Good Shepherd Ev. Lutheran, Sioux Falls, SD
Pentecost 12—Sept. 1, 2019 (Labor Day Weekend)
Today we learn to do the impossible. With a God who is very personal. But to learn this, we need to hear a story.
Our story starts with a man enjoying his moment in the sun. He had won and winning feels great. He had done one of the manliest things a guy can do. He saw innocent men, women and children being mistreated, hauled away, including his own nephew and family. And there was no one to do anything about it but him. So he pulled a John Maclean and went after the bad guys himself. Caught up to them, he and his posse. Let them have it. And he brings all the men, women, and children back home safe and sound. This is what Abraham did, as it says at the end of chapter 14, right before our text begins. This was a great moment in his life. You can imagine the party they must have had after all this. And you’ve had some pretty good days, too, haven’t you. And some pretty good parties.
But…and you knew that was coming, didn’t you. Because that’s how it always is. No matter how good your life-is-good moment or day or week or month is, there is always a but. So it was for Abraham, too.
The Book of Wisdom says, “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and joy may end in grief.” (Prov. 14:13 ) And that’s what we see in Abraham. An aching heart. There’s a special kind of fear in his heart, the kind that feels like anxiety bacon-style-wrapped in melancholy. You can tell this is how he is feeling by how God speaks to Abraham. Since God doesn’t do idle chitchat, he says exactly what Abraham needed to hear. Which is why we know that Abraham was apparently feeling low and confused and afraid. Because God says to him, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield and your very great reward.”
Can you imagine God saying that to you? If God came up to you and said this, wouldn’t your anxiety and melancholy just vanish? If God himself said to you, “Hey, Pastor W, I am your shield, I am your security, I am your health plan retirement portfolio, reputation defender, and bodyguard detail all in one.” Wouldn’t that be great if he said that to you. But, of course, he has. In Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and strength” (v.1) or Psalm 28:7, “The LORD is my strength and my shield.” My shield. And yours too. Not just Abraham’s. Shame on you for holding on to your anxiety. Shame on you for holding on to your melancholy. And shame on me. May God forgive us! And he has, in Christ. So, let go of the anxiety and melancholy. For our Lord would have you smile again.
And then there’s that confusing part, when God adds, “…and your very great reward.” Reward? That’s not how God, operates, is it. Isn’t his love and forgiveness and salvation a free gift in Christ? Yes. And so God is using the word “reward” like we do when we say, “The reward of having your downspouts properly hooked up is that, when it rains, you don’t get water in your basement.” What we mean is that it is the beneficial outcome, not that the downspouts owed it to you. Abraham’s beneficial outcome in following the Word of the God was the same beneficial outcome you and I get when we follow the Word of our God—God himself, if you can believe it. God himself. Not because he owes it to us to
give himself to us, but because he is a God who longs to have a relationship with each of us, individually. A relationship based not on earning his approval or love, but on forgiveness, undeserved love, and truth.
But Abraham isn’t listening very well. But maybe you can relate; I can. Hard to listen to the Word of our Lord when you’re feeling low or sick with worry. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Just means you need to work harder at listening. Abraham says, “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?”
Ah, that’s what was on his mind. Abraham wants a child. Now, he wants a child for the same reasons we might want children–but also for one more reason. And this is a big one. Bigger than all the rest of the reasons combined. The Savior of the world had to come from Abraham and Sarah’s genetic material. God said so. Eliezer, the servant, can inherit the money and property of Abraham. But he can’t carry on the promise of the Savior. If Abraham and Sarah have no child, there will be no Savior of the world. Which would mean there would be no Savior for Abraham. Or Sarah. Or you. Or me. Interesting, isn’t it, how quickly the Bible becomes very personal.
Because God is very personal. As the theologians put it, God is a personal God. A God of relationship. Which is why he wants us to trust him. Because at bottom, that’s what every good relationship is based on. Trust.
And there’s only one thing God asks you to trust—the impossible. That’s all. Just trust the impossible things he says in his Word. To trust that you are safer having him as your shield than you are with a great health care plan and a stuffed-to-the-gills retirement plan and a bodyguard detail made up of Eddie Alveraz, Chuck Norris, and an entire platoon of Navy Seals.
