March 02, 2020
The Lent 2A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 3:1-17 from the Lectionary Gospel; Genesis 12:1-4a from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 121 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 4:1-5, 13-17 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 8 (Lord’s Day 3)
Author: Scott Hoezee
In John 3 Jesus does something quite unexpected: he reaches back to Numbers 21 from the Old Testament and evokes the image of that bronze serpent Moses lifted over the people as a cure for snakebites. The Israelites had to look at an image of the very thing that was afflicting them, and somehow doing so helped. It was an interesting little story in Numbers but is finally one of lots of interesting Old Testament stories. Just reading Numbers 21 would not make you think this would gain the high profile it later would through Jesus’s evoking of it.
Yet Jesus riffs on that story to say that the Son of Man will be lifted up and if you look at his death, your problem with death will be solved. It is, as Neal Plantinga has said, a striking biblical example of the principle that sometimes like cures like.
One of the greatest medical innovations in recent centuries is the development of the vaccine: if a doctor injects your body with a small amount of the disease you want to avoid (either an inert version of the disease or a sufficiently weak amount to prevent you from getting the full blown affliction), then your cells will produce the antibodies that will ward off the disease should you later come into contact with the real deal version of it. Vaccines are like tutors for our antibodies (something Jonas Salk—pictured above—figured out with his breakthrough polio vaccine).
So in the gospel: Jesus is raised up on a cross in death. The wages of sin is death, and so death is our problem as sinful people. Somehow when we cast our eyes on Jesus’ death, we receive the gospel vaccine, as it were. But what that means is that the way a person gets “born again,” as Jesus has been describing this to Nicodemus, is precisely by being crucified with Christ. This, then, is the direct set-up for John 3:16. We all love the promise of eternal life, we all are drawn to the promise that we will not perish, and we like the apparent simplicity that all we need to do to get these good things is “believe.”
Seen in its proper, wider context, those famous words of verse 16 assume a far more startling, almost chilling, profile. Because a main thing you need to “believe” to be born again is that Jesus’ death helps you. We need to dispense with the idea that we can help ourselves, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, earn salvation, or in any way get by on our own.
Nicodemus had to believe this, too. But that may not have been easy for a man like this. To riff on Frederick Buechner’s description of him, Nicodemus was a religious VIP with a list of credentials as long as your arm. He had advanced theological degrees, honorary doctorates, half-a-column in the Jerusalem edition of Who’s Who. If you were a Jew living anywhere near Jerusalem in those days, you knew who Nicodemus was–you’d recognize his face when passing him on the sidewalk.
But even Nicodemus had to dump the notion that his high-falootin’ religious credentials cut any ice with God. Nicodemus had to die to all that. But the funny thing about being dead is that the dead person is, by definition, completely unable to do another blessed thing. If you’re dead the way Jesus was dead on the cross, your only hope is that someone will resurrect you, raise you back to new life. As the undertaker and well-known author, Thomas Lynch, often points out: when it comes to dead people, you really just have to do everything for them! They are of no help at all.
The way into God’s kingdom leads through death. That’s scary in a way the isolated version of John 3:16 seldom conveys. But if you can follow Jesus to the cross and believe the scandalous idea that somehow his horrible death helps you, then already in this life you get the gospel vaccine–an inoculation that will keep you safe when your own death arrives one day. That’s what Jesus lays out for Nicodemus, and now for us, in John 3.
He wraps it all up with a discussion of light and darkness, saying that the main problem with people in this world is they like the dark. People think that living in God’s light might be harmful to their health, like baking in the sun too long on a hot summer day. “People like the dark because they don’t want their deeds to be exposed in the light,” Jesus says. And you have to wonder if Nicodemus, who had used the cover of darkness for his clandestine visit with Jesus, squirmed a bit at Jesus’ words about people loving the darkness!
But we don’t know if Nicodemus chaffed under that rhetoric because oddly enough, after verse 9, Nicodemus drops out of the picture altogether. We don’t have a clue as to how he reacted to Jesus’ words.
