February 23, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Life has its ups and downs but rarely are they packed so closely together as in Mark 8. Only a few verses earlier Peter had answered one of history’s most powerful questions and he had answered it correctly. Mark’s spare style means that we don’t hear what the other gospels tell us as to Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s correct identification of Jesus as the Christ; namely, “Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah!” (Of course, literary theory has it that Peter may have been a source for Mark and so perhaps modesty kept him from telling Mark this detail). But as Frederick Dale Bruner once said in connection to Matthew’s reporting of this incident, Peter had just been elected the first pope! He had received a blessing from Jesus that the other 11 did not get at just that moment. Life has its ups and downs, but this was definitely an upper moment.
And then . . . “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God!”
Life has its ups and downs, and being called “Satan” by the Son of God . . . well, that definitely counts as a downer.
What went wrong? How did Peter go from blessed saint to accursed devil in the span of minutes? Most of us know the answer: the disciples had been pining for the moment when Jesus would “make his move” and start a more public assault on the powers that be. And if he really is the Christ of God, well then, it was only a matter of time. But how could Jesus make anyone’s life better by having his own life end? Jesus’ proposal for dealing with this life’s woes seemed counter-intuitive, the exact opposite of how most people operate. Yet Jesus goes on to tell everyone this very plainly and simply. “If you want to get behind me, then you’ve got to give up your clutching at this life, go under the sentence of death by having a cross-bar draped over your shoulders, and just die.”
But then comes one of the most famous things Jesus ever said. Starting in verse 35 Jesus talks about the human soul, conveyed four times in three verses through the Greek word psyche. The NIV first translates this as “life” in verse 35 but then switches to “soul” in verses 36 and 37, but in the original it is the same word throughout, the word psyche. Jesus is concerned about our souls, about that mysterious but undeniable spiritual center to who we are as marvelously complex creatures made in the image of God. If Jesus is who we Christians say he is (namely, the very Son of God), then we ought to take seriously what Jesus has to say about our souls. After all, we believe Jesus is the One who created those souls in the first place. Who would know better than Jesus how they work?
But what Jesus tells us is an apparent paradox. What we all want is to hang on to the life we’ve got. Diminishment, despair, and ultimately death is what we all rather dearly want to avoid. Unless depression or grave illness has eclipsed for us any sense of life’s goodness, most of us would have to admit that most days, most of the time, we like being alive.
We enjoy a good laugh. We relish good food. We get a kick out of creation’s beauties. We feel satisfied when we’ve done some task really well. We’d give almost anything to keep on watching our children and grandchildren grow. Just in general we’re intrigued by the idea of life’s having a “next,” a new horizon with new possibilities, new things to explore. The notion that there might not be another “next” for us is what can rather quickly induce a marrow-chilling fear and a clutching desire to head off whatever it is that threatens our being able to click along pretty much the way we always have.
We don’t want life to end, which is why when Jesus predicts his own end, Peter tries to shout Jesus down. “Don’t talk that way, Master Jesus! If you’re the Messiah, then you’ve got to save your own life first of all so that you can save and then improve the lot of our lives, too!”
But no, Jesus has to go another way. He has to die, and if we’re smart, we’ll let him drag us down with him.
In the Greek there is a curious parallel between verses 33 and 34. In verse 33, following Peter’s wrong-headed criticism, Jesus calls Peter a “satan” and tells him to go opiso mou, which means “behind me.” Then in the very next verse Jesus says that if anyone wants to follow opiso mou, they need to deny themselves and take up the cross. The second use of that phrase opiso mou is not necessary in Greek since the Greek verb “to follow” automatically carries with it the sense of “behind me”–it is not necessary to spell it out and so it usually isn’t.
But Mark has Jesus repeat opiso mou as a way to create a parallel to Peter in the previous verse. Maybe what Mark is saying is that there are two ways to get behind Jesus: if you insist on holding onto this life, of seeking the solution to life’s difficulties by grabbing still more of that same life, then you can get behind Jesus as a satan.
