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March 19, 2000

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from the Revised Common Lectionary

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:23-31
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38 or
Mark 9:2-9

[ Read the texts at the Vanderbilt Divinity On-Line Library ]
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Promises, Promises

It could have been one of the most wonderful days of my life!

Who wouldn't be absolutely overcome with joy to hear that they were going to receive 21 million dollars?

But there it was in my mail.  An large envelope marked, "URGENT MAIL - Open Immediately!"  Text on the envelope read:

"Our records indicate that you, [John P. Jewell Jr.,] are scheduled to win the Publisher's Clearing House $21,000,000.00 SuperPrize in just a few short weeks --- should you have and return the winning entry from this bulletin."

Inside the envelope, in bold letters was the message:

"You are the only one who can win $21,000,000.00 with this SuperPrize Number 37 1626 8372 18..."

Promises, Promises!  It is easy to understand how people can be fooled by these mailings.  The news program 20/20 did a report on people who were vulnerable to these deceptive ads.  It is hard to forget the teary eyed faces of a poor elderly couple who had prepared themselves and their home for the arrival of the Prize Team -- which never showed up.

What's that familiar saying?   "If it sounds too good to be true, [it probably is.]  One of the plagues of our time -- perhaps of all time -- is fantastic promises that lead to false hope and certain disappointment.  As a matter of fact, the greater the promise, the greater the chance of the promise failing.

One of the key issues in dealing with promises is to know the person or company that is making the promise.  Some years ago, my parents were swindled by what was supposed to be a roofing company.   They came through town offering to repair and replace people's roofs at very low prices.  They took down payments, left copies of their "Absolute Guarantee" and never showed up again.  Mom still has that guarantee.  She calls it her "I've learned my lesson," diploma.

Another important consideration in evaluating promises has to do with the ability of the person making the promise to keep the promise.  My five year old daughter wanted to use our good china for a tea party she was having for her dolls and stuffed animals.  "The china isn't for playing," she was told, "It would break."

Have you ever heard a five year old make a promise.  "Pleeez," she begged, "I promise I won't break it."  I told her I knew she wouldn't mean to break it, but that it would be too easy to have an accident.  Now she went into "high gear" with her promising.  "Pleeez daddy...  I pr-ahhh-mise I won't break it or I will buy you some new dishes!"

She didn't get to play with the china.   Now don't get me wrong...  I love my daughter and trust her and believe she meant with all her heart that she would replace any china that got broken.  But -- she doesn't have the ability to keep that promise.

All of us have had times when we did not keep some promise or other. Sometimes we are not able to keep a promise -- at other times it is simply our "promise breaking" human nature that does the promise in.

The twin issues in evaluating promises are character and ability.


Today's reading from the Hebrew scriptures records a promise that is more unthinkable than the "Urgent Mail" I received with the 21 million dollar promise.

Consider this and remember that Abraham is, at the time ninety-nine years old and childless.  His wife Sarah is ninety years old and childless. Here's the promise Abraham receives:

"When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, 'I am God Almighty...    you shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations...  As for Sarah your wife... I will give you a son by her..." 

This remarkable, unthinkable -- indeed, impossible promise lies at the heart of our Judeo-Christian heritage.  It is the foundation from which faith is defined.

The character of God is the focus of the first verse of our text from Genesis.  "I am God Almighty..." God says to Abraham.  The One who appears to Abraham is "El Shaddai" -- commonly translated as God Almighty, but in its roots gives the sense of "God of the Mountains," or "God, the Mountain One".  The idea communicates the power and invincibility of God.  God can "make nations" and form an "everlasting covenant."  In the psalm, God is ruler "over the nations."

The name change from Abram to Abraham means "father of nations."  The sovereignty and power of God is underscored as Abraham's very name points to the promise of God.  Abraham is able to trust the promise because it is a  promise made by the God who is Almighty.

The ability of God to keep the promises made is highlighted in Abraham's name change.  "No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations."

When God speaks, the deed is accomplished in fact -- even though the deed awaits actualization in time.  This is a central issue in our faith.  When God speaks, it is as good as done.  When God says, "Let there be light," there is light.  When God says Abraham is the ancestor of a "multitude of nations," the nations are born in fact even though they will be delivered in time.

Herein lies the foundation of Abraham's faith.  The promises of God are the deeds of God.   Abraham will have a child.  When God made the promise, it was, as they say, a "done deal."

