Old Testament

The Merciful Sovereign

Romans 9:14-29 (NLT)

Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses,

“I will show mercy to anyone I choose,
   and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.”

So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it.

For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.

Well then, you might say, “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?”

No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory. And we are among those whom he selected, both from the Jews and from the Gentiles.

Concerning the Gentiles, God says in the prophecy of Hosea,

“Those who were not my people,
   I will now call my people.
And I will love those
   whom I did not love before.”

And,

“Then, at the place where they were told,
   ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called
   ‘children of the living God.’”
And concerning Israel, Isaiah the prophet cried out,

“Though the people of Israel are as numerous as the sand of the seashore,
   only a remnant will be saved.
For the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth
   quickly and with finality.”
And Isaiah said the same thing in another place:

“If the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
   had not spared a few of our children,
we would have been wiped out like Sodom,
   destroyed like Gomorrah.”


Sometimes the Bible forces us to think until it hurts. Paul is doing that to us in Romans today.

If that bothers you, sorry. If that doesn’t bother you, congratulations—you may be on the verge of getting a glimpse of God’s mind via Paul’s writings.

This particular passage for centuries has caused the church to think until it hurts. Differences of opinion regarding how to read it and related passages have pushed Christians into two camps. One would be the Christians who believe God predestines who gets to experience eternal life. The other camp would be Christians who believe choosing or rejecting Jesus ultimately makes the difference, although these people also emphasize that our ability to choose is a gift from God.

People in the first group are called Calvinists; they include denominations like Presbyterians, certain kinds of Baptists, and just about any church with the word “Reformed” in its name.

People in the second group are called Arminians. Methodists would be among the Arminians. I don’t have time to get into a lot of church history today, but with the internet, the history of the differences between Calvinists and Arminians is easy to find.

You may recall from last week’s sermon that Paul has been talking about the twins Jacob and Esau. Both were in the direct lineage of Abraham, but only one, Jacob, was a part of the promise intended to bless the whole world. If you look at the story in Genesis, you can see that even before they were born, God had a preference for Jacob and what sounds like an intense dislike of Esau.

In today’s text, Paul gives another example, this one found in Exodus. There you will find the story of Moses confronting the leader of Egypt, the Pharaoh. And in that story, you’ll notice a puzzling pattern.

Sometimes Pharaoh heard Moses’ warnings and “hardened his heart” against God’s plan on his own. Other times, God directly hardened Pharaoh’s heart, in order that the mighty story of the plagues and the escape by the Israelites from Egypt could play out in full and to the glory of God. When you read the story closely, Pharaoh looks like a chess pawn, something to be used and discarded according to God’s purposes.

Paul also resorts to an analogy, one common to Jewish tradition. God is like a potter, Paul says. He makes his individual creations however he wants, and he uses his creations however he wants. One pot may be for art, and the other may be fashioned as a garbage container.

As we noted last week, from a human perspective, God’s preference for one person over another or one group of people over another can seem unfair. Paul’s answer to this protest is pretty straightforward—in fact, his answer is the main point of this text.

God is sovereign. As Creator, God has a kingship no human could ever match. Being all-powerful, God can do anything he wants. Being all-knowing, God can see his creation from the beginning to the end of time, and on into eternity.

The message is designed to humble us, particularly those of us who have an inflated sense of self-importance. Who are we, compared to God? If we truly understand who God is, we sin when we look at God and say, “Unfair!”

Instead, we should be driven toward an attitude of submission, to a desire to simply serve God in whatever way we were made to serve. I’m reminded of John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

We essentially are praying, “I submit to being whatever kind of pottery you need me to be.” It is a sobering prayer. But let me take a few more minutes to remind myself, and you, why I am glad to be a Methodist. For we do take this message of God’s sovereignty and ultimately find great joy in it.

We do this by looking at Paul’s words in a much larger context. Yes, God seems to have a preference for one person over another or one group of people over another. At a minimum, he seems to have such preferences during critical moments in history, those times when he directly propels forward the Great Promise, the blessing designed for all families on earth.

We know, however, that God is a most merciful sovereign. In human kings, mercy has always been seen as a powerful virtue, although often a missing virtue. In God the King of Creation, mercy is perfect. The great merciful sovereign pours out grace on his subjects in ways no earthly king ever could.

