The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached July 31st, 2022*
Digory was scared. It had been months since his mother was able to get out of bed, months since she had been able to sleep without medication, and months since he had seen her smile. Her illness was daily filling her with more pain, slowly stripping away life, and leaving Digory’s home darker and lonelier. Digory’s father was in another country for his job, so his mother and him had moved in with relatives, but they had proved to be strange, distant, and provided little comfort for the young boy. Doctors filled the hallways of the home, carrying out hushed conversations with Digory’s Aunt, always with bleak looks on their face, leaving Digory feeling more and more scared. He just wanted his mother to be okay.
And then, much to his surprise, by a strange turn of events Digory wound up in another world. A world of talking animals, of magic, all under the charge of their great king: a large, golden lion, Aslan. Also, through Digory’s own foolish choices, an evil witch is allowed to enter the world. Summoned by the sheer gravity of Aslan and the revelation of his own error, Digory agrees to a task Aslan sends him on: he must go fetch a piece of magic fruit to protect the land from the evil witch. He must not eat the fruit himself, but is to bring it back to Aslan. But once Digory arrives to the sacred garden where the fruit lie he encounters the witch. The witch, who has already eaten some of the fruit herself, tries to tempt Digory to do the same. This fruit, she explains, is the source of immortal life and the Lion obviously wants the fruit for himself, he has only sent Digory here like a servant to fetch it for him. Why not take some for himself? Or, even more tempting for Digory, why shouldn’t he bring some back home for his dying mother?
“What has the Lion ever done for you that you should be his slave?” said the Witch. “What can he do to you once you are back in your own world? And what would your Mother think if she knew that you could have taken her pain away and given her back her life and saved your Father’s heart from being broken, and that you wouldn’t—that you’d rather run messages for a wild animal in a strange world that is no business of yours.” (The Magicians Nephew, “An Unexpected Meeting”)
The longer the witch speaks, the weaker Digory’s answers and resolve become. Who is this Lion? What has he done for Digory? And why shouldn’t Digory simply concern himself with his own problems? C.S. Lewis, in this selection from the Chronicles of Narnia, is attempting to transparently recreate the temptation of Eve by the serpent. Has God really said? You will not surely die! You will be like God! “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate,” (Gen 3:6). What happened to Eve and what is happening to Digory is a dilemma of belief. One moment, the truth seems obvious and unquestionable; the next, after a few cleverly directed questions and assertions, everything seems upside down. New evidence, new arguments have been brought to light that suddenly leave our hero and heroine left with serious doubts about the character of God. Should you trust what God says even when your eyes or heart tell you otherwise? Friend, I wonder if you struggle to believe God? Or perhaps you are not a Christian here today and have never trusted the Lord—how can you believe in God? What must be overcome in you to trust in a God that your eyes cannot see?
If you have a Bible you can go ahead and open it to the gospel of John. We are starting a short series reflecting on the issue of doubt and belief in the Christian life, and today we are going to look at this question: how does one believe? Turn with me to John 14:1-6,
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. 4 And you know the way to where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” – John 14:1-6
Problem One: Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled
Jesus opens with this phrase in verse 1, “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Jesus repeats this phrase again in verse 27, and twice more draws attention to the sorrow of the disciples in this block of teaching (16:6; 16:16-22). Jesus is referring specifically to the issue of His departure. He is just moments away from being delivered over to the authorities and will be put to death. So Jesus tells His disciples that He is going to a place that they will not be able to follow Him. Now, the disciples love Jesus and have been following Jesus (literally) for the past 2-3 years. They have given up their jobs, their homes, all to follow Jesus. So, right before Jesus tells the disciples to not let their hearts be troubled, Peter asks this question:
“Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” 38 Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.” (John 13:36-38).
The problem is twofold. Not only is Jesus explaining that His death is about to separate Him from them—a problem that would have been incalculable in scope to the disciples who had no category for a crucified Messiah—but even worse, they cannot follow because they lack the devotion needed. They cannot follow Jesus physically into His death and resurrection now, but they also cannot follow Jesus spiritually and morally. Peter, the boldest of the twelve, is going to deny Jesus not once, not twice, but three times! They all are going to chicken out when courage is needed. But then Jesus says, “Let not your hearts be troubled.”
