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Sermon for March 5, 2023 – Second Sunday of Easter Preparation

Program Transcript

Speaking of Life 5015 | Blessed to Be a Blessing
Cara Garrity

There is a popular old hymn called “Count Your Blessings”.
The chorus simply says: 

Count your blessings, name them one by one. 

Count your blessings, see what God hath done. 

A friend of mine shared a story of how he was reminded about counting his blessings while stocking greeting cards at grocery stores. In one store, the greeting card section was right near one of the checkout lines and he could hear the checker give a compliment to every person that went through his line. My friend also noticed there were several people in this checkout lane, and not many in others.

He decided to buy something and the checker quickly complimented him on his new haircut. My friend then asked the checker how his day was going. The checker responded by saying, “Oh man, I am blessed!” To which my friend responded, “Yeah, I’m doing good as well.” The checker then said, “I didn’t say I was doing good. I said I am blessed.” My friend appreciated the reminder, smiled, and admitted that he was also, indeed, blessed.  

In Genesis 12, we see a story of blessing-happy God. This story is the pivotal moment in the history of the nation of Israel and would become equally important to the whole world. 

TheLordhad said to Abram, Go from your country, your people and your fathers householdto the landI will show you.” “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 
Genesis 12:1-3

In this passage of scripture, we see the word “blessing” five times, making God’s intention to bless both Abraham and the whole world abundantly clear to Abraham. Although God had the power to accomplish his will, because of who he is, he invited Abraham to participate to follow where the Spirit led. And where he went, he went with the blessing of God and the promise that through him all people would be blessed.  

This promise has been fulfilled in the person, and work of Jesus Christ. He took upon himself the consequences for the sin of mankind. He has taken our darkness and has restored us to fellowship with our Heavenly Father. 

Paul says this in his letter to believers in Galatia:

He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” 
Galatians 3:14

We have been abundantly blessed in Christ Jesus, whom we follow by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Every day is a walk with God to leave behind our old ways and walk into a life that is blessed beyond measure.  

Like Abraham before us, we have been sent out into this world to make a blessing-happy God known to others. It’s so much easier to be a blessing to others when you know how much you have been blessed.

Like the hymn reminds us, let us count our many blessings and see what God has done.

I’m Michelle Fleming, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 121 • Genesis 12:1-4a • Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 • John 3:1-17

This week’s theme is the eyes of faith. In our call to worship Psalm, we have the psalmist lifting up his eyes to God to trust and see God’s care for him. In Genesis, we see God asking Abraham to leave behind everything and to trust that God will show him where to go. In Romans, Paul confirms that Abraham did trust God by faith in what was unseen to him. And in John’s gospel, Jesus talks to Nicodemus about being born from above and seeing the kingdom of God as a result.

Abraham’s Children: By Law or by Faith?

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 (NRSVUE)

Today, we find ourselves in the second Sunday of Easter preparation. This is a time to reflect on the importance of Jesus’ victory over sin and death through his resurrection. However, a church can sometimes struggle with keeping the most important things in mind, which was the case with the church in Rome.

If it appears that we are looking at the middle of a longer conversation, that’s because we are. Paul is addressing a Roman church that is in danger of fracturing. The lines have been drawn between the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers. And so, Paul is trying to do damage control here.

What Paul is attempting to deal with is no less important for us to understand as it was for his intended recipients. And he is going to appeal to Abraham to make his case. With the first few verses he’s going to start by asking a question, he will then build his argument in the middle verses, and then finish with his definitive answer in verses 16 and 17.

The Question

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? Romans 4:1 NRSVUE)

What matter are we talking about here? Well, right before we got to this section of the letter, Paul is addressing the fact that God is not only the God of the Jews, but of the Gentiles as well. And as such, all are justified by faith and not by the works of the law.

Paul’s question could be rephrased this way, “have we found Abraham as our forefather according to the works of the law or by trusting God?” Can the law bring about our righteousness before God? Can we boast in what we have done or are able to do? Or are we supposed to accept our righteousness as a gift? Abraham trusted God in what he said he would do, and it is on that basis alone that God’s righteousness is credited to him.

It seems like Paul is having to spend a lot of time on this issue. Perhaps it wasn’t so easy to convince people that their righteousness was by faith. Put yourself in the sandals of the Jewish believers. The law had dictated every part of their life. It was the lens through which they viewed all things.

While the Jewish believers welcomed their new life in Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and being filled with the Holy Spirit, it sounds like they were still struggling with the idea of not having to keep up their side of the bargain.

They were probably thinking “we’ve had to live with all these requirements our whole lives, what happens if we don’t continue living by them?”

