Sermon for Pentecost 12
Genesis 15:1-6 + Luke 12:32-40 + Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Faith and the Church go together, don’t they? Without faith, there is no Lutheran Church with its three “sola’s,” as we call them: By grace alone, by faith alone, by Scripture alone. It’s not just Lutherans who talk about faith, though. I can’t think of a church where faith doesn’t matter – even non-Christian churches talk about faith. Even people who don’t have any desire to set foot in a church talk about faith. Faith in God, faith in humanity, faith in mother nature, faith in miracles, faith in faith.
It gets confusing after awhile, and with all the different definitions of faith out there, we risk losing the real definition of faith, the real meaning of faith as God describes it in his Word.
The word “faith” or a form of the word “believe” occurs in the Bible some 500 times. Guess where the very first occurrence of the word “faith” is found… Genesis 15:6, part of our text today, “Abraham believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” Rather than talk about faith theoretically today, we’re going to let God show us a picture of faith in the life of one of the most famous believers of all times, the life of Abraham. Here, in the story of Abraham, God gives us a glimpse of faith from the father of faith.
Now, faith was around long before Abraham. According to the Biblical chronology – which we believe in – Abraham lived about 2000 years before Christ, and about 2000 years after the Creation of the world, right in the middle of Old Testament history, more or less. Abram (whose name God later changed to Abraham) was not the first man on earth to have faith.
But Abraham is known as the “father of faith” for good reason. Here was a man who lived on faith. When he still lived way over in the city of Ur, modern-day Iraq, God told him, “Get up and leave this place and go to the land of Canaan (modern-day Israel), which I will give to you and to your offspring as an inheritance. And I will bless you and make your name great.” And Abraham went. He went, not so much in obedience to a command, but because, as the Bible says, he believed that God was telling the truth – that God really would bless Abraham and give to him and his offspring that land, and much, much more.
When Abraham got there, to the land of Canaan, he was already about 75 years old. He had a wife – Sarai, but no children. And, true to his promise, God blessed Abraham immensely there in the land of Canaan, until Abraham was one of the wealthiest men around – with huge herds of cattle, hundreds of servants and lots of silver and gold. Ten years passed, and in addition to wealth, God gave Abraham power and fame and an amazing military victory that won him the respect of many kings. Through all of it, and yet not without his stumbles, Abraham lived by faith in the promises God had made to him.
Right after that big military victory is when our text occurs. Now, think about this. After all that – all those promises from God, all those blessings, and now this huge victory in battle, with all the fame and power and prestige that went along with it, after all those powerful demonstrations of faith on the part of Abraham, wouldn’t you think this father of faith would be riding on top of the world?
But he wasn’t. Instead, he was troubled – greatly troubled, and afraid, and confused. Some of that we get out of Abraham’s words in our text. Some of it we get from the words God spoke to him when the Word of the LORD came to Abraham in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abraham. I am your shield, your very great reward.” We don’t know exactly why the “father of faith” was so troubled and afraid, especially after so many things had gone right for him, but, as Luther points out, that’s often how God deals with his saints, especially the great ones. He sends affliction – he sends the cross. His grace doesn’t go away, but he hides himself so that they are not aware of his grace. He does it, to keep them from falling away from faith.
We don’t usually think about “faith” that way, do we? We think of people who have great faith as people who don’t have to struggle so much with sin or with fear or with doubt. But, as we learn from the father of faith, it’s just the opposite. So wicked is our sinful nature, so corrupt, so weak that even believers, like Abraham, are in jeopardy of falling back out of faith, back into the damning sins of arrogance, and reliance on their own strength, and presuming that they are so righteous and so wise. Those are the temptations that attack even the strongest believers, because, let’s say you’ve gotten past falling into obvious and gross sins like drunken bar-room brawls and adultery and grand theft auto, then Satan knows how easy it will be to tempt to you look at yourself as pretty righteous, thank you very much. He knows how easy it will be to make you think you’ve made it now, as a Christian. You could never possibly fall away. You don’t even have to come to church, if you don’t want to, you are such a good believer. You have the wisdom of the ages. You know what this church needs. You’re sitting pretty. If only the rest could be like you.
God knows that even his saints – even believers in him – are susceptible to those kinds of temptations, and so he sends affliction, and one reminder after another, “You are a sinner. You are mortal, and you’re mortal because you’re a sinner. You are not the master of your destiny. You are not God.”
But we were talking about faith, weren’t we? This is all part of faith. Faith is not the touchy-feely, lovey-dovey sensation that everything will be all right. To live as a believer is not to be happy all the time. To live as a believer is to live like Abraham, trusting God’s promises, but in constant conflict with your own sinful flesh. And so you can expect that God will deal with you to some degree as he did with Abraham and afflicted him for awhile with this sadness and fear, because he was a sinner and so are you. And if the father of faith needed these afflictions from God to keep him from becoming self-reliant, surely you don’t think your faith is somehow so strong that you don’t need them?