Here is the problem: there is much that troubles us. There is so much in the world that can leave us heartbroken, especially in our hyper-information age where we can have all of the worst events going on in the world, all the time, piped to us. And not just in text, but with pictures and videos. There is so much that can knock the wind out of us, especially when we feel like we live in an age where we are guaranteed long life, health, and prosperity, yet sickness, frustration, and death still reign. Where careers, purpose, and notoriety feel deserved, yet unemployment, meaninglessness, and insignificance still dog us. Friend, I wonder what troubles you?
Perhaps it is something out there that has made the world stop making sense. I hope you grasp how seriously the death of Jesus seemed like a complete defeat to the disciples. They are not troubled here because they understand that Jesus had to die and would then resurrect for the forgiveness of sins. No—they assumed, like every other Jew of their day, that the Messiah was to establish an earthly kingdom in Jerusalem where He would preside as King. The crucifixion of Jesus was a wholesale refutation of that, it completely unraveled the worldview of the disciples, like if you were to discover the spouse who you thought loved you really had been having affairs the whole time.
Or maybe it is something in here. Maybe it is not the breaking headlines, but your own brokenness that fills you with trouble. Maybe it is not being snubbed by your boss for ignoring your hard work, but it is the knowledge of your own laziness and ignorance that fills you with pain. Could you imagine being Peter, right after saying that you will die for Him, hearing your Lord personally tell you: No, you are actually about to deny me three times. Have you ever been shocked by your own wickedness? Have you ever looked inside yourself and not find light, but darkness? Not found courage, but cowardice? Not found victory, but impasse?
Here is what Jesus has to say you: Don’t be troubled, its okay.
Solution One: Believe in God
“Believe in God; believe also in me.” John 14:1. Jesus is keenly aware of how much turmoil His disciples are about to go through, so He summons them to the most important thing He can: belief in God and belief in the Son of God. He then calls them to believe in this specifically: “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also,” (John 14:2-3).
Jesus is inviting His disciples to see why His departure is not something that should trouble their hearts: (1) He is going to personally prepare places for them in His Father’s house, (2) He will return for them, (3) they will be where Jesus is. He knows His departure is going to pain them greatly, so He reminds them of truth that will swallow up sorrow. In other words, He gives them reasons to believe, reasons for why their hearts should not be troubled.
At the very end of John’s gospel he explains why he wrote this book: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name,” (John 20:30-31). How an individual can believe in the Son of God serves as the guiding framework of John’s entire gospel. The very word “believe” appears in Matthew’s gospel 9x, Mark’s 14x, and Luke’s 9x, but in John’s gospel? 85x! Here would be a helpful practice for you to do, maybe before your small group gathers this week: sit down and read the gospel of John and every time you see the word “believe” or other words or terms related to belief/unbelief, circle it. You will be amazed at how nearly every single story and nearly every teaching in John’s gospel is overtly about the issue of belief or unbelief.
What is belief? If someone asks you, “Do you believe in God?” they likely mean, “Do you believe God exists?” That is an extremely thin understanding of what the Bible means by “belief.” To that degree, we could say alongside James that the demons believe in God, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19). The demons believe, but they hate it. Thus, in the Bible true belief includes more than acknowledgment, but trust, confidence, and love. You may believe that the IRS is going to tax you in the Spring, but it has little to do with trust or affection. However, if a son believes that his dad is going to follow through on his promise take him on a camping trip next weekend, or decides to obey his father’s wishes even if his father isn’t watching, it has everything to do with love and trust. So, Jesus’ summons to “believe in God” is a summons to love and trust God in the face of what lets our hearts be troubled.
Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus is inviting people to that kind of belief, and exposing unbelief. We may assume that belief and unbelief is ultimately an issue of the mind—if someone does not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, then what we need to provide are good arguments and good evidence to the contrary. And that impulse isn’t wrong. Jesus Himself does both of these things throughout the gospel. There are two things that Jesus does to help people believe in Him: (1) He provides teaching and (2) He works signs and wonders.
