Abraham

Think About the Future

Romans 4:13-25 (NLT)

Clearly, God’s promise to give the whole earth to Abraham and his descendants was based not on his obedience to God’s law, but on a right relationship with God that comes by faith. If God’s promise is only for those who obey the law, then faith is not necessary and the promise is pointless. For the law always brings punishment on those who try to obey it. (The only way to avoid breaking the law is to have no law to break!)

So the promise is received by faith. It is given as a free gift. And we are all certain to receive it, whether or not we live according to the law of Moses, if we have faith like Abraham’s. For Abraham is the father of all who believe. That is what the Scriptures mean when God told him, “I have made you the father of many nations.” This happened because Abraham believed in the God who brings the dead back to life and who creates new things out of nothing.

Even when there was no reason for hope, Abraham kept hoping—believing that he would become the father of many nations. For God had said to him, “That’s how many descendants you will have!” And Abraham’s faith did not weaken, even though, at about 100 years of age, he figured his body was as good as dead—and so was Sarah’s womb.

Abraham never wavered in believing God’s promise. In fact, his faith grew stronger, and in this he brought glory to God. He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever he promises. And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous. And when God counted him as righteous, it wasn’t just for Abraham’s benefit. It was recorded for our benefit, too, assuring us that God will also count us as righteous if we believe in him, the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God.


If you engaged with last week’s sermon, you’ll notice that Paul this week simply continues to discuss Abraham and the nature of faith. I want to focus on a particular idea Paul raises, the importance of hope as an attitude to bolster our faith.

I’m liable to sound a little like a self-help guru today, but frankly, the ones I’ve heard simply repackage ancient concepts found in the Bible, enriching themselves in the process. That’s between the self-help gurus and God, I suppose. Maybe I’m just jealous—I could’ve been rich, if only I were better looking and not feeling bound to give credit where credit is due.

Let’s try a little exercise. I’m going to say a phrase and then we will pause for a few seconds. Here we go: Think about the future.

So, did you get a generally warm, happy feeling, or did you find yourself growing a little anxious? When it comes to the future, are you bullish or bearish?

Some of you felt a twinge of anxiety or fear, and that’s normal. We can always find reasons to be a little anxious. Bad things happen to good people. It’s a fact of life we all learn at a fairly early age.

Whether we let that anxiety control us says a lot about how much hope we carry in our hearts, however. And again, as Paul is telling us, hope and faith are intricately linked. At times, they seem to me to be almost indistinguishable.

Abraham had hope because he had heard from God and kept hearing from God. God was saying to Abraham, I know you’re really old and you don’t have any children by your wife. I promise you, you will. And from that child will come uncountable descendants, and blessings on the whole world.

As we discussed last week, Abraham sometimes struggled with how to move forward in life, but his faith grew even as he made mistakes. He had hope for the future, a future beyond his very long life, and his hope grew stronger as God slowly began the fulfillment of the promises.

He saw those promises fulfilled to the point where he was able to die a happy and confident man, having lived a “long and satisfying life” (Genesis 25:7). He was one who knew God would, in some mysterious way, care for him and his offspring forever.

If you’ll allow me, I also would ask you to think about something else. Think about the promises God has made us. I’m speaking to you as believers, of course—we who call ourselves Christians have accepted as valid and trustworthy these promises I want you to consider.

We are promised that death ultimately is meaningless. Death had great power over us, but Jesus broke that power when he died on the cross. We no longer slam into death and stop. We pass through death, it reduced to a thin veil, and we move on to eternal life with Christ.

We are promised that healing and holiness are available to us now. We are not simply afterlife gazers, people biding our time for a reward to come. We know that a life in Christ means this life, now.

Sure, we remain broken. We struggle, like old Abraham did. We slip and we sin. We carry the pain of wrongs done to us. But the more we engage with God, the more we are changed in this life. We are allowed to taste holiness and heaven now. That means the days ahead in this life should be brighter than the days behind us.

We are promised that the pain and suffering we already have experienced will be put away, reversed, healed in full. This is maybe the most mysterious promise of all, but it certainly should give us great hope. Those terrible events that have happened or may happen will not have everlasting effects. Somehow, God will make even the worst tragedies temporary ones.

“He will wipe every tear from their eyes,” Revelation 21 tells us, “and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

See a bright future before you, Christians. Live as people with an unending future, and let hope and joy into your present lives, strengthening your faith.