And here is where we need to be honest with ourselves. Do we really believe that we are justified by the faith of Christ Jesus, or is something still required after believing? In our minds, we take out religious insurance policies. “What if I’m wrong and I overestimate God’s grace? Just in case, I better supplement my salvation with works. I may be saved by grace, but I better work for the kingdom like it’s up to me.”

 A little leaven leavens the whole lump (1 Corinthians 5:6), and soon we do end up thinking that we need to keep up our end of the bargain, or else…

When this line of thinking gets exposed, it sounds absurd, doesn’t it? Yet, that is often our temptation. The world gives us the message that we are the ones that should be in control of our destinies. That “if it’s got to be, it’s up to me!” We like to take credit for any good we do, and we don’t like to ask for help either. But this is not the way of the kingdom.

Another temptation is to “blur” the lines of the covenants. Some well-meaning Christians are known to say “well, I believe in the entire bible.” That’s great! I don’t know many believers that would say that they don’t.

But the problem is that not every scripture carries the same weight. We have to look at the scriptures in context. We have to be careful not to put the old wine into new wine skins. The old covenant does not mesh with the new.

There were no small numbers of Jewish believers in Rome who had a hard time trusting Christ for their righteousness alone, and they insisted that others should not be allowed to either. This is still a problem for us today.

The Argument

For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. (Romans 4:3-5 NRSVUE)

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. For 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 transgression. (Romans 4:13-15 NRSVUE)

Imagine if you worked for the next month but never saw a paycheck. I’m sure that you would remind your employer that they have an obligation to pay you. Here in the United States, we have labor laws that are in place to protect workers to ensure that they are getting paid properly. It is against the law to work and not get paid.

I think we can all understand that wages are not a gift, but an obligation of payment for work done. But here’s where things begin to shift. Paul then says that to the one who doesn’t work but trusts God, he is totally just and considered righteous with Christ’s righteousness.

Once again, what Paul is saying flies in the face of how the world works. And yet, this is precisely how the Kingdom operates. We have a saying that goes. “If it’s too good to be true then it probably is.” But in this case, our righteousness in Christ is too good not to be true.

Appealing again to our forefather Abraham, Paul reminds the Romans that Abraham simply believed the promise that God had given him. And it was because of that belief he was made righteous in God’s sight.

The Mosaic law had not been instituted at that point and wouldn’t be in place for at least another 400 years. Therefore, keeping the law had nothing to do with being a child of Abraham.

Paul allows for no middle ground in this argument. Law and faith are not compatible. Those who are trying to earn their place with God through the law are making their faith useless. Our relationship is no longer to the law, it is to Father, Son and Spirit by faith that we are heirs of Christ.

Very few believers today would admit that they are still under the law with all of its demands. Yet many live lives that are full of all sorts of moral or ethical imperatives they believe they must follow to please God. To them, faith isn’t enough, because they choose to trust more in their abilities than in God’s grace. And where there is no trust, you can’t leave anything to chance.

Their standing with God, they assume, is predicated on their performance. When we believe this, we are tempted to start judging the performance of others based on our own self-righteousness. Which is what the Jewish believers in Rome were guilty of.

You may have recognized the futility of keeping Old Testament commands, statutes and judgments, but where is it that you might still be trusting in the law to keep you in good standing with God? The problem with the law is that it will always demand more of you. (Examples might include resting your home garden every seven years, not mixing fabrics on clothes, not mixing dairy and meat, which meant no more cheeseburgers.) There is no satisfying the law.

The Answer

For this reason the promise depends on faith, in order that it may rest on grace, so that it may be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (who 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. (Romans 4:16-17 NRSVUE)

Paul’s “for this reason” in verse 16, is the answer to the question posed back in verse one. It is also the punctuation mark for his argument that he settles for the Roman church. Jew and Gentile alike are the offspring of Abraham, made so by faith. The many nations, the Gentiles, are now included by way of Christ.

An appeal is made here to end the judgment and enmity that had sprung up between the Jewish believers and the Gentile believers. Paul is emphasizing that all of us have one father according to human heritage, and that is Abraham. Spiritually, we also have the same father in heaven.

We can appreciate our spiritual pedigree. We can take pride in Christian traditions and institutions, but that does not give us the right to boast in any of our good works. We are not permitted to think more highly of ourselves than others who profess the same faith.

God loves all who follow him; our doctrines and beliefs are not superior; they are what God has given us. Following incarnational trinitarian theology is a blessing, but it doesn’t make us better than other Christians, or unbelievers. We are all God’s beloved.

