Faith ventures forth

Published: Monday, 07 August 2017

This sermon was presented by Geoff Pound at Ashburton Baptist Church on 6 August 2017. It is the first in the ‘Journey of Faith’ series about the story of Abraham and Sarah. Some questions for personal reflection and group study are at the end of this manuscript.

Reading: Genesis 11: 26 - 12:9 Abraham journey GP

The language teacher, Daniel Rose, recently confessed that every week he studiously reads the obituaries in the newspaper.[1] He admits that some might wonder at his morbid fascination with the recently deceased and think such a habit would be depressing. But Daniel said, “It’s quite the opposite. It’s invigorating. It’s energizing. It renews my faith in humanity.”

He says: “The obits offer up the real inhabitants of our world…not the airbrushed celebrities. Real people living real lives…People who serve, people who love puzzles, people who dance, students who pay their way through Uni, folk who visit hospitals, people who bake homemade cinnamon rolls.”

The Bible also offers encouraging slices of realism. It tells stories of people who work, people who hate and people who love. People who sing and people who pray. People who get disappointed. People who try things and fall flat on their faces. People who get up and try again.

One such human story is that of Abram and Sarai that begins in Genesis chapter 11. They’re referred to throughout the Hebrew, Christian and Koranic Scriptures. Abraham and Sarah are honoured by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike and these three faiths unite in calling Abraham what they call no other person—‘the friend of God’.

Abram’s story begins in the city of Ur which is located on a river plain (modern day Iraq). It’s as flat as Melbourne. The only things that were of any height were the great ziggurats—temple towers for worshipping the moon gods.

In Chapter 11: 27-28 we find Abram’s family. Study this family tree as I read the words.

27 Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. 28 Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans. 29 Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah. She was the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. 

How interested are you in studying genealogies and your ancestry? These family records are brief and incidental but they provide the clue and the background to the whole story. Look at v30:

 

30 Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.

We’ve noted Abraham’s ancestry but now his family tree is dead. Finished. He has a past, a present but no future. This is the restriction on this couple. The text doesn’t comment whether this is good or bad. It’s not shameful to have such a limitation.

In fact, every one of us has some restriction. Some deprivation. It’s usually the thing against which we rebel—that difficult upbringing, the health problem we battle with, the fact that we’re single or separated or married. It could be our age. We’re all struggling with something or someone.

What’s that limiting factor in your life?

A couple like Abram and Sarai who cannot have children, could easily say:

“We can’t serve God fully because of this problem so now we can please ourselves.”

We can’t say: “Because of my upbringing, because of my disability, because I didn’t have a decent chance in life, because I am the way I am—my life is hopeless.”

This text encourages us not to make our limitation an excuse for not following God. On the contrary, we’ll see in this story, that it’s exactly in this area, that God can take it and make it the arena for God’s life-giving action.

Are you up for the challenge? To make our problem or limitation the very starting point where God can make something beautiful and useful out of our life?

At Genesis 11:31 we read that this family pulled up the anchor:

 

31 Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there. 

 

We’re not told why they left. It may be that Abram said: “Dad, the religion around here is not right. It’s stupid worshipping the moon. It’s just for lunatics!”[2]

He may have said: “I think that the real God has been speaking to us and calling us to leave. God wants us to go to Canaan.” They couldn’t go directly west across the hot desert so they headed up the Euphrates river to embark on a journey of about 1100 miles.

Note what this travelogue says at the end of v31:

 

but when they came to Haran, they settled there. 

 

Haran was only the half way point! What a tragedy to hear the call of God and to start following but settle at the half way mark and never arrive at the final destination.

Maybe some of us have not gone to where God has called us. We’ve begun to follow but possibly way back in our lives God called us to some step, some place or to some task and we shrank back from it. We never went on. We settled down.

Don’t ever think it’s too late to repair that failure.

Don’t think that God will refuse you.

Don’t think that God has forgotten.

Don’t use that long delay as an excuse for an even longer delay.

