The Middle East is constantly in the news, isn’t it? The tragic civil war in Syria continues unabated, and the conflict in Yemen is attracting increasing media coverage – not to mention the ongoing tensions between Israel and the Palestinians. The Middle East is too often part of the world we associate with bad news, not good.
Thankfully, however, today’s passage from Genesis brings us some good news from the Middle East. Good news for the globe. Because Genesis chapter 12 marks a positive turning point in humanity’s relationship with God. It marks the first point in human history when a world enslaved to sin, distant from God and seemingly without hope, suddenly became hopeful, expectant and on the way back to God.
Because Genesis 12 tells us when God made great promises to a man named Abram. Gracious promises of salvation offered to one man that meant good news for a lost world.
As we look at this passage, I hope we will be encouraged by the way it describes God’s grace. But I also hope we will learn something from Abram’s response to God as well. I hope we will be impressed by Abram’s trust in the promises of God, and challenged by his obedience to God’s call on his life. But before I go any further, let’s pray: Heavenly Father, thank you that all Scripture is written for us. Please help us to hear and obey your word to us today. For Jesus sake, Amen.
- God’s Promises
I don’t know what promises you have made recently. Maybe, if you’re a parent, you have promised your children an exciting summer holiday? Or maybe you have promised yourself not to miss a minute of England’s World Cup campaign? If you are married, you’ve certainly promised your spouse to love them in sickness and in health! Whatever promises we’ve made, none of them can compare in scale to the ones God makes to Abraham in today’s passage:
- Firstly, we see in verse 1 that God promised Abram a land. He and his family were to be given possession of Canaan. They were to be God’s family living at the crossroads of the world, sandwiched between the great powers of Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
- Secondly, in verse 2, God promises Abram that he will be the father of a great nation, and his name will become famous. You can see from our passage that Abraham was originally called Abram, but God changed it to Abraham after making this promise, because the word “Abraham” means “father of a multitude”. He would have many descendants.
- Thirdly, in verse 3, God not only promises Abraham his blessing, but says that all nations will one day be blessed through him. Somehow the whole world will be blessed by a descendant of Abraham.
As well as the scope and scale of these promises to Abram, the other thing that should strike us is that they are entirely gracious and free. Abram is just one man amongst many, with no particular moral, political or religious claim to God’s promises. Abraham hadn’t just won the 100 meters at the Biblical Olympics and earnt a blessing from God, nor had he done God some great favour, like building him a big Temple.
No, God chose to bless Abraham simply because he loved him and his family. (The same is true for us today. Each and every blessing we receive from God – health, wealth and happiness or even salvation in Christ – is an entirely undeserved gift. We can never put God in our debt ).
- Abraham’s faith – and ours
I hope you have your Bible open in front of you. And if you we were to flip forward to the New Testament, to places like Romans 4 and Hebrews 11, you would see that Abraham gets special mention for his faith. Hundreds of years after Abram and Sarah went to their graves, the first Christians were commending him as an example of great faith.
Unfortunately, faith, especially Christian faith, is often ridiculed and derided today. For example, Richard Dawkins has called faith a “great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.”
Is Dawkins right? Or is there more to real faith than that? Scientists like Dawkins examine and evaluate evidence by dissecting it, or by putting it under the microscope to see what it is made of. If we do the same to Abraham’s faith in the Bible, we see that it comprised of trust, obedience, and patient hope.
Firstly, Abraham trusted God’s promises, and so should we. Of course, from a worldly perspective trusting God is a great risk. Is God willing or able to deliver what he has promised? Is he even there?! Isn’t it a huge gamble to trust in him? But Abram knew that God is real, utterly true, perfectly good and supremely powerful. The God who made the world and every good thing cannot fail to deliver what he promises. This means it is not simply pious to trust God, but also very wise and sensible to do so.
For Abram, trusting God meant believing that he would have many descendants and become the father of a great nation. This can’t have been easy, when we remember that Abraham and his wife Sarah were well past retirement age. To put it mildly, a visit to the maternity ward looked highly unlikely for Sarah at her age! And for Abram to become a father must have seemed foolish.
Nevertheless, Abraham trusted God. He had confidence that the same Creator God who made the whole universe out of nothing could certainly conceive a child in Sarah’s womb. Does our trust in God go as far, I wonder?
The second component of Abram’s faith, described in verse 4, was his obedience to God’s call on his life. Whether it came by a dream, a vision or a voice in his ear, God’s call on Abram was a hugely demanding one, wasn’t it? It was a call for Abram to leave his comfortable lifestyle in Haran, leave his own people and move to Canaan where he would be an outsider.
