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February 25, 2018

“Trusting God’s Promise of New Life” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, February 25 [Lent 2] – Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16  •  Psalm 22:23-31  •  Romans 4:13-25  •  Mark 8:31-38

FOCUS:  Trust in God’s promise to give new life, even where it seems impossible.

 

          We lost one of God’s great saints this week.  On Wednesday, in his 100th year, the great revival preacher and evangelist Billy Graham died.  As he once famously said, “My home is in Heaven.  I'm just traveling through this world.” Billy’s travels here have now come to an end.  He’s gone home to live with Jesus.  

          What you may not know is that Billy Graham, like many of us, came from a long line of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians.  He was born in 1918 on a dairy farm outside Charlotte, NC.  He was raised Presbyterian and at age 16 he gave his life to Christ.  After graduating from Wheaton College in lllinois, he married his college sweetheart and was ordained a Southern Baptist pastor.

          In 1949, at the age of 31, he began a series of revivals in Los Angeles.  Thanks to his powerful preaching and some favorable press coverage from William Randolph Heart’s newspapers, the three-week revival lasted 8 weeks.

          For the better part of the next 60 years, the Billy Graham Crusades would spread the gospel all across the globe.  He preached to more than 200 million people live in more than 185 countries.  He reached hundreds of millions more through electronic media.  

          I wonder, have any of you ever been to a Billy Graham crusade? 

          I will never forget the September day in 1991 when Beth and I decided to walk over to Central Park to attend the Billy Graham crusade there.  It was packed.  There were 250,000 people there – the largest live audience he’d ever preached to.  

          We didn’t know what to expect.  Being young and naïve, I remember thinking to myself, what could this 70-year old, barnstorming, Southern Baptist preacher from yester-year possibly know about our sophisticated and complicated lives in New York City? 

          But he nailed it on the head.  He talked about the unparalleled stress and loneliness of living in New York, and the tragic exodus from the churches into a secular world of materialism and hedonism. 

          But the memory that still stands out to me is how the hairs on my neck stood up when he quoted John 3:16 in that deep, resonant baritone voice of his:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but shall have eternal life.”

          As he said many times, publicly and privately, trusting this gospel promise from God’s Word was the source of his hope for new life.  And if we could bring ourselves to trust God’s promise of new life in Jesus, we could have that hope-filled life as well.

          That message of trusting God's promise echoes throughout both our texts this morning.

          In Genesis, God is establishing his covenant with Abraham, who until now has been called Abram.  He promises Abram three things in this covenant:  land, offspring and prosperity, prosperity so great it’ll also be a blessing to other peoples. 

          God doesn’t simply pluck these promises out of thin air.  They’re rooted in his past experience with humankind, especially Adam and Eve.

          You’ll remember that, when they disobeyed God, Adam and Eve were not simply expelled from the Garden.  The penalty – for them and their ancestors - was a hostile earth; painful, even life-threatening childbirth; and endless human toil.

          The blessings God promises to Abram are the exact reversal of these curses:  a bountiful earth, a multitude of offspring and a life of blessing and joy.

          And this new covenant is not limited to just Abram.  It extends to his descendants, as well.  Among them will be kings, nations and peoples. God is making a new start here.  He’s deepening his relationship with Abram, and with his descendants. 

          And to mark the beginning of this auspicious new covenant era, God gives Abram a new name.  He’s now to be called Abraham – meaning ‘Father of a multitude’.  And Sarai becomes Sarah, which means ‘princess’.

          This is the first time Sarah is explicitly brought into the Covenant.  God’s promise regarding her is a real gob-smacker:  at 99 years old, long after her child-bearing years are finished, Sarah will bear Abraham a son.

          Abraham’s initial reaction is probably what yours or mine would be:  disbelief.  It’s as if God just told the funniest joke he’s ever heard.  Abraham laughs so hard he falls flat on his face. 

          Later, when Sarah herself gets wind of the promise, she laughs, too.  But to their credit, neither one loses hope.  They may question God, but neither one walks away from him.

          And sure enough, in due course, God delivers on this fantastic promise. Sarah gives birth to Isaac, whose name, appropriately enough, means “He laughs”.   So, we might say God got the last laugh, as he always does.

          As Paul points out in our passage from Romans, none of the blessings Abraham received were of his own making.  They were all gifts from God‘s grace.  Abraham trusted God to bring new life out of barrenness.  In turn, God blessed him and his family beyond anything he could’ve imagined.

           As Paul writes, God’s blessing “depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed . . . not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham.”  That means to you and me.

          Paul’s message to the Romans is God’s word to us.  What makes us right in God’s eyes is our willingness to put our doubts aside and trust that God is able to do what he promises.  For us, that means trusting that God raised Jesus from the dead.

          The world, of course regards that idea as foolishness. They want us to believe Good Friday was the end of Jesus’ story.  In worldly eyes, his promise of resurrection is as unbelievable as God’s promise of a 99-year old woman giving birth to a son.

          That’s what our experience tells us, too.  I don’t think any of us have ever seen someone brought back from the grave.  Our rational minds – with all our God-given powers of logic and reason – would have us believe that Jesus’ promise of new life in him is just as impossible as the prospect of his own life beyond the tomb. 

          But thankfully God has given us something even more powerful than our minds to help us understand him.  We’ve each been given a soul.  Our souls are spiritual organs.  They respond to God’s love like a tuning fork resonates with sound waves.

          When we hear God’s promise of new life in Christ, our souls whisper to our minds “yes – yes, I feel that.  We should trust that voice.”  

          That’s what faith is:  listening, trusting and responding to God’s still, small voice.  It’s not an automatic response to a command.  We have free will.  Faith is a choice – a choice to listen, trust and obey; or not.

          The proof of the validity of our faith is not the immediate reward of blessing.  We often hear that false promise from certain kinds of Televangelists like Joel Osteen and other purveyors of the snake oil sold under the specious label of the prosperity gospel.

          No, the proof of our faith is the palpable sense of hope it generates within us.  When we decide to trust God’s promise of new life, hope begins to pervade our lives, even in the darkest times. 

          As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”

          Friends, we’ve had some pretty dark times around here lately.  We’ve had three funerals in the last month alone.  As many of you have expressed to me privately, it’s left us in shock as a faith family.  

          But what sets us apart from the world we live in is our trust in God’s promise that death does not have the final word;  God does.  God always gets the last word, and the last laugh.  That’s the good news.

          As we all confessed just a moment ago, God loves this world and everyone in it so much that he gave his only Son, so that anyone who believes in him doesn’t just drift off into oblivion when they die.  But, instead, we go straight into the arms of Jesus.  That’s where we spend eternity with all the saints who’ve gone before.

          That’s the reason for our hope, just as it was for Billy Graham.

          That hope is not confined to life after death.  It extends to this life, too. 

          Where in your life do you need the hope that comes from trusting in God’s promise of new life?   

          Maybe as you try to mend a broken relationship or find a new love?

           Maybe you’re wondering how you can ever cast off the heavy chains of an addiction that’s threatening to take over your life?   

          Maybe you need to learn to forgive yourself for the past mistakes you’ve made?

          Or maybe we need to learn how to squelch the voices of judgment that crowd out our compassion so we can truly open our hearts to those whose needs we may have overlooked before?

          Wherever it is, let’s take a lesson from Abraham. 

          Let’s trust that, in Jesus Christ, God can do what he promises.  That mean new life is possible for you and me, no matter how impossible it may seem. 

          That is good news – good news, indeed!

May it be so.

Last Published: March 2, 2018 2:03 PM