Promises, Promises

Sermon delivered on Lent 2C, Sunday, February 21, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27.1-17; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-35.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we enter the second full week of Lent with its emphasis on self-examination, confession, repentance, and self-denial. So how are you doing with your Lenten disciplines? Me too. You recall that on Ash Wednesday I outlined the reason for Lent within the broader scriptural story of God’s rescue plan for his broken and hurting world and his image-bearing creatures. Knowing the Big Picture of Scripture can help bring meaning and purpose to our Lenten disciplines so that we don’t engage in them just because it’s Lent and we think we need to do something to make us right with God. Doing a Lenten discipline for its own sake is never a good reason to do it. So today, on the outside chance that you may have forgotten my Ash Wednesday sermon (heaven forbid!), I want to remind us all exactly what the prize is for which we strive as Christians and why Lent should matter to us.

In our OT lesson, we see God making a whopping big promise to Abram (later to be renamed Abraham by God). When we hear promises made, even when they come from God, if we are honest with ourselves, we tend to be a bit skeptical about those promises being fulfilled because we’ve all been the victim of broken promises and have all broken a few ourselves. So let’s just say it. When we hear promises we have our serious doubts. And apparently Abram had his too because God had failed to produce on his promises up to that point. Almost eleven years had passed since God promised Abram offspring and now Abram was 86, hardly a spring chicken, if you catch my drift! So when God once again promised Abram an offspring, Abram showed his disappointment in God by telling God that his slave would be his heir, not the promised son.

But God wouldn’t have any of Abram’s pity party. Nonsense, God tells him. Go outside and look at the stars. Count them if you can. Their countless number will be indicative of how many descendants you’ll have. And why was it so important that God deliver on his promise? Because approximately 11 years earlier God had made this promise to Abram:

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 12.1-3).

Here we see the beginning of God’s plan to rescue his world and its creatures from the ravages of evil, sin, and death that our first ancestors’ rebellion had caused. Genesis 3.1-11.9 is a litany of the cascading effects of human sin and the evil it unleashed on God’s good creation: pride, folly, increasing violence and murder, unfaithfulness, and chaos of all kinds, to name just a few, just like the stuff we see regularly on the news channels 24/7 these days. And here is God, surprisingly, even shockingly, calling a wandering nomad from his home country to go to modern-day Israel so that God could use his family to bring God’s love to the world to heal it and us. No wonder God would remind Abram a second time that a son was on the way!

And despite Abram’s doubts, fears, and skepticism, we are told that Abram believed God’s promises and God counted Abram’s belief as righteous. But what does that mean? The Hebrew verb for believed indicates something that is active and ongoing. It was more than just a one-time intellectual assent. In other words, Abram’s belief in God’s promise affected how Abram lived and interacted with God. Throughout his story, Abram’s behavior was always characterized by his prompt obedience to God’s commands. And despite the fact that approximately 11 years had passed since God had first promised Abram an offspring, Abram believed God’s promises so that God considered him to be righteous. In Scripture, righteousness signifies the fulfillment of the demands of a relationship, and basic to the righteousness in our relationship with God is trust in his plan and God’s working out of that plan. Unlike Adam and Eve, whose lack of trust in God’s goodness and ability to guide and provide for all their needs got us kicked out of paradise in the first place (Genesis 3.1-19), Abram accepted God’s promise and believed that God would fulfill it. That constituted his faith, his trust, and that trust made him acceptable in the eyes of his God.

To be sure, Abraham’s faith and trust in God was not perfect. Twice while he wandered in this new land Abram lied about his relationship with his wife, Sarah, to save his own skin. And shortly after this episode, Abram and Sarah took matters regarding their promised son into their own hands, literally, and Abram had a son via one of Sarah’s slaves. This is hardly an airtight or perfect faith on display here! But God does not demand perfect faith because God knows we are broken creatures and life gets very messy. No, God tells Abram that because of his faith, i.e., because of his overall trust in God’s promises, Abram was made right (or justified) in God’s eyes. Here we see the first instance in the Bible of justification by faith. Faith is trusting God’s promise and acting as if it will be fulfilled. Throughout the Bible, God makes many promises. For example, in the NT God promises that, “I am with you always” or “whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” or “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.” Genuine biblical faith clings to God’s promises and acts as if they are true. Despite his sometimes messy faith, Abram believed God’s promises and acted accordingly overall. Do you?