Family of Faith

Romans 4:1-12 (NLT)

Abraham was, humanly speaking, the founder of our Jewish nation. What did he discover about being made right with God? If his good deeds had made him acceptable to God, he would have had something to boast about. But that was not God’s way. For the Scriptures tell us, “Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.”

When people work, their wages are not a gift, but something they have earned. But people are counted as righteous, not because of their work, but because of their faith in God who forgives sinners. David also spoke of this when he described the happiness of those who are declared righteous without working for it:

“Oh, what joy for those
   whose disobedience is forgiven,
   whose sins are put out of sight.
Yes, what joy for those
   whose record the Lord has cleared of sin.”


Now, is this blessing only for the Jews, or is it also for uncircumcised Gentiles? Well, we have been saying that Abraham was counted as righteous by God because of his faith. But how did this happen? Was he counted as righteous only after he was circumcised, or was it before he was circumcised? Clearly, God accepted Abraham before he was circumcised!

Circumcision was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous—even before he was circumcised. So Abraham is the spiritual father of those who have faith but have not been circumcised. They are counted as righteous because of their faith. And Abraham is also the spiritual father of those who have been circumcised, but only if they have the same kind of faith Abraham had before he was circumcised.


Not many of us here today would claim to have Jewish blood, but we are invited to be a part of Abraham’s family, Paul tells us. We are made family not by blood, but by faith.

When we hear we are to have faith like Abraham, however, the idea can sound a bit daunting. After all, Abraham, called “Abram” early in his story in Genesis until God changes his name, is one of the great characters of the Bible. He lived to be 175, and is critical to the backstories of three major religions on the planet, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

When we look closely at the stories of Abraham in Genesis, however, we actually should find hope. I sometimes get the sense that people who don’t read the Bible have the impression it is about people who were impossibly perfect, maintaining standards of piety we could never hope to achieve. But those of us who read it regularly know differently—the Old Testament and the New Testament consistently tell tales of people failing repeatedly as they learn to trust God.

Let’s look at three places in Abraham’s story that help us see this truth more clearly.

Did the Father Fail?

It may be that Abraham is considered a great patriarch of the Bible in part because his father, Terah, failed to follow through on his own calling. This prequel to Abraham’s story is sparing in detail, but Genesis 11:31-32 says Terah was first to head toward the Promised Land.

For unknown reasons, he instead pulled up short in a place called Haran.

Once Terah had died, God told Abraham to finish the journey. We can never be certain Abraham ultimately finished a task his father was first called by God to complete, but it’s not difficult to read such a possibility between the lines of Terah’s story.

If so, struggling with how much to trust God was a family problem. Abraham’s son and grandson, Isaac and Jacob, certainly continued the tradition themselves.

Really, She’s My Sister!

In Genesis 12, we see Abraham appear weak-kneed in the face of adversity for the first time, and this not long after God had promised him that his descendants would be a great nation, and that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him.

Shortly after entering Canaan, a great famine struck, forcing Abraham and all of his relatives to go to Egypt. While there, he became concerned the Egyptians would kill him in order to take his very beautiful wife. His wife was about 65 at the time, but people seem to age at a different rate in these stories, living much longer than we do now.

Rather than trusting in the promises he had recently heard from God, his solution was to lie, telling his wife to say she was his sister. It was sort of a half-lie, or maybe a lie of omission—we learn later in Genesis she actually was his half-sister. Pharaoh himself was the one who wanted her, but he sent her back to Abraham in haste when plagues struck his household and he realized the deceit that had occurred.

Even then, Pharaoh didn’t kill Abraham, but instead sent him away enriched. We can presume Pharaoh feared offending God further. But still, none of Abraham’s plotting seems appropriate for a man of great faith.

My Two Sons

As the narrative of Abraham proceeds, God makes more promises regarding descendants, but Abraham continues to hedge his bets. His unwillingness to let God be fully in control led to the whole Hagar incident. Remember that one?

Now about 75, Sarah figured there was no way she was going to be able to have a baby, so she convinced Abraham to instead make one with her servant, Hagar. Ultimately, Ishmael was born, and if you’ve ever heard the story in Genesis 16, you know that nothing but jealousy and trouble ensued.

Faith as a Process

These stories show us Abraham wasn’t born faithful. God went so far as to speak great promises to him, visibly showing up and sending angels his way. And yet, Abraham often fell short when it came time to demonstrate he believed God would always take care of him and his descendants.

All of those earlier failures bring a particular poignancy to the story where we do see Abraham demonstrate great faith. He finally had the son he had always wanted from Sarah, Isaac, a miracle boy, born to a 90-year-old mother and a 100-year-old father.

