Years ago, in the midst of a busy morning, my administrative assistant buzzed me to say, “A Charlotte Observer reporter is on the line. He wants to talk to you.” I picked up the receiver and the reporter said, “Dr. Kremer, explain to me the Christian understanding of Abraham.” We talked about twenty minutes, but he printed only the first sentence that I offered him. “Sir,” I said, “Abraham was a pioneer.”
A pioneer of what? Of the graciousness of God – of the honesty of God – of the goodness of God – of the trustworthiness of God – of the extravagance of God. God said to Abraham, ‘I call you to be a pioneer of an unseen, unknown, unexplored Promised Land, a land of milk and honey. I promise to make of you a great nation. I promise to make of your people a royal family, through whom every family on earth shall be blessed. You shall have property, power, prestige, progeny without number.’ Such were the extravagant promises of God to Abraham!
But these extravagant promises were not just to Abraham. Because we are the heirs of Abraham, the promises God makes unto us are every bit as extravagant as the ones made to Abraham. God promises humanity, “Though your sins be like scarlet, I will wash them white as snow.” God promises, “I will put the Kingdom of God within you, and those of you who believe in me, though you die, yet shall you live.” God promises, “I will create a clean heart in you.” God says, “From the moment you arise from the baptismal waters, I will begin making you a new creature.” God says to us, “I promise you abundant life and living water.” Do we ever pause to think about the extravagant promises that God makes unto us?
God said unto Abraham, “I promise I will make of you a great person. Do you believe that I can do it?” God says unto us, “Take up the cross of Christ and follow me, and I will make of you a great witness. Come unto me all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Do you believe that I can do it?” God asks, “Do you believe that I can make you an instrument of peace, an instrument of reconciliation, love and Good News. Do you believe that I can do that?” Great are the promises of God! But also extravagant are the demands of God.
God says to Abraham, “To enjoy the promises that I have made to you, you must abandon everything you know, abandon your kinfolks, leave the familiar, the community in which you were reared — you must strike your tents and leap out into the unknown.” Abraham proved up to the challenge. He hit the road. He endured famine. He trekked to Egypt, where he nearly lost his wife. He fought against four confederated kings and almost lost his life. He rescued his nephew Lot. He traveled around Palestine ceaselessly, remaining on pilgrimage for twenty years, twenty years of hardship, sacrifice and frustration. Yet after these twenty years, Abraham does not yet own a single plot of land, nor does he yet have the blessing of a single child. After twenty years of trusting God and hoping that God’s extravagant promises will come true, and seeing no dream come to fruition, doubt swells up within Abraham and he cries out, “God, are your promises really believable? I continue to see none of my ambitions realized. I have a slave born in my house who is going to be my heir! Are your extravagant promises to me really trustworthy?”
God replies to Abraham, “Go out of your tent.” God shows Abraham a glittering Middle Eastern night, a sky of stars innumerable. God says to him: “Abraham, your descendants will be more numerous that those innumerable stars.” God repeats God’s extravagant promises. But in his heart Abraham says, “I’ll settle for just one child who is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” Abraham, who has been chasing a divine dream for twenty years without experiencing satisfaction, who is struggling to hold to hope, nevertheless says, “Lord, I trust you as friend with friend. Despite my doubts, my fears, and my ceaseless frustration, I believe you are trustworthy.” The Scriptures say, “His trust was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Extravagant are the promises of God. Extravagant are God’s demands! I think of C. S. Lewis, riding atop an open-air bus, struggling with whether to yield to the call of Christ or not, knowing that his only wish has been not to be interfered with, to be the master of his own soul. Yet here was the insistent call of Christ, the extravagant demand of God, calling him to yield to a divine summons. Lewis knew that his own virtue was so mild and moderate that it would never call him to do anything truly sacrificial or painful. Lewis wondered, “Will God let me live within the comfortable parameters that I myself have established?” Lewis knew the answer was No. The Lion of God was not a tame Lion! The extravagant God would be extravagant in demand! Lewis noted that one phrase had been pulsing in his mind all day, “All or nothing. All or nothing. All or nothing.” Now he only heard the insistent call of God and reduced that divine demand to one word: “All. All. All. All.” Lewis knew that God wanted his everything! Lewis breathed the prayer, ‘Alright; you have my all. You have my life.’ Lewis wrote, “I knew I had to take an absolute leap in the dark.”
Extravagant are the promises of God. Extravagant are God’s demands. God demands our all! And yet, even when we give God our all, that does not mean our characters are instantly perfected. Abraham is truly our forefather in many ways, our spiritual pioneer. Abraham is by no means a perfect believer. He doubts. He despairs. He lies. He practices deceit. Abraham has lots of warts in his character. And yet, having failed to prove himself worthy of the extravagant promises of God, Abraham finally realizes that all that matters is that he trusts God as friend with friend. He realizes that God in God’s nature is gracious. Abraham realizes that he does not have to make himself acceptable to God. God has already accepted him! All Abraham has to do is accept God’s acceptance of him. When you trust God as friend with friend, none of your warts matter; none of your character flaws separate you from God. All of our shortcomings are eclipsed by God’s gracious acceptance of us. Extravagant are the promises of God. Extravagant are the demands of God. But also extravagant is the grace of God.
