God’s faithfulness, and Abram’s (Gen. 15.1-6) [Sermon 09-18-2016]

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September 16, 2016 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, September 18, 2016. Texts are Genesis 15.1-6 and Luke 3.8.

An audio link is embedded below for those who would rather listen.


Doctrine of election 101

Last week, our story ended with the first humans leaving their home in the garden of Eden. God drove them out because of their disobedience. The man we meet in our lesson today—Abram, later called Abraham—has also left his home. Not because of disobedience, but in obedience to God’s call.

The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.” (Gen. 12.1-2)

God invited Abram on a journey. He promised him an adventure filled with blessings. God called Abram to leave his home so that God could give him a new home. God called Abram to leave his family so that God could give him a great family of his own.

God wants to bless Abram with land and offspring—just as he had the first humans. This is a new chapter in God’s unfolding story. In the chapters between God expelling the first man and woman from the garden and God calling Abram to begin a new family in a new land, God has mostly been playing defense. Punishing sinners and putting down rebellions. Managed decline. Damage control. Calling Abram the most proactive thing God has done since creating the universe.

Why Abram? That’s a mystery. God’s sovereign choice. God’s freedom. Maybe even if we discovered God’s reasons, we’d find them quite dull. A better question is, What does God want to do with Abram? That we are told. He wants to bless Abram so that Abram can be a blessing to others. God tells Abram:

I will bless those who bless you,

    those who curse you I will curse;

        all the families of the earth

            will be blessed because of you. (Gen. 12.3)

Here’s the Doctrine of Election 101. Election is not God determining each individual’s eternal destiny—deciding for us before creation who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. There’s no such thing as a frozen chosen. God’s election is never just for the sake of the elect. He calls certain people to do certain things for the good of everyone else. What was true for Abraham and Israel is also true for Jesus and the church. Being God’s chosen is not work for self-centered people.

We see this model very clearly with Abram: God wants to give him a family who will be a blessing to all the families on the earth.

There’s only one hitch. The Genesis storyteller has already said that Abram’s wife Sarai—later Sarah—was unable to have children (Gen. 11.30). And it’s rather difficult to have a family—forget fathering a great nation—when your wife can’t even conceive.

God breaks his long silence

For years, Abram had gone about his life in the land God had led him to, Canaan. But God hadn’t spoken to him since he arrived there. God had told Abram: I give this land to your descendants (Gen. 12.7). Then there was silence. Years of deafening silence.

Do you ever get jealous of people in the Bible like Abram, who got personal visits and words from God about his specific will for their lives? I sometimes do, but then I remember that Abram hadn’t met Jesus yet. The saints in the Hebrew Bible got occasional visits from God, with years of stubborn silence in between. But we have the scriptures, with all their stories of God’s faithfulness to his saints and to all creation. We have God’s Spirit dwelling in and among us, who agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children (Rom. 8.16). We have Jesus, God-with-us, who has overcome sin and death and is our way home to our Father. And Jesus has promised us: Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age (Matt. 28.20). We have the assembly of the saints—the church—and Jesus dwells with us through the Spirit, and God’s love binds us together. I’ll take all of those over the occasional surprise visit from God with long, lonely stretches of silence in between. We have the better portion.

After several painfully silent years, one starry night God came to visit Abram again. In a vision, God said: Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your protector. Your reward will be very great. Abram had just returned from a battle. During a tribal skirmish, Abram’s nephew Lot had been taken prisoner of war. Abram had joined forces with Sodom’s king, and they had defeated the other tribal kings and rescued Lot and his family. At the end of the battle, Sodom’s king offered Abram a reward for his services: a legal stake in the land God had promised his family. But Abram refused the king’s reward.

If I had been in Abram’s position, I might have convinced myself that the king of Sodom’s offer of the land was how God meant me to take possession of it. How about you? I might have reasoned, God told me he would give this land to my people, and this king is offering me a share in it. Surely God wants me to take the land! But Abram knew that God didn’t mean for him to take the land as payment to a mercenary. So Abram resisted them temptation.

So one starry night shortly after Abram turned down the king’s reward, God came and told him: Your reward will be very great. God promises to reward Abram’s faithfulness. It would have been quite a tender moment. Except Abram doesn’t respond with gratitude. He complains! Lord God, what can you possibly give me, since I still have no children? The head of my household is Eliezer, a man from Damascus … Since you haven’t given me any children, the head of my household will be my heir.

