Abraham had a choice.
His wife, Sarah, was barren. Despite all efforts, they had not been able to have a child. And now both were old, well beyond child-bearing years.
And yet, God had come to Abraham, and promised that he would become the patriarch of a great nation. More descendants than he could count. God had even appeared to Abraham in a stroll of the night, told him to look up at the stars, and see if he could count them (no light pollution back then!) – and said, “…so shall your descendants be.”
Abraham the childless. Sarah the barren. God the promiser of impossibilities.
What did Abraham do? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Abraham could stare at the barrenness and disbelieve. Or he could look at the boundless stars, created by the same powerful God who made a re-creative promise, and have faith. Abraham believed.
This call to naked faith in the face of an insurmountable barrier seems other-worldly, even delusional. These living fossils, with a track record of only failure and disappointment, having a child? Meanwhile, the years rolled on. So when the promise was repeated 13 years later, Abraham laughed, and when Sarah heard of it, she laughed as well.
And one year later, they had a son, named Isaac (meaning: “he laughs”). So their faith was a bit shaky during the long fulfillment waiting period. That didn’t shake God up at all. What appears impossible to men is not only possible, but certain with God. Yet, there’s much more involved here than the birth of a miracle child…
What about this righteousness referenced in the text? In the New Testament, the apostle Paul points to this ancient incident as a pivotal illustration of the very heart of the gospel. What does Abraham’s believing God, in the face of impossibility, have to do with being pronounced as righteous before him?
Justification (being pronounced fully forgiven and righteous before God) by faith is the central message of the Christian gospel. The believer sees him/herself as utterly barren, without any ability to bring forth life in the form of love for God, obedience to His commands, and self-sacrificing love for others. All attempts at righteousness are “filthy rags” – more mockery than sincerity, since underlying them is a go-it-alone disposition that doesn’t care for God at all.
Seeing oneself as hopelessly defiled and guilty, standing in a cesspool of sins past and present, with no hope for self-improvement that would even begin to approach righteousness or holiness, the sinner is gently confronted by God, who points to the boundless stars. He points to a fully-righteous Son who was not stained by sin, but who died in the place of sinners, and says, “Believe.” He says, “I will exchange those rags, that filth, that guilt, that utter barrenness, with the boundless righteousness of My Son. But not on the basis of anything you’ve done or can do. Not because of any religious observances. Not for any acts of outward goodness. Only out of undeserved grace. Believe. Cease your selfish rebellion, cease your fruitless self-efforts, and be my renewed son or daughter. Believe.”
Righteous before a perfectly holy God? Forgiven for all guilty sins, committed in dark corners or even in the full light of day? Moved from the status of guilty criminal to beloved and forgiven child, solely on the basis of self-forgetting, and God-affirming, belief?? Shedding the rags of my uncleanness for garments of righteousness – a pure gift from a gracious God? Impossible. You laugh!
Surely there’s a list of 47 things I must do to show penance; surely I must “work off” all the bad karma I’ve left in my wake; surely I’ve got to follow in the footsteps of cloistered monks of old and live in impoverished self-denial in order to…in order to what? Pretend you’re something other than what you are? Giving up Facebook for Lent won’t pay off a single sin, nor will it make you a shred closer to a holy God. He’s not impressed with empty works.
No, we must learn to laugh at our futile efforts, putting them aside to gaze at a boundless God whose boundless power and promises are the only hope for those afflicted with sin. Within is only barrenness. Righteousness comes as a gift, from the only One who can bestow it, and He gives it to any and all who believe. You, like Abraham, have a choice. Will it be barrenness? Or boundlessness?