I love a guarantee, don’t you? When I buy things, I like to have some kind of assurance that things will be okay with what I’ve purchased. Generally, I get that done by checking online, and reading reviews, and asking friends…and then making an informed purchase. Still, if you shop a lot online, you know that it’s sort of a gamble – maybe even when you shop in-store. There are questions like, “Will this product last?” and “Will this dress shirt shrink when I wash it?” or “Is the Shark actually comparable to the Dyson?” So, if I can find it, a guarantee is encouraging. Lifetime manufacturer’s guarantees or a satisfaction guarantee – something that says, “If this thing breaks, we’ll buy it back or we’ll replace it,” or “If it doesn’t impress you like we told you it would, we’ll refund your money…” It helps me to feel safe, confident, assured.
Aside from purchasing products though…in the daily doing of life, guarantees are nice too, except they’re rare. There aren’t many guarantees in your marriage or your work or with your finances. Except this one thing that comes to mind probably regularly among us: “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” It works this way in life, doesn’t it? Maybe there’s some luck involved, but you can’t count on that, it’s indiscriminate. You can count on yourself, so if you want a promotion, you put in the hours and you do the projects and you do them better than anybody else. If you want to retire comfortably, you figure out how to invest or you find someone who knows. If you want good grades, nobody’s going to just give them to you – you have to study; if you want the scholarship or the internship – you compete and it’s based on how you do. And with this kind of guarantee – the kind you win – there’s something to boast about in part – you did it, you won, you deserve it.
What about before God? There’s a lot to do day by day in service to God. If we actually pay attention, he says that our service to him, is in every single thing we do – no exemptions. Maybe like that Santa-claus line: “He knows if you’ve been bad or good…” So, can you boast? I truly doubt that you think about your spiritual lives as crassly as Meghan Trainor recently sang it: I thank God every day, that I woke up feelin’ this way, and I can’t help lovin’ myself and I don’t need nobody else…If I was you, I’d wanna be me too.” No…you don’t…not most often anyway. But when you have tried to be an ethical employee and you still get fired; when you’ve been a friend and they still betray you; when you are a believer and you get sick, you have probably thought that your work ought to be worth something before God. You probably sometimes struggle on the other hand that all of those could be remedied if you had done better – God would have rewarded you then. Or you might take it in a negative direction, “Meghan Trainor’s right – I’d rather be you than me, if you knew how often I thought wicked things and struggled with thinking God’s things were important things.” Maybe you sometimes feel you can guarantee it, maybe you sometimes feel like it’s totally lost…
Right in line with our season’s theme, St. Paul gives you comfort – that God’s promises come to you by faith, so that they might be by grace and therefore be guaranteed to you. He does it with the image of Abraham – or actually the Jewish image of Abraham. You saw thim in the OT lesson – where God said, “Go!,” and Abraham went to a land he didn’t know, far off, without GPS or 4G coverage or really any other direction. That’s impressive enough by itself, right? Comparatively you might say, “I could never do that!” The Jews ramped it up, told stories. That once the Babylonians tried to toss righteous Abraham into a fiery furnace by catapult – but he was saved by God’s angels. They told stories where Abraham was made to seem larger than life, literally: one time “as tall as seventy men set on end, [Abraham] marched forward with giant strides, each of his steps measuring four miles, until he overtook [his enemies], and annihilated their troops (Legends of the Jews (III:94-97).” The Jews thought Abraham was a big deal – their spiritual father – justified and boast-worthy in the sight of God, actually righteous and holy before him, able to guarantee for himself a place with God by what he had done.
Paul questions this morning what it was that Abraham actually discovered throughout his storied life. Was he justified, could he boast? Was the guarantee with himself? Did what he did do anything for God? Well, you could junior-size Abraham and go back to those two times when he pawned off his wife for his own safety, or when he was creative about how to make an heir for himself though he knew what God has promised. But Paul just mentions what God says about Abraham’s justification. Could he boast? Not before God. Because, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Paul says that God simply added to Abraham’s account the status of “righteous” apart from something Abraham did. God had promised to Abraham a land, a great nation, indeed blessing for the whole world through a Savior to come – to give it all for free and undeserved, by grace – and trusting/receiving that God could and would do that, Abraham was called righteous. It wasn’t by his work, but by God’s gift. It wasn’t for trust in he would do, but in what God had said would happen – that it was true. In fact, God says, “to the man who does not work but trusts God…his faith is credited as righteousness.”
See, in Romans, Paul’s masterfully telling all the nuance of the gospel. That God, through this good news, is powerful to save. That he is righteous/holy and is faithful to his promises. Promises that apply to a world that is lousy with sin – no matter who we are: non-Jewish people who make idols and live in sin-broken ways that show they don’t care about God’s law, or Jewish people who had God’s laws but were just as sinful and morally broken as anybody else. In chapter three, Paul had said what you know: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and [good news!] all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
“Justified” is one of our favorite words as Lutherans. “Justified” is God’s declaration that people are “not guilty” of sins because of the sacrifice of atonement Jesus made by dying at the cross. God looked at the sin of the one man, Adam, that infected the entire world – the sin we daily do – and he counteracted it with the righteousness of his one man, Jesus Christ. In his life there is perfection like we have not achieved. In his death there is payment for all we all have done. By trust in that work promised to us, we are given everything we need to stand before God with confidence. This is how God works, who he is.
And maybe that’s the thing for you to think about then. Our struggles with temptation sometimes – feeling God hasn’t rewarded us for what we’ve done, or that he’s dealt unfairly though we’ve been righteous, or that God could never justify someone like you – all these things that assume some kind of guarantee from us with God… They’re really saying something tragically wrong about God himself – that we’re losing our grasp on this truth: we trust “God who justifies the wicked”. God, in his person, is not one who gives reward to those who have half-done. God, by name, is one who gives freely righteousness to wicked people. God, in himself, brings salvation and rescue from sin to sinners. At the beginning of the season of Lent reflect on this and repent: our temptations to guarantee comfort for ourselves on the basis of what we do, they horribly mis-label our God as some kind of street-vendor, who peddles cheap product for cheap price – and they horribly mis-construe who we are, as though in a class with God himself, to earn his favor – somehow no longer sinners.
But then also think about the joy. Ours is the “God who justifies the wicked.” He is God who brings the promise of salvation to people who have not ever deserved it. He is God who brings forgiveness to sinners, who will be so until they get to heaven. People just like the Samaritan woman who stood before Jesus with so many things to hide, but who find that we don’t have to hide. He is the Messiah who was promised to come. And he knows us. And he gives us life – living water to thirsty souls – never-ending springs of life he makes spring forth in us by faith, welling and bubbling and gurgling over finally into eternal life. Because he gives his life to our dead hearts, freedom from all our guilt, and the guarantee that death will not conquer us because it couldn’t conquer him. Everything that would not have been for you and me, he simply called into being for our salvation. And God’s promise of salvation comes by way of trust/not work, so that it is entirely gracious – freely given love from God beginning to end – and guaranteed to never fail therefore.
What do we have then? Maybe something like that bank guarantee you read when you open an account. The FDIC insures your money up to $250,000, that it will be there, safe. Except with God there is no limit. He has put into your account the absolute perfection, the Bill-Gates-billions that is Jesus’ righteousness. And he calls you to freely live as though your place with him is already guaranteed, because by faith in Jesus Christ, it is.P