Monday, December 5, 2016

Where is the Evidence?: Romans 4:18-25

One day, an elderly lady went into the grocery store to purchase some dog food.  She went to the counter to pay, and the cashier said to her, every so sweetly, “I’m sorry, ma’am.  I can’t sell you that dog food unless you can show me evidence that you have a dog.”

The lady asked why.

“I hate to inconvenience you, ma’am,” she replied, “But we have discovered that a lot of older people are purchasing the dog food to eat.  That’s not healthy or sanitary.  So to prevent this, we’ve instituted a policy that we will not sell dog food without evidence of a dog.”

The old woman took out her cell phone and showed the cashier a picture of her and her dog.

The next week, the senior citizen returned to purchase some cat food.  The exact same conversation took place, and the cashier was satisfied when the old lady once again produced evidence in the form of a picture of her and her cat on her cell phone.

The next week, the elderly lady returned to the grocery store this time holding a plastic container with a hole in the top.  She walked straight up to the cashier and held up the container.

The cashier asked, “What is this?”

The old grey hair simply said, “Just put your finger in here, dear.”

The cashier did as she said, and then withdrew her finger covered in something smelly and brown.

“Eww!” screamed the cashier.  “What in the world is this?!!”

The old lady retorted, “That’s my poop.  Is that enough evidence for me to buy toilet paper?”

You will probably not remember another word of this sermon after that one, but I’m going to try anyway.

Christians have often been accused of believing in God without evidence or of believing in God despite evidence to the contrary.  The argument generally goes, “You have faith.  Faith means believing without evidence.  Therefore, you might as well believe in the flying spaghetti monster, or Thor, or the Tooth Fairy, or whatever imaginary thing you choose.  You have no basis for your belief.”

That’s not exactly an easy argument to defend if faith means believing without evidence.  However, faith without evidence is not the biblical definition of faith.  In fact, the biblical definition of faith is quite different.  A good definition of biblical faith is trust.  Most dictionaries define trust as, “a firm belief in the character, strength, or truth of someone or something.”  It is this definition that is better suited when we talk about our faith in God.  It’s not believing in God without any form of evidence, but it is a belief in God’s character; God’s strength; and God’s truth.  Faith assumes that we have already encountered God in some fashion, and we trust in what He has revealed to us.  The question that we must answer from skeptics is, “How do you know you have encountered God?”  That’s a bit more difficult to answer, but perhaps we have good guidance before us this morning as we finish up Romans chapter four.

Paul has gone through great pains to show up to this point that Abraham, the founder of the Jewish faith was not justified, or made right with God, by following the Law or by being circumcised.  Rather, Abraham was justified, or made right with God, by putting his trust in God’s promises.  God had promised that Abraham would be the father of many nations–that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seas.  But there were several problems that had arisen.  Would they shatter Abraham’s faith?  Paul takes us through the process as we begin at the end of verse 17:

–in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’, according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’   While most translations tie the end of verse 17 to the preceding verses, I prefer attaching it to the beginning of verse 18 to read as a series of clauses leading up to Abraham’s actions.  I think it would be better read in this fashion, “In the presence of God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist, hoping against hope, Abraham believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations.”  The Greek here definitely allows for this sentence construction, and I think it works better in this fashion to set the stage for what Paul is trying to convey to his audience.

Paul is laying out two important attributes of the God that Abraham trusted.  Now, as we read through the Old Testament, we know that Abraham had an encounter with God.  We do not have the exact details of that encounter.  We don’t know what kind of appearance God made.  We don’t know what Abraham experienced.  We do know that it was enough to change Abraham’s entire life.  He went from someone who worshiped many gods–to one who worshiped only one God.  He left his family fortune and inheritance and headed to a land he had never seen.  Whatever happened in that encounter between God and Abraham had so thoroughly convinced and changed him, that it must have been a marvel to see.

And Abraham had become convinced from his encounter with God that God could give life to the dead and call into existence the things that do not exist.  1. God could give life to the dead and 2. Call into existence the things that do not exist.  Think about these two attributes of God for a moment.  If you had encountered a being of this kind of power; if you had met this being face to face and come to realize His awesomeness; and if this being had made you a promise, what would that do to you?  How would that affect you?  Would you trust that He could do as He said?  This comes into play next as Abraham “hopes against hope” that he would become the father of many nations.  Paul explains this in the next few verses.

19He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’  For now we see the problem.  All the evidence appears to show that God’s promise will not happen.  Abraham was nearing a hundred years old.  Paul says Abraham considered himself as good as dead.  Sarah, his wife, was barren, and she was well past the age of child bearing.  This would have given most anyone pause in trusting the promise that had been handed down to him.  This would have given most people reason to laugh and disregard what had been spoken.  The promise that was made surely would not happen because of advanced age.  Most would have wavered or moved on.

