May 25, 2017 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, May 28, 2017. Part of an ongoing series at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA, “Luke and Acts: The Good News of God’s Salvation.”
Texts are Luke 1.68-79; Galatians 3.1-9, 23-29.
Resources the informed this sermon include:
Brendan Byrne, The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. Revised edition. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015, 38-40.
Michael F. Bird, An Anomalous Jew: Paul among Jews, Greeks, and Romans. Grand Rapids: Eermans, 2016, 108-69.
An audio link is embedded below for those who want to listen.
God’s promises to Abraham
Way back near the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, baby John the Baptist’s old man Zechariah scooped him up and sang a sweet blessing over him. That’s what we heard in our Gospel lesson today.
By calling Zechariah John’s old man, I mean both that he was John’s father, and that he was old. Really old. His wife Elizabeth had conceived way past child-bearing years. Just like Abraham and Sarah way back when, when God gave them baby Isaac. No wonder, as Zechariah cooed over the miracle baby boy in his arms, he sang about how God remembered the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham (Luke 1.73).
The covenant between God and Abraham Zechariah was thinking of was when God told Abraham: Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them. This is how many children you will have. Even though Abraham and his Sarah were quite old at that point, we are told Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness (Gen. 15.5-6).
As old Zechariah held his newborn son—the latest of Abraham’s innumerable children—I’m sure it wasn’t lost on him that he and Elizabeth were reliving Abraham and Sarah’s story.
The first time God came to visit Abraham, he told Abraham what he and his future family were being chosen for: you will be a blessing … all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you (Gen. 12.2-3). That means God’s promises to Abraham weren’t just meant for his physical descendants, Israel. God’s promises to Abraham were meant to bless the whole world.
Church, I want you all to understand something before we move on. God chose Abraham by grace, to make a people from him, and to bless them. But when God chooses and calls a people, it’s not for their own sake. It’s so that he can bless everyone else through them. 1 Pet. 2.9 says this:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession. You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light.
God didn’t choose the church for the sake of the church. God hasn’t blessed any one of us for our own sake. God has blessed us so that we can be a blessing to others. God has chosen us to testify—by our words and by our lives—how God has called us out of darkness and into light.
That’s exactly what old Zechariah did as he sang praises to God with his miracle baby John in his arms. Testified about the God who calls us out of darkness and into light. His song began like this:
Bless the Lord God of Israel
because he has come to help and has delivered his people.
And his song ended like this:
Because of our God’s deep compassion,
the dawn from heaven will break upon us,
to give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.
Zechariah sang to and about the faithful God, who keeps his promises to Abraham’s family. The God who saves, bringing light to those sitting in darkness. What’s more, Zechariah knew what time it was. He used an interesting verb at the beginning and end of his song. He literally said God has visited his people and saved them; and because of God’s compassion, the dawn of heaven will visit us. When God visits his people, he comes to save and to bless them.
And Zechariah sees the child in his arms as key to God visiting his people again. There’s about to be a climax to the story that began when God visited Abraham. But he also knew his son, John, would play a role in God’s visit to save and to bless—he wouldn’t be the visitation. So Zechariah sag: You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way. John would announce God’s visitation in the fullness of time.
The divine visitor was another miracle baby growing in the womb of a young virgin known to Zechariah. His wife Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary. That child was Jesus. Israel’s Savior—and the world’s. Jesus is the faithfulness of God made flesh. It’s through Jesus that God visits the world, to rescue all his people. And it’s through Jesus that we are chosen; called out of darkness into [God] amazing light and blessed to be a blessing to the world. Because it’s through Jesus that God finally and fully fulfills his promises to Abraham: Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them. This is how many children you will have. And, all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you.
That’s the Good News of God’s salvation.
God’s faithfulness to Abraham
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which we’ve heard readings from lately, what we’re seeing is the early church coming to terms with what it means for the Good News of God’s salvation to come through Jesus. And specifically, how that fits with the story of Israel. As we heard from our reading in Luke’s Gospel, when John the Baptist was born, his father saw something new on the horizon. A climax to the story of Israel—a story that began when God promised Abraham as many children as there are stars in the heavens; and that his family would bless all the families of the earth.
