Seward United Methodist Church
Monday, December 10, 2018
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Promise, Faith, and Grace

Genesis 12:1-4 and Romans 4:1-5 and 13-17

 The last 39 chapters of Genesis tell us the stories of the Patriarchs, that would be Abraham and his descendants for the next four generations.  Supposedly, these are the first great heroes of the Bible.  But if you read the book of Genesis, you might start to wonder about these folks.  Why did God choose this bunch of clowns?  

 First, we have Abraham.  All things considered, Abraham is not a bad character.  There are a couple episodes, first with Pharaoh and second with Abimelech, the king of Gerar, where Abraham passes his wife Sarah off as sister, allegedly because she is so beautiful that he’s afraid someone will kill him to have her.  That’s a little strange.

 Then we have Abraham’s nephew, Lot.  The less we say about Lot and his daughters, the better.  It’s a family show here.

 Then there is Isaac.  He actually doesn’t get a whole lot of press time, but he did learn that whole passing your wife off as your sister thing from father Abraham.

 And then we come to Jacob and Esau, and by now the train has really come off the tracks.  Esau is a fool who doesn’t recognize the value of anything.  And Jacob thinks nothing of tricking his dumb brother out of his inheritance.  Then he goes on to deceive his father and his uncle.  Not exactly a model citizen.

 Jacob marries two sisters, Leah and Rachel, who don’t get along with each other.  Rachel steals her father’s idols while running back to Canaan, supposedly to serve the one true God.

 And then there are Jacob’s 12 sons.  Joseph is a bright spot.  But the rest of them are real clowns.  Judah conceives children with his daughter-in-law, excusing it by saying, “I thought she was a prostitute!”  Well, that makes it all better!  Simeon and Levi massacre an entire village of defenseless people.  And of course all of them sell their brother Joseph into slavery.  

 These don’t seem like the kind of people we should emulate, and we shouldn’t.  So why do we regard them as “patriarchs of faith?”  The answer is because they believed God and took him at his word.  They trusted in God’s promises, even if they didn’t always behave.  

In Genesis 12, God tells Abraham, “Leave your country, your family, and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.”   We might not think much of that.  We live in a highly mobile and disconnected society.  We don’t think much of moving.  It doesn’t bother us as much to leave the place of our birth.  We’re not strangers to living an hour or six hours or 20 hours away from our family.  But things were different in Abraham’s culture.

In Abraham’s culture, for him to leave his family and the land of his clan was to leave his identity and his security.  Abraham had no children.  If he moved away from his extended family, then he would have no one to provide for him in his old age.  No one would bury him or honor his memory after he was dead.  In his culture, life centered around family, land, and inheritance.  He was leaving them all behind.

But he trusted God and believed God’s promise.  We talked last Sunday about the nature of sin.  We said sin is basically distrust of God that leads to a disobedience of his word.  Abraham trusted God and obeyed.  Even though he didn’t know where the Promised Land was, how God would give it to him, how his legacy would continue, Abraham took the first step by faith.

I would say that if there is a common problem in the church today, it is that we don’t really trust God.  We aren’t willing to step out in faith without knowing where we are going.  We want to see the end of the journey before we take the first step.  And often, all we are told to do is take the first step.  We have to take that first step sometimes before God will tell us what the second step is.  

Abraham trusts and obeys, and in doing so, he becomes the father of all who believe, as Paul describes him in Romans 4.  

In the first half of Romans, Paul is building up the argument that a person is saved by God’s grace which is received through faith in God’s promise.  But that runs contrary to the common view of his fellow Jews who said that a person is saved through rigorous obedience to God’s written Law, and also to the oral traditions of God’s people built up around that Law.  

Abraham was very important in Hebrew tradition. He was the model.  They didn’t call themselves “the children of Abraham” for nothing.  Abraham was the model proselyte, the model convert.  When we first meet him, he is an uncircumcised pagan

living among an uncircumcised pagan people.  But he follows God and is circumcised, and that circumcision thing was very important in Hebrew tradition.

They also said Abraham was the model of obedience to God’s Law.  That’s not something we’re going to find in the book of Genesis, but there were extensive Hebrew traditions about the righteousness of Abraham.  

Now you might think to yourself, “Wait a minute, didn’t Abraham live like five centuries BEFORE the Law was given at Mt. Sinai?”  Yes, that is a sticking point, isn’t it?  But they had an answer.  They said Abraham obeyed the Law instinctively.  He didn’t have to hear it to know it; he was so righteous he just knew it and obeyed it by instinct.  Of course, there is nothing in the Old Testament to corroborate that, but that was the Hebrew tradition.

Paul points out the error of this way of thinking.  Was Abraham really accepted by God because of his obedience and good behavior?  No, Genesis 15:6 says, “He believed God, and God declared him to be righteous.”  Sometimes that is translated as “God credited it to him as righteousness.”  “Credited” is a term of accounting.  In Abraham’s ledger, his faith was counted as his righteousness.  And this is based entirely on God’s grace, not on Abraham’s worthiness.

The proof, according to Paul, is that Abraham was declared righteous in Genesis 15, but he was not circumcised until Genesis 17, about 14 years later.  That circumcision, that outward sign, was so important to the Hebrew people.  But it didn’t even happen until years later.  It was not the reason Abraham was declared righteous.  It was an outward sign of the inward change that had already happened because of God’s grace.  

This argument was significant in the Hebrew mind because of their great respect for antiquity.  The older something was, the better it was.  It’s quite the opposite in our culture, for the most part.  For us, newer is usually better.  But for them, if you could show something was old, it was respected.  In this case, Paul is showing that Abraham’s faith was older than his circumcision.  God declared him righteous through faith first.  Therefore, the way of faith is older than the way of Law-keeping.  And therefore, faith is the one true way that people have always come into relationship with God.

Abraham is the spiritual father of all who believe.  Genesis 17:5 said, “I have made you the father of many nations.”  We are also children of Abraham.  Not through genetics, but through a common spiritual heritage.  We are the children of Abraham

through faith.  The family of God is a family of forgiven sinners, declared to be righteous through their trust in God’s promise.  

We can’t come to God through keeping the Law.  The Law can diagnose the disease, but it can’t provide the cure.  It can tell us that we are sinners, but it can’t set us free from sin.  Once we have the Law, we become aware of our transgressions.  And when we know our transgressions, we know we are subject to God’s holy wrath against our sins.  

But if we have faith and trust in God’s promise, then we receive God’s grace.  In verse 13, Paul speaks of God’s promise.  In the Greek language, there were two different words for promise.  One type of promise was conditional, “I will do this, if you will do that.”  The other was unconditional, “I will do this no matter what.”  That’s the word used here, EPANGELIA, in Greek.  God’s promise is unconditional.  

Faith is an enduring trust in and dependence on God’s promise.  We must beware of any kind of thinking that says, “To be saved, you need to have faith and ___________.”  

Does this mean that our goodness, our efforts to do the right thing are meaningless?  No.  They are certainly meaningful.  But we can’t come to God through them.  Rather, they are an expression of our gratitude for what God has already done for us.  We don’t do them to earn God’s favor, but to express our gratitude for God’s favor.

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