silhouette of man standing on green grass field during sunset

IMs From I AM

I preached this sermon on April 27, 2014 at Trinity United Methodist Church in Hackettstown, NJ. I borrowed the title from an older sermon I preached in Maryland because I like it, but most of the sermon is new.

One of my favorite comic strips is Hagar the Horrible. Hagar is a somewhat lovable, self-centered, and bumbling Viking. In researching for today’s sermon I found repeated references to one strip, in which Hagar is kneeling in prayer. He says, “It’s not easy to believe in you God. We never see you. How come you never show yourself? How do we know you even exist…?” And then,

• a flower springs into life beside Hagar;
• a volcano erupts in the distance;
• an eclipse of the sun turns the sky black;
• a star shoots across the sky;
• a tidal wave rushes over Hagar;
• lightning flashes; and, so on and on.

Hagar pulls himself from the mud, dripping wet, and surrounded by darkness. “OK, OK. I give up! Every time I bring up this subject, all we get is interruptions.”

My buddy Hagar was just looking for a little bit more help from God to get past his doubt! But he wanted it unequivocally on his terms. He saw what God had done, but it was not enough. He wanted more. He wanted certainty.

As with Hagar, I’ve often wondered why God has to be so mysterious. But I like to think I’m quite modern in my approach. I love electronic gadgets. For example, I have an electronic tablet. It lets me store books, papers, newspapers, magazines, as well as provides access the internet, play movies, etc. Among other things I now have my Bible on this tablet. I have my laptop computer. I can work anywhere with this. I also have a smart phone that allows me to use it as a telephone, receive my email, search the internet, read books, watch movies, and receive text messages. Text messages are short written notes that go instantly from the sender to the recipient. They also are known as Instant Messages: shortened to just IMs.

Through all these wonderful devices you may communicate with me about any way you choose. You may call me or send me a fax. You can send me an email. I’m on Facebook and Twitter so you can connect with me there. And you can send me IMs through several different services. So I have to be one of the easiest persons around to get a message to. My phone lies on my dresser at night so one of the last things I do at night and first things I do every morning is check it for messages.

I have thought for a long time that life would be a whole lot simpler if God would simply just send us a direct message every day about what we should do that day. Just like Hagar, I just sometimes need a little unambiguous help from God to get me past my doubts. I mean, I get up and check messages first thing every morning. He could just send me an IM that says today Tom I want you to preach the attached sermon. Easy right? Maybe it happens with you, but I’m still waiting. No faxes from God. No emails. And no IMs from I AM. A true story though: I once discovered a wireless network in our neighborhood with the name Heaven, so I thought “Great! Finally a direct line to God.” But it went away after that one time. Still no IMs from I AM.

I’m still waiting for my IM from I AM. How about you? Do you doubt? Doubt your salvation? Doubt that Jesus is with you? Doubt that God hears your prayers? And do you find yourself doubting and looking for something to get you past your doubts? And do you feel guilty when you do? Perhaps feel that you are a faith failure? Wouldn’t it be so much better if God would reveal himself so clearly that we would not doubt?

Welcome to being human! I affirm that I have doubts. And I strongly suspect that you have doubts. But we don’t talk about it much. We feel that doubting is wrong and that if we were just better Christians we would not doubt. But I really cannot imagine how you can be a Christian without having doubts from time to time. Doubt is the handmaiden of faith. Working through our doubts causes our faith to grow.

God made us to think. God made us to question. Can you imagine where the human species would be if it did not? The entirety of our science and advancement through the ages is because human beings are programmed to ask “why”. That the question “why?” enters into our relationship with Christ, therefore, should not be a surprise to us. I’m sure it is not a surprise to God.

I’m sure that God is not surprised by our doubt because he has been accepting doubters for a long time. He heard the doubt of David in today’s Psalm. “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” And take Gideon for example. Gideon doubted God would save Israel through him. In Judges 6:36 we find:

Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand as you have promised—look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you said.” And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water. Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.

Gideon not only doubted God, but dared to challenge God to prove his reliability! God’s word was not enough. He wanted more.

Or how about Sarah and Abraham? Abraham is regarded as a lion of faith. Yet how did he respond when God promised him a son? In Genesis 17:17 we are told:

Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?”

Despite all that God had already done and revealed to Abraham, he doubted God. He needed more proof to believe God’s word.