Befitting its time, the story is Bronze Age primitive. In Genesis 22, God tells Abraham, take your son Isaac and sacrifice him. Lay him on an altar, slaughter him and burn him up. And this time, Abraham, didn’t connive. He took no half measures. Horrible as it seemed, he was ready to do it, stopped only by the intervention of an angel at the very last second. This is the moment when God recognized Abraham as being truly faithful.

Yes, Paul says we have to have faith like Abraham to be part of his spiritual family. As Christians, we have to have faith that the promises made to Abraham ultimately are fulfilled in the world through Jesus Christ. We are to have faith that Christ’s death on the cross is enough. All who believe are incorporated into that spiritual family God will care for forever.

We may not have a powerful faith all at once, however. Remember, Paul knew these stories of Abraham well. He knew the story of Abraham’s faith is a story of falling short in behavior and of trying again. When we doubt or connive, we are very much like Abraham sometimes was well up to age 100.

How do we grow in faith? We try to be more conscious every day of our need to trust God’s plan for the world, a plan being brought to fruition by the work of Christ. We act in faith, trusting God’s scriptural guidance even when our actions may scare us a little, or a lot.

I’m reminded of another story, one of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. After failing as a missionary in North America, he returned to England with his tail between his legs. Despite being an ordained Anglican priest, he realized his faith was somewhere between weak and nonexistent.

He asked a Moravian missionary friend of his, Peter Boehler, if he should give up preaching altogether. Certainly not, Boehler told him. Instead, his advice was, “Preach faith until you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

Most of you don’t literally preach from a pulpit, but if you’re struggling in matters of faith, the principle remains the same. Live each day as if you have faith. Make decisions as if you believe God is on your side, that the cross matters, and that Christ’s kingdom grows stronger each day.

Eventually, you will have a powerful, indefatigable faith, and because you have it, you will show it to others, drawing them to a life of faith, too.


The Featured image is Phillip Medhurst’s “Abraham and the Angels,” circa 1795.

A Most Dangerous Sermon

In the seventh chapter of Acts, we hear the kind of sermon that can get a preacher killed.

A little background on the first Christian martyr: Stephen’s job was to handle more mundane tasks so others would have time to preach. His job was to ensure food was distributed fairly among the church’s needy. And yet, the Holy Spirit had a firm grip on him, working “wonders and signs among the people” as Stephen went about his tasks. In Christ’s kingdom, there are no small jobs.

Despite being primarily a broker of bread, Stephen quickly ended up before a council of Jewish synagogue leaders to answer for his miracles and his declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. When asked by the high priest, “Are these things so,” Stephen seized the moment.

I would encourage you to read Acts 7 in its entirety. It is a powerful sermon, one in which the preacher is fully aware of his listeners and their blind spots. In short, Stephen:

  • Started with the story of Abraham, reminding these Jews of how their history was rooted in great faithfulness, a long-term trust that God keeps his promises.
  • Moved on to how the Israelites ended up in Egypt, rescued there from hunger by God’s servant Joseph and slavery by God’s servant Moses, with God’s faithfulness demonstrated across the centuries.
  • Continued with how unfaithful the Israelites were in the desert, causing them to wander for 40 years, until finally a new generation was able to enter the Holy Land and take it from unholy people. Stephen then reminded these Jews of how the Israelites became a great nation, this part of his sermon seeming to peak with Solomon’s construction of a “dwelling place” for God, the temple in Jerusalem.

Throughout this sermon, a man in charge of a first-century Meals on Wheels program kept reminding powerful leaders that their history taught them one was to come who would bring all of God’s promises to fruition. Then the sermon got personal.

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do,” Stephen said. “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.”

Talk about getting right to the point, a point the Jews were not willing to accept. The Jews rushed Stephen and stoned him to death, but not before he declared a vision of heaven, one in which Jesus stood at the right hand of God.

One would almost think Stephen was suicidal, except for a fact Scripture makes clear. Stephen was in full communion with God’s Spirit, letting God guide him every step of the way and word-by-word in his sermon. Because of that, I also have to assume there was a genuine opportunity for this audience to understand Jesus to be their messiah.

I’m left a little disturbed by this story. How can so many American Christians be hesitant to speak openly of our faith? Any repercussions we may face are, at worst, mild in comparison to being stoned to death. Are we really that disconnected from the Spirit?