But if you are willing to let go, to release your fierce grip on your own ego–and on the life you hope will boost and bolster that ego–if you can just die along with Jesus, then you can get behind Jesus as a disciple. Then you can be behind Jesus as a follower who is back there with a clear view of what Jesus does so that you can then imitate him. One way or the other everyone ends up behind Jesus. The question is whether you’ll be back there so you can go where Jesus goes or whether you’ll be back there to be left behind. If you are back there to follow, then even though you first die, you will end up with abundant resurrection life. If you end up back there because you decided to make the goodies of this life your be-all and end-all, then you also will die, but that will be the end of you, too.
Throughout much of her life actress Helen Hayes was regularly hailed as “The First Lady of the American Theater.” Clearly this was a lofty, flattering title. Ms. Hayes must have felt honored each time she heard it.
Or maybe not.
Because as it turns out, Ms. Hayes is the one who came up with that title for herself! She cooked it up, stuck it into a press release, and forever after journalists made use of this sobriquet or nickname whenever they wrote articles about Hayes. But really the same thing happens all the time. In our age of media hype it is not at all unusual for actors, athletes, and yes, even preachers to come up with their own sobriquets or designations.
Press releases from Christian publishing houses now regularly promote Rev. So-and-So by claiming he is “widely acclaimed as the most dramatic preacher of our times.” Or someone may be touted as “the most sought after speaker on today’s lecture circuit.” A few years ago Newsweek magazine ran an article on contemporary preaching which included a list of the top twenty current American preachers. Within weeks you could not read the names of most of those twenty folks without immediately reading also the line “Recently named by Newsweek one of the most influential preachers of the late-twentieth century!”
But of course the sign of really having made it is not just having such a distinction attached to your name. No, the truly stratospheric are themselves the point of comparison. So now we often hear the claim that a certain person is “The Michael Jordan of . . .” as in the Olympics some years ago when Hermann Maier was called “The Michael Jordan of downhill skiing” and George Hackl “The Michael Jordan of luge!” And the list goes on.
In Mark 8 Jesus had just admitted to indeed being “the Christ,” the Messiah who could save the world. Peter and the others were no doubt thrilled to have their suspicions confirmed. Talk about your sizzling designations! They were insiders to the Christ! Surely life would soon get very sweet very fast. Jesus had no place to go but up. The days of the Caesar were numbered. Israel would soon be back with Jesus sitting on a golden throne with inlaid mother of pearl even as the disciples would be co-rulers of this new empire. Gone would be the days of dusty feet, rumbling stomachs, and tattered fishing nets. Soon they’d eat red snapper that someone else had caught, steamed with capers and tarragon by the palace chef and served on silver platters by servants eager to please the Messiah and his buddies.
Except that to bear the name of “Christ” leads to a very different kind of path after all.
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Author: Scott Hoezee
At first blush, Genesis 17 may not seem like a real likely Lenten text. But stay tuned in this sermon starter and eventually we’ll come around to seeing how this text fits in with Lent after all and with also the Mark 8 passage assigned for this Second Sunday in Lent of the Year B Lectionary cycle.
The Revised Common Lectionary neatly skirts the part of Genesis 17 that presents the confirming sign and seal of the covenant with Abraham; namely, circumcision. That’s too bad because you really cannot fully understand what is going on here without it. Surely Abraham would not have been unaware of this omission. He was himself altogether too aware of how intimately this covenant would touch him not only spiritually but also physically!
Although it may make us uncomfortable or embarrassed—and although it needs to be handled with discernment from the pulpit—Genesis 17 forces us to think about and talk about a man’s most private sexual organ. Because for some almost bizarre reason, when God wanted to formalize his covenant with Abraham, the sacramental sign God gave mixed theology with a man’s loins. Literally, the word “circumcise” means “to cut around,” and if you’ve ever witnessed a Jewish Bris or the circumcision of your own child, you know precisely what that means.