Isn’t that ironic?! We don’t know what happened to the very first person ever to hear John 3:16! Did Nicodemus’ hard Pharisee heart melt right then and there, or did he leave in a huff because of Jesus’ stinging words about loving the darkness? We don’t know. But perhaps that is because John knew that what matters is what John will later write at the end of John 20: John has written all the things he wrote about Jesus so that you, dear reader, might come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Most people are so overly familiar with John 3:16 that we think it’s a simple, straightforward text. But it’s not. It was properly disorienting (and then, hopefully, RE-orienting) to the first person who ever heard these words. Lent is a time of disorientation for all of us who live like we have it all figured out. Lent knocks us sideways to remind us that all our dieting, fitness, and age-defying make-up products will not keep us alive. We are dust and ashes and to dust and ashes we will return. And Lent reminds us that for all our self-help, get-rich-quick schemes and for all the ways we self-aggrandize ourselves for being self-made individuals, we are finally helpless. We need a Savior to do it all for us. We need a Savior to die for us. Sin is that serious.
Lent is a time of disorientation. But it is also, thanks be to God, a time of reorientation to a new perspective!
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
As Scott Black Johnson points out in Volume Three of “The Lectionary Commentary” (Eerdmans, 2001), the well-known question “Are you born again?” comes from John 3. Yet today people ask this as though being born again is a decision WE make. Ironically, however, Johnson points out that almost everything in John 3 conspires to make it clear that this business of getting born again is something with which we have very little to do. This is something that comes from God’s side of things and from the Spirit sovereign operation. Babies don’t decide to get born, they just GET born. Nor can babies decide that all things being equal, they’d prefer to stay in the womb. Nicodemus was right to suggest that this born-again thing sounded tricky, if not downright impossible, from the purely human side of things. We likely over-extend the image of getting born again if and when we make it too much about personal decisions and the like. This is an act of God for which we can but be eternally grateful!
Nicodemus makes two more very brief, cameo appearances in John’s gospel. The first comes in John 7 when the Sanhedrin begins plotting against Jesus. At that juncture, Nicodemus speaks up to ask that they all make certain to follow the letter of the law in investigating Jesus. Nicodemus’ final appearance is in John 19 when he is said to have helped Joseph of Arimathea embalm and then bury the dead body of Jesus.
We don’t know, though, if either incident indicates he had become a disciple of Jesus after all. Commentators and preachers across the centuries have been divided on this matter. Some say that Nicodemus’ words in John 7 and his actions in John 19 indicate only that he remained fixated, Pharisee-like, on the finer points of the law: he buried Jesus according to the law’s burial requirements but he was not crucified with Jesus in the way Jesus said was necessary. Others are more hopeful that the first person ever to hear John 3:16 found life in those words.
Maybe it did happen that way for old Nicodemus. We should hope it did. And if so, maybe it went something like the way Frederick Buechner fancifully imagined it. Maybe as Nicodemus listened to Jesus in the flicker of the firelight on that long ago night, maybe he found his pulse quickening. Hearing the words of what we now call John 3:16, maybe Nicodemus felt a spasm of joy the likes of which he’d not felt since his first kiss–a thrilling jolt like what you get when the doctor says that you don’t have lung cancer after all but just a touch of the flu.
If so, then perhaps some time later when he buried this quirky rabbi, maybe Nicodemus recalled that image of the snake on a pole. And if so, then maybe, two, three days later, when Nicodemus heard the report that this Jesus had risen from the dead, maybe that old senior citizen Nicodemus found himself inexplicably weeping–crying and carrying on like . . . well, like a newborn baby.
Author: Stan Mast
The early chapters of Genesis show us the steady downhill slide of humanity beginning with the Fall in Eden, with some terrifying secondary falls along the way—Cain and Abel, the increasing depravity of humans resulting in the massive cleansing of the Flood, the building of Babel resulting in the scattering and confusion of the nations. Interestingly, and thankfully, each successive downward movement by the human race is met with a gracious act of God. Thus, the human race is not terminated, although we see again and again that the “soul that sins shall die.”
