Most of us already know the story of Sarah and Abraham. But let’s do the 30 second recap. From the very moment we meet Sarai and Abram, Sarai is unable to conceive and Abram is being promised a huge family, but God has asked them to embark on a journey. You’ll recall that Sarai was quite beautiful, so when famine devastates their land and they must look for food elsewhere, Abram tells everyone that Sarai is his sister, so that the foreigners will not kill him to have her. God doesn’t like that Abram has done this, but God nonetheless reiterates the promise that Abram will be the father of many nations.
When Abraham’s nephew Lot was taken prisoner during a war among kingdoms, Abram rounded up his whole family to storm the captors and bring back not only Lot, but the other prisoners too and much of the looted goods. (And then, being a just and righteous man, he returned all the goods to their rightful owners.)And after he completed this heroic rescue, God promised Abram a third time (Ch15) that he would have as many descendants as there were stars. And that these descendants would be given all of the surrounding lands.
Abram didn’t get how this promise was gonna work, but he nonetheless believed it would come to be. Now, Sarai hadn’t yet heard about God’s promise of children. So she suggests that if she’s not bearing any children, then at least Abram can have children by marrying her servant Hagar. As you’ll recall, Sarai pretty instantly regrets granting permission for such an arrangement, but she copes as best she can. Thus Ishmael is born.
THIRTEEN long years later, God speaks to Abram again, saying for the fourth time, “I will make you the ancestor of nations.” Ok, now here’s where it gets REALLY interesting. God promises Abram that he will be the father of nations, but he changes Abram’s name to Abraham AND he says that Abraham must hold up the covenant by circumcising all males in his household and all males to come. Sarai is now called Sarah and will have a baby in less than a year’s time. And then, with miraculously little to-do about it, both 99-year-old Abraham and his thirteen-year-old son Ishmael were circumcised.
It is at this moment in Sarah and Abraham’s long marriage that the promise is at last brought to fruition. So if you were to ask me what I thought the big message of the story was… I would say “Circumcision.”
You probably didn’t expect me to talk about circumcision. But stick with me. Here’s my reasoning… God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of nations three times already. The promises began when Abraham was 75 and they had kept coming for 25 years. Unfulfilled. Abram thought he had fulfilled God’s promise FOR God by having Ishmael, but no, God’s promise remained just that. Until, the fourth time, God tells Abraham that he has to DO something. He has to circumcise himself, his son, and all male members of his household. From now until forever. AH HA! Ah Ha, I say! Doing what God tells you to do, taking serious (if unexpected) action, that’s what makes things happen.
Once a law had been handed down from on high, once there were expectations and commitments that Abraham could fulfill like a dutiful and obedient servant, THEN the promise became reality.
It seems rather obvious, doesn’t it? DO this, ACT in this way, UPHOLD this commandment, and the promise will be yours.
So imagine my shock and dismay when Paul, here in Romans 4, says “for the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”
Faith? No, Abraham was given a law, he followed it, and he got the promise! I would have sworn the promise came through the law. The law that separates the good little Disciples from the heathens.
We social justice types are law people. We don’t usually describe ourselves that way, but we are. At least the way Paul seems to mean it here. We listen for God’s instructions and then we make it happen. What’s that you say, God? You want me to feed your sheep? Alrighty, I’m on it. You want me to organize a letter-writing campaign to pass S-CHIP? You got it. You want my denomination to write condemnatory statements about U.S. foreign policy in Iraq? Disinvest our institutional capital from companies that contribute to Palestinian oppression? Institute a composting program across the university? Here am I Lord- At your service.
We tend to hear everything as an instruction. As a commandment. And we’re in good company. Abraham and Sarah did the same thing. God promised Abram that he would be the ancestor of a great nation, so Abram took a second wife. He brought Ishmael into the world to be son, to make the promise possible. We’re not alone. Abram, too, it seems, got confused about the difference between a promise and a commandment.
So why should the promise come through faith?
Paul answers, “For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham.”
We’re faithful, darn it! We want to scream back at Paul, WE share the faith of Abraham, just look at all the faithful stuff we’ve done!
