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Sermon for 4 March

FIRST READING Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16

1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. 2 And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” 3 Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, 4 “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7 I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 15 God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. 16 I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

PSALM Psalm 22:23–31

23 You who fear the LORD, give praise! All you of Jacob’s line, give glory. Stand in awe of the LORD, all you offspring of Israel. 24 For the LORD does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty; neither is the LORD’s face hidden from them; but when they cry out, the LORD hears them. 25 From you comes my praise in the great assembly; I will perform my vows in the sight of those who fear the LORD.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied, Let those who seek the LORD give praise! May your hearts live forever! 27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; all the families of nations shall bow before God. 28 For dominion belongs to the LORD, who rules over the nations. 29 Indeed, all who sleep in the earth shall bow down in worship; all who go down to the dust, though they be dead, shall kneel before the LORD. 30 Their descendants shall serve the LORD, whom they shall proclaim to generations to come. 31 They shall proclaim God’s deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying to them, “The LORD has acted!”

SECOND READING Romans 4:13–25

13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. 16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) — 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. 18 Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 19 He 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. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 23 Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

GOSPEL Mark 8:31–38

31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Trust God no matter how long it takes

I laughed when I read the next story because it reminded me of a restaurant in Arizona named Rawhide. One of the gimmicks of the restaurant is to cut off the tie of anyone who comes in wearing one and then nail the cutoff tie to the wall. It’s a fun gimmick and when you visit you see hundreds, if not thousands, of ties nailed to the wall. Some restaurants are the opposite, requiring a neck tie to be able to eat. Such is the case in the story I read.
You’ve probably heard the ridiculous story about the man who was refused entry into a fancy dinner club because he wasn’t wearing a tie. The doorman sent him away with instructions to return if, and only if, he had a tie wrapped around his neck. The fellow rummaged through his car, but couldn’t find a necktie. However, he did find a pair of jumper cables in the trunk. He decided to fashion a necktie from those jumper cables.
Then, with jumper cables neatly tied around his neck, the man returned to the door of the club. The doorman saw the jumper cable tie and realized that technically they met the requirement. So he said, “Well, I guess you can come in.” Then he added, “Just don’t start anything.” Corny joke though it might be, it does serve to bring to our attention to the people in history who have most impacted our lives, people who were determined to start something.
Nearly two thousand years before the time of Jesus, God came to a man named Abram and gave him a command and a promise. God’s message was for Abram to leave his ancestral home and go to a land that God would show him, and once there, God would cause him to father a great nation. It’s an important story that lays the foundation for our history, but I want to call your attention to the next passage, because it’s a significant part of this story. In Genesis 12 we read; “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him . . .” It’s a story of faith and courage, because God didn’t come to a young Abram, rather an Abram that was well along in years.
Abram was seventy-five years old when God first approached him; a man by our standards, well into retirement age. For some this might not seem such a big deal. Today we have the ability to travel with jet airplanes, cruise ships or easy to drive motor homes. But this wasn’t the case some four millennia ago. In Old Testament times, when one traveled to a foreign land to take up residence, one had to take it all; home, livestock and a small army. And yet, despite the considerable difficulties, Abram believed God would guide him and he went, starting something new; a new people, a new nation. Anytime we need to see an example of faith, we need look no further than this story. This, pure and simple, is faith, God speaks, we obey.
And at times that’s all that we need. God speaks, and we get into action. But what about the other times, the times when action doesn’t follow? Too often the problem is we suffer from the lethargy. We simply fail to get moving. Recently I read an interesting account about a slave named Henry Brown. One day Henry decided he didn’t want to be a slave anymore. But this was 1856. He had little in the way of options. Without money to purchase his freedom and laws that favored the owners, little could be done. According to the law, runaway slaves could be hung. That’s good motivation for doing nothing. But doing nothing was not an option for Henry Brown. He found a wooden crate just large enough for him to crawl inside, and with the help of a free black and a white slave-owner, they shipped him in a box postmarked it to an abolitionist in Philadelphia, which was free territory.