But what in the world does it mean theologically? Of course, there is another fairly obvious link to the theology of Genesis when you remember that the chief promise God gave had to do with progeny, offspring, conceiving a child. Given the age of Abraham and Sarah, this was probably the most difficult part of the covenant to believe and so, if it ever happened, the birth would represent God’s grandest covenantal breakthrough. So in a way, there is maybe some sense after all to have the sign of this particular covenant get located on the male organ of generation, of procreation and conception.
A sacrament, some of us learned in Sunday school, is a visible sign of God’s invisible grace. It’s an outward sign and seal of the inward reality of salvation. In our Protestant settings, where Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are our two sacraments, we are always careful to make clear that these signs depend on God’s Word. That’s why in traditional church architecture (at least in the Reformed tradition) the font and table flank the pulpit. The sacraments stand alongside of God’s Word because they are illustrations of, reminders of, seals of, and further channels of what we read about in the Bible.
Sacraments don’t add any new information to the gospel, but our participation in these rituals enlivens the gospel for us, makes it clearer, more vivid. What’s more, something really happens to us through the sacraments, Christ truly is present and the Spirit really is active. We are changed, strengthened by the sacraments; our union with Christ is made thicker and more secure.
Those are among the reasons God gives sacramental signs to his people. Every time we see a baptism, we see not only God’s marvelous activity in the life of the baptized baby but we are further reminded of our own baptisms and all the rich promises that cascaded over us at that time, washing over us like a wave at the seashore. Every time we eat the bread and drink the cup, we are at once reminded of Jesus’ precious sacrifice and we participate in the living Christ in a way that energizes us and nourishes us for the journey of faith.
In Genesis 17, God tells Abraham that circumcision would be a visible sign to look at, to see, to reflect on for generations to come. But between Genesis 16 and 17 another dozen or so years have passed. That brings the total span of time since God’s initial call of Abram in chapter 12 to nearly 24 years.
That’s a long time, a quarter-century almost.
For Abram and Sarai, those were years of increasing doubt and disbelief. They had not been exactly spring chickens when God called them out of Ur in the first place and the succeeding couple of decades had only magnified their sense of being on the high side of life’s course. By all rights, next on their docket was Fountain Hills Retirement Community, not the maternity ward at the local hospital.
Now and again over those many years God popped back in to repeat his promise of progeny and land. But it sounded a little more far-fetched with each successive visit. You all know what you eventually think of the old college friend (let’s call him Floyd) who, every time you see him (which is only about once every other year or so), swears that he’s going to give you a call because, hey, isn’t it high time we had dinner and got caught up on each other’s lives!? “I’ll call you this week yet, and this time I really will!” But then he never does and so although you know exactly what he’ll say eighteen months down the road when you bump into Floyd again, you won’t believe him. Maybe the first time or two you took the promised dinner seriously, but after a while you cannot help but chalk it up as “just talk.”
So as Genesis 17 opens and Yahweh appears to Abram once again, you have the feeling that inside his head Abram was saying to himself, “Here we go again! I know exactly what God is going to say next!” And sure enough, God reiterates the promise of making Abram the father of many nations. There is one new twist this time, however, in that Yahweh re-names Abram as a further way to bring this promise of offspring home a bit more. Abram now becomes “Abraham,” the “father of many.”
God then goes on in verses 9-14 to introduce what we already thought about: the sign of circumcision. It will be a permanent sign on Abraham’s own body that God’s promise is also permanent and forever. As we also already noted, it will be a sign located on a body part associated with conceiving children, and so is clearly meant to seal that vital part of God’s covenant.
So the promise of land and children has been echoed yet again. God has given Abram a new name, has ordered Abraham to undergo a little surgical procedure, and finally says that Sarai, now Sarah, is on the verge of conceiving a son. But in verse 17 the apparent absurdity of it all catches up with Abraham and he starts to giggle. A giggle turns into a chortle, a chortle into a belly laugh. Finally, he falls face down in the hope that maybe God won’t notice that Abraham is laughing in the presence of El Shaddai, God Almighty.
