How often we look around us and long for a path toward faith and hope in the midst of much anxiety! Our world is replete with seemingly intractable violence in many lands and uncertainties about who shall lead us. Today is no exception.
In the face of impossible hopes, as with Abram, God takes us by the hand and shows us the stars – a heaven filled with mysterious and distant lights that cannot be counted. They reveal the limitlessness of God’s promises which hold out hope for peace in the way Julian of Norwich insisted, writing: “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
How are we to grasp this?
The Gospel story shows us a stance to take, an approach to the things of this world, a measurement for what we value, and a caution about the dangers.
Today's gospel reading. . . collects a number of Jesus' teachings regarding how his followers are to ready themselves for God's impending future, that is, what living faithfully is to look like in terms of our behavior. First he underlines the gift-character of salvation with the encouragement: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (v 32, emphasis added).
Secondly, he recommends a series of actions consistent with last week's readings' emphasis on not investing oneself in the pursuit of transient earthly wealth, culminating in the assurance that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (See the commentary on last week's texts.)
And thirdly, with a greatly abbreviated reference to the much more elaborate end-time parable of the ten virgins we find in Matthew 25, he recommends an active and alert stance toward the impending future, a stance of ready waiting “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” One might call this attitude of urgent anticipation “faith-filled hope.” – John Rollefson
While the Gospel gives us the prospect of readiness to hope, the Genesis story gives us companionship with God in the night, even at the moment of despair.
In the poignant image of God pointing Abram to the stars (I picture a clear, cold, windless midnight hour with the lights of the heavens twinkling, thick and sharp) we see with Abram the abundance of God’s promised future. We are incredulous, because when we look around us at the world’s disappointments in our individual lives and that of the nations, a future of such brightness and vastness seems impossible. The moment for Abraham appears to be like ours: Where is the least inkling that hope is not futile? Where is Abram’s first heir?
[T]here is as . . . yet no sign of the offspring needed to get the promise started toward fulfillment, and the clock is ticking. It's not until the next chapter that Sarai will try to jump-start the promise by offering her slave-girl Hagar as a surrogate. As soon will become evident, this only complicates matters, and such human improvisation in trying to help the promise along isn't what Yahweh has in mind.
But most significant for today's theme is the story's conclusion: “And he (Abram) believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
From St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans, chapter 4, through the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification officially ratified by the 1999 Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation, this passage has been key in the church's efforts to understand the mystery of how it is that God justifies (reckons righteous), by grace through faith, us fallen descendants of Adam and Eve. – John Rollefson
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Finally, we receive a summation of the truth about faith: It is not logical. What we hope for is not visible.
The author's succinct definition of faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (v 1) is borne out in the conclusion drawn from the history of the faithful, all of whom “died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them” (v 13a). This throws faith into its appropriate attitude of leaning into the future to which a promise always leads where its fulfillment is awaited in what both Paul (Romans 8:24–25, e.g.) and the Psalmist (33:22) call “hope.”
. . . The author's description of the faithful as “strangers and foreigners (sojourners) on the earth…seeking a homeland” is an apt description of the pilgrim character of the church, bringing us full circle back to father Abraham whose first recorded act of faith was to respond to God's call to “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you” in trusting obedience, “not knowing where he was going” (v 8b). . .
We cannot prove that we are justified to have faith and hope. Rather, faith and hope feed each other and we come by them most possibly with our eyes (see the stars!) and ears (hear the word of God!) open to what is impossible… and yet true.
John Rollefson is a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He has served congregations in Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, Milwaukee, and San Francisco.
Homily Service 40, no. 9 (2007): 13-22.