I promise you that it will happen. The Illinois Centre Mall here in Marion will spring to life. Every store location in the mall will be filled high end stores. Every spot in the foot court will be filled with a variety of wonderful foods. The mall’s parking lot will be filled all the time, and the mall will be thronged with customers. In fact, the mall will have to extend its hours to accommodate the people who will come in from all over the area to shop there.
The Illinois Centre Mall will become the hub of social life in Marion and all of southern Illinois. A trip to the Marion mall will be a family outing enjoyed by all. It will be the place for youth to see others and to be seen as they cruise the mall, because the mall will be the place to be.
Now, I am guessing that as you sit there, you are very skeptical about my promise. More to the point, no doubt you think that I have completely lost touch with reality. Opened in 1991, the Illinois Centre Mall is now dead. A couple of major stores still operate as independent entities, but if you went into the mall you would find nothing there. And any notion of a revived future for the mall must be blind to the fact that all malls are a dying breed. The advent of online shopping has completely changed people’s shopping habits. Physical stores struggle to hang on and survive as more and more people shop online.
If my promise about the future of the Illinois Centre Mall sounds absurd, then you have a good introduction into how God’s promise to Abram must have sounded. Yahweh had called Abram when he was in Haran, what is today southeast Turkey. Abram had travelled with his father and family from Ur in southern Mesopotamia with the intention of going to Canaan. However they had stopped in Haran and then ended up staying there.
At that time, Abram was a pagan, worshipping the false gods of his family and area. But Yahweh called Abram and told him what to do. He said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Yahweh told Abram to leave behind all of the family connections that grounded his life, and to go to a land that he would show him. He promised to make Abram into a great nation, and that in Abram all the families of the earth would blessed. Abram listened to Yahweh, he believed and obeyed. Later, Yahweh promised to Abram that he would give him the land of Canaan as the dwelling place for the nation that would come forth from him.
The promise sounded great. But there was a serious problem. Both Abram and his wife Sarai were old – far too old to have any hope that Sarai could conceive and bear a child. It was just impossible. And beyond that, Abram had just experienced a reminder of how tenuous life can be. His nephew Lot who lived in Sodom had been taken captive when a group of kings defeated the king of Sodom and took the people of Sodom as plunder. Abram had raised a force of his own men and attacked those holding Lot in order to free his nephew and his family.
Abram had no hope that Sarai would bear a child. He had just seen how dangerous life in Canaan could be. This must have been a low point for him as he considered his life and his future. Then we hear in our text: “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.’”
Yahweh told him to cast away his fear. Why should he do this? It was because Yahweh was his shield. Yahweh, the creator of heaven and earth, was the One who was protecting and caring for him.
Then Abram replied with the real problem that weighed on his mind and clouded his perception of the future. He said, “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.” Sarai remained barren. Yahweh had not given Abram a son, and so someone other than his own direct family was going to be heir of Abram’s estate when he died.
It’s not hard for us to relate to Abram. We live in a world that is constantly reminding us about how tenuous life can be. On social media we learn about tragedies that have struck others – often people that we actually know. Trips to the doctor result in scans, or endoscopy procedures or biopsies in order to find out if something really bad is happening in our body. And the promise of God to love and care for us rings hollow when we see our struggles at work or school; when we see the difficulties our loved ones are experiencing.
God knew Abram’s weakness. And so he replied, “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” Then the gracious God doubled down on his promise. He brought Abram outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Yahweh spoke his word of promise to Abram. Then we learn that Abram, “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Abram believed God’s promise, even though at that moment he had nothing more than God’s word to go on. And we learn that God “counted it to him as righteousness.” God considered Abram to be righteous before him on the basis of faith – because he believed and trusted in God and his word.
For St.Paul, Abram is the proof that our standing before God is based on faith and not things we do. God speaks his promise. It is an expression of his grace. Abram had done nothing to earn it – after all, he was just a pagan that God called to be his own! There was nothing that Abram could do in order to make it happen. All that he coudl “do” was to believe and trust in God’s word – in his promise. All he can do is believe and trust in the character of God himself.
The apostle Paul told the Romans, “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. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, "So shall your offspring be." He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb.”
Abram didn’t focus on the factors that made the promise seem impossible. Instead, he focused on God, the One who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Pauls says, “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
The apostle tells us that this belief and trust in the God’s promise is why Abram’s faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” And then he adds: “But the words "it was counted to him" were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
Like Abram, we are called to believe and trust in God’s loving care in the midst of all circumstances. We are able to do this because our faith is in the God who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He is the God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that are not. And he has demonstrated this by raising Christ, the Son of God, on Easter.
Paul says that Jesus our Lord was delivered up for our trespasses. God the Father gave the Son to be the sacrifice on the cross. The Father gave the Son into the cross hairs of his own divine wrath and judgment. But then, on the third day, he raised Christ from the dead. Because of this we are justified. The verdict of the Last Day has already been spoken. Because we believe in the crucified and risen Lord, God counts us as righteous. God says that we are innocent and holy because of faith in Christ. And it is God’s word that determines reality. It alone decides how things really are.
It is the Spirit of Christ who has worked this faith. It is the Spirit of Christ who enables us to see what God has already done for us in Christ. And the Spirit now leads us to apply this truth to the times when the promise of God to love and care for us seems open to question – when God’s promise and the events don’t seem to be matching up.
God has given Abram to us as a model of how this works. He is an example of how faith clings to the promise and character of God. As Paul says in Romans, “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
We are fully convinced that God is able to keep us in the faith and sustain us in the difficulties of life because God has revealed to us how he raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Jesus lives! Because he does, we have life. We have peace with God. On Good Friday it looked like there was no reason for hope. But in the resurrection of Easter we have learned that God was in fact at work in the midst of the cross to fulfill every promise he had made to us.
We now live as those who live by faith in the risen and exalted Lord. Paul expressed what his means when he went on to write in Romans chapter five: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, knowing that Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of our own resurrection on the last day.
Because this is so; because God has given us his Spirit in Holy Baptism and made us a new creation in Christ, we are also able to approach the challenges of life in a new way. We see in them how God remains at work, building us up in Christ into the people of faith he wants us to be. As Paul said: More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”