Promise and presumption - Genesis 15
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
One night a house caught fire and a young boy was forced to climb onto an upstairs window ledge. The father stood on the ground below with outstretched arms, calling to his son, "Jump! I'll catch you." He knew the boy had to jump to save his life. All the boy could see, however, were flames, smoke, and blackness. As you might imagine the boy was afraid to leave the window. His dad kept yelling: "Jump! I'll catch you." But the boy protested, "Daddy, I can't see you." The father replied, "But I can see you and that's what really matters."
When it comes to faith it is the object in which faith is placed that is what really matters. It is not the depth of feelings of faith in the one trusting. At different times in different situations those who have faith in God may feel confident or anxious, they will sometimes trust faithfully & at others they will fail to trust & make mistakes. But the One in whom the trust is placed is always trustworthy.
Like the boy with his dad, we may not be able to see God & his hand upon us but He can see us & that's what really matters.
Over the last couple of weeks we've been learning from the life of an elderly, early Bronze Age man who lived some 4000 years ago in Iraq. This man was in himself rather obscure, quite probably a pagan moon-worshipper and, serious for the times, he was without hope of being remembered - given he had no children & he & his wife were well past child bearing age.
To this unlikely figure, known as Abram, the true & living God made himself known by speaking. God made Abram a profound promise (Gen 12), which includes some of the most important words ever recorded.
Last week we saw something of the tests that Abram faced tricky situations, which challenged Abram's faith in God but also demonstrated God's complete faithfulness -& that's what really matters.
This evening we see further lessons about the adventure of faith;
1) True Faith Believing God's Gracious Promises. Ch15
Abram has just won a battle against foreign Kings (ch14) but the experience must have made him feel rather vulnerable. There were many powerful rulers around him & the promises of God he had received in ch 12; that he would be made into a great nation, with a great name & all peoples of the world would be blessed through him, would not have been easy to hold onto. So at the start of ch 15 we find God in his gracious love moving towards Abram in his anxiety & doing so with a message of words.
v1 "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield, your very great reward" God addresses Abram's fear- Do not be afraid fear is so often the foe of faith. "Do not be afraid" is one of the most often repeated phrases in the Bible & no surprise given our human weakness.
God's promise comes to Abram as it does to us God is His people's protector & provider as a person he is trustworthy & his promises are worthy of our hope.
In the light of this reassurance Abram remembers the words of Gen 12 with it's promise of descendants, so if God is to be his shield & provider why has he not given him a Son to fulfil this promise? v2 "O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?" 3And Abram said, "You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir."
In some ways Abram has his problem at the forefront of his mind yet what he says is not unbelieving, it is, in a way, a response of faith because he believes God's promise even though he is struggling to see how it is to be fulfilled. He calls God the "sovereign Lord" (he knows what is true about God) but he struggles to see how God is going to fulfil his promise.
Isn't this a good illustration of the tension we as Christians face on a daily basis? We know God's Kingdom has come in Christ, we know He rules. We know He wants to bring others to himself, we know He has done all that's necessary to rescue people through Jesus, we know His Holy Spirit can apply the gospel to lives & help people see their need but we don't see it every day all the time. We struggle to hold onto the promises of God in the experience of what is still a broken, fallen world.
That is the normal Christian life yes there can be times when God breaks in, in a remarkable way, in some sort of revival, but that is not our usual experience faith then holds to God's promises, pleads them before Him, even reminds God of them & lives in the light of them even when there are reasons in our circumstances that make us doubt.
Here Abram's concern is that he has no real heir, only a substitute, for at the time a childless man could adopt an heir to sort out his affairs after death & benefit from the estate. And it seems one of his servants was to fulfil this role but surely this couldn't be the fulfilment of God's promise of a Son who would begin a numberless collection of descendants of Abram? God in his grace speaks His word of promise again reiterating the implication of Gen 12 v4"This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir." 5He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars--if indeed you can count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be."
God pointing to the stars was not a new message or a sign rather it was an illustration of what He had promised it was a "visible word" which focused the clear verbal promise, rather like what we call HC & Baptism.
Peter Lewis, the preacher & author from Nottingham who visited us here at St Johns a few years ago puts it well; Abraham was given the night sky to remind him of God & his promises "Yet we have in fact, something more. We have the scriptures, which are better than the stars. Abraham had a silent witness, we have a talking Book. We have a Bible studded with the promises of God. [Psalms that reflect our turmoil and radiate God's peace; histories that show us that the Lord reigns above the chaos; prophets who do not offer us their own ideas but the word of the Lord (1Pet1:20) and, more than the prophets, a Son who says, "You believe in God - believe also in, me. I am the truth, the light of the world, the shepherd of the sheep, the bright & morning star, the alpha and the omega."] As the sky is full of stars so our Bible is full of promises; count them if you can, but trust them if you can't." (p65 God's Honour's list)
Abraham's response to God, described in v6 has had repercussions through the Millennia. v6Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. This verse is quoted several times in the NT & applied to what it means to be a Christian it is one of the most important verses in the whole Bible, because it points to how sinful, broken people can be put in the right with God.