But Paul is speaking a word to us that we need to hear.
We, in this room, are probably not the ones who need to be told to get off our lazy bums and do something. We are not the ones who need to be told that discipleship requires hard work and sleepless nights. No, not us. We know darn well that bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth will require our blood, sweat and tears. We are SO ready to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty. We are seasoned veterans (or at least eager volunteers) when it comes to feeding the hungry and tending the sick. Getting stuff done is our specialty, so you can bet that its not what Paul wants to talk to us about.
Paul wants to talk to us, the doers, the activists, the organizers, about faith. About hope beyond hope. Not hope in our legislators, not hope in our favorite non-profit, not hope in our own ability to get things done. But Hope beyond hope, hope that is entirely out of our hands, hope in the God in whom Abraham believed, the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
Have you heard the story of Elwin Wilson? Wilson is a 72-year-old man from Rock Hill, South Carolina. In 1961, John Lewis, now a Congressional Representative from Georgia, got off a bus in Rock Hill and tried to enter a “white only” waiting room. Wilson grabbed Lewis and beat him up. It was not the first time Wilson had engaged in racial violence. In his late teens and early twenties, Wilson remembers making a sport of beating up blacks. He and his friends would drive around town at night, throwing cantaloupes at blacks who were walking alone, or sometimes taking turns beating them while the rest of the group looked on. His views changed slowly as he served with blacks in the military, but he retained some prejudices. When a black family moved into his neighborhood, he hanged a black doll from a tree in his yard.
But now, something has changed within Wilson. As he tells it, a friend asked him “If you died right now, do you know where you’d go?” And he answered, “Yes, Hell.” He decided then that he had to do something, had to make right with some of the people he had hurt. Last month, he read an article in the local newspaper about a group of black students at a local black college who had been attacked by an angry white mob. Wilson remembered being a part of the angry white mob and feeling proud of it at the time. That’s when he finally set about making things right. He apologized to a group of those students and then made a phone call to Rep. Lewis. Rep. Lewis agreed to meet with Wilson, and accepted Wilson’s apology.
The fact of the matter is… we could organize prayer vigils for racial reconciliation, we could demand that the courts prosecute Elwin Wilson for his actions, we could write entire books about racial reconciliation. But there was nothing we could do to make Elwin Wilson apologize to the blacks he had hurt. This transformation was out of our hands, beyond our control. Only God can give life where there is death. Only God can bring existence to that which does not exist. Only God can change Elwin Wilson’s heart.
The progressive church has instituted a LAW of social justice and activism and we keep hoping that obeying the law will earn us the promise. But the promise cannot be earned. It can only come through grace, even to the most hard-working of progressive activists, even to the most hard-hearted of racists. It can only come through grace.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten this far in life by believing that if I work hard enough, I can solve whatever problem I face. And the great commitment, the discipline and dedication that is housed in this one room is truly astounding.
But to those of us who are doers by instinct, this word that Paul brings in Romans is a harsh word. He says that the promise came to Abraham not because Abraham got things done when he was supposed to, not because Abraham handled his business, not because Abraham called his house into battle to restore justice for his nephew Lot and the other prisoners of war, not because he was so obedient and self-sacrificing that he circumcised himself, not because he was so obedient that he nearly sacrificed his own son on an altar, No! The promise came to Abraham because he Hoped against hope! Because he believed the crazy promise that he would be a father to nations! Because he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what was promised.
The sin of our generation, if I may be so bold, is this: We believe that the future is in OUR hands. We believe that it is up to US. We are so convinced by our own capabilities, that we are not interested in getting any help. We are so convinced of the utter indisputable reality of this world that we are unable to fathom anything beyond what we ourselves could make of it. We sin because we lack FAITH.
Some things indeed are out of our hands. But, like Abraham, if we pause now and again we will remember that we have faith in a God who can do all things. In a God who can melt the hardest of hearts, in a God who can give life where there is death.
And so in this time of Lent, we set aside our confidence in our own discipline and skill. We place our hope not in ourselves, nor in our national leaders, but in the God who promises life beyond death.