The best example, of course, is the king coming among us as Jesus Christ, teaching us about the power of love and then, in an act of love, dying on the cross for our sins. Once again, we are reminded of that great verse from the Gospel of John. Here is John 3:16 in the New Living Translation:

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

If the Great Sovereign were not somehow giving us a choice, I don’t think these words in John would be possible. Also, I don’t think Paul would have written earlier and later in Romans of the need to spread the Good News about the cross. When I return from vacation in a couple of weeks, we’re going to hear a lot from Paul about the importance of spreading the Good News.

Why involve humans in sharing the message if choosing Christ is irrelevant? Why all the talk in the gospels, Romans and elsewhere about the importance of faith if the decision regarding who is saved is fixed from the start?

I will admit, I cannot fully explain how an all-knowing, all-powerful God who “elects” and “chooses” people throughout much of Scripture also gives us the freedom to say yes or no to him. I try not to resort to the word “mystery” too often, but it likely applies here. We are, after all, talking about how the mind of God works, and I do not see how a human mind, or even millions of human minds working together, can fully understand the mind of God.

I do know, however, that the mind of God is a loving mind, and that Christ’s death and resurrection express that love fully. We are blessed to have such a king.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What About the Jews?

Romans 9:1-13 (NLT)

With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it. My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them. They are the people of Israel, chosen to be God’s adopted children. God revealed his glory to them. He made covenants with them and gave them his law. He gave them the privilege of worshiping him and receiving his wonderful promises. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are their ancestors, and Christ himself was an Israelite as far as his human nature is concerned. And he is God, the one who rules over everything and is worthy of eternal praise! Amen.

Well then, has God failed to fulfill his promise to Israel? No, for not all who are born into the nation of Israel are truly members of God’s people! Being descendants of Abraham doesn’t make them truly Abraham’s children. For the Scriptures say, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted,” though Abraham had other children, too. This means that Abraham’s physical descendants are not necessarily children of God. Only the children of the promise are considered to be Abraham’s children. For God had promised, “I will return about this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

This son was our ancestor Isaac. When he married Rebekah, she gave birth to twins. But before they were born, before they had done anything good or bad, she received a message from God. (This message shows that God chooses people according to his own purposes; he calls people, but not according to their good or bad works.) She was told, “Your older son will serve your younger son.” In the words of the Scriptures, “I loved Jacob, but I rejected Esau.”


No one likes to think about losing someone he or she loves. Paul is concerned about losing the vast majority of his people, the Jews, for all eternity.

It is a disturbing idea for any loving person even today, one that can still puzzle us if we have Jewish friends, or for that matter, friends of any faiths other than Christianity. What about the Jews, specifically those Jews who do not see Christ as the Messiah? What about the other people around us who have never accepted Christ or even flatly reject the idea of Jesus as savior?

Paul clearly is in pain as he raises the topic in his letter to the Romans. This is not some vague theological exercise for him. As he rhetorically explores the issue, he surely is thinking of specific people: family; mentors, perhaps like his respected teacher Gamaliel; sincere fellow students who had rigorously studied Judaism alongside him; the faithful Jewish vendor who sold him lunch in the marketplace.

We have to be careful not to read too much into his angst, however. While he is in pain for his people, the Jews, he does not speak as a man wrestling with a question. In that way, he is very different from some of us. Paul knows the answer because he has directly experienced the risen Christ. He understands and accepts the exclusive claims Christ made regarding his ministry and his sacrifice on the cross.

When we struggle with the question, “What about the others,” we actually are debating an idea that has been clearly defined for us in Scripture. A lot of us simply don’t like the answer. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life; there is no other way for sinful beings to reconnect to a holy God except through Jesus. (I’m referencing the Gospel of John, chapter 14, verses 1 through 11, here.)

Sometimes, it doesn’t seem fair. Paul says as much in next week’s text, although he quickly discounts this notion of unfairness. In this week’s text, he notes the Jews were “adopted” by God as the People of Israel, using the same familial language we heard last week when we considered our own status as adopted children. He recounts the history of revealed glory and covenants entered, and the giving of the law. Worship has been happening among the Jews, and promises were made.

It just seems like they’ve been trying so hard! The same can be said for our religious non-Christian friends, and Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama, and all those other good people we have seen.

