Sermon for Lent II, 2023, Random Lake                                             3/5/23


Texts: Romans 4: 1-5, 13-17; Genesis 12: 1-4; John 3:1-17; Psalm121

Introduction                        Why do people work so hard?  Athletes are a good example of tremendous effort.  Why do they train all year for years with few having any real chance to reach the top of their sport?  Could some be trying to prove themselves–of value to teammates, parents, and fans?  A deeper question is, “What are humans seeking?

                                    I think that most people want a good and decent life. They not only want to survive, but to do the best they can. Children and young people will study hard to advance in their education.  Parents will sacrifice for their children, taking on debt to provide a good place to live, good schools, and whatever opportunities they can afford.

                                    Even those who stumble still want to do well.  It bothers them when they fall short of their goals.  They are unhappy when they have no clear direction and flounder for a while.  Even those who make unwise choices and slip into hurtful patterns still yearn for a good life. At the end of the day, we all want to amount to something, to have our life add up in the plus column. We long for a sense of self-worth.  We seek value.                                

                                    Well, how do we get this value?  We can’t all be athletes. Some of us couldn’t make the local team. Most of us are way past our prime in sports we love.  So the good life can’t be forever wrapped up in physical accomplishments.

                                    After all for some in our congregation, to stay in their home is a victory, won with help from caring people, family and friends, who do the outside work and shop for groceries, who pay the bills, get the medicines and such. 

                                    Can some have a good life while moving with a walker, breathing in extra oxygen through a tube?  Is it OK to have a temporary disability?  Can one maintain self-worth and value in the eyes of others when needing some help? We need to know.

                                    The texts for today tell us the good news that real value comes through faith.  The rules for being a decent person and getting ahead are fine as far as they go.  But they do not go far enough.  Ultimately, true value, lasting worth, rests on the solid promise of the Eternal God.  VALUE COMES BY FAITH.

I           The Apostle Paul makes a clear point, but we have to work a bit to get it. We need to think our way into the strong argument that this former Pharisee is making.

            In the first reading, Paul is arguing with his fellow Judeans, who prided themselves on living the good life modelled by Abraham.  The problem was that they did not see Abraham, as Paul saw Abraham. 

Like Paul, saw Abraham as a prime example of faith.  The old man, with roots on the far end of the Fertile Crescent,  got the call to pack up and move to a new destination. The Lord said:

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

            What prompted the move toward such an adventure? Fantastic promises did! The Lord acted unilaterally.  He picked a pair of obscure people who hadn’t won a medal or done much of anything so far. 

            Yet the Lord promised to make of Abraham and Sarah a great nation, when they didn’t even have one little baby. God says:

I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

            Grabbing on to this promise for dear life, Abram and Sarah went as the Lord directed.  We see this as a model of faith for us: to hold on to the Word of God’s great promises, no matter what our current circumstances may be.   We are worthy and valuable in God’s eyes, by his promise to lead us to a wonderful future.

II          Paul’s opponents saw Abraham through the foggy mists of centuries of misinterpretation. Paul argued with folks who revered Abraham more than the Lord, whose gracious promises stirred faith.  By St. Paul’s time, his people had built legends about Abraham.  The Judeans made pilgrimages to Abraham’s grave at Hebron, honored him as a hero, the one who won success. Even his faith was considered an award-winning performance, a man of good works.  His faith was an achievement.  They told of ten trials Abraham endured to prove his value to God.  Pharisees taught that God had revealed to Abraham, in preview, the whole law of Moses, who lived 1000 years after Abraham and Sarah.  And Abraham kept the whole thing; he never sinned. He earned a perfect score in every event before the only Judge that mattered.  He even earned enough points to credit his descendants.

            Now, before we crack a smile of superiority, we must realize our tendency to take credit for ourselves.  We pump our fists at winning performances.  We build monuments to heroes and claim their virtues for ourselves. 

            We appropriate value from the past and trust in our own character, as if God will always smile on us and call us friends,  just because people before us had so much faith.  Tragically, we too limit our sense of worth to our heritage, our ethnic group, our works or “the Law” as the Apostle might say.

            Of course, we have our own rules for the good life:  “Work hard. Improve your appearance. Get a good education. Be positive. Think like a winner. Visualize success. Plan ahead. Save a lot. Spend wisely. Have fun. Get exercise…and on and on and on.”  Advice and rules for good living abound.  Much of it is helpful. But it cannot save. It cannot insure the good life we seek.

III        Paul shares with us the good news that for our eternal good we must approach God with empty hands and open hearts. After we have done our best, we receive our inheritance from the Lord, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

            “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  Everything was OK for Abraham, because God willed it. You and I have a good life, because God has deposited into our account the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ.

We are given credit for what we have not earned, because the goodness we need goes way beyond outstanding human achievement.  God decided to call Abraham “the friend of God.”

Through Christ and all he did for us on the cross, God decided to call us friends too.  This is what makes our lives exceedingly good.  We trust him who justifies the ungodly.  Then we can do our best to meet each day’s challenges.

III        Nicodemus might be a helpful example for us.  Some criticize him because he came to Jesus “by night,” afraid to immediately profess his faith in the new Rabbi.  But I give Nicodemus credit for coming out of the foggy mist of his culture.  As a Pharisee, he had done all that he could to win the favor of God and humans.  But he sensed that he needed to do more, the more that Jesus had to offer.

            Jesus offered him baptism, “birth from above.” We rejoice to be born of water and the word,  We did not earn it. We cannot boast of our God-given high status, Christ has done everything for us.

            God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

Conclusion  I am enthralled by today’s athletes.  Their courage and skill amazes me.  Their willingness to put everything on the line to succeed.  I recently received a video of my grand niece doing gymnastics, hurling herself in the air to complete her routines.  She is nine-years—old.   She must trust in God, her parents, her coaches and a trustworthy world. 

                                    In a profound way, for each of us to seek the good in a dangerous and uncertain time is a death-defying effort.  But in Christ, we do our best and discover that VALUE COMES BY FAITH.

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