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.
Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.
– Joel 2
March 2 – Ash Wednesday: Dust. Ashes. Mortality. Repentance. Fasting. Don’t show off your piety.
March 6 – Lent 1C: First fruits for the Levite and alien. Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness.
March 13 – Lent 2C: Abram’s call. Faith reckoned as righteousness. Jesus laments for Jerusalem.
March 20 – Lent 3C: Repent, for there is only so much time left for the fig tree to bear fruit.
March 27 – Lent 4C: Lost sheep. Lost sons.
April 3 – Lent 5C: I am about to do a new thing… Mary anoints Jesus’ feet.
April 10 – Palm/Passion Sunday: Jesus entry into Jerusalem as an anti-triumph.
The Prodigal God
For those reading Timothy Keller’s book The Prodigal God: recovering the heart of the Christian Faith, study guide, DVD:
Lent 1 – Chapter 1: The People Around Jesus
Lent 2 – Chapter 2: The Two Lost Sons
Lent 3 – Chapter 3: Redefining Sin
Lent 4 – Chapter 4: Redefining Lostness
Lent 5 – Chapter 5: The True Elder Brother
Palm Sunday – Chapters 6 and 7: Redefining Hope, The Feast of the Father
Genesis 15: Righteousness, I Reckon
This Sunday’s first lesson, from Genesis 15 is one of my favorites. It is also the text that Paul uses in Romans and Galatians to support his view 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 stopping mid-sentence. If the framers of the lectionary are going to bring us this far, why not complete the end of the chapter, verse 21, and finish the thought? The point, however, is made in 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.
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, frequently interprets the Hebrew Bible Christologically. As followers of Christ, we must also consider the Christological understanding of the text, but first let us try to see it in its original context.
Here are the first six verses of the text:
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?” Currently, 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. So for the next fourteen years, Abram has to live on trust. Have you ever had to base your life on a wisp hope that may not pan out at all? Sometimes we are called to place our bets on promises that are hard to believe.
The Most High 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.
[Incidentally, scientists estimate there are about 100 billion stars in our galaxy. Hubble estimates there are 100 billion galaxies. The number is incomprehensible. There are, however, only about 5,000 stars open to the naked eye. Nevertheless, counting them would be a task, and even a thousand descendants would be a miraculous outcome.]
Sara Koenig invites us to consider whether Abram considered God righteous because of the promise, or whether God considered Abram righteous for believing it. She suggests that the text is ambiguous. He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Who reckoned righteousness to whom? Could it be that Abram reckoned YHWH as a righteous God? The subject and object are not clear in the original Hebrew. Well, Paul, as we shall see, has a very clear opinion about this.
Ralph W. Klein, may he rest in peace, Christ Seminary-Seminex professor emeritus of Old Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, pointed 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. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief…”
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. He is teaching good Jewish theology, which recognizes salvation as a gift of a gracious and forgiving God, not something we earn. Here in the Texas and Louisiana we are surrounded by sermons telling us to be good — a theology of works-righteousness. Our holiness is tied to our ability to be perfect. You must be good enough for God. Paul categorically rejects this theology.
Those who push this theology in Rome and Galatia are proof texting their perspective in the Torah. Those who do not adhere to these laws are not righteous. They want even non-Jewish followers to practice these finer points of the law. Paul has no objection to Jewish Christians practicing Jewish law. He indicates that he himself does so. He is simply opposed to them being imposed on Gentile Christians. He has seen how rigid adherence to the law can actually foster a kind of 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 Abraham’s faith in God’s promise. Faith is not believing facts about God, the Bible or doctrine. It is trusting God’s promises. Abram trusted God. This is the only path to true righteousness.
Paul writes in Romans (15:20-15):
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 even before he is circumcised. 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 of our people, most Christians in the U.S. in fact, 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 the community or even the congregation. Preach this stuff. Bring it into a Bible study. It is vitally important for those who still think of Christianity as 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 fantastic opportunity to invite people into a faith-filled and loving relationship with the God who stands at the door and knocks.
Count the Stars is 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
Luke 13:31-15: Fox in the Hen House.
Or Hen in the Fox House?
Jesus cries over Jerusalem.
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
There is a lot in this little paragraph appointed for the second Sunday in Lent, year three. It has no parallel in the other gospels.
Jesus, unlike Herod the fox who scatters, Jesus wishes to gather like a mother hen. Who are the gatherers today? Who are the scatterers? Are we going to be gatherers or scatters, mother hens or predatory foxes?
The Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod is on the prowl. Jesus and the Pharisees have a common enemy. Herod, a brutal earthly ruler, wants Jesus dead. Dictators will maintain power at all costs.
Jesus calls Herod a fox. Foxes had a negative connotation in the Hebrew Bible as deceptive and cunning. Ezekiel 13:4 says, “Like foxes among ruins are your prophets, Israel!” (NAB*). The sense of the text is a critique of the prophets of Ezekiel’s day, who are like scavengers, preying on death and decay.
Likewise, Song of Solomon (2:15) ruminates poetically, if not positively…
Catch us the foxes,
the little foxes,
that ruin the vineyards—
for our vineyards are in blossom.
Foxes ruin the vineyard. Herod is ruining the vineyard. Brutal leaders can ruin a family, a congregation, a community, or a nation. Be careful if you start poking the bear. There may be a cross waiting for you. Just ask MLK.
Jesus stubbornly says, “tell that fox I’m going to stick around for several days caring for the sick and demon possessed.” Then, pondering his city’s violent nature, he mourns at how he has yearned to gather Jerusalem like a hen gathers and protects her young. From what? A fox of course. But the would not come together. So, “Your house is left to you.” We reap what we sow.
Then: You will not see me again until the day you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” That day, for us, is Palm Sunday, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We will read about it in the Processional Gospel, Luke 19:28-40. And then Jesus will once again weep over Jerusalem, though we will stop one verse short of this on Palm Sunday:
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
There are a number of potential themes here. How might our people hear this text in light of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine? Do we know the way to peace?
David Lose points out Jesus’ courage in the face of danger. Others point out Jesus calling out the powers. Some notice Jesus willingness to be vulnerable in conflict. His concern for the city is evident. David Lyle Jeffrey calls it “Lament for a Nation.”
Who are the foxes of our world today, immoral power brokers who cost lives to maintain their grasp on power? For what do you weep?
* The NRSV translates כְּשֻׁעָלִ֖ים as “jackal” in this passage, while the NAB translates it fox. In other places the NRSV translates כְּשֻׁעָלִ֖ים as fox, such as in Judges 15:4, when Samson catches 300 foxes and ties torches to their tails. As with many Hebrew words, the original meaning is unclear, and with the word economy of biblical Hebrew (only 800 words), it may refer to any number of animals. In any case, all wolf-like canines such as African wild dog, jackals, coyotes and domestic dogs form a single lineage. Though wolves/jackals are a different genus, they evolved from a single common ancestor: the fox.