we are intentional about it or not. We get to choose to be intentional.
Abram’s encounter with God demonstrates dialogical faith. Whether the story of his conversation with God is a metaphoric illustration of ancient Hebrew theology, or an actual conversation, Abram’s encounter shows us what faithful living looks like. It’s what one does, not just what one thinks.
Remember when God called Abram in Genesis 12.1, he went without asking questions or demanding proof. When he encountered a famine in the Negeb, he and Sarai went to Egypt (Genesis 12.10-20). He prospered and left Egypt rich. After he and his nephew Lot separated, God told Abram, “Walk through the land and I will give it to you” (Genesis 13.14). Abram did what God commanded. In Genesis 14, Abram rescued Lot, who had become a prisoner of war (14.1-16). When Abram encountered Melchizedek, he gave him one-tenth of everything he had (14.20). Genesis tells us that Melchizedek was “priest of God Most High” (14.18). At this point, Abram seemed to be bold, courageous, obedient, humble, and faithful in all he did. But, when God said, “Your reward shall be great” (15.1), Abram said, “Hang on. I’ve got a few questions.”
Instead of the silent obedience Abram displayed up to this point, we see him engage with God. This is when his story gets interesting. Life always is more interesting when we engage. Thoughtless obedience is boring and not worth that much. Obedience without questioning can lead down some dark paths. Difficult situations aren’t a crisis of faith. Asking questions doesn’t equate to disbelief. Reading about Abram obeying God without question in Genesis 12 can lead to a feeling that true faith means mindless obedience. They shouldn’t though—because that wasn’t the end of Abram’s story.
Notice how God responds to Abram’s questions. When Abram asks a question, God doesn’t abandon him. God says, “Step outside. Look up. What do you see?”
God takes the time to engage. The calling for us, today, as we move further into this Lenten season, is to pay attention. We must not fall for the fallacy of thinking faith is some sort of transaction or something that leads to our own personal benefit. Abram’s response to God pointing his head at the stars is to believe. He appears prepared to follow God forward, despite any questions or doubts. And God counted him as “righteous” (15.6). Abram’s faith is a questioning faith, and that’s a serious faith. That’s the kind of faith that wants to hear the answer.
When we practice that kind of faith, our lives reflect it. We don’t read about Abram because of his faith. We read about him as the patriarch of God’s chosen people. We read about him because he lived out that faith. In the New Testament, the Epistle of James tells us that faith is connected to action (James 2.14). Our actions don’t save us, but they reflect what God has done in us. We come into a relationship with God through faith and express it by saying it out loud and being baptized. That’s not the end of the journey though.
Our faith journey continues throughout life. Each of our actions point to what we believe. Being kind, encouraging, loving, patient, and generous are just some of the ways we can live our faith. Working for peace, giving of ourselves (which includes time and money), continuing to study our faith, praying more, and showing up are what it means to pay attention to God.
These examples are a bit abstract, and abstract examples are easy to dismiss. Abram didn’t sit on the sidelines waiting to see what God would do. When God called, he went. When he had questions, he asked. When God answered, he listened.
Today, think about one concrete step you could take to demonstrate your faith to yourself. It’s not about me or anyone else seeing your demonstration of faith. This is something between you and God. Each one of us can take one concrete step of faith today. Pick one thing. Then, commit yourself to do it. God loves you. We love you. And we want to walk in faith with you.
[i] Karl Barth, The Doctrine of the Word of God, ed. G. W. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. G. W. Bromiley, vol. I/1, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1936/1975), 55.