As he laughs into the dirt, he says to himself, “Right! Like it’s terribly likely a century-old man and a broken-down woman of 90 are going to have a son!” It was all just too much. Why would God assign a man who has never had a child with his wife a new name that means something like “Big Daddy”? Why would God want him to start cutting on the one part he will most need if the absurd were to come true and he and Sarah were to conceive the promised son? But above all is the really big question: if God is so serious about this, why has there been nearly twenty-five years of all talk and no action?
Abraham even gives the “Plan B” of Ishmael one more whirl but God’s response is the same as it was in chapter 16 when Abraham tried it the first time: although God will bless Hagar’s son, he won’t be the main target of the covenantal promises. These will all be directed toward the boy Abraham and Sarah are to name Laughter, Isaac. This son will be born inside a year, Yahweh says in conclusion. Then God withdraws, and somehow or another Abraham finds that he has stopped laughing. Somehow or another the specificity of God’s words about a son to be born by the same time next year got through to him sufficiently that Abraham wastes no time whatsoever before following through on God’s command to circumcise himself and every other male in the household.
To state the merely obvious, Abraham would not have subjected himself or anyone else to this rather painful procedure were it not for the fact that, by the grace of God’s Spirit, he had somehow moved from laughter to renewed faith. In and on his own flesh he now bore the mark of God’s promise. He let the covenantal love and faithfulness of God settle into his own skin, become a part of who he simply was. Maybe God’s appearances had been a bit intermittent over the last quarter-century and maybe over time that gave Abraham cause to wonder if God would ever do what he had vowed. But now Abraham carried around with him a sign that would not leave him, would not be intermittent, but that would be as constant as the love of God–the love to which Abraham clung in faith.
It’s no coincidence, after all, that in the New Testament the most revealing simile for Christ’s relationship to the church is that of marriage, of husband and wife. For in marriage there is a bond of loving affection that is as intimate as it gets. The two become one flesh, and though that image means more than the sexual component, it does not mean less. Husband and wife touch each other, unite with each other in a most marvelous way. This nuptial unity leads us to sexuality and the intimacy associated with it. Thus, the New Testament’s parallel of this relationship to our union with Christ leads us in a real way back to Abraham and circumcision and the covenant love that first sacrament signed and sealed.
Somehow it’s all saying the same basic thing: God loves us. God desires our nearness, our intimacy, our love returned back to him. What’s more, this love follows us wherever we go in life. Our union with Christ needs to be carved into the flesh of our hearts (which, as you no doubt recall, Paul in the New Testament calls “the circumcision of the heart”). It needs to be that real, that central, that personal, and that all-encompassing for us.
And since this Genesis 17 lection is the Year B Old Testament reading for the Second Sunday in Lent, we can recall, too, that Paul once went so far as to say that the crucifixion itself was, somehow, a final circumcision of the old sinful nature that we now participate in through baptism (cf. Colossians 2). Although we no longer regard circumcision as a sacrament, its meaning carries through in baptism (and I would say to a degree in also the Lord’s Supper). The covenant God promised to Abraham in Genesis 17 finds its final fulfillment on the cross of Christ, which is Jesus’ point in the Year B gospel lection for this same Sunday in Lent when in Mark 8 Jesus says that if you want to save your life, you have to lose it by going under the cross-bar of death and lead a sacrificial existence in which you put off all that clings to this world so as to bring to mind again and again the things of God.
Most mature adults have a sense of “personal space.” This is a kind of imaginary bubble that surrounds our bodies. It’s an area of intimacy, of closeness, and so of a degree of privacy. We routinely allow other people to burst through this bubble in the very common gesture of a handshake. It’s a pretty personal gesture, but not too personal, not too up-close. Now and again you may realize that even a handshake involves a somewhat intimate skin-on-skin contact as when maybe someone pulls back from shaking hands and says, “I’ve got a terrible cold! Believe me, you don’t want to shake my hand today!”
