February 11, 2018

The Problem with Doubt (and What Jesus Can Do About It)

Transfiguration Sunday

First Lesson:   2 Kings 2:1-6 & 11-14

Second Lesson:  2 Corinthians 4:3-6

Gospel Lesson:  Mark 9:2-9

A while back, I randomly emailed some members with a question: “What are some things you have doubts about regarding spiritual matters?”  Here are some of the responses.  As you hear them, listen to see if any of these hit home with you.

“Sometimes I doubt God's goodness and presence in tough times. Is God really near when things get tough? Does he really care about me and my circumstances?” “I have doubts about having doubts. At times I question how things came to be, and then I wonder if my doubts will get in the way of my life in Heaven. Is it possible to have too many doubts and questions?” “I feel guilty when I have doubts about anything that has to do with God's word because in my heart I know it is true, but sometimes it's just hard to fully wrap my head around it.” One more. “Why does God allow such horrific tragedies?”

Did your issue come up in there?  If not, think about some doubts you have had. We all have some. That is the reality of being a sinfully imperfect person living in a sinfully imperfect world. So, what do we do about those doubts? We can try to dismiss them, but they always creep back into our minds. We can get frustrated we have doubts (which does no good). We can beat ourselves up for doubting, like we’re bad Christians. We can do any of those things, or we can do something better. We can turn to our Lord and his Word. Since that last one is the only good way, that’s what we are going to do.

Our lesson is the account of Elijah being taken to heaven.  Prior to that, he and Elisha are going from town to town. The Lord let Elijah know he’d soon be taken to heaven. Elisha doesn’t want to hear that. Every trip Elijah goes on is a trip Elisha wants to go on as well. The thought of losing Elijah bothers him, so wherever he goes, Elisha goes, joined at the hip.

Somehow and someway, other church leaders hear about the heavenly plan for Elijah.  Twice they bring it up to Elisha and twice he almost acts like a little kid, putting his fingers in his ears, not wanting to listen.  In fact, twice he says to them, “Yes, I know (that Elijah will be gone soon).  So be quiet.”  Again, he doesn’t want to think of not having Elijah around.

 Why so worried about losing Elijah? The obvious reason is he loved/respected Elijah. For the same reason we are sad at funerals, Elisha didn’t want Elijah to leave because of their strong bond. But there’s more to it. From the moment God had Elijah call Elisha, it was clear Elisha would replace him. He’d be God’s main spokesman to his people. Easy? Hardly.  Elijah had a tough ministry. He had to confront wicked King Ahab, putting his life on the line as he called him to repent. He had to flee for his life and live in a cave, being fed by ravens. He had to go face to face with false prophets. He had to run miles to a wilderness. Things got so bad for him he wondered if any true believers were left.  It was about as hard as ministry comes. 

I’m not saying Elisha didn’t have a servant’s heart, but it would be tough.  Is it inconceivable to think he had doubts? An off the wall theory that Elisha didn’t want Elijah to go because he was nervous he wasn’t the right guy for this job? Impossible to imagine Elisha was worried he could never live up to Elijah and everything would fall apart?  Not at all. Actually, I would be surprised if Elisha didn’t have some of those doubts and concerns.  Sadly, they are all too natural, all too human.

Back to that list before. Isn’t what those people said basically what Elisha was dealing with? The person who said, “I have doubts about God being with me through tough times.” Didn’t Elisha have that same concern? “Is God nearby when things get tough?” Wasn’t that likely something on Elisha’s mind? “If God is really good, why does he allow bad things to happen?” Can’t you imagine Elisha thinking this as he saw all the garbage that was happening in Israel with idol worship?

We like to think we’re so different from people in the Bible, people like Elisha who lived 2500 years ago. A lot of things have changed, but some haven’t. Like Elisha, we’re imperfect people.  Like him, our faith is not perfect.  Like him, we have lots of doubts.  Like him, we’re concerned about the future. What do we do about that?  We keep digging into God’s Word.

Elisha, as we said, had all these doubts and concerns.  But eventually the time came for Elijah to be taken to heaven.  A chariot of fire goes across the sky, and a whirlwind removes Elijah from his sight and takes him to heaven.  This wasn’t a small, quiet, simple event.  This was a miracle.  But still Elisha is heartbroken.  Still he is nervous.  Still he has some doubts.

But look at what happens next.  Elijah’s garment is left behind.  Elisha comes to the Jordan River and needs a way across.  So he takes Elijah’s garment and strikes the water with it. What happens?  The water parts, and he crosses over on dry ground.  Yes, this is impressive, as all miracles are, but there is more to it than that.  This was reassurance by God Elisha was the right guy for the job.  It was reassurance God was with him.  It was reassurance as God blessed the work of Elijah, he would bless the work of Elisha.  By doing this, God helped Elisha quiet his doubts and move forward in confidence.

