Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Hoping against Hope” (Romans 8:14-25)
February 25, 2018
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Many years ago when I was a youth minister in South Carolina I led our annual high school fall retreat.  On a crisp November Saturday night all fifty or sixty of us stood outside and as we looked up at the clear sky full of stars we sang these beautiful words by Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn:

Lord of the Starfields, Ancient of Days
Universe Maker, here’s a song in your praise
Wings of the storm cloud, beginning and end
You make my heart leap like a banner in the wind
O Love that fires the sun, keep me burning
Lord of the starfields, Sower of life
Heaven and earth are full of your light
(From his 1976 album In the Falling Dark)

The other night I was walking home from my office around 9:00 and as I looked up through the branches of the pine trees and live oaks I saw the constellation, Orion, which has always been my favorite constellation.  When I was a teenager and delivering The Washington Post early every morning in our neighborhood I always enjoyed seeing Orion, especially on the clear cold mornings of late fall and winter.  Scripture tells us this about Orion: “The one who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the face of the earth, the Lord is his name” (Amos 5:8).  Orion was made by the Lord of the Starfields.

In today’s Old Testament passage the Lord of the Starfields, the One who made Orion, appeared to an old man named Abram:

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.  And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.”  Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.  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.  I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you” (Genesis 17:1-6).

The Lord changed the name of Abram, which means “father” to Abraham, which means “father of many nations.”  Earlier the Lord had appeared to Abraham and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them…So shall your descendants be.”  The writer of Genesis continues, “And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:5-6).  All this happened when Abraham was ninety-nine years old, and had not yet begotten a single child.  From a natural perspective what the Lord promised Abraham was utterly impossible, but scripture is clear that nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing is impossible for God.  And the Lord of the Starfields gave a gift to Abraham that enabled him to believe his promises: the gift of faith.

It is this faith of Abraham to which the Apostle Paul refers in today’s passage from his Letter to the Romans:

Hoping against hope, (Abraham) believed that he would become “the father of many nations”, according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.”  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.  No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.  Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:18-22).

Paul refers here not only to Abraham’s faith, or trust in God, but also to the fact that God’s promises are trustworthy because the Lord of the Starfields is trustworthy.  Contrary to all outward appearances, Abraham knew “God was able to do what he had promised,” and took God at his word.  The late Anglican priest John Stott put it this way:

Behind all promises lies the character of the person who makes them.  Abraham knew this.  As he contemplated his own senility and Sarah’s barrenness, he neither turned a blind eye to these problems, nor underestimated them.  But he reminded himself of God’s power and faithfulness…he knew that God could keep his promises because of his power, and he knew that he would do so because of his faithfulness (The Message of Romans, 134-135).

God indeed kept the promises made to Abraham, as he and Sarah had a son, Isaac, who fathered Jacob, who fathered twelves sons, and on it on it has continued over the course of many centuries to the present day.  And spiritually each one of us is a child of Abraham, as we often sing at Wednesday morning preschool chapel here at Christ Church, “Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham—and I am one of them, and so are you, so let’s just praise the Lord.”

Abraham was old, well past his prime, and considered himself washed up—and yet God promised to do a new and extraordinary work in his life that would have ripple effects throughout the rest of earthly history and on into eternity.  God promised Abraham, “I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you,” and God kept his promise.  After the birth of John the Baptist, his father Zechariah held his baby son in his arms and prophesied, “Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear” (Luke 1:72-74).

Jesus often referred to Abraham.  When he saw the faith of a centurion, who believed Jesus had the power to heal his servant, he said, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.  I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:10-11).  Later on, during the week of his passion, Jesus referred to Abraham when teaching about the resurrection: “As for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?  He is God not of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 31-32).  And the Lord of the Starfields is still the God of the living, a God who can do new and extraordinary works in the lives of those who, like Abraham, are old, well past their prime, and consider themselves washed up.

And in today’s reading from his Letter to the Romans the Apostle Paul connects Abraham’s faith in God to our faith in God:

Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also.  It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification (Romans 4:23-25).

The word “reckoned” in this passage means credited to your account.  In other words, faith in Jesus Christ, trust in the fact that Jesus “was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification,” means that your account with God has a zero balance, because your account with God has been credited with God’s righteousness.

Many years ago I took a group of high school students to West Virginia for a week-long camp.  One day we were taking turns rappelling off the edge of a cliff.  We each donned a pink plastic helmet of questionable value, took a deep breath, leaned back, and put all our faith, or trust, in the rope to which we clung as we descended the cliff.  For some it was no big deal, but for others, there was a long pause of fear and trembling at the top of the cliff.  But the rope proved trustworthy, and each of us made it down safely.  When it comes to your response of faith in God’s love, you can be assured that the rope will hold, because the Rope is the Lord of the Starfields, who is already holding on to you, and will never let you go.

Last week the great preacher Billy Graham, who like Abraham when God appeared to him, was ninety-nine years old, passed away.  Throughout his six decade career Billy Graham preached about one thing, the love of God in Jesus Christ, and preached about one response to this love of God, faith.  He did this all over the world, and preached to over two hundred million people.

In the spring of 1986 there was a Billy Graham crusade at the Washington Convention Center in Washington D.C.  I was there that night.  I was seventeen years old and had gone through training to be a “counselor” to pray with those who would come forward during the altar call that would follow Billy Graham’s sermon.  The other day I found his sermon from that spring night of 1986 on the internet, and over thirty years later listened to it again.  He was preaching about Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler, and said this:

Somehow people think they’re going to live forever.  You tell young people that life is short, and they sort of smile and say, “Yes, but I’ve got at least thirty or forty years ahead of me.”  Let me tell you, it goes just like that (he snapped his fingers)…Somebody asked me on one of my birthdays, I’m not going to tell you which one, they said, “What was your greatest surprise in life?”  I said, “The brevity of life.  That’s the greatest surprise of my life, how brief it is.  I feel like a boy.  Sometimes I feel like I’m eighteen, and again I feel my real age.  But it passes so fast.”

And Billy Graham is right.  Life indeed “passes so fast.”  All of the sudden it is over thirty years later and I am in my office in Valdosta, Georgia listening again to a sermon I heard as a teenager in Washington, D.C..  At the end of his sermon that night Billy Graham invited people to come forward to receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  On that spring night in 1986 he put it this way:

You can know God.  You can have him in your heart.  There are thousands of you here tonight who do go to church but you’re not sure how you stand before God.  You’re not sure where your soul is right now, and you want to be sure.  You want his peace and his joy and his forgiveness and eternal life.  I’m going to ask you to do something we’ve seen hundreds of people do every night.  I’m going to ask you to get up and get out of your seat and come and stand in front of this platform and say by coming, “I open my heart to Christ.  I repent of my sin.  I receive him into my heart.”

During his sermon I was so moved by his message of God’s love that instead of being a “counselor” for others, I responded myself to Billy Graham’s altar call and joined hundreds of others that night and received Jesus Christ anew in my heart, as the congregation sang: “Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me, and that Thou bid’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come!”  That night was the beginning of a new and extraordinary work in my life.

The gospel is good news for those who like Abraham are “hoping against hope,” because God always keeps his promises.  So today may the Lord of the Starfields, the One who made Orion, the God of Abraham, quicken your faith and keep you burning.