But God keeps intervening in grace even after his judgment, never more spectacularly than in this simple story of one man and his wife. Indeed, all scholars point out that this story marks an important transition in the book of Genesis. Chapters 1-11 are called primeval history, while chapter 12 to the end of Genesis is salvation history. We need to be careful with that distinction. Sometimes it is alleged that the primeval history is not really history, just myth. While I reject that simple distinction, it is definitely true that Genesis 1-11 has to do with humanity in general, while the following chapters focus on the chosen people beginning with the sudden and inexplicable election of Abram.
It’s not as though Abram came from nowhere, like the mysterious Melchizedek later in Genesis. No, Abram comes from the nations who were scattered by God at Babel, as Chapter 11, particularly verses 27-32, show us. In fact, as I will explain in more detail in a moment, the calling and blessing of Abram were God’s direct response to the sin of mankind at Babel.
Frank Spina points out that there is a pattern in Genesis 1-11—sin, judgment, and then grace. The calling of Abram is the grace following Babel. He puts it memorably. “Is humanity doomed to be always the victim of ‘The Babel Syndrome?’ That is, from now on will human beings be condemned to be scattered (i.e., unable to live in community) and confused (i.e., unable to communicate)?” The call and blessing of Abram are the beginning of God’s response to the “Babel Syndrome.”
I say “beginning” because Abram is the first in a long line of mediators, ending with Jesus. Ingeniously, the RCL has chosen to follow that line in this season of Lent—Adam, Abram, Moses, David, Ezekiel, the Servant of Isaiah—each God’s man for the hour. Then comes “the Man Christ Jesus,” the one Mediator between the one God and the whole human race (I Timothy 2). “One for all” is the theme of this series of readings. It is God’s way of salvation through Christ.
Reading our text closely, several things beg for sermonic attention. First, it is clear that God takes the initiative here. Out of the blue, God speaks, not because of any special merit on Abram’s part, but because God choses to do so. What God says is mostly blessing. True, there is a command, as in Eden, a much more difficult command than the one in Eden. But the substance of God’s initiatory word to his covenant partner and his descendants is blessing. That blessing will not be earned by obedience (though obedience is important), but will be given by God in his grace. Note the prevalence of the first person singular—I will make, I will bless, I will make, I will bless. As a result of God’s blessing, Abram will be a blessing and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through Abram.
Second, as I just mentioned, the command God gives to Abram is much more difficult than the Edenic command to Adam and Eve. They were told that they could have everything in the garden, but they had to leave that one tree alone. Abram is told that he has to leave behind nearly everything that mattered to him—his place in his homeland, that is, his stake in the settled world of the post-Babel nations; his relationship with the clan of which he was a part, that is, his extended family to whom he was tied by blood; and most difficult, his father’s household, that is, his home with all its comforts and support. Leave it all behind and go…. Where? He isn’t told; it will be a “land that I will show you.”
Some scholars make much of the fact that the words “trust” and “obedience” are not used in this text, while later history would make much of Abram’s trust and obedience. But even if the words aren’t here, the reality certainly is. Abram had to trust God immensely to obey such a difficult command. Why else would he do exactly what God said? There’s no threat for disobedience, as there was in Eden. There is simply a promise– a magnificent promise, to be sure. But it was still just a word hanging in the air, when Abram was told to leave everything that gave his life meaning and security. He trusted Yahweh, putting so much faith in the promises that, as verse 4 summarily puts it, “Abram left, as the Lord had told him….”
