Faith and the Theology of the Cross

Text: Genesis 15:1-6

30 years ago, this March, Irish rock band U2 released its fifth studio album. The Joshua Tree. The album’s theme was based off the wide-open spaces of the American west. The album, which has gone on to sell more than 25 million copies, truly does bring out a sense of vast openness throughout its 50-minute length – particularly in the second track, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” It’s still up in the air what exactly the song is about. There are references to the devil, to Jesus, and heaven. But, we’ll leave it to song critics to discuss it more. Whatever it means, the song brings out this idea of searching; of longing for something you know is there…but you haven’t found it yet.

Our text today from Genesis finds Abram in a similar situation. In the Bible, three chapters pass between when God first came to Abram and called him out of idolatry, promising to bless him and make a great nation out of him. Three chapters pass, but in time it’s about a decade between these chapters, maybe a little more. It’ll be more than that, still, before Isaac is born. Isaac, the child promised in our text. As we’ll see, Abram was a little fearful about his situation, about whether the things God had promised would actually come to pass. Then God appeared to him. He reassured Abram that the promise was not forgotten. Abram believed God, and the Lord counted his faith as righteousness. St. Paul said that these things were written not for Abram’s sake alone, but for ours. Today, we confess that, like Abram, the righteous live by faith in God’s promises – and they are not disappointed.

I.

We should all know the story of Abraham, but let’s recap it for a moment. The Flood happened in Genesis 6. Noah entered the ark with his wife, his sons, and their wives. 8 souls in all. Noah’s sons were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. After the Flood, the three sons all spread out and had children. Abram is a distant descendant of Shem. Abram and his family lived in a place called Haran and they had become pagans. They were unbelievers who worshipped idols. Then, in Genesis 12, God called Abram. He called him out of idolatry to worship the one true God and to go where the Lord would lead him. The Lord promised to bless Abram and make of him a great nation. So, Abram went.

Abram went as the Lord said, but it maybe wasn’t as straightforward and easy as he might’ve liked. There was a famine, so they went down to Egypt. While they were there, Abram did do somethings that were sinful. He doubted God’s promise; yet God forgave him. God also kept His promise and blessed Abram, who came up from Egypt a rich man. He amassed a large household and many servants – but no children. Abram rightly understood God’s promise to make him into a great nation required a son. But, as time went on, no son came. Abram started getting into trouble with neighboring nations, and with no son to inherit if he were to die, Abram began to fear and doubt whether this promise would pan out. In other words, Abram still hadn’t found what he was looking for.

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’”[1] As Abram began fearing for his future and doubting the promises of God, the Lord spoke to him in a vision. The Lord told Abram not to fear. For, despite appearances, the Lord was with him. Abram was sure that the Lord had reneged, or at least was second-guessing His promise. Abram said to God, “‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus…Behold, You have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.’”[2] What Abram meant was: God promised to make him a great nation, and so far, that hadn’t happened. Sure, Abram was wealthy; but with no son by birth, that wealth would pass from his name to someone else. No great nation.

Then the Lord said, “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”[3] Abram was misled by his own conscience and felt that God wouldn’t make good. Things appeared to be the opposite of what God had promised. Abram felt abandoned. Then God made Abram another solemn promise. It wouldn’t be Eliezer of Damascus who would inherit him, but a son from Abram’s own body. Then God took him outside, and told Abram to number the stars. So, would his offspring be. Our text concludes with one of the most important verses in the whole Bible, “He believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.”[4]

II.

The readings this week direct our minds to this idea: Even when it appears to the contrary, God doesn’t go back on His promises. God promised to make of Abram a great nation, and this nation would come from a son of his own flesh. The rest of Scripture – and history – tells us that, of course, this promise came true. Isaac was born when Abram was 99 years old. Isaac fathered Jacob, from whom is descended – according to the flesh – Jesus. St. Paul tells us that God’s promise to Abram was ultimately fulfilled in Christ and the great nation, now of billions, who have believed in His name. Abram believed God’s promise, even when it looked like it wasn’t going to happen. God counted his faith as righteousness. Eventually, Abram did find what he was looking for.