If you take Scripture seriously at all, though, some truths about the nature of Jesus are undeniable. Jesus came as the result of those promises to the Jews. He is the ultimate fulfillment of the promises, a fulfillment so great that from Jesus’ day on, we live in a time described to Abraham thousands of years ago.

Through Abraham’s Jewish descendants, God has blessed “all the families on earth” (Genesis 12:3). He has gone to great lengths to ensure any human being can be saved from sin simply by believing. If the Jews reject Jesus, they reject a promise first made to them. If others reject Jesus, they reject a promise extended to all of humanity.

Perhaps our problem with the exclusive claims of Christianity lies not in how God works, but in how we respond to God’s work. We sit back and say, “How can God be working this way,” and never for a moment consider what we are called to do in response to Christ’s sacrifice and the resultant gift being offered.

If you’re concerned about someone’s relationship with God, you are called to witness to the truth of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. To do so, you need to understand the message so well that you can relate it to nonbelievers in a winsome, non-threatening, non-judgmental way.

The non-judgmental part is very important, by the way. Only God can ultimately determine who is aligned with him and who is not. We are called to bear his loving invitation to others, not his judgment.

There is an art to such witnessing, and all of us as Christians need to develop this art form as best we can.

Someone among this congregation recently put it this way in reference to evangelism: How much do you have to hate a person to not tell that person about Jesus? Those of us who call ourselves Christians know the source of eternal life; we have found the path to God.

It is as if you are crawling through the scorching desert with others, dying of thirst, and you stumble across a cool, flowing spring rising up out of the sand.

How dare you not call out, “The water is here! It’s here!” You would have to really hate those other people to leave them to their deaths, crawling around in the sand.

If there seems to be a gap in God’s plan for salvation, it’s very possible our reluctance to share the Good News contributes greatly to the gap.

Paul concludes what we hear today by starting a deeper examination of why some seem to be favored by God while others are not. He reminds his audience of a very Jewish story, the story of the twins Jacob and Esau. Even before birth, one is clearly favored by God, while the other is not.

It will take us a few weeks to unpack the idea he is offering us here. Prepare to go deep.


The featured image is Giovanni Maria Bottala’s “Meeting between Esau & Jacob,” circa 1638.

 

Mind Wars

Romans 7:14-25 (NLT)

So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.


Most of us intuitively understand what Paul means when he writes, “I want to do what is is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” We’ve been there. We’ve done that.

His statement is, of course, in the context of his long conversation in Romans about the law, how it was given to us so we could better understand right and wrong. It also is rooted in a related thought he has been repeating, that we are too broken by our sinfulness to live holy lives by our own effort.

Paul also is moving us toward a deeper understanding of the spiritual world around us and how it influences us. For modern Christians, this concept may elude us a little. Some other Bible stories may help. Be sure to click the links to read the stories.

Daniel’s Tardy Angel

Daniel was praying to understand why his people remained in captivity. After three weeks of prayer and fasting, he received a vision and heard directly from an angel.

I’m not focusing on the vision, which had to do with revelations about the end times. Instead, I want to focus on the angel’s reason for taking three weeks to deliver the answer to Daniel’s prayers. He was delayed by an evil force, and ultimately the archangel Michael, known for his prowess in battle, had to arrive on the scene to make delivery of the message possible.

In this story, we receive a rare glimpse of what is usually unseen, the struggle between the forces of good and evil on a spiritual plane. And yes, what happens there affects world events.

The Sorcerer’s Folly

This story in Acts reminds us of how humans and evil spirits can combine forces to contend for the allegiance of one person, particularly if that person may have some worldly influence. The sorcerer’s motive is made clear in the text: He wanted to keep the governor from believing. The governor is described as an intelligent man, so we can presume this sorcerer kept his victim spellbound with an impressive bag of tricks, gifts from the evil spirits who worked within and alongside the sorcerer.

Paul dealt with the situation head on, trusting in the Holy Spirit to take the lead. He declared precisely for whom the sorcerer worked. The Holy Spirit won out, and the governor became a true believer.

Porcine Possession

Modern people often want to re-orient biblical stories about the spiritual world toward a more modern understanding of events, chalking up behaviors seen in the Bible to epilepsy or mental illness.

Yes, epilepsy and mental illness are very real conditions that can occur in our broken bodies. But at the same time, there are stories in the Bible that show us the negative direct effects spiritual powers can have upon us.

