Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 and Romans 4:13-25
Preached FCCW February 25, 2018
In the quiet, rural town of Rutland Massachusetts, on a non-descript road, beside the driveway of an unpretentious home, stands a maple tree. This tree is as commonplace as its surroundings. You would likely drive by it without a second glance, except possibly when it is showing off its Autumn foliage. The one feature that sets it apart is the small post and beam fence which forms a box around its trunk. And the sign that hangs on the fence, that identifies the spot where its roots are sunk as the geographical center of the Commonwealth. Which has earned it the name of Central Tree among the locals. So, now you know where to go if you want to see for yourself the answer to the question, “Where is the center-point of Massachusetts?”
But, if you want to get to the center-point of the Christian faith, you’d want to look to a different kind of tree. A Family Tree. Near the root of that tree you’d find an elderly couple named Abraham and Sarah. At that time, Abraham was still known as Abram, and his wife was still named Sarai. Their names would change later to Abraham and Sarah, which is in itself a very important part of the story.
For now, what is important to remember is that Abram’s relationship with God began with a promise. A promise made by God to Abram when he was 75 years old. God called Abram to take his wife Sarai and all their possessions and set off into the unknown, to another home that God would provide him. Abram was not told where he was going, but he knew who was leading him. And that was enough for him. So, he went.
That is what you call faith.
When he was about 86 years old, God spoke to Abram again, to make a covenant with him. A solemn promise that God would give to Abram and Sarai offspring that would outnumber the grains of sand on the earth and the stars in the sky. God would bless him so that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed. God delivered on the part of the promise that related to land and material blessings. Abram was given plenty of property and prosperity. But he was kept hoping for the descendants God had promised.
When he was 99 years old, God appeared once again to Abram and greeted Abram with these words, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.” God Almighty is El Shaddai in Hebrew. This is the first place that this name for God shows up in the Bible. So, you might say that Abram and Sarai aren’t the only ones who get a new name in this story. God gets a new name, too. Scholars’ best estimate at what El Shaddai means is “God of the Mountains.” Which would make sense because mountains represent strength and permanence. Mountains are something you put some faith in their being around for a while.
“I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless.”
God was offering Abram an invitation to walk with him. To be on a journey with this everlasting God. What that journey demanded of Abram was that he avoid the worship of other, false gods and trust the one true God. Put simply, it meant that Abram must put his faith in El Shaddai.
God renewed the promise made to Abram long before this, that he would be the father of a multitude of nations. But, Abram had heard this one before, and he reminded God that he and his wife Sarai were well into their Golden Years and so far God had never even blessed them with a single, solitary child; so a multitude of descendants seemed like wishful thinking.
For Abram to believe in God’s promise required a ton of faith.
The other piece of God’s greeting – the part about being blameless — sounds like Abram’s continued relationship with God depended on his never doing anything wrong. As if God was barking out a command like a drill sergeant. Like, if he wasn’t perfect, God would reject him and rescind God’s promises. But, God wasn’t saying that being blameless by virtue of his own moral perfection earned him the privilege of walking before God. If that was the case, Abram’s relationship with God wouldn’t have lasted long. Abram was faithful, but he was far from blameless. He had made his share of bad choices. God was saying something other than that Abram would be without sin, though. Which was that as a result of having the faith to walk with God, Abram would be blameless in God’s eyes.
The story in Genesis says that Abram believed the Lord – he had faith in God’s promises – and the Lord reckoned it – that is his faith in God — to him as righteousness. Righteousness means being in a right relationship with God. Through the covenant God made with them, Abram and Sarai were declared righteous. And out of their new relationship with God, they were given new names.
Abram became Abraham, which means “Father of a Multitude.” Sarai became Sarah, which means “Princess” or “Mother of Kings.”
For the Hebrews, a name was not just a name. One’s name was a statement of identity. It told the world who you were. It declared your destiny.
For the remainder of their days, Abraham and Sarah shared a name and an identity that was grounded in their hope and trust in God’s promise to them. A promise that would be fulfilled, against all odds and against the laws of nature itself, with the birth of their son Isaac in their old age.
A lot farther up that family tree, a descendant of Abraham and Sarah by the name of Saul lived by the conviction that he possessed a righteousness that was based on how well he kept the Laws and Commandments of his religion. On at least one occasion he even described himself as “blameless” under the Law. Then one day, while traveling to the city of Damascus, Saul ran into a descendant of Abraham like no other. It was the resurrected Jesus. Their confrontation knocked Saul off the horse he was riding to Damascus. More importantly, it knocked him off the high horse he had ridden all his life to a shallow self-righteousness.
From then on, Saul went by the new name of Paul, to match his new identity and his new purpose, as an apostle of the risen Jesus. The job description of an apostle is someone who brings the Good News of God’s saving grace to others.
Paul wrote more words than anyone else in the New Testament, in his efforts to bring others to a righteousness that rests on faith rather than one’s own good works. Of all the writings attributed to him, the Epistle to the Romans goes deepest in explaining the message of salvation by grace. Not grace such as we have witnessed lately in Olympic skaters or skiers; but grace which means salvation not earned through being blameless, but as a result of God’s mercy.
And who does Paul hold up as an example of a person made righteous by his faith, but Abraham.
Abraham was fully convinced that God could deliver on His promise that Abraham and Sarah would be the parents of a multitude of nations, even though Sarah was old and barren and his own virility was a distant memory. And that faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. What Paul doesn’t want us to forget is that those words were not written for Abraham’s sake alone. He claims that the promise of a right relationship with God still depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants.
That is the central truth of our faith.
That the same promise made by God to Abraham of having faith reckoned to him as righteousness is guaranteed to all Abraham’s descendants. If it depended on our being blameless, it could not be guaranteed because nobody is blameless. It can only be guaranteed because it does not depend on what we do; it rests on God’s grace.
The covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah was also intended for all of their spiritual descendants up and down the family tree of people who have put their trust and faith in God.
Lent invites to hope in a promise that is no less preposterous than the one in which Abraham and Sarah trusted. A promise that is backed up by God’s faithfulness to us; a faithfulness that came to Abraham and Sarah in the form of a child named Isaac.
A faithfulness that came to us in a child named Jesus.
The promise that it is through faith in a messiah who suffered, was crucified and died because we never could be blameless, that we are reckoned as righteous and reconciled to God. The promise that through believing that God raised Jesus from death, you and I have been reborn to a new life of walking before God in blamelessness.
The promise that you and I are made righteous not of our own doing but through our faith in what God has done for us.
Our baptism was the moment when we, like Abraham and Sarah, were given a new identity and a new purpose. When the water was poured over us, the words that were spoken renamed us with these names: Child of God, Disciple of Christ, Member of Christ’s Church, and we were grafted into the great family tree, upon which grows the fruit of grace.
Copyright 2018 Raymond Medeiros