This story continues on through the original Good News of God’s salvation, the Exodus. How God rescued Abraham’s descendants, Israel, from the deathly clutches of slavery in Egypt, and brought them to the land he’d promised so long before. No doubt that was what Zechariah had in mind when he sang how the Lord God of Israel … has come to help and has delivered his people (Luke 1.68). God rescued them again from the Exile in Babylon. Now Zechariah sees that God coming once more to visit his people and save them. But the salvation is not just for Israel’s sake. God visits the world through Jesus to give light to all those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death (Luke 1.79).
Point being, you can’t separate the story of Jesus from the story of Israel. Jesus is how God fulfills his promise to Israel’s ancestor Abraham that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him. Paul certainly agreed with that. But Galatians is an angry letter. And what made Paul so irate was some Jewish believers in Christ weren’t accepting non-Jewish believers just as they were. They demanded the Gentiles get circumcised and follow the purity codes of the Torah—the outward signs of being faithful Jews. They believed non-Jews had to do all these things to be acceptable to God, and to be adopted into the family of Abraham.
Paul said they didn’t understand what the promises God made to Abraham really meant, because they didn’t understand the full significance of the cross and resurrection of Christ. For them, salvation was Moses plus Jesus. But Paul says, No, that’s not it! God is fulfilling his promises to Abraham in Christ, and God’s plan is so much bigger, more full of grace and compassion and hope than you realize! In other words, their theology was too small, and that made their understanding of God’s salvation too narrow.
When Paul opened his letter, he made sure to mention God the Father who raised [Jesus] from the dead (Gal. 1.1). He described what God has done to save us—raising Jesus from the dead. We see the same thing in the Old Testament. Like when Exod. 20.2 talks about the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Before, God had saved Israel by rescuing them from slavery in Egypt. Now, according to Paul, God is saving all peoples in a new kind of Exodus, through the death and resurrection of Christ. Just as God had called Israel out of the living death of slavery through the Exodus; and brought them to the land he promised Abraham; now he calls all humanity to a new Exodus out of darkness into his amazing light through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Before, God had identified himself as the one who saved Israel from slavery. Now, God identifies himself as the one who raised his Son Jesus from the dead. But it’s still the same God. The God who gave the Law through Moses, and the God who made those promises to Abraham.
In the Exodus, God had saved the children of Abraham by making them go through water, as they passed through the sea. Now, God’s salvation also includes passing through the waters of baptism: All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal. 3.27). Christ is Abraham’s heir, so if you are in Christ, or clothed with Christ, you are a child of Abraham. That’s how this new kind of Exodus works.
The works of the Law—like circumcision and purity codes—was how God protected and disciplined Abraham’s children Israel in a world under the power of sin and death. Paul said it like this in our readings today: we were guarded under the Law, locked up until faith that was coming would be revealed, so that the Law became our custodian until Christ so that we might be made righteous by faith (Gal. 3.23-24). The Law guided, guarded, and directed God’s people. But Paul said it also had another purpose: to lead people to Christ. And Christ leads people to salvation. The old creation—in the grip of sin and death—is already passing away; and the works of the Law are part of that old creation. But now, because Jesus has risen, a new creation is already taking hold. Like wildflowers growing through cracks in the pavement.
And that’s why Paul was so hot that Jewish believers were trying to make their Gentile sisters and brothers live by the Law. Christ had already fulfilled the Law. The Gentiles—and the Jews!—had already been brought to freedom in Christ. Gentile believers in Jesus didn’t need to live by the works of the Law to be considered children of Abraham. Once they were baptized into Christ, they were already Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise (Gal. 3.29).
Paul didn’t see the Law—better we should call it Torah, or Instruction, its proper name—as just a collection of 613 rules. Rather, he saw the Torah, and all the scriptures, as a story about God’s faithfulness to Abraham, and through Abraham, all the families of the earth, and all creation. Remember how I said last week we should probably read the Bible like Paul? Paul didn’t see the Bible as a bunch of rules. He saw it as a story of God’s faithfulness to the world.