The third thing that demands some attention in your sermon is the richness of God’s promise. For one thing, it is seven-fold, always the number of completeness in Scripture (think seven days of creation, for example), though some scholars see only 4 blessings. More significantly, notice how this blessing mirrors what rebellious mankind was trying to accomplish at Babel. They wanted to be great, to make a name for themselves, to reach up to the heavens and perhaps realize their divinity. God promises Abram exactly that: “I will make of you a great nation,” “I will make your name great,” and you will be the instrument of divine blessing for the whole world. That is, you will be as God to the world, which clearly harks back to the Garden of Eden and the false promise of the serpent.
In other words, everything humanity tried to obtain for itself by its own effort, God was willing to give by his grace. It’s not that God is stingy or selfish, as the serpent suggested. It’s that God knows humans are not and cannot be divine. The only way to blessing is not to try to be God and make yourself great, but to trust and obey God who will give you the desires of your heart.
That last clause is true if our heart’s desire is shaped by God’s desire. And here in Genesis 12 we learn that God’s desire is to bless the world through his chosen people. He doesn’t bless us only to make life secure and easy for us. Rather he blesses us, so that we can be a blessing to those who don’t know God yet.
All of the blessings spoken to Abram are designed to accomplish the blessing in that last sentence of verse 3; “and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” There are some translation issues in those words, but the intent is clear enough. God will bless the scattered and confused world through the one man and his descendants, especially the One named Jesus. That’s why Yahweh came out of the blue to Abram, made him into a great nation with a great name, blessed them with the Land and all it held for them, and made them the center point of salvation history—not just for themselves, but for the whole world. Election was unto mission.
There are several ways to preach on this. One could emphasize that last point. We are blessed to be a blessing. Election is not simply privilege; it is responsibility. In churches full of the “frozen chosen” that is a very needed message.
Or one could stress the importance of obeying even when the command is impossibly difficult. The key to obedience is trust, trust that the God who asks so much gives even more. In a world that only trusts in self, we need to hear a call to trust the God who makes promises and keeps them.
Or, given that this is the Lenten season, we should focus on the grace of God that doesn’t quit on even the most rebellious. Over and over again, God gives new beginnings to those who have rebelled egregiously. He does that because of the One who came into the world to save sinners. Preach Christ as the One who came for all, so that “all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through him.”
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
Two famous poems by Robert Frost help me think about the words of Genesis 12. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken” begin with mention of “woods.” Remember? “Whose woods these are I think I know” and “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.” In the first, Frost stops to watch the woods fill up with snow, but he moves on for a simple reason. “These woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.” In the second, Frost ponders which of two roads he should take through the woods. One is less travelled and that’s the one he takes. The poem concludes: “I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence; two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”
Throughout history, God has been faced with roads that diverge—to punish or to pardon, to end the human race or to continue its existence, to bless or to curse. Whereas anyone with a sense of justice might think God would choose the more travelled road of justice and punishment, God has always taken the less travelled road of grace and pardon and blessing. In spite of all those times when he threatened to give up on sinful humanity (think of the prophets), in the end God kept going down the road less travelled, because God has promises to keep. And that has made all the difference for the world.
Author: Scott Hoezee
For the second week in a row the Year A RCL has assigned a psalm that was also the Year C Psalm lection just a few months ago. So with modest modifications, here is a bit of a rerun on my recent thoughts on preaching this well-known—and very lovely—Hebrew poem.
When I was a little kid, I remember Psalm 121 being read in church or sometimes at our dinner table. Back then various versions of the Bible translated that first line, “ I lift up mine eyes to the hills, whence cometh my help.” Read this way, it is clear that our help comes somehow from the hills. But then somewhere along the line most Bible translations switched such that now you are likely to read, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from?”
Now it appears that whatever the psalmist sees up there in the hills, it is not per se the source of his help but instead what he sees causes him to ask where his help does in fact come from. You could fruitfully put the word “but” in front of the second line: “but where does my help come from?” It is clear that the psalmist’s help does not come from the hills, which in turn makes the next verse the true answer to his question: true help comes only from Yahweh, from the God of Israel, who created the heavens and the earth.