All are included by faith in Jesus’ forgiveness. All are included in his offer of redemption and reconciliation. We all have received the righteousness of Christ Jesus as one body, one church, with Abraham as our father, according to the faith, through Jesus Christ who has brought us all into right relationship with the Father.

Wake Up, Sleeper! w/ Marty Folsom W1

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March 5 – Second Sunday of Easter Prep
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, “Justified”

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Program Transcript

Wake Up, Sleeper! w/ Marty Folsom W1

Anthony: Let me read the first passage of the month. It’s Romans 4:1-5, 13-17. I’m reading from the Common English Bible. It is a Revised Common Lectionary passage for the second Sunday of Easter Prep, also known as Lent, on March the 5th.

So what are we going to say? Are we going to find that Abraham is our ancestor on the basis of genealogy? Because if Abraham was made righteous because of his actions, he would have had a reason to brag, but not in front of God. What does the scripture say? Abraham had faith in God, and it was credited to him as righteousnessWorkers’ salaries aren’t credited to them on the basis of an employer’s grace but rather on the basis of what they deserve. But faith is credited as righteousness to those who don’t work, because they have faith in God who makes the ungodly righteous. John the Revelator saw a new heaven and new earth. What is the good news? 13 The promise to Abraham and to his descendants, that he would inherit the world, didn’t come through the Law but through the righteousness that comes from faith. 14 If they inherit because of the Law, then faith has no effect and the promise has been canceled. 15 The Law brings about wrath. But when there isn’t any law, there isn’t any violation of the law. 16 That’s why the inheritance comes through faith, so that it will be on the basis of God’s grace. In that way, the promise is secure for all of Abraham’s descendants, not just for those who are related by Law but also for those who are related by the faith of Abraham, who is the father of all of us. 17 As it is written: I have appointed you to be the father of many nations. So Abraham is our father in the eyes of God in whom he had faith, the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that don’t exist into existence.


Marty, if you were preaching from this passage, what insights would you bring to bear? Let’s tell the story of the God we encounter in this passage.

Marty: Well, there’s just hardly anything here, as you can see. Anthony, that was a joke.

Anthony: I got it. I’m with you.

Marty: It’s so packed. I mean, the first thing I would just say is that it’s really an inquiry—the questions. So, what are we going to say and what does scripture say, is to say the nature of this is an inquiry. Which I use the word science for that; this is really the very science of what is really real in the world.

And Paul is trying to engage us with all of those ways that we think that we engage life and maybe engage God. But he is really going to the deepest part of the child that has curiosity to say if we can get life right here, everything’s going to flow from that in a way that’s going to give us the life that’s intended.

So just to recognize that this isn’t all the answers. If we can become curious like children, then we will be living with Paul with the wonder and awe of what it is that gets unveiled along the way—without having to have final statements that we kind of walk away and say, I’ve got it. And so, to live with that curiosity and wonder is to be drawn into the embrace itself.

I think that’s something that we just can’t miss the nature of the structure of what Paul’s doing here. And he is really inviting us into a story. And we could ask, so who is this story about? And it’s really easy to jump to Abraham and think, oh, this is Abraham’s story, but we would be off by at least one step.

This is really a story about who God is, that Abraham is the one who is embedded in this story that God is, is rolling out here. But the nature of who God is and what God has done is really the undergirding nature of what’s going on in this story. And the fact is that God has been faithful in creating and sustaining, and Paul steps into this.

And we are seeing here in Romans that people have all kinds of wrong ideas and so—wrong ideas about Abraham? No, it’s mostly wrong ideas about God and the nature of law and how do we get right with God and what does God do with our messing up, and all that.

And it’s like, hey folks, God is faithful. Abraham’s a great picture to see how God’s faithfulness works out. The nature of getting the story right here, and letting it be about a story about God in the first instance. And to see that Abraham comes for us as one who we recognize reveals something about God. Abraham is a pointer.

I think of the picture that hung over Karl Barth’s desk with John the Baptist pointing at the cross. Abraham’s kind of a John the Baptist. Here he is pointing at the one who is faithful. So, we don’t want to get absorbed entirely with Abraham, but we do identify with Abraham. And so, the nature of what it looks like for us to live within the story is part of the question here.

And so, preaching on what is the nature of faith and to say that the nature of faith is something that we have or we do is going to going to miss the point. The whole nature of gift is going to be significant here. Now we think of science as the world of objects, and so we don’t think about the science of gift.

But if we read this passage with these questions that are laid out and we say, we’re trying to do the science of going, what’s really happening here? Then the science is going to lead us to the idea. The gift is always unconditional. It is given to somebody who doesn’t deserve it, has not earned it, or in any way is compelling the person who is the gift giver to give it, then we are living into what the preaching of this is supposed to do—is that we are absolutely giving ourselves to one who is giving himself to us, and all we’re doing is submitting.