The demons in this story know Jesus’ full identity more clearly than any of the disciples would have known at this time. And yet the demons are pulling hard in the other direction, wreaking havoc in the lives of these two men in need of healing.

Modern minds also should note that mental illness is not directly transferable to pigs. This story is rooted in the spiritual world, not a medical journal.

The Victorious Life

Spiritual evil is real. It has a powerful influence on our lives, and the battle for our minds is real and should not be ignored. For a Christian seeking truth in Scripture, these are undeniable biblical principles.

Paul initially joins us in a universal lament, acknowledging the despair we can feel. “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death!”

But remember the core message of Romans: We are freed from the trap. Christ’s death on the cross and ensuing resurrection represent a victory over sin and death we could not win. Through belief, we gain a new power.

Often as Christians, we focus on the moment of belief, the day and time we were saved. As we proceed in Romans, however, Paul is going to tell us more about how we tap into and use the power we are graciously given by our loving God. We are going to learn from Paul how to grow in strength as we contend with evil every day.

We are about to learn how to live life in the Spirit.


The featured image is a detail of Michael the archangel, from a 1488 painting by Bartolomeo Vivarini.

The Pain of Knowing

Romans 7:7-13 (NLT)

Well then, am I suggesting that the law of God is sinful? Of course not! In fact, it was the law that showed me my sin. I would never have known that coveting is wrong if the law had not said, “You must not covet.” But sin used this command to arouse all kinds of covetous desires within me! If there were no law, sin would not have that power. At one time I lived without understanding the law. But when I learned the command not to covet, for instance, the power of sin came to life, and I died. So I discovered that the law’s commands, which were supposed to bring life, brought spiritual death instead. Sin took advantage of those commands and deceived me; it used the commands to kill me. But still, the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good.

But how can that be? Did the law, which is good, cause my death? Of course not! Sin used what was good to bring about my condemnation to death. So we can see how terrible sin really is. It uses God’s good commands for its own evil purposes.


 

We’ve been hearing a lot about the law, specifically God’s law given to the Jews, the last couple of weeks. Paul doesn’t always seem to be talking about the law in a positive way. But let’s go ahead and get on the same page with him: The law is holy, a representation of God’s will.

The problem is not the law. The problem, Paul is saying, is us. Sin, which seems to have the characteristics of a person in Paul’s writings, is clever and always finds a way to trick us. From the time we are born, and certainly from the time we first commit sins, we simply are too broken, too weak, for Satan and his minions not to find a way in.

The law’s primary role is to educate. Without God’s teachings handed down through history, we would have trouble distinguishing what is sinful from what is good, sort of the way we had trouble telling a noun from a pronoun until a good elementary school teacher explained the difference.

Paul also reminds us of a simple theological fact. Sin, Satan, demons and anything else we associate with deep, pure evil cannot create. Only God can create; even the most evil spiritual beings were created by God, becoming evil only because they were given free will and chose to turn against what made them.

Some of you have read C.S. Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters.” It is a collection of correspondence—fictional, of course—from a senior demon, Screwtape, to a junior demon, Wormwood, regarding how to ensure a human soul ends up in Hell. Here, Screwtape speaks disparagingly of God as Creator, as you would expect a demon to do.

“He’s vulgar, Wormwood. He has a bourgeois mind. He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without his minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working. Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. We fight under cruel disadvantages. Nothing is naturally on our side.”

In other words, God offers us the good life. Yes, the law is often couched in what we think of as “shalt nots,” but let’s consider the positives in drawing bright line boundaries around certain behaviors. We can do this by looking at the core of the Mosaic law, the Ten Commandments. Let’s hear them King James style:

  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. But of course, what this implies is we are invited to a special relationship with the only God who matters.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Look at it this way: There is something more than the stuff around us. There is a great being to worship, a being so great that he cannot be reduced to any object in the universe!
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. Using the name of a god amounted to magic tricks; somehow, the god had to be manipulated for people to receive goodness from the god. But not Yahweh, not our God—he pours out love and grace, no magic tricks required.
  4. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Our God seeks rest for us and relationship with us.
  5. Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee. Our God also wants us to maintain what should be, in a properly behaving family, our closest relationships, just as we maintain our relationship with God.
  6. Thou shalt not kill. Under God, we are invited to live in a society where we are not in danger of losing the greatest possession we have in this world, our lives.
  7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Through marriage, a man and a woman are invited to a unique relationship, one built on a lifetime of trust. In many ways, we are invited to reflect in our marriages the relationship between God and humanity.
  8. Thou shalt not steal. Again, this is about the abundant godly society to which we are invited. We should never fear not having enough because someone has taken what is rightfully ours.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. In this godly society, truth should win out whenever justice is at stake.
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s. In giving up a desire for what other people have, we are invited to live lives of contentment, knowing the God whom we worship will provide for all our needs.

