March 1, 2015
Out of the blue, we land in the middle of one of the Apostle Paul’s thickest chunks of writing this morning. If you were around during the summer, you might remember that we spent several weeks in the book of Romans, but please don’t feel guilty if that doesn’t ring a bell for you. Summer seems a long time ago, doesn’t it? For me, last Sunday seems like a lifetime ago! So here’s a little refresher course in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome.
This was not a church that Paul had started, and he did not personally know the people who would receive the letter. At the time he wrote to the Romans, Paul had not yet been to Rome. His letter was a kind of introduction to prepare the Roman Christians for a visit Paul was eagerly planning to make.
He had heard rumors about the church in Rome, however. He knew that the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians there were not in agreement, and he wanted to help them be reconciled to one another. Mostly, he wanted the Jewish Christians to recognize that faith in Jesus Christ did not require conversion to Judaism first.
In the passage we are about to read, Paul explains that becoming a member of God’s covenant group depends on one thing and one thing only: faith. And to prove his point, Paul holds up as an example the greatest patriarch of them all, good old Father Abraham.
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. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)–in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification. (Romans 4:13-25, NRSV)
In the passage we heard earlier from Genesis, the Lord appeared to Abram, and changed his name from Abram, which means “Exalted Father,” to Abraham, or “Father of a Multitude.” The promise that he will be the “father of a multitude of nations” is only part of God’s covenant with Abraham, but it is the part Paul wants us to notice in this fourth chapter.
Paul wants his readers to recognize that God’s promise was to make Abraham the father of many nations, not just one great nation. And to drive home his point, Paul reminds us that even Abraham wasn’t a Jew. He was a Gentile, a pagan Gentile at that.
Does this surprise you? Well, think about it. The nation of Israel was named after Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, who – like his grandfather – received a new name from God as a sign of covenant. Jacob became Israel, and one of his twelve sons, Judah, fathered the tribe that became known as the Jews. Abraham couldn’t have been Jewish, or even an Israelite, because Israel and Judah didn’t exist … yet.
Just as Abraham couldn’t have been an Israelite, he also could not have obeyed the Law, because it hadn’t been given yet. That wouldn’t happen for another eight generations or so. And yet, God found him to be righteous. Even though Abraham was pretty clueless about God at this point in the story, he believed God to be truthful, and he trusted God to keep his promise. So God counted Abraham’s faith as righteousness.
Righteousness, in Hebrew, is the same word as justice: tsedek. Righteousness in the biblical sense often has to do with right relationships. Abraham was rightly related to God through his faith, and so he was considered by God as righteous and justified.
Why is justice so important? Theologian N. T. Wright says, “The covenant (we cannot stress this too often) was established to deal with sin. … To have one’s sins forgiven, not reckoned up or calculated against one’s name, is precisely what God intended when he called Abraham in the first place.” This agreement between God and Abraham was the first step in God’s act of grace to reconcile sinful human beings to himself.
Paul tells us that the promise isn’t for Abraham alone. It’s for us, too. Just as Abraham was not justified by obeying the Law, we do not become justified or obtain righteousness by following the rules. We become righteous through faith alone.
Paul’s point is that everyone comes to covenant relationship with God the same way Abraham did – through faith. All who believe in the resurrected Christ are heirs of the promises to Abraham; they belong to the elect people of God. Heirs of the promise, like Isaac and us, get there through faith, and that means both believing God tells the truth and trusting God to do what he says he will do.
One verse in this passage leaps out at me every time I read it. Paul says that Abraham believed God’s promise, “hoping against hope.” “Abraham knew that the fulfillment of the promise depended on no life or power that was his. There was no ground of hope in himself or in his human condition. All he had to cling to was the promise, ‘So shall your seed be.’” And he did. He hoped against hope, because there wasn’t anything else to hope against.
Abraham believed in a promise that must have seemed impossible to fulfill. How could an old man and an old woman possibly make a baby, let alone a whole family of nations? Abraham leaned into the covenant, not because it met some fantasy of his own, and certainly not because fathering nations seemed reasonable and well within the realm of possibility. Abraham believed God, and God credited it to him as righteousness for the simple reason that Abraham decided God was trustworthy. If God said the impossible would happen, Abraham believed it would happen.
Efrem Smith tells a story about a friend of his who took his son to the zoo. The little boy was intrigued by the exhibit of African impalas, and as they lingered near the impala enclosure, they heard a member of the zoo staff describe some interesting facts about this animal. She told them that the African impala can jump 13 feet straight up in the air from a standing position. This skill protects the impala from predators that might try to sneak up behind it. The impala can also jump 30 feet forward from a standing position. It can run up to 60 miles an hour to escape predators. But then the zookeeper shared a fact that the little boy and his father had a hard time believing. At this particular zoo, the impalas are all contained by a wall that is only three feet high.
You see, when the impalas are very young, they are trained to believe they cannot jump over the wall, because of a weakness the adult impalas show. Impalas don’t like to jump if they can’t see where they are going to land. This reluctance hinders the impala from doing something it is naturally able to do – jump.
Sometimes, I think we live like impalas. Efrem writes, “The inability to live by faith keeps the impala from doing what God created it to do, what it was born to do. It grows up to become an adult with the ability to jump in to freedom, to live out its purpose, but it won’t because it doesn’t believe it can.” An impala doesn’t know how to “hope against hope.”
“The Christian life in so many ways is about a series of jumps that can take us higher and further into a life of intimacy with and identity in Christ. The Christian life is about the love relationship that God desires to have with us, so that we become his beloved, advancing the Kingdom of God on earth.” Many times, this involves taking leaps of faith into the unknown. The barrier we have to jump may only be three feet high, but we can’t really see where we are going to land. Sometimes that fear of the unknown paralyzes us, and keeps us from jumping into the life God wants for us. … All that potential just sitting behind a three foot wall.
We may not be able to see what’s on the other side of the wall, but we know one thing: God is there. We are, by faith, jumping into God’s love! We can’t see God, but we hear his voice on the other side callus into love, forgiveness, and freedom. Hoping against hope, we trust God to be who he says he is, and to do what he says he will do.
The impala’s ability to jump is not limited to only one leap in its life. The impala has the ability to jump over and over again, each time experiencing freedom. When given the opportunity to go to a deeper place of understanding with God, will you take the jump? Even if that leap presents challenges and issues that seem impossible to take on?
Jumping is seldom easy. Sometimes it even feels like the more you jump, the harder the next jump is. But hoping against hope, we can depend on God to be on the other side of the wall, waiting for us to jump into his promise, to take our place as heirs of the covenant.
As we approach this Table, what leap of faith is God calling you toward? What is it that you are hoping against hope to see happen? How will you respond to the invitation God extends to you through his son Jesus Christ, to jump into full participation in the covenant community? Will you cower behind a three foot wall, or will you jump, and discover the joy and freedom that comes with being a beloved child of God?
 N.T. Wright, Paul For Everyone: Romans, Part 1, 68.
 Word Biblical Commentary – New Testament: Romans vol. 38A, p. 239
 Efrem Smith, Jump into a Life of Further and Higher, 20-21.