Proper 5 · Romans 4:13-25 · June 8, 2008
William W. Schumacher,
The story of Abraham (or Abram, as he is called in the parts of Genesis to which Paul refers) shows that God’s promises are received by faith. By pointing to the patriarch, Paul underscores that everything depends on what God says, on His word of promise. The part of the Abraham story to which Paul especially refers is God’s promise to make Abram the father of many descendants (Ge 15:1-6). This promise was stamped indelibly in Abram’s mind and senses as God points his eyes up to the countless stars in the night sky. But the promise was more than poetic metaphor, because it flew directly in the face of Abram’s own experience and circumstances. He was childless and he was old—too old to start fathering any children. For Abram to believe this promise was exactly equivalent to believing that God raises the dead and creates the universe out of nothing (v. 17).
Abram did not simply leap blindly to the fond hope that God would give him not one or two children, but whole galaxies of descendants. His faith was not simply the imagination of what God could possibly do. Instead, Abram’s faith was directly anchored to what God said, to His promise. Without that word of promise, all Abram had to go on was his daily experience of old age and the lifelong evidence of his wife’s infertility (v. 19). In fact, God’s promise directly contradicted Abram’s experience and evidence! Nevertheless, that counter-factual promise of God kindled the faith that Paul wants us to emulate.
Such faith and hope in the teeth of the evidence would be a kind of insanity or mere “irrational exuberance” if its object were not the Word of God Himself. He is the one who gives life to the dead. He alone is the one who said “Let there be… ” and thus called the universe into existence. His Word is therefore more than simply accurate and factually true; it is powerful and creative. God’s word of promise (to Abram and to us) actually does, performs, creates, and gives what it says. Trusting the power and trustworthiness of what God says and promises is precisely what God counts to our credit as righteousness, that is, such trust is exactly the kind of relationship God wants to restore between us and Him.
Paul’s focus on the Abram story invites the preacher of this text to weave narrative throughout the sermon: Abram’s story, Christ’s story, our story. These are stories about the dead coming to life at the voice of God, narratives about God speaking new reality into existence ex nihilo. The themes of resurrection and creation echo through the text, and can echo through the sermon, as well. Abraham was “as good as dead” (v. 19), and God’s promise calls him to life like the voice of Jesus calling Lazarus from the tomb. Christ’s resurrection is our resurrection, as His death was our death; the promise of the death and resurrection of Christ for us calls us to life. God spoke and created the heavens and the earth, so the starry sky overhead is a sign to Abram (and to us) of the creating power of God’s promise.
As always, it is not enough for us to tell our hearers about the promises of the Gospel. We have to make the promise again. The task is that people actually hear God address them and promise them that Christ was given up to death for their trespasses and raised from the dead for their justification, to put them right with God. The preacher must be audacious enough to stare the contrary evidence and experience of sin, weakness, and death right in the face and speak a real word of promise—a promise that depends on the resurrection of Jesus to be true. Paul connects us with Abram into one story of faith: according to verses 16-17, we who believe in Christ are Abraham’s children and heirs—by the miraculous, creative working of God’s promise, we are the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abram. And when God counted Abram’s faith as righteousness, our faith is called righteous, because we trust in Christ whom God raised from the dead (v. 24).