If Abram, that great patriarch of our faith, was fearful and doubting God’s promises, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves suffering the same temptations. Like Abram, we have each been called out of pagan idolatry. We were all by nature born sinful and unclean, desiring to be our own “God.” But we were called out of that in the washing of Baptism. At our Baptism, the name of the Triune God was spoken over us and we were made heirs of the promise of Christ. Namely, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life that are found through faith in Him. At our Baptism, we were made heirs of the promise, and we are continually reminded of it through God’s Word – yet we are filled with doubts and fears.

Luther, considering this passage, failed to come up with an answer as to why God orders our lives in such a way. At times, we say that our suffering we endure teach us to rely on God or another lesson. Sometimes, we plumb the depths of reason and empathy to find a reason for our suffering. We know that suffering comes as a result of sin. But, more often than not, we fail to find an answer to, “Why me?” Then we begin to doubt, to fear, and to be angry that we also still haven’t found what we’re looking for.

Dear brothers and sisters, St. Paul did write, “The words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also.”[5] Meaning, this passage of Scripture wasn’t written for Abram’s sake alone, but for our benefit, also. We are meant to look at Abram’s suffering and fear, and Lazarus’, and find in them fellowship. Abram suffered, Lazarus suffered, our Lord suffered, we suffer. Abram suffered, at times thinking the Lord would not fulfill His promise; then He did. So, will He also fulfill His promise to us. What promise? The promise to remove our sins from us, which He has done in Christ. The promise to bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey, foreshadowed by the Promised Land and fulfilled in the New Creation. The promise to bring us through this valley of the shadow of death, and feed us beside still waters. The Lord spoke these things and others to Abram. Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted that faith as righteousness.

God grant that we also, by that same faith, would continue to be counted righteous. Scripture does say that the afflictions of the righteous are many, but also that the Lord delivers them out of them all. At times, it does feel like we aren’t finding what we’re looking for. But, God’s promises are sure and will ever stand true – even for us. Abram believed the Lord’s promise of deliverance, God counted His faith as righteousness and did deliver Him. He will deliver us, too. Amen.


[1] Gen. 15:1, English Standard Version.

[2] Gen. 15:2-3.

[3] Gen. 15:4.

[4] Gen. 15:6.

[5] Rom. 4:23-24.

Creatio Ex Nihilo: Then and Now

Text: Genesis 1:1-2:3; John 4:46-54

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens…When I look at Your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars, which you have set in place, what is man that are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him…O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!

So far the words of our psalm, Psalm 8, in which King David recounts the creative work of God. His glory is far above all heavens. He created the sun, the moon, the stars and all their host. They remain in place by His decree. Yet, what is man that God is mindful of him? What are we that God cares for us? We are God’s beloved creation, but we have fallen into sin. Yet, rather than forget us, God has redeemed us through the sacrifice of His Son. For that we respond with King David, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth.”

Our text today, the twenty-first Sunday after Trinity, is one that can teach us almost an infinite number of things. These are the very first verses and chapters of Holy Scripture, the very first words that God wished to be delivered to us in sacred writing. They are foundational to the understanding of God and for our faith as Christians. We see in these words that our God is the source and creator of all that there is, was, or ever shall be. All things find their source in the creative work of God. Our God, by His spoken Word, created all the heavens and the earth, including man. Here we also read the purpose for which God created the earth. In addition to being a testimony to His majestic glory, God created the earth to serve man. He created man to receive His divine love, to live in relationship with Him, and to care for the good creation.

God’s work through His Word is, however, not limited to His work those first six days. Rather God continues to work through His holy Word. Just as He spoke into being all that exists so, by His Word, He continues to work within us. He works through His Word to put to death the old sinful Adam, and brings life to us by His Spirit through the Gospel of Christ. In a country and time where many reject God, doubt His existence, or have an unclear confession of faith, let us be clear: our God is the God, the creator of heaven and earth. He spoke His Word and all things came into existence. Through that same Word, He also created us and continues to re-create us through His Word of Law and Gospel.

I.

We begin in Genesis 1, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  Perhaps this is the text King David is meditating on with his lyre in hand. O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth, for You were there at the beginning and caused all things to be. Here, in broad strokes we see our creative God at work. There was nothing, then there was. The First Commandment teaches that we should have no other gods than God. When Luther writes about the First Commandment in the Large Catechism, he ponders what it means to have a god. He says to have a god is to look to something for all good. To have a god is to look to something to create good for you. In Scripture we are led here to Genesis to see that the source and creator all good things is God.