What’s going on here? Some commentators believe—and thus newer Bible translations reflect—that when the psalmist looks up to the hills, he sees the so-called “high places” in Canaan where the altars to Baal and the fertility poles to Asherah had been erected. Israel had been ordered to dismantle all those Canaanite shrines but we know from history that the people did not fully follow through on that command. Remnants of Canaanite religion remained in the Promised Land and—just as God (and Moses) had predicted—those remnants of idolatry became a snare for the people. So perhaps the psalmist saw the so-called “help” of false religion up there in the hills and this in turn caused him to reject those fake gods in order to embrace the real God of Israel.
Many people grew up learning that Psalm 121 was “the traveler’s psalm.” Families used to read this the night before a big vacation road trip. Of course, this is partly on target: Psalm 121 is one of many “Psalms of Ascent” in the Psalter as these were the pilgrimage songs the people of Israel would sing or recite on their way up to Jerusalem for one of Israel’s holy festivals like Passover. As such, once the true God of Israel is identified as the only true source of “help” in life, the psalm goes on to talk about the kinds of things people on a road trip might wonder or be concerned about: the heat of the sun, feet slipping on uneven paths, the harm that the moon at night might cause (the fear of moon-induced difficulties or madness was an ancient concern and is even the root of our word “lunacy”), and quite literally our comings and goings.
This is a traveler’s song after all and assigned as it is in the Year A Lectionary for the Second Sunday in Lent, we can see this as a song for our Lenten journey toward Christ’s cross. But the “travel” in question is finally so much more than just actually hitting the road for a trip. There is a larger and more urgent sense in which this poem is about our overall journey in life through a sometimes perilous world. The fact that Psalm 121 begins with the psalmist lifting up his eyes only to see the allures of false comfort and fake religion reminds us that as we travel through life, we also can look around and see all the things that some people embrace as the source of help and comfort and life itself but that the discerning pilgrim will recognize as finally hollow and a very far cry from the only true source of help through the Lord Jesus Christ.
What in our culture today might constitute the equivalent of the “high places” of false worship to the idols Baal and Asherah? In one sense these things are legion. The philosopher James K.A. Smith has written much in recent years about the idolatry of your average shopping mall—a place most of us frequent with some regularity and where a lot of young people hang out on a far more routine basis. Shopping malls are a kind of modern “church” in the sense that they put before our eyes the things we are to worship. But look at the display showcase windows, Smith advises, and what do you see?
Well, among other things you see what is held up before our eyes as the ideal male and female body: thin, athletic, beautiful, handsome. You see also as often as not highly sexualized versions of humanity, whether it is male and female models at Hollister stores or the outright sexual images of scantily clad women in the display windows of Victoria’s Secret, the message is clear: we are supposed to be all about sex, about being sexy, about buying clothes that will make us be just that attractive.
Or there is the idol of consumerism just generally. Williams Sonoma shows you the kitchen gadgets and high-end cookware you simply must have in order to cook like the celebrity chefs on Food Network. The Apple Store provides slick videos on giant wall screens that display the newest version of the iPhone or iPad that lets you know that the phone you bought 10 months ago that has only two measly cameras on it absolutely has to be replaced with the newer version with three cameras on it.
And, of course, you need all those cameras so that on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter you can take pictures of your life, of your vacation, of the accomplishments of your children that will make you the envy of all your friends. (Below is an image of a mockery of Instagram posts that skewers the actual fact that people are inciting the envy of others as often as not in what they post):
Behind all of it, of course, is the great idol of money. It’s all about the bling, the lifestyle, the high-end indulging of the best places, the best food, the best restaurants, the nicest cars, the slickest new gadget.
We, too, can lift up our eyes to “the hills” all around us and see what passes as today’s latest, greatest source of “help” in life. But it’s all false. We need the discipline of the psalmist to yank our attention back to the one true God who alone can watch over us because this God loves us, has our best interests at heart, has all the grace needed to forgive our sins and put our feet back on level paths when in our foolishness we stray and start pursuing those alluring false gods who scream their counter-messages at us every day.
