Christ Above All
Robert C. Shannon
(c)opyright 1989, Robert C. Shannon.
Faith for Life's Mountains

If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place, and it shall remove: and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
                                                                      (Matthew 17:20)
    When Jesus spoke these words, He was standing at the northern extremity of Palestine at the foot of its highest mountain.  Mt. Hermon towers 9000 feet above sea level.  It is almost always mantled in snow.  It's the tallest mountain in all the lands of the Bible.  It was here that Jesus said, "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place, and it shall remove."

    This is a text that has always intrigued us.  It is the kind of text where you like to let your imagination run.  I can just picture myself as a mountain mover.  Think how nice that would be.  "Stand back folks, I'm going to pass off a miracle.  You say I have no faith?  Look at this.  You want a demonstration of my faith?  Let me show you something.  See that mountain?  I'm going to move that mountain to the other side of the river!"  If I could do that, I would personally be the Greatest Show on Earth.

    The interesting thing about faith is that it never lends itself to showmanship.  Have you noticed that?  All the things faith promises, true as they are, seem to melt away if we ever try to use our faith for showmanship.

    If I let my imagination run in another direction, I can see myself putting out of business every bulldozer company on the face of the earth.  "You want a new subdivision?  Fine!  Just call on me.  I'll level all the hills and fill all the valleys.  You want a new highway?  You say you want it to run straight to its destination?  No problem at all.  I'll just move the mountains out of your way.  I would be the richest man in the world if I were simply to go into the earth-moving business the "Bob Shannon Faith Earth-Moving Business."

    Here again we run into a little difficulty.  Every time we try to turn faith into personal profit, it doesn't seem to work.  Every time we try to turn faith to monetary advantage, to personal aggrandizement, it doesn't work.  Jesus did not intend for His disciples to go into the earth-moving business.  He did not intend for His disciples to go into show business.  He is obviously not talking about moving literal mountains.

    Jesus meant to say, "A little faith will accomplish a lot."  He says so in striking and unforgettable language.  If Jesus had simply said to us, "A little faith does a lot of good," who would have remembered that?  Yet, this text was no surprise to you.  You have remembered it across a lifetime as Jesus meant for you to.  That's why He put it in this vivid and colorful language.  Jesus is saying, "In your life you will discover that even a little bit of faith will accomplish large things."

    There are some great things that need to be accomplished.  In fact, if we want to, we may adopt Jesus striking language.  We may speak of mountains of guilt that need to be removed.  That is, of course, not what Jesus was talking about.  He was talking about this mountain, Mt. Hermon.  Yet, we may use the same kind of language and speak of the large problems of life as mountains: mountains of doubt, mountains of fear, mountains of anxiety, mountains of regret, mountains of guilt that need to be moved - and that faith can move.  So we sing, "Faith is the victory that overcomes the world."

    That song is interesting because it is almost an exact quotation of Scripture.  Jesus said, "This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith."  That song is a very scriptural song.  You will notice the song does not say, "Faith brings the victory," but, "Faith is the victory that overcomes the world."

    Then I think of another song that I learned when I was a teenager in Christian service camp.  We came back one time humming to ourselves the beautiful chorus - "God specializes in things thought impossible.  He does the things that others cannot do."  That's the heart of this text!  God specializes in things thought impossible.

    The word "mountain" in our text is not too hard to define.  We can figure that out pretty well by ourselves.  The difficulty in our text is in defining the word "faith."  We all know what faith is.  But we have a very hard time saying what faith is.  Faith defies our definitions.  We just can't quite put it into words.  We know what it is and we know that we know what it is, but we find it hard to tell someone else what it is.  It's far easier to say what it isn't.

    Perhaps that's the best way to define faith.  Some things come close to being faith, but fall short.  Faith, for example, is not a guess.  We guess about a lot of things.  We guess about whether or not it is going to rain.  We guess about the outcome of sporting events.  We make a lot of guesses in life, but a guess is simply that.  It is not based on facts.  It has nothing behind it.  One guess is as good as another.  Faith is not a guess.

    On the other hand, faith is not knowledge either.  Sometimes when we express our faith in a very strong way, we say, "I know."  Yet we realize that faith is not the same thing as knowledge.  It lies somewhere between a guess and knowledge.

    Nor is faith superstition.  Christian faith is not the same thing as saying you believe in a rabbit's foot, a four-leaf clover, or a horseshoe nailed over your door.  It is different from that.  It is richer.  It runs deeper.  It has more behind it.  It is not a guess, it is not knowledge, and it is not superstition.

