Scripture readings: Gen. 17:1-7, 15-16; Ps. 22:23-31; Rom. 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38 (or Mark 9:2-9) Sermon by Sheila Graham from Gen. 17:1-7, 15-16; Rom. 4:13-25; Ps. 22:27-28
The Righteousness of Faith
Today is the second Sunday in Lent, the season in which, through prayer and introspection, we prepare for Holy Week. As I look around at the world today, I must say that I’m quite unhappy—particularly with what I’m seeing portrayed in the media. There’s a lot to see there. If we’re paying attention, we know more about what’s going on in the world today than we’ve ever known. And it’s not good: wars, rampant crime (including the recent school shootings), political uprisings, genocide, starving refugees, and then there’s the aftermath of hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and earthquakes. It’s no wonder people wonder, where is the good God that Christians proclaim? If he does exist, how can he ignore what’s going on in the world? Why doesn’t he step in and stop all the horrors?
These are good questions—ones seldom if ever asked of the gods of other religions. You know why? Because we Christians claim that God is a God of love—the God who cares for everyone, who is concerned about all humanity, not just Christians. Our God, we say, is actively involved in the world today.
Maybe, if we were being honest with ourselves, we might occasionally have the same questions about God—especially, when we or a loved one is suffering. “Hello, Lord! We’re down here and we’re in trouble. Are you listening?”
Well, despite our occasional doubts, we do know that God cares—that he is paying attention to what’s going on in the world today. There is hope for us yet! God has a plan to save us from ourselves, a plan made from the beginning—from Adam on. Let’s look at that plan today by going to the story of God’s covenant with Abraham.
God makes a covenant with Abraham
Let’s go to our reading today in Genesis 17:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” (Gen. 17:1-5, NRSV)
God made a covenant with a man who was neither a Jew nor a Christian. At the time the covenant was made, the nation of Israel didn’t exist, and it was way before Christ was born of the virgin Mary. Further, notice that the promise was that Abraham would be the ancestor of many nations, not just Israel:
“I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” (Gen 17:6-7, NRSV)
Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was not left out.
God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” (Gen. 17:15-16, NRSV)
God chose Abram, an uncircumcised pagan from Ur of the Chaldeans, to covenant with. Abraham didn’t have the law blasted out by the finger of God on chunks of stone to guide him. What did he have? The apostle Paul said Abraham had “the righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4:13, NRSV) or “the righteousness that comes by faith” (Rom. 4:13, NIV). The key point here is this: Abraham believed God!
The significance for Christian doctrine
Paul used this ancient story about Abraham and the covenant to teach two significant Christian doctrines: 1) That all (Jews and Gentiles) are included in God’s plan of redemption, and 2) that salvation in Christ is through faith, not through works of the law.
Let’s go to our reading in Romans 4:
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. (Rom. 4:13-15, NRSV)
How much faith did it take for Abraham to leave country, family and home for a nomadic life in a place he had not even seen? How much faith did it take for a 99-year-old man to believe he could have children from a barren wife not a whole lot younger? And, then, at God’s command, to be willing to sacrifice that beloved son on an altar? How much faith did it take for Abraham to believe God—to believe that God was true to his word?
At the time God told Abraham that Sarah would bear him a son, he already had his son, Ishmael, who he thought would be his heir. But God told him that the promised offspring would come from old Sarah, not young Hagar. No wonder both Abraham and Sarah laughed! They wouldn’t be able to forget they laughed either, because God told them to name their son Isaac, which means “he laughs.”
But Abraham believed. Though Abram and Sarai initially laughed, they accepted God’s word to them. They believed God’s promise and thus an old man and a barren woman, through faith, became known as Abraham and Sarah, father and mother of many nations.
Through faith, Abraham and Sarah became participants with God in his plan to save all humanity. Paul continues in Romans 4:
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” (Rom. 4:16-19, NRSV)
All are included, through faith, not works
The story of Abraham and Sarah is not just an interesting look back to the culture of the time, nor is it just the record of a pagan becoming a follower of the one true God. The apostle Paul shows from the story of Abraham and Sarah that all are included in God’s plan of salvation, and that God’s saving plan for all humanity is based on faith, not on works of the law.
Paul pointed out that the Jews weren’t the only ones who had a claim on Abraham and the righteousness that was his through faith. Paul was speaking to some of the early Jewish Christians who believed Gentiles should be circumcised and should follow Jewish dietary and other laws before they could become Christians. Paul said Abraham, whom God made a covenant with before he was circumcised and before the law was given, was the father not only of believing Jews but also of believing Gentiles. Abraham was called righteous because he believed God, not because he followed the laws and customs of the Jews.
When you read the entire story of Abraham and his wanderings throughout the Middle East, sometimes in exile from his enemies, you realize few of God’s promises to him were realized in his lifetime. Even the promised son from Sarah didn’t come until Abraham was 100 years old. But, as Paul writes, despite his long and troubled life, as the years went by, Abraham’s faith became stronger:
No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him,’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” (Rom. 4:20-25, NRSV)
In summing up, Paul explains why Abraham was called “the father of the faithful.” He cites Abraham’s example of the righteousness of faith—the only response needed from us to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. This is a righteousness—a right relationship with God—that comes by faith alone, not by works of the law. And, even that faith, by which we stand rightly related to God, is his gift through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The obedience that comes from faith
Don’t misunderstand: Paul teaches that there is an obedience to God that faith produces (Paul calls it “the obedience that comes from faith”)—an obedience through the Spirit, grounded in faith in God and motivated by love for God, not by fear. This obedience is about keeping Christ’s commands to love God and love one another. It’s our grateful response to God’s overwhelming love for us.
His faith in God led Abraham to offer up his son Isaac, though God stopped him short of causing Isaac’s death, providing instead the sacrifice of a ram. What Abraham, a type of God, only partially enacted, God the Father fully accomplished when, in love, he offered up his one and only Son (Jesus Christ) to die for us all—Jews and Gentiles alike. Only the death of the Son of God could accomplish the salvation of all people.
The father of us all
It’s interesting that in the Gospel of Matthew the genealogy of Christ begins, not with Adam, Noah, or Judah, but with Abraham, who, as Paul writes, is “the father of us all.” Through the covenant God established with Abraham, which was fulfilled by Jesus, we all, through faith, are included in God’s plan of salvation!
Going back to my musings about the state of the world, we can be encouraged, despite what we see, knowing that this world won’t continue forever to be the way it now is. Like Abraham, we can be sure of God’s promises. As we read in our lesson today in Psalm 22:
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the LORD,
and he rules over the nations. (Ps. 22:27-28, NRSV)
Though this world in its present condition between the first and second advents of Jesus continues to be a scary mess of division, hatred and violence, like Abraham, the father of the faithful, we believe and have faith in the promises of God, knowing that he has always had a solution in mind. Our God is not off somewhere distant and unconcerned. He is quite aware of what’s going on, and through our Savior Jesus, he’s already taken care of it. We can be very happy about that, as we continue to pray, “Come Lord Jesus!” Amen.