The Songs of Ascent often convey the message that this journey toward God is often a fraught one. There are perils along the way. Even when we are just generally headed in the right direction, dangers abound. It is only by the grace of God that we can stay on the right path, lift up our eyes to the true Source of help, and so somehow in the end arrive at the place where our loving Creator God wanted us to be in the first place. And in this Lenten Season, there is finally one hill after all to which we can lift our eyes: Golgotha. Now that is the one hill from which all our help does come from!
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
The quintessential novel that captured the essence of the 1980s was Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. A year or so after this novel came out—a novel that adroitly and perceptively captured the spirit of acquisitiveness that so characterized that “yuppie” decade of conspicuous consumption—I heard Wolfe give a lecture at Michigan State University. Among other things he talked about the research he did for the novel. Because he wanted to deal with the whole sweep of life in a place like New York City, Wolfe spent time both in corporate boardrooms with deeply beveled oak paneling and out on the streets among gang members in the dirty back alleys of the city.
At one point Wolfe noticed that some of the gang members and other younger people he interviewed were wearing a curious kind of necklace. Upon closer inspection he realized that what some of these folks were wearing on a chain like a necklace was actually the hood ornament off of Mercedes Benz cars—hood ornaments that had clearly been literally torn off the front of such cars.
The cars from which the hood-ornament-turned-necklace came were owned and driven by the wealthy elite of New York. And that is when it dawned on Wolfe: in both higher-end and lower-end New York it was all about status symbols: those who could afford it drove the actual cars; those who could not afford it donned the key symbol of luxury from the hood of those same cars. But it was all the same: it was all about money, about status. Indeed, it was the very same status symbol for both groups!
The temptation to reach for all the wrong things as sources of status, comfort, and Psalm 121-like “help” are common to all. Believers needs to see all this and ask the key question: “Yes, but where does my help come from?”
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Author: Doug Bratt
When I was a teenager, we liked to sing a song that also had motions. With arms and legs flailing, we’d sing something like: “Father Abraham/ Had many sons;/ Many sons had Father Abraham;/ And I am one of them,/ And so are you,/ So let’s all praise the Lord.”
Now once you got past the song’s suggestion that men and women are Abraham’s “sons,” this is actually pretty good theology. Aren’t Sarah and he, according to an expert like Paul, the parents of “us all” (16)? We are, by God’s amazing grace, their “offspring.”
Yet as Fleming Rutledge, to whom I owe some ideas for this Starter, notes, Abraham’s relationship to Christian Jews as well as Gentiles was, in some ways at the heart of the early church’s struggle to define itself. The Galatian Jewish Christians especially seemed to wonder if Jews were Abraham’s only descendants. Were Gentiles, as a result, perpetual second-class citizens in God’s kingdom?
Or, some wondered, were Jewish Christians Abraham’s descendants by some criterion other than race? If so, just how were they Abraham’s “offspring?” In other words, who was excluded and who was included in God’s family?
This is more than just an ancient question for early Jewish Christians. Questions of exclusion and inclusion have profound implications for the modern church as well. In fact, they’re among the modern Christian Church’s most divisive issues. Some congregations and denominations are embroiled in controversies about whether and how to include, for example, people of diverse sexual orientations.
Yet only sinless Jesus was capable of unconditional acceptance. He was, after all, Immanuel, God with us. Even Abraham, after all, the original included person, had, according to verse 2, nothing, including, perhaps, acceptance, to boast about.
Of course, we sometimes think of Abraham as a model of faith. “Trust God’s promises,” we tell each other, “just like Abraham did.” Yet his faith was, at best, uneven, swinging wildly from godly trust to downright disobedience.
Think about it: middle-aged Sarah is so beautiful that her husband worries people will kill him just to get to her if they know he’s her husband. So Abraham claims she’s his sister so he can dangle her in front of the mighty Pharaoh.
