Unseen But Not Uknown
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I’m glad that we’re coming around the Lord’s Table today. A lot of the words we’re using this morning are made more tangible/concrete as we consider what happens when we gather around this table. Coming to the table is a tangible act that signals our faith – our trust in the promises of God. Coming to this table is a recognition that we are people who are in need of grace – the mercy of God which is extended to us outside of any work that we might do and in which we might boast. In coming to this table, we hear Christ’s words “This cup is the new covenant sealed by my blood…” which reminds us of another covenant – a loving agreement by which all the nations of the earth would be blessed. At this table of reconciliation and pardon, we are reminded of forgiveness. We are reminded at this table that in Jesus we are made part of a family. This is why I like to call it the Family Table, sisters and brothers.
The question for us this morning is, what kind of family is this? One of the ways in which we find out about the nature of a family is to look at the family history. This is no doubt why applications like ancestry.com are so big. So we look to our ancestor in the faith. Our ancestor in trust. Many years ago, when I was in primary school we sang a song called “Father Abraham.” Looking back now I realize that it was mainly a tactic to tire us out (with a left and right and a right and a left etc.). The song’s title though, spoke a foundational truth. In our NRSV bibles, the first section of this chapter is called “The Example of Abraham.” Abraham is most definitely and example of faith in God, of trust in God. Abraham is much more than simply an example. We’re talking about matters that are foundational to our faith, and you know that I like that line “All is grace.” All is grace. Lines of grace converge in Abraham. Abraham is the original recipient of God’s promise to humanity. God’s promise of grace. Abraham is the beginning of God putting things to right that had gone so horribly wrong. The beginning of God’s restoration of rebellious humanity. Read Gen 12:1-3. Abraham’s faithful trusting response to God’s call is the blueprint for the appropriate response to God’s faithfulness – that is to say, it is the appropriate response to make to God who keeps promises. We find in Abraham the basis on which the law that would be given – the basis of grace and faith or trust in God’s grace (we will come back to this). It was from the descendants of Abraham that a rescuer would come, that the family would be expanded, and that the promise to be a blessing to all nations and all peoples would be fulfilled.
Lines of grace converging in Abraham. Lines of grace converging at this table.
Grace met Abraham at the same point that grace met or meets or will meet each and every one of us. When we are far from God. God’s grace wasn’t dependent on anything that Abraham had to do. Before there was any law given, there was grace and a response of faith or trust. Listen to the story from Genesis 15:1-6. Listen to this quote from John Stott -: “Law-language ('you shall') demands our obedience, but promise-language ('I will') demands our faith. What God said to Abraham was not 'Obey this law, and I will bless you', but 'I will bless you; believe my promise.'” Before law there was grace. We sometimes have the impression that in the Bible, the OT is all about law and the NT is all about grace. It’s always been about God’s grace. We can go back to God’s response to Adam and Eve in Genesis after things went wrong. What did go do? He looked for them. He clothed them. God extended grace. Abraham shows the good and fitting and proper response to God’s grace – faith/trust. Grace can be an offensive proposition, can’t it? We like to think that people should get what they deserve. What we need to remember is that through Christ and the mercy shown and made known to us by way of the cross, we do not get what we deserve. None of us. Scandalous? Maybe it depends on our level of self righteousness.
There are at least three possible reactions to God’s grace: 1) We think very highly of ourselves and our righteous actions and isn’t God lucky to have me on the team. 2) There is no coming back from this. A CBOQ colleague Jim Sanderson recently said this – “There can be life on the other side of the point of no return. No one is so far out of reach that God can’t find them.” 3) We may think that we have no need of God at all. We are a good person. We do good things. We look after our families and pay our taxes and don’t break any laws. We live unexamined lives because an examined life would surely bring about a different truth about us.
Here's the scandal of grace. In the mercy of God, we don’t get what we deserve. This is not license to continue to indulge in sin or the human capacity to mess things up. We’ll talk more about this in two weeks when Paul addressees the question in chapter 6 – Should we continue in sin in order to receive more grace? This is where we start though. God meets us at the same place that God met Abraham – when God was largely unknown to Abraham; when Abraham knew very little about what God is like; what it means to follow God and to be transformed and conformed to God’s ways. This is the point at which God met Abraham, but it is not, as someone as said, where God left him. This is the point where God meets us, but it is not where God leaves us.
