The Promise

[Still working on the Facebook Live streaming problems. Here is the text of the sermon.]

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe promises, especially promises that depend on a son whom you’ve never seen. Abram has such a promise. God promised him that He would make Abram into a great nation, and that in him God would bless all the nations of the world. The problem is that in order for Abram to be a great nation, or a “father of many” as his name says, he has to at least have one child. There aren’t going to be many descendants or a great nation, without at least having one descendant.

God appears to him and says, Don’t be afraid—or, maybe, stop being afraid—I am your shield. Your reward is very great. But Abram is having trouble believing that promise. O Lord Yahweh, what reward? What will You give me? I continue childless. That word is “stripped/empty.” I have nothing. And Eliezer of Damascus is going inherit everything. I have no offspring at all, let alone many offspring, and someone who isn’t even related to me is going to be my heir. God say, No. This man will not be your heir. Your very own son will be your heir. A son from you and Sarai. Come outside. Look at the stars and count them if you can. We can see a lot of stars, more than in a bigger city. But imagine being there with Abram, with no electric light pollution at all. How many stars he could see. Perhaps you’ve been out in the open, in the desert or somewhere, and you’ve seen stars like that. Count them, if you can; thus will your offspring be.

It’s hard to believe a promise that depends on a son you’ve never seen. But Abram believed God, and God counted it to him, reckoned it to him, as righteousness. The word for believe is related to the word for trustworthy, faithful, firm. When Abram says that he doesn’t have a child, what does God do? He doesn’t magically produce a child in front of Abram’s eyes and say, Look, here he is. He simply repeats the promise. So the question is no longer about what evidence Abram has about the promise. Now the question is whether God is faithful. Can God be trusted? Will God do what He said?

You know how it is. The more someone tells you the truth, the more likely you are to believe that person. Your trust might never be quite 100%, but if people continue to tell the truth, to do what they say, you’re likely to believe them the next time. But the more someone lies, the more someone doesn’t do what he or she says, the less likely you are to believe them the next time. You’re always going to be a little suspicious.

Can you believe God? Well, does He tell the truth? Does He do what He says He’s going to do? Because God does make promises. Does He do them? Does Abram have a son? Does Sarai, in her barren old age, give birth? They try to force God’s hand, to make His promise happen by their own planning. Sarai thinks she can have a child vicariously through Hagar. But that doesn’t go well for Hagar, Ishmael, Sarai, Abram, or anyone. But God gives Isaac. And just to make sure that Abram is trusting the promise, rather than what he can see or understand, God then commands Abram to sacrifice Isaac, to kill him. It’s a double blow: Abram as good as dead having a son, and then Isaac as good as dead, given back to him.

Does God keep His promises to Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, David, and all the rest? Does He bring the people into the land? Even though they don’t believe His word and they have to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, does God bring them into the land? Even when they wander in the wilderness, complaining constantly and refusing to believe God’s word for more than 30 seconds, does God feed them and bring them through?

Actually, God’s faithfulness here in itself becomes a problem for our sinful flesh. When we have what we need—which God provides—we think we got it for ourselves, we take it for granted, and we have trouble remembering to be grateful. When we don’t have what we think we should, what we think God should give to us, then we, like the people in the wilderness, complain. And does God break His promises then? He says, How long will this people refuse to believe Me, in spite of so many signs that I’ve done before them? But does He stop keeping His promise? No. Even though they grumble, complain, blame God and Moses, He still gives them manna, meat, and water from a rock. Impossible and ridiculous things. But God does it, because even if no one believes it in the whole world, God will keep His promise.

And underneath all those promises is one single promise: to send the one who will crush the head of the serpent, the servant who will suffer, the fulfillment of everything God says. It is woven into the very fabric of the words, from the tabernacle to the priesthood to the Passover to the deliverance from slavery in Egypt: the promise of a Son who will restore everything that humans have messed up by their sin and rebellion and destructive thoughts, words, and actions. Does God keep His promise? He won’t have His hand forced; He will not be manipulated into keeping His promise when we think He should or how we think He should. But He keeps it, at just the right time, in His own good time. He sends forth His Son, the seed of the woman to crush the serpent’s head. He dies and rises, and begins in Himself a new and eternal life that cannot be killed or destroyed anymore.

But sometimes it’s hard to believe a promise that depends on a Son whom you’ve never seen. We have never seen Jesus. We are not eyewitnesses like the Apostles, or like the 500 together who saw Him after His resurrection. All we have is a word, and it is as impossible and ridiculous a promise as two 100-year-olds having a son. It is as impossible as God taking on flesh. It is as impossible as Jesus rising from the dead. It is foolishness and weakness. But the foolishness of God is wiser than our wisdom. And the weakness of God is stronger than our strength.

When Abram is having trouble believing the promise, God doesn’t give him some other evidence, some more proof. He simply repeats the word. He speaks the promise again. And God will be faithful and trustworthy. He never gets tired of repeating that promise, a promise that depends entirely on a Son. It is the promise that God made to you personally at your baptism, and it depends entirely on the Son dying and rising. It is the promise God makes in the absolution, which depends entirely on the Son’s words and the Spirit He gives. It is the promise God makes in the Supper, which depends entirely on the Son’s words and the raising of His crucified body and shed blood.

When you’re having trouble believing the promise, when you are overwhelmed by everything you see around you, by everything you see in yourself, by the impossibility and ridiculousness of the promise to your flesh and your mind, hear the promise again. Jesus is risen from the dead; He has claimed you; and you also will rise. He makes this promise and it is enough because God is trustworthy. He does what He says, and His word is good. What He began in you, He will finish. What you have now by faith, you will see. Like Abram, who saw the son God had promised, so will you see the true Son of promise in the resurrection. Just as He gave the sign of stars to Abram, so He gives you water and says here is My promise of your death and resurrection in Jesus. So He gives you bread and wine, so you can know where to find the body and blood of His Son. The one who promises is faithful; He will surely do it.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).

– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 8/5/22

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