(General Comments, continued)
5. Psalm 121: This is among the Songs of Ascent or pilgrim psalms that were used by the ancient Israelites as they climbed the holy mount, Mount Zion in Jerusalem, site of the temple. These psalms comprise a whole "book" of the Psalms, which includes Psalms 120 to 134.
6. This is a frequently quoted passage of Scripture. As Artur Weiser notes in his fantastic commentary on the Psalms:
This psalm produces by the simplicity of its language and piety a deep impression...It does not show us the bold soaring of a man's [sic] faith to the high places where storms rage; it does not portray man's struggles and inner tensions--but with the calm and comforting assurance of an unshaken trust it takes its course in a peaceful and straightforward manner. In this inward stability lies its strength...In other words, this psalm shows us another face of the same theme running through the other lessons for this coming Sunday: faith, trust in God.
7. But faith is not about us. It's always about God. God creates trust within us and He nurtures it. It is the Lord Who helps, the Lord Who keeps, and the Lord Who protects. Faith is not some grit-your-teeth-convince-yourself-to-believe phenomenon. It's the response of those who, like Abraham have done nothing to earn God's regard but have the desire to trust in God. God turns that desire and turns it into faith. Faith is the gift of a gracious God to those who put down their dukes of resistance, acknowledging God's greatness and the legitimacy of His judgment on our sin, and allow God to manufacture faith within them.
8. Romans 4:1-5, 13-17: Romans was Paul's magnum opus as a theologian and evangelist. He wrote it as he prepared to visit Rome, where he intended to minister to the young church there and then move on to Spain to present Christ and establish new churches.
In the first three chapters of the letter to the Roman church, Paul said that adherence to "the law," by which he meant the laws presented by Moses, could not save a person from sin and death, couldn't give a person everlasting fellowship wth God. One function of the law is to show us our sinfulness and, because death is the consequence of sin, our tragic distance from God. As Martin Luther said, the first function of the law is to drive us to despair. It's a mirror that shows us that, as we Lutherans often say on Sunday mornings, "we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves, [that] we have not loved [God] with our whole heart, we have not love our neighbors as ourselves..."
But God doesn't want to leave us in despair. His desire is for us to turn to Him and find in Him forgiveness and the power to turn around (repent), to walk again with God. A passage in the New Testament, also used frequently in our Lutheran liturgy, tells us:
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (First John 1:9)
2. In our lesson, Paul then shows that even Abraham, the great patriarch of God's people, the Israelites, the first recipients of God's laws, salvation and reconciliation with God never was a matter of obedience to the law. It was always a matter of faith in God and in God's promises. Even Abraham, he asserts, was not saved by his works--the good works of obedience to the law--but by faith. Look at some of the way that Eugene Peterson, Presbyterian Bible scholar, pastor, and poet renders Paul's words in his masterful rendering of the Bible called The Message:
If Abraham, by what he did for God, got God to approve him, he could certainly have taken credit for it. But the story we're given is a God-story, not an Abraham-story. What we read in Scripture is, "Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own."The path to faith in God is comprised in part of recognizing that we cannot live on our own. Before God can set us free from sin, God must first crush us with the awareness that on our own, we can do nothing. (But with the God we meet in Jesus Christ, we can do all things.) We need God.
If you're a hard worker and do a good job, you deserve your pay; we don't call your wages a gift. But if you see that the job is too big for you, that it's something only God can do, and you trust him to do it—you could never do it for yourself no matter how hard and long you worked—well, that trusting-him-to-do-it is what gets you set right with God, by God. Sheer gift.
Nor can we ever hope to be good enough to merit eternal life with God. We turn to God for our salvation. God gives life and God gives the new life to those who trustingly turn to Him. We all need new life from God because we are all sinners doomed to death without God's grace.
This is a crushing blow for our egos. But once we've come to terms with the realities about the people we see in the mirror, it comes finally, not as a crushing blow, but as comfort and power, hope and joy, and life with God that lasts forever!
God is the implacable foe of our sin. God is the resolute lover of our souls. Both statements are true.
God stands ready to give us forgiveness and life. The question always is: Will we let Him? Abraham (formerly Abram) believed in God and God's promises and God counted Abram's trust as righteousness. We are saved from our unlawfulness not by obeying a law we can never obey completely, but by throwing ourselves into the arms of the God Who loves us completely and lived it out (and died it out) on the cross.
This leads us to that greatest of all Biblical passages, one that will appear in this Sunday's Gospel lesson:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)[More later, I hope.]