A sermon about why Abraham is a legend for God’s people and how the legend God gives Israel makes it set apart from the nations around it. Romans 4:1-17. Preached at Good Shepherd and St Matthias in the North Peace, Lent II, 2023.
I lift my eyes unto the hills, where does my help come from? Psalm 121:1 It does not come from the hills – Jim Lyster+
We live in an age of cult heroes. From the hundreds of millions who flock to the newest Marvel flick decked out in iconographic gear, to the proliferation of Chez Guevara hats, to the ubiquitous use of MLK Jr quotes it’s clear some camps have their our own cultural heroes in this moment. Every civilization and tribe does.
I first read Genesis seriously, thoroughly, as part of a secular course at a secular university. We had seen many of heroes already and the values they inculcated in the cities they came from. We had seen Prometheus’s willfulness, Odysseus’s ingenuity, strength and eventual ability to unite that with a love of home. We had read Socrates’s critical questioning and reason; we had read of Gilgamesh and of Thebes. All kinds of excellence, strength, virtue and shrewdness.
What has this to do with Jerusalem? Only contrast. We read in our Romans passage today about the patriarch, the father in faith, Abraham. Abraham is not especially clever or shrewd, when he tries to deceive Pharaoh it backfires(Genesis 12). He has some military successes but these he recognizes are of God and not of him(Genesis 14). What Abraham has is faith.
What makes Abraham a hero for Israel is that he comes, in spite of his weakness and cowardice and unbelief, to have faith. Where other nations take pride in their heroes power, or sexual prowess, or hunting feats, or defiance of the gods, or creativity, or deeds God would have his people prize instead of excellence, faith. It is so great a thing, so great a gift, to be given a heart that can trust God.
Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3 Abraham believed God; it was credited it to him as righteousness.
Paul is writing an introductory letter to the Christians in Rome. Usually Paul’s letters can be disjointed as he moves from topic to topic in a pastoral letter based on the community he is writing to. But this letter has a flow and a logic to it in that its an introductory letter and he is laying down their shared faith in whole that they may encourage one another. So these comments on Abraham are part of a bigger argument he is building about what God is doing in his own time giving faith, pouring it out graciously among the nations that the hope of Abraham may be a blessing to all nations.
Paul’s point here is that Genesis does not say that Abraham was paid righteousness as a reward for faith. That’s not what’s happening here. That would still be works-righteousness, that we could do anything to earn our salvation. We cannot. We are dead in our sins. Dead men walking who can do nothing with regards to our eternity. Abraham does not work faith and thus earn the reward of salvation. Rather Abraham is given faith, it is a gift that God gives and works in him that he might hope in the promise God is giving him. For God promises to make Abraham a great nation, and to be the God of his people, and to make his people his own, that every family in the world might be blessed through Abraham’s family.
So what makes Abraham a hero is not Abraham. What makes Abraham a hero is God, who elects him, who chooses him, and gives him a heart that through struggle and bumbling and confusion trusts God in spite of himself. God drags Abraham into a promise to rescue humans like us from bondage and darkness.
Now sometimes you will see people say “but Jesus was really a Jew right?” And Jesus was a Jew, the fulfillment of the law, a descendant of Abraham. But if this point is being made in cheekiness you can and should reply “Just as Abraham was a Christian”. For even in his time he looked to the forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God made possible in Jesus. A righteousness not his own, the righteousness of Jesus was credited to him. He looked for forward in faith as we now reflect back in memory of him.
May God give us this faith, May God give us this righteousness, that we may be his people, and he may be our God.
I lift my eyes unto the hills, where does my help come from? Psalm 121:1 It does not come from the hills
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