Genesis 17:1-17 and Romans 4:13-15 25 February 2018 Lent 2B
New names can imply different directions, not always welcome, but often necessary.
Yesterday Tainan Theological College celebrated becoming a “government accredited school.” There aren’t a lot of big changes, because the degrees granted by the college have been recognized as valid around the1960s. All the way around the world EXCEPT in Taiwan. Now the Master of Arts degree from the college will entitle the one who earns it to all of the same rights and privileges as enjoyed by all other Master of Arts degree holders here in the Republic of China.
A part of becoming accredited by Taiwan’s government involved changing the name of the school. Officially it is no longer Tainan Theological College, but “The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan South Divinity Theological College. Three years ago I met a woman who had taught at Christ College, a small liberal arts school in Taipei that, similarly, had not been accredited for most of it’s existence, but “went through the change” 6 years back. As happy as she was about the accreditation, she didn’t like that school’s new name, “Taipei Christian College”.
Sometimes a name change doesn’t change much other than the name. If you’ve ever flown Korean Air, it’s a company that used to be called Korean Air Lines. While under that name it had a couple of disastrous accidents over the Soviet Union. In 1984 it changed it’s name, but in 1997 another disaster, in which over 200 people died, showed that not much other than the paint job had changed.
I: Renaming to fit the new direction
We read a renaming story in the Old Testament today. Abram, who had been more or less following God’s call for decades, got his name changed. “Abram” meant, “My Father is Exalted”. As wonderful as this may be in showing respect for one’s father, if you’re the guy with the name, your “script” is basically backward looking. If you’re the father who gave that name to your son, it’s really arrogant! The new name, given by God in this story, means, “Father of many nations”. If that name had been given to a baby, it would certainly be future-oriented!
In the same story, Abram’s wife, Sarai, had her name changed to “Sarah”. Honestly, both words mean the same thing: Princess. Some interpreters have tried to get something about “argumentative striver” out of “Sarai” and “Royal Princess” out of Sarah, but anyone who takes that seriously is stretching the evidence.
Abram and Sarai were an old married couple who had gone through several difficult experiences. Abram hadn’t been the best husband, willing to sacrifice his wife to save his own life more than once. Sarai hadn’t been the most patient of women, bossing Abram around only to change her mind when he did things according to her plan. But there was something in them that God accepted. Like us, they were far from perfect, but were “good enough” for God.
They had waited a long time, and now God was coming through for them. Their “accreditation” (if you’ll allow for the metaphor), involved name changes, and more.
We’re only in chapter 17 of Genesis, which is the first book in the Bible, the book of origins. There are 1189 chapters in the Bible. In the first 16 we find several ways that people dealt with God, These involved: conversation (2,3), sacrifice,(4), deal-making (4), tracing your family tree (5, 10,11), being good (6), obeying (7), and competing (11). None of it worked. In the Old Testament story and the New Testament verses we read today, we’re introduced to a different way.
II: A Different Way: Faith (Romans 4:13 and Genesis 15:6 )
In the bit of the New Testament that we read today, Abraham appeared again. The reference there was not to Genesis 17, but to a verse from chapter 15, where it is stated that “Abram put his trust in the Lord, … and the Lord accepted him.” (I prefer the more eloquent language of more literary translations, “And he believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
It’s not that God changed a direction, but that Abram took a way different from that which had been handed down to him by his ancestors. Some of those previous ways of relating to God: 1) conversation, 2) sacrifice, 3) being good and 4) obeying, had merit and helped, but NOT ONE of them got to the heart of the matter for people, not then, and not ever since the whenever people began to exist and to attempt to relate to God. “Belief” was the key. In the story in Genesis 17, God announces how things will be. If we read the order of the chapters as the order in which things happened, then Abram already had been reckoned righteous in chapter 15, but by chapter 17 he’s already began to try to make this into something about keeping rules, being different from other people, location, wealth and a family tree.
Usually I find the writers of the Old Testament to be a lot more direct than St. Paul in the Epistles, but this week I’ve got to hand it to Paul, he got it succinctly. It’s about faith, and nothing else. That was an important thing to write when and where he wrote it, because a small group of Jesus-believers in Rome was being influenced by people whom they admired, people who said, “Jesus is Lord. Faith is necessary, but so are a lot of rules. Besides which, you’d be better off if you were in our family tree. But you’re not, so we’ll allow you to be “second class.”
For that mixed group of “Jesus believers in Rome”, and for us today, the thing that matters is faith. It’s not a matter of the rules you’ve kept or broken, or of your family tree, or of how little or how much you may have sacrificed. It’s not even a matter of “how much” you’ve believed, it’s just this: “Have you believed?” If the answer is “Yes”, then THAT is what makes you, like Abram, righteous before God.
That is, indeed, good news, so you might expect that those who followed after Abraham, the father of many nations, followed his example, believed, and left it at that. Well, no.
The other ways, the original ways: sacrifice, deal-making, rule keeping, family tree, and all of those sorts of things were and are so “practical” that Abraham’s descendants, even those who came through the “preferred family tree” traded “faith is enough” for: say your prayers, keep the rules, sacrifice, suffer and keep the race pure.
III. The different way for us
And we still do it today.
As a young kid in church, when I began to pay attention to the songs that were sung there, I learned this one:
“When we walk with the Lord in the light of his word,
what a glory he sheds on our way.
When we do his good will, he abides with us still,
and with all who will trust and obey.
Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
If you know and sing that song (it has a very singable 19th century tune), the message that you absorb is heavy on the “obey” side and light on the trust. You become convinced that you have to learn all the rules and obey all the rules in order to be accepted by God. If it’s not clear enough in the song’s first verse, then it gets even tighter in verses 2,3 and 4.
The way of God, shown to us in Genesis 17 and Romans 4 today, is life based on belief. The “trust” part is so strong that the “obey” part seems to have been put into the hymn just to fill out the line in the poem.
So, again, the question is: “have you believed?” If your answer is “yes”, then it is because of belief that you have been “reckoned as righteous” before God. The answer can’t be, as some would have it, “My grandmother believed.” (That’s the family tree thing.) The answer can’t be, as others would have it: “I put a lot of money in the offering bag.” (That’s the sacrifice thing.) The answer can’t be: “God and I have an arrangement,” That’s deal-making, and it’s not the way God operates.
If faith, nothing but faith, is the foundation upon which you find yourself accepted by God, then you’re on the way God set out for “Abraham”, the way recommended to the Jesus-believers in Rome by St. Paul.
If you’ve “added something” to faith, even something so high-sounding as: “loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself”, thinking that by doing this “IN ADDITION TO” faith to insure being accepted by God, then you’re doing a good thing, but not a necessary thing. You’re not “wrong”, but you’re “doing the right thing for the wrong reason.”
If you’ve substituted something like “be good, stay clean and pure, make your parents proud, don’t waste money or time, get a good university degree, become rich and give a lot of money away, help out at church, or have substituted ANYTHING of that sort for “believe God”, then you’re running the wrong race.
Many Christians who follow practices of self-denial during the 6 weeks before Easter Sunday are trying to remember how Jesus suffered for us. They do it by a little suffering of their own, giving up a pleasure or two (chocolate, wine, ice cream, something like that).
A different way to go through these weeks is to examine ourselves, not to add some religious practice, but possibly to let go of some unnecessary things. And if those be religious practices that led us in the wrong direction, then so much the better.
Because, from beginning to end, being acceptable to God is about faith, nothing else instead, and nothing else in addition.
Believe this good news and go forth to live in peace. AMEN