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.

Everything – Everything = Everything

Text: Mark 10:17-22 (23-31)

“How do you get to heaven? Well, I’m a good person.” That’s what most people think. Or, at least, that’s what you hear at funerals. “So-and-So was a good person.” They’re meant to be words of comfort, and they’ve probably come from my mouth; but when I hear that, in my head I always ask, “Why?” What do you mean? Do you mean that they were a morally good person? Okay, I’ll give them that – at least on the outside. Were they then a good enough person morally to get to heaven, though? Is that even the right thing to say, “So-and-So was a good person,”?

If God had a list of clichés that He hates to hear, I’m sure that “I’m a good person,” would be on there. Do you know why? With those four words the devil cuts the cross and Jesus out of the picture. It’s marvelous. We see it our text. The rich young ruler comes up to Jesus and asks Him what he can do to inherit eternal life, and then he rejects the answer Jesus gave, figuring that he was already a good person. He was already a good person, so he didn’t need Jesus. The devil wants us to answer the question, “How do you get to heaven,” with those four words instead of the ones God’s Word gives: “Jesus died for me.” Of our own powers, we will never say that. The Bible says no one can call Jesus Lord except by the Holy Spirit. By the works of man salvation is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

I.

In the text we’re couched square in between the time of Jesus’ transfiguration and the Triumphal Entry. We have here a period of intensified instruction. During this time Jesus predicted His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins three times. All three times the answer He was looking for (amen) was rejected: first, by Peter, then by the rest of the Disciples, then by James and John – who wanted to be seated in glory. The whole point of Jesus’ teaching is that He is going to suffer and die for the forgiveness of sins so that our trespasses may no longer be held against us. He is suffering so that we can be given salvation as a gift.

Now, as Jesus was setting out on His journey toward Jerusalem, the text says, “a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’[1] Have you ever met someone for the first time and made a total fool of yourself? Maybe you called them the wrong name or sneezed on them, or in whatever other way made yourself the butt of a joke. It’s called getting started off on the wrong foot, and it’s what the young man in our text is doing. To start with, the man calls Jesus, “teacher.” This isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s definitely a red flag. Anyone who believes in Jesus in the Gospels calls Him, “Lord, Son of David,” or something similar. Those who address Him as teacher are the Jewish authorities who see Jesus as just another rabbi, whose opinion people are to seek.

The man really steps in it, though, because he puts these two words together: good teacher. See, if Jesus is just a teacher to you, why call Him good? Jesus rebuffs the man from Scripture, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”[2] I’ve said before, aside from the demons and few others, nobody gets it in Mark’s Gospel. Nobody gets that Jesus is out to die, that He is going to suffer and die for the forgiveness of sins. The man, believing that Jesus is just a teacher, is asking Him what must be done to earn eternal life. It’s not a stupid question, but it’s definitely the wrong one.

Jesus lets him have it. “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’ ”[3] There it is. What must we do to get into heaven? Follow the commandments. Perfectly. Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie. If you want to earn eternal life, Jesus says, go for it. Keep the commandments. But remember – it’s not just your actions that count, but the things you don’t do, and your thoughts either way. Jesus shows us that in the Sermon on the Mount. If you want to earn eternal life, go for it. Knock yourself out; But, if you fail once – in thought, in word, or deed – it’s over, and you’re going to the eternal hell of fire where there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth. Deal?

What does the man say? “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”[4] The text says that Jesus looked at the man and loved him. Certainly his zeal for God’s Word was commendable. His desire to live according to God’s commandments was laudable. But, there was just one thing. Jesus said, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”[5] The man thought he had all the commandments down, but he missed one: the First. He had all his ducks in a row, but he wasn’t ready to forsake his possessions and take up the cross of Christ. Instead, he went away sorrowful.

II.

How difficult it will be, Jesus says, for those having possessions to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. To inherit the kingdom of God one must keep a perfect guard upon their heart and mind by obeying God’s Law to completion, which means forsaking all things – family, home, possessions, and life – to follow Christ, and Him alone. Upon hearing this, the Disciples were exceedingly astonished. “Who then can be saved?” With man it is impossible.

With these words, Christ puts us all in our place. We all think we’re good people. On the outside, it appears that way, too. We are present in the community, we give our offerings, we give keeping the commandments the good old college try. But if you think that you are going to get into heaven because of those things, you might as well give it up now, because you still lack one thing. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will not get into heaven. Unless you give up your cabin, your farm, your devotion to the Bison, your whatever, and spend all that you have and are seeking to learn and obey God’s Word – you will not earn either God’s grace or your way to heaven. With man it is impossible.

With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”[6] According to man’s power, salvation is impossible, but not according to God’s. My friends, when the rich young man went to Jesus looking for a way to earn his way to heaven, Jesus sent him away in sorrow. The answer to his question was right before his eyes, even though he didn’t want hear it. What must we do to inherit the kingdom of heaven? Absolutely nothing, except believe in Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”[7] That is what one must do to inherit eternal life. There is nothing that we must do except know and believe in Jesus Christ, and Him crucified for our sins. Though He was in the form of God, He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. Therefore, He emptied Himself by taking on the form of a servant. The eternal Son of God took on our human flesh and was tempted in every way, yet without sin. In that way He became the perfect sacrifice for all sin on the cross. By His death you have been forgiven all your sins.

Through the preaching of His Word and through the Sacraments, Christ comes to you with that forgiveness. You don’t have to search and scour where to find Jesus. He finds you here. He found you at the fount when you received the Holy Spirit and the gift of faith. He finds you here, at His altar, as He gives you to eat of His body and drink of His blood for the forgiveness of sins.

The rich man went to Jesus figuring that he was already a good man. According to himself, he had kept all the commandments since he was baby. Jesus showed that he still lacked one thing: faith in Christ. Without that, all the riches in the world, and all the righteousness that we appear to have, come to nothing. What must you do to inherit the kingdom of heaven? Believe in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Call yourself a disgusting sinner, but one clothed with the white robe of Christ’s righteousness.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk. 10:17.

[2] Mk. 10:18.

[3] Mk. 10:19.

[4] Mk. 10:20.

[5] Mk. 10:21.

[6] Mk. 10:27.

[7] 1 Cor. 2:2.