The Fifth Sunday in Lent| March 25, 2012| Rev. Rolf Preus| Genesis 12:1-3
Now the LORD had said to Abram: “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:1-3
They call Judaism, Islam, and Christianity the three “Abrahamic” religions because each of these religions claims Abraham as their father. The Jews claim Abraham as their father through Isaac. The Muslims claim Abraham as their father through Ishmael. The Christians claim Abraham as their father through Jesus Christ.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are familiar names to us Christians. We teach our children all about these famous patriarchs. They grow up learning about how God told Abraham leave his homeland to go to a land he would show him. Abraham left his home and family and followed God’s call to where he did not know. They learn how God promised a son to Abraham and miraculously gave him one. They hear God’s command Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah. They see how God spared Isaac at the last minute, providing a ram in his place. They learn of Jacob’s ladder that reached to heaven. When they learn these stories, they are learning their own history. Abraham is the spiritual father of us Christians. The promises that God promised to Abraham belong to those who share the faith of Abraham. As St. Paul wrote, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:29) Abraham was a Christian. He was a Christian some two thousand years before anyone was called a Christian. Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” (John 8:56)
When we think of the great nation that God promised would come from Abraham we might at first think of the ancient nation of Israel that came to its pinnacle of greatness during the reigns of King David and King Solomon a thousand years after God gave the promise. But that nation was divided by civil war and later taken away into captivity. It never regained the greatness it had under King David. By the time Jesus was born another thousand years had gone by and that great nation had fallen far from its former glory. It had become a mere province of the Roman Empire. When Jesus came into this world he did so as the physical son of David because he was from the line of David on both his mother’s and his stepfather’s side. But there was no prestigious throne for him to claim. Herod called himself the king of the Jews, but his hold on power was rather tenuous. Nobody ruled in that part of the world without the say so of Caesar. God had promised to bless those who blessed Abraham. It did not look at if that blessing would amount to much. Those who cursed the physical descendants of Abraham appeared to be able to do so with impunity. And there were precious few that blessed the Jews. The Jews suffered persecution after persecution.
The honor of the Jews is Jesus. Jesus was born a Jew of a Jewish mother. All of his closest disciples were Jews. The first Christians were Jews. The first ministers of the church were Jews. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were honored above any nation. God chose that nation as his own. He gave them his holy word. From them the Savior of the world was born. When God chose to become a man he chose to become a Jew. God’s love for the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob cannot be denied. The tears Jesus cried over the destruction of Jerusalem were the very tears of God.
The glory of Israel is Christ, as we sing of him, “A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people, Israel.” There is no glory for any people, tribe, nation, or language apart from Christ. No people is God’s people apart from faith in Christ. This goes for Jews, Americans, Norwegians, Nigerians, and everyone else. Jews who reject Jesus are no more God’s people than Turks who reject Jesus are God’s people.
It is popular these days to teach that God still has a covenant relationship with the Jews and that the state of Israel that presently exists in Palestine is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Folks will argue that God’s promise to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you” applies today to the Jewish people and the Jewish state of Israel. This is not true. When God promised to bless those who blessed Abraham and to curse those who cursed Abraham he was not talking about favoring one political entity, or race, or ethnic group over another. When God said to Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” he was talking about the blessing that Christ Jesus – the Seed of Abraham – would bring to the world. He was not playing political favorites as if to suggest that if America does not provide military support for Israel God will curse America. Those who bless Abraham are those who bless Christ, Abraham’s seed. Those who curse Abraham are those who curse Christ. The Bible says not one word about the modern day state of Israel or about the United States either, for that matter. The promises that God gave to ancient Israel he fulfilled in Christ. Those who have Christ are the true children of Abraham.
Abraham is not the spiritual father of modern Judaism or Islam. These religions both teach salvation by works. Abraham didn’t believe in salvation by works. He believed in grace. When God called him out of the land of Ur, out of his father’s house, out of the idolatry in which he was raised, God did so by grace alone. Why did God choose Abraham? We can no more answer that question than we can say why God loves us. He just did. He chose Abraham. He called Abraham. He promised Abraham wonderful blessings. He would be the father of a great nation. His name would become great. People all over the world would be blessed through him. And why should God do this for a man who did not seek after God but worshipped idols? God should do this because God is gracious. A gracious God does gracious things.
That’s what Abraham trusted in. He trusted in the grace of God. He trusted in his own Descendent who would bring that grace to a fallen sinful humanity. Listen to how St. Paul describes the faith of Abraham, our spiritual father.
