Faith Committing

Published: Wednesday, 27 September 2017

This sermon was presented by Geoff Pound at ABC on 24 September 2017. ‘Faith Committing’ is the seventh in the ‘Journey of Faith’ series on the life of Sarah and Abraham. This sermon manuscript concludes with some Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study.

Reading: Genesis 17: 1 - 27

Many years ago, I was in a church that staged a weekend expo featuring the challenges and opportunities of global mission. The guest speaker was Oswald (Ossie) Sanders, who had been the director of the China Inland Mission.[1]

Just before the final meeting I asked Ossie what his next week looked like and what his commitments were. He said he was returning home to celebrate his 85th birthday with his loved ones. Then he rattled off his itinerary for the next month or two whereby he was going to speak at various conferences around the world. This was no chore. He was relishing the opportunities.

Then he said to me: “You know, Geoff, I think this last decade has been the most fruitful of my life!”

I was staggered. This man had been a lawyer, a College principal, a Missions statesman, a popular conference speaker and the author of more than 30 books. He was saying that this last decade, between 75 and 85, had been the most fruitful.

Today’s reading begins with a reference to Abram’s age:

 

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram… (17 v1)

It’s hard to know how they calculated the years in those early times because some of their ages seem way over the top but the narrator is making the point that Abram is very old.

When you get to a certain age, people can make you feel that you’re ‘over the hill’, or that like a race horse ‘you’ve been put out to pasture’, or that you’ve ‘reached your use by date’, or that you’ve got one foot in the grave’, or, if you’re going to be cremated, ‘you’ve got one foot in the grate’.

Despite his ripe old age, ‘The Lord appeared to Abram’. Even if you too are starting to think that ‘you’ve gone off the boil’ and ‘you’re on the scrap heap’, God can appear to us as God appeared to Abram, saying, ‘I’ve got work for you to do’. You’re going to be fruitful.

Sometimes people let their age become their excuse for not serving God. We say, “I’ve had my day. I’ll leave it to the younger generation”. Sometimes young people use their youthfulness to count themselves out of serving God. Like Jeremiah, they say, ‘I’m too young. I’m lacking in experience’.

So, it’s to this old codger that the Lord appeared.

A ten-year old boy had to write an essay on the subject of ‘Birth’. So, instead of using Google he thought he’d conduct his own family research.

He went to his grandmother and said, “Granny, how were you born?’ Grandma was taken aback by the boldness of the question and she said, “Well, um—a stork came along one day and dropped me into the family home. That’s how I was born.”

The boy went to his mother and said, “Mum, how were you born?” She, too, was surprised by the question and she said, “Well, a stork carried me and delivered me. That’s how I was born.”

The boy asked, “How was I born?” She said, “Well, in the same way. The stork picked you up, flew over the rooftops and dropped you in a little cloth bundle on our front doorstep.”

The boy went back to his desk and wrote in his essay: “There hasn’t been a natural birth in our family for three generations.”

Jesus spoke of the new birth. He said to grown-ups, “You must be born again”(John 3:7). For old man Abram, we’re learning that the life of faith isn’t about trying harder or turning over a new leaf. It’s about being awakened to the life of God. It’s about having a life-changing encounter with God.

The writer says: “The Lord appeared to Abram…”

“The Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty…’” 

I wonder if you’ve noticed the different names for God in this serial story?

At the beginning (Genesis 12: 1) it is ‘the Lord’ who calls Abram and Sarai to pull up their tents and go.

Later they meet Melchizedek (Genesis 14: 18, 19, 20, 21) and he blesses Abram according to El Elyon, God most High.

Last week we saw Hagar encountering God (Genesis 16:13) and naming God, El–Roi, ‘the God who sees’ or the all-seeing God who notices the little people and the despised.

Now (Genesis 17: 1) God appears to weak, impotent Abram, who has lost his vitality, and God says, ‘I am El Shaddai, God Almighty.’

Isn’t it interesting that every time God encounters Abram, there’s usually a new name given for God? A new name that offers a fresh glimpse into God’s character. A name that’s absolutely relevant to the situation that Abram is facing.

 And Hagar inspires us to give God a new name that captures a truth that we have found to be wonderful and liberating. Yes, as the song goes, ‘Bring Many Names’.[2] So, what name are you bringing to God as you thank God for what God is doing in your life at the moment?

‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.’” 

Last week we saw Abram and Sarai walking in their own way. They cooked up their own solutions to help God out. They explored the possibility of having a child by adoption. Then they engaged the services of a surrogate mother. This only led to strife.

