In the name of the Father, and the ✠ Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Brothers and sisters in Christ: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
A man fell off a cliff, but managed to grab a tree limb on the way down. The following conversation ensued:
“Is anyone up there?”
“I am here. I am the Lord. Do you believe me?”
“Yes, Lord, I believe. I really believe, but I can’t hang on much longer.”
“That’s all right, if you really believe you have nothing to worry about. I will save you. Just let go of the branch.”
A moment of pause, then the man said: “Is anyone else up there?”
As we journey through the season of Lent, it’s entirely appropriate for each of us to do a little self-evaluation in our own walk of faith. Where am I in my faith? Do I believe that God is walking with me? Do I believe that my sins are forgiven? Do I believe that Jesus truly died on the cross FOR ME? These seem like simple questions with simple answers, but how often are we like the guy holding onto the branch?
The lessons today all speak together about faith in God. I learned something in my study of these lessons. Previously, when I read the Old Testament, I understood that justification came through upholding God’s Law; that is, the Jews believed that they were saved by living righteously and obeying the Law that God had given them. One of the Lutheran scholars I follow explains that this is a misinterpretation of the Old Testament Covenant, particularly the Covenant with Abraham. Now, I still think that the ancient Jews saw it this way; they were quite wrong. Righteousness, for us and for the Jews, comes from faith in God.
If you think about it, all of the Covenants, including the New Covenant we have in Christ, all boil down to faith in God. Let’s review:
- With Adam & Eve – God says “I created you, and I will provide for you. Trust me and life will be good. And don’t eat from this one tree.”
- With Noah – God says: “Trust me Noah, I will never again destroy all of humanity. Of course, since I’m almighty you can’t really stop me anyway, so here’s a sign of my promise to you.”
- With Abraham – God says “trust me, go where I send you and through you and your descendants I will bless the whole world.”
- With Moses – God says: “Here is my Law. Trust me – if you live this way and follow it, life will be good for you.”
- With David – God says: “Trust me David. I will make you and your offspring Kings of Israel forever.”
- With all of us through Jesus – God says: “Trust me. I knew you couldn’t do what had to be done, so I sent My Son to do it. Trust him, too.”
Each of these Covenants with God expect the other party to trust God. The New Covenant in Jesus does as well. We are called to trust God…to trust that Jesus *has* saved us from our sins in his death on the cross.
Today’s lessons are heavily focused on God’s Covenant with Abraham. Actually, he’s not called Abraham yet – he’s still just “Abram” – God hasn’t changed his name yet. So God tells this Abram guy to pack up his things and move somewhere he’s never been. That’s a lot to ask. Just pick up and move somewhere you don’t know much about, don’t have any family or friends there, no guarantee of a job… kind of a scary proposition. And, by the way, Abram was a spry 75 years young when God asked him to do this. Those of you who know what 75 feels like…ready to pick up and move somewhere you don’t know anyone?
But Abram goes. Now granted, it’s not a wonderfully smooth journey where everything just works out great and life is good all the time. There are definitely some rough spots along the way. Abram is definitely faced with challenges. But amazingly, he never loses faith in God, this Almighty One Who has promised to bless him and his descendants, and promised to make his name great. This was quite a promise in ancient times. And certainly God *did* make his name great. He is one of the most important figures in the history of God’s people. He is revered by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. And of course, God *did* give that land to Abram’s offspring…eventually.
Genesis describes Abram/Abraham as a man of faith. This is his primary attribute in these Scriptures. Even when God tests his faith later, Abraham maintains his faith in the Lord. So when Paul describes Abraham in his letter to the Romans, he also speaks of Abraham’s great faith: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…” Now, I don’t know about you, but I find this wording to be a little awkward. And because I think this particular verse is incredibly important, I want to share it with you using a different version: “But people cannot do any work that will make them right with God. So they must trust in him. Then he accepts their faith, and that makes them right with him. He is the one who makes even evil people right.” So it is not what Abraham *did* that “made him right” with God (that’s what the word “justified” means). It was Abraham’s faith and trust in God that made him right with God.
Let’s compare this to what we talked about a few months ago when we talked about sin: Jesus set the record straight by saying that sin isn’t just what you do, what actions you take; it’s also what’s going on in your heart. Remember how he describes adultery? If you even look at someone else with lust in your heart, you’ve committed that sin. Sin begins in the heart. I think we can say the same thing about faith. I believe that faith also begins in the heart. So yes, Abraham did what God asked of him, but before that, Abraham believed in God. Abraham trusted God. Abraham had faith in God.
This can be a very intimidating statement to some people. I’m sure many of us have heard people say things like “well, if you just had faith” or “that wouldn’t have happened if you had more faith” or “you just gotta have faith!” All of these statements presuppose that faith is something WE DO. Please remember: faith is absolutely *not* something WE do. It’s not up to us to generate our faith. Faith is a gift from God.
In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus talks about this. Nicodemus goes to see Jesus under the cover of darkness, to ask Jesus about things he doesn’t understand. Think about who Nicodemus is: he is “a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews.” This is a man of authority, and as a Pharisee, he has studied God’s Law as his profession. So Nicodemus knows the Law and the Prophets, that is, the Old Testament. He certainly knows the story of Abraham and he has studied God’s Covenants with His people, and certainly he would know of Abraham’s faithfulness.
But Jesus tells this Pharisee: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” That phrase “born again” is also translated as “born from above”… and certainly there are elements of both in what Jesus is saying. Put another way: when we are born again, this is when the Holy Spirit creates faith in our hearts to believe in Jesus, the Son of God, and to put our trust in Him. So who created that faith? The Holy Spirit! Not us, but God who creates faith in each of us.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll have days when your faith feels like it’s not enough, when it feels like it’s been drained, when it feels like it needs a recharge. As sad as it sounds, that’s normal. That’s what it is to live in a fallen world that has not yet been redeemed. So what can we do?
Come into God’s presence. What we are doing this morning: gathering together in worship. Hearing God’s Word. Reading your Bible. Praying. Partaking in Holy Communion. All of these things put us in direct contact with God and help to keep the path to our hearts open for the Holy Spirit to work on us.
Is there something on that list I just gave you that is a weak spot in your faith life? Brothers and sister: I submit to you that this Lenten season, consider working on whatever that is. God wants to work on your heart; wouldn’t it be a nice gesture on our part if we were to make it a little easier for Him to do that work? Trust Him enough to let Him in!
So this week, I want all of us to work on that one thing. Pray a little more regularly. Read the Bible once a day. Whatever that thing is, I want you to take this week and develop it. Hone it. Make that part of your faith life better. And as you do, and you find yourself walking a little closer with God, try to notice what else in your life is affected by that. And then share that with someone else. You never know when your own faith story might just help someone else. Look at how many thousands of generations have been helped by Abraham’s faith story!
Please pray with me: may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Pastor Todd Cook
 Rev. Dr. Carl Fickenscher of Concordia Theological Seminary-Ft. Wayne, IN, frequent guest on Lutheran podcast “Issues, etc.”
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