Abram confronts God. What good is a reward if I have no children to inherit it? How can I trust this new promise when you still haven’t come trough on your first promise?

Abram hadn’t heard from God in a long time, and didn’t know when or if he’d ever meet God again. So while he had God there, he unloaded years of frustration and grief. All things considered, I don’t know that I would have had Abram’s restraint.

Abram’s faithfulness

Many people think that faith means never having any doubts. Never questioning God. And certainly not protesting and accusing God of not keeping his promises! But the Bible tells a very different story about human faithfulness. When you follow the unfolding drama of scripture, you find that being faithful doesn’t mean stoically accepting everything that happens to you. In the Bible, we meet Job who asked God pointed questions about why some suffer unjustly, while wicked people prosper. We overhear one of God’s prophets say: You pushed me into this, God, and I let you do it. You were too much for me. And now I’m a public joke (Jer. 20.7 MSG). Even God’s crucified Son Jesus died with a psalm of protest on his lips: My God! My God, why have you left me all alone? (Ps. 22.1) It’s the ones who are most faithful to God who question, who challenge, who protest, who press God for answers.

Whenever the faithful question or protest or demand answers from God, they are actually demonstrating great faith. They’re calling on God to be faithful to his own word. To be the God they already know he is: truthful, loving, just, and merciful.

That’s what Abram was doing in our lesson today. Abram trusted God enough to leave his home and family, to live as an outsider in a new land in his old age. He trusted God enough to refuse the offer of land from Sodom’s king, even though it was land God had already promised to his people. Last week we saw how the snake tempted the first humans to reach out and grab what God wanted to give them as a gift. This was precisely the same temptation the king of Sodom held out to Abram, and Abram resisted. Abram was faithful, where our first parents were faithless.

Abram has come along on a long, uncomfortable, dangerous adventure with God. He has remained true to God even when it cost him something. Now he wants to know: God, has my trust in you been in vain? Will you really do what you’ve promised? Can you?

And God is not offended. God understands. So he leads his friend Abram out of his tent, and tells Abram to gaze at the shimmering stars scattered like diamonds across the vast dark expanse of the heavens. Did Abram know that the God who spoke to him was the same God who’d hung all those stars? Probably not. Genesis 1 hadn’t been written yet. We know what Abram didn’t. As Abram’s eyes scanned the heavens, unable to take in all those stars, God told him: This is how many children you will have.

And the storyteller tells us that, gazing up at the stars and hearing God’s promise, Abram trusted the Lord, and the Lord recognized Abram’s high moral character. We aren’t told what switch flipped in Abram at that moment that made him take God at his word. Whatever went on in Abram’s heart is none of our business really. We only know that he chose to embrace God’s promise, even though everything in his life pointed in another direction. So the bond is deepened Abram and God. Abram sees God for who God really is; and God sees Abram for who Abram is. Abram trusts God, and God trusts Abram.

This is the story of Abram becoming a faithful friend to God.

Cutting the covenant

After that night, God visited Abram a bit more frequently. In fact, the next time he showed up was the very next verse after our lesson today ended. We aren’t specifically told that these are two separate visits from God. But the one we’ve just been looking at happened at night. The next visit begins during the day, and goes into the night. Who knows? It may have even been the very next day.

On this visit, God told Abram to, Bring me a three-year-old female calf, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a dove, and a young pigeon. Abram brought all these to God, and cut them all in half, except the birds. Then, after the sun set, Abram slept deeply. A terrifying and deep darkness settled over him (Gen. 15.9, 12).

And while Abram slept this deep, dark, terrifying sleep, a smoking vessel with a fiery flame passed between the split-open animals (Gen. 15.17). Like the cloud that went with Abram’s children Israel by day during the Exodus, and the fire by night. And this is what God said to Abram:

Have no doubt that your descendants will live as immigrants in a land that isn’t their own, where they will be oppressed slaves for four hundred years. But after I punish the nation they serve, they will leave it with great wealth. As for you, you will join your ancestors in peace and be buried after a good long life. (Gen. 15.13-15)

Cutting an animal in half and walking between the two halves was how covenants were made in the Ancient Near East. It was called cutting a covenant, because you literally cut in animals in half. When you walked between the two halves of the animal, you were agreeing to die if you didn’t uphold the covenant. You were saying, May I die like these animals if I’m not faithful to my promise. That’s why in Jer. 34.18, God says: I will make those who disregarded my covenant … like the calf they cut in two and then walked between the halves of its carcass.