And tie in our Gospel lesson for today.  Jesus, up to this point in his ministry, had given the disciples glimpses of his power, might, and majesty.  But on the Transfiguration Mount, he showed them everything he is in all his vastness and majesty.  His eyes, clothes, hair, skin – everything – was so brilliant the three disciples could hardly look at him.  OK, so what?

Don’t you think the disciples had some doubts?  Maybe they wondered, just a little bit, if Jesus was the real deal.  Maybe they doubted he could do what he said he could do.  Maybe they were concerned they were following a crackpot.  But what did seeing this amazing, awesome, glorious display do?  Surely it quieted some of those doubts.  No, they weren’t completely gone.  We see that in the days that followed as Jesus was arrested and crucified.  But after everything was said and done, surely they recalled this event and realized Jesus had given them everything they needed to get over their doubts. In either case, be it Elisha or the disciples, seeing God in action, seeing his working in their lives for their good, and seeing him fulfill his promises helped them muzzle their doubt and move forward.

At this point in writing the sermon, I was thinking, “OK – how do I take that and apply it to your lives?”  I finished the sermon with talk about God’s promises, about the certainty he will give us in our times of doubt, and whatever we need from him spiritually speaking, he will provide.  But as I was practice preaching it, I realized I was being too general.  I made that mistake last week with the sermon about hardships and Job 7 days.  And a few situations that have developed recently speak directly to this issue of doubt.

One of our members is at home under hospice care.  His cancer is inoperable and his time in this world is quite short.  Another member hasn’t been able to attend services for years due to her health.  But last Saturday she developed a stomach aneurism.  She had immense pain and is still at the hospital. Her days are not long either.  In these sort of situations, you can imagine I talk to the people involved in very clear, very direct terms about Jesus’ love, forgiveness, and heaven. This past week, I asked each a question: “Where is your confidence level?” Another way to say that mesh with our topic today is, “How much are you struggling with doubt, be it about your forgiveness, Jesus’ love, or your home in heaven?”

One of these members can hardly speak anymore.  But he didn’t have to say a word.  He just looked me right in the eyes and gave me a thumbs up.  It warmed my heart.  I asked the other that question, and she said she already told the doctors not to take any extreme measures because she was ready to be at home in heaven with her Lord.  That one made me tear up a little. Now, think about this.  Do you think each of them have lived their entire lives without any doubts?  Of course not.  Like all of us, they probably had a lot of them about a lot of things, even spiritual matters.  But during the most pressing times of their lives, what is God giving them and what will he keep on giving them?  Confidence.  And what will he keep on quieting in their minds?  Doubt.   He will do for them what he did for Elisha.  He will do for them what he did for the disciples.  And what he did do and is doing for all those people is what he is doing and will keep on doing for you.

Go back to the email responses I received. You have doubts about God being in control.  Then the Lord comes through in such a way that your doubt is quieted.  Maybe there is a miraculous healing or maybe you finally get to a level of peace that things will work out.  You have doubts about God caring about you and your circumstances.  But then he sends just the right person at just the right time to pick you up, or whatever problem was causing the doubt just fades away.  You have doubts about your faith life, about the strength of your relationship with God because you have doubts. Well, the same person who responded with that doubt also beautifully answered the question: “In my heart I know what is written in God’s Word is true.”

Isn’t that the best way God quiets our doubts?  When I visit members who are approaching the end of their earthly lives, do I read from the book of Darren or tell them about all the thoughts floating around in my brain?  Not only would that not be comforting, it would likely be very confusing.  What do I share with them?  God’s Word – the Word that speaks to the reality of Christ’s love, the certainty of forgiveness, and the confidence they can have in knowing heaven is their home. And what does the Spirit working through that Word do?  He calms their hearts.  He builds up their hope and confidence.  He quiets their doubts.  And he will keep doing the same thing for you as long as you need it.

And that is the main point of all this.  God used a river-parting cloak to help Elisha with his doubts.  Jesus showed his almighty power to quiet the disciples’ doubts.  No, we haven’t seen either of those, but we have seen amazing things. Right now we are seeing God working a strong faith in the heart of a brother and a sister in Christ, a faith that puts doubt on the sideline.  We have seen God get us past our doubts – be it about our forgiveness, heaven, his care and providence, and so much more.  And we have a record of his promises in his Word, a record that is a solid foundation we can build upon and rely upon when the waves of doubt attack us.

Do you have doubts? Me too. But what are we going to do about it? I hope the answer is clear. We’ll dig back into the Word through which God promises to strengthen our faith, the Word that is keeping our members' faiths strong and their doubts muted. And knowing the promises he makes there, we’ll lift up our heads and look for the everyday evidence that’s all around us and rejoice.

Why? Because our God is faithful, his mercy endures forever, and because he promised to give his people the faith they need to fight doubt and moving forward.  Amen.