Abram

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.

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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.