the Second Sunday in Lent

Romans 4. 1-5, 13-17
Faith doesn’t create love … love creates faith!

If this was a class and not a sermon, first of all, I’d have a cup of coffee, close at hand. But, I’d, also, have a whiteboard and a marker. And the very first thing I’d do is draw a line. Right down the middle of that whiteboard. Top to bottom. I’d draw a line right down the middle and, then, I’d write the word ‘works’ at the top of one column and I’d write the word ‘faith’ at the top of the other. I’m sure you’ve seen me do just that, dozens of times before. ‘Works’ and ‘Faith’! Or rather, ‘Works’ or ‘Faith.’ ‘Faith’ or ‘Works’. According to Luther, those two words – those two columns – are why we’re here. According to the good doctor, those two things explain why there was a reformation.

“What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?” What did he say? What did he do? Works earn us something. What we accomplish. What we achieve. We get something out of it. And it’s all us. Start to finish. Beginning to end. The only thing god does is pay us for what we’ve done. What we get is the result of the sweat of OUR brow and the strength of OUR back. If we believe in works, if we depend on them, if we rely on them, if we stake our life on them, it’s all about the shoulds and the oughts and the musts! All about commandments and statutes and laws.

Back in Luther’s day, there were things called ‘good works.’ Doing penance. Saying prayers like ‘Hail, Mary,’ and ‘Our Father.’ Reciting the creed. Buying indulgences. Fasting. Going on pilgrimages. Revering relics. That was the way they worked their way into god’s good graces. Today – popularly speaking – it’s pretty much the same. Saying prayers. Reading the bible. Going to worship. Service projects and mission trips. Small groups. Tithing. Those are the stairway to heaven. But make no mistake, we’re the ones who must make the effort. And w2e’re the ones who must expend the energy. This is how we count and measure and weigh just how righteous we are. And god has nothing to do with it. All god does is pay us for our time and trouble, reward us for our effort and energy. Those who are good … Those who are better … those who are best … Well, they make the cut! Those who aren’t? There’s the outer darkness. Weeping. Teeth-gnashing.

That was the religion of the “man-on-the-street.” The average Joe. But that’s what’s popular for us. Here. Now. We believe in work. Work and lots of it. After all, that’s the ethic for Protestants here in the States. Success is a sign of salvation. A sign of god’s approval. And it’s the result of work. Good, hard work. “God helps those who help themselves.” “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” “If something’s too good to be true …” That’s the advice we live by. And it’s all there on the side of the whiteboard marked ‘Works’! And Paul … and Martin … saw that advice … tried to live by that advice … and contrary to popular opinion, they both said, “No! That’s not the way it works! That’s not how any of this works!”

“For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about ….” Truth is, Abraham has nothing to boast about! Everything he has! Everything he is! Is a gift from god! And you don’t earn a gift. A gift isn’t a payment. A gift isn’t a reward. A gift is … well, a gift is, simply, a gift! A gift expresses the giver’s good intentions! A gift expresses the giver’s best intentions! And that’s what that second column on the other half of the whiteboard is all about! Faith! Believing! Trust! Now don’t misunderstand, popular religion does its best, it tries its hardest to remake gift into a work. Popular religion struggles and stains, with all its might, to pull faith onto its side of the board. To transform believing into a choice, into a decision. Something everyone has to do for themselves. Personally. Individually. But that’s not faith. That’s works! It’s one more thing we do expecting god to react, expecting god to do something in return. It’s business. It’s a transaction, a deal.

I’ll believe in you, if you save me …
I’ll confess my sins, if you forgive me because of it …
I’ll invite you into my life, if you’ll, then, take me into yours …

But that’s not faith! That’s not believing! Real, honest-to-god faith begins and ends with one thing … god’s grace! God’s charity! God’s love! It’s a gift! It’s all a gift! And Abraham trusted the gift! Abraham trusted god! Abraham took god at god’s word! Believing in the promises! Believing in the commitment! Believing in the devotion! Believing in the love!

Look at it this way, what do we know about Abraham before god’s call? What about Abraham set him apart from everyone else? What about him inspired god to do what god did? Nothing! Absolutely nothing! That’s because faith, believing, isn’t about Abraham! Not first and foremost! It’s about god! The Lord told Abraham to go! And that’s where the story, for us, begins! Abraham is seventy-five years old and we know nothing about who he was before that moment. What he was like. What he did. He might have done wondrous things! But as far as god’s call is concerned, the only thing that matters is god’s promise! Is god’s call! Faith is all about the gift! It isn’t that Abraham believed. It’s that Abraham believed GOD! Abraham trusted GOD! Abraham took GOD at GOD’S WORD! Abraham staked his life … on GOD’S grace! Abraham staked his life … on GOD’S charity! Abraham staked his life … on GOD’S love!

Faith isn’t the key that unlocks god’s heart! Faith is the result of what god already feels toward us. Let me repeat that. Faith isn’t the key that unlocks god’s heart! Faith is the result of what god already feels toward us. We aren’t forgiven because we believe. We believe because we’re forgiven! God doesn’t answer our prayers because we believe. We believe because god answers our prayers … most of the time before we, even, ask! We aren’t children of god, we aren’t saved, because we believe. We believe because we are children of god and are already saved!

The gift always comes first! The gift always comes first! And faith … faith is always the effect, always the result! That’s why, during his lectures on this verse, Luther doesn’t talk about faith or trusting of believing. Instead, he speaks about grace! “Therefore,” he said, “a person is justified by the grace of god!” Justified not be faith, but by grace! Faith isn’t a work. It isn’t something we have to do. A requirement. A demand. Faith is, simply, what happens when god loves!

My friends, you are saved for one reason and for one reason alone … because god loves you! God loves you! God saves you! And so, you believe!