According to the story, it took three weeks for the abolitionist to get the crate. Research into this story didn’t reveal how Brown survived, but according to the account I looked at, when the abolitionist lifted the lid of that crate, Henry Brown stood up and said, “How do you do, sir. My name is Henry Brown and I was a slave. I heard about you being an abolitionist, so I’m entrusting my future to you.” What’s important is that we need to simply get moving. God speaks and we need to act!
But Abram’s willingness to act, isn’t the whole story. Today’s lesson takes place nearly twenty-five years after God first called Abram. Abram is now ninety-nine years old. Far from being a “spring chicken”, he’s followed God’s leading from the time the Lord first called him, but it seem God has been slow to reward Abram’s faith. He and his wife Sarai are still childless. How can Abram father a great nation when he and Sarai can’t even produce a single heir? It’s at this point that we see two more components of faith; patience and persistence. Surely Abram and Sarai were ready to give up. Nearly twenty-five years had passed and still no return on their investment? The average person would ask, when do you cut your losses? When do we say, it’s all been an illusion, the promise didn’t pan out? That could have been their attitude, but, they instead chose to trust God.
And a quarter century later, the Lord again appears to Abram. The Lord reaffirms the promise of long ago, but this time it’s stated more forcefully. “I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you . . .” And then God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah, and of course He kept His promise. At ninety years of age, Sarah bore a son and from that son came countless heirs to Abraham, both physical and spiritual descendants, of whom you and I are numbered. And those descendants have impacted the world in a mighty way. It’s an amazing story. These lessons from Abraham and Sarah’s life are ones that you and I need to ponder. And the first lesson is, that our timetable, may not be God’s timetable.
As someone put it, God’s promises delayed are not His promises denied. Dr. Ray Pritchard gives us a humorous chronology of the 25 years between the first time God promised Abraham and Sarah offspring and the time when that promise was fulfilled: At age 76, Abraham buys a crib. At age 78, they make a list of possible boy names. At age 80, they order a supply of super absorbent Pampers. At age 85, Abraham goes hunting while Sarah’s friends give her a baby shower. At age 86, they put up wallpaper in the baby’s room. At age 90, they subscribe to New Parent magazine. At age 93, Abraham and Sarah start Lamaze classes. At age 96, Abraham drives a practice run to the hospital. At age 98, he packs the suitcase and sets it by the tent door. At age 99, Abraham scratches his head and says, “I wonder if God was just kidding.” How many of us after 2 and ½ years, let alone 25, would have concluded that God was kidding?
I recently read about a lawsuit in India which was filed in the year 1205. A man named Moloji Thorat filed this suit. Here’s what’s remarkable about this lawsuit. It was filed in 1205, but it wasn’t settled until 1966, seven-hundred sixty-one years later. By the way, they ruled in Thorat’s favor. I’d hate to see the legal fees in that case! Obviously it didn’t do Thorat any good, but his descendants did receive an undisclosed amount of rupees. 761 years, that’s a long time for a family to wait for justice. Abraham and Sarah only had to wait for twenty-five years, but that was still a huge test of their faith. That’s a test that many of us would have failed, because few people like to wait. We’re a culture that wants instant results.
You might remember comedian Yakov Smirnoff. When he first came to the United States from Russia he wasn’t prepared for the incredible variety of instant products available in American grocery stores. He says, “On my first shopping trip, I saw powdered milk, the directions said just add water, and you get milk. Then I saw powdered orange juice, just add water, and you get orange juice. And then I saw baby powder, and I thought to myself, what a country!” We grow impatient at stop lights, in the checkout lines, at the restaurant and yes, even with God. And yet God is faithful to His promises. We will be rewarded if we simply remain faithful. We need to remember that our timetable isn’t the same as God’s timetable. God’s promises delayed are not God’s promises denied. And the second thing that we need to see about Abraham and Sarah’s life, is that God’s purposes are much greater than we could ever imagine.
Abraham and Sarah had dreams for their lives just as you and I have dreams. They dreamed about where they would live and what their future would be like. They dreamed about children and grandchildren. That’s a dream they nearly missed out on, but still they dreamed. However, do you think that in a million years they’d ever dreamed that we would be sitting here today in this church, nearly 4,000 years later, telling their personal story? Not only that, do you think they imagined that more than a billion Christians and nearly as many Moslems and Jews would be telling their story all over this world, too? You see, they couldn’t see that their lives were part of a grander purpose that existed in the mind of God, for it was through this elderly couple that God blessed the world in a unique and eternal way. Our problem is we think too small. If we could only imagine what God can do with our lives . . .