This is how God reveals Himself to us. He is the Creator God, so we see in the text of Genesis 1 and 2. Now, the text is long, so I won’t read it all, but it is good for our edification and as a reminder to speak again the days of God’s good creation. On day one God created light and separated it from the darkness. The light was called day and the darkness night. On day two God separated the waters below from the waters above, calling the waters above sky or heaven. On the third day God gathered the water below into once place and caused dry land to appear. The water He called seas and the land He called earth. Then God caused plants to come forth and yield seed according to its kind. Each day after God creates, He calls it good.

Days four through six see God filling in the structure He created in the first three days. On day four God created the sun, the moon and the stars to fill the heavens. These were to be for “signs and seasons, and for days and years.” God created them, and it was good. On day five God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth.” And so, it came to be. Animals filled the water and the sky; God blessed them and there was evening and morning on the fifth day. On the sixth day God created all things that live on land, including the pinnacle of creation – the only thing to be made in His image – man. Then there was evening and morning the sixth day. On day seven, God rested.

In addition to the common refrain of “God saw that it was good,” there is another phrase that is repeated throughout this chapter, and it answers the question of how God created. God did not create out of existing materials nor did He need more than six days – nor did He require any time since He is God. Rather, God created all things out of nothing solely by the power of His Word. Look how often it repeats, “And God said.” God said and there was. God spoke, and by His Word all things were made. Psalm 33 says, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made…He spoke, and [the earth] came to be; He commanded, and it stood firm.” St. Peter says, “The earth was formed…by the word of the Lord.”

Thus, God created the heavens and the earth, bringing all things into existence out of nothing, by nothing else than the power of His spoken Word. Now, this flies against blind reason. The world would have us doubt these words or explain them away as pious poetry of well-intentioned men. But, behind all that is the devil, trying to peel God’s Word out of our fingers and replace it with a false understanding created in our own image. With the apostle we confess in the words from Hebrews 11, “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the Word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” So also do we praise with St. Paul that God who, “gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist.”

II.

Speaking of things that don’t exist, why bring all this up? Why discuss this with boldness and certainty, that by His Word God created all things out of nothing? Because it is by this same Word, that God calls us out of nothing into His marvelous light. St. John wrote that at one time we were darkness, but now we are light in the Lord. The work of God through His Word is not limited to those first six days, but it continues now through the preaching of the Law and Gospel and through the visible, tangible Word in the Sacraments. The same God who worked by His Word to create all things also works by His Word to bring us from nothingness to His eternal life.

Think a second about our Gospel. In it a man, whose son is dying, comes to Jesus and begs Him to help. He begs Jesus to come to his house to heal his son, but what does Jesus do? He speaks. “Go; your son will live.” And he did. By His Word, Christ brought life to that dying child. And, so He does to us. The apostle wrote that God’s Word is living and active, that it cuts sharper and deeper than any two-edged sword, even to the division of soul and spirit. When I was in confirmation, I was taught that the sword of the Spirit, as it is called in our Epistle, has two edges – the Law and the Gospel. With the Law, God cuts through our lies, pretensions, and sinful desires and crushes them like a hammer crushes rock. Then, having killed us with the Law, He brings us to life through the preaching of the Gospel where we hear that Christ suffered for us on the cross, and by His wounds we are healed.

God works through His spoken Word of Law and Gospel to show us our sins and to show us our Savior, to bring us into His light from the darkness the death, to call into existence what wasn’t before. In addition to the spoken Word of God, God has also given us the Sacraments. The Sacraments were instituted by Christ and are His Word combined with physical elements for the forgiveness of sins. In Baptism He works through the water and Word to give us the forgiveness of sins through the gift of faith. In the Lord’s Supper by His Word Christ causes the bread and wine to be His real body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of faith. In the Words of Holy Absolution, Christ works through the Word spoken by our pastors to forgive our sins there and then in that very moment.