What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness. (Romans 4:1-5)
How could Abraham leave everything he had known and loved to go wherever God told him to go? He had God’s promise. He trusted in God’s promise. He did not trust in his works. He trusted in him who justifies the ungodly. Abraham was ungodly when God called him. He was an unbeliever. When God justifies the ungodly he makes them godly. He reckons to them the obedience of Jesus Christ as their righteousness. He washes away their sins by Jesus’ blood.
“In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” That’s what God promised to Abraham. “In you” means “in Christ.” Christ lived in Abraham’s body. Today we observe the Fifth Sunday in Lent, but it is also the Festival of the Annunciation. March 25 is nine months before Christmas Day. On this day the Church celebrates the appearance of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary. He said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women.” How so? How is Mary blessed among women? She is blessed for the same reason that Abraham was blessed. The blessing she has received is the reason all the families of the earth shall be blessed in Abraham. He who was in Abraham by promise became flesh and blood in Mary’s womb. Abraham is the father of us Christians. Mary is our mother. God chose Abraham. God chose Mary. God’s choice is the choice of grace. If anyone would be blessed by God that blessing must come from him who was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man.
Abraham saw Jesus’ day. Two thousand years later Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce to her that God had kept the promise he gave to Abraham. Jesus declared, “Before Abraham was, I am.” The eternal God – who was, is, and is to come – joined the human race and made Mary his mother. He came into this world to do for Abraham and Abraham’s descendents what God promised to Abraham so many years before.
Faith is the most wonderful of God’s gifts, yet the least appreciated. We hear of “people of faith” in contexts that would suggest that one faith is as good as another. Prince Charles of Great Britain even suggested that his title, “Defender of the Faith” should be changed to, “Defender of the Faiths,” so as not to exclude the Muslim faith. And of course this makes perfect sense if faith comes from us and is produced by us and reflects our own human striving toward God. Who is to say that this person has a greater spiritual vitality than that person? So who is to say that this way of ascending toward God is superior to that way? How can anyone judge one religion to be superior to another without elevating this group of people above that group of people? Should not all people humble themselves before God?
Yes, they most certainly should. And that’s the whole point. Faith is not how we pull ourselves up to God. Faith is God’s work; not ours. It is in us. It is we who are believing. Faith is not imposed on us against our will. To the contrary, when God brings us to faith he works wonders on our will, making the unwilling willing. Faith is a personal assent to and trust in everything God reveals to us to believe. Jesus Christ is the center of it all.
The question is not whether you have faith. It is whether you have Christ. Faith is no blessing when is does not grasp Jesus Christ. It isn’t true faith at all. It’s presumption, blindness, and confusion. The blessing comes from God who opens our eyes and God blesses us in Jesus. “In you” he said to Abraham. When God said to Abraham that “in you” all the families of the earth shall be blessed he was saying that in Christ all the families of the earth shall be blest. This is why God could say that he would bless those who blessed Abraham and he would curse those who cursed Abraham. He will bless those who bless Christ and he will curse those who curse Christ.
This is quite literally true, as we see nations that have blessed Christ and Christ’s Church prosper and nations that have cursed Christ and Christ’s Church suffer. The Communists took over Russia in 1917, imposing atheism. The fruit of atheism has been untold suffering, mass murder, economic ruin, and many other indicators of God’s displeasure. The same happened in China. The same happened wherever Communism took control.
God has blessed the United States of America. We have not been kept prosperous and free in America on account of our intelligence, our military prowess, our great virtue, or our system of government. We have been prosperous and free because God blesses those who bless his holy Christian Church and America has protected the rights of Christians to worship God. It is for the sake of his elect, his chosen people, the children of Abraham and Mary, the Christians, that God either blesses or curses a nation.
Why? Because we are precious to him. How precious? As precious as the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son is precious. The Church is the assembly of saints. We call her invisible, but that’s only because you cannot see faith. The Church is certainly identifiable and locatable. She is right here where we are gathered together to receive the treasures that belong to Christ. We receive these treasures through faith. Chief among these treasures is the forgiveness of sins that makes us holy. So we confess that the holy Christian Church is the Communion of Saints. To belong to the Church is to be under the protection of the Almighty God. Our friends are blessed by God. Our enemies are cursed by God. So we curse nobody, entrusting ourselves to the care and keeping of him who kept the promise he made to father Abraham and to mother Mary. Amen
Rev. Rolf D. Preus