Faith During Delay

Published: Monday, 11 September 2017

This sermon was presented on 10 September 2017 by Geoff Pound. It is the fifth in the ‘Journey of Faith’ series which is following the story of Abraham and Sarah. 
Questions for Personal Study and Group Discussion follow this sermon manuscript.

Scripture Reading: Genesis 15: 1 - 24

Carlyle Marney was a Baptist preacher in North Carolina.[1] One Sunday, as he was preaching a sermon, he suffered a heart attack. When he was carried from the pulpit to the ambulance his congregation thought that might be the end of him, or, at least the finish of his pastoral ministry.

But Carlyle Marney recovered. Six months later he was back in that pulpit. Beginning his sermon, he said: “[Now] As I was saying…”[2]

The narrator in the Abram and Sarai story begins today’s instalment in a similar vein:

 

“After these things…”

(Genesis 15: 1)

Which begs the question, ‘After what things?’

After the decisive, unquestioning faith of Abram and Sarai to leave their home in Ur and go to the new land where God was calling them.

After the famine in Canaan, their journey into Egypt, Abram’s lies to Pharaoh at Sarai’s expense and his loss of faith.

After the conflict between Abram’s people and Lot’s folk.

After Abram’s entry into the ‘Game of Thrones’ to rescue Lot from his captors (Gen 14: 1-24),

After these things, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” (Gen. 15:1)

‘Genesis’ means beginnings, and it’s usually thought that this first book of the Bible is only about how the world began. But there are several other important beginnings in this book and this chapter.

Here’s the first use of the phrase “the word of the Lord came” (Gen 15: 1), a phrase which appears over 100 times in the Hebrew Bible.[3]

There were times when Abram thought that God was silent and so slow, but we’re discovering the amazing thing that God is revealed to Abram and Sarai just when they are in great need.

You would have thought that after his victory over the kings and his rescuing of Lot that Abram would have been thrilled. But sometimes mountaintop experiences can be followed by the deep valleys of despair and it seems that Abram was in the pits.[4]

“the word of the Lord came to Abram…”

Queen Victoria complained about her regular conversations with Mr. Gladstone, because the Prime Minister spoke to her as if she were a public meeting.[5] In contrast, the word of the Lord came to Abram. That word had his name on it. It was personal. Unique. So timely.

Somehow, in a visual experience, he sensed God saying:

“Do not be afraid, Abram…” (Gen 15:1)

Here’s another genesis. This is the first time God said, ‘fear not’ (do not be afraid). It’s the most frequent command in the Bible which says a lot about our fearful world.

This is no remote moon god like the Canaanites worshipped. This God is personal, down to earth, responsive, attentive to our feelings. This God is eager to dispel our fears.

How are his fears to be countered?

Not by the power of positive thinking.

Not by cranking up his insurance and putting more locks on the door.

Not by building up his bodyguards and private army.

God’s remedy for fear is a person.

Abram is given a strong awareness of who his God is.

Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield…”

This is the first time that God is likened to a shield. Abram must be feeling that the battle hasn’t finished. He’s under siege. Maybe the kings won’t give up. He fears they might retaliate and carve him and his loved ones up into pieces.

We’ve talked about how challenging and hard the life of faith is.

God didn’t shield Abram and Sarai from change when God called them to go and leave.

God didn’t shield them from the grief of loss.

God didn’t shield them from the hardship of famine.

God didn’t shield them from the threat of having the Egyptians take his wife.

God didn’t shield Abram from conflict.

God didn’t shield Abram from political strife.

Here is God claiming to shield Abram from all that could torpedo God’s plan and dream for their lives. I am your shield.

What a relevant image, when Abram feels the battle is raging.

How apt is this image when you feel that fear is raining down on you like arrows and penetrating your heart like a spear.

The Maoris of Aotearoa-New Zealand were great warriors. Maoris in their early warfare had spears but they never had shields. The Maori Bible translates God declaring to Abram: “I am your whakangungu rakau.”[6] Rakau means tree. Whakangungu rakau means ‘to hide behind the tree’. What a challenge for Bible translators!

 

God is saying: “I am the broad, safe tree that you can hide behind when you feel afraid and under attack”.

God says:

“…and your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God[7], what will you give me, for I continue childless…”

(Gen. 15: 1-2)

Abram asks exactly what God’s reward might be - for a child is the one reward needed but the land would be a wonderful consolation prize.

Have you noticed how the tone of Abram’s speech with God has changed? There’s no longer the unquestioning response as when God said ‘Go’ and they left. Abram’s prayer is no longer passive and compliant. His relationship with God is real. It’s spirited. Robust. He addresses God with questions. He admits that he has doubts, as to whether God will deliver on the child and the land.

This fluctuation of faith and doubt is well expressed by Frederick Buechner who wrote:

“I am a … part-time Christian because part of the time seems to be the most I can manage to live out my faith…. From time to time I find a kind of heroism momentarily possible… but most of the time I am indistinguishable from the rest of the herd that jostles and snuffles to the great trough of life.”[8]

What’s most important to God is the absolute honesty that comes from the lips of Buechner and Abram.

