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Monday, February 26, 2018

Romans 4:13-25, 2nd Sunday of Lent

            If you have ever attended a popular Christian conference, in the auditorium packed with 10,000 people, you may have heard the speaker say something like this.  “Let go, and let God.”  Similar sentiments like this are printed on bumper stickers and coffee mugs sold by Christian publishing companies.  You might hear the DJ on the popular Christian radio station enthusiastically make this pronouncement.  “Don’t try to control your own life.  Don’t try to determine your own destiny.  Let go, and let God.  Let God go to work in your life.”
            Let go and let God.  What the heck does that mean?  Seriously.  How do we do that?  Do we just sit on a park bench and wait until God does whatever it is God is going to do?  How?  Maybe just as important, why?  Why should we trust that God is going to do something in our lives? 

“For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith” (Romans 4:13).  Our attempt to understand the notion of releasing control of our own lives to God begins with the idea of promise.  In Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, he talks about a promise that was given to Abraham.  He assumed the members of that church would be intimately familiar with the Abraham story.  This story is found in Genesis, a portion of it in Genesis 17. 

17 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty;[a] walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram,[b] but your name shall be Abraham;[c] for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring[d] after you.
15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16).

Sarah was over 90.  The only way a child comes is through divine intervention.  Paul’s take on this story, thousands of years later, is that Abraham believed God’s promise.  That was the key, his belief.  He was old, Sarah past child-bearing years, and they were childless.  Today, a childless couple certainly may feel sad if they desire children.  That sadness is not to be minimized.  But it does not carry the social stigma it did 4000 years ago. 
In Abraham’s time, if a couple had no children, it meant something was terribly wrong.  Mostly, blame was laid on the wife, in this case, Sarah. As a family, they were failures, and had no one to carry on their family name.  The social cost to both Abraham and Sarah was enormous. 
But they were in their 90’s.  There was no reason to think anything would change.  Even so, Abraham believed God.  Paul understood this belief to be an act of faith.  Purely because he knew God and trusted God did Abraham accept this promise that made no sense.  Going through the entire Abraham story, it feels simplistic to say Abraham “let go and let God.”  Abraham did a lot of others things.  He lied.  He tried to force God’s hand by having a son with his wife’s servant.  He debated with God.  Like all of us, Abraham had feet of clay. 
Maybe that’s why Paul was so eager to link the promise with Abraham’s faith.  Why should we trust God?  Why did Abraham trust God?  Paul’s best answer is don’t focus on why Abraham trusted God.  Focus on the fact that Abraham trusted God.  “For what does the scripture say,” Paul asks in Romans 4:3.  “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  Reckoned?  He was credited with righteousness because he chose to believe God.  That’s faith!
Why should we believe?  Because we’ll get righteousness credited to us too? 
Let’s look at another story, one that raises the stakes in trusting God. 
This time, Jesus is speaking.  We’re in Mark chapter 8.  Jesus and the disciples are walking through the villages of a region called Caesarea Philippi.  He wants to know the buzz.  Crowds gather to hear him preach everywhere he goes, and he wants to hear what the disciples have heard people say about him.  This is a first-century version of Jesus reading his own headlines.
The disciples report that some think he is John the Baptist, while others call him Elijah or another of the prophets.  Then Jesus changes the question.  Who do you think I am?  Peter declares he is the Messiah!  Good for Peter! 
Immediately following this, Jesus teaches them that the Son of Man, himself, must be beaten, rejected, and killed.  And they stop listening.  He says the one killed will rise again after 3 days but they don’t hear that part.  When they hear Jesus predict his own suffering and death, it is too much to bear.  Just as Peter boldly proclaimed the Messiahship of Jesus, he steps in here to confront the Lord. Mark writes that Peter pulled Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.  Can you imagine?
Jesus isn’t having it.  He says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan.  For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things” (Mark 8:33).  He then lays out what he means by “divine things.” 
34 [Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[i] will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life” (Mark 8:34-36)? 