There is one point in John’s gospel where a troop of officers from the Pharisees are sent to arrest Jesus, but instead they wind up listening to His teaching and return empty handed, “The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” 46 The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:45-46). As Jesus teaches people believe in Him (cf. John 8:30). Further, when Jesus meets an official whose son is dying and is asked to heal him, Jesus explains, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe,” (John 4:48). And Jesus heals the man’s son, and the man and his entire household believe (John 4:53). The purpose of these signs and wonders are to generate belief.
So, if we find ourselves lacking in faith perhaps we need to immerse ourselves in the teachings and works of Christ; perhaps we need to sit and soak in God’s Word to discover who this Savior is. When Jesus summons us to belief, He is not summoning us to a leap in the dark, He is not summoning us to, in the words of Mark Twain, “believe in something you just know ain’t true.” We should consider Jesus’ arguments, His teaching, His miracles, His resurrection. Friend, if you find yourself struggling with uncertainties about your faith, questions about the validity of Christianity, or how to respond to arguments commonly made against the Christian faith, I would encourage you to study the faith more seriously. There is an embarrassment of riches we have today in regards to resources for responding to questions of our faith—if you are interested in what some of those may be, feel free to come speak with me or another pastor here after the service.
But here is an interesting twist: there are some people in John’s gospel who find themselves filled with more unbelief the more they are exposed to Jesus’ teachings and signs. The more plainly that Jesus teaches to the Pharisees, the more hardened against Him they become. After Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and many people then believe in him, the Pharisees decide that they must put Jesus and Lazarus to death (John 11:45-53; 12:9-11). They do not stop and say, “Hang on, maybe we should reconsider our position—He just rose a guy from the dead. Maybe He really is the Son of God?” They become more hardened in their opposition towards Him. At one point, Jesus cries out: “Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him,” (John 12:28-29).
A literal voice booms from heaven in answer to Jesus and some people respond, “Nah, that’s just thunder,” and other people are like, “Are you crazy? That was definitely a voice—maybe an angel, but definitely a voice.” So Jesus responds by withdrawing, “When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him,” (John 12:36b-37). When the famous atheist Bertrand Russel was asked if he were to die and discover that he was wrong what he would say to God, he responded, “Why so little evidence?” While Jesus wants to provide good argument and evidence, John’s gospel shows us that our primary problem is not that we lack evidence. In fact, Paul can tell the Romans that existence of nature of God is so evident to all mankind that they all are “without excuse” when judgment comes (Rom 1:18-32). So, what is our problem?
“If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority,” (John 7:17). What is our problem? It is a problem of the heart. How can we know Jesus is from God? Our will must be to do God’s will.
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed,” (John 3:19-20). This puts things more starkly: our problem is what we love. We love the dark because in the dark we remain in control, we are autonomous, we make our own rules. And the light of God’s holiness exposes us and requires us to submit to His standards.
Aldous Huxley in his book Ends and Means, explains, “I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had not; and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning for this world is not concerned exclusively with the problem of pure metaphysics; he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he should personally not do as he wants to . . For myself .. the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.”
What is Huxley saying? Don’t think I am being objective here—I am motivated to reject any idea of divine meaning or design. Huxley wants to have sex with whoever he wants to have sex with, craft a political system any way he wants without feeling guilty about it. Huxley is being honest here—we do not arrive at conclusions solely by evidence or reason, but by what our heart loves. And if our heart loves darkness more than light? Than no amount of evidence matters, we will simply find a way to justify our beliefs. And that is a problem.
Problem #2: We Do Not Know
“And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:4-5). Jesus is telling the disciples He is departing to a place that they will not be able to follow, at least for now, but then explains that they know the way. And Thomas has the courage to admit, “Jesus, I have no idea what you are talking about. We don’t know the way.”
I wonder if you ever heard something from our Lord, ever read anything, maybe even heard something from this pulpit and thought: I have no idea what that means or, more seriously, I think I know what that means, but I am not sure that I believe it. Friend, far better than ignoring our doubts and uncertainties, we should (like Thomas) bring our unbelief and misunderstanding to Jesus and tell Him: I don’t know what this means, I don’t know how this can be true, I don’t know what to do.
