Sunday, June 14, 2020

Glory, Faith, and the Justice of God: Sermon on Romans 4:13-25

It was a Sunday morning in Rome, and Aquila was just glad to be back. He and his wife Priscilla had been gone – exiled from the city by the last emperor's aggravation. But now they lived in a decent apartment. It was small for their standards, but at least large enough to cram some other people into. So they were – they welcomed the church into their tight walls, glad to see them, be they Jew or Gentile. They knew that, elsewhere in the city, other churches were gathering too. But this morning, up the stairs comes a familiar face: Phoebe, a well-to-do woman from the port town near Corinth. “Phoebe! What are you doing here?” blurts Aquila. And then how must Aquila and Priscilla feel, to know that Phoebe has in tow a whopping-big letter from their old friend Paul back in Corinth? Because Aquila and Priscilla sure feel like they need some of Paul's famed advice this morning. The Roman churches are all back – the Jews have been restored to the city – but things just aren't the same. There's so much racial division, so much conflict, so much boasting: Jew against Gentile, Gentile against Jew, 'strong' against 'weak,' 'weak' against 'strong,' church against church, church within church! Everything feels so tense.

After their opening hymn, Priscilla and Aquila cede the floor to Phoebe, who begins reading Paul's letter. They hear with excitement about the famous Paul's burning desire to come announce good news right to their faces, right under Caesar's nose – the good news that in Jesus, rescue has come to the world and can come to Jew and Gentile alike, people of any race, on equal footing. Paul reminds them that Gentile cultures all carry seeds of deep destruction. For every Gentile culture has always led to the same place, ultimately – and certainly the emperor's own life is proof! In spite of God revealing himself in creation, “they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened; claiming to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (Romans 1:21-24), which gave rise to “all manner of unrighteousness,” all kinds of injustice and oppression and chaos in the world (Romans 1:29). That's where Gentile cultures, even mighty Roman culture, would always sink, left to itself. And it all comes down to a refusal to give glory to God, preferring instead lesser aims and lesser things.

But just the same, Phoebe reads, Paul reminds them that Jewish culture brought its own distinctive pitfalls. “All who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law” (Romans 2:12), and while his own ethnic people had often positioned themselves as enlightened, civilized, guides to the blind sitting in judgment against other nations, “rely[ing] on the Law and boast[ing] in God” (Romans 2:17-19), they frequently had succumbed to hypocrisy in their law-breaking: “You who boast in the Law dishonor God by breaking the Law” (Romans 2:23), and “if you break the Law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision” (Romans 2:25). And that, too, robs God of rightful glory. Paul admits that Jews have enjoyed the high privilege of God's tutoring through the Law (Romans 3:1-2), but this privilege doesn't give them room for boasting as better – neither Jewish culture nor Gentile culture can save from sin (Romans 3:9). All people and all peoples alike are mired in sin, all fall short of glorifying God (Romans 3:23). But now there's a third way, a way to be set right by the light of God's favor shining through Jesus – the unveiling of God's own justice, in a way that undercuts all our boasts (Romans 3:21-30).

As Phoebe's read these things, Aquila's heard reactions around the room. The few Gentiles present squirmed in discomfort and ground their teeth during the first part, but the tables turned in the second, and more and more people have been grumbling. Now, a man stands up to interrupt Phoebe's reading, and she politely pauses to hear him out. “No!” the man blurts, “we are better, we are! We have Abraham, a more honorable father than Romulus and Remus! For don't the Psalms of Solomon exclaim how God 'chose the descendants of Abraham above all the nations' (Psalms of Solomon 9.9)? And isn't that because of how perfectly Abraham kept the Law of Moses in advance of even hearing about it? For 'Abraham was perfect in all of his actions with the Lord and was pleasing through righteousness all the days of his life' (Jubilees 23.10)! By his merit, Abraham won the honor that covers his children, his heirs – we sons of Abraham are better people than those... other ethnicities.”