In a sense, the Ten Commandments were designed to do what the single commandment of Eden did. There, the One Commandment was, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it.” We are being taught by the Creator that with proper boundaries, Paradise is available.

But still, there’s that disconnect, our inability to live up to, or maybe we should say, live into the law God has offered us. What do we do?

Well, in this Easter season, we’re back to our core gospel message, a message Paul has already taken us through early in Romans. God saw that while the law educates us, it could not save us. We could not simply follow it and somehow become holy.

So God sent his son. We call him Jesus. The Son also educated us, helping us to better understand the deeper aspects of God’s will.

And then, he committed the great act of submission, allowing his perfect, holy self to be crucified in our place. His death freed us from the grip of sin and Satan. The resurrection proves the victory.

Believe, and know that in believing, we now have power to grow and become the kind of people we were made to be, holy and living out God’s will in ways we never imagined possible under a system of laws.

Choose Your Master

Romans 6:15-23 (NLT)

Well then, since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does that mean we can go on sinning? Of course not! Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living.

Because of the weakness of your human nature, I am using the illustration of slavery to help you understand all this. Previously, you let yourselves be slaves to impurity and lawlessness, which led ever deeper into sin. Now you must give yourselves to be slaves to righteous living so that you will become holy.

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the obligation to do right. And what was the result? You are now ashamed of the things you used to do, things that end in eternal doom. But now you are free from the power of sin and have become slaves of God. Now you do those things that lead to holiness and result in eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.


Let’s start by looking at another important piece of Scripture in Acts 2:41-42, a picture of the church in its earliest days.

On Pentecost, after Jesus had ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit had fallen on Christ’s followers, Peter preached to curious people gathered in the streets. It was a most effective sermon.

“Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all,” the author of Acts tells us. “All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.”

Certainly, the grace of God was at work. People don’t come to a belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior unless God is at work. But in response, the believers did something, too.

They “devoted themselves.” They devoted themselves to study. The apostles would have used the Jewish Scriptures, what we now call the Old Testament, to help everyone understand who Jesus is in the context of Judaism.

They also devoted themselves to deep, deep fellowship. The church, the body of people who believed, became the center of most members’ lives. And they prayed, fervently.

Let’s name the key action again: They devoted themselves. To borrow from the imagery of a theologian named Helmut Thielicke, the believers opened their mouths so they could drink from the river of sanctifying grace. They were changed in the moment of salvation, and the change became an ongoing process that, with a little effort on their part, would continue for the rest of their lives.

Such effort is what Paul is describing in Romans. Paul uses a metaphor that can seem offensive today. If it makes you feel any better, it was offensive then—he practically apologizes for using it, saying the metaphor is necessary in order to penetrate weak, worldly minds.

If you’re going to be a Christian, you need to start thinking of yourself as an obedient slave, he says. Escaping the slavery of sin, you now must deliberately enslave yourselves to Christ.

Paul’s audiences, including us, find this offensive because of a delusion we like to maintain, the notion that we live our lives beholden to no one. We are, to use a very American word, independent people.

Yeah. Right. I remember thinking when I was a child, “I cannot wait until I grow up, because then no one will be able to tell me what to do.”

I grew up, and did I ever get a surprise. I had to get a job; with that job came a boss. I did what she told me to do, and I did what a series of bosses afterward told me to do. Even when I was a boss, I had a boss.

I continued my schooling in both college and seminary, and discovered those professors also had a lot of control over me. I appreciated the freedom of thought many of them gave me, but in the end, I did what they told me to do to earn those pieces of paper hanging on my wall.

Some of you here may be thinking, “Well, none of this applies to me now.” Maybe you’re retired or own your own business. “No one tells me what to do.”

Right. Call the IRS and inform them of your independence.