It starts with God’s grace and the invitation before each of us is to respond with with trusting faith to God’s grace. The result is a state of blessedness. A state of goodness, of rightness of right standing before God. Of rightness. Of being justified. Of being forgiven. David sang about justification. About pardon. For David hundreds of years before Jesus this was a big deal (v. 7-8).
In Jesus the promise that all the nations, all the peoples, all the people of the world would be blessed has come about. For Paul’s audience in Rome, it was not about whether a man was circumcised (given as a sign to the original covenant people of Israel) or uncircumcised. The faith of Abraham that was counted as righteousness came before he was circumcised, after all. It was through faith that Abraham became the ancestor of all who believe, circumcised or not. It is through faith the invitation to trust in Christ is open to all, circumcised or not. The invitation is for everyone irrespective of creed, class, ethnicity, nation, language. Let us make the invitation respectfully. The challenge for the church today is not so much a debate about circumcision vs. uncircumcision as a requirement or as a work, as much as it is about works. It’s maybe not so much a question of “Do we believe in God’s grace and our trust in God’s grace as the foundation of our lives?” but rather, how well do our lives reflect this belief? Is everything dependent on God or is it dependent on us and our competencies? When we hold a business meeting, how much time do we spend in prayer together? Tack it on a the end, or maybe the beginning and the end? What kind of dependence on God are we showing? Do we turn to God as we go through our days, in thanks and praise? Are we too busy doing (because, after all, it all depends on us) to stop and give God thanks in prayer or consider God’s gift to us in silence or to stop and praise God in any one of the ways in which we offer God praise?
It is good to stop. It’s good to stop and consider matters of grace and trust in the presence of God. It’s good to do this together in the presence of “the God whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that did not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’ according to what was being said.” (17b-18a). Do you trust in the God who gives life to the dead? Have you experienced life in God and can say with me “I know what life from the dead feels like?” Do those words of the waiting father have any resonance? “This son of mine who was dead is alive again?” I believe in the same God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that did not exist.
Father Abraham hoped against hope. This does not mean he simply displayed breezy optimism or denied reality. This is our family story. Abraham laughed when God told him Sarah would have a son. “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old bear a child?” (Gen 17:17) Sarah would laugh too, outside a tent when the promise was repeated by three strangers whom Abraham welcomed and through whom he encountered God. Abraham’s trust in God did not weaken but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God. Abraham had seen God bring him far his country to the promised land. Abraham had seen God bring forth life when life seemed impossible. Abraham’s faith grew strong, and he gave glory to God to the point where he could lead his promised child up a mountain and say “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” (Gen 22:8)
God himself will provide the lamb. This is the God in whom I trust. This is the God in whom I have known new life and know new life and one day will know new life.
Someone has said that the supreme way to worship God is not to work for him, but to trust that he will fulfill his promises. Abraham said “I believe you Lord. Though I am powerless, you are powerful, and I will rest in that truth. I will not live in light of what I see but in light of what you say.” Grace is answered by faith which brings hope. Someone has described the situation like this:
“When people hope and trust in the God who creates, faith becomes creative. Faithfulness sees and acts on God’s possibilities in situations where no possibilities seem to exist. Relying on God to help us face the challenges we could never face by ourselves; Christians can follow Jesus wherever he leads. The things that come about because of this faithfulness bring glory to God, and the faithful see them as God’s achievements, not their own. It was Abraham’s hopeful, glorifying trust in God’s ability to overcome a seemingly hopeless situation that was counted as righteousness (4:22). Paul asserts that just as this faith was counted on Abraham’s behalf, our faithfulness to the same God (who did another outrageous thing by raising Jesus from the dead) will be counted as righteousness for us.”
May we be bold to proclaim the faith or trust that is ours in Christ by our lives, in our words and in our actions. This is what our family is all about. May our faith be strengthened as we gather around the family table, where the unseen is not unknown, but made known to us in the bread and wine by the grace of God. I want to close with a verse from an old hymn entitled “Jesus These Eyes Have Never Seen”:
Jesus, these eyes have never seen
That radiant form of thine;
The veil of sense hangs dark between
Thy blessed face and mine.
Yet though I have not seen, and still
Must rest in faith alone,
I love thee, dearest Lord, and will,
Unseen but not unknown.
May this be the prayer of all of us.