Phoebe listened sympathetically to the tirade. She waited for it to play itself out. She knew Paul had seen it all coming, and had written a reply in advance. So she picked up reading where she left off. If the blurting man was going to point to traditions about Abraham, Paul could do the same. Because the same traditions imagined a young Abram living in a land of idolatry, raised in its ungodliness, but rejecting that legacy and distancing himself from his family because he reasoned his way from the grandeur of nature back to the far grander Creator (Jubilees 11-12). And is that not the story the Gentile Christians are themselves reliving – the acknowledgment of their old ways as ungodly, and having their eyes opened by the God they forgot they knew? What set Abraham right, what put Abraham on the good side of God's justice, was not his circumcision or the rest of his doing the works of the Law of Moses. Those things hadn't even entered the picture the first time Moses talks about Abraham as righteousness. No, what's credited on Abraham's account as righteousness enough, as justice enough, is how he believes God's promise (Romans 4:3, cf. Genesis 15:6). His justification isn't so much a payday as a celebratory birthday gift (Romans 4:4-5). “The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (Romans 4:11-12).

This Abraham was promised great things – among which, that he and his family would inherit the whole world (Romans 4:13). But who are his family? Just those who look one way, who have one DNA, one history, one skin color? No, he was promised he'd be the “father of many nations,” the father of many different ethnicities (Romans 4:17, cf. Genesis 17:4-5). How'd that happen? He was given the promise, but then “he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), [and] he considered the deadness of Sarah's womb” (Romans 4:19). Two weeks ago today, you heard in the news about the death of a woman named Irene Triplett, famous as the last surviving recipient of a Civil War pension. She was born in 1930, and her father was a Civil War veteran – 83 years old when she was born! Remarkable and surprising, yes – not quite a miracle. But Abraham was sixteen years older than old Moses Triplett, and while Mr. Triplett's wife Elida was just 34 when Irene was born, that wasn't so for Abraham's wife Sarah. No, Abraham looked reality square in the face – and reality was dead. But did a dead reality weaken the liveliness of God's promise? The God Abraham trusted is a God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that don't exist” (Romans 4:17)! So when the means and the mechanisms were all dead and all hopeless, Abraham anchored his hope in the promise anyway, certain that he really would “become the father of many nations” (Romans 4:18).

Abraham was “fully convinced,” Paul writes, “that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:21). Abraham's reality was dead. Sarah's reality was dead. But he trusted God to make dead things live. Abraham trusted in a God of resurrections. And so no doubt made his trust waver. His faith strengthened. How did it do that? What happened? It happened “as he gave glory to God” (Romans 4:20). Abraham didn't take credit for his virility or for Sarah's fertility. Abraham didn't boast about his deservingness to have children. Abraham didn't take pride in the color of his skin or the artful lawfulness of his behavior or the heritage of his clan. Abraham honored God as the One who, unlike every idol and every force of nature, could and would deliver on the most radical promises. And Abraham bowed to God's gravity, let himself be pulled along from house and home, let himself be pulled along through life to places that looked dead, let himself be pulled into lofty expectations, let himself be pulled over the edge to the wild place where only faith takes flight. Abraham let God's gravity pull him aloft and leave himself behind – let it pull him where he had no footing to boast in, captured by God's gravity and not his own pretended gravitas. Abraham's footsteps were in a resurrection-faith in the God who could raise any deadness in him. The opposite of idolatry and the opposite of boasting, Abraham's resurrection-faith was stretched by glorifying God.

Good for Abraham! But what does it mean for you and me, here and now, in the America of the twenty-first century, living thousands of years since Paul wrote to the Romans, which itself was nearly just as long after the days of Father Abraham? I'd point us to three important things for the moment we live in.

First, there is a God who is greatly faithful. He is faithful to his every word. He is faithful to his every promise. And he has made some daring promises! He promised to make Abraham, body nearly dead, into the fatherliest father who ever fathered. And he did. He promised to send a Savior to Abraham's heirs. And he did. He promised Abraham the land, and more than that, the whole world. And above all, God has promised to make a new thing. He promised to “create a new heavens and a new earth” without “the sound of weeping and the cry of distress” (Isaiah 65:17,19). And so “according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells,” a new creation where justice lives – a new earth where there will be nothing left to protest against, nothing left to weep over, nothing left to fear, nothing left to lament (2 Peter 3:13). And that is the world that those who pursue Christ have the promise of inheriting as our very own home (Romans 8:17). This world may be scarred with injustice, this world may be marred by chaos, but justice will be at home in the new world we're waiting to inherit! The countdown has already begun.