This faith thingy is no small matter for us as well because we are part of Abraham’s family by virtue of our faith, hope, and trust in Jesus Christ. We believe that God initiated the conditions to restore us to a right relationship with him by becoming human and dying on a cross so that he could deal with our sins without destroying us. In our gospel lesson, Jesus tells the Pharisees that he is about doing kingdom work by casting out demons and bringing healing of all kinds to people like you and me, activities that are sure signs of God’s love for us and his desire to restore us to our full humanity. And how do we know this is true? How do we know that on the cross Jesus dealt with our sins and destroyed the power of evil over us? He tells us himself. On the third day, God would raise him from the dead to usher in the beginning of God’s promised new world, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise to bring blessing and healing to God’s broken and hurting world and its peoples. To be sure, God’s new creation has not yet come in full. But because God raised Jesus from the dead and promises to do the same for all who put their whole hope and trust in Jesus, we have a real basis to believe this most unbelievable of all God’s promises. God never asks us to whistle through the graveyard. He always gives us a real and historical basis for his promises, starting with Abraham, who had the promised son, Isaac, when Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah was 100. If God can call things into existence that do not exist, and give life to the dead (Romans 4.17), is there anything too hard for God?

And as Paul makes clear in our epistle lesson, our faith in Jesus and the healing power of the cross is the only way we can expect to inherit God’s promised new world. The challenge for us is to overcome everything within us that wants to make us not believe in the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection, so that we follow our own selfish and disordered appetites and remain hostile to God and outside his forgiveness because we refuse to repent of our proud and selfish appetites of all kinds. Those who refuse to put their trust in Jesus are doomed to destruction, warns Paul, and if we have any good sense about us, we will heed his warning.

But in heeding his warning, we had also better heed the lesson of Abram. The point of giving our lives to Jesus is to trust in him and to act in ways that please him. We don’t do this to get our ticket punched. We do this because we love Jesus and believe him to be trustworthy and true, and we want to please him because he has literally saved us from eternal destruction. He didn’t do that because we are deserving of his love and mercy and grace any more than Abram was when God called him out of Ur (Iraq) to go to Canaan (Israel). No, God became human for our sake so that he could rescue us and use us to be his faithful image-bearing creatures in the manner he created us in the first place, thanks be to God! Like Abram, we won’t live out our faith perfectly. What is necessary is to love and trust God consistently and to root out all that is within us that prevents us from becoming more like Jesus. And now we are back to Lent with its disciplines of confession, repentance, and self-denial. We do these things so that God can help us put to death all that is within us that dehumanizes us and causes us to be stubborn and rebellious. Of course, we will never be successful in putting to death entirely those things that keep us hostile toward God. But God knows our hearts and honors our efforts to become more like him. In fact, God sends us his Spirit to help us in our endeavors. It’s a messy process, but it boils down to this. Despite setbacks and difficulties and the messiness of life, do we believe God’s promises to use us as Jesus’ people to be a blessing to his world, i.e., to embody and bring to bear God’s great love and mercy to all people, even (or especially) our enemies?

This call to be a blessing never changes because God’s promise to Abraham and his family to be a blessing to the world never changes. The ultimate son of Abraham is Jesus, God himself, and he calls us to follow him in living out his promise to use us as God’s people to bring God’s blessing to his disordered and sin-sick world. This is what Paul meant when he talked about us being citizens of heaven. The logic is to bring the values of our real home, heaven’s values, God’s values, to bear on the world, just like we would bring the best of American values to a foreign land where we settled. We can’t very well do that if we are fundamentally hostile to God. So whatever it is within you that needs to die, ask the Lord to help you put it to death and struggle with it during this Lenten season and beyond. Do so because you believe the promises of God to rescue and restore his good world, yourself included, and give thanks that God honors you enough to ask you to be part of that rescue plan! Do it because you believe God really is for you, that God is like a mother hen who longs to bring you under her wings to heal and love and cherish you all the days of your mortal life and then throughout all eternity. Jesus himself promised this and so we remember that it is therefore God the Father’s promise to us through God the Son. This is why we do Lent, because we are eager to love the Father in return for his great love for us and because we believe the promises of God, that through Jesus our Lord we are part of Abraham’s family and therefore part of God’s promise to heal and bless God’s world. That, folks, means we have work to do in the Lord’s name right here and now. It also means we have Good News, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.