Or as the title of this section is, “waking up” to what it is that God has done. When you wake up in the morning, all you’ve done is wake up to what was really there. But when you’re asleep, then you’re unaware of what is really there. So, the call to wake up that is present within this passage, to recognize that our observing of the world so much leads us to think that reality is just what we see and observe.

But we have to see, as CS Lewis talks about, deeper magic from before the dawn of time to recognize the nature of who God is and what God is doing. And that Abraham is the invitation for us to wake up to the goodness, greatness, grandeur of the grace of God that overwhelms us. To become those who, having been beloved, are able to then bear witness to God and what God has done, and to live with humility and graciousness towards others because we have experienced that ourselves.

So that’s probably a good start as to some of the things that I might do with this passage.

Anthony: Yeah. I so appreciate that because if Abraham is our model of faithfulness, we can sometimes get stuck there because it’s like using Michael Jordan as a model. I might be able to play basketball, but I’ll never be able to play it like him.

And sometimes we look at the faith of another human being who’s gone before. And yes, we aspire to that. But I’ve just found in my own faith sometimes, it’s two steps forward and three steps back. It can sometimes feel a little anemic but it’s God’s faithfulness that we look to and we live in.

And so, I wanted to ask you, as we think about faith that is credited as righteousness, what would you say to someone who maybe is like me? Sometimes it feels strong and sometimes it feels a little puny. What say you?

Marty: Yeah. Well, each of these words, if we carefully say, what does righteousness mean here in this passage?

And we can easily think of righteousness as the standard that Michael Jordan or Abraham sets for us. But to say that the nature of righteousness is being made right with another person. It’s a way of being in relationship and so to say, either we work towards getting right or somebody can gift us with that, which is the point here.

The word credited is to recognize that a gift has been given, and it goes on say to those who don’t work. So, it’s acknowledging that there’s no contribution on the part of the human but that it’s God who is the one who makes us righteous. In other words, something is given to us that we didn’t earn, couldn’t earn, and we then are acknowledging what’s going on.

So, this idea of acknowledging that God has made us right, that we are included because of his choice to include us, that is to say then that our faith is simply waking up to that reality. You have been seen, known, chosen. Acknowledge the reality that is there.

We live in a world that tends to think that science focuses on the world of the impersonal. Science studies the objects of the world. And so, God becomes an object. And we even make our faith an object. You know, how do we measure it? How do we study it?

But to say that what Paul’s doing here—and really the nature of the faith that we’re talking about—it’s a personal way of being. And when we do the science of the personal, it means that in crediting, we listen to the one who tells the truth, and the one who tells that is the God who comes from the person of Jesus.

And so, he tells us that before we could do anything, he has acknowledged, acted in such a way that we would be his. The word “credited” there is to say that his action is more important, more significant. His personal way of being is the reality of our life. And so, we’ve been made right with God by nothing of ourself.

And so, if we feel anemic or puny or unable to do or be something, then we’re going, well, what do I have to do? And Jesus says wrong question. Your inquiry here to just be able to say, oh, there’s nothing I could do. Oh, I get it. There’s no way that I could do anything to earn or to credit to my account anything, because you’ve already filled that account and done all that’s necessary.

So, either I receive it as gift, or I live denying the gift. And so, the very nature of the gospel is at stake here. Are we going to accept, acknowledge, receive [that] we have been included? And people do deny it and walk away from it. But even that doesn’t take away what it is that he has done and is doing.

So, if we judge ourself as anemic or puny, then that’s just our judging ourself, and we’re missing the point. So to allow that to drop away, to be cleansed, to wash away, our conscience is cleansed from all that, to receive the goodness of that invitation.

Anthony: Isn’t it really our walk to wake up and to simply receive with open hands, to receive what God has given to us out of his determinative love? His action on God’s side is so, so important.

And so, as I heard somebody say this week, Buddha’s dying words were strive without ceasing, whereas Jesus’ dying words is, it is finished. So, we get to pick our master, right? Who are we going to walk with and go with? And in this case, we go with Jesus, the one who reveals the heart of the Father.

Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life

  • When was the last time someone really blessed you?
  • Count how many ways God has blessed you this year.
  • How has God equipped you to bless others?
  • How have you seen God’s blessings after stepping out in faith?

From the Sermon

  • Name some ways that believers try to earn righteousness.
  • How do you respond to those whose faith is more legalistic than yours?
  • How does it make you feel to know that you are righteous? Do you struggle with believing that?
  • Do you have any “religious insurance policies,” things that you do to earn something from God in case his grace falls through?

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