Lord, Help My Unbelief

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Message for Confirmation Sunday at
Verona United Methodist Church, 11/17/13

The message I am going to share with our confirmands and congregation this morning is based on a Confirmation Sunday sermon preached by the German theologian, Lutheran Pastor, and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer preached this message on April 9, 1938. Seven years later to the day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be hung by the Nazis for his refusal to compromise his Christian faith, for the aid he gave to Jews trying to escape the concentration camps, and for his opposition to Adolph Hitler and all those Christian pastors who allowed the Hitler regime to infect the German Church with propagandist liturgies. Bonhoeffer spent two years in prison at the Buchenwald concentration camp before his execution along with six other resisters at the extermination camp Flossenburg. He died at the age of 39, just 23 days before Germany’s surrender to the Allies.

A decade later, a camp doctor who witnessed Bonhoeffer’s hanging described the scene: “The prisoners … were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts, I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued in a few seconds. In the almost 50 years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

It is because we must never believe that confirming our faith in Jesus Christ is a minor commitment that I share this message with you this morning.

Here is my adapted version of Pastor Bonhoeffer’s Confirmation Sermon from April 9, 1938 based on the remarkable confession of Mark 9:24: “I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief.” I apologize to all who treasure the legacy of Deitrich Bonhoeffer for any short-comings in this adaptation. The original text of the April 9, 1938 sermon may be accessed at  http://www.jakebouma.com/media/Bonhoeffer-ConfirmationSermon.pdf

Dear members of our confirmation class! This may seem a strange scripture to read on the day of your confirmation. It is a very sober word – a man confessing he has a bit of faith but also a lot of doubt. But it is good that from the very beginning we get used to not bragging about our faith. Faith is not like that. Whether we believe or not will be evident every day not only in our words but in our deeds; saying we believe isn’t the same as living out that belief.  Do you remember the story about Peter – Peter who was always so very quick to confirm his faith in Jesus – how he said to his Lord: “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you,” and Jesus answers: “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And the story ends very sadly with the Scriptures saying: “And Peter went out and wept bitterly.” Why did he weep? Because, despite all of Peter’s claims to great faith, he had denied his Lord, just as Jesus had predicted. Great assertions of faith, even if they are said sincerely and are meant seriously, always open us to the possibility that in the moment of trial, our doubts will rise up and reveal who we really are.

It is not an insignificant thing that you profess your Christian faith today in the presence of God and before the ears of your church community. For the rest of your life, you will think back on this day with joy. But for that very reason, I beg you to also take this day seriously, to understand the life-changing seriousness of what is said and done here. My prayer is that you will not say anything on this day that you will remember later with bitterness and regret, having said and promised more in an hour of inner emotion than a human being can possibly live up to. Your faith is still weak and untried and very much in its beginning stages. Therefore, when in a few minutes you are asked if you believe in God as Creator and Redeemer and Guide, do not rely on yourselves and on your good intentions and on the strength of your faith, but rely on the one whom you confess. Rely on God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And pray in your hearts: “I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief.” And who among us adults would not and should not pray the same with you?

Confirmation is a serious day. But it is easy enough to confess one’s faith in the undisturbed environment of a church sanctuary, in the fellowship of Christians, your parents, your brothers and sisters, your friends, in the familiarity of a worship service. Let us be thankful that God grants us this hour when we can all come together in common faith. But all of this will only become utterly serious, utterly real after confirmation, when daily life returns, our daily life with all its decisions. Then it will become evident whether even this day was serious. At this moment in your lives, you do not have your faith once and for all. The faith that you will confess today needs to be regained tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, indeed, every day anew. We receive from God only as much faith as we need for the present day. Faith is the daily bread that God gives us to nourish us for what lies ahead.

Do you know the story about manna in the Old Testament? How when the children of Israel left slavery in Egypt they had to wander through a dry and barren wilderness. So God provided them with a food that appeared each day, light and flaky like frost, they would gather it up and grind it and pound it and make a cake-like bread from it. It was all they had to eat. Being like you and me, because of their lack of faith, they decided it would make sense to gather more than they could eat in one day and store it away for the next day. The problem was that manna would turn rotten if stored for more than one day. This is how it is with all the gifts of God. This is how it is with faith as well. Either we receive it daily anew or it rots. One day is just long enough to preserve the faith. Every morning it is a new struggle to fight through all unbelief, faintheartedness, lack of clarity and confusion, anxiety and uncertainty, in order to arrive at faith and to wrestle it from God. Every morning in your life the same prayer will be necessary:

“I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief.” Today, when this Christian congregation acknowledges you as autonomous members of the church, it expects that you begin to understand that your faith must be your very own individual decision. The “we believe” must now grow more and more into an “I believe.”