Over fifteen hundred years after Abraham came a firebrand Pharisee named Saul who also tried to make himself acceptable to God, who tried to live up to the rigor of the Law, and reaped for all of his efforts, nothing but a harvest of pain, frustration, anger and self-loathing. In an act of severe mercy, Christ stymied Saul on the road to Damascus and gifted him with the prospect of a new life, serving as an apostle to the Gentiles on behalf of Christ. Even so, Saul who becomes Paul cannot help but cry out, “Wretched man that I am, who can deliver me from this body of death?” His answer is one wondrous truth: “There is no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ.” No condemnation! God by nature is extravagantly gracious. Paul stumbles into the formula of Abraham, realizing that God in God’s nature is gracious, and God has already accepted him; all he must do is accept God’s acceptance of him.
Fifteen hundred years after Paul came a pious young monk, also striving to make himself worthy unto God, and also, like Paul, only finding his efforts rewarded with fear, frustration and self-loathing. But like Paul, who stumbled into the formula of Abraham, Martin Luther stumbled into the formula of Paul, realizing, “The righteous shall live by faith.” And when the entire weight of church hierarchy was brought to bear upon Luther, calling upon him to surrender this liberating insight, he declared, “Unless I can be convinced by Scripture and by reason that I am wrong, here I stand, so help me God. I can do no other!” Luther discovered the extravagant grace of God as he sought to understand the extravagant promises of God.
Extravagant are God’s promises. Extravagant are God’s demands. Extravagant is God’s grace. But the only way we can truly comprehend God’s extravagance is by living extravagant lives of faith. I remind you that every aspect of the Christian life is couched in paradox. You want to find yourself? Then lose yourself in the service of Christ. You want to become truly rich? Then invest your time and talents serving the Kingdom of God. You want to live a purer life? Then live fully aware of your impurity and cast yourself more absolutely upon God’s cleansing grace. You want to fathom the grace of God? Then live with an attitude of compassion and forgiveness not only toward those who have wronged you, but also toward those whose perspective you do not understand, those whose world view is completely different from yours. You want to be complete? Then give yourself away in the service of those in need. You want to be free? Then submerge your life within the community of faith, and there you will find freedom. Every aspect of the Christian life, the extravagant promises of God, are only plumbed when we practice the paradoxical faith that defines the Christian approach to existence.
One of Christianity’s most distinctive and incisive figures was the theologian and philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who had a strange dream where he envisioned the great Reformer Martin Luther rising from the grave and coming into his study to ask him, “Sir, do you really have faith?” Kierkegaard said, “Yes, I have faith.” Luther asked, “How do you know? Faith is meant to disturb your being. I find very little disturbance in your life. In what disturbing ways do you battle for truth against untruth? What persecutions have you endured in the confrontation between good and evil?” We are all called to be pioneers, to leave our comfort zone and strike out spiritually for the realm of the unknown. We are called to be pioneers who stretch ourselves to strive for the Promised Land we have not yet seen, have not yet explored, have not yet understood or comprehended. We are called to leave our comfort zone of faith and be willing to take a leap of faith into the new life that God has prepared for us and to which God summons us.
Many of us, like Abraham, have labored long and hard, yet have not found our ambitions coming to fruition, and so we cry out, ‘Where are you, God?’ Others of us have realized our ambitions but still suffer an enervating insecurity, so we, too, cry out, ‘Where are you, God?’ What we have to understand and appropriate is the truth that ultimately we must all stumble into the formula of Abraham, which is the formula of Paul, which is the formula of Luther: we have to trust God as friend with friend. For when we trust God as we would trust our best friend, then our doubts dissipate, and our relationship with the divine grows stronger, regardless of circumstance.
Some of you would know of the famed Harry Houdini, the incomparable escape artist. Late in his life, Houdini was asked to name the moment of which he was proudest. Houdini, who had thrilled crowds around the world for decades, pointed to a moment early in his career, when his reputation was just blossoming. He had wanted somehow to express his depth of gratitude to his mother, who had warmly encouraged him, wanted to say “Thank you, mom, for the impact your extravagant love has had on me.” But by now she was old and infirm, and there was little that might delight her. But she did love gold. So when some well-heeled businessman hired him for a show, Houdini said that he wanted only a thousand dollars in pay – but he wanted to be paid in gold pieces. After the show was over, he lugged those gold coins to his mom’s little room and began to pour out that extravagant bounty onto her bed in a shower of gold, until her face broke into radiant joy. Harry Houdini said, without a doubt, that was the proudest moment of his life.
So, too, God has showered golden promises upon us. These golden promises should create in us a beaming joy, and that joy should take the form of a courageous gratitude that spurs us to leave our familiar and comfortable faith and stretch ourselves to strive for a Promised Land that as yet remains unexplored. Such is the extravagance of God. And such is the only way that we will ever fully appreciate it.