Mostly, though, a handshake is the one “violation” of our personal space that we hardly even notice. Receiving a hug from someone is far more personal, however, and so we don’t hug just anyone. I can also remember, not long after I was ordained, shaking hands at the door after church when the mundane act of handshaking was interrupted by a well-meaning older lady who ran her hand along my cheeks as a way to take note that I recently had shaved off my beard. This was an invasion of my personal space I was unprepared for (and wasn’t sure I much liked!). Other times we may feel crowded if the person to whom we’re talking stands extra close, “in my face,” as we put it. We involuntarily find ourselves taking a half-step back! And, of course, we could easily go on along these lines. There are even certain ways by which a man may lay a hand on a woman that can be called criminal, sexual harassment. Because some touches are reserved only for lovers.
Genesis 17 gives us the Bible’s first sacrament, and it’s on the intimate side. But when you think about it, God’s sacramental confirmations of his covenant love and salvation are always intimate. The waters of baptism make us wet—adults sputter, babies squirm and squeal. The sacrament touches us. The bread and wine of the Holy Supper literally enter into our bodies, our bloodstream, our very physical make-up. Our mouths involuntarily salivate, our throats contract to swallow, our stomach receives the elements and metabolizes them. Again, pretty intimate stuff.
Apparently, when God makes a covenant to save, he wants it to involve the totality of our being. For nothing short of that totality is what he has been saving all along.
Author: Doug Bratt
Christians who read this psalm, particularly during the season of Lent, can hardly do so without hearing Jesus’ groan as he dangles between heaven and earth on the cross. After all, both Mark 15:34 and Matthew 27:46 quote him as praying verse 1’s, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Of course, that’s not the only part of Psalm 22 the gospel writers employ in their descriptions of Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ words in Mark 15:29 reflects verse 7’s, “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.” Matthew 27:43 indicates the witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion take verse 8’s cry, “He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him,” on their lips.
Christians who read verse 16’s lament, “They have pierced my hands and feet” can imagine that the anguished Jesus murmuring something similar. Mark 15:24 also seems to make use of verse 18’s “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” All of this makes the words of Psalm 22 some of the most familiar of the sometimes otherwise largely ignored psalms of lament.
Yet Christian preachers and teachers are wise not to step over Psalm 22’s Old Testament context on their trip to the cross. After all, Jesus was not God’s first child to pray both its anguish and praise. Nor are we wise to race too quickly past Psalm 22’s lament in order to land on the section of praise the Lectionary appoints for the second Sunday in Lent. Nearly 2/3’s of Psalm 22 is spoken in an anguished voice with which all too many of our hearers are familiar. However, this article focuses largely on verses’ 23-31’s praise, not because lament is unimportant or uncomfortable, but because the Lectionary focuses on Psalm 22:1-15’s lament later in the church year.
Certainly verses’ 23-31’s tone’s shift from that of lament to praise is noticeable. In fact those verses begin with an explicit to call to those who fear to the Lord to praise the Lord. The beauty of that praise is heightened by its contrast to verse 21 that ends Psalm 22’s section of lament: “Rescue me from the mouth of the lions; save me from the horns of the wild ox.” Clearly God has graciously moved the psalmist from a place of grief and anguish to a place of praise. In fact, in verse 24 the psalmist celebrates how God “has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.”
Yet even before she switches from lament to praise, the psalmist weaves expressions of confidence in God’s generosity into some of the psalm’s first 22 verses’ prayers of lament. So in verses 2-3 we hear her pray, “O God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night and am not silent. Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel.” (Italics added). In verses 7-9 the psalmist cries, “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: ‘He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.’ Yet you brought me out of the womb, you made me trust in you even at my mother’s breast.” (Italics added).
Biblical scholar Brent Strawn calls verses’ 23-31 section of praise and vows “extralong.” He suggests it may reflect the psalmist’s desire to balance out the complaint section that he also labels “extralong.” Yet, as Strawn goes on to note, that match between the complaint and praise’s length also imitates the life experiences of God’s adopted sons and daughters. After all, seasons of trouble and blessing sometimes seem to dominate our lives. Times of petition and salvation sometimes feel relatively short in comparison. Yet even short-lived seasons of blessings serve as what Strawn calls the “fulcrum” that shifts God’s children from complaint to praise that is, in the end, the goal of both the psalm and our lives.