If it seems like we’ve gone a little far afield, then maybe we should bring it back. In both our Old Testament and Gospel readings, we see God working through His Word. In the Gospel Christ brings life to a dying boy and in the Old Testament creates all things in heaven and on earth. In both of these we see that our God is the creator God who creates all things ex nihilo and preserves them by His Word. The same God who operates that way, even works in and for us through His Word. By His preached Word of Law and Gospel He puts to death the sinful nature and brings us to life through faith in Christ. In Baptism He removes our sins from us and in the Sacrament strengthens us in the one true faith. “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!” To God be all praise and glory, both for His majestic work in Creation, and for His work in us by the power of His Word. Amen.

When Life Hands You Lemons

Text: Genesis 22:1-18

They say that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. This means that, when life gets you down, just well up your strength, and pick yourself up. When life deals you a bad hand, you make your own luck, right? Good people can make the best out of the worst situations. Okay, one more and I’ll be done with the clichés. People say that when life hands you lemons, you best make lemonade. All of these sayings imply that when life gets hard, if you just dig in deep, you’ll barrel on through it. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Take Abraham for example. God told him to leave everything behind and go to an unspecified place, and he did. God told him that he would be blessed, and he believed it. Scripture says Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness. But, Abraham was old. His wife was old, well past the age for bearing children. They had resigned themselves to the fact that they will die childless. And then, God promised to Abraham, “’Your very own son shall be your heir.’ And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’[1] God promised a son, and that is what Abraham got. Isaac.

But here in our text today, it seems that life is turned upside down for Abraham. Isaac, his beloved son and gift from God, is demanded by God to be sacrificed, as a test. Not knowing it was a test, Abraham obeyed God and went to sacrifice his son. This is because he knew the promise of God, and he believed that, even when life looks contrary to the promise of God, it is especially then that He remains true. You see, when God hands you lemons, you’ve already got lemonade.

I.

What an unthinkable request! God had just promised Abraham, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be blessed.”[2] We know that it’s a test, but Abraham didn’t. In this situation Abraham might’ve wondered if this was a trick of Satan. He could’ve said that God’s promise about Isaac is sure and clear, but then wondered why God wanted him killed. Even worse, Abraham was the one who is to do the slaying and not a robber or bandit in the woods. Maybe Abraham could’ve figured that God is going back on His Word, or that he himself committed some grievous sin against God, and for that reason God is taking back His promise.

By nature we all have a habit of thinking this way, too. Whenever our lives go to the gutter financially or personally, whenever our health or relationships fail, our conscience goes to work within us. The devil torments us inside, telling us that these bad things are the sum of our lives, or that we offended God and now He is punishing us by ruining our lives. When faced with the contradiction of a loving God and a painful existence in this world, our sinful flesh will never make sense of the conflict. Very rare is the person who goes their entire life without thinking that maybe God isn’t good, or that He doesn’t exist.

II.

In Hebrews 11 we read more about the Sacrifice of Isaac: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead.”[3] In hope, Abraham believed God. He knew that as God was able to give him a son in his old age, God would just as easily be able to raise up offspring from Isaac. Abraham believed in the resurrection of the dead, that from the ashes of the sacrifice God would restore Isaac and make good on His promises. He knew and believed that when God handed him lemons, he already had lemonade.

It’s a silly saying, I know. But it’s true. God can never go back on His Word. It is contrary to His character. The Word that He gave you in Baptism will stand true for all time. In Baptism you were given the name of the Triune God as you were washed in the water and the Word for the forgiveness of sins. In Baptism, God claimed you as His own and made a promise to bless you and keep you. God does not go back on His Word. We all struggle in our lives. We do not always struggle with the same things, nor do we share all the same suffering, but we do know one who shares equally in all our sufferings. This One is Jesus Christ, whom Scripture says, is the propitiation for our sins.

Though the world gives way around us, we have a great Lord and King who remains steadfast with us in our suffering. The Son of Man was tempted in every way, including the despair of being abandoned by His God and Father as He hung on the cross, forsaken. He bore those temptations, and the guilt of our sinfulness and despair, and died for our forgiveness. Thus, even when life appears to be stacked against us, He remains true. In His forgiveness we are made more than conquerors and His promise will always stand true, even as He says to us: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[4] Therefore, when God gives you lemons, you already have lemonade – salvation through faith in Christ, who remains beside you until the end of the age.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Gen. 15:4–5.

[2] Gen. 21:12

[3] Heb. 11:17–19.

[4] Matt. 28:20.