From a spiritual perspective, once we overcome the delusion of being beholden to no one, we should be delighted we can choose the perfect master. We have the opportunity to enslave ourselves to one who gives perfect, sacrificial love.

Our time as a slave to Christ is returned to us in immeasurably vast ways. We enslave our finite lives and receive eternal life.

Jesus said in Matthew 11:29-30: “Take my yoke upon you.” (When Jesus spoke, we were  metaphorically reduced to beasts of burden!) “Let me teach you because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find a rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

I don’t know about you, but I want a master who speaks such words, a master I can trust. To go back to last week’s imagery, I want to work in a safe field under a gentle master, with the assurance I have nothing to fear. When Satan was my master, fear ruled my day.

So, what does the new master call us to do? What are the tasks that “lead to holiness and result in eternal life?”

I hinted at them before as we looked at Acts. There is Scripture, where God reveals truth to us. There is fellowship, life in the church, where we find we are never alone. There is prayer.

Or, to boil it all down, there is a deep, loving relationship with the master and with each other.

Let me ask a question of those of you who are or have been married. If you spend just two minutes a day with your spouse, how will your marriage fare?

And yet, that’s how many of us approach our relationship with God, if we spend that much time. A quick devotional and we’re off to the daily races. We find time for other things—and there are so many other things—but God gets two minutes. Or less.

Saturday I saw some evidence of what it’s like to be in a community of people who take Scripture and prayer very seriously. Connie and I went to a gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. It is a reform group within the United Methodist Church calling us as a denomination back to our roots as Jesus-centered, Holy Spirit-filled people rooted in Scripture.

I was sitting in a lecture on “The Call to Holiness” and the speaker referenced the image in the sixth chapter of Isaiah of the angels surrounding the throne of God, crying out to one another … .

Well, that’s when it became interesting. A large ballroom filled with people suddenly resounded with, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory!” The crowd had finished his sentence without missing a beat.

The speaker stopped in his tracks, his eyebrows raised in surprise.

Perhaps he was taken aback at being in a room full of Methodists who actually knew their Bible. Not only that, they knew their Bible well enough to speak in confidence and in unison.

Their knowledge also clearly enhanced their prayer lives. For you see, in their unified voices, they joined in a prayer of praise that we believe goes on for all eternity.

It was a Holy Spirit goosebumps sort of moment.

I want us as a little church in Ten Mile, Tennessee, to have such moments. I want us to all know the stories. I want our prayer lives to be rich.

Here’s what I will devote myself to today: I will do all I can to make such moments happen. It is my particular job as a particular slave to Christ to help us toward such moments.

I cannot do it alone, however. If you are willing to devote yourselves, come let me know, and we will find a way.

Think About the Future

Romans 4:13-25 (NLT)

Clearly, God’s promise to give the whole earth to Abraham and his descendants was based not on his obedience to God’s law, but on a right relationship with God that comes by faith. If God’s promise is only for those who obey the law, then faith is not necessary and the promise is pointless. For the law always brings punishment on those who try to obey it. (The only way to avoid breaking the law is to have no law to break!)

So the promise is received by faith. It is given as a free gift. And we are all certain to receive it, whether or not we live according to the law of Moses, if we have faith like Abraham’s. For Abraham is the father of all who believe. That is what the Scriptures mean when God told him, “I have made you the father of many nations.” This happened because Abraham believed in the God who brings the dead back to life and who creates new things out of nothing.

Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping—believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead—and so was Sarah’s womb.

Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous. And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God.


If you engaged with last week’s sermon, you’ll notice that Paul this week simply continues to discuss Abraham and the nature of faith. I want to focus on a particular idea Paul raises, the importance of hope as an attitude to bolster our faith.

I’m liable to sound a little like a self-help guru today, but frankly, the ones I’ve heard simply repackage ancient concepts found in the Bible, enriching themselves in the process. That’s between the self-help gurus and God, I suppose. Maybe I’m just jealous—I could’ve been rich, if only I were better looking and not feeling bound to give credit where credit is due.

Let’s try a little exercise. I’m going to say a phrase and then we will pause for a few seconds. Here we go: Think about the future.

So, did you get a generally warm, happy feeling, or did you find yourself growing a little anxious? When it comes to the future, are you bullish or bearish?

Some of you felt a twinge of anxiety or fear, and that’s normal. We can always find reasons to be a little anxious. Bad things happen to good people. It’s a fact of life we all learn at a fairly early age.