And at the same time, I’m encouraged. In Stephen’s story, we see that a deep relationship with God can give us the strength to do remarkable work, even while executing church tasks that may seem incredibly mundane. Somebody’s got to cook and deliver the food; somebody’s got to drive the bus; somebody’s got to trim the hedges; somebody’s got to clear the septic lines when they clog. The key is to be alert for opportunities to declare Jesus Christ Lord and Savior when doing these things.

Walk with God. Be ready, be willing, and the Holy Spirit will do the rest.

 

Simple Act of Faith

In this Lenten season, we’ll call this “Back to Basics Day.” Let’s begin by considering exactly what Abram (later to be called Abraham) gave up when he listened to God and moved toward an unspecified land.

This initial call in Genesis 12:1-4 is written in a rather matter-of-fact tone, but the risk must have seemed huge for an aging man. He had property and people around him, including slaves, the mark of a comfortable, wealthy man. We don’t know how long Abram had been in Haran—we only know his father Terah had moved the family from far-away Ur some time earlier—but as the family had been able to grow their wealth while there, we can assume life in Haran had been good to them.

Now Abram was to pack his family and possessions and make a journey that ultimately would prove to be more than 500 miles, about the same distance as the drive from Kingsport, Tenn., to Jacksonville, Fla. Except they had no cars. For them, it was a dangerous month-long one-way trip, assuming the animals in their caravan were in good shape. A return visit to Haran or the true family homeplace, Ur, might be a once-in-a-lifetime event, perhaps when someone needed a bride of proper bloodlines.

And yet, Abram went, without question, without comment. He would have questions later, but not in this initial act of faith, this huge, trusting leap toward God.

It’s easy to get caught up in what Abram did rather than focusing on the importance of what was simply in his heart. The Apostle Paul uses Abram in the fourth chapter of Romans to illustrate that it’s the trust that saves us, not any work we do. When God sees we trust him, he goes ahead and calls us righteous, even though we don’t deserve it. Paul made clear he was talking about the God we know best through Jesus Christ, the one who made all things and then restored all things to holiness despite sin.

All we have to do is believe the God who promised all the families of the earth would be blessed through Abram ultimately walked among us as Jesus Christ, working great mysteries on the cross so we do not have to die forever. I know, I just leaped across hundreds of pages of Scripture to make that connection, but it’s the connection the Bible, Old and New Testaments, strives to make. Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of that initial, broad promise offered to Abram, a promise grand enough to set a very comfortable man and his people to packing.

So, we’re invited to a simple act of faith. But at the same time, we’re also called to remember that it’s so simple it can be confusing, particularly for the uninitiated. When we’ve turned away from God and are caught up in sin, we feel like we’re trapped in that Harry Potter hedge maze, the one where the turns and dead-ends seem endless and the roots and branches grab at us. We have to figure the maze out, right? To survive, we have to beat back what entangles us, right?

Wrong. All we really have to do is look up and say, “Lord Jesus, I believe you can pluck me out of this.”

In the third chapter of John’s gospel, we see the Pharisee Nicodemus desperately wanting to follow Jesus, but at the same time struggling in his rigid, legalistic mind with how to do so. Accept what is from above, Jesus told him. Trust God. Trust God’s love for his creation.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” Jesus said. And then came the real kicker, particularly for a legalist striving to make himself righteous: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

What, God doesn’t seek to punish us first? I don’t have to clean up my act to accept God’s gift of salvation?

We have Nicodemus types around us, perhaps even among us. They want to make that first step toward God much more difficult than it is, trying to resolve personal angst and the global problem of evil in one fell swoop. Often, they expect a requirement to crawl at least halfway back toward the one they’ve offended before being accepted.

As Christians, our job is to keep simple what can be misunderstood as complicated. The God of Abraham, the God who walked among us and died for our sins, loves us. He’s been reaching down to humanity for thousands of years and continues to do so today.

Sure, once we accept God’s offer, there’s more to do. It’s only natural that we want a developing, continuing relationship with the one who gives us eternal life in place of death. We pray, we study, we joyfully respond to his simple requests, the first being, “Go and tell others.”

That initial act of accepting God’s outstretched hand remains simple, however.

May Such Be Done to Me

Genesis 15:1-21

Father Abraham—at this point in the story, simply Abram—is remembered as the archetype of the faithful man. It’s good to know, however, that even our best examples have moments of doubt and insecurity.

It’s also good to know just how far God is willing to go to reassure the faithful when they waver.