    Faith is not a universal intuition about God.  That kind of thing exists.  In his splendid books, All Creatures Great and Small and All Things Bright and Beautiful, the British veterinarian James Heriott describes the birth of a lamb.  The grizzled farmer watched how unerringly the newborn lamb went directly to its mother's side.  He shook his head and said, "It beats me how they know how to do that!"  Animals have certain instincts.  Humans have certain instincts.  Man has an instinct about God.  Perhaps we should call it intuition.

    Much has been said about women's intuition.  Sometimes a woman will say to you, "I know something."  You ask her, "How do you know that?"  She'll say, "I don't know, but I know it."  That's intuition - when you know something and you don't know how you know it, but you know it just the same.  There is a kind of universal intuition about God.  I was talking with one of my neighbors once, a neighbor who never goes to church.  She said, "Of course, I believe in a higher power.  I think everybody knows there has to be a higher power."  That's not Biblical faith.  That's not Christian faith.  If everybody knows it, what's distinctive about it?  What's grand about it?  This universal intuition, this thing that everybody knows about God, is not faith.

    Nor is faith a kind of general optimism.  Some people are quite sure that everything is going to turn out all right.  They don't know how.  They don't know who's going to make it turn out all right, but they're pretty sure that somehow life will work out.  It may stem from the fact that they have excellent health or good digestion.  Poor health will make you pessimistic and good health tends to make people optimistic.

    This optimism may stem from a lot of good experiences they have had in life.  In the past, life has pretty well sorted itself out in a rather nice way.  They figure it's going to go on sorting itself out in the future.  Or it may be just a native characteristic, that has far more to do with the personality than it has to do with the soul.  It is far more a matter of temperament than it is a spiritual thing.  This general optimism is not faith.

    Nor is faith a kind of brash self-confidence.  "I can handle it.  God and I can handle it, between the two of us."  Such self-confidence is a very fine thing to have, but don't confuse it with faith.

    Nor is faith a kind of reluctant persuasion.  All the arguments are trotted out to prove God.  Someone says, "You must be right.  I certainly can't disagree with that.  I guess you're right.  There must be a God after all."

    If a person is reluctantly persuaded ("Well, yes, I guess you must be right"), that is hardly faith.  In the Bible faith is a joyful thing, an enthusiastic thing, a welcome thing.  Faith is something that people reach out willingly to embrace, not something to which they are reluctantly dragged.  The greatest arguments in the world will not convince the person who does not want to believe.

    When we read the Bible we find some company in our difficulty in defining faith.  As far as I know, there is only one definition of faith in the Bible.  If there is any other, then I've missed it.  It's in Hebrews 11:1.  "Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

    That's a good definition of faith.  It's an inspired definition of faith, therefore, we are certain that it is accurate.  We are equally certain that it is not clear.  "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."  We'd like to focus it a little more clearly than that.

    Apparently the writer of the book of Hebrews felt that the opening definition, accurate as it was, was not too clear.  So he spent the whole rest of the chapter defining faith; defining it not in words, but in lives.  The whole rest of that chapter is devoted to showing how faith worked in lives of various men and women.  It is almost as if the writer said, "That's not clear enough for a lot of the people who are going to read this.  It's got to be made clearer still.  The way to make it clear is not to define it in words, but to describe it in the realities of life."

    So, you read down through that chapter and find a fine definition of faith in terms of the lives that people live:

By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark.

By faith Abraham, when he was called . . . went out, not knowing whither he went.

By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God.

By faith they passed through the Red Sea as by dry land.

By faith the harlot Rahab . . . received the spies with peace.

    That's a representative sample of the rather long list in Hebrews 11.  What things did all of these people have in common?  There were a lot of differences.  They were different people living in different places, under different circumstances.  There must be some things they all had in common.  If we can isolate those common denominators of faith, we will clearly see what faith is.

    At least two common denominators of faith, were always present in every one of these lives that the Bible says was lived by faith.  The first is written out plainly in Hebrews 11:8.  We'll abbreviate the verse because it's a long complex sentence.  "By faith Abraham went, not knowing."  There's the first common denominator of faith - going not knowing.

    The first characteristic seen in every one of these lives is that they lived by faith not knowing the future.  Noah didn't know what the world would be like after the flood.  He didn't even know how long it would rain, nor how long he would float in that little vessel until at last it would come to rest.  So, Noah lived by faith because he lived not knowing the future.

