God of Promise

Scripture Readings:

  • Genesis  15: 1-6
  • Romans  4: 13 – 25
  • Mark  8:34 – 37

“God of Promise” – Sermon for Gifts of Women Service, March 8, 2009

It’s rare that one gets an opportunity to have a deep theological discussion with preschoolers.  However, I recently had such an experience and would like to share it with you.

It was 8:30 on a Monday morning and I was driving my four year old twin boys to their school in New Rochelle.  They were bickering about something or other – I wasn’t sufficiently awake to understand the source of their conflict.  From the back of the mini-van I heard Austin try to end the argument by using classic preschooler logic: “Andrew, I can do anything I want”.

Austin had hoped that this would end the discussion, but to his surprise and mine, Andrew offered a powerful retort that clearly reflected his excellent religious education:

“No Austin, only GOD can do anything he wants”

This was not the response Austin had been looking for, and in fact he found it totally unsatisfactory. However, I wanted to encourage Andrew’s display of spirituality, so I said “Yes, Andrew, that’s a very good point – it’s true that only God can do anything he wants”.

Austin, thoroughly frustrated at this point, cried:

“BUT THAT’S NOT FAIR!!”

I then began explaining to Austin how God is different from us not just in degree but in type, how he is all-powerful and a force for good in the world…

Austin interrupted me: “Mom, you are making me ANGRY”.

Then I had a realization – perhaps Austin was right.

“Austin,” I said,” You know, I understand how you feel.  It doesn’t seem fair. And you know, maybe God can’t do exactly anything he wants.  God made a promise to us, that he would love us. So even God can’t do anything he wants because he has a promise to keep.  Does that make you feel better?”

All I heard from the back of the minivan was a firm “Yes”.

Phew!

The scripture readings for today are on this very subject –God’s promise to us, or more specifically, the nature of God’s covenantal relationship with us.

Michael Horton in his book “God of Promise” analyzes the numerous covenants that God has made with humanity through time, from the  divine promises made to Adam to the “new covenant” through Christ. In this book he also explains the historical and secular roots of such covenants in Ancient Near Eastern suzerain-vassal treaties – specifically those of the Hittite empire of  15th– 12th century BC.  In these ancient Hittite treaties, the king of a more powerful state (the suzerain) would establish a covenant with the king of a weaker state (the vassal).  In these covenants,  the vassal state pledged complete allegiance and obedience to the suzerain, and in return gained the suzerain’s protection from enemy attacks.  These ancient Hittite treaties were conditional covenants:   the vassal state would be protected, as long as it did certain things. If the vassal broke the rules, the covenant would be broken and the suzerain would no longer be obligated to protect the vassal.

There was also an alternative, albeit less frequent, covenantal model from this period– the ‘royal grant’.  On occasion, a suzerain would simply give land or other rights as a ‘grant’ to a vassal state– an unconditional gift given in perpetuity, without any stipulations or requirements.  These grants were usually issued as a reward for the vassal’s good behavior– but once given, could not be revoked.

And it is this distinction – between the conditional covenant and the unconditional gift – that lies at the heart of the excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Romans that we read today.  Paul writes “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”   In this statement, Paul is rejecting the common understanding of God’s  covenant in his time.   This understanding  was based on the events on Mt. Sinai – where God gave the Torah – ‘the Law’ to Moses.  The Torah laid out in remarkable detail how God’s chosen people – the Jews – were to live their lives. If the Jews obeyed all of these laws, then God would bless them and would bring them to the Promised Land. But if they were disobedient – God’s promised deliverance would be revoked.  Reading Deuteronomy – where much of the details of the Law are written – almost every paragraph starts with “If you will obey all of these commandments, then I will give you…but if you do NOT follow these covenants, you will suffer…”  Definitely a conditional covenant, if ever there was one.