Certainly such praise has a strong communal element in Psalm 22, just as it does in many of the psalms. After all, in verse 22 the poet sings to God, “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the congregation I will praise you.” The psalmist recognizes that praise is not just a private exercise. God’s sons and daughters don’t just praise the Lord with our IPods or in the car or shower. We also offer God praise in the presence of and with other people.
After all, those to whose cries for help God listens recognize the appropriateness of calling others to join in praise and service to God. In verse 23 the psalmist says, “You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him all you descendants of Israel!” This takes on special poignancy in light of its call to all of Israel to join the psalmist in praising God. After all, the psalmist already probably sees examples of Jacob’s descendants failing to join him in praising God.
One attribute of God for which those who fear the Lord praise God is God’s provision for society’s most vulnerable members. In verse 24 the psalmist praises God that God “has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has … listened to his cry for help.” In verse 26 the psalmist adds, “The poor will eat and be satisfied.” These verses offer those who preach and teach Psalm 22 opportunities to help their hearers reflect on whether they’ve joined the Lord in hearing the cries of the afflicted. They may also open opportunities to challenge God’s children to come alongside the Lord in feeding the poor.
However, perhaps the most striking feature of Psalm 22:23-31 is what we might call the “ripple effect” of the psalmist’s praise. When you drop a stone into the middle of a pond, you can watch its affects spread in concentric waves across the water. In a similar way we watch the praise the psalmist offers as an individual spread to everyone.
After all, what begins in verse 22 with the psalmist’s determination to praise the Lord spreads to in verse 23 to “those who fear the Lord … all you descendants of Jacob [and] … Israel.” That praise, however, also ripples out from the Middle East to “they who seek the Lord” (26) to, in fact, “all the ends of the earth … and all the families of the nations.” (27) And while verse 29 is admittedly difficult to translate, it suggests that praise to God encompasses both “all the rich of the earth … [and] those who go down to the dust.” That praise’s ripples even extend into the future, as the psalmist predicts that “Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn” (30).
Those who preach and teach Psalm 22:23-31 may want to invite hearers to reflect on the way God’s praise has spread across the world and down through the generations. Jews and Gentiles from every nation on earth praise the Lord today in countless languages. God has graciously drawn rich and poor, strong and weak, famous and anonymous people into God’s church so that the voice of prayer and praise is never silent.
Mrs. Turpin is a central figure in Flannery O’Connor’s powerful short story, Revelation. She’s a white Christian who seems very pleasant and gentle, but spends her nights mentally categorizing peoples’ worth. At the bottom of her heap are black people, with “white trash” just a step above them. She thinks of people like her husband and her as at the top of the heap.
However, as Mrs. Turpin is washing down her hogs she has a vision that in some ways reflects Psalm 22:23-31’s group of people who praise the Lord. She sees a streak “as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.” Those souls include what she thinks of as “white trash,” as well as black people in white robes and what she refers to as “battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs.”
“And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right … They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that that even their virtues were being burned away…what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward in the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”
Author: Stan Mast
Did the apostle Paul distort the teachings of Jesus? That’s the claim of some higher critics of the New Testament. Jesus taught a simple but stringent Jewish Gospel, while Paul complicated it with categories taken from Hellenistic thought that dramatically changed Jesus’ message. Paul, say the most radical critics, invented Christianity.
A comparison of the lectionary readings for this second Sunday of Lent seems to illustrate that radical claim. In the reading from Mark 8, Jesus calls for a cruciform, self-denying discipleship. It costs to follow Jesus. In the reading from Romans 4, Paul says that the cost has already been paid by Jesus. What Jesus did in his death and resurrection has been credited to those who simply believe in him. So, do these two texts show that there is a great difference between Jesus and Paul? Or, as I believe, is Paul simply telling us the secret of discipleship, revealing how sinful people can live the kind of radical discipleship to which Jesus calls us all?
