Monday, August 9, 2010

Proper 14 of Series C (Genesis 15:1-6)

“Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the fifteenth chapter of Genesis. Dear friends in Christ: one of my favorite chapters in all of Scripture is our Epistle lesson for today, Hebrews chapter eleven, the ‘Hall of Faith.’ In this chapter, the author lists out the great heroes of the Old Testament, showing that each of them lived by faith, not by sight. He begins by giving the textbook definition of faith. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” By that definition, Abraham was definitely a man of faith. When the Lord first appeared to him, He came with marching orders: Abraham was to leave his home and travel to a far off land, living as a stranger and foreigner. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.” From this we may get the impression that Abraham lived the easy life of faith, trusting fully and completely in God. But when we read our Old Testament lesson for today, we get the other side of the picture.

Abraham was afraid. He was a wealthy and powerful man, and even though he had obediently left his homeland to live as a stranger in the promised land, he still carried much of home with him. He still had his livestock, his servants, and all his possessions. And now he feared for those possessions. Abraham had no son to receive his inheritance. God had promised when He first called Abraham that He would make him a ‘great nation,’ but nothing seemed to be happening. And now he was afraid. He cried out to God: “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” We too fear for the stuff of this world. We fear and worry about money, about our things, especially in these troubled times we spend a ton of time thinking about our financial security. For a lot of us, the time spent fearing and worrying about the things of this world far outweigh the time spent in prayer, devotion, or bible study, showing that our priorities are often pretty similar to Abraham’s.

Now as Christians, we do want to put the best construction on everything, and so while it seems that Abraham is only concerned about the disposition of all his earthly stuff, we can guess that there was a deeper fear in the back of his mind. He knew that long ago, when man first fell into sin, God promised to provide a deliverer. The Lord declared to the treacherous serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” But now that promise had hit a roadblock. Sarah’s barren womb brought the messianic line to a screeching halt. In the back of Abraham’s mind, he must have realized what this meant. If God did not bring forth from his line the promised messiah, then man would remain in sin, separated from God. And that we should truly fear. We should fear that possibility more than the loss of all our material things in this world, for if God does not bring forth a Savior, then we are done for. All mankind is then condemned to hell, no questions asked, for our sins would still separate us from our creator. If we truly understand what it means for Sarah to have a barren womb, then we too should tremble with fear. All other fears and worries in this life pale in comparison to this situation, for if we do not have salvation from our sins, nothing in this world matters at all.

All people react to fear in different ways, but most of us, like Abraham, usually have a complaint ready for someone. At least Abraham directed his complaint to the One who could do something about his situation, his Creator: “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” Well, we tried to put the best construction on it, but it seems that Abraham, like us, is mostly concerned with his things, his property and wealth. But at least he cries out to the right person. Our world teaches us to cry out to a whole host of others when we have fear. Now, lawyers, Thrivent representatives, or bankers are not bad people to turn to, but when we turn to them alone and not to God, then we are placing our trust in the wrong place. But even if we do cry out in complaint to God, as Abraham did, we often need patience, for God works on His own timetable. And patience comes hard to one who is living in fear. Abraham once again receives the promise of God in our text, but the promise is not fulfilled immediately. Fear takes hold again and then leads to impatience, and in the following chapters Abraham and Sarah take matters into their own hands. Abraham tries to get his heir with Hagar, and while a son is born, the only result is a dysfunctional household. God will accomplish His purposes in His own time, but for sinful humans, patience is difficult, if not impossible.

Impatience leads to us trying to do things our own way, and when we try that, things usually become worse. But God’s purposes will not be thwarted, even by our own efforts to move Him along or help Him out. His great plan to deliver us from sin, death, and the power of the devil had hit a roadblock, Sarah’s barren womb. But our Lord and Creator had something to say about that situation. “After these things the Word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward will be very great.’” Do not fear? Why shouldn’t Abram fear? As we heard before Abram has plenty to fear, and all of humanity with him. But the Lord says, “I am your shield.” God has defended Abraham before, and He promises to do so now. But how will He defend us? Our enemies are death and hell, and they are powerful foes. We need deliverance, we need a Savior, and all our hopes rest on an elderly woman’s barren womb. But that barren womb will remain an important part of our salvation. “And behold, the Word of the Lord came to him: ‘This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” The Lord thunders forth His promise- Sarah will bear a son. Despite Abraham’s fears, despite his impatience, God will preserve the Messianic line. He will protect and preserve His promise.

The Seed of a woman, begun with Eve’s son Seth, would not be halted by Sarah’s barren womb, but the Lord would open that womb and bring forth Isaac. And God would provide for His people through the centuries, He would defend that seed until the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and she brought forth the Messiah. Jesus Christ, the seed of a woman, the offspring of Israel, would be the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that night. Jesus Christ came to conquer fear, He came to be a shield for His people, He came to deliver to us heavenly treasure, for He had come to reconcile us to God. Do not fear, for Abraham’s offspring is also His God and your God, come to reconcile His people to Himself. Do not fear, for Jesus Christ took on human flesh to bear your sin. Do not fear, for He gave Himself in your place to the shame of crucifixion, the Son of God in the place of those whom He loved. Do not fear, for every drop of blood that He shed there He shed for you and your salvation. Do not fear, for the One prophesied long ago crushed Satan’s head just as God said He would. Do not fear, for Christ conquered your great enemy, death, when He rose victorious from the grave. Do not fear, for your Lord will take you to be with Himself in eternal glory. Do not fear, for Jesus Christ is your shield, and He will defend you against every assault of your enemies. Death, hell, and Satan have nothing against you now. God kept His promise, and when He opened Sarah’s womb He opened up the line which would bring to you salvation.

“And [Abram] believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.” Abraham grasped onto the great promise of the Lord in faith; he believed that what God said would come true. That faith conquered fear, because it was rooted in the very promises of God. Faith is not simply something floating out there by itself. The moment we begin examining our own faith on its own merits, we are in trouble. Instead, faith has an object, it has a focus, it fixes its eyes on the promise of God and there it finds its anchor. Only when faith is centered on the promises of God can it conquer fear, doubt, and impatience. We, like Abraham, have the promise of God, the promise of Jesus Christ and His redemption, the promise that through Christ we have been reconciled to our Creator and have forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Through this promise the Holy Spirit creates faith within us, faith which grasps onto God’s Word and Jesus Christ Himself. And because we, like Abraham, grasp onto Jesus in God-given faith, what happens? “And [Abram] believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.” Because we are joined with Christ through faith, God sees us as righteous, He declares us righteous. We are right before God because of Jesus! Faith focused on Christ joins us to His death and resurrection, and it brings to us all that He won there.

St. Paul turns to our text when he writes to the Romans about this faith. “What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” We confess that it is by faith alone that we are justified, made right in God’s eyes. Any of our own efforts, any of our own attempts to help God along cannot reconcile us to our Creator, but simply push us further away. Faith alone reconciles us to God. But faith is never alone. Faith has an object, Jesus Christ Himself, His promise to deliver you from sin, death, and hell through His sacrifice, His promise to keep and preserve you despite anything you face in your life. As our Lord said in our Gospel lesson today, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

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