|On the Way to Calvary - 15th century|
When we lived in Santa Barbara, we enjoyed hiking the canyons and hills behind the city. Some pathways were smooth and well-marked, while others cut across rock strewn creek beds. There were easy paths and more difficult ones. Such is the pathway of faith. It is often difficult to traverse, but the rewards are great.
Our pathway of faith begins on the day that God invited Abraham and Sarah to pack their things and travel to a new land. God promised to make them a great nation, through whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Abraham, who was still known as Abram, was a young man of seventy-five and his wife Sarai was just a few years younger when God’s call came. Why not set out on a new journey that will lead to descendants and blessings? (Gen. 12). A few chapters later, Abram had another conversation with God. He and Sarai are now a few years older, and they still didn’t see any signs of descendants to carry on the promise. The situation was dire, since Sarai was past the age of childbearing. God tells Abram not to worry and reaffirms the covenant promise. Now Sarai was a practical woman, so she came up with an idea. She told Abram to take her servant Hagar as a surrogate on her behalf. So Abram and Hagar had a baby, and they named him Ishmael. Now, Abram and Sarai had their heir (Gen. 15-16).
When Abram was ninety-nine, and Sarai wasn’t much younger, God again appeared to Abram. God reaffirmed the covenant promises of descendants who would inhabit the land. But, this time God was more specific about how this would take place. God made it clear this time that Sarai would be the mother of nations despite the fact that she was beyond childbearing years (Gen. 17). To seal the deal, God changed their names to Abraham and Sarah and God commanded that all of the men in Abraham’s household should be circumcised to mark the covenant.
Paul picks up on this covenant promise, and extends it to the uncircumcised. In Paul’s mind, the covenant promise made to Abraham is an inclusive one. It is a promise of grace, received through faith. It’s not something we earn. It’s something given to us.
I realize that children are often told that Santa keeps a list of those who are naughty and nice. Children are then told that if they are nice, Santa will leave them gifts. If they’re naughty, well, you know. There will be coal in their stockings! It’s easy for us as Christians to fall into the same trap. We construct rules that separate the naughty from the nice. Unless you follow the rules, you will get coal in your stockings.
As we continue on with our Lenten journey, Paul reminds us that we have embarked on a pathway of faith. Our reading from Romans 4 picks up right in the middle of Paul’s discussion of faith and works. He is concerned about efforts to impose circumcision on Gentile Christians. While Paul is a Torah-observing Jew and follower of Jesus, he believes that faith in God’s grace, not circumcision, is the basis of inclusion. He uses Abraham as an example of faithfulness to the call of God. Abraham believed that God would fulfill the covenant promise, even though it ran against everything he knew to be true. Yes, he did take a few detours, but as Paul reminds us, his righteousness came by faith.
This morning we’re invited to join Abraham and Sarah on that pathway of faith. If we’re open to God’s lead, then we will become children of Abraham and Sarah. We will become children of a promise extended to us through Jesus, “who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.”
There may be a place for rules and regulations in life. If you drive down Big Beaver, you will be glad that the city has imposed a speed limit and erected stop lights. We’ve all experienced those moments when the traffic lights go out, and no one seems to know what to do. We like our rules. They make life simpler. But when it comes to God, too many rules and regulations can get in the way of the relationship.
Freedom is one of the principal messages of our Disciples tradition. One of these freedoms has to do with legalism. The brokenness that exists in our world won’t be fixed by erecting rules that fence us off from each other and from God’s grace. Paul resisted making rules and regulations the heart of the Christian faith. He resisted legalism. You know, rules like: “don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, don’t go to movies, and don’t go out with girls who do.” Back in the day, in my circles, it was okay to go to movies, but not listen to secular music. So, I gave away my Moody Blues and the Beatles’ albums, and bought Christian albums. The music sounded the same, but the words were different. That was a good thing, because as Christian rocker Larry Norman put it: “Why should the devil have all the good music?”
Although James speaks of the importance of works, I don’t think that he had record albums, movies, or even dating in mind. I believe that James was more concerned about relationships within the community than keeping rules. I think Paul would agree. In other words, Paul and James weren’t that far apart!
So what does the example of Abraham and Sarah offer us? How might they be our guides along the pathway of faith? As I read Paul, their example is rooted in the trust they put in God. They believed that God would be faithful to God’s promises.
Sometimes we equate faith with optimism. I think of myself as an optimistic person, but I know that optimism can only get you so far. When you’re nearly one hundred years old, and you haven’t had a baby, you can be optimistic, but that doesn’t mean you will have a baby. Here’s how Paul puts it: “Without losing faith, Abraham, who was nearly 100 years old, took into account his own body, which was as good as dead, and Sarah’s womb, which was dead. . . . He was fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised. Therefore, it was credited to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:19, 21 CEB).
Abraham believed God could provide him with a multitude of descendants, even though everything he knew about life told him that this was impossible. That’s not to say that his faith was perfect. He did try to fulfill the promise by taking a surrogate. He hoped that Hagar’s son, Ishmael, would fulfill the promise. But, in the Genesis story, God makes it clear that Sarah is the intended mother of nations. As theologian Ian Markham puts it: “Even if everything looks hopeless, as it did for Abraham (and we cannot see how hope will come out of this situation), we should still trust God that God will make all things happen” (Feasting on the Word, p. 66).
The pathway of faith is rooted in the faithfulness of God. God made a covenant promise, and God fulfilled the promise. Sarah had a baby and they named him Isaac. In writing this word to the Roman Church, Paul makes it clear that both Jew and Gentile are Abraham’s descendants. While the Jews can claim biological descent from Abraham, Gentiles have been grafted into this vine through Christ.
It’s easy to lose hope, when optimism fades. We lose hope when we walk by sight, resting our futures on our own devices. But faith invites us to move beyond optimism, and enter a journey that rests in the promises of God. When we walk by faith, this will be reckoned by God as righteousness.
Sometimes the challenges of life seem overwhelming. They’re too big for us to conceive of a solution. But, even when the challenges seem too big too overcome there is still hope. As I was thinking about the challenges we face in our world, I thought about our partnership with Rippling Hope Ministries, through which we see hope rippling out into the community, bringing blessings to the lives of people who need a bit of hope. If you’ve participated in this ministry, you’ve seen hope come alive in people. Rippling Hope is a small nonprofit ministry that has brought joy and blessing to the lives of hundreds of people living in Detroit. It has strengthened the community through its work with block clubs. I have seen the joy on the faces of residents who saw their porches transformed by some paint. Yes, a newly painted porch can be a source of joy and blessing. This joy comes as we take this pathway of faith, trusting God with our lives, knowing that blessings will come through faith in the God who is gracious and loving and present with us.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
February 25, 2018