Abraham’s wife Sarah had a female servant, Hagar, and she had a son by Abraham.  That son was Ishmael.  Why would Abraham believe that God was going to give him a son by his wife Sarah who had never had a child in all her 90 years? 
When Jesus says, “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  Why would the disciples and the people in the crowd believe him? Why would anyone believe that losing one’s life for the sake of the Gospel is a good thing?  Why should we trust God?
We began with a promise – the promise of a child to Abraham; the promise that giving one’s self fully to God in Christ – that is, losing one’s life for the Gospel – is a good thing; the promise that the best life we can lead is one in which we fully submit ourselves to God with Him as our Lord, our Master.  In the life of Abraham, in the journey of the disciples with Jesus, and in the theology of Paul, we see this promise come to fruition as faith is exercised by believing what God says. Faith = believe that God is telling the truth and that God’s truth is the best thing for us.
Great!  We’ve received the promise, that in Christ we have forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  We’ve exercised faith by believing that this promise is true and God can be trusted.  So, we are fully submitted to God.  We’re going to abandon control of our own lives.  We’re going to let go and let God. 
Now what? 
Paul writes in Romans 4:18 that when Abraham believed, he was “hoping against hope.”  It’s akin to jumping without a net because God said, “I’ll catch you.”  Abraham abandoned his father’s land.  He did all that God said to do.  He hurled himself off the cliff and into the open air above the Grand Canyon because he believed God would redefine his life.  He believed God would fill in that blank space where his world view had been.  He jumped and waited for God to act.
Paul lived the same way.  He followed wherever the Spirit directed him: Athens, Ephesus, Corinth.  There were also instances where Paul wanted to plant churches in certain cities, and the Spirit prevent him.  It looked different than in the days of Abraham because by the time Paul came along, the world was a very different place.  But the idea is the same.  The Spirit turned over the applecart of all Paul’s ideas about reality, and he had to wait, with a blank space – a space God began to fill in with courage, power, love, truth, purpose, and most importantly grace. 
When we stop, trust God, and then wait, it gives God space to act in our lives.  Stopping and waiting doesn’t mean we just sit inert in complete inactivity.  We worship.  We work our jobs, sometimes temporary jobs, but even in those we represent God and glorify Him in our work.  We stay connected to the church, the family of God.  But our worship, our relating, and our work are sometimes carried out in a period of a stop and wait.  That stop and wait is where we trust that God has good things in store for us. 
In a sense, in that pause, our worldview, our understanding of everything is suspended so that we may clear our minds and hearts and make space for God to step in and re-color all our ideas.
Paying even a little attention to the New Testament, we see that God began this work in Jesus.  Romans 4:25: righteousness will be credited to us who believe that God raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.  A purely scientific worldview does not allow for resurrection.  Once someone dies, he stays dead.  How often is our claim to believe in the resurrection an impotent recitation that pulls no weight in how we see the world?  We say we believe it, but do we live as if we believe God is present and active?
If we don’t think God is real, present, and active, how will we ever give up our lives for the sake of the Gospel, as Jesus said in Mark 8?  And by the way, while “give up our lives,” can mean die for the kingdom in most cases it means live lives fully submitted to God.  To “give up our lives for the gospel” is to make the intentional choice to relinquish our hold on independence.  We stand before God and say, “Here is my life.  I’ll do what you say to do.  I’ll be who you tell me to be.”  The evidence of this complete submission is seen in how we carry ourselves in the normal, everyday places.  The disciple life is evident or absent in the way Christ is seen in us when we are at work, at home, and going about the daily routines of life.  It is there, where we spend the majority of our time, that we give up freedom and autonomy and voluntarily live life as God’s slaves.
The only reason we would do this is that we trust that being a slave to God is better than anything else.   “Let go and let God.”  It has a catchy ring to it, as slogans go.  To actually do it, to actually let go of control is monumental.  Do we trust God enough to do it?
That’s an unfair question.  There’s rarely a time that we can measure how much we trust God.  So, here is what I propose.  Identify one area of life where you’ve been in control, keeping God at bay.  Pick one thing.  Parenting.  Exercise & diet.  Your temper.  Your marriage.  Your money.  This morning, pick one thing in your life. 
Write it down.  Text it to yourself.  Mark it as a calendar reminder so that you get alerts a couple of times a week between now and Easter Sunday.  Starting today, this Second Sunday of Lent, you’re going to hand control of this one thing over to God.
 “Letting go” does not mean going inert.  If parenting is your thing, you still feed your kids and try to help them have success and joy.  But you do that in a state of constant prayer.  Your parenting is done with less worry, almost the point of no worry, and with more attention set on God-with-you, as your parent your children.  That’s just one example.  Whatever is the one thing which you are handing over to God, you continue in that one thing, but now, God is in it with you, all the time.  Prayer is part of it, all the time.
We’re going to gather at the place where we are all recipients of the bread of life, the communion table.  We take the bread and cup, remembering Jesus’ suffering and shed blood.  We come as sinners – sinners who are now forgiven and made new.  Our sins are gone and in their place is the righteousness of Christ.
As you come up the aisle to the table, come preparing to meet Jesus.  Come with that one thing in hand, that thing in your life you’re going to give over to God’s control.  As you take the bread and cup, hand it go God.  In doing so, you create space in your life, space for God to go to work.  Trust Him.  He raised Jesus from the dead.  He’s got new things in store for you.  Can’t you wait to see what they are?

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