Courtney and I have been spending some time recently looking around town to buy our first home. It’s exciting finding new places to take a look at, but it’s also stressful trying to get on the same page, trying to find that same gut feeling about the same place when we picture ourselves living there for years to come with our daughter and our dog—is this the right place, the right place for us and our family that will bring us even closer together and provide the space for everyone to flourish? I honestly don’t like that language very much, but I can’t help myself from thinking these things.
If you can’t already tell, we’re placing a pretty big weight on this decision, no doubt too big of a weight, but this would be our first home purchase, our first major purchase of anything really, so we want it to be right, we want it to be right in a way that will hold and shape our lives together. I’ve even started to look at different floor plans and how the right one can drastically effect your family’s quality of life. There is a hot design trend called an open concept floor plan, a large open space with no walls. According to the Boston Globe, residents who have this design say they’re great but the more they think about it, they think their homes are missing just one thing—walls. Real estate agents are reporting that home owners are expressing regret for moving into open concept homes. Families opted for the layout hoping that it would promote more family togetherness. But the problem is….it did. Parents and spouses and children are complaining about a lack of privacy, and just too much time spent with the weird people they’re related to.
Many of us painfully know that, try as we might, the right floor plan, the right house or the right plan for our futures will not secure our happiness or secure our identity and purpose in this world.
In today’s reading from Genesis, Abram is impatiently waiting for his plan to come to fruition. And despite the fact that his vision of the future, of having a family, has been promised to him by God Himself, Abram has doubts, and like every human who has ever lived, he has a strong desire to take things into his own hands. He still doesn’t have any offspring, but God says to him that He has given him a promise, and God doesn’t make promises that He doesn’t keep. So, God takes Abram outside and says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
This is perhaps one of the most influential passages throughout all of Scripture. St. Paul wrestles with it throughout the Book of Romans, and Martin Luther’s entire view of our relationship with God shifted after reflecting on this passage’s powerful implication that righteousness has been given to us as a gift because, and only because, of our faith in the Lord and what the Lord has done and promised to us.
For many of us, including Martin Luther himself, it’s difficult to think of the word righteousness without it being directly attached to our own character, our own actions and the specific lives that we live and present to God on the Final Judgment Day. It’s ingrained in our minds to think of a righteous person as someone who has made the right choices, who lives the right kind of life, and as St. Paul says, it’s been written on our hearts that we ought to be righteous people. So we act in self-righteous ways, trying to project our righteous identities out into the world for fear that we might be perceived to be someone, or something else. The only problem is that the Bible tells us and our lives reveal to us that we aren’t righteous people, that no one is righteous, no, not one (Romans 3). We are born into this world with a desire and longing to be righteous; we know that things in our lives ought to be a certain way, but they just aren’t. We want and feel as if we are supposed to be in a certain spiritual or emotional place, but we just aren’t. In a sense, we are born feeling homesick, often feeling dislocated and restless, unable to find ourselves or place ourselves in this world through our own work, our own choices or performance, intellect or pedigree.
“Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Thankfully what God sees as righteousness, is not what we see it to be. What God sees as righteousness, as the right way of being in this world in relationship to each other and to God, is not an image of a proud, self-righteous man or woman, thanking God that they are not like those unrighteous sinners. What God sees as righteousness is the lives of people like you and me, people who are at the end of their ropes, people who have tried to take things into their own hands and have come up empty or disappointed, people who are very truly and very painfully unrighteous, and yet, have looked upon the promise God has made to us with faith and hope—the promise that God has made us, that God cares for us, and that God will redeem, reconcile and save us.
This idea, that we have been given righteousness through faith in God in the midst of our unrighteous lives, is a scandalous and off-putting idea to many, but it’s at the core of the Gospel message. Much like forgiveness that is unearned, the gift of righteousness doesn’t seem fair to us, to people like us who live in a world where we seem to have to earn everything. We are convinced that we earn and we make our own success and happiness. And not just with our jobs or careers or finances, but also with our house hunting decisions, with our academic or athletic careers, with our bodies, and even with our relationships—we think that we are the ones that have to make them right, to make them righteous. But even then, regardless of focus or will power, we will inevitably make mistakes or end up feeling disappointed or disconnected from one another, even our spouses.
There is a new trend in post wedding celebrations called the Uni-moon. An article about this in the New York Times Wedding Section reported this week: “By all accounts the wedding of Irene O’Brien and Mel McLain was a beautiful affair. They drank, they danced, and they promised to stay together forever…starting right after they got back from traveling the world on solo honeymoons.” In one of its most valiant efforts to date to try and convince us that something is actually a real thing, the New York Times, reported that the new trend of solo-moons, also known as uni-moons, is a real thing in which couples take their honeymoons apart from each other. In the case of O’Brien and McLain, they said they didn’t really have the same trip in mind. He wanted to get drunk in France with his friends and watch the Northern Ireland soccer team…she wanted to, not do that. So she went and visited Niagra Falls. Other couples reported that their uni-moons were the result of incompatible work schedules or needing a little space following all the stress of the wedding.
Even something as beautiful as a wedding, a honeymoon, and even a marriage, often don’t go as we’ve planned them, despite all the work we’ve put into them. And it’s when life plays out like this, in comical and tragic ways, that we realize, scandalous or not, we could really use some unearned righteousness, some unearned grace.
The scandal of grace is only removed when you’re the one in need of grace. You only understand forgiveness when you need forgiveness. You only understand or can make sense of grace and the gift of righteousness, unearned by ourselves, when you’re in a place of need or you’re in a place of painful awareness that you are not bringing the righteousness to the table yourself. When you are aware of the fact that you need forgiveness, no one has to explain that to you, no one has to show that to you, you know that you need forgiveness so badly that you can think of absolutely nothing else. When all that you can think of is the weight that you know you can’t remove yourself and all that you feel is the pressure and attention of the reality of failed expectations and unkept promises, what you need is grace.
Thankfully, God keeps his promises, even and especially when we don’t. Thankfully, His gift to us is not something that can be take away from us.
Towards the end of this passage from Genesis, after God has reminded Abram that he has been given a divine promise of provision and grace, God says to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Then Abram brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other. This is what it looked like to make a Covenant in the Ancient Near East. Unlike a contract, which can be broken, a covenant was an unbreakable union that was often made by killing and cutting animals in half and then having both parties walk through them. The deal was “cut” in this specific way to symbolize a kind of binding curse upon each party. If the covenantal terms were not met, the covenant wasn’t broken, instead it would result in a curse of dysfunction and death on both parties.
In the case of Abram in our passage, the animals were split in half and laid out, ready for both parties to walk through and the curse to fall upon them both. But then, perhaps overcome by the immensity of entering into a covenant with God, Abram fell into a deep sleep and God alone passed between the animal pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and all the people of God. On that day God’s promise of blessing, favor and forgiveness, no matter what, was made, and on that day the curse fell upon God Himself, and God alone.
On the Cross, the curse that we deserve fell upon Jesus, on God Himself, and God alone. The curse for our unrighteousness was taken on by Jesus and in return we have received the righteousness of God. This is the scandal of the Gospel, it’s the Gospel message itself, That God keeps his promises, even and especially when we don’t. That two thousand years ago Jesus died for you, so that today, the right life and the righteousness of God have been freely given to you and to me.