I’m not going to comment on major portions of this text, since I did that at length only a year ago in my March 10, 2014 http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-2a/?type=lectionary_epistle, posting on this “Center for Excellence in Preaching” website. There I said that if I were going to preach on this text, I might entitle the sermon, “Getting the Credit without Doing the Work.” I pointed out that Paul is summarizing the way he preached the gospel all over the world, a message that led the Judaizers to allege he was distorting the centuries’ old teaching of Torah. Paul preached that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone apart from works of the law. That message made Paul’s law-abiding critics feel like those day laborers in Jesus parable in Matthew 20:1-6. It wasn’t fair that those who worked only an hour should get the same pay as those who slaved all day in the hot sun. Getting the credit without doing the work went against everything the Judaizers had ever been taught.
That’s why Paul illustrates and proves his gospel of justification by faith alone by using the story of Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation. What I’m preaching all over the world is not new, said Paul. You can read it in the familiar story of the man you call “Father Abraham.” His faith was “credited to him as righteousness,” says Paul in Romans 4:3, quoting directly from Genesis 15:6. That happened years before he was ever circumcised and centuries before the Torah was given to Israel to obey. So, it wasn’t his circumcision or his law keeping that made him righteous. It was his faith, simply his faith, that was credited to him as righteousness. Anybody who trusts God the way Abraham did, whether they are Jew or Gentile, will receive the same credit. He is the “father of us all.” I’ve oversimplified Paul’s argument here, but you can read the details in my previous piece.
For this Lenten season, I want to single out three aspects of Paul’s message that seem particularly relevant to our world today. First, notice that this whole section is about the promise of God. “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise….” The Gospel is not about law, about what we must do, but about promise, about what God said he would do. God doesn’t make his promises to those who have been good, but to those who simply believe his promise. “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham.”
This is an important preaching point. There are no qualifications for salvation, no conditions, no performance standards, no levels of achievement, no rungs to climb. Nobody is shut out because of what they have done or not done. Nobody is excluded because of religious or ethnic or racial background. Salvation cannot be achieved by any acts of devotion or obedience. It can only be received by faith, faith in the promises of God, faith in what God says he will do, faith in what the Gospel says God has done in Jesus Christ.
This stark fact, of course, makes salvation both universally inclusive (for all who believe) and terribly exclusive (for all who believe). But that was exactly what God promised. He made his promise to one man out of the whole human race, one pagan who didn’t even know who God was. This hitherto unknown God promised this one pagan man that he would have many children, that he would, indeed, be the father of many nations. That’s the dimension of the promise Paul highlights here in Romans 5. The Jews, the direct physical descendants of Abraham, had historically focused primarily on their own nation, but here Paul reminds them that God had always intended to bless the whole world through them.
Trusting that promise in all its richness is how Abraham received salvation which was “credited to him….” And, adds Paul, those words were “written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification.” Here is the gospel at its most inclusive; salvation is for all the nations, not just for Israel. Here is the gospel at its most exclusive; it is for those who believe in Jesus. No amount of religious observance can achieve salvation. It can be received only through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. No amount of sin can disqualify us from being justified. God promises salvation by his grace to those who will simply take God at his word and trust Jesus. It’s not about performance; it’s about the promise.
Second, I’m struck by that phrase in verse 18, “against all hope, Abraham in hope believed….” I just officiated at the funeral of a friend. His downward slide began with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. As he struggled with that pernicious disease, the doctors found prostate cancer, which they did not get in time. It spread to his bones and his internal organs. Treatment was followed by complications. Moments of health were erased by days of sickness. But always he had hope. Against all hope, he and his family in hope believed. Then, they found cancer in his colon, and hospice care was initiated. Now, there was no hope for him. He died a few days after hospice came into his home. How many of our listeners this Sunday are in that very condition? Against all hope, they in hope believe. How can that be done? How can we all continue the Via Dolorosa of Lent in hope, when there is no hope of being able to live up to Jesus’ stern words in Mark 8?