Abram and Sarah were being called from the safety and security of a family home to become wanderers with no fixed abode. It was the ancient equivalent of going from being an owner-occupier in one’s own country, to being a refugee in a foreign land.
It takes faith and guts to obey God when he calls us to make sacrifices for him, and Abram clearly had it in spades. The question is, do we have the same determination to obey God when he calls? Do we have the same willingness to obey when God calls us to new ministries, new levels of giving, new commitments at work, home or at church?
When God opens doors for us, do we have the obedience to walk through them? When we hear his voice speak to us in Scripture, or in our conscience, will we take appropriate action?
Obedience is not a popular concept nowadays. Obedience is seen as stifling, constraining - something that will make us unhappy, something to avoid at all costs. But the Bible remains quite clear that obedience to God is always wise - always for our good. For example, if Abram had not obeyed God’s command to go to Canaan, then he and his descendants would not have received the many good things God had in store for them there. For us today, living God’s way shouldn’t be seen as a wearisome duty or chore, but instead seen as a joyful response to all that God has given us. Obedience to God’s word the way to live life as our Creator intended it to be lived. The way to live life in harmony with our Maker.
The third and final quality we find in Abraham’s faith was patience. He did not become a father overnight, nor did his family immediately inherit the promised land of Canaan. Both took years to take place. Abraham learnt the lesson that God always keeps his promises, but not always as promptly as we might wish.
Like obedience, patience is not a popular virtue at the moment. Low levels of saving, huge credit card bills and our appetite for fast food are evidence of our society’s desire for instant gratification and a ‘quick fix’.
But if we are to be faithful Christians today, we need to learn patience. Indeed, God’s biggest and best promises to us, above all of new bodies in a new creation - with complete freedom from sin, pain and death - won’t come while we are in this world. As Christian people, we need patience to endure suffering and resist temptation, while we wait to see God’s Kingdom in all its fullness.
In verses 7 to 9 of our passage today, we see that Abram’s patience was sustained by being reminded of God’s promises, by being aware of God’s presence, and by him taking time to worship the Lord. We’re told in those verses that the Lord appeared to Abram and spoke to him - and that Abram responded by building an altar and calling on the name of the Lord.
The equivalent for us today is to establish good routines of Bible reading, personal prayer and corporate worship at Church. As we do these things our faith will be fed and we’ll be given patience to persevere.
You see, contrary to what Richard Dawkins and others might say, Christian faith is not ‘pie in the sky’, or foolish belief in the face of evidence. Christian faith is a combination of trust, obedience and patient hope. A faith that well-modelled for us by Abram.
- Jesus – the man of faith and object of our faith
But what became came of Abram’s faith in God? Was it well-placed or misplaced? Wonderfully, the Bible testifies that God kept every one of his promises to Abram:
- For example, he and Sarah did have a son, whom they named Isaac. And we read in the book of Exodus that Abraham’s descendants became so numerous that they became the whole nation of Israel.
- Exodus also tells us that the Lord led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and into the promised land of Canaan, where they established themselves as a kingdom under God.
- More than that, the New Testament tells us that Abraham personally lives on today in an even better land, what the book of Hebrews calls the “heavenly country”. Abraham was counted righteous before God, the Lord considered Abraham his friend, because he trusted his promises.
- And in the New Testament we also see how God kept his final promise to Abraham, to bless every nation, as we see countless people from different nations, tribes and tongues put their faith in Jesus - Abraham’s most famous descendant.
You see, Jesus is the culmination and conclusion of everything we have learnt from Abraham this morning. Jesus is the ultimate example of a faithful man, and the supreme object of our faith as Christians. You see, the life of Jesus provides us with the ultimate example of a life lived in faithful obedience to God. Jesus went to the Cross in obedience to his Father, trusting his Father’s plan for the salvation of sinners.
When you think about it, it would have been so tempting for Jesus to ignore his Father’s call to suffer and die for our sake. So easy for him to stay safe and avoid crucifixion. But Jesus didn’t duck the challenge, he didn’t ignore God’s call, and his trust in his Father was vindicated by his resurrection from the dead. His obedience saves us from the penalty we deserve for our disobedience to God. Christ’s self-sacrifice wipes away the consequences of our sin.
And because of Christ’s perfect faith, we can now put our own faith in him today. Christians are people who put their trust in Jesus as our Saviour. We are people who faithfully obey Jesus as our Lord and King. And we are people who live in patient hope of his coming kingdom. No wonder the book of Hebrews describes Jesus as both the author and perfector of our faith.
Let’s pray: Heavenly Father, help us to be faithful people, true children of Abraham, by trusting in the Lord Jesus, obeying him as our King, and hoping for his coming kingdom. In his name we pray, Amen.