Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 – Abram believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Righteousness by faith.

Psalm 27 – The Lord is my light and my salvation. He will hide me in his tent and set me upon a high rock.

Philippians 3:17-4:1 – I press on toward the goal: the heavenly call of God in Christ. Enemies of the cross: their god is the belly. Their end is destruction.

Luke 13:31-35 – Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how I have longed to gather you as a mother hen gathers her young under her wings. 

Lent at-a-glance

  • February 10 – Ash Wednesday: Dust. Ashes. Mortality. Repentance. Fasting. Don’t show off your piety.
  • February 14 – Lent 1C: First fruits for the Levite and alien. Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness.
  • February 21 – Lent 2C: Abram’s call. Faith reckoned as righteousness. Jesus laments for Jerusalem.
  • February 28 – Lent 3C: Repent, for there is only so much time left for the fig tree to bear fruit.
  • March 6 – Lent 4C: Lost sheep. Lost sons.
  • March 13 – Lent 5C: I am about to do a new thing… Mary anoints Jesus’ feet.
  • March 20 – Palm/Passion Sunday: Jesus entry into Jerusalem as an anti-triumph.

Righteousness, I Reckon

Last week I suggested one of two Lenten series. The first was a hunger theme, as we are focusing this year on the ELCA World Hunger appeal. A second was on the story of the Prodigal Son, which only appears in a Lukan year, and it only appears Lent 4C (March 6, 2016). I suggested using Timothy Keller’s excellent book, The Prodigal God, as a guide (book and study guide). It’s not too late, if you’re scrambling.

I’ve been taking a look at the first lessons for Lent, which come from the Hebrew Bible. This Sunday’s lesson, from Genesis 15 is one of my favorites. It is also the text that Paul uses in Romans and Galatians, to show that righteousness by faith (not by the law) was God’s plan all along (Romans 4:3, 4:22, Galatians 3:6).

First of all, I must admit, I am perplexed by the verse selection here. Ending at verse 18 has us ending mid-sentence. This makes no sense to me whatsoever. If you’re going to go that far, go to the end of the chapter, verse 21, and finish the thought. I would, however, submit to you, that all you really need is verses 1-6. Verse seven takes you into new territory: the sacrificial system. This is well worth sermon time, but would probably be a different sermon than verses 1-6, on which I will now focus.

Paul’s interpretation of the Hebrew Bible is almost always allegorical. Isaiah and Ishmael, Sarah and Hagar, are all symbolic of law and gospel issues. Luther, like Paul, always seems to interpret the Hebrew Bible christologically. As followers of Christ, we must also consider this understanding of the text, but first let us try to see it in its original context.

Here is the text, well, the first six verses anyway:

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Abram has been in battle. Appropriately, this word from the Lord includes a phrase we often find coming from divine messengers in the Bible, “Do not be afraid.” Abram responds, “Well, that’s fine, but what good is that if I die childless, and my family line comes to an end?” Currenly, his heir is a servant.

God responds that Abram’s heir will come from his own loins. Sara Koenig, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Seattle Pacific University, points out that it will be another 14 years before God makes good on this promise. In the meantime, Abram has to live on trust. Have you ever had to base your life on an illusive hope that may not pan out at all? Sometimes we are called to place our bets on promises that are hard to believe. That is called faith.

YHWH adds a very concrete part to this promise, one that is both imaginative and poetic: “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… So shall your descendants be.” I imagine that would be a pretty hard promise to believe, if one was childless.

Sara Koenig invites us to contemplate whether Abram considered God righteous because of the promise or whether God considered Abram righteous for believing it. The subject and object are not clear in the original Hebrew: “he reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Who reckoned it to whom? Well, Paul, as we shall see, has a very clear opinion about this.

Ralph W. Klein, Christ Seminary-Seminex Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, points out that verses 7-12 show that Abram is still having trouble believing the promise. And yet, Abram accepts God’s word on the matter. That is what makes this passage interesting, and it also leads us to the apostle Paul’s interpretation.

In dealing with the followers of Christ in Rome and Galatia (modern day Turkey), the apostle is battling a creeping theology, that their righteousness comes through dietary practices, ritual acts, and moral choices. Paul is no stranger to this theology, having been trained as a Pharisee. We are also no strangers to this theology. Here in the Texas and Louisiana we are surrounded by sermons telling us to be good, and a theology that teaches works-righteousness. You must be good enough for God. Paul categorically rejects this theology.

Those who push this theology in Rome and Galatia trot out the Old Testament law. They lift up the Law of Moses as the example. This is the standard. Those who do not adhere to these laws are not righteous. Today some would say they are not Christian. Paul is smart enough to know that the law contains some unattainable and even unreasonable elements. He has seen how rigid adherence to the law can actually foster self-righteousness that drives us away from God. “For the law brings wrath…” (Romans 15:15) His training has helped him realize that the Law will not get us where we need to go.

Reaching back into Genesis, Paul shows the Romans and Galatians that God declared Abram righteous, not because of the Law of Moses, which would not be given for another 500 years, but rather because of faith, which is trusting God’s promises. Abram trusted God. This is the only path to true righteousness.

Paul writes in Romans (4:20-25)

No distrust made [Abram] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith* ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

In fact, Abram is declared righteous before he is circumcised. Circumcision, dietary laws, ritual purity, and other things do not a righteous person make. One can strive to keep the letter of the law and still be far from God. “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse…” (Galatians 3:10) Christ became a curse for us, Paul goes on to say, by hanging on a tree.

Before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded by the law. The law was our babysitter, our disciplinarian. “But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” (Galatians 3:25-26)

I would guess most Christians in the U.S. have never studied these words. Their idea of Christianity has come from the culture and sermons heard at sporadically attended worship services. Don’t underestimate the biblical illiteracy of your congregation. Preach this stuff. Bring it into a Bible study. It is vitally important for those who still think of Christianity like any other religion: a system of do’s and don’t’s.

Righteousness does not emerge from dogged adherence to laws, but rather from being in a loving relationship with God. Christ is our pathway to this. This provides the preacher a fanatastic opportunity to invite people into a faith-filled and loving relationship with the God who stands at the door and knocks.

I’ll leave you with Count the Stars, a thoughtful poem by Michael Coffey, a pastor in Austin, Texas:

Count the Stars

Abraham’s countless stars hover over our troubled heads
Sarah’s sky lights enlighten our skittish steps
our ancestors fill the night sky with testimony
this is not all there is, there is more to come
more than the terra and the ocean
the sky painter who flicks your future on midnight canvas
is making space for your story and song
making and guarding promises still unspoken
opening wormholes to times and places
unreachable by your linear, downward searching mind
so let that muscle in your forehead go and feel your brow drop
and your heart slow and your brain relax and the flow flowing
and rocket on through fear until faith is your Milky Way