Whether we let that anxiety control us says a lot about how much hope we carry in our hearts, however. And again, as Paul is telling us, hope and faith are intricately linked. At times, they seem to me to be almost indistinguishable.

Abraham had hope because he had heard from God and kept hearing from God. God was saying to Abraham, I know you’re really old and you don’t have any children by your wife. I promise you, you will. And from that child will come uncountable descendants, and blessings on the whole world.

As we discussed last week, Abraham sometimes struggled with how to move forward in life, but his faith grew even as he made mistakes. He had hope for the future, a future beyond his very long life, and his hope grew stronger as God slowly began the fulfillment of the promises.

He saw those promises fulfilled to the point where he was able to die a happy and confident man, having lived a “long and satisfying life” (Genesis 25:7). He was one who knew God would, in some mysterious way, care for him and his offspring forever.

If you’ll allow me, I also would ask you to think about something else. Think about the promises God has made us. I’m speaking to you as believers, of course—we who call ourselves Christians have accepted as valid and trustworthy these promises I want you to consider.

We are promised that death ultimately is meaningless. Death had great power over us, but Jesus broke that power when he died on the cross. We no longer slam into death and stop. We pass through death, it reduced to a thin veil, and we move on to eternal life with Christ.

We are promised that healing and holiness are available to us now. We are not simply afterlife gazers, people biding our time for a reward to come. We know that a life in Christ means this life, now.

Sure, we remain broken. We struggle, like old Abraham did. We slip and we sin. We carry the pain of wrongs done to us. But the more we engage with God, the more we are changed in this life. We are allowed to taste holiness and heaven now. That means the days ahead in this life should be brighter than the days behind us.

We are promised that the pain and suffering we already have experienced will be put away, reversed, healed in full. This is maybe the most mysterious promise of all, but it certainly should give us great hope. Those terrible events that have happened or may happen will not have everlasting effects. Somehow, God will make even the worst tragedies temporary ones.

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes,” Revelation 21 tells us, “and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

See a bright future before you, Christians. Live as people with an unending future, and let hope and joy into your present lives, strengthening your faith.

Family of Faith

Romans 4:1-12 (NLT)

Abraham was, humanly speaking, the founder of our Jewish nation. What did he discover about being made right with God? If his good deeds had made him acceptable to God, he would have had something to boast about. But that was not God’s way. For the Scriptures tell us, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.”

When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned. But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners. David also spoke of this when he described the happiness of those who are declared righteous without working for it:

“Oh, what joy for those
   whose disobedience is forgiven,
   whose sins are put out of sight.
Yes, what joy for those
   whose record the Lord has cleared of sin.”


Now, is this blessing only for the Jews, or is it also for uncircumcised Gentiles? Well, we have been saying that Abraham was counted as righteous by God because of his faith. But how did this happen? Was he counted as righteous only after he was circumcised, or was it before he was circumcised? Clearly, God accepted Abraham before he was circumcised!

Circumcision was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous—even before he was circumcised. So Abraham is the spiritual father of those who have faith but have not been circumcised. They are counted as righteous because of their faith. And Abraham is also the spiritual father of those who have been circumcised, but only if they have the same kind of faith Abraham had before he was circumcised.


Not many of us here today would claim to have Jewish blood, but we are invited to be a part of Abraham’s family, Paul tells us. We are made family not by blood, but by faith.

When we hear we are to have faith like Abraham, however, the idea can sound a bit daunting. After all, Abraham, called “Abram” early in his story in Genesis until God changes his name, is one of the great characters of the Bible. He lived to be 175, and is critical to the backstories of three major religions on the planet, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

When we look closely at the stories of Abraham in Genesis, however, we actually should find hope. I sometimes get the sense that people who don’t read the Bible have the impression it is about people who were impossibly perfect, maintaining standards of piety we could never hope to achieve. But those of us who read it regularly know differently—the Old Testament and the New Testament consistently tell tales of people failing repeatedly as they learn to trust God.

Let’s look at three places in Abraham’s story that help us see this truth more clearly.

Did the Father Fail?

It may be that Abraham is considered a great patriarch of the Bible in part because his father, Terah, failed to follow through on his own calling. This prequel to Abraham’s story is sparing in detail, but Genesis 11:31-32 says Terah was first to head toward the Promised Land.