Facing such a long delay, Abram comes up with a nifty plan to help God out:

But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

Here’s the first of a couple of schemes to help God out with the problem of childlessness.

And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”

If God can’t solve the problem, I’ll fix it myself, by adoption. Eliezer will be my heir and the start of our family and great nation. Later, we’ll see Sarai and Abram coming up with another scheme, that of using a surrogate mother. There’s nothing new about ‘new birth technology’ and these child-producing methods were allowable under Canaanite law.

But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 

This is a frustrated, infertile couple who felt like such failures and now God is dousing their brilliant initiative.

It’s night time. The time when our fears are magnified and multiplied. God invites Abram to get out of his tent. Yes, turn off your TV, Abram. Watching the evening news will only intensify your fear.

He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 

It says in the Bible that “faith comes from hearing, hearing from the word of God.” (Romans 10: 17) That’s why we encourage each other to read the Scriptures. This is why we study the Scripture together Sunday by Sunday and in small groups.

But here God’s word is written in the heavens and in this starry stocktake. Hear Abram counting? “One, two, three, four, five…oh, it’s impossible!” The longer his eyes get adjusted to the dark the harder this count becomes but the more his faith grows.

Think of the way Moses was urged to see a burning bush and realize that God’s presence can be found in the most ordinary of places. (Exodus 3)

Think of the way the Psalmist wrote: “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?” (Psalm 121:1) These weren’t mere hills. They were signs of a protecting God.

Think of the crunchy snow that Isaiah saw and how God inspired him to see in these flakes the truth of a forgiving and purifying God (Isaiah 1: 18)

Think of the way the disciples were told by Jesus to “Look at the lilies of the fields” (Luke 12:27) and see in them the signs of God’s provision and care.

I think we need to get outside more. We need to get down to the sea and amble along the trails and allow God to show us mountains which are eternal and let God speak through the beauty of the wattles and the chatter of the lorikeets.

Let me skip over verse 6 and summarise the rest of this conversation in which Abram raises more questions with God about the land:

But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”

In those days, you didn’t go to the lawyer to sign papers of agreement. Here is the primitive legal custom of cutting up animals by which a covenant is made. They talked of cutting a covenant like we speak of cutting a deal. God is helping Abram to see with greater certainty that God would keep the agreement.

Abram’s ongoing conversation (prayer) with God evokes new revelations about God’s provision and the pain that Abram and his people were to expect. Abram is to stop inventing his own solutions and begin to trust God’s plans and God’s timetable.

Let’s come back to what has been called the greatest verse in the Hebrew Bible. A verse that is quoted in the New Testament letters of Romans, Galatians and James. (Rom 4:3; Gal 3:6; James 2)

And Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

From doubt, Abram, like a coin flicked in the air, comes down solidly to believe. It’s the idea of trust. Putting your whole weight (your house or staking your whole life) on God’s promise. It comes from the same word as the word ‘Amen’ which, we can hear, conveys the sense of certainty.

When the Lord saw Abram’s faith it’s as if an electronic financial transfer takes place—a credit transfer.

the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness is a book keeping term. With all that Abram had done or not done in the past, it was as if his account was in the red. He may not have been morally bankrupt but he had some debts in his ledger that he wasn’t proud of.

But the divine accountant, responding to Abram’s faith, puts such a credit into his account as if to say: “It is all paid off. Paid in full. You are not only debt free, you are absolutely right with me.”

Abram believed God even when he had no child and no land.

As I finish let me say that one of the richest experiences of my life has been visiting the Karen people in the refugee camps on the Thai/Burmese border. There are hundreds of thousands of them who for the last 25 years have fled similar conditions to what the Rohingas are facing today.[9]

Their homes and villages were torched. Many had loved ones shot and killed by the Burmese army. In the refugee camp I visited, the women tell of being raped by the soldiers. There’s a dormitory full of people who have lost their eyes, their arms or their legs because they were forced to go before the soldiers and they activated the hidden landmines.

At night, you can hear gunfire across the border and this unsettles the Karen. It awakens old fears. But in their daily church services the faith of these people is so evident in their singing and in their stories.

Dr. Simon, who was one of the leaders in this camp and in this Christian community so often used to recite this poem about his people, the Karen, who keep on longing to get back to their homeland (Kawthoolei):

They call us a displaced people,

but praise God; we are not misplaced.

They see no hope for our future,

but praise God; our future is as bright as the promises of God.[10]

They say the life of our people is a misery,

But praise God; our life is a mystery.

For what they say is what they see,

And what they see is temporal.

But ours is eternal,

All because we put ourselves in the hands of the God we trust.[11]

Prayer

Hope giving God, when our prayers seem unanswered, enable us to wait and accept the word that comes just for us.

When our future appears dark and fearful, help us to see the stars that signal your will and your care.

When our wait seems never-ending, encourage us to stake our lives on your promises.

