THE PROMISE OF GOD’S CREATION
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
August 7, 2016 Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
Lections: Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 50; Heb 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40
Were I to ask, from when would you date the beginning of the Christian church?, how would you answer? Many might say, at Pentecost, when tongues of fire ignited the words and acts of the followers of Jesus; and this surely would be correct. Others, recalling that Christ reconciled both Jew and Gentile to God through the cross, might say, the Christian church began on Easter Sunday, and this too would be correct (Eph 2:11-22). Still others, remembering that Abraham is called “father of us all,” might say the church was founded in the desert, before the time of Moses, and this also would be correct (Rom 4:16). Going back even further, one commentator writes, “The story of God’s redeeming purpose in Abraham has its starting point in Babel, in the dispersion of humanity into many peoples and tongues.”[i] Indeed, no matter how far back in time we go, we can make a case for the presence of the church, because the church is the body of Christ, and Christ is the creator of all that is created.
All the same, given the vastness of creation, we are right to focus our attention on the history of the church coterminous with “God’s redeeming purpose,” that is, the narrative of humanity’s deliverance from its rejection of the promise of God’s creation. The word ‘promise’ has two common meanings. First, promise is the realization or full expression of a latent potential. We understand promise in this sense from observing how life grows, from such things as seeds when compared to plants. This is why the story of human beings begins in a garden. Second, promise signifies that something will definitely happen. Planting a seed does not assure that a plant will grow. You or I taking a vow does not assure that we will keep it. In contrast, when God makes a promise, the promise will be kept; God tells us what he is going to do, and then he does it.
Perhaps, then, we might say, the Christian church began when people first trusted God to keep his promises. All three of today’s readings from Scripture, taken together, support this assertion: the true history of the world is the narrative of God’s promises as they unfold in time and in our experience of time. Of course, as this history demonstrates, we don’t always trust God’s promises, nor do we always keep promises that we make, in turn, to God; quite the contrary, in fact. So a story such as Abraham’s is especially instructive for the church. God made a big promise to Abraham; he promised to give Abraham and his wife Sarah, who was very old, well past child-bearing age, an heir whose descendants would include both Jews and Gentiles, that is, all of humankind. And Abraham, for his part, trusted God’s promise. So we, like the apostle Paul, understand “the work of God in Christ as an outworking of the word of God to Abraham. It is given and rightly grasped only through the Scripture which affirms that Abraham believed God and “it was reckoned to him” as righteousness.”[ii] Righteousness means right behavior, so Abraham behaved rightly when he trusted God to keep his promises. For the church, trusting in God’s promises is the basis of all righteousness.
Let’s look at our reading from Paul’s letter to the Hebrews. Here Paul begins by defining faith, and his definition is quite surprising. Paul writes, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible” (Heb 11:1-3). Paul’s definition seems to have two parts: 1) confidence “in what we hope for” and 2) assurance “about what we do not see.” If we are thinking of the “saving faith” Jesus preached, that is, of our salvation through his atonement, then we might not hear that the faith Paul describes “has nothing to do with salvation;” Abram, for instance, “simply believed that, though he had no children and no hope of having any, God could make his offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky.”[iii] And Abel, as Paul goes on to say, was “commended as righteous” for bringing God “a better offering than Cain did.” Paul gives us the form of the general rule first, and then particular examples of how the rule is met. By understanding our reliance upon the atonement as both a particular instance of faith and the greatest instance of faith, we recognize a pattern that includes many expressions of faith. We are confident in our hope that our sins will be forgiven, and we rest in the assurance that they have been.
The second thing we notice about Paul’s definition is his first illustration of faith: the assurance “that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” Our understanding of the universe by faith is the opposite of what we are taught as children in school, when we learn, in one way or another, that what we see is what we get: everything that is real can be found in creation. This is the philosophy called materialism. If we deny materialism, if we have faith, we trust that what exists behind creation, what accounts for and explains creation, cannot be seen in creation.
Paul goes on to list the particular instances of faith demonstrated by of the great church heroes of salvation history, beginning with Abel, and continuing on through Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah; Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph; Moses; Rahab; and the many, many other ‘witnesses’ to faith. If we want to understand the true history of the world, these are the stories we need to know, because they lead us to Jesus, the Christ, and this Christ literally fulfills history by giving himself for us as an atoning sacrifice. As Paul writes, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer, the perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:1-2a).
This morning’s Gospel reading from Luke teaches us to ways that we can live by faith only; in the first, Jesus tells us not to be anxious, and in the second, Jesus tells us to be watchful. It is not surprising that we should be anxious; we will always be anxious, until we believe God’s promises. Abram, for instance, is afraid when he has his vision of God, and God says, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”
Watchfulness furthers our faithfulness. God promises his peoples that they shall inherit his kingdom; when we trust in God’s promises, we are prepared to resume our roles in a restored creation. The Christian life is never behind us; even when we grow old and tired, we should devote all our energies to serving God as faithful servants. This is what it means to be a true Christian; to devote all of your life to God. Watchfulness is the theme of the Parable of the Unexpected Thief, the Parable of the Ten Virgins recounted in Matthew, and Mark’s emphatic reminders that the Day and the Hour of the Second Coming are unknown. Faith, trusting God, is never just waiting.
The greatest challenges we face, in modern capitalist society, revolve around money. Our efforts to accumulate surplus wealth and material possessions and to trust in a false image of ourselves for obtaining what we need, nurture the destructive force of greed, anger, and violence that is so rampant in our contemporary visage. God has called all of humanity to be stewards of creation, for “the more one knows, the greater one’s responsibility. To be associated with Jesus is to have responsibility before him.”[iv] Even more, to be associated with Jesus is to take our places in the assembly of people – the church – that throughout history has been the one body entirely dedicated to bringing creation to its full, mature, and glorious expression.
Here is what Josemaria Escriva says about the transformative power of faith: “You have never felt so absolutely free as you do now that your freedom is interwoven with love and detachment, with security and insecurity; for you do not trust yourself at all, but trust in God for everything.”[v] This morning, as we prepare to celebrate communion, let us lift our hearts to heaven, “for where thy treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And let each of us consider the promises God has made to us, individually and as members of the church, and how our faith in God has forever changed us. Amen.
[i] Beale and Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament
[ii] Walton, NIV Application Commentary Genesis
[iii] Walton, NIV Application Commentary Genesis
[iv] Bock, IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Luke
[v] Furrow, 787