A Starry Promise

Abram already had heard powerful promises from God and had seen God work in mighty ways. But like so many of us, Abram seems to have allowed his doubts to creep up on him in the night.

Specifically, God had promised Abram numerous descendants, despite the advanced ages he and his wife had reached without having children. So God led Abram into a vision, one that begins with the words, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

With that powerful assurance, Abram felt secure enough to pour out his confusion and fear to God. Abram complained a household slave seemed to be his only possible human heir. Abram still had not held a son of his own despite following God’s lead in every way.

Rather than chastising Abram for wavering, God restated his promise in a powerfully visual way. Leading Abram out into the desert night, God showed Abram a clear sky studded with twinkling points of light, the Milky Way ribbon twisting among them. God told the fearful man, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.”

It was enough, we are told. Abram believed. God saw Abram as righteous because of his renewed faith. We see that God doesn’t condemn our wavering minds if we’re willing to take our doubts to him.

That story of a starry night reminds me of a time when I was wavering, unsure of the call into ministry I felt I was hearing. I was on a work-related trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands. I also was trying to decide whether to leave my public relations career, uproot my family and go to seminary.

I stood on a beach in the dead of the night, the sky brilliant with stars. “God,” I said, “I could use some kind of a sign—anything.” At that moment, a shooting star streaked across the sky.

I also remember thinking, “God, I’m not sure what that means.” I was wavering that much. But I did sense God was with me, and the experience helped me better trust my own seemingly illogical desires.

I’ve learned to seek and welcome those little moments of reassurance in the night. Often, they come after the anxiety that follows failure or confusion. Sometimes they’re vivid, like a shooting star. Other times, they are soft, like a whispered word. They are always a comfort, however, and they leave me anticipating the sunrise.

A Morning of Renewal

We don’t talk much about the morning after Abram’s vision. That’s because the Bible doesn’t tell us any real details about it. The morning is implied, however. We’ve witnessed a night scene, and the next scene happens in broad daylight, before sunset.

It’s good as we read this story to slow down a little and imagine what it must have been like to awaken from such a vision. Thanks to God, despair had found repair and turned into strength. That morning must have seemed like a great gift, an opportunity to begin again with a sense of purpose and trust in God.

I doubt if Abram thought he needed much else from God that morning. Biblical visions seem to be powerful moments for their recipients, events more real than everyday life. The blur of a normal day will wear down the sharp reality of a vision, but the dulling effect usually takes awhile.

There was no opportunity, however, for a regular day to dull Abram’s vision. When God begins pouring out grace, it often comes in surprisingly large doses. At some point in what I imagine to be a blissful day, God showed up again, this time with a connected promise about the land Abram’s descendants would possess.

A Night of Covenant

The language and imagery God used would have been familiar to Abram, employing structures similar to human covenants of the Ancient Near East, intense promises binding the parties for life.

While the sun was still up, God told Abram to take a heifer, a goat and a ram and cut them in two, laying the opposing pieces so someone could walk between them. A turtledove and a pigeon completed the bloody walkway’s borders. It was gruesome work; Abram had to drive away the vultures until the sun set.

As it grew dark, the eerie arrangement communicated a primitive, clear message for anyone entering a covenant. A party to an agreement, by walking between the pieces, was saying, “If I break this covenant, may such be done to me.” In Abram’s day, if the agreement was between two people of unequal power—say, a farmer and a king—the weaker party might have to make the walk alone.

Abram must have wondered when God would ask him to walk the walk.

The Firepot and the Torch

The Firepot and the Torch

But instead, something strange happened. After sunset, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch appeared and passed between the pieces. It was not Abram who made the walk. It was the all-powerful creator of the universe, the one in control of all things, who said, “May such be done to me.”

Obviously, it’s not the kind of promise God had to make. It was, however, a remarkable message about how much our creator loves us. His desire to reassure us as he draws us back into a relationship despite our sin is stronger than we can imagine.

Another Blood-Soaked Walk

God’s walk between the bloody carcasses prefigured another walk he did not have to make: the walk to Calvary, to the cross. To fulfill all his promises to Abram—in particular, the promise that Abram’s descendants would bless the whole world—God came among us as Jesus Christ.

There is no way we, in our sinful states, could demand such humility from God. God chose to suppress his infinite strength and masquerade as weak and broken solely for our benefit. In the process, death vented its full wrath where it had no right to do so, and its power was broken.

In other words, there were terrors that should have been visited on us for our sins. But God said, “May such be done to me, instead.”

Through God’s unmerited love, we are both saved and reassured.