Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 25, 2018
Romans 4:13-25 Commentary
Life comes from death. Perhaps there has never been a more counter-intuitive statement but there it is at the very heart of the Gospel: life comes from death. But since none of us is capable of bringing life out of death, that paradoxical statement is also a huge red arrow pointing straight at grace. It’s the valley of the dry bones all over again from Ezekiel 37: only God can give life, only God can breathe into corpses and make them come alive again. God does that. We cannot. It is all grace.
We don’t know all of what was going on in the Roman church that made Paul go to the great lengths he does in early Romans to make this point. Apparently, however, that perennial temptation to see our salvation as a result of works, of obedience, of keeping some rules was alive and well in Rome. And among at least some of the believers there, the argument must have centered to some degree on Abraham and how it was he got saved in the first place and so kicked off the whole stream of saving actions by God that culminated in Christ Jesus.
So Paul takes pains to do a little biblical education in Romans 4. Basically his argument comes down to this: God’s promise to save the world through Abram and Sarai came from out of a clear blue sky. Abram had had no law to keep, no rules to follow in order to make himself deserving of the favor God would bestow on him. God took the initiative and somehow gave Abram the ability to believe the unbelievable, to imagine the unimaginable: from his and Sarai’s as-good-as-dead bodies would come new life. Not just a child born to them in extreme old age but from that child a host of descendants by and by who would cover the earth the way sand covers the seashore, the way the stars cover the night sky.
There was nothing concrete God could offer Abram and Sarai by way of evidence to persuade them this would be true. What’s more, it took another quarter century after the initial promise for a child to be born. One year shy of that quarter-century mark when God’s messenger returned to Abraham and Sarah to say that at long last this time next year it will happen, Sarah cannot do anything but laugh. This was ridiculous. This was impossible. This was a joke. Sarah’s womb was a dry as the Sahara. Her menstrual cycles were a distant memory. And Abraham was no longer the picture of virility either—he had ten whole years on Sarah even.
But there it was: the promise of new life emerging from death. The promise that God would do something no human could do. And the promise was not earned. It was just granted, just spoken. And Abraham’s ability somehow to believe that is what made him a righteous man. He had no law to keep, no hoops to jump through to impress the Almighty. He just stepped out onto thin air and embraced the idea that maybe, just maybe, God could bring life from death. And if God did that, it would be clear it was all grace from first to last.
All of this, as Paul well knew, was the beginning of the story. Where a story begins has a pretty big shaping effect on both the nature of the larger story and where it will likely end up, too. For God, he has a whole world of people to choose from, including lots of fertile young couples who could bear a child with which to begin a nation out of which the salvation of all the nations would come. Choosing almost anyone other than Abram and Sarai was surely the sensible thing to do.
But had God done that sensible thing, it would have been easier to conclude that it was mostly human effort that got the job done. There would have been nothing striking, nothing out of the ordinary if a couple in their 20s had conceived a child. But it’s more than that: a couple in their 20s would not have sounded the necessary note of death. The fact is that when God wanted to kick off his salvation of the world, it was necessary to make it clear that life—real, true, lasting life—would come only through death. That way no one could conclude that we had earned it, concocted it, finagled it, or anything else. God gives life, and he is the only one who can.
Of course, that did not stop the Romans apparently—and it has not stopped all kinds of people in history right down to this present day—from concluding that salvation is somehow earned by our own efforts after all. Maybe it is pride. Maybe it is arrogance. Maybe it is being in denial that the human condition in a sinful world is as bad as God seems to think it is. Whatever the case, we hear the message that it is all by grace alone—a message you would think would be an unending source of joy—and we cannot quite swallow it. We want to insert ourselves into the salvation equation somehow and say that God loves us because we are so moral and so good. Or at least that helps to seal the deal, finish what Jesus got started for us.
But no, Paul urges, it is only the grace-generated ability to believe the incredible, to embrace the impractical, to imagine the unimaginable that salvation and new life really does come from death.
One could point out, I suppose, that Paul has scrubbed up Abraham’s image a bit here in Romans 4. The fact is that Abraham’s walk of faith after being called by God had its share of fits and starts. Paul says Abraham “never weakened in his faith” and in the long run that is certainly so but it does not quite describe every moment of Abraham’s life. He feared for his life and so lied about Sarah to Pharaoh. Along with Sarah he doubted if this whole promise of a child would really come true and so tried to force the issue with Hagar and Ishmael. Sarah was not the only one to laugh at God’s promises eventually—Abraham did too now and then.
All of that, though, only highlights Paul’s larger point that salvation could never have been up to us humans. We would have never pulled it off. We even find it mighty hard to believe at all as often as not. That’s OK. The spotlight needs to stay on God’s promises and God’s faithfulness and God’s grace anyway. In Lent we journey to the cross. We none of us could have done what Jesus did. We none of us could ever rack up such a bounty of moral achievements in keeping the Law or doing much of anything else that would ever be remotely tantamount to what Jesus did on Golgotha. Life has to come from death for lots of reasons, not least of which is making it crystal clear who it is that deserves ALL of the praise and the glory.
And it’s not us!
[Note: We have additional Lenten Resources, worship ideas, and Sample Sermons on our Year B Lent and Easter page ].
From Frederick Buechner’s Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977, pp. 49-50.
“The place to start is with a woman laughing. She is an old woman and, after a lifetime in the desert, her face is cracked and rutted like a six-month drought . . . She is laughing because she is pushing ninety-one hard and has just been told she is going to have a baby. Even though it was an angel who told her, she can’t control herself, and her husband can’t control himself, either. He keeps a straight face a few seconds longer than she does, but he ends by cracking up, too. Even the angel is not unaffected. He hides his mouth behind his golden scapular, but you can still see his eyes. They are larkspur blue and brimming with something of which the laughter of the old woman and her husband is at best only a rough translation. The old woman’s name is Sarah, of course, and the old man’s name is Abraham, and they are laughing at the idea of a baby’s being born in the geriatric ward and Medicare’s picking up the tab. They are laughing because the angel not only seems to believe it but seems to expect them to believe it too. They are laughing because with another part of themselves they know they do believe it . . . They are laughing at God and with God.”
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