When the Apostle Paul explains this passage in his letter to the Romans (as we read in ch 4), he shows that Abram is the model of how to become acceptable to God.
No one can do things to be good enough for God, He is perfect & we are all too seriously flawed to somehow redress the balance of our failures by doing good things. Our bank account, if you like, is in serious debt with God, we are defiantly in the red with Him but Abram was given goodness, "righteousness" as a gift from the righteous God. This was "credited" to him, his spiritual bank account was now completely in the black!
This gift he received by "believing". Abram heard God's promise & he took Him at his word he understood, he agreed & he trusted God. He didn't deserve to be right with God, but he simply accepted the gift from God by believing God's promise & recognising God's mercy, which treated him as clean before Him.
Now, how God was able to do this transaction & give righteousness to the unrighteous didn't become clear for another 2000 years when as Paul explains in Romans Jesus God's rescuer died in the place of unrighteous rebels, bringing forgiveness & giving them his perfect righteousness before God (Rom 3:21-26).
So the most fundamental question in the world is: "Are you right before God?" You cannot be in yourself, but Abram illustrates you can be if you rely on God's way of making you right with him. So Paul writes Rom 4 v23 'The words "it was credited to him" were written not for him (Abram) alone, 24but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness--for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. 25He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.'
Believing faith as illustrated by Abram here, involves hearing God's message & agreeing but more than this it involves actively trusting the God who promises; Imagine a ship filled with people crossing the Atlantic. In the middle of the ocean there is an explosion. The ship is severely damaged and slowly sinking. Most are dead, and the rest are rushing for the lifeboats. Now suppose one man doesn't know about the lifeboat, so he doesn't get on board. He doesn't know there is a way of rescue, so he is not saved.
Suppose another man knows about the lifeboat and believes it will save his life, but he's grief-stricken over seeing his fellow passengers drown, so he chooses not to get on board and dies with them. He realises there is a way of rescue, he agrees it will work, but he is not saved.
Others believe the lifeboat will save them, and they get into the boat. They are saved by faith, that is they have knowledge, mental assent, and trust. However, it's not their faith that saves themno matter how much they have. It is the boat.
Well, in a more profound way, saving faith trusts Jesus, and Jesus rescues & makes us right with God.
Are you trusting Christ to make you right with God? There's no other way to have your spiritual debt turned to credit. (p)
Ch 15 also shows us that to further build true faith God's promise is underlined as gracious. V7-21
Abram exercises true faith in the living God, but the earlier pattern is repeated; he is still questioning, wobbling & lacking assurance. God reminds him of what he has done for him "I am the LORD who brought you out of Urv7 & he fills out the implications of the promise of ch 12 by adding that he brought him out "to give you this land
Abram again calls God "sovereign Lord" yet he asks v8 "How can I know that I shall gain possession of it?" "I believe you Lord, yet help me trust you more adequately," he seems to be saying.
Well in his grace, God reassures him further. He gives him a vision. Now this is not primarily so that Abram's faith is to be based on what he can see but rather to it is to convey the earlier word of promise. What we have is the first part of a formal covenant (see 2nd half of it next week)
What takes place (v9,10) seems a strange business to us, but the divided animal carcasses were a graphic symbol of a solemn covenant agreement.
This sort of ceremony was well known at the time & implied; "may those who enter this agreement be torn apart in the same way as these animals if they break it's terms". Normally such arrangements took place between kings & nations for mutual benefit. Both sides were involved, both would walk through the animal pieces & both were bound to its terms.
But did you notice how the emphasis in this covenant is paced largely on one side? In v17 smoke & fire appear to "cut the covenant" as it was called. As often in the OT smoke & fire represents a theophany the special presence of the Living God Himself. So you see, God is making this covenant, Abram v9,10 merely sets things up & makes sure it runs smoothly, he is hardly involved!
The key thing to recognise is that it is God's initiative & his giving. It was v18 "on that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram". Abram does not earn this covenant blessing. It is wholly initiated by God it's based on God's generosity.
God in this covenant underlines His promise; it is His pledge of faithfulness, marked in a visible way. It is given completely by God's grace & received by believing God's promise.
This is such an encouraging incident for us. We think of faith as us holding onto God's promises & it is, but more accurately faith is opening ourselves to allow God to hold onto us, knowing however weakly that He is faithfull.
Remember the story of the boy in the burning house at the start? He said; "Daddy, I can't see you." The father replied, "But I can see you and that's what really matters."
True faith is believing God's gracious promises of His goodness.
More briefly we see in ch 16 an eg of;
2) Defective Faith Adding to God's Gracious Promises ch16
The story of Abram, Sarai & her servant girl Hagar is a sordid affair & it has consequences, which resonate to our very own times.
We read in ch 16 how in a desperate attempt to have an heir, Abram sleeps with Hagar his wife's servant. This was a way of obtaining children practiced at the time there was no IVF test tube babies but there were surrogate mothers!