In 1858 a Sunday school teacher in Chicago named Ezra Kimball became interested in the spiritual welfare of a young shoe clerk in his town. After debating what to do about it, Kimball started down toward Holton’s shoe store where the young man worked. After walking by the store once, Kimball finally mustered up his courage and went in. Finding the young man in the stock room, Kimball proceeded to talk with the young man about his faith.
The shoe clerk Kimball showed such interest in that day was named Dwight L. Moody. The Holy Spirit worked in Moody, and Moody went on to become the greatest Christian evangelist of his day. But that’s just the beginning of what God would do through that Sunday school teacher’s witness. Dwight L. Moody went on to preach a crusade in England and, in 1879, awakened the heart of Frederick B. Meyer, a pastor, then, of a small church. Meyer went on to become a renowned theologian.
In fact, later, Meyer was preaching in Moody’s school in Northfield, Massachusetts. A young man in the back row heard Meyer say, “If you’re not willing to give up everything for Christ, are you willing to be made willing?” Those words transformed the ministry of another young man, J. Wilbur Chapman. Wilbur Chapman became a YMCA worker, back when the Y was still a religious institution.
Among those whom Chapman recruited to help him in his ministry, was a former professional baseball player. That baseball player was a remarkable figure named Billy Sunday. Billy Sunday went on to become the greatest evangelist of his generation.
Later at a revival in Charlotte, North Carolina, Billy Sunday so excited a group of local men that they began an ongoing prayer group. Later they engaged an evangelist named Mordecai Hamm to come to their town to keep the revival spirit alive. In the revival with Mordecai Hamm, a young man heard the gospel and made his profession of faith. His name? Billy Graham.
Do you think Ezra Kimball, a Sunday School teacher, one-hundred-fifty four years ago had any idea that his actions would one day touch millions of lives through Dwight L. Moody, Frederick Meyer, Wilbur Chapman, Billy Sunday, Mordecai Hamm, Billy Graham, and anyone else who’s been touched by Graham’s ministry? The problem is we think too small.
God has imagined even greater things for our lives than we could ever envision, all we have to do is trust Him. At times we also need to be patient and remember that God’s timetable is not like our timetable. God’s purposes are greater than our minds can possibly imagine. And there’s one thing more we need to see: It’s in trusting God, that our lives find their greatest fulfillment. Following Christ isn’t just about building God’s kingdom. It’s also about discovering the abundant life for ourselves.
Some of you will remember a man who once had an enormous impact on American television audiences. He was a Catholic Bishop named Fulton J. Sheen. Sheen was known for his preaching and especially his work on television and radio. At one time his nationally televised show drew as many as 30 million viewers, making it one of the most popular programs on television. How did Sheen get to where he did? The turning point in Sheen’s life happened when he finished college.
A national examination was given to college students. The prize was a three-year university scholarship. Sheen took the examination and won one of the scholarships. He was informed of this sometime during the summer and immediately went to St. Viator’s College to see Father William J. Bergan, a very good friend. Father Bergan was on the tennis court when he arrived. With great glee and delight Sheen announced: “Father Bergan, I won the scholarship!”
Father Bergan turned from his tennis playing, put his hands on Sheen’s shoulders, and looked him straight in the eyes. Father Bergan asked: “Fulton, do you believe in God?” Young Sheen replied: “You know that I do.” Father Bergan said: “I mean practically, not from a theoretical point of view.” This time Sheen was not so sure. He said: “Well, I hope I do.” “Then tear up the scholarship,” Father Bergan declared.
“Father Bergan,” Sheen protested, “this scholarship entitles me to three years of university training with all expenses paid. It’s worth thousands of dollars.” Bergan retorted: “You know you have a vocation; you should be going to seminary.” Sheen countered: “I can go to seminary after I get my Ph.D., because there will be little chance of getting a Ph.D. after I am ordained, and I would like very much to have a good education.”
Bergan repeated: “Tear up the scholarship; go to the seminary. That’s what the Lord wants you to do. And if you do it, trusting in Him, you’ll receive a far better university education after you’re ordained than before.” Listen to how Fulton Sheen describes that turning point in his life, “I tore up the scholarship and went to the seminary. I’ve never regretted that visit nor that decision.”
What I’m saying to you is this. When we follow God’s leadership, we not only play a part in God’s great plan for creation, but we find the most fulfilling life for ourselves as well. Abraham and Sarah did as God commanded and God rewarded them far beyond their wildest dreams. Not as quickly as they might have thought, for God’s timetable isn’t our timetable. But God rewarded them far beyond anything they could have ever imagined. They became a blessing to the entire world. And they had a rich and fulfilling life as well. Faith, patience and persistence are all gifts from God and when we use these gifts to respond to God’s will for our lives, God will work through us in ways we can never imagine. Just ask Ezra Kimball.

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