For unknown reasons, he instead pulled up short in a place called Haran.

Once Terah had died, God told Abraham to finish the journey. We can never be certain Abraham ultimately finished a task his father was first called by God to complete, but it’s not difficult to read such a possibility between the lines of Terah’s story.

If so, struggling with how much to trust God was a family problem. Abraham’s son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob, certainly continued the tradition themselves.

Really, She’s My Sister!

In Genesis 12, we see Abraham appear weak-kneed in the face of adversity for the first time, and this not long after God had promised him that his descendants would be a great nation, and that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him.

Shortly after entering Canaan, a great famine struck, forcing Abraham and all of his relatives to go to Egypt. While there, he became concerned the Egyptians would kill him in order to take his very beautiful wife. His wife was about 65 at the time, but people seem to age at a different rate in these stories, living much longer than we do now.

Rather than trusting in the promises he had recently heard from God, his solution was to lie, telling his wife to say she was his sister. It was sort of a half-lie, or maybe a lie of omission—we learn later in Genesis she actually was his half-sister. Pharaoh himself was the one who wanted her, but he sent her back to Abraham in haste when plagues struck his household and he realized the deceit that had occurred.

Even then, Pharaoh didn’t kill Abraham, but instead sent him away enriched. We can presume Pharaoh feared offending God further. But still, none of Abraham’s plotting seems appropriate for a man of great faith.

My Two Sons

As the narrative of Abraham proceeds, God makes more promises regarding descendants, but Abraham continues to hedge his bets. His unwillingness to let God be fully in control led to the whole Hagar incident. Remember that one?

Now about 75, Sarah figured there was no way she was going to be able to have a baby, so she convinced Abraham to instead make one with her servant, Hagar. Ultimately, Ishmael was born, and if you’ve ever heard the story in Genesis 16, you know that nothing but jealousy and trouble ensued.

Faith as a Process

These stories show us Abraham wasn’t born faithful. God went so far as to speak great promises to him, visibly showing up and sending angels his way. And yet, Abraham often fell short when it came time to demonstrate he believed God would always take care of him and his descendants.

All of those earlier failures bring a particular poignancy to the story where we do see Abraham demonstrate great faith. He finally had the son he had always wanted from Sarah, Isaac, a miracle boy, born to a 90-year-old mother and a 100-year-old father.

Befitting its time, the story is Bronze Age primitive. In Genesis 22, God tells Abraham, take your son Isaac and sacrifice him. Lay him on an altar, slaughter him and burn him up. And this time, Abraham, didn’t connive. He took no half measures. Horrible as it seemed, he was ready to do it, stopped only by the intervention of an angel at the very last second. This is the moment when God recognized Abraham as being truly faithful.

Yes, Paul says we have to have faith like Abraham to be part of his spiritual family. As Christians, we have to have faith that the promises made to Abraham ultimately are fulfilled in the world through Jesus Christ. We are to have faith that Christ’s death on the cross is enough. All who believe are incorporated into that spiritual family God will care for forever.

We may not have a powerful faith all at once, however. Remember, Paul knew these stories of Abraham well. He knew the story of Abraham’s faith is a story of falling short in behavior and of trying again. When we doubt or connive, we are very much like Abraham sometimes was well up to age 100.

How do we grow in faith? We try to be more conscious every day of our need to trust God’s plan for the world, a plan being brought to fruition by the work of Christ. We act in faith, trusting God’s scriptural guidance even when our actions may scare us a little, or a lot.

I’m reminded of another story, one of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. After failing as a missionary in North America, he returned to England with his tail between his legs. Despite being an ordained Anglican priest, he realized his faith was somewhere between weak and nonexistent.

He asked a Moravian missionary friend of his, Peter Boehler, if he should give up preaching altogether. Certainly not, Boehler told him. Instead, his advice was, “Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

Most of you don’t literally preach from a pulpit, but if you’re struggling in matters of faith, the principle remains the same. Live each day as if you have faith. Make decisions as if you believe God is on your side, that the cross matters, and that Christ’s kingdom grows stronger each day.

Eventually, you will have a powerful, indefatigable faith, and because you have it, you will show it to others, drawing them to a life of faith, too.


The Featured image is Phillip Medhurst’s “Abraham and the Angels,” circa 1795.