But this night, when God cut his covenant with Abram, he didn’t make Abram walk between the halves. Only God did that. In effect, God is telling Abram: You want assurances about my promises and my plans? Here I am, walking between the halves. I’ve cut a covenant with you. I will give you children. I will give them this land. Your children will be a blessing to all the other families on the earth. I stake my life on this, Abram.

Never before had any god done anything like this for a human. Abram’s God, Israel’s God, Jesus’ God, and our God is the only God who has ever made a promise so bold, and so one-sided.

God has seen Abram’s faithfulness. And now Abram begins to see God’s faithfulness. Whoever heard of a God who will do anything to keep his promises—even die? That’s Abram’s God. That’s my God—and yours.

Next week, we’ll see God’s faithfulness to Abram at work. Because we’ll meet Abram’s great-grandchildren. But that’s next week’s story.

God’s faithfulness in Christ

In the meantime, sisters and brothers, we ought to know that God has included us in his promises and blessings to Abraham. Because God’s promise wasn’t just for Abraham. It wasn’t just for Abraham’s great-grandchildren who we’ll meet next week. And it wasn’t just for Israel when God finally settled them in Canaan, the land he had promised to Abraham. Remember, God promised Abraham that all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you (Gen. 12.3). That’s why in Rom. 4.13, Paul was bold enough to say that God promised to Abraham and to his descendants, that he would inherit the world.

Because the promises that God made to Abraham way back then came to rest on one of Abraham’s children in particular: Jesus the Messiah. God’s Word become flesh. Jesus is how God has blessed all the nations through Abraham, because God made him a light to the nations so that [God’s] salvation may reach to the end of the earth (Isa. 49.6). God welcomes all of us in Christ.

That’s what Paul meant when he wrote: The promises were made to Abraham and to his descendant … who is Christ; and, There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3.16, 28). No matter where you came from; what language you speak; who your ancestors were; what color your skin is; if you’re rich or poor; if you’re a man or a woman—if you’re in Christ, you’re included in God’s promise to Abraham. You are a sign of God’s faithfulness to Abraham. You’re included when Jesus says: there are many who will come from east and west and sit down to eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 8.11).

That means that when you go outside tonight; and you look up at the stars; you might remember what God promised Abraham one starry night: Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them … This is how many children you will have. And you can be sure that one of those stars represents you.

Because God is faithful.

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6 thoughts on “God’s faithfulness, and Abram’s (Gen. 15.1-6) [Sermon 09-18-2016]

  1. Xyhelm says:

    I’d love to see your list of Scriptures when people questioned/challenged/wrestled with God as Job and Abraham had done.

    • jmar198013 says:

      I don’t have a full list or anything. I’ve never been that systematic! (You’re probably better than that sort of thing than I am). But you definitely have all the lament psalms. One that I had been going to quote, but cut out due to time constraints (along with other edits) was Habakkuk 1.2: “LORD, how long will I call for help and you not listen? I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you don’t deliver us.” I mean, it’s a pretty consistent thread running throughout the scriptures.

      • Xyhelm says:

        I guess I’ll have to get all systematic on it. You still know me well, haha!

        The concept is nothing I have ever been opposed to. Ever since your series on Job, I’ve been much more mindful about it. Now, I want to do a series of lesson (sermons?) on wrestling with God.

  2. […] Last week we met Abram—later renamed Abraham. God brought Abram to the land of Canaan, and promised the land to his descendants. When we left Abram, he was still childless in Canaan, but he trusted God’s promises. The story this week also begins in the land of Canaan, and focuses on Abraham’s great-grandchildren. And one of his great-grandchildren in particular, Joseph. […]

  3. […] drawn into this defining story of God’s faithfulness, so are we. A couple of weeks back, we saw God take Abraham outside one night. We heard God tell Abraham: Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can […]

  4. […] these words in scripture whenever God is about to do something that seems impossible. It’s what God told Abram when he promised him as many children as there are stars in the heavens, while Abram’s wife was […]

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