Or perhaps John the Baptist? John was the one of the very first to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ. Jesus declared that none was greater than John. Yet when John was in prison facing death what did he do? He sent Jesus the message found in Matthew 11:3:

Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?

Even John doubted. In his doubt he needed assurance.

And then we come to Thomas. Poor Thomas. How would you like to be known for your one moment of weakness, and be forever “Doubting Thomas”? I will guess that some time in your path as a Christian you have sat in a church group and looked around and saw people of strong faith all around you and felt alone in doubt. So imagine how poor Thomas must have felt when he returned to the group of disciples. He is surrounded by people who are overwhelmed by their experience with Christ, but he is overwhelmed by doubt instead.

It is also so unfair that Thomas is remembered for his moment of doubt. Rather than being a man of doubt, up to this point Thomas had actually shown more courage than many of the others. In John 11 we find Thomas, faced with Jesus’ decision to go to Jerusalem, encouraging the others who fear death if they go, by saying “Let us all go that we may die with him.” We don’t really know, but Thomas may have been the one that made the difference and moved them to follow. Not a man of doubt.

Yet Thomas was also a thinker. He was possessed of a considerable share of that human tendency to ask “why.’ In the upper room when Jesus is explaining what will happen to him all of the disciples are undoubtedly perplexed. But it is Thomas who speaks. It is Thomas who pushes on to understand by asking, “Lord we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” To which Jesus answers with his well-known response in John 14:6:

I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

So we have Thomas, a thinking man of courage, brought to a time of doubt. How did that happen? We first have to remember that none of the disciples believed Jesus would rise. They had never had an Easter experience. They all had what Pastor Ray Pritchard¹ calls “intellectual doubts.” These are doubts of the rational mind. These are more often the doubts that face the secular world when confronted with Christ. No one could return from the dead. The inability of the rational mind to accept the resurrection is a major stumbling block on the path to Christ. Many reject Christ on this ground, even today. So that the disciples also doubted is no surprise. But the others went on to experience the risen Christ and in that experience went beyond the doubt. Thomas simply needed the same experience. He was not without faith. He just needed reassurance. And he found it in Christ.

Doubt is not the opposite of faith. That would be unbelief. Frederick Buechner, in his book Wishful Thinking, says, “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” Faith is not an emotion, it is a choice. When faced with doubt, we have to choose to believe. That does not mean that you ignore your doubts. That means that as if you had ants in your pants, you would stir and get rid of them. You admit your doubts to God and other Christians, who also have experienced doubts and worked through them and can help you work through yours.

But most important, remember the answer that Jesus gave to John the Baptist at Matthew 11:4-5:

Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.

John the Baptist, the man the Jesus characterized as the greatest of all, did not receive the IM from I AM that he sought. Jesus did not say, “Yes, I am the Messiah.” What he said was look to what you know to be true. You will find me there. And that is the most important thing to do in the face of doubt…return to what you know to be true. God reveals himself in many ways. He is in nature, he is in scripture, and he is in your experiences. When you doubt, don’t be as Hagar and ignore all that God has revealed to you. Return to those truths that you already know and you will find that you have always had a firm foundation beneath you.

In our Gospel lesson today Christ emphasized to Thomas that those who believe without direct knowledge, those who live by faith, are blessed. There may be the rare prophet that knows with certainty that God will be in all things, but for most of us, we have to respond to the call of Christ on faith. Because we will rarely be certain before we act and that is part of God’s design. Certainty eclipses faith and God wants us to come to him in trust and faith, not servants intimidated by his power. So he speaks to us softly and subtly. But when we believe we see God at work, and then answer in faith, his peace will affirm his presence. And thereafter as events unfold, it becomes easier to see God’s fingerprints. It becomes easier to see God. Remember, God created us to question. He gave us Christ as the answer to our questions. We may not receive an IM from I AM every morning, but God reveals himself and Jesus will draw us to him through our doubts. Unlike Hagar, we just need to pay attention!


¹ I owe a debt of gratitude to Pastor Ray Pritchard for elements of this sermon that can be found in articles and sermons that he has published at Keep Believing Ministries.

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Welcome, I'm Tom

I'm Tom Trezise a retired lawyer and corporate executive with over twenty years of experience as a Methodist lay preacher. Raised in Appalachia, I proudly call myself a hillbilly at heart. I'm the executive director of The Everyday Kingdom, a non-profit devoted to fostering a community that helps people find and experience the peace, purpose, and joy available from living every day in Christ’s kingdom.

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