Last week we looked at the story of Noah, the Ark, and the rainbow. It was a story of a new beginning for humanity in covenant with God. This morning, we look at God’s next great act of mercy and covenant with humanity as we explore what it means to be righteous in God’s sight.
According to Biblical genealogies, it has been slightly less than 400 years between the time Noah stepped off the ark and the time of God’s first conversation with Abram later re-named Abraham. These should not be taken as too exact, different calendars were in use and numbers were used more symbolically than literally. We are told Abram was 75 years old when God told him to leave Haran and said “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…”(Gen 12:2). Abram did as God asked. He packed up his family and his possessions and began making his way to Canaan. God did not promise the land to Abram, but to his offspring. (Gen 12:7). In fact, it would be many generations before that part of the promise was fulfilled. The patriarch Jacob/Israel would be remembered by later generations as a “wandering Aramean” (Deut. 26:5) They sojourned for a time in Egypt, then were driven out and sojourned in the Negeb (Negev), a desert region south of present day Jerusalem. He had many adventures over the next twenty five years, many of which are recorded in the book of Genesis but he and his wife Sarai remained without heirs. Sarai tried to take matters into her own hand at one time and according to the law of their time, sent her maid, Hagar to Abram as a surrogate, so that she and Abram might have a child, but if you know that story – it was outside of God’s plan for them and it did not go so well, but God had mercy on the child Ishmael, blessed him and promised to make a great nation of him, just not the nation that God had set aside for his immediate purpose.
Here we enter today’s Old Testament reading. Abram is now 99 years old and his wife Sarai is way past the time of being able to have a biological child. Yet God had not forgotten his promise to Abram. At this time he appears to Abram, renews the previous covenant and gives both Abram and Sarai new names to mark the significance of this promise. Abram (exalted father) become Abraham (father of a multitude) and Sarai (princess) became Sarah (noble woman). God establishes another sign of the covenant at this time. “God said to Abraham, ‘Every male among you shall be circumcised… and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.’ (Gen 17: 10-11). And we are told that Abraham obeyed God’s command to circumcise all the males of his household – both family and slaves.
In a prior verse two chapter’s back, we are told that before this conversation and after a great battle in which Abram is assisted by the King of Salem, named Melchizedek. (Here again – names are important – this is the king of “Peace” also believed to be the city we know as Jerusalem and his name means “my king is righteousness” or “the king of righteousness.” Christian theologians believe Melchizedek prefigures Christ.) Abram has a dream in which Abram asks of God what God plans for him because God promised to make of his offspring a great nation and his only heir is a slave in his household. God affirms his intent to make Abram’s offspring as numerous of the stars in the heavens and we are told Abram believed him. Gen 15:6 states “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” All this happened before the establishment of the rite of circumcision, before the birth of either Ishmael or Isaac (his son by Sarah). It is long before the giving of the Law to Moses. It is this verse that Paul picks up on in his letter to the Romans.
We are going to fast forward about 2000 years – past Moses and the giving of the law, past David and the establishment of the temple in Jerusalem, past the Assyrian conquest of the ten northern tribes of Israel and the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the exile, past the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple. But there are some things that happened during these 2000 years of which we need to be aware.
When Moses was given the Law at Sinai, he was building a new nation that was intended to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham, through the descendants of his grandson Jacob aka Israel, for them to inhabit the land of Canaan and to become a blessing to the rest of the world because of their knowledge of and faith in the true God. Pagan worship had taken over the world at the time of Abraham, thus his separation from his native homelands. It had again taken over Abraham’s descendants while they sojourned in Egypt. Part of the law was much like the laws of other lands, intended to maintain civil order, but part of their law was intended to remind them with every breath they took, every bite of food they ate, every article of clothing they put on, that they worshiped the true God, they were his and he was committed to them. Paganism is insidious and God was giving them the tools they needed to combat it, but time and again they would repent, attempt to live according to the law, and then fall back into their old habits. I think we can probably relate. It is part of the human story.
One of the things that happened between the time of Moses and the time of Paul is that the Law itself became what was worshiped by many. We know from writings in the Dead Sea Scrolls that it was not just theological concerns that separated the various sects of Judaism in centuries leading up to the birth of Jesus. Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and Zealots also argued over the interpretation of the law over such matters as calendars and ritual purity. Jesus frequently criticized the religious leaders of his time because they used the law to oppress the poor and the different and they twisted the law, finding loop holes that allowed them to do as they pleased. The law was intended to unite the community in faith and to protect the vulnerable.
Paul is writing to Christians about 20-30 years after the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Christ. Christians, who initially were a small group united by their experience of Jesus and their belief that he was God Incarnate and savior of the world, were now doing the exact same things that the Jews of Jesus’ time had done. They are building up walls between themselves and other Christians based upon interpretations of the role of the law post Jesus. Circumcision in particular, but some of the Roman Christians were pointing fingers at other Roman Christians because of cultural differences.
What Paul is pointing out is that it is not the law that saves us or makes us righteous – puts us in right relationship with God, it is our faith in God and salvation offered through Jesus Christ.
Lest we forget – this conversation did not end with Paul and the first few generations of Christians. It was not just an issue between Jewish and Gentile Christians. The Christian church had its first major split in 1054, what is called the Great Schism. This was theological but also cultural and political between the Latin west and the Greek east. Then the Reformation of the 1500’s split the western Latin church into Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans and others. There were political and cultural differences between the Italians, Germans, French, English, Scots, Swiss, (Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Huguenots, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Anabaptist) and others including internal to these groups issues concerning salvation – faith vs works, as well as liturgical practices, theological understandings, and political motivations.
Going back to Paul, who goes back to Abraham – righteousness, being in right relationship with God, and therefore salvation is based on faith. James in his letters reminds us, that when we have that faith, when we are in right relationship with God, that works naturally follow. To claim we have faith and to behave as those who do not have faith calls into question our honesty with ourselves.
This Lent, we are called to self-examination for the purpose of affirming our faith, strengthening us in that faith, and multiplying the fruits of the Holy Spirit by becoming attuned to when we are walking in that path and when we have strayed. Jesus’ reminder is that we are choosing the more difficult path. It is easy to do what the world expects us to do and to please the world, or to please ourselves, it is much harder to walk in his footsteps. My prayer for you this week is that you will clearly discern Jesus’ footsteps on the path before you and that you will be strengthened in this journey by your relationships with one another and in company of the Holy Spirit.