Faith is a decision. We cannot avoid that. “You cannot serve two masters”; from now on either you serve God alone or you do not serve God at all. To serve him is your highest honor. But to this Yes to God belongs an equally clear No. Your Yes to God demands your No to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak and poor, to all godlessness and mocking of the Holy. Your Yes to God demands a brave No to everything that will ever hinder you from serving God alone, whether it be your profession, your property, your house, even your own good name.

Faith means decision. But your very own decision! No person can make this decision for you. Beginning today you must dive into Scripture and into prayer – you alone – and you must learn to fight with the weapon of the word of God wherever it is needed. Christian fellowship is one of the greatest gifts that God gives us. But there are times when we must walk the dark valleys alone. Then we will stand or fall with our very own faith. Even if in life you could evade every test of faith, the Bible tells us there will come a day when God will you ask you: Have you believed? Not, have your parents believed, but: have you believed? In that moment when we come face to face with God, may we still pray: I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief. Then you shall know the joy of the Lord.

Your faith will be led into difficult temptations. Jesus Christ was tempted just as we all are, more than all of us. At first, you will be tempted not to obey God’s commandments any longer. These temptations will assault you with great force. Satan will come to you, handsome and alluring, innocent and with the appearance of light. He will obscure God’s law and call it into doubt. He will want to rob you of the joy of following God’s path, to tear your entire faith out of your heart and trample it underfoot and cast it away. Those will be difficult hours in your life, when you will tend to become weary of God’s word, when all is in revolt, when no prayer passes your lips anymore, when the heart refuses to listen any longer. As certain as your faith is alive, all of this must happen. And even if the temptation brings great confusion to you, if your resistance threatens to utterly collapse, indeed, even if defeat has already arrived, then I pray you will cry out with that final bit of faith that remains: I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief. For it is, after all, our Lord and Father who strengthens us.  It is, after all, the dear Lord Jesus Christ who has suffered all temptations like us, yet without sin, to be an example and a help for us. It is, after all, the Holy Spirit of our dear Lord who wants to keep us holy in this struggle.

Your faith will be tested through sorrow. God sends sorrow to his children when they need it the most, when they become too overly sure on this earth. Then a great pain, a great loss, sickness, death, enters our life. Our unbelief rears up. Why does God demand this of me? Why has God allowed this to happen? Why, yes, why? That is the great question of unbelief that wants to suffocate our faith. No one can avoid this calamity. Everything is so perplexing, so dark. In this hour of being forsaken by God, we may and must say: I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief. Yes, dear Lord, also in the dark, also when in doubt, also when I can’t help but feel that God has forsaken and abandoned me. Dear Lord, you still are my dear father who works all things together for my good. Dear Lord Jesus Christ, even you yourself, in the hour of greatest suffering cried out: My God, why have you forsaken me? You were where I am now. You came to be with me even in the hour of my need. I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief.

Your faith will bring you not only temptation and suffering but, above all, struggle. Today’s confirmands are like young soldiers who march into war, into the war of Jesus Christ against all the gods of this world. This war demands engagement of the entire life. Isn’t our God and Lord worthy of our giving everything we have to the struggle for his kingdom. The struggle is already being fought, and you shall now join in. Idolatry and fear of the future confront us everywhere. But do not think that great words of faith are enough to accomplish God’s goals in our lives. The hardest enemy stands not opposite us but within us. That is why we must keep on praying:  I believe, dear Lord, help my unbelief. If we, despite all temptation, do not run away but stand and fight, it will be that prayer that gives us the victory. Because when we call upon the Lord for the portion of faith that can only come from him, then he will lead the struggle with us and give us the victory in all things. In all the struggles of life, within and without, we will be more than conquerors through him who loved and gave himself for us.  It is not we who have won it. God himself has done it through Jesus Christ who is our righteousness, our life, our peace, our victory! And amen!