Solution #2: I Am the Way
“Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” (John 14:6). This familiar passage may be known to you as a classic proof text for why someone must believe in Jesus and Jesus alone as the way to know the Father. And that is true. But notice how if functions in response to Thomas’ question. How can we know the way to the Father? How can we get to where Jesus is going? What is the way to heaven?
Notice what Jesus doesn’t say: he doesn’t point people towards great acts of piety or religion, doesn’t tell them to go on a pilgrimage, get baptized, fulfill some sacred rite. He doesn’t put them towards the realm of the intellect, doesn’t invite them to read thick books and sort every problem out. He doesn’t point them towards morality, doesn’t tell them to clean their lives up. He points to Himself. I am the Way. Jesus doesn’t point to an argument, doesn’t point to evidence, doesn’t point to anything that Thomas can do—He just points to Himself.
If I were to tell you, “Hey, I would like to pay all of your bills for the rest of your life,” you would likely say something like, “Wow! Thank you…why? What did I do to deserve that?” If I explained that it was just something I wanted to do and I refused any offers you made to pay me back or do me any favors, you would be happy, yet you would likely feel uneasy. If you had nothing to do to pay me back, you might think: There is nothing I can do to put Marc in my debt, so how do I know he is going to continue to pay my bills for me? If I give you nothing you can do, then you are forced to simply trust my character, to trust my person. This is what Jesus invites Thomas to, and what He invites you to. Trust Him, His person.
And perhaps that feels painfully difficult for you. Perhaps you realize that you really struggle to trust Jesus, perhaps you look inside yourself and find a great deal of reservation and uncertainty about your faith. But notice what Jesus points to: Himself. He is the Way. It is not the strength of our faith or understanding, it is the object of our faith that saves us. There once was a man attempting to cross a frozen river, but he had no idea how thick the ice was. So, he got down on his hands and knees and began slowly pawing his way across the ice, terrified he would fall through. As he strained his ears to hear a crack in the ice, he noticed a sound coming up behind him. It was the sound of hooves and sleigh bells. A man driving a team of horses pulling a sleigh flew by him across the ice and over to the other side. What did the man driving the sleigh know? He knew how thick the ice was, so he crossed with confidence. But, most importantly, both men made it across the river. It was not the strength of their belief that got them across, it was the strength of the ice. Friend, it is not your subjective apprehension of truth that makes something true or false, it is true whether you are certain of it or not. Similarly, Jesus is able to save those with strong faith and those filled with weak faith. So, maybe you struggle to fully trust Jesus’ person, struggle to lean on Him—but take heart, He will hold you up regardless.
Digory was scared. The witch sounded so correct. Yet, Digory steeled his resolve and resisted the temptation. How? Well, before Digory left on his quest he was confronted by Aslan for his role in bringing the witch into Narnia. Digory tries to make excuses before quietly admitting his fault. And he is utterly crushed because he had been hoping all along to ask Aslan to do something to save his mother. And now he is certain he has lost his chance, but still he cries out:
“But please, please – won’t you – can’t you give me something that will cure Mother?” Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining
tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.
“My son, my son,” said Aslan. “I know. Grief is great…Let us be good to one another.” (The Magician’s Nephew, “Strawberry’s Adventure”).
After Digory says no to the witch, he is incredibly uncertain and deeply saddened. We are told:
“He was very sad and wasn’t even sure all the time that he had done the right thing; but whenever he remembered the shining tears in Aslan’s eyes he became sure.” (The Magician’s Nephew, “An Unexpected Meeting”). What I love about this story is that Digory’s confidence had nothing to do with any ironclad proof or mathematical certainty: he had simply seen a disclosure of the character and person of Aslan, his tears over Digory’s pain, that gave him the confidence he needed to say “no” to temptation, and “yes” to obedience. And friend, what could I possibly show you that would adequately convey the character of Jesus, His total trustworthiness, His commitment and love to you that deserve your allegiance and belief. Consider two simple passages. As Jesus is about to go to the cross, He gathers together His wayward, doubting, uncertain disciples and we are told this:
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. – John 13:1
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” – John 15:9
You may be uncertain of God, but He isn’t uncertain of you. His love endures, even when ours falters. Lean on Him, believe in Him.