God built fatherhood into man’s nature. God made man and blessed him for fatherhood. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1.28). Man was made for fatherhood. The man we call Abraham is—as you can see from today’s Old Testament reading (Gen. 15:1-6)—originally named Abram. Abram means “exalted father.” That refers to God, Our Father.
Abram, named for the Father, wants to be a father himself. Abram wants a son.
But he is old, and his wife is old. Some of you know how difficult it can be to conceive a child. And as the years go by, you feel worthless, and hopeless. That’s where Abram and his wife Sarai are.
They didn’t have the many options that confront us today. Some of those options are expensive, and others are deeply problematic morally. For example, IVF (in vitro fertilization) offers you children, but the cost (besides money) is that many other children will be created in a laboratory and frozen. Those tiny human beings then either remain in an icy limbo, or are destroyed. A consistent pro-life ethic values the life of every human being, be they disabled, displaced, disregarded, or disappeared into deep freezers.
Enormous topics like these cannot be properly treated in ten minutes. Please talk to a pastor when you’re thinking through these kinds of issues. And also talk to God. Pray about your desires and your disappointments. That’s what we see Abram doing. He sets his desire for a son before God.
“You have given me no offspring,” he says. Earlier, God had promised his descendants would be “as the dust of the earth” (Gen. 13.16).
It seems like God is not keeping His promise, as though He doesn’t care. Do you ever feel that way? Ignored by God, or punished? All this Abram feels, along with one other key thing – and this is the biggest item of all. You can’t understand the Bible without getting this big theme: the promise of the Son. Not just a son, a child, but the Son. After the fall into death and sin, God gives our first parents a promise: that a Son would come and crush the head of the serpent. A child of the woman would defeat death and set the world right again.
Now the Bible is more than literature, but it’s never less than literature. There’s a plot line running through Scripture, where you see this hope constantly in peril. The first son, Cain, murders the second son Abel. Cain is exiled, Abel is dead; what will happen to the promise?
The promise is passed down to Seth, eventually to Noah, and his son Shem, then to Abraham.
Murder fills the world, and coldness among people. Sarah is barren, as is Rebekah. Famine comes, and threatens the entire family of Jacob. Eventually the people of the promise are enslaved, and the Egyptians order the murder of all the baby boys. This isn’t just a heinous crime; the future of God’s promise is threatened. The scene is repeated after Jesus is born, when Herod orders the execution of all the little boys in Bethlehem, in an attempt to destroy Jesus.
The entire story of the world is about a Son who will come from the Father to rescue, redeem, resuscitate the failing human race. And one of the key moments in this story, several thousand years before a virgin named Mary went with a man named Joseph to Bethlehem – one of the key moments in this story is when childless Abram, heir to the promise, cries out to God in his old age, “Where is my son?”
The world hangs on the edge of disaster. There is no son, and the promise will die.
But God acts in these extraordinary, sometimes bizarre ways, to show us that our help, our rescue depends not on our strength but on His. He brings food in the desert, He makes a road where there was only water, and He brings a child from a barren, even a virgin’s womb.
Into their barrenness the LORD speaks: “Count the stars.” We don’t see the stars here. Only a few. The city’s artificial lights cloud the natural. But there, in the darkness of the night and the darkness of his heart, Abram sees the sky filled with innumerable distant lights, and cannot begin to count them. “That uncountable number,” the LORD says – “that is how your children shall be.” Abraham’s desire for a son will culminate in God the Father sending His own Son to rescue and redeem us.
And then comes one of the most important and most beautiful passages in the Old Testament:
“And [Abram] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
This passage is the heart of the Bible’s doctrine of justification by faith. It was at the heart of the Reformation, when God’s Word again shone as a bright light through the fog of Roman darkness and corruption.
Abram believed the Lord. This is not a belief in God, meaning that God exists. This believing is a confidence that a word is true, a promise is true.
Faith is believing God’s Word is true. That means you hear the Word of the Commandments and say, “It is true; I have broken them! Dear God, forgive me!” Then faith hears God’s Word of the cross, the Word of the Son promised to Eve, Noah, Abraham, David, Mary. And faith says, “There He is! The One who at long last crushes the serpent’s head; the One who is going to set the world right!”
That’s the good news that Abraham hears today. It’s still a long ways off. How God will do it remained a mystery to him. But he trusted that his Father would do it.
And that faith, God tells us, was counted to him for righteousness. In the Bible, righteousness doesn’t mean having your good deeds outweigh the bad, or being good in a kind of outward sense. Righteousness means measuring up to everything God’s Law says. Have you argued with your spouse? You are not righteous. Have you lost your temper? You are not righteous. Have you looked at another person with lust? You are not righteous. Have you gathered up money for yourself, but been slow to share it for God’s purposes and your neighbor’s benefit? You are not righteous.
God’s judgment is clear: “There is no one righteous, no, not one.” God’s judgment is clear, and you stand condemned.
So when God says that Abraham’s trust in God’s Word “counted to him for righteousness,” this is the greatest news a person can hear. It gives Abraham, and us, exactly what we heard in today’s Epistle: “Confidence for the day of judgment” (1 Jn 4:17).
Now it may be that you have lived like the rich man, and have not shared your wealth with the Lazaruses of the world. Repent, and look to the promised Son, Jesus.
It may be that you have failed again this week, and given in to your addiction. Repent, and believe what God says, that He takes away your sin.
It may be that you have said you love God but not loved your brother. Repent, and look to Jesus, who takes away the world’s sin.
Your sins are great. But your Jesus is still greater. Believe His cross is for you. Believe His resurrection is for you. Believe His Spirit is given to you. Believe His Supper is for you. Believe this Word, for it is counted to you for righteousness, and you have confidence for today, tomorrow, and the day of judgment. +INJ+