Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
Abram’s call from God continues in Genesis 17. It has been almost 25 years since Abram first heard the voice of God, asking him to “get up…and go to a land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) In the earlier encounter, God had promised to make Abram a father, the progenitor of “many nations.” Well, 25 years later — Abram is still childless and is nearly 100 years old. Talk about the biological clock ticking! There has been an instance or two along the way, in which Abram’s faith might have been said to “wobble,” if not to have faltered. But God continues to show up and swears to Abram that things are about to change. As a sign of this, Abram’s name is changed, as is that of his wife, Sarai. Just how long does it take for God’s promises to “come true” in our lives? Are there any times that your own faith has wobbled — even just a little?
Psalm 22 is a great statement of faith in God, even and especially in the midst of difficult times. Perhaps this is the reason Jesus quotes its first verse from the cross. As in the case of the promise to Abraham, this promise is made in the context of generations yet to come. For how long will God’s promises endure?
Paul writes in Romans 4 that the promise of God rests on one thing, and one thing alone: grace. We can never work hard enough (i.e., “keep the law”) to earn it; we cannot even leave the completion of God’s promise up to our own faith. Though both obedience and faith are important, it is ultimately God’s grace that “guarantees” (v. 16) the promise.
In Mark 8, Jesus’ message gets hard to hear on the part of the disciples. Peter may symbolize the reluctance we all feel when we first learn a difficult truth. “Say it isn’t so, Jesus! Tell me I didn’t sign up for this!” What Jesus actually promises here is the saving of our lives — both now and forever — by first being willing to “lose” them. Is that a bargain you are willing to make?
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
“. . . being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” Roman 4:21.
I heard this story thirty years ago, in my first call in Rowan County, North Carolina. German Lutherans began settling there in the 1750s; it used to be said that southern Rowan County had “more Lutherans than people,” that is the Lutheran church membership rolls were larger than the population! Back in the 1930s there was a major drought in Rowan County and the Lutheran congregations came together for a prayer meeting to pray for rain. It was held in Concordia Lutheran Church, out between China Grove and Mooresville. The stern old Lutheran “Herr Pastor” leading the service went into the pulpit and asked everyone to show their umbrellas. Nobody did, no one had brought one. “What!?” he exclaimed, “No umbrellas! Then you have no faith. Go home and come back tomorrow and bring your umbrellas; then we will pray for rain.”
Faith is difficult, isn’t it? It’s difficult to have faith and it’s difficult to live faith. Sometimes it’s very hard to put our trust in the promises of a God we cannot see, especially when we have lived long enough to see some of our own hopes and dreams fall apart and also to have seen many bad and ugly things happen in the world. It’s hard to put all that aside and trust the promise that God loves us and wants us to be well.
Abram and Sari knew how hard it was to trust the promises of God – for years God had been saying you will be the father and mother of multitudes, of a great nation and here they are late in life, as Paul says, they are “as good as dead,” and they have no child, not one. And yet God kept promising. And in the midst of a lot of false steps and misunderstandings and ordinary human-ness; Abram and Sarai kept believing, kept trusting, kept having faith.
And God, in the words of Paul, “reckoned,” their faith, “as righteousness.” To get the full flavor of what Paul is saying, we need to unpack these two words. In my experience, reckon is seldom used in the United States except in the south, and here it has a meaning different from the one intended by the text. The southern, slangy use implies guessing or supposing; “Think it’ll snow?” “I reckon it might.” Or it could mean to grudgingly accept; “Can I come by later today?” “I reckon that’ll be all right.” The word is quite common in British English with a much more precise meaning; which is to calculate and then come to a conclusion. The question, “How do you reckon?” includes not only one’s opinion but also what steps one took to arrive at that answer. Righteousness is the translation of the Hebrew sedeq. It is not the abstract idea of justice or virtue, as in the “righteousness of our cause.” Rather it is right standing and right behavior, within a community.
For Paul, it is the faith of Abram and Sarai that God uses to “reckon,” to calculate, to come to a conclusion about, their righteousness, their standing, their relationship with God. Paul is particularly interested in pointing out that Abram and Sarai believed before the law was given, therefore there was no possibility of their obedience to the law being “reckoned” by God as having earned them righteousness. For Paul, obedience follows faith, relationship creates righteousness. Faith comes as a response to the fact that God has reached out to us just as God reached out to Abram and Sarai.
To mark this reaching out, this covenant-making, this love-promise, God changed Abram and Sarai names – calling them Abraham and Sarah. “No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name…” (Genesis 17:5, 15)
Names have power. And what we call each other and what we call God and what God calls us are powerful things. We have a tendency in the post-modern world to think that things like names and labels are mostly matters of indifference, or of perspective. We live in a world of shifting meanings, a world of “thinking by public opinion poll”, where “what’s hot and what’s not” is more important to many folks than “what’s true and what’s not”.
In such a world, it is important to inject some timeless reality. Abram and Sarai’s name changes were part of a one-time shift in their relationship to God and God’s relationship with them and, ultimately, with all the peoples of the world. This was not a thing done lightly, it was not done for more popularity or more propriety or more coolness or hotness or what-ever-ness. This name change signaled the beginning of a new covenant, a different relationship, a personal, first-name basis relationship with God, a first-name basis relationship which leads to a consideration of the second way in which faith is difficult. It is difficult to have faith, to trust in God. As our Gospel lesson shows us, it is equally difficult to live faith, to follow God in the way of Christ. Twice in this short lesson what Bonhoeffer called the “Cost of Discipleship” is laid out for us: “great suffering, rejection, death,” and “deny self, take up cross, and follow,” presumably to a similar death. No wonder Peter rebuked Jesus. This is not what he or anyone else thought they were signing up for.
It is difficult to find faith, to feel trust, to believe with heart, mind and soul. It is also difficult to live faith, to put one’s life on the line for God. Yes, it is difficult. It is also essential to what it means to be a Christian.
When the opportunity came for Ray Romano to do the show ‘Everybody Loves Raymond,’ he was making a decent living as a stand-up comedian in New York, but he was neither rich nor famous. On the day he packed to move to Hollywood to do the show, his brother pinned a note to some clothes in his suitcase. After the taping of the last episode, Ray came out and talked to the studio audience. He told them about his brother’s note and read it to them. It said, “For what will it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” In the midst of tears he waved goodbye to the audience and said, “I’m going to work on my soul now.”
Faith is difficult. But it is not impossible, for nothing is impossible with God. God has reached out to us just as God reached out to Abram and Sarai. God has called us by name and claimed us, God has made covenant with us, and God has reckoned our weak and hesitant belief and trust as righteousness. And knowing all there is to know about us, God has called us to the difficult but not impossible task of following in the footsteps of Jesus.
Amen and amen.