    Abraham went into a land he had never visited and yet he said he was going to make it his home.  He had read no travel folders about the Holy Land.  He had seen no slides from those who had been there.  He had heard no description.  He knew absolutely nothing about it.  He went not knowing.

    Moses did not know what lay ahead of him when he chose the people of God over the pleasures of Egypt.  He didn't know that meant 40 years herding sheep in the wilderness.  He didn't know that meant standing before Pharaoh demanding the release of his people.  He didn't know that meant 40 years in the desert leading them to the land of Canaan.  It was an unknown future that lay before Moses when he made his choice by faith.

    The children of Israel did not know what lay ahead of them on the other side of the Red Sea, but they were going without knowing.

    Rahab, the harlot who received the spies in Jericho, did not know what lay ahead for her.  She knew only that there must be something better than the pagan gods of her people.  There must be one, true, living, invisible God as these Jews believed.  She didn't know if they would welcome an ex-prostitute or not.  She didn't know if they would welcome an ex-pagan or not.  She didn't know how a foreigner was going to get along living among those people.  It was an unknown future that lay before her.  That is the first common characteristic of faith - an unknown future.

    The second is a known presence; a known God to whom one speaks, a God who listens, a God who will help; a God who will never desert those who put their trust in Him.  Those are the characteristics of faith: an unknown future, a known presence.

    There's one other word in our text that has to be considered and that's the word "seed."  When we understand the mountain and the faith, all we have to do is understand the "seed."

    "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, 'remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove."

    The mustard seed was the smallest of the seeds common to a farmer in Jesus day.  There are smaller seeds, of course, but among those commonly known to farmers at that time, there was none smaller than the mustard seed.

    There's a good bit that we do not know about seeds.  But there are some things that we do know.

    The first is that every seed has an unseen power.  You may feel that seed all you want to, but you will feel no pulse.  You may put your stethoscope against it, but you will hear no heartbeat.  You may cut it open, but you will see nothing that suggests life.  But if you plant that seed, you will discover that it has life!

    You will also discover that it has an enormous potential.  The plant is always larger than the seed!  This is universally true.  There are no exceptions.  In the world of nature, the plant is always larger than the seed.  I have seen the mustard seed so tiny.  I have seen the mustard plant taller than a man.

    Jesus is telling us that a little faith will grow larger if it is cultivated.  If we begin with just a little genuine faith, it will grow and grow and grow.  We'll have a larger faith as days go by.

    "The mustard plant," says Jesus, "grows large enough to shelter the birds of the air."  There may be someone who wants to find shelter in your faith.  There may be someone who has only a little faith himself and needs to take shelter in your larger, stronger faith.  How many times have all of us, when our faith was weak, turned to draw on someone else's faith!  That's a common experience of life.  That's the reason we cherish the friendships we have with great men and women of God.  We know that when our faith is weak, theirs will be strong.  Many times we have drawn upon the faith of a parent, wife, husband, minister, elder, teacher, or friend.  It's a beautiful thing to have a faith large enough that someone else can take shelter in it.

    Faith tells us that we have a future, too.  Not only will our faith grow larger, but we, ourselves, will grow into a larger life.

    There are two streets in Largo, Florida named Southview and Northview.  There was not enough room on the map to write them out, so the mapmaker abbreviated. If you look on the map, you'll see So.view and No.view.  I can imagine some stranger looking at the map, not seeing the little period after the abbreviation for north, and saying, "Now, there's a place I would not want to live: No View Street."

    Faith never lives on such a street.  Faith opens up for us a view of the eternal, a view of the future far better than the best of the present, far better than the happiest of the past.

    Faith unleashes a potential, a power, in our own lives.  The power of steam was available for a long, long time before it was ever harnessed and put to use.  In 120 B.C. in Egypt they used the power of steam to turn a toy.  Nobody ever thought of doing anything else with it for hundreds and hundreds of years until at last Fulton made his steamboat.

    There were centuries between that little toy in Egypt and that steamboat, when all this power that could have been put to use had only been harnessed to playthings.

    The power of faith is much too great to be put into playthings.  It must, instead, be put to use on the meaningful issues of life; the hard realities of life.

    Through it you can find forgiveness for sins and usefulness for life.


The WomanWho Came in From the Cold
Table of Contents
The Cup of Suffering

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