Make it the catalyst for getting going again today and making up for lost time.

It says in v32:

 

32 The days of Terah were two hundred five years; and Terah died in Haran.

Terah’s death was sad. Terah’s funeral was terrible.[3] Terah is the patron saint of all half way people: people who step out with God but who never go the whole way.

In chapter 12: 1 we read:

 

12 Now the Lord said to Abram,

God is always taking the initiative. God is always reaching out to us afresh. But why would God begin a new history with a hopeless situation. You don’t commence a new nation with a dead family tree! This God speaks a powerful word into a situation of barrenness. This God uses a couple with absolutely no potential.

Now the Lord said. This life-giving speech brings the barren one to life. This creator God—this resurrection God is overcoming every resistance.

Why did God call Abram? He wasn’t especially good and later we hear him telling lies and not believing. God calls Abram and you and me, not because of any special goodness we have but simply because of God’s grace.

The text doesn’t say when God called.

It doesn’t say how God called but God has a way of letting us know that God is calling and that it’s the LORD who’s speaking, not some tin pot god or some figment of our imagination.

Listen to what the LORD says in v12b:

 

12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 

If God said to you, “Leave Melbourne. Leave Australia. Leave your family. Leave your friends. Leave your job. Leave your home and go to a place I will show you,” how easy would you find it?

The fact that God highlights, leave your country, your family, your house and your land is an indication that God understands the difficulty of such a journey. There’s a hardship attached to following God’s call.

The question we’re challenged with today is, “Would we be prepared to go?”

But you might say, “That depends on where God is calling. Bali would be OK at this time of the year but don’t send me to Baghdad. I’d enjoy Hawaii but I couldn’t stand Bangladesh. Tell me where and I’ll consider it and by the way, Lord, how long are you asking me to go for? Two weeks or two months might be doable but surely, you’re not asking me to go on a one-way ticket?”

All God says is, “I will show you.” So, God knows where we are going. This is the point: If we don’t go, then we won’t know. If we wait for all the details of how and where, we will never know.

Faith is trusting that God will show us.

Faith is believing that even when we don’t know, God knows what God is doing.

God is calling us like Abraham and Sarah to step out and trust God.

If God doesn’t furnish us with all the facts, God certainly gives us all the promises we need. Listen to v2-3 and count up the fantastic promises God made to Abram:

 

I will make of you a great nation,

To this couple who had no children, here’s the promise of fruitfulness.

 

and I will bless you, The promise of wellbeing.

 

and [I will] make your name great,

This is exactly what those builders of Babel were craving for (Genesis 11). We don’t know any of their names now but the names of Abraham and Sarah are still magnified by millions of people all over the world.

 

so that you will be a blessing. The promise of service.

 

I will bless those who bless you: the promise of security.

 

and the one who curses you I will curse; the promise of protection.

 

and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The promise of peace.

Well-being, security, prosperity, prominence, fruitfulness, peace…What more do we want? What a contrast to staying put in Ur. What a contrast to getting stuck in Haran.

This is the paradox: to stay in safety is to remain barren. To leave in risk is to enjoy fruitfulness.

It’s a great thing when we step out with God and the emphasis here not just on getting blessed but being a blessing to others.

In v4 we read:

 

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him

No ‘ifs’, ‘buts’, ‘whys’ or ‘wherefores’. No questions. Simply embrace the call and believe the promise. Who said that life with God is complicated? God says ‘Go’ and we go.

Abraham and Sarah journey into Canaan. (v5)

As we leave them there, is it too hard to believe that we are being called on a journey with God?

Thank God that we don’t know now all the steps before us. All God wants us to do today is to take the next step. The obvious step. The step right in front of our nose.

For some it might mean a step of leaving some place or some activity behind. For someone else it might mean taking the first step in following Jesus. It may mean taking the step of baptism and declaring your step publicly. For some like Terah who got stuck, it might mean getting going again. It could mean taking a new step in learning and discipleship. Or taking up a new step of service.