The remainder of Abraham's story in Genesis is a wonderful account of how the promise is sure, but Abraham's faith all too human.  Through the twists and turns of a hectic life, Abraham and Sarah encounter lots of roadblocks, but never a defeat of the promise.  They take matters into their own hands, despair of ever seeing a child -- but finally, the promise is secured and Abraham worships the One who can make and keep seemingly impossible promises.

The biblical drama is a long documentation of how God is faithful, humanity is fickle and faith always leads to fulfillment.

Faith is defined for Abraham by his relationship to the promise God makes.  Here's a working definition of faith:

Faith is believing in God's ability to keep a promise!

Paul expands on this concept in our text from Romans.  Listen to this once more from verses 20 and 21:  "....   {Abraham} grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised."

Faith for Abraham was living in light of God's promises. No matter what the outward circumstances were, Abraham trusted the larger picture God had given in the promise of nations yet to come.


Here's where all of this becomes important for you and me.  Paul makes the point that Abraham's trust in God's promises was "reckoned" to him as "righteousness."   In other words, Abraham's faith in God made him right with God.   Do you see?  Trusting God -- or having faith in God -- is what puts us in a proper relationship with God.

Listen once again to these words from Romans:

"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..." [4:23-25]

Like Abraham and Sarah, we will encounter twists and turns, barriers and setbacks in our living.  Times of testing and trial are a part of living.  The difference between people of faith and people without faith is not that some have trials and some do not.  It is not that some are better than others.  The difference is this...  People of faith live their lives with the conviction that God's promises are certain.


The life of faith, then, is living in light of the promises of God.  Paul points to the central promise of the Christian faith.  He says that the words written about Abraham's faith being that which put him in a proper relationship with God were written for us too.  We are those who, "... believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead..."

The resurrection of Christ is the capstone of the entire journey from Abraham to the apostles.  In the resurrection, God has confirmed the promise made by Jesus himself. "My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish." [John 10:27-28]

No barrier is high enough, and no circumstance powerful enough to overrule the promise of Jesus Christ that those who trust his promises will inherit life everlasting.

No one else can promise that.  Living our lives in light of the promises of God will lift our level of engagement with life to new heights.  It is the power of peace in the face of troubling circumstances and a smile in the face of a storm.

Like Abraham, we worship God Almighty when we hear the wonderful promises of life.

Should the Prize Patrol ever come to my door, I can tell you I would not turn them away.

However,  if the Prize Patrol should ask to trade their $21 million dollars for the promises of God -- I would send them packing.   I trust you would too.


Because 21 million dollars does not have the ability to say, "And I give them eternal life and they shall never perish!"


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Text

Paul's argument in Romans connects the Genesis account of God's promise to Abraham to the Markan account of Jesus' call to discipleship.   It is belief / trust / faith that binds us to the Lord.  Abraham's faith is counted to him as righteousness just as the faith of the Christian in the one who "raised Jesus our Lord from the dead."

God makes the promise and the person of faith trusts in the promise.  Abraham, by his trust, receives a promised land in principle.   The Christian, by his or her faith receives the life which can not be lost.

That which binds the children of God together is not ethnicity after all, Paul says, rather it is the "faith" of Abraham.  Abraham's children are "all" those who have faith.  The person who trusts God's promises is bound together in community with every other person of faith -- regardless of nation, tribe or tongue.

The texts together affirm the definition of faith we have used in the past -- namely, "Faith is trusting in God's ability."  The promise to Abraham and Sarah of a Child and the promise of Jesus Christ of resurrection life are so beyond human imagining and hard to believe that only faith can rise to the level of accepting these nearly impossible things that only God can do.

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

If you count the occurrences of, "I will," "I am," and "I have,"  in these verses, the sovereignty of God appears as one of the foundation blocks of the nation of Israel.  The faithfulness of God will be contrasted with the fickle nature of humankind in the life of Abraham and Sarah -- and indeed with the people of God throughout the scriptures.  God's mercy, lovingkindness or hsed is "from everlasting to everlasting."

Abraham's faith embraces the covenant God makes with him and becomes the instrument by which God works the divine will for we human beings.  Though Abraham's faithfulness will not match the faithfulness of God, God will nevertheless count this faith as righteousness.  We might dare say that faith enables the sovereignty of God to have its way in our otherwise unrighteous lives.  The epistle lesson makes it clear that Abraham's example of faith is the bond between every person who trusts in God even as it is the bond that unites every child of God with the Lord.