But the end result is a terrible mess Hagar the servant despises her mistress Sarai (v4), Sarai ill treats Hagar (v6), Abram & Sarai have their marital harmony severely disrupted v5. And the boy who is born, Ishmael, became the father of the Arab peoples who have so often been in conflict with the physical descendants of Abram.
From Abram's point of view he could easily have twisted this action to make it fit with what God had said about a son coming from his own body (though not his wife's & they'd been in the land for 10 yrs now (v3). Surely he should give God a helping hand!
But he was being guided by his fallen sinful human nature rather than the word & promise of God.
Here is an eg of presumptuous, defective faith. In a nutshell Abram & Sarai are not prepared to let God work out his promises in His time. They want to give God a helping hand & add to his promise their own fallen, human efforts - & the consequences are serious.
And of course we so often share this mistake. We can repeat this situation when we run ahead of God & think we are helping him to fulfil his promises but do so in a way that is against what He's made plain in the Bible.
We can never further God's cause by methods or ways that are inconstant with his promises.
Is this not one of the hardest things about being God's man or woman? Trusting in his word & his loving goodness that he has our best interests at heart? We long sometimes to make things happen, it's so hard to wait for God's timing who sometimes delays because he has a bigger perspective.
Adding to God's promises with worldly methods & worldly compromise, will not lead to the true purposes of God being fulfilled.
Now it is interesting that the Apostle Paul in the NT Letter to Galatians picks up this incident to argue against the classic example of adding to the promises of God that is to think that we can make ourselves right with God by our keeping God's commands in the OT Law or fulfilling religious activities.
Some, then as now, thought that keeping God's rules got them in credit with God. "God helps those who help themselves" people say! But "no" says Paul. God puts us in credit with himself through Jesus & his rescuing death alone & the benefits are received through trusting in Jesus, alone. "Are you so foolish" Paul says to these Christians under threat from wrong ideas "after beginning well (with the Spirit) are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" (ie by adding to God's gracious promise received by faith, your good works to impress God?) (3:3-5). Do you think God will accept you because of your goodness? Has God blessed you because "you observe the Law or because you believed what you heard?" The Law shows us we're sinners & that we need Jesus but it can't rescue us.
Paul then compares Hagar with Sarai & their 2 sons (for as we'll see Sarai eventually has a son too) & illustrates the truth that those who think they must keep the law to be right with God are slaves whereas those who rely on Jesus to put them right with God are children of the promise & are free.
Hagar & her son represent the old way of human need to keep the law, to be right with God, adding to God's promise human effort to "justify" ourselves.
Sarai's son is the child of the gracious promise which is received by relying on Jesus who justifies us. Through Jesus we are then children "not of the slave women but of the free woman" (4:31)
This perspective runs against proud human nature, especially amongst "religious people." I remember when studying theology coming to this crucial truth. I was rather surprised at what the lecturer was saying & questioned him he said "I'm not happy with the idea of justification through faith alone - I like to think I have something to contribute to God's acceptance of me."
I have to say from the Bible's perspective this is disastrous thinking way of slavery not freedom;
Think of it like this; suppose that you were trying to cross from one cliff to another one, which is a hundred feet away. It's five thousand feet down to the rocks below.
You have, however, a one inch thick piece of rope, which is capable of holding up several tons. There is a difficulty though, for you have only fifty feet of length. I say, "Don't worry! I have fifty feet of thread. We can tie my thread to your rope and then tie that to trees on either cliff and then you can go across."
You decline my offer and I respond, "What's the matter? Do you not trust the rope?"
"Yes," you say, "I trust the rope but I don't trust the thread!"
Then let's change the story and make it ninety feet of rope and only ten feet of thread. You're still not comfortable!
Then suppose we make it ninety-nine feet of rope and only one foot of threadabout One inch of thread?
You know that if you have even only one inch of thread, you will be just as dead on the rocks below as if you tried to cross on a hundred feet of thread.
The rope obviously represents what Christ has done and the thread represents what we have done. We must trust in Christ alone. As the great 19th C preacher Charles Spurgeon put it, "If we have to put one stitch into the garment of our salvation, we shall ruin the whole thing."
Where is your confidence this evening in what is your faith; your performance, your efforts, your faithfulness? That way is the way of slavery, despair & alienation from God. Or is it in Jesus & what he has done? That is the way of freedom & life through genuine acceptance with God.
Surely one of the greatest ever Yorkshire Christians was James Hudson Taylor the son of a Barnsley Chemist who became a pioneer Missionary to China in the 19th Century. During an especially difficult time in the work of the China Inland Mission that he founded, Hudson Taylor wrote to his wife, "We have (just) twenty-five pence - and all the promises of God!"
True faith keeps in mind & believes the gracious promises of God like Abram in Genesis Ch 15 it doesn't add to them & so obstruct them like Abram in Genesis 16!
Rather, remembering the gracious kindness of God, true faith holds on to his promises with a realistic optimism knowing that actually the One who promises is holding on to us far, far more firmly. We might not be able to see Him but he can see us & that's what really matters.
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