Sarah, however, proves to also be deeply flawed. When it seems she won’t be able to parent any children of her own, she gives her maid to Abraham. She may be hoping that at least Abraham will be able to have a son that way.
However, Sarah eventually becomes incredibly jealous of mother Hagar. So she demands that Abraham throw both her son and her out into the desert where they’ll die. This leaves weak Abraham caught between two powerful women.
If, in other words, Abram and Sarah were God’s “employees,” God might be obligated to “pay” them. But God wouldn’t have had to pay them very much because they weren’t particularly “workers.” Anything God, in fact, gave Abram and Sarah was a “gift” (4).
So in verses 2 and 4 Paul can assert, “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about – but not before God … ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’ … to the man who does not work, but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
Abraham was, in other words, among God’s first justified sinners. He was among the first “ungodly” people whom God’s Spirit shaped into godliness. So God didn’t accept Abraham because he was such a faithful person. Instead God graciously saved this naturally unacceptable, ungodly man for God’s own sake.
We sometimes say, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” By that we mean that children often resemble our parents in several ways. That resemblance may, in fact, even last thousands of years. After all, both those who proclaim Romans 4 and those who hear us resemble father Abraham and mother Sarah in, among other things, our uneven obedience.
Yet God doesn’t judge God’s adopted sons and daughters by the quality of our obedience, or, for that matter, our journeys of faith, habits of praying and going to church, or by any other good work. No, God justifies and remakes us, like Abraham and Sarah, only because of God’s great grace to us in Jesus Christ.
So our sinfulness won’t let any denominations accept everyone whom God sends. Nor can any church come up with a plan that will please all of God and Abraham’s sons (and daughters!). Yet we don’t become completely discouraged.
We remember that in order to appeal to everyone, God began with just one person, Abraham. In order to bring all the rulers of the earth under God’s reign, God chose to begin with one mother of nations. In order to include all of God’s people, Jesus began with just twelve disciples.
Ever since then, small groups of Christians have been a sign of God’s plans and purposes for our world. So churches reach out to people who aren’t like us. God’s adopted sons and daughters do everything we can to welcome both Christians and non-Christians. We too are, after all, little outposts of God’s reign, signs of God’s gracious determination to reclaim the whole world.
Of course, we’re naturally tempted to claim that we alone are signs of God’s purposes for our world. God’s dearly beloved people find it easy to brag that we have, for instance, the best understanding of God’s ways and work in our world.
It’s also easy to be self-righteous about our obedience and ourselves. It’s tempting to forget that everything we’ve been, are and ever will be is due to the amazing grace of our God in Jesus Christ.
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
Will Campbell was a remarkable Christian activist and theologian. He was also one of the few people who were able to maintain friendships with both members and victims of the Ku Klux Klan. As a result, Campbell was able to be deeply involved in the trial of Sam Bowers, the former Imperial Wizard of the Klan whom authorities tried for the murder of civil rights worker Vernon Dahmer.
For most of the trial he sat with Dahmer’s family. Periodically, however, Campbell went and sat with Bowers, whom he’d known for forty years. Dahmer’s family is large and loving. Sam Bower is now virtually all alone in the world.
After the trial was over, a reporter from the New York Times asked Will Campbell, “Why do you seem to be on both sides?” Will answered, nearly as memorably as profanely, “Because I’m a ‘@#*% Christian.”
In commenting on that, Fleming Rutledge says all sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah are all, in a real sense, “blankety-blank Christians.” God’s chosen people are, after all, by nature under the power of sin. We deserve to go to hell. But by becoming a curse for us, Christ freed us from the power of sin.
As a result, God doesn’t just credit our faith to us as righteousness. God doesn’t, in other words, merely accept believing Christians. God also longs to remake even people like Sam Bowers … as well as those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. God is determined to raise the dead like us to life and to call into existence things that don’t yet exist, such as, by nature, faith.