The phrase that underscores this lesson of faith is the very first one of the Old Testament lesson.  "When Abraham was ninety-nine years old..."  The author of the book of Hebrews would later describe the amazing story of Abraham with these words, "Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable."  [Heb. 11:12]

The "everlasting covenant" God makes with Abraham is with Abraham and his offspring.  It would seem to be a covenant with a special, "chosen" people -- indeed the covenant is with a specific nation -- namely the nation of Israel. This will provide discussion for the ages.  God's covenant with Israel does not mean that God will never have promises for, or be in relationship with gentiles -- but it would seem to limit the "Abrahamic" covenant.  Paul later comes with another view -- that Abraham's offspring are all those who have faith."

Romans 4:13-25

One of the struggles of the earliest Christian church would be that between the Jewish believers in Christ and the gentiles who came to believe.  The origin of the struggle between "gospel" and "law" comes in the first "Council" in Jerusalem. [Acts 15]  The result was a "compromise" solution where gentiles are not asked to convert  to Judaism before becoming Christian.  They are, however, asked to refrain from eating meat sacrificed to idols, blood, or the meat of strangled animals. [15:29] The gospel goes out freely to all who will believe, even though the struggle will continue as the letters of Paul testify. (especially to the church at Galatia)

In this passage, Paul notes that it is Abraham's faith that makes one an heir of the promise made to Abraham.

"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 (for he is the father of all of us..."  [4:16]

By locating Abraham's righteousness in his faith, Paul takes the issue of righteousness to a point prior to the giving of the law.  Faith came before the law and righteousness is attributed to all who embrace the promises of God.  For Christian persons, the promise if fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus Christ, "who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification." [4:25]

Paul's more complete discussion of the relationship between gospel and law comes in Romans 5 & 6.

Mark 8:31-38

Peter, as chief of the apostles, is a kind of new Abraham for the community of faith.  One of the similarities between the two is that no matter how much they believed God and had faith, they were vulnerable to the erratic shifts of human will.  Both Abraham and Peter would take things into their own hands when they could not quite fathom the will of God.  We might call this a kind of fill in the blanks discipleship.  When we do not understand God's ways, we are prone to fill in the blanks with our own ways.  With Abraham, it was losing hope that Sarah would have a child, so he and Sarah decide perhaps God would bring about the promise through Sarah's maid.

In our text, Jesus speaks of his humiliation, suffering and death to come.  Peter can not see how this can be a part of God's plan for Messiah.  (The Confession of Peter has just been recorded -- Mk. 8:29)  The correction which comes Peter's way is stern. "Get behind me Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."  While the occasion is a tough one for Peter, it is a fortunate one for us.  The words which follow are central to the issue of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ and what the meaning of real life is.

The follower of Jesus Christ (a disciple), turns away from a self-center to a Christ-center.  The Christ-centered life is focused on Christ and the gospel -- even if it means losing this temporal life.  The Christ-centered life persists in spite of death, while the life that is turned in upon itself is lost.


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship   (Based on Psalm 22)

Leader:   Praise the Lord all you people, stand in awe of our God!
People:  For the Lord is Ruler over all the earth.
Leader:   Our cries reach the ears of a merciful God,
People:  And our lives are filled with good things.
Leader:   May praise and worship ever flow from our lips,
Unison:  For the goodness and grace of our God is forever!

A Prayer of Confession

O loving God, we come before you once again asking for forgiveness and restoration.  We have gone searching for meaning without seeking your will and we have anguished over decisions without seeking your guidance.  O, by your grace help us to put first things first and make your Son, our Lord Jesus Master of all.  Give us healing and  set us on your pathway for our living,  Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Be assured, sisters and brothers that God hears the cries of a broken and contrite heart and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.  Because of Christ we are forgiven. Amen.

Prayer of Thanksgiving

We give you thanks and praise, O Lord, because you have called us to this place of love, acceptance and forgiveness.  From our broken lives and shattered worlds, you call us to a quiet place where the Holy Spirit restores us to you.

This is your house and not ours, Christ is the Head of this Household of Faith and we are the recipients of more love and grace than we could ever imagine. The depth of your love for us is beyond our ability to reason, but within our hearts to sing.

We praise you for the grace which meets us here and follows us as we go back into the world where you guide us into new lives and gracious living.

O help us in this hour to so embrace the love and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that our hearts will be centered on your reign for all your children.  How blessed we are to be called into divine service as ambassadors for your kingdom.


A Prayer of Dedication

What we give, O Divine Master, is but a small part of what you have first given to us.  There is no gift which could ever match your giving toward us and we are blessed beyond measure as you receive the gifts we bring to you.  We bring our gifts to you in the name of Jesus Christ.  Amen.