And so Paul read the Bible to mean this:
in the same way that Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness, those who believe are the children of Abraham. But when it saw ahead of time that God would make the Gentiles righteous on the basis of faith, scripture preached the gospel in advance to Abraham: All the Gentiles will be blessed in you. Therefore, those who believe are blessed together with Abraham who believed.
In other words, God honored his promises to Abraham by making all the families of the earth into one family through Abraham’s descendant, Jesus Christ. In this new family, There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
That’s the Good News of God’s salvation.
Being faithful like Abraham
In our reading from Luke’s Gospel today, we heard old Zechariah singing praises to the God who is faithful to his word. Like Abraham and Sarah of old, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth had conceived in their old age. Meanwhile, not too far away, Elizabeth’s virgin cousin Mary was also carrying a child in her womb. Zechariah saw that the God who has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors in the past was fulfilling the solemn pledge he made to our ancestor Abraham in the present (Luke 1.72-73). God was doing something new and unexpected. But that didn’t mean God was forgetting his people or the promises he had made. He was fulfilling them. What God was about to do through Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist; and especially Mary’s son, Jesus was all part of the same story. God didn’t wad up the story he began with Abraham and start from scratch. He advanced that story, moved it forward, through Jesus.
What we heard in our readings from Galatians today is that Paul saw it that way, too. God bringing the Gentiles into his people through Jesus was a new and climactic movement of a story that began when he first called to Abraham. He said this story, recorded in the scriptures, preached the gospel—the Good News of God’s salvation—in advance to Abraham: All the Gentiles will be blessed in you. And for Paul that Good News is this: those who believe are blessed together with Abraham who believed. Abraham was made righteous because he trusted the promises of a God he’d never met. Now, non-Jews who didn’t know the God of Israel were coming to trust him through his crucified and resurrected Son, Jesus. God was writing the Gentiles into Abraham’s story, which is what he was working on all along.
The issue is that some of the Jewish believers were stuck in the past. God was turning the page, beginning a new chapter. But they wanted to keep living in the previous chapters. The ones they knew by heart and felt safe inside. And they wanted to drag the Gentiles back into the safety and security of the old ways. But Paul told them they couldn’t do it. God is advancing the story, and you can’t stay stuck in the pages that came before.
Of course, there’s a lesson there, church. I know every congregation of God’s people, every follower of Jesus, has a story. And we live by our stories—how God has been faithful in the past. What he’s shown us. How he’s guided us. What he’s brought us through. And it’s so tempting to think the best way to honor that story is to stay put and be faithful to what we already know. We heard an example of that a few months back, on the Mount of Transfiguration. When the disciples saw Moses and Elijah with Jesus, Peter blurted out: Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah (Luke 9.33). He wanted to stay there and honor what they already knew. But they couldn’t do that—Jesus was moving the story forward. They had other places to go and new, challenging, and world-changing things to do.
Same with what we heard from Galatians today. Some of the Jewish believers wanted to keep living in the past when God was calling his people to go and do new things. Faithfulness doesn’t just mean staying put, or standing at the crossroads and asking for the ancient paths (Jer. 6.16). Faithfulness usually means reaching out, moving forward, embracing the new chapter God is writing. Paul saw that this is what Abraham did. This is what these newcomers into God’s people—Abraham’s children through faith—were doing. And that’s what Paul counseled all the church to do.
Abraham showed his faithfulness by responding to God’s call to go somewhere new, and trusting God’s promises along the way. And now, Paul says, those who believe are blessed together with Abraham who believed. Paul says they are faithful who trust God and keep moving forward.
Sisters and brothers, times change. The world changes. Our culture changes. Our neighborhoods change. Our congregations change. Sometimes God throws us curve balls, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t faithful. But changes mean new needs arise, new challenges arise—and new opportunities for faithfulness and growth arise.
We still serve the same God who called Abraham to a new place, and blessed him for being faithful enough to move with God. For embracing the story God was wanting to tell through him and those who came after. We serve the God who tells his people: Don’t remember the prior things; don’t ponder ancient history. Look! I’m doing a new thing (Isa. 43.18-19). Whose final word is: Look! I’m making all things new (Rev. 21.5).
Are we going to be faithful—like our father Abraham—to go where God is calling us, and be a blessing wherever that is?