David A. Davis
August 7, 2022
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“And Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” God reckoned it to him as righteousness. The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians quotes the verse from Genesis. “Just as Abraham ‘believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ so those who believe are the descendants of Abraham.” Paul also quotes the same verse in Romans. “We say, ‘faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.’ How then was it reckoned to him?” The Apostle Paul drops in both citations in his argument regarding the fundamental affirmation of salvation by grace through faith. “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 the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification’. Romans 4:24-25. Reckoned to Abraham. Reckoned to us.
The language from Genesis is also quoted in the Book of James and in his argument that faith without works is dead. “Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the alter? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says ‘Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’ and he was called a friend of God.” The Apostle Paul, the Book of James and the reckoning of God. “And Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” When it comes to the canon of scripture one has to conclude that this is all pretty important: Abraham, the Lord, and the reckoning of righteousness. The challenge for “those of us who believe”, the perplexity that arises when it comes to divine reckoning is that it’s not all that clear what it even means. The meaning of “reckoned it to him righteousness”, I reckon it’s just not all that obvious.
The etymology of the word “reckon” in Hebrew and in Greek and in English for that matter, has connotations of money, accounting, credit. “Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord credited it to him or counted it to him as righteousness.” That’s how some other versions translate it. Such a transactional implication of the term does provide any sudden insight or shine a clear light on what it all means in terms of the Lord and Abraham, the future God has in store for Abraham and Sarah. God’s future for the people of God.
The call of Abraham and the promise of God begins a few chapters earlier in Genesis. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” In this morning’s text the Lord comes back to Abram to reiterate the promise in response to Abram’s reasonable concern that he and Sarai have no children and are very old. Because they had no children, Abram had steps to have Eliezer, a servant in the house, become his heir. The Lord took exception to plan B. That’s when the Lord took Abram outside to look at the stars. “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them…so shall your descendants be.”
Who among us has not found themselves taken by the beauty of a clear night sky especially far from the ambient light of populated places: a visit to the beach at night, a rocky chair on a porch in the mountains, the youth group above the tree line on the trip a few weeks ago. You have to figure, however, that this was not Abram’s first time to look up at a desert night sky. Or even his first time to try to count the stars in the sky. Here is where many preachers and biblical commentators point to Abram having a Psalm 8 kind of experience. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the starts that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” A moment of awe and wonder and praise and adoration out under the vast canopy of the desert night sky certainly seems relatable, something with which you and I can identify in the life of faith. But a turn on a dime, no faith to all faith, no belief to full belief not just in the twinkling of an eye but in the twinkle of star, that all seems less convincing. That with a brief Moses and the burning bush-like exchange with God and a great photo-op of the night sky Abram went from 0 to 100 when it came to the promise of God just like that!
Which brings us back to when the Lord reckons. When writing about this seminal passage in the Abraham and Sarah narrative, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann concludes that at the end of the day “the new reality of faith for Abraham must be accounted as miracle from God. The faith of Abraham should not be understood in romantic fashion as an achievement or as a moral decision.” In other words, Abraham’s belief is nothing other than a gift of God. Therefore, any righteousness attributed to, credited to, accounted to Abraham is likewise a gift of God. God doesn’t simply acknowledge the righteousness of Abraham in believing. God doesn’t simply give Abram a credit slip of righteousness because of his sudden faith. God bestows righteousness upon Abram just as God filled Abram with faith. And in the unfolding story of Abraham and Sarah, righteousness is not simply piety or even simply belief, according to Brueggemann. Righteousness, in the professor’s words, “means to trust God’s future and to live assured of that future even in the deathly present… Faith responds to an already given grace. This faith is not simply an embrace of the goodness which meets us in the world, but a reception of the goodness of God promised in spite of the way the world is. The faith of Abraham is not in anything he sees in the world, but in a word which will overcome the barrenness of the world.” Abraham’s faith did not come in a shining star it came from and with the promise of God.
Both belief and righteousness, belief and trust in God’s future for us and for the world, both are gifts of God. Miraculous gifts. When the Lord bestows that two-fold, two-part, double-stacked gift? Well, that is the Lord’s reckoning. Far beyond the dictionary meaning of the word or any connotation that the Lord rewarded some kind of decision of faith in Abraham with righteousness, “reckoning” means the unilateral movement of God to instill both belief and the trust in God’s future in the heart, soul, and mind of God’s children. The day of reckoning, then, is less about coming before God in final judgment and more about an experience of the renewed conviction that in Jesus Christ our best days are always yet to come. The Lord’s reckoning is far less than wrath and vengeance and much more the assurance that God’s future will indeed overcome the world’s death, barrenness, fear, and destruction that seems so relentless. Reckoning when it comes to God is way less than keeping score, living a life of credits and debits, balancing sin with piety and a lot more about the empowering, inspiring, encouraging grace of God that bestows and pairs belief and righteousness, faith and trust in the children of God who refuse to ever stop yearning for, praying for and working toward the world God intends.
Yes, at the end of the day looking at the beauty of a vast night sky in wonder and awe. But also looking at the world in all of its “fullness” with belief and trust that you and I and all the children of God and the real world we live in, we all still belong body and soul, in life and in death to the God we know in and through Jesus Christ. You, me and the future God has in store for us. As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you shall proclaim the Lord’s death, until he comes again. Until. Until. God’s future and the forward-leaning sending out of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Until. Until.
The Rev. David McAlpin, a friend and colleague of Nassau Church and so many hear for many, many years, died on Friday surrounded by his four children in his apartment at Stonebridge. The time will come to celebrate David’s lifetime of service to the church, his generosity, and his legacy especially right here in our community. As I sat with David’s children in the hours before God brought him home, one of his daughters asked me to share a few of my own thoughts and memories of David. I shared some and the last one I mentioned is how David’s lifelong and unwavering commitment to social justice and racial reconciliation inspired me. No one spent more years or had a deeper commitment to or believed in the importance of the relationship of Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church and Nassau Presbyterian Church than David McAlpin. I told the family that I found encouragement and inspiration in his steadfast commitment to racial reconciliation especially when I tried to ponder the often subtle behind-the-scenes work he did in light of the 50s, the 60s, the 70’s, the 80s. the 90’s and the decades of this century.
They then told me something I didn’t know. That David attended the 1963 March on Washington with the pastor of Witherspoon at the time and he listened to Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream Speech” in person. One of his daughters once asked him to describe what it was like. He told her that Dr. King began in a very understated, subdued way. The crowd matched that spirit and tone in the beginning, and it felt almost somber and weighty. But as Dr. King got into the sermon and pick up the pace and the energy with all the oratorical flourish that most of us have only heard on recordings, David said it was like the entire crowd was lifted to another level in life and spirit, another place, another world. “It was right then and there,” he told his daughter, “that I knew my life would forever be committed to racial justice.” It was like on that day in August of 1963, the Lord reckoned David McAlpin with a faith and a trust that enabled and inspired him to witness and to work for the next almost 60 years toward the future God intends for the world and for all God’ children.
Now I know what it means… “when the Lord reckons”.