Abraham “in Hope Believed”

(October 20, 2018, Sheppard AFB)

It’s great to be back with you again, There’s a bit of sadness with this visit, as this is the last time we’ll be having this service. I’m grateful to all who have taken part. It is obviously not the end of our concern and care for our Adventist members who are stationed here or who come through for school. But the goal will be to look to ways to better connect the base and the church.

It’s a reminder that nothing is permanent. Everything is change. But there is one in whom we place our faith who does not change.

As in the old hymn, “Change and decay in all around I see. Oh thou who changest not abide with me.”

That is our prayer this morning.

Our Scripture is from Romans 4, verses 18-25.

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.

The best part of my job is being able to travel and visit our chaplains and service members.

A few weeks ago I was able to go to Germany to visit the service members and families attending our annual Labor Day retreat. Afterwards, my wife and I had a few days to explore.

I’m a historian by training, and I began my ministry as a pastor in the Lutheran church, and I was excited to go and visit places I had been reading about all my life, especially some of those sites associated with the Reformation of the 16th century.

We went to Worms, where Luther stood before Emperor Charles V in 1521 and took his stand for the Bible and the Bible only. That meeting took place in the bishop’s residence next to the 1000 year old cathedral. The residence is gone, but there’s now a park next to the cathedral to memorialize Luther’s stand. Statements of his whisper in your ear from speakers in the bushes. And where he might’ve stood before the emperor there is a bronze sculpture of a pair of oversized medieval shoes allowing you, too, to step in them and declare, “Here I stand.”

We also went to Marburg, and to the castle of Landgrave Philip of Hesse, one of Luther’s supporters. The castle is on top of a rocky outcrop towering over the city, which you reach either through a road up the back or a narrow staircase up the front that takes you through the university that Philip founded in 1527 (the very first Protestant university in the world). Once on the hill you pass through the gates and into a courtyard and up some stairs and you are in a great hall where Philip in 1528 gathered all the leaders of the Reformation who spoke German—Luther and Melanchthon, Bucer and Zwingli and others, to see if he could unite them all to ensure a united military alliance. But Luther was not about to compromise his understanding of the Bible for political purposes. He wrote his text on the table in chalk, and at a point in the debate he ripped away the table cloth and pointed to the text and pounded on the table saying that he must stand on the Bible, and the Bible only, and not on reason and not on warm feelings and not on politics, even if it meant a divided church.

I could tell you about so may places, we went, including Geneva, where we saw the pulpit where John Calvin preached, and the chair he sat in, and the great wall at the foot of the old city where giant stone figures of Calvin, John Knox, Guillaume Farel and Theodore Beza look down upon you as a silent witness to their faith in Jesus Christ.

It’s one thing to read of these men and their deeds in books. It’s another to walk where they did.

We have images in our minds drawn from TV shows and movies and paintings. All are boxy and compressed and confining. To stand in the open air, to feel the breezes, to walk through the streets and halls and stand in the rooms where these things happened does something. It makes them come alive and brings the past into the present.

During my Middle East travels with the Army I never got to Ur, where Abraham began his journey of faith. The closest I ever got was Camp Buehring, which is about 125 miles southeast of Ur as the crow flies … about twice that far along the highways.

One night, walking from my CHU to the chapel, I was inspired to write a poem I called “Arabian nights”

A half moon joins scattered stars
In a gray sky brightened by dancing lights
Of growling Blackhawks
While whining generators chase shadows
Into the corners of concrete bunkers and barriers.
And the dust and sand and gravel
Stepped in, driven over, and trash strewn
Give little evidence of those shifting sands
And silent, black skies pocked with stars and
The shimmering whiteness of the Milky Way
That once were the Arabian desert
Inviting holy men and wanderers
Into contemplation of the great mystery
And friendship with the One who speaks
To troubled hearts
And yearning souls.

What was it like for Abraham to hear God’s voice — and to believe it WAS God, and then to follow him on that journey of faith? He is an old man, and he’s told he’ll have a son. His wife is old, and long past menopause, so he does the next best thing, he figures, and gets his young servant girl pregnant. And God says no, that’s not what I meant. But God doesn’t discard Abraham for that mistake. He doesn’t tell him, “Game over. You lose.” God repeats the promise.

And Paul, writing maybe fourteen centuries later says,

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.

I can identify with so many of the Bible characters, who are presented “warts and all.” I am stubborn. I am weak. I have doubts. Standing there in that desert, so different from what it was like in Abraham’s day, it nevertheless reminded me of the reality of this man. The silt I breathed in and coughed out and that got in my eyes and in my clothes — that was, perhaps, the river mud he played in as a kid, and walked on as a young man, and as an old man. The shamal that blew in my face every afternoon in the hot months was a wind he felt.  And this man who was like me–this man who misunderstood God’s intent–this man who had his weaknesses and his sins … he believed the promise. He believed God could and would do what he said.

And this, Paul says, was “credited to him as righteousness.” THIS is why God considered Abraham a righteous man. Not because he kept the law — he knew nothing of it. It wasn’t spoken for another 400 years. Not because he was sinless — he wasn’t. Not because he was super intelligent — he did stupid things. Not because he was a peaceful saint — he was a warrior, who led men in battle and slaughtered his enemies. God reckoned Abraham a righteous man because of one thing — he believed God would do as he promised. And believing, he stepped out and followed him.

That’s what Luther and Calvin did, too. Oh, they struggled. Luther writes of his struggles, and his fears. And his constipation, and his sleepless nights and his nightmares, all in very graphic detail.

But Luther’s anxieties were relieved when he read the promise of God that our sins are forgiven for the sake of Jesus when we believe the promise.

And trusting in that word, and grounding himself in the Bible, he was able to stand before an emperor, and princes and archbishops and say, 

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.

It’s one thing to read those words on a page. But to walk through the colossal cathedral of Worms, and to imagine Luther walking those aisles praying … with all the wealth and power of the church and the empire carved in stone and wood and gilded and the saints and kings and lions and dragons and dogs staring down at you … and to look at the flickering candle and realize that flame could light the kindling at your feet the next day … To then go before that assembly and say, “I can’t do anything else. I’m going to believe God. I’m not going to give in to you.” Well, that put me more in awe of Luther, and his faith.

And yet, what did he have that day? Only what Abraham had. Only what you and I have. The grace of the Holy Spirit that allows us to believe that God will do what he said.

So today, go forth in that same faith. You have all you need.

Go forth from this place, not mourning the end of a service, but grateful that God will still be with you wherever you meet another believer.

Go forth encouraged that though you are weak and though you stumble and though you sin … God has promised that if you believe him, he considers you a saint. And he will be with you. And he will uphold you. And he will preserve you through all life’s battles.

Go forth knowing that God has conquered death in the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus. And having done that … your trials, in class or in relationships or in combat … are nothing. And he is everything.

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed. And so he became the father of all who believe. Including you and me.

Amen.