Further, as we look out at the nations of the world, things look hopeless. God promises to save the nations, but the nations seem beyond all hope of salvation. Think of the terror threat that has gripped Europe, the abominations inflicted by Boko Horam and ISIS. Think of the economic uncertainty that looms over the developed nations and the economic deprivation that dominates life in the undeveloped part of the world. Think of the tinder box tensions that threaten peace in the Middle East and in the Ukraine. I could go on and on, but you have your own examples of personal and international hopelessness. How can we be like Abraham who against all hope continued to believe in hope?
The answer lies in verse 17, where we are told that Abraham believed in “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” That’s the third thing on which I want to focus, and perhaps the main thing on which we should preach in the season Lent, 2015. What kind of God can you trust in a hopeless world? Paul gives us this description of God that is the key to hope. Of course, he is referring to Abraham and Sarah when he describes God as “the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”
Abraham’s body was “as good as dead” and Sarah’s “womb was dead.” At 99 there was no hope that Abraham could father a child; he was a decrepit old man who might die during sex and whose sperm had little motility (as medical folks put it today). But even if he could somehow manage, Sarah was severely postmenopausal. Her womb was dead; it no longer ovulated. There were no eggs to fertilize, even if there were a stray sperm feebly swimming upstream. It simply couldn’t happen. No hope.
Except that the God of Abraham had promised, and this God can give life to the dead and call non-existent things into being. He did it at creation; he could do it at procreation. And he did it at re-creation, or resurrection. Abraham is not the greatest example of God’s power to raise the dead and create life by his word. Jesus is, for he was truly dead—not just as good as dead, not just part of him dead. He was thoroughly and completely dead, but God raised him from the dead. The promise of God had been fulfilled in the birth of Abraham’s great Offspring, but then the Offspring of Abraham lay dead in the grave. The hope of the nations was no more. But God raised Jesus from the dead, and hope was reborn for the human race.
Now hope is alive for disciples who feel hopeless in the face of Jesus’ daunting words of Mark 8. How on earth can we deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus, if following means losing our lives? How can we live boldly and unashamedly in a world that pressures us to compromise and fit in? How can we follow Jesus to his cross in our Lenten journey? If our salvation depends on doing what Jesus says in Mark 8, is there any hope for us? Yes, there is, because the God who raised Jesus from the dead can raise us from our defeats again and again. We do not achieve our salvation by perfect performance. We receive it by trusting the perfect performance of Jesus, who “was delivered to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” Yes, we should try to do as Jesus commanded, but the secret of discipleship is trust in the God who raised Jesus. We shall succeed in our discipleship not by rite (whether circumcision, or sacraments, or liturgy), nor by rules (whether God’s own law or helpful spiritual disciplines), but only by faith.
Abraham’s faith is the example for us. “Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had the power to do what he had promised.” This NIV translation covers a very helpful hint for growing in faith. The Greek says, he “was strengthened in his faith, giving glory to God.” There is no conjunction there; “giving glory” is a participial phrase, telling us how he was strengthened in his faith. His faith grew as he gave glory to God, as he refused to dwell on the hopelessness of his situation and focused instead on the power of God. That’s how faith is strengthened. Or, as Paul will put it later in Romans 10, faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard is the message of Christ. If we listen to the world (and our own minds) saying, “There’s no hope,” faith will weaken to the point of death. If we listen to the message of Christ, the message of his death and resurrection, the message of a God who keeps his promises even when it seems impossible, then our faith will grow and thrive.
But the best news is that even when we fail to follow Christ faithfully, God is faithful to his promise. Through Christ we are saved by grace alone through faith alone apart from works of the law. Even when our faith is weak, God’s grace is strong. Christ did the work so that we can get the credit, even when we fail. Glory to God!
This very complicated passage can be summed up in the simple prayer my parents taught me when I was a little child. You probably know it well. “God is great. God is good. And we thank him for this food.” I wonder if that was the first prayer Abraham and Sarah taught little Isaac, the offspring who was the initial fulfillment of the promise given by the God who can raise the dead and call into existence things that are not. “God is great. God is good.” Because God is that and more, there is hope for those who have no hope.