Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)
I have added this additional reading this morning because as I looked at both our readings for today and the stories in the news, what I heard was a need for and a call for hope.
In our Old Testament reading Abram, the father of three current religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is struggling with his faith and hope in God’s promise to create from him a great nation that will be a blessing to all the peoples of the world because his present reality is that of a childless man who is getting on in years and who lives in an uncertain world. God reminds Abram, that he is the very God who brought him out of his old world into this new land. God shows Abram the stars in the sky and assures him that his descendants will number with the stars. He makes a covenant with Abram, consecrated by an animal sacrifice, and in a dream he assures Abram of his fidelity to their covenant.
Our reading ends here, but the story continues. In fact it is still continuing. Abram or Abraham as he is better known continued to face hardships; he continued to wrestle with childlessness; he had trouble holding on to the land God had promised him; he struggled with his faith and hope in God’s promise as we see him try to take things into his own hand on occasion. It is easy for us to take Abraham’s struggles lightly. We know the rest of the story, but all Abraham had was his current reality. God stretched Abraham’s faith, allowing him to wait until it was no longer humanly possible for him and his wife to have a child before God miraculously gifted them with Isaac, then God stretched Abraham’s faith as Abraham wrestled with what was then a common practice of human sacrifice, allowing Abraham to come within moments of giving up Isaac, but providing a suitable substitute in a ram caught in a bush. Despite these challenges, Abraham held fast to his faith and hope that God would fulfill their covenant and God never abandoned his promise to Abraham.
Our Psalm this morning was probably written by David a descendant of Abraham through his son Isaac, his grandson Jacob, also known as Israel, though his son Judah… I won’t give you the whole genealogy, but for those who often wonder why the Bible included all these names it was a way of remembering the stories about God’s faithfulness to those who honored God and in some cases a warning about what happens to those who reject God.
In this Psalm David states,
The Lord is my light and my salvation;
whom then shall I fear? *
the Lord is the strength of my life;
of whom then shall I be afraid?
David too demonstrated faith and hope in God’s promises despite difficulties and hardships. Most people remember the story of David, the shepherd boy, demonstrating great faith and courage when he killed the giant Goliath and many people know that David became king of Israel and really messed up with Bathsheba, but do you know the story between these two tales? David was anointed king by Samuel while he was still a shepherd boy and Saul was still sitting on the throne of Israel. For the next fifteen years he first worked for Saul, then was banished as an outlaw before he finally became king when both Saul and his son Jonathan were killed in the same battle. During that time, Saul tried many times to kill David. Whom shall I fear? David had lots to fear, yet he persevered in faith and hope of God’s promise and God further promised “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.” (2 Samuel 7:17). Today he is remembered as the greatest king to have ever sat on the throne of Israel and it is this promise of David’s throne that informs the understanding of the Messiah.
In our gospel story, Jesus, a descendant of David, is teaching near the sea of Galilee and is approached by some Pharisees, religious leaders of his day, and warned that Herod wants to kill him. Herod was a usurper to the throne of David. His family were not descendants of David, but fairly recent converts to the Jewish faith that the Roman’s found useful in controlling the Jewish people. Jesus tells the Pharisees to send a message back to “that fox.” First Jesus explains that he is casting out demons and performing cures. Jesus is establishing his rightful place as “king.” When John the Baptist sent his own disciples to ask Jesus if he was the one they had been waiting for, Jesus told them to tell John what he had been doing, ie. Healing the sick, casting out demons, etc. This is exactly what Isaiah had prophesied, and Jesus had claimed when he opened the scroll in the synagogue and read “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” (Luke 4:20). Second, he states that he must go to Jerusalem because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem. It is unclear exactly what Jesus is referring to here with regard to the prophets. Many prophets were persecuted by Israel’s authorities and some were killed. Jesus is identifying himself as a prophet, a role I think we greatly underestimate. Yes, Jesus will die, but it is not Herod who is in control of this situation, it is Jesus. Jesus himself has very carefully choreographed the circumstances of his own death. Jesus’ death itself is the greatest “prophet sign-act.” It is a visual representation of a spiritual truth, namely our forgiveness and salvation through his death and resurrection and he ties it to the Passover and establishes the Eucharist to make sure we understand exactly what his point is.
Jesus states they will not see him again until the day they say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” This points directly to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and illustrates that he is the fulfillment of God’s promise to David, 1000 years after the promise was made. Jesus laments that the people of Jerusalem, those who have the greatest claim to God’s promise, fail to see it. His love for them, despite their shortcomings, is evidenced in his desire to protect them just like a mother hen protects her young chicks under her wings.
Finally we have Paul. Another descendant of Abraham, through Benjamin, Judah’s brother, who despite his false start as a rabid persecutor of the early church became the greatest evangelist of all time. Paul is reminding the members of the church in Philippi that the Christian walk is difficult. He laments that many have yet to understand that they are seeking the wrong things, things that may be great by earthly standards, but are destructive to the soul. He encourages them to hold to the faith and hope that he knows that is within them and continue doing the things they know to be right in the eyes of God.
We too live in difficult times. Times pandemic, of war, of political and racial discord. Times of random violence. Times of financial uncertainty. Times when the future of church as we know it seems to be slipping through our fingers. Times when fear and distrust seem to overwhelm love and compassion, but we are called to hold to the faith and hope that God is ultimately in control. It is by looking back through God’s history with his people in the scriptures that we see God working even in difficult and challenging times. Sometimes it is by looking back at our own history that we can see how God has been working in our lives, stretching us and forming us. As Paul said, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”