Like Abram, we seek to come to you often, with honesty, with questions and with our doubt, that these might evoke from you further knowledge into who you are and the strength you will give for the journey.

Give us the gift of faith, that helps us to believe and keep on believing.

To accept your word, to put our whole weight upon your word and your ways.

Teach us each day to appropriate your grace and to see your righteousness as a gift of peace with our Creator, our Saviour and our Sustainer.

We pray with honesty and conviction,

Amen.

 

 

 

Questions for Personal Study and Group Discussion

Icebreaker and Setting the Theme

Abram and Sarai have to wait a long time for God’s promise of child and land to be fulfilled.
What are the things about which you (personally) are waiting and how does this make you feel?

What are the things about which we as a church, a community or a nation are waiting and how does this make you feel?

“After these things…” (Genesis 15: 1)

This opening phrase points us to reflect on the Abram and Sarai story up until this new chapter.

What has surprised/intrigued/inspired you about the Abram and Sarai story?

After these things, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” (Gen. 15:1)

‘The word of the Lord came to Abram. That word had his name on it. It was personal. Unique. So timely.’

Share a time when God came to you in a vivid, personal and timely nature.

“Do not be afraid, Abram…” (Gen 15:1)

“Here’s another genesis. This is the first time God said, ‘fear not’ (do not be afraid). It’s the most frequent command in the Bible which says a lot about our fearful world.”

What is the fear that you sense among the people with whom you are connected?

What is the fear that looms largest for you at the moment?

How do we best communicate to others God’s remedy for personal, communal or national fear?

“I am your shield.”

How valuable is this image of God for you at the moment, or is there another picture that conveys a similar truth with greater potency and reassurance?

But Abram said, “O Lord God[12], what will you give me, for I continue childless…”

(Gen. 15: 1-2)

“Have you noticed how the tone of Abram’s speech with God has changed? There’s no longer the unquestioning response as when God said ‘Go’ and they left. Abram’s prayer is no longer passive and compliant. His relationship with God is real. It’s spirited. Robust. He addresses God with questions. He admits that he has doubts, as to whether God will deliver on the child and the land.”

How has your own speech (prayer) with God been changing?

How free are you to question God and air your doubts? What is your overriding and persistent question for God?

“I am a … part-time Christian because part of the time seems to be the most I can manage to live out my faith…. From time to time I find a kind of heroism momentarily possible… but most of the time I am indistinguishable from the rest of the herd that jostles and snuffles to the great trough of life.”

Anything in this statement by Frederick Buechner that resonates for you?

And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 

Abram’s solution in this waiting time is to come up with an heir by adoption.

In what ways have you been like Abram in trying to engineer a plan to help God out?

He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 

“I think we need to get outside more. We need to get down to the sea and amble along the trails and allow God to show us mountains which are eternal and let God speak through the beauty of the wattles and the chatter of the lorikeets.”

Need to get outside more to see and hear God’s word?

How has God been speaking to you through the natural world?

Where is God’s word in ‘the great outdoors’ most powerful for you?

And Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

After questions and doubts, Abram believed (continuous tense not once and for all).

How do you best understand and explain this believing for Abram and for you?

Abram and Sarai believed God’s promise even when there was no child or land in sight.

Dr. Simon in the refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border said:

“They see no hope for our future,

but praise God; our future is as bright as the promises of God.”

What is the promise in God’s word that you cling to in the darkest and most difficult of times?

Prayer

Ponder some of the promises from God in Scripture, give thanks for them and turn them into prayers of hope and patience as you wait for their fulfilment.

 

[1] Carlyle Marney was pastor at the Myers Park Baptist Church, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

[2] John Killinger, Fundamentals of Preaching, Fortress Press, 1996, 91.

[3] This phrase appears 257 times in the entire Bible.

[4] Many Christians have experienced this ‘dark night of the soul’. For examples, see Chris Armstrong, A History of Darkness, Christianity Today, 2011 Fall.

[5] Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria and her Prime Ministers, BBC, 12 February 2011.

[6] Muri iho i enei mea ka puta moemoea mai te kupu a Ihowa ki a Aperama, ka mea, Kaua e wehi, e Aperama: ko ahau tou whakangungu rakau, tou utu nui whakaharahara. Genesis 15: 1 Maori Bible, Bible Gateway.

[7] This is a new title for God. This is the first time in Scripture that we find God addressesed as ‘Adonai’ (Master) Yahweh.

[8] Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace.

[9] Liam Cochrane, ‘Myanmar could be on the brink of genocide, UN expert says’, ABC, 6 September 2017.

[10] One of the early missionaries among the Karen was Adoniram Judson and his quote is enshrined in this poem, as he often said, “The outlook is as bright as the promises of God!”

[11] Dr. Saw Simon, Maela Camp, ‘Our Living Testimony’, Kpawlay, 5 September 2010.

[12] This is a new title for God. This is the first time in Scripture that we find God addressed as ‘Adonai’ (Master) Yahweh.