Second, the justice of God breaks into our lives by a resurrection-faith, our family resemblance to Father Abraham. It was by resurrection-faith – faith in the God who gives life to the dead – that Abraham became the father of many nations, the father of all who would one day have that kind of faith. And that kind of faith was written down in God's book as the very justice and righteousness of God in Abraham's life. But, Paul adds, “the words 'it was counted to him' weren't written for his sake alone, but for ours also! It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:23-25). The same God who gave life to Abraham's body and Sarah's body is the very God who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead. And the same faith Abraham needed to trust a God of Resurrection is the faith that is uniquely and distinctively and majestically Christian: a resurrection-faith.

For Jesus was “delivered up for our trespasses.” Brothers and sisters, we've done a lot wrong – as individuals, as a community, even as a nation. That's not a new idea; it's just the basic definition of sin. It's what sin means, that's what trespasses mean: we have done wrongs. And some of those very wrongs are the wrongs working themselves out on the national stage today. Sin finds ways to entrap every cultural heritage and make it a vehicle for ensnaring people in systems of injustice, for dividing us, and for tricking us into boasting. Our past is deeply stained by sin, and its legacy haunts us, in more ways than one. 

But in place of our blood being drained dry to pay for it, Jesus was delivered up and gave his blood for us all. All the stains of our past, all the ways we're still playing out that legacy, all the ways we're still complicit in systems of injustice and outrage and lawlessness and chaos – Jesus was delivered up to end it, Jesus was delivered up to make us clean, Jesus was delivered up to kill the sins we carry. 

And not only was Jesus “delivered up for our trespasses,” but he was “raised for our justification,” he was raised to new life so that we could be set right. Staring the reality of an outraged world in the face, there are many ways we're tempted to obsess with the justice of man. And make no mistake, we are commanded by God himself to work for justice and to live in justice (e.g., Genesis 18:19). But the justice of God can't be brought to earth by more and more anger (James 1:20), the lesson every day's news reveals we still fail to learn. No, the justice of God is brought to earth by Jesus being raised from the dead – that was the most just thing, the most righteous thing that ever happened, the overturning of death's unjust verdict against Jesus the Righteous, Jesus the Innocent. And that great justice of God invades the deadness of our world in the movement of the risen Jesus who already suffered in hopes that we would be set right and would use his life to keep righting what goes wrong.

Third, because Jesus is where our resurrection-faith in God (like Abraham's faith) anchors, this faith undercuts the plague of racial division and racial boasting that afflicts America today. I know this isn't a comfortable topic for us. It irks us, challenges us, shames us – and maybe, with the relentless and all-consuming attention lately, even at times annoys us. But it would be difficult to watch even fifteen or twenty minutes of the news on any day and go on to deny that America has a problem (though we may not all agree what it is). Each of us might wish to exempt him- or herself from that problem, just as Roman Jews and Roman Gentiles wanted to exempt their own racial or ethnic legacy from being vehicles of sin. But the same cycle of boasting that entrapped the Roman churches also pulls at America's seams today – and only surrender to a stronger gravity can pull us back from this precipice.

Whatever privileges or disadvantages our forefathers after the flesh may have passed down for our help or for our hurt, the word we need is the word of a common father whose legacy we can share. We need a common father of many ethnicities – not erasing those ethnic backgrounds, but binding them together. And that's what God gives us in Abraham: a father for all the faithful, for all who walk in resurrection-faith, a father for many nations. This Abraham found no room in his life for boasting before God. Neither can we. In these times of testing, we may be tempted to waver. But like Abraham, we can find our faith strengthened amidst the chaos of the news, even by the chaos of the news. God surveys the chaos and injustice of a deathwish world, and by Jesus he shouts, But I will give life to the dead!

Yes, some of our ancestors once wallowed in grave injustices. Yes, many of our ancestors exchanged the glory of God for a sorry array of pitiful things – including, at times, the worship of the color of their own skin. As the news presses on us, we may be tempted to nurture some form of that in our hearts, and blind ourselves to the cycle of boasting that pulls at our seams. But the good news is that there is a stronger gravity to pulls us back from the precipice. And that stronger gravity is the glory of God. Turn, oh turn, and break the cycle! Break the cycle by giving glory to God! Walk in the wise footsteps of Abraham's faith, an Abrahamic resurrection-faith in the God who works by Jesus, and grow strong in this hour of crisis. Trust the God who enlivens what's dead, and let the gravity of his glory hoist you high!  And persevere: there's a world to inherit where the justice of God fully dwells.

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