Listen to the sermon here.
Our God brings something out of nothing.
Before the universe was created, there was nothing. But God spoke a word and one Big Bang later, planets and suns and comets spun throughout the universe.
Before Adam and Eve got into mischief in the Garden, there were no humans. But God breathed into some dirt and there they were. Perfectly imperfect, walking with God in the garden.
Before there were Jews, before there were God’s people, before there was a law or a covenant, there was just Abraham and Sarah, elderly, childless, not looking for adventure.
God chooses them. He appears to Abraham and tells him he will make a covenant with him and that Abraham will be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. God says he will bless Sarah and that she will bear a child.
Sarah overhears and she laughs and laughs and laughs.
God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah are absurd. They are in their nineties. In his letter to the Romans, Paul describes Sarah’s womb not merely as barren, but as deathly. There is nothing for God to work with. No fertility, no life, no potential.
And yet, eventually, there is Isaac. Despite all odds, life grows in that deathly womb and soon a very real, flesh and blood baby is born, continuing the family’s line. Sarah’s laughter transforms from disbelief into delight.
Why is the Apostle Paul dredging up this old story in his letter to the Romans? What does Abraham have to do with new life in Jesus? Paul is addressing the community of Rome, which most likely included both Jewish and Gentile Christians. He appears to be addressing some conflict around interpretation of the Jewish law. Before Christ, righteousness was understood as adherence to the Jewish law. We were made right by our obedience, by our own efforts.
Paul is making the claim here that our righteousness cannot come from our own efforts, because Abraham was made righteous for his faith in God’s promises, long before the law came into effect. Paul is reminding his audience that God has been at work much longer than our imaginations can grasp. God has been making something out of nothing for as long as God has been God.
And, while Paul describes Abraham as not weakening in faith, we laugh along with Sarah, because we know the story! Abraham’s faith was weak and inconsistent. He and Sarah could not believe she would become pregnant, so they arranged to have Abraham impregnate Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar. Even Abraham’s faith was basically worthless.
And yet, our God takes those pathetic scraps of faith and builds a little family. Isaac goes on to marry Rebekah and have Jacob and Esau. Jacob goes on to marry Rachel and Leah and they have twelve sons who become the twelve tribes of Israel. Abraham’s little family becomes a nation. His scraps of faith become the foundation for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
In the same way, the Apostle Paul argues, we are made righteous not by how well we follow the law, not because of how well we adhere to the tenets of Christianity, but we are made righteous because God chose to make something out of nothing. When we rejected Jesus and crucified him, God chose to bring life out of death one more time. We are made righteous, not because of what we can do, but because of who God is and how he has chosen to relate to us.
So, then, why do we make Lenten sacrifices? Why do we obey the Ten Commandments? Why do we love our neighbor as ourselves? If our righteousness is all about what God has done and not what we do, what is the point of trying to live a holy life? Paul will spend several chapters of Romans dealing with this question, but in short, Paul thinks a sinful life just isn’t an option once you have been baptized. For Paul, when a person is baptized, he is buried with Christ in his death and then raised again into a new life by Christ’s resurrection.
Once again, God is moving from nothingness to somethingness, from death to life. Sin is part of that nothing, deathly world. When we join into Christ’s resurrection through our baptism, we become part of the new something God has created. We are part of a life that is full and rich. We are motivated to repent of our sin and work on an obedient life because we see that a life of obedience to God is filled with deep joy and wholeness that our old lives just cannot match.
But we all know our efforts at obedience are just as pathetic as Abraham’s faith. We do our best, but all of us break God’s law no matter how wonderful our new life in Christ is. The Apostle Paul may argue that sin isn’t even an option for us in our new lives with God but we argue back, “Oh yeah, watch this!” and then we overeat or get drunk or humiliate someone.
And this is why Paul’s original point is such good news for us! Our standing with God is not dependent on our behavior. The possibilities of our lives are not limited by our own weaknesses. God can bring something wonderful out of nothing.
The power of sin may still try to worm its way into our hearts, but in the cosmic battle, God has defeated sin through Christ’s death and resurrection.
Madeleine L’Engle was my favorite author when I was a teenager. One of her books takes its title from a wonderful William Langland quote “but all the wickedness in the world which man may do or think, is no more to the mercy of God then a live coal dropped in the sea.” All of our anger, all of our betrayals, all of our violence, all of our wars, all of our injustice—if you could quantify all of this some how and measure all our awfulness against God’s mercy, our sin would just be a blip. Isn’t that amazing?
It’s hard to imagine the vastness of God’s mercy when we are in the thick of this very real, very sinful world. We see the consequences of sin all around us every day. Even if we are having a pretty good day, all we have to do is pick up the newspaper to see examples of greed, corruption, prejudice. But if we put down the paper and pick up the book of Romans, we gain a new perspective. We realize God’s story is much, much bigger than our story.
In God’s story, God makes us righteous, not because of our behavior, not because of our political beliefs, not because of the church we choose. God makes us righteous because God is God and God chooses to enter a battle against sin and death. And folks, when God enters a battle, God always wins.
God makes us righteous because God wants to be in relationship with us and we cannot make ourselves righteous, no matter how hard we try, no matter how good our intentions. God chooses us. God goes to battle for us. God wins for us. Not because of who we are, but because of who God is.
So, believe the impossible. Believe that God can take your scraps of faith and turn them into an adventurous, holy life. Believe that our measly little communities of faith have more power than the biggest army. Believe that God can defeat all the evil powers in the world, no matter how vast or entrenched. Believe God can bring something out of nothing.
In fact, nothing is God’s favorite material.
Thanks be to God.