The Ninth Sunday After Pentecost July 29, 2007
27, 428, 782 [TLH alt. 434], 800 [TLH alt. 429]
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.” But Abram said, “Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” Then Abram said, “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This one shall not be your heir.” Then He brought him outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.
In the name of Jesus, who speaks to us in His holy Word, dear fellow Christians:
Between Cheyenne and Laramie, Wyoming lies countryside that is much the same now as when pioneers traveled through on their push west to California 150 years ago. It is a region of high foothills, few trees, and even fewer people. I happened to be driving that route late one night when I glanced up at the sky, and almost went off the road in shock at what I saw. I pulled over, got out of the car, and just stared up at the sky. There were stars like I had never seen before! From horizon to horizon the sky was blanketed with thousands of brilliant points of light. Some seemed almost close enough to reach out and touch, while others were just a pinprick of light. I drove on with a new appreciation for the awesome beauty of God’s creation, and now whenever I look up at the stars, I think of that night.
I imagine that is the kind of sky Abram saw nearly every night 4,000 years ago from his tent in the land of Canaan. But one evening God took him outside and had him take another look. For the rest of his life, whenever he gazed up at the stars, he must have remembered that one night and God’s message to him.
It was a message of comfort for a man who was afraid. We could think of many reasons for Abram’s fear. At God’s direction he had packed up and moved hundreds of miles away from family and friends to a strange land. Once there, his herdsmen and those of his nephew Lot had a falling out so the two men decided to separate. This meant Abram was even more isolated. Later, he rescued Lot from a raiding party which had carried him off. Abram must have wondered whether those enemies would regroup and try to retaliate against him. It was a lonely, sometimes violent, existence.
But Abram’s greatest fear was not about any of these things. The fear which gripped his heart was that he would die childless. In those days one of the greatest tragedies a person could suffer was to have no children to continue the family line. But for Abram there was much more at stake. Earlier God had promised to make of him a great nation and had even said that through his family all people on earth would be blessed. God was saying that Abram’s eternal future and that of the whole world would be linked to his family.
But what family? Abram and Sarah had been married for many years, and still Sarah was setting the table for two. Abram was 85 years old and his wife 75, and there was still no child. With each day the prospects grew dimmer and the fear grew stronger. “Look, Lord, you have given me no offspring. The closest thing to an heir is my slave.” You can hear the desperation in Abram’s words.
What are you afraid of? Is it not having enough to make ends meet? Do you find yourself asking, “How are we going to keep the car running, pay the rent or mortgage, and still buy groceries?” The fear may be regarding job concerns or health matters. Family problems can weigh heavily on us. And what about the future? It is so uncertain and frightening from our limited human perspective. Maybe you are having a hard time concentrating this morning because of one or more of these fears.
But our greatest concern, as it was for Abram, has to be our eternal future. Our lifetime on earth is just a moment compared with the never-ending eternity to follow. Are we ready? Are you comfortable and confident that all is right between you and God? Can we be sure?
We can be if we look up. That is what God told Abram to do. He gazed up into the sky and saw the countless number of stars God created out of nothing simply by saying the word. God then addressed His word directly to Abram and said, “Do not be afraid! I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.” God would be a protective, impenetrable shield around Abram. He did not have to worry, because God would take care of everything, including Abram's eternal future.
When we keep our eyes focused down on the earth and on ourselves, we are bound to be afraid. We see sin and all the problems it generates. But then look up at the stars. They were there long before Abram. They did not evolve or just happen to somehow “be there.” God created each and every one. “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name” (Psalm 147:4 NIV). “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1 NIV).
At the same time, the Creator of the entire universe with its billions of galaxies and stars is not distant and impersonal. He is close and caring. He loves you. He speaks to you personally in His Word. He is concerned even about little things. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Matthew 10:29-30). So we don’t have to fear. We have something better than a missile defense shield or a chain link fence topped with razor wire around our homes. The one and only Creator of the stars is our shield.
To reassure Abram God took him outside and said, “Count the stars if you are able. That is how many descendants you will have.” It must have been mind-boggling for Abram to imagine a face represented by each twinkling point of light in the sky. He knew how impossible it was by any human calculation. All he had to do was look at Sarah’s wrinkled face and the toll of 85 years on his own body.
Yet “he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.” [v.6] This has been called the most important verse in the Bible, because it tells how we receive the holiness or right-standing we need for eternal life. Abram did not earn it by doing good. He did not get it by his good character or because of his ethnic heritage. He believed, and God credited that faith as righteousness in His sight.
Even believing was not something Abram did as his contribution toward salvation. He did not make a decision for God. Rather, God reached out to Abram and caused him to believe. It is like a parent who holds up a nine-month-old baby so that he can take a few steps. It might look as though he is walking on his own, but it’s the parent's arms supporting his weight and holding him straight. Faith, likewise, is God's work within us, not our own doing.
That faith is an amazing gift of God. It sees the invisible, believes the incredible, and receives the impossible. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). Abram believed that he and Sara would have a son and that eventually from his family one very special son would be born—the One promised first to Adam and Eve, the One who would crush the Devil’s head by giving up His own life in payment for the sin of all the world. By faith Abram was credited with that saving work long before Jesus was even born.
There is still only one way to be right with God and receive eternal life and that is by believing. It is not just believing that God exists or that He is holy and good. Paul says in Romans 4: “The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness-for us who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” (Romans 4:22-25 NIV)
The heart of saving faith is believing that Jesus is God’s Son who lived a holy life, not merely as a good example, but as our stand-in under the Law. He has given us His righteousness, and in exchange took our sin on Himself and suffered the penalty of Hell for us on the cross. He did it all for us. It is all ours as a free gift. God the Judge pronounces us “Not guilty!” Our own pathetic goodness and efforts played no part whatsoever. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:9 NIV).
Faith in God is never disappointed. At just the right time Abram and Sarah had a son just as God had said. Over the years Abram’s family grew until they numbered in the millions when God led them out of Egypt into the Promised Land. And at just the right time, Jesus was born. He lived, died, rose again, and now lives and rules at the Father’s right hand. Again, at just the right moment He will return and take all believers home to eternal life in Heaven.
The fulfillment of God’s promises to Abram is the assurance that He will certainly keep His word to us as well. We have nothing to fear, for He says: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow….Call upon me in the day of trouble, I will deliver you….Surely I am with you always to the very end of the age….In all things I work for the good of those who love me….No one can snatch you out of My hand” (Isaiah 1:18, Psalm 50:15, Matthew 28:20, Romans 8:28, John 10:28).
Take time tonight to look at the stars. Think of Abram looking up toward them at God’s direction. Think of the power and majesty of the Creator God who put each star in place and keeps it shining. Think of the saving message God attached to the stars, the promise of innumerable descendants of Abram and One in particular, who would die that you and I might live forever. Look at the stars, take God’s message to heart, and believe! Amen.
The God of Abram praise,
Who’s all-sufficient grace
Shall guide me all my pilgrim days
In all my ways.
He deigns to call me friend;
He calls Himself my God.
And He shall save me to the end
Through Jesus’ precious blood.
(Lutheran Worship 450:3)
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.