The Word This Weekend – August 11, 2019
The Rev. Dr. William L. Hurst
FLCS Senior Pastor
The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”
But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own child shall be your heir.” And God took him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then God said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he trusted the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:1-6)
Our texts this weekend include a striking story from the Bible’s first book – Genesis. Among the principal narratives in this “book of beginnings” is the saga of Abram (“Father of a nation”), later named Abraham (“Father of many nations”). This nomadic wanderer from Ur of the Chaldees (modern-day Syria/Iraq), emerges from the mist of Genesis’ first stories with his kith and kin and flocks and herds, armed with the promise to become a great nation, as expansive as the sands of the desert and the stars that stretch across the night sky.
Yet he has no child. No child. No bearer of the promise, no progeny to advance the family saga. No heir, and for that ancient culture, no prospect for the future.
“And Abram trusted God’s word, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
And, of course, we know how the story spins out from there. Abram, following ancient practice, has a child with his wife Sarai’s handmaiden Hagar, the child called Ishmael (“God hears you”). Later in the saga, Abraham and Sarah, long past child bearing capacity, produce a son of their own: Isaac (“He laughs”). Even later, after Sarah’s death, Abraham fathers six more children. By this reckoning, Abraham eventually receives all that God promises, and truly owns his name, “Father of many nations.”
But for me, long before the “all’s well that ends well” of Abraham’s eventual armful of children and heirs – long before the nations that will spring from his loins, before the emergence of the diverse communities that will claim Abraham and his sons Ishmael and Isaac as their progenitors, comprising the three great Abrahamic faiths that number the vast majority of the world’s peoples – there is this moment of reckoning.
The reckoning. Faith in an impossible, or at least improbable promise. Faith in the face of a promise unlikely, unheard of, unknown and unacceptable.
Belief in the unbelievable. That God reckons as Righteousness.
This text is about faith, to be sure. But it’s also about the Reckoning. What I mean is that, quite apart and beyond the incredible promises of an heir-apparent where no heir is apparent, this is a text about how God reckons things, and people.
“And God reckoned it to him as Righteousness.” This word, in Hebrew tsedeqah, has a range of meanings in the Hebrew Bible, and in its references in the Greek scriptures as well, translated dikaiosune. It can mean justice, uprightness, regal dignity, and a host of other honorific meanings. In my New York community we often heard and shared the Yiddish equivalent of this word, Mensch. “What a mensch,” we’d say, meaning someone honorable, strong, upright and worthy of respect. For the Apostle Paul, the word denotes being right with God, and safe within God’s salvific action. For Matthew the evangelist, referring to figures like Joseph the Lord’s childhood guardian, it means one who is upright in stature and in God’s way of justice.
What is important in this tsedeqah designation is not only what it is, but what it is not, for Abraham and for any of us who would claim to be heirs and children. Because Abraham is no dashboard saint, no perfect specimen. The Genesis account makes clear that this great Patriarch is far from ideal in his actions and words. He can be vain as well as compassionate, willful as well as humble. He can be a trickster when it suits his purposes, as when he falsely claims Sarah to be his sister rather than his wife to trick a tribal king who has an eye for her beauty. Our Great Ancestor is imperfect and flawed, as are we all.
His righteousness, as the righteousness of all who would claim his ancestry, comes not from any intrinsic perfection or accomplishment before God. Such righteousness is reckoned, declared and applied to this human clump of clay. Reckoned not through achievement, but through faith.
So, whether our heritage be as Islamic children of Ishmael, Jewish children of Isaac, or children by virtue of the heritage of the Christ – these claims rest not on what we have done, accomplished or achieved. They rest entirely and totally on God’s initiative, and our trust in that initiative and upon those promises. Or, as Martin Luther so forcefully put it, “on faith alone.”
And not just faith as a wordy “I believe.” Because, after the example of Abraham, such faith is a trust expressed and held in the midst of impossible circumstances. It shines through moments of doubt, moments of adversity, times when everything around us says, “Give up! Make other arrangements! Reject God’s promises or providence!” Such faith holds to the life-preserver even when it feels more like a cinder block. Such faith strains to see grace when all appearances are to the contrary. Such faith comes not from what we can see, prove, or explain.
Such faith is, when all is said and done, a blind dependence on what God has said and God has done. It is faith in the unseen, faith in the unknown, faith in the incomparable and unassailable truth of God’s ultimate wisdom and mercy. It is the faith of the Cross.
So, I look forward to seeing you, or sharing with you, in the assembly of Abraham’s Children this weekend -- as we drink deep of the word of promise, wash anew in the river of life, and feast at the powerful feast of forgiveness and reckoned righteousness. See you in worship and in faith, as we reckon the world to be not what we can see or evaluate by our limitations, but rest instead in what God reckons and God promises. See you in the moment of blind yet seeing faith. For God reckons it, God promises it, and, appearances or circumstances notwithstanding, God will deliver. For Abraham, for his posterity, and for his community that trusts and abides in that great and saving reckoning.
With You in God’s Good Work,