However, Paul recognizes that this Sinaitic, conditional relationship is not the only example of divine covenant we can reference from the past. Instead, he harkens back to the earlier covenant God made with Abraham – God’s promise that Abraham and Sarah’s descendants would be ‘as numerous as the stars’, and that the Lord would bless his descendants and make them a great nation.   What is so interesting about the Abrahamic covenant, and is in such contrast to the Sinaitic covenant – is the order of events. In the case of Abraham –God first blesses Abraham before he has done anything.  Abraham is first mentioned at the end of Chapter 11 in Genesis, where we hear about his father Terah taking his son Abram and heading for the land of Canaan.  Then the next thing we know, in Chapter 12, God is promising Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation!  In response to God’s promise, Abraham shows tremendous faith – uprooting his family, going to Canaan, believing God’s word that he and Sarah would have a son when they were both well past childbearing years. But this faith was in response to God’s promise. It was not a requirement, a hoop he had to jump through in order to earn God’s love.  God’s promise to Abraham and his heirs was given unconditionally, irrevocably, and the natural response to such a gift is…faith.

So this is all very well and good that we have this lovely example of God making an unconditional gift to Abraham and his Israelite heirs, but how does that help a bunch of Presbyterians?  Well actually, I’m personally in pretty good shape since I was born Jewish – so um, I guess I’ll be going now…

No, seriously – there’s hope for you goyim. That’s exactly what Paul offers in his letter to the Romans – showing how, through Christ, the invitation to join God’s covenant is now open to us all.  As Paul puts it “For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all (of Abraham’s) descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham”.

The promise is guaranteed to those who share the faith of Abraham.

At first reading, we might assume this might mean exclusively those of the Jewish faith – since that is how even in this day the phrase ‘faith of Abraham’ is often viewed. But in going back and reading about Abraham’s faith, and Paul’s analysis of Abraham’s faith – we see that this faith of Abraham’s was not exclusively ‘Jewish’ – it was not about abiding by Mosaic laws that had not yet been created. It was not about being a part of a tribe. Abraham’s faith was simply this:  love God, trust in God, and be willing to give up everything – your home, your way of life to follow God’s call.  In fact, this faith is remarkably similar to Jesus’ call to his disciples:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  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, will save it.”

The last point I would like to leave you with is that this showing of faith, this taking up the cross, is not a requirement for entering into a covenant with God. God’s promise to us came first – it is a gift – as Paul put it ‘the promise may rest on grace’.  The faith shown by Abraham, the faith Christ calls us to – is the appropriate response to that gift.  When we respond this way, we are truly fulfilling the promise freely given to us.

In preparing for this sermon, I read some materials designed to help explain this passage in Romans to children.   One sentence from these materials particularly struck me: “Pauls’ point, that we take up crosses not in order to gain God’s salvation (or earn the covenant promises) but in response to God’s salvation, is too subtle for children.”  I found this statement ironic for two reasons: first, I think many adults find this concept just as subtle and difficult, and secondly, that perhaps children are actually best equipped to understand this concept because they experience it every day in their relationship with their parents.   Children know that their parents will always love them, no matter what.  They also hear their parents tell them every day how to behave, trying to guide them in ways that will ultimately be best for them. Many times (in the case of my kids, most of the time) they don’t listen to their parents, and their parents still love them (although they may feel a certain amount of frustration).  But every now and then, children listen and do what their parents ask, what their parents know will ultimately make them happy. And in those times, children feel a sense of warmth, of wholeness, knowing that they have pleased their parents who love them so much.

Now obviously this metaphor doesn’t work perfectly since many parent-child relationships are not so healthy, and parents’ requests to their children are more often about taking their dishes to the sink than taking up their crosses. But this parental love metaphor is powerful because it helps us to realize that what may at first glimpse seem like a complex theological concept is in fact quite simple – something we experience every day in our own homes.  And just maybe, this understanding will help us feel empowered to freely respond to God’s will – not because we think we have to, or because something terrible will happen to us if we don’t – but because it’s the most natural response to a love that has been freely given.

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