“God’s Great Promise
Gen 17: 1-7, 15-17; Rom 4: 13-25
Lent II, Year B
March 8, 2009 (Preached at ESC)
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty;* walk before me, and be blameless. 2And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.’ 3Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4‘As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5No longer shall your name be Abram,* but your name shall be Abraham;* for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring* after you. God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.’ 17Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’
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. 14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 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, 17as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations’)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’, according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’ 19He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already* as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22Therefore his faith* ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ 23Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, 24but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
It’s hard to exaggerate how excited I was to find out that I – of all people – was a winner. I was online – doing a little web surfing as they say – when all of the sudden a big box started flashing on the screen informing me that I’d won the grand prize. I was a bit skeptical at first but time was of the essence. After all, the box was clear. I had three minutes to call or the grand prize would go to someone else. And I had no intention of letting that happen. So I called the 800 number immediately, and when I did, they began making promises. They promised me a free vacation. They promised there were no strings attached. They promised that they only needed my credit card info to verify my age. Perhaps some of you savvy students have wondered who actually falls for those schemes. ME! To this day, I’m still haunted by what I said when they answered the phone. I’m pretty sure the exact words I shouted were, “Hi, my name’s John Newton, and I’m a winner!” I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say that this was hands-down the most ironic thing I’ve ever said. Because they had no intention of keeping of their promise. They were promise-breakers.
And the truth is, we live in a world of promise breakers. That’s why we have sayings like “if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is.” Because when it comes to making promises, we’re great. And if you think about, that’s all advertising is – making promises. Already this week, Miller Lite, Tag Body Spray, and Express Men’s clothing have all promised me that if I use their product, swimsuit models will love me. Well, as one who’s faithfully used two of those three products for years – not so much. Because we’re great at making promises – we’re just not very good at keeping them. To put it in Biblical terms, we lack “righteousness” – an ability to keep the promises we make to God; an ability to keep the promises we make to one another.  Our world is full of promise breakers – we lack righteousness so to speak – and because of that we have become skeptical. We have become skeptical of great promises.
According to tonight’s reading from Genesis, so was Abraham. After all, God makes a pretty amazing promise. God tells Abraham that he’ll be the father of many nations, and that through him and his children, God intends to bless the world. And God calls this an everlasting “covenant,” but another translation of the Hebrew word is promise. And so God is making an everlasting promise – a great promise. And Abraham, to be honest, is a bit skeptical.
For starters, this isn’t the first time God’s made this promise to Abraham. In fact, it’s the fourth time. According to Genesis, thirteen years have passed since God first appeared to Abraham, telling him to leave his home and his family, all on the grounds of this same promise – this great promise to bless the world through him and his descendants. But since God’s initial promise, Abraham’s experienced a few setbacks – famine, war, problems with his nephew, problems with his wife, and let’s be honest, problems with his body. After all, he’s a 99 year old nomad. Today’s reading from Romans doesn’t really water it down. To quote Paul, “his body was as good as dead.” And so Abraham’s old – and he’s heard God’s promise a few times before.
But that’s not the main reason he’s skeptical. Because practically speaking, in order to be the father of many nations, first, you have to be – a father. And in Abraham’s case, for it to really count, the mother had to be his wife. Because the rules of his society were a bit different than ours. But the rules of biology? They were the same. And Sarah, his wife, was 90 years old at the time. Now, not only is this slightly gross, but from a biological perspective, it’s impossible. And that’s the reason Abraham is skeptical. And like Genesis tells us, Abraham falls on his face and he laughs. Abraham laughs at the great promise of God. “If it sounds too good to be true then it probably is.” Because what God’s promising, from a human point of view, is impossible.
Now, to be fair, that’s not the whole story. And what our reading from Genesis leaves out tonight’s reading from Romans fills in. Because according to Paul, Abraham’s laughter was temporary. And though skeptical, Abraham was faithful and he lived a life of faith – a life firmly rooted in the great promise of God. Did he experience setbacks? Yea. Times of testing? Sure. Moments when the promise of God seemed laughable? Apparently so. And yet, Paul tells us today that Abraham is our model for the life of faith. But that’s not all. Paul goes on to say something else, something amazing – that Abraham’s faith was “reckoned” to him as righteousness.
Now, I mentioned before that we lack “righteousness” – a word that’s tied to integrity, to promise-keeping, to being put “right” on the insides. To make a long story short, righteousness is something we need. Something we’re missing. Something God requires. And the great promise of God to us is that the one thing we need, the one thing we’re missing, the one thing God requires – righteousness – is now available as a gift. Through faith in Jesus. And in essence, that’s God’s great impossible promise to us.
You’ve got to love that Abraham, of all people, is our model for the life of faith. Because it shows us that the life of faith isn’t always smooth. It sure wasn’t for Abraham. It wasn’t for Moses. It wasn’t for Peter. It wasn’t for Paul. It hasn’t always been that smooth for me, and if I had to guess, each of you knows something about setbacks, about anxiety, about times of testing, and about moments when the great promise of God seems laughable. But the difference between people of faith and people without faith isn’t that some have trials and that some don’t. It’s not that some are better than others. The difference is this: people of faith base their lives on the conviction that the great promise of God is true. They may be laughing one minute – but they’re dancing the next. Expecting setbacks, and regardless of what happens, they cling to the great impossible promise of God, they refuse to let go. And is very act of clinging, Paul tells us, this refusal to let go, is what makes us righteous before God.
The truth is, you and I are weak. We’re shaky. We make promises. We break promises. One minute we’re walking the walk, the next minute we’re laughing at God. We’re not righteous. And deep down, we know that no one else is either. But the good news of the Christian Gospel is that our God is. And I know that in a world where the things that seem too good to be true probably are, it can be hard to cling to God’s great promise. Because it’s one thing to recite a Creed once a week, but to base our entire lives on the conviction that the great promise of God is true, that takes courage. In the midst of setbacks, in the midst of skepticism, it takes a lot of courage to refuse to let go. But this refusal to let go of the God that refuses to let go of us – that’s what faith is. And not only that, but this refusal to let go is what makes us righteous before God.
The truth is, you and I will never perfectly keep the promises we make to God or to one another. But I want you to know that that’s ok. Because in spite of our inability to be faithful, our God remains faithful. And in spite of our skepticism, our God’s plan of salvation is certain. This is God’s great impossible promise to promise-breakers like us. And make no mistake; the God we worship is a Promise-Keeper.
 This is a fitting connection because one of Paul’s uses of dikaiosune in Romans (translated righteousness) is “covenant faithfulness.” In other words, God is righteous because God keep’s God’s promises.