'Wouldn’t it have been nice if I would have just preached a nice short sermon about Abraham and his faith and how we should be like him? But it wouldn't do any good unless we consider how far we’ve fallen from the ‘living, daring confidence in God’s grace’ that Luther described as the content of faith?'
The Second Sunday in Lent
March 13, 2022
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, III
Texts: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Luke 13:31-35
God tells Abram to have faith – he will fulfill the promises he has made. Abram, out of his weakness or importunity, asks with wavering faith if he can be sure of God’s promises. God shows him the uncountable stars as a sign of the number of his descendants and a vision of a covenant ceremony as a sign of the promise he himself has made. We are told that Abram believed God would be true to his word, putting his trust in God’s faithfulness.
Martin Luther defines faith as ‘av living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times.’ Certainly, Abram would have agreed with that statement. His life of faith and trust in God certainly meant staking his life many times on the promise. Faith for him meant living by the word of the promise even when it looked like the promise was nowhere close to being fulfilled. Believing that there would be a son when there was none. Believing there would be a land when he owned no part of it. Abram was called to live by faith, and live by faith he did.
The chief story of Abram’s faith is one that gives us pause – the story of the sacrifice of Isaac – or as Jews call it, the binding of Isaac. If you went to Sunday School, you may remember it. The son is finally born to Abraham, as he is now called, and is growing up. But God orders Abraham to offer him as a sacrifice on the mountain. Abraham gets as far as to stretch his knife out before God stops him.
Though no blood was spilled, except the blood of a ram Abraham offered as a substitute for his son, much ink has been spilled regarding this story. One of the most appealing meditations is that Abraham had faith that God would be faithful to his prior word that God would raise up descendants fore him through Isaac. He would hold to that promise in spite of what seemed to be a command that contradicted that promise. Perhaps he believed, as he told Isaac, that God himself would provide the lamb for the sacrifice. Perhaps he even believed that if he had to go so far as slaying Isaac, that God would raise him from the dead because of the word of his prior promise.
Many times we look at Abraham’s act as an act of obedience to God. But if it is only obedience, then it is a monstrous act offered to a monstrous God. It makes all the difference if Abraham believes that though he cannot understand, he believes in God’s promise with such an unshakable faith that he can go forward, with confidence that God will not allow the covenant to be broken and his word to fail.
I have spent time on this particular story because it illustrates that faith goes far beyond what we generally conceive it to be. When we hear that Abraham believed God, we don’t really understand the radical life-changing nature of it. The commitment it takes to believe in God’s word despite everything – the trust of Abraham on the mountain and Jesus in the desert.
For us it is simple to say, ‘I believe in God,’ and we think that this means thinking we know that there is a God, and that he is nice and wise and kind and good, and that he wants us to be those things too. But if we listen to his word, we discover that he goes far beyond that. He talks of the blessings of giving up our possessions, the meek inheriting the earth, and not only to give up killing but also anger; not only to give stealing but also coveting. He tells us both that we are sinners and that he offers us forgiveness, which requires that we need believe that we need forgiveness and that God can forgive even the worst sinner.
To be faithful requires holding to God’s word despite everything. But we look at the world and the Church and see instance after instance of people rejecting the word of Jesus – the things that make for peace – the blessing promised to the meek and lowly.
Today we may see this in Russia – in the words of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Kirill, who has given his blessing to the war against Ukraine, claiming that it is a metaphysical struggle for the soul of Orthodoxy and Christianity against godless westerners who push LGBT ideals on the pure Russian people. Instead of believing in God’s promises to the Church, that God will save the Church no matter what, he puts his trust in a tyrant who prosecutes a war that has massacred civilians, caused millions of people to flee with nothing, killed soldiers on both sides, and threatens to flare up into a conflict of global scale.
In the meantime, a Russian Orthodox priest, the Rev. Ioann Burdin, has been arrested for ‘discrediting the use of the armed forces,’ for speaking against the war and posting pictures of the destruction and suffering on his parish’s website. We hear these words of our Lord in the context of today: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have a desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. Shall these words be pronounced against the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, with its majestic architecture and beautiful icons and billowing incense, and yes, with its faithful Christians worshiping in devotion to God?
We might be tempted to simply be disgusted with the words and actions of an old orthodox bishop who blesses aggressive war while wearing a bishop’s miter emblazoned with the icon of the Prince of Peace. But while we name wrong as wrong, let us judge not lest we be judged. Do not our empty worship buildings, our weak witness to our faith, our unwillingness to be corrected in matters of personal conduct, our clinging to hatred of our enemies, bespeak the failure of our Churches to trust in the Word and promise of God? We say we believe God when he speaks, but do we believe when we will not come together to hear the Word, and to read the Word? Certainly COVID has lessened the numbers in the Church. Certainly we do not discount the faith of those who cannot gather with us because of health.
And the clergy are guilty of judging their parishioners and not trusting in the word. We ourselves have truncated our worship services and fit Christianity to the latest fashion, trying to appeal to the latest styles. We have become satisfied with ourselves. Some of us have not preached the word because of self-doubt. Some of us have not preached the word because of self-regard. Paul tells us with tears that many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and their glory is in the shame; their minds are set on earthly things. He is not just talking about the world outside the church, but the people inside the Church; and perhaps especially those of us in the clergy.
Wouldn’t it have been nice if I would have just preached a nice short sermon about Abraham and his faith and we should be like him? But it doesn’t do any good unless we consider how far we’ve fallen from the ‘living daring confidence in God’s grace’ that Luther described as the content of faith?
What better time to preach this way but in Lent? What better time than when the world, just emerging from the worst of a global pandemic, teeters on the brink of a world war which we thought was consigned to the nightmares of yesteryear?
These words of Lent, ‘Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,’ are never more appropriate than now. Abraham received the sign of the stars and the sacrifice, we have the sign of the cross, that sacrifice which is the sign of the new covenant of grace and mercy. Jesus with a mothering love calls us to shelter under his wings of grace and mercy, to hear and cling to his promise during these and threatening days, trusting that though the way be dark before us, his promises of forgiveness, protection, and resurrection are most certainly true.