Yes, God knows that trusting him and his promises this much is impossible. Shame on those who think that they are so committed or convinced or ready that they can make their own decision to believe! No, God knows that trusting him and his promises is impossible–that’s why he himself does it in us. That’s why he sends the Holy Spirit to work this kind of faith in our hearts as we hear and learn his Word. As Luther puts in in the small catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel.”
And why continuing to hear and learn his Word is so important—because every day, Satan is taking his razor-sharp, jagged fingernails and taking gouges out of your faith, this impossible thing called faith. And the Holy Spirit is the only one who can fix those gouges. And in fact, he can do more than just fix them—he can reinforce them, to make them even stronger than before. And this he does through words–as we hear God’s Word again and again and celebrate his Sacraments again and again.
For Abraham, that meant trusting the impossible promise that he and Sarah would have a child. Abraham–who is grandpa-aged, and Sarah who is grandma-aged and who was unable to have children even when she was young. God wants them to trust that they are going to have a baby and have it the old fashioned way. Oh, and one more thing: he would ask them to wait years before this would happen.
And the amazing thing is, they did. As we heard in the Second Lesson, “By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.” (Heb. 11:11)
That’s what faith is, at bottom. Trust that God will do what he has said in his Word that he will do. No matter how impossible it may seem, to do not what WE wish or dream up or imagine or even want, but to do what HE has promised. Like the “but” after your life-is-good moment or day or week, to trust that he will take whatever pain you are going through and make sure it works so much good that when you get to heaven you can look back and say, “Wow, thank you for that pain, Lord—that was just what I needed at that time!” Or to do the impossible thing of believing, actually believing, that death is just a form of sleep, that’s all. That on the Last Day, he will wake everyone up. For those who come before him with the nice things they have done, he will blast them with his raging fists and sweep them into hell. For those who come before him with nothing but their sin, his raging fists will open into a loving embrace. For that is what Christ’s outstretched arms did on the cross—by paying for our sin, he turned God’s clenched fists of rage into open hands of welcome and love. This is what God asks you to trust. Simply because he said it is so in his Word.
But maybe you are more of a visual person? Well, our Lord gives us not only his words for our ears, but also something for our eyes. For Abraham, it was the stars. “‘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.’” From then on, in all those years Abraham waited for a son to be born, imagine him stepping outside on a frosty winter’s night (because you can see the stars the best on cold nights), and he’s shivering, and he looks up and sees the Milky Way, so thick with stars it almost looks like smog, and he remembers this promise. And he smiles and feels kinda warm.
For us, our Lord has given water and bread and wine. He attaches his Word of the Gospel to those visual elements. In the water of baptism, he washes away the sins of our whole life, adopts us as his children, and promises to take us to heaven at the last. So that every time you wash your hands or take a shower, you can think, “Just as this water makes my outside clean, so the water of my baptism makes my inside clean 24 hours a day.” And in the Lord’s Supper, he gives us proof positive that Jesus thought about ME as he hung on the cross; for he gives ME the true body and blood of Christ in, with, and under the bread and wine. It is called “the Lord’s Supper” so that every time you sit down to an ordinary supper you can think, “This ordinary supper is to satisfy the needs of my body, just like the Lord’s Supper satisfies the needs of my soul, the need for forgiveness, for life, for salvation.”
It is this trust in God’s promises that God credited to Abraham as righteousness. “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” The Hebrew word for “credited” means “how you think or reckon something/someone” When God credited Abraham’s faith to him as righteousness, God was saying, “When I think about Abraham, and I think about him all the time, I think he’s a righteous man, exactly the kind I am looking for.” Not because Abraham was such a good person, but because he trusted in the righteousness and forgiveness that the Savior would win.
Which is what God thinks about you who believe what he has said in his Word and Sacraments. He says to himself, “When I think of _________, I think he’s/she’s a righteous
person, exactly the kind of person I am looking for.” Not because we are such good people, but because the Holy Spirit has done the impossible in us—worked in us the faith to trust his promises, even when they seem impossible.
Which brings us back to where we started. Learning to do the impossible. Learning to trust God and his Word no matter what. So impossible is this, that the Holy Spirit himself works this faith in you as you hear sermons, listen to the Scripture lessons, sing the liturgy, have devotions at home. And he does this one heart at a time. Which is a very, very personal thing to do. But our God is a personal God. And if he gives you this kind personal attention right now as you are hearing his Word, don’t you think he’ll give you his personal attention all week long, too? Amen.