But see what God does when faith is put to the test, when Abraham is afflicted and afraid and confused. When Abraham is flying high, God drives him to his knees. But once Abraham has been driven to his knees, then God goes to him and lifts him up again. But he doesn’t go to Abraham and put a father’s arm around him. What does he do? He sends him his Word.
After this, the word of the Lord came to Abraham in a vision. “Do not be afraid, Abraham. I am your shield, your very great reward.” Sounds like Jesus to his disciples in the Gospel, “Have no fear, little flock. For your Father has chosen to give you his kingdom.” When God himself tells you not to be afraid, that you have no need to fear, and that he has in store for you a great reward, even a heavenly kingdom, then what need is there to fear?
And yet Abraham wasn’t comforted yet. The father of faith didn’t just immediately snap out of his sadness when he heard God’s comforting Word. But Abraham said, “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abraham said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” It’s not that Abraham’s faith had disappeared suddenly, but it was confused, and it was searching, it was fishing for a promise, or rather, for a repeat of God’s earlier promise, because it didn’t seem like God was planning on keeping it. This whole matter of Abraham’s offspring inheriting the land, and not just that, but that “in your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” – the promise of Christ!
But there was no offspring. Abraham was about 85 years old now, and still no child, no heir, and more importantly, no offspring of the woman to crush the serpent’s head. See, Abraham already had it all, didn’t he? Beautiful, loving wife, tons of money and power and prestige. But you can’t take it with you, can you? Abraham knew that. Big deal if he gets to live it up in this land of Canaan. Then he dies, like his father died, and like his father’s father died, and so on and so forth for two thousand years, ever since Adam and Eve took that fateful bite. No inheritance lasts forever, unless the Christ comes and defeats sin and death and gives mankind an inheritance where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. But Abraham was beginning to wonder if maybe God had changed his mind, if maybe the offspring – and therefore, the Christ – would never come.
Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And in no uncertain terms, God made his promise to Abraham crystal clear: I haven’t changed my mind. The offspring will come, and will come from your own body, and you will have as many descendants as there are stars in the heavens. So shall it be, declares the Lord God Almighty.
And as far as Abraham was concerned, that was enough. Abraham believed the Lord. He didn’t have to see it to believe it. The Lord said, “So shall it be,” and faith is the simple conclusion, “Right! So shall it be.” To believe, as the Bible talks about believing, to have faith, as the Bible talks about having faith, is simply to know that God has promised something, and to rely on God not to lie to you, to know in your heart that it will undoubtedly be as God said it would be.
This verse is one of the most important verses in the whole Bible. Abraham believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. I say this is one of the most important verses in the whole Bible, because the Apostle Paul dedicates several chapters in the Book of Romans to this verse as proof positive that God considers a person righteous, not for any righteous deed he has done or has to do, but only on account of faith in God’s promise. What promise? His promise that, solely on account of Christ Jesus – The Offspring of Abraham – God declares you to be righteous. God declares you to be forgiven and loved. God declares the waters of baptism to be your legal adoption into his family, and therefore, God declares you to be his child and an heir of his heavenly kingdom.
You who believe in Christ Jesus as your righteousness and innocence before God, you who know God to be favorable to you on account of Christ alone – you are, in part, God’s fulfillment of his promise to Abraham. You believers make up the stars in the heavens that Abraham couldn’t possibly count. You are his offspring. You are his heirs, because you are in Christ, by faith – the same faith that Abraham had. That’s not just a metaphor, either. Even if you don’t have a drop of Hebrew blood running through your veins, your baptism has brought you into the Hebrew body of the Hebrew named Christ Jesus. Holy Communion brings you into a holy communion with the Hebrew body that was given and the Hebrew blood that was shed on the cross. Since Christ is Abraham’s heir, and you are in Christ, you, too, have become Abraham’s heirs, heirs who will inherit eternal life in the eternal kingdom of the Son of Abraham.
That’s God’s promise to you. Now, if you want to make God out to be a dirty, rotten liar, then, fine! Don’t believe it! Your condemnation is deserved. But within that promise is the power to convince. Within that promise, is the Holy Spirit of God, calling you to believe, calling you to faith, calling you to admit that God has an awfully good track record at not lying, so you would be a fool to conclude that he’s lying now.
Do you believe that? Then see how your perspective on life changes! You begin to see life on earth not as your goal, but as a pit stop along your way to your heavenly home. You’ll live like Abraham did, not as permanent residents of the land where you pitch your tent, but as sojourners on this earth whose treasure is in heaven, pilgrims who know that you’re not here on earth to stay. Live like Abraham, who made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country…For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
The father of faith has taught us today what it means to have faith. It doesn’t mean a believer will never struggle or be afraid or confused or sad. On the contrary, it means that a believer will struggle immensely. But faith runs to the promises of God, which all revolve around Christ Jesus, the offspring of Abraham: Forgiveness of sins, a Father’s love, righteousness, innocence, blessedness, eternal life and an eternal inheritance. “So shall it be,” God says. And faith lays hold of the promise and breathes a sigh of relief, “So shall it be.” So shall it be. Amen.