But not Abraham.  The God who could bring the dead to life and call into existence the things that could not exist could certainly bring Abraham’s body to life.  God could certainly bring Sarah’s womb to life.  Abraham held onto that promise. He held onto that trust.  He believed that God would do as God said He would despite all the appearances to the contrary.  When to all appearances, Abraham should have given up and put His trust elsewhere, Abraham doubled down and continued to put his trust in God.  Despite what he was seeing in his body and Sarah’s body, Abraham gave glory to God; he worshiped God; he honored God; he thought about God and the encounter he had with God.  These things strengthened him in his resolve to hold onto the promise.  And Paul reminds us one more time, “Therefore his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

And we do know that God followed through on His promise to Abraham.  We know that Sarah conceived and bore a son.  We know that God was faithful even when all looked lost.  This is important to remember as we consider Paul’s final words of chapter four.

23Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, 24but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.  Paul wraps the entire argument up into his final point.  Genesis 15:6 was not just written for Abraham’s sake.  It was not written just about Abraham.  It was written for our sakes as well.  The biblical history has been written to bring us to our own faith; our own belief; our own trust.  For our righteousness is reckoned when we trust in Him who–brought the dead to life; trust in Him who called into existence the things that didn’t exist; trust in Him who raised Jesus from the dead.

And now, Paul reiterates the Gospel–the reason we put our trust in God; in Jesus–because Jesus was handed over to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.  Jesus secured our justification and our redemption not by any work of our own, but by His work.  Jesus made us right with God through His actions and not our own.  And now we trust His work instead of our own.  We hold onto this promise despite the evidence we may see to the contrary.  We mirror the faith of Abraham and have it reckoned to us as righteousness not because we believe without evidence but because we have had an encounter with God, and we hold onto His promises with an eternal hope.

What does this mean practically?  Let me share an illustration and then a personal story.  First the illustration: My kids used to be terrified when they first went out to my ranch in Rocksprings.  Of course, being where Hill Country meets Brush Country, everything bites, stings, or pokes.  This was not very inviting for my children.  Whenever we walked or climbed the hill on my property, they would become extremely frightened.  It was my job to reassure them.  Over and over again, I would tell them, you will be okay.  Everything is going to be fine.  You will not get hurt.  Even if you get pricked, we will take care of it.  Follow in my footsteps, and everything will be okay.  The kids had to learn from me.  They had to trust me.  They had to get enough confidence in me that all would be well.  Despite the evidence that they saw around them–all the prickly, sticky things, they had to learn that I would not lead them astray.  Now, my kids are all over the place because they have learned to navigate with confidence.  They have learned to trust.

The life of faith is similar with God.  We learn to trust Him and walk in His footsteps and listen to His voice.  We believe we have encountered Him already and that His guidance is secure.  As I said earlier, the question we have to answer from skeptics is, “How do you know you’ve really heard God?”  First off, we must answer that we have a history of God speaking not only to us, but to others.  Paul delves back into scriptures to show God’s consistency–how God spoke to Abraham and justified Abraham by faith.  God will remain consistent, and we can rely on the revelation contained in scripture to guide us.  Therefore, if we “hear” a voice say, “Go kill that person because they are different from you,” we can readily say, “Don’t think that’s God at all.  God’s word in Jesus doesn’t tell us to do that!!”  Consistency.  The second way we know it was God that spoke is when the words come true.  That’s the hard one.

I have heard God speak to me unambiguously twice in my life.  The first was when I was called to be a pastor.  The second time was shortly after we moved here to Cat Spring.  I remember taking a shower late one evening getting ready for bed.  I heard clearly the words, “You will have a child before the end of the year.”  Dawna and I had been in the adoption process for nearly two years.  We had had our hopes dashed a couple of times.  The administrator of the adoption agency told us time and again that birth-mothers would see the picture of me as a pastor and close our book.  We contemplated taking that picture out to increase our chances.  We weren’t sure what to do.  “You will have a child before the end of the year.”  I still remember the day we got the call from the agency.  “A birth mother has picked you.”  We got the news in December–before the end of the year, we had a child.  Now, Kiera was delivered in January, but she was ours before the end of the year.  God’s voice.  I’ve learned to trust it despite other appearances.

I know I cannot convince anyone that I heard that voice.  I know I don’t have an audio recording or anything like that.  I know I can’t produce any evidence that this happened.  You’ve got to trust my witness to you.  You’ve got to trust me.  And that can be a complicated thing because I’m human.  I’m sinful.  I can easily hurt you or say something that you don’t agree with.

And so we must realize something about our God–that He calls us into a new existence; He gives us a new status.  God justifies sinners like me.  Like you.  God makes us right with Him through His Son because He loves us.  And He sends us out to tell others what He has done–to tell others to put their trust in Him–to tell others to listen for His voice because His promises are certain; Will do as He said He will do.  And the final evidence for this is the cross.  The final evidence for this is the knowledge that God took on flesh to die for us despite our weakness; despite our flaws; despite our sin.  He loved us; He loved the world enough to die for it.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it.

When it looks like all hope is lost.  When it looks like the world around is falling apart.  When it looks like good cannot win.  The person of faith looks at the cross; looks at the God who died for the world; remembers He was raised, and then like Abraham, hopes against hope.  We remember who God is, and we put our trust in Him.  Amen.

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