Our scripture ends today with the line:

 

And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

Step by step. Stage by stage.

To journey on will mean different things for different people but it’s saying to God: I’m prepared to do what you want me to do, to go where you want me to go, to leave behind whatever needs to be left.

If we’re prepared to do this God will open up a whole new dimension of life. God will bless us but more importantly, God will cause us to be a blessing to others.

As we finish this story, note that twice in this passage Abraham responds by “building an altar to the Lord who had appeared to him…and invoking the name of the Lord.” (V7,8)

This morning we have three bowls of sand, (three altars) with the invitation to light tapers with fire.

In these next few minutes we’re invited like Abram and Sarai, to reflect and respond to the calling God.

In lighting our fire, we might be saying: “Please show me the next step.”

Or “I’m offering that very issue that I struggle against.”

Or “I am stepping forward with you in a new way.”

“I’m beginning the journey.”

Or “I’ve been stuck and I’m rebooting.”

Here are the altars. In the silence of these next few minutes, let’s do some offering.

Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study

There are more questions here for one discussion time so don’t feel you have to finish or do it all at one sitting.

“Abraham and Sarah are referred to throughout the Hebrew, Christian and Koranic Scriptures. Abraham and Sarah are honoured by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike and these three faiths unite in calling Abram what they call no other person—‘the friend of God’.”

Discuss why the story of Abraham and Sarah is so important to know and share in our contemporary times.

27 Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot…..

“How interested are you in studying genealogies and your ancestry?”

What is so intriguing about genealogical study?

The listing of family trees and ‘who begat who’ in the Bible can be difficult and tedious to read but what is the value of such information in the Scriptures?

“Because of my upbringing, because of my disability, because I didn’t have a decent chance in life, because I am the way I am—my life is hopeless…I can’t serve God.”

Ever found yourself thinking or saying something like this? Give an example.

“God can take it [our limitation/restriction] and make it the arena for God’s life-giving action.”

Share a personal illustration or example from the life of somebody else where this has happened.

but when they came to Haran, they settled there. 

Why might the caravan have stopped permanently at Haran?

Do you have examples of people who started out well (in different walks of life) who at the half-way point in their lives or career settled down and never went on?

When in your own walk of faith have you stagnated or got stuck?

Was it deliberate or unconscious?

Ponder the challenges of getting going again.

“If God said to you, ‘Leave Melbourne (or wherever you live). Leave Australia (or your country). Leave your family. Leave your friends. Leave your job. Leave your home and go to a place I will show you,’ how easy would you find it?”

What would be the most difficult thing for you to leave (your town, family, friends, job…)?

“God is calling us like Abraham and Sarah to step out and trust God.”

Each journey of faith is absolutely unique. What insights do you have at the moment as to where your journey is pointing?

12:1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

These are the promises made to Abram as they were called to venture forth. What are the promises that you find reassuring as you seek to journey forward with God?

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him

“No ‘ifs’, ‘buts’, ‘whys’ or ‘wherefores’. No questions. Simply embrace the call and believe the promise. Who said that life with God is complicated? God says ‘Go’ and we go.”

Is your response to God’s call as simple as it seemed to Abram and Sarai?

What are the questions gnawing at your mind?

“All God wants us to do today is to take the next step. The obvious step. The step right in front of our nose… To journey on will mean different things for different people.”

What is the next step for you?

Pray for yourself and others as you venture forth with God while mindful of your restrictions, aware of the cost yet taking hold of God’s promises.

 

[1] Daniel Rose, Finding Life in the Obits, Eureka Street, 29 July 2017.

[2] I remember a lecture series in the book of Genesis given by my Old Testament lecturer in theological College, Ayson Clifford. He sprinkled his lectures with puns and other humorous quips, some of which I remembered and have used. I acknowledge my indebtedness to this wise old teacher who often used to break into preaching during in his biblical lectures.

[3] Yes, this was one of the puns from Ayson Clifford! (See earlier footnote).