But God hadn’t given up on them. God is calling them back to walk before God and be blameless.

The life of faith isn’t lived with God in the shadows, God in the background, God as some incidental footnote.

The life of faith is walking before God. There’s intimacy. Transparency. It’s a vibrant relationship.

The famous evangelist, Dr Billy Graham, became known for his sermons which brought people to a decision for Christ. For about sixty years he had a radio program called ‘The Hour of Decision’. It had a sermon and songs that culminated in ‘the sinner’s prayer’ that encouraged and enabled people to decide to follow Christ.[3] In this age of indecision and keeping options open, this emphasis may be very necessary in helping people come to the point.

But the hour of decision needs to be followed by days and weeks and years of decisions. The life of faith involves that first wonderful step but we’re learning today that the life of faith is a walk—step by step.

Sometimes, like Abram and Sarai we fall but we need to get up again.

Sometimes we wander and we need to rediscover the path.

Sometimes those first exhilarating steps are followed by prolonged periods of dryness, darkness and pain.

But all along the way, there is this God who walks with us. A God who comes to us in our weakness and wandering and encourages us with the words, “I am God Almighty”.

God wants the moment of awakening to usher forth into an ongoing, committed relationship. So, in these next few verses (v2-3) God calls Abram into a covenant.

God is getting down to business with Abram. This sounds like a contract when we sign up on the dotted line or put our name to a business deal or to a new a house or in a marriage, when we say, “I take you to be my partner.”

This isn’t like a two-year contract with your Internet provider. Three times God says this is an ‘everlasting covenant’ (v7, 13, 19). The partners in this covenant are not equal, for here we get a glimpse into God’s generosity: the all-powerful One is here willing to take on the weak.

What is God agreeing to do in this covenant?

“I will make you exceedingly numerous.” (v2)

No wonder Abram falls on his face in surprise and astonishment (v3).

This childless couple is not promised only one child. This way-over-the-top God says, “I will make them exceedingly numerous”. The word ‘exceedingly’ is used by God three times in this conversation (v2, 6, 20) and if that doesn’t get the point across, God says,

“You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” (v4)

 

This phrase too is repeated for good measure. And to help you to remember my promise, God says, I’m going to change your name:

No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. (v5)

God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. (v15)

Name changing is a lovely Biblical custom, just as Saul becomes Paul and Simon is renamed Peter.[4] A new name signifies a new life-changing relationship and a new role.

Now can you picture Abram and Sarai walking down to the Births, Deaths and Marriages office to change their name by deed poll?

They pay over their fifty bucks and the woman on the counter says,

“What’s your name?”

He says, “Abram, meaning ‘exalted ancestor’”.

“OK, Mr Abram, what new name have you chosen?”

He says: “Abraham.”

She says, “That doesn’t sound all that exotic. You’ve only added a couple of letters! And doesn’t that name mean: ‘Father of a multitude’? You two are hopeful, aren’t you?”

“What about you Sarai—your name means ‘my princess’”.

She says: “My new name is ‘Sarah’”.

“But you’re only changing one letter.”

This ninety-year old says with a twinkle in her eye, “My new name means ‘a mother of nations and kings’”.

The woman on the counter laughs. These two senior citizens have made her day.

She says: “Next you’ll be wanting to go to the office of housing to get a home that’s near a school!”

God is wanting from Abraham more than a fleeting ‘Yes’ and a nod of the head. God calls Abraham and all his descendants to the practice of circumcision (v9-14).

It is a call to do something definite, something permanent and something visible.

In the New Testament church, when the followers of Jesus were no longer Jewish, they debated as to whether Gentiles (non-Jews) needed circumcision and they concluded that the answer was ‘No’.[5]

For the followers of Jesus, the new brand or badge for men and women became baptism. God’s new covenant was to be regularly remembered and celebrated in bread and wine. The new name we are given is ‘Christian’—followers of the Christ.

For us today, we’re challenged by the call to live distinctive lives that bear witness to God Almighty—the One who brings life to an empty womb; the One who brings life from an empty tomb.

Next, we see Abraham falling on his face again (v17) and worshipping? And praying? No.

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed…(v17)

Abraham laughed because he knew that only a fool would believe that a woman with one foot in the grave was soon going to have her other foot in the maternity ward.[6]

Abraham laughed because he was not only going to receive the old age pension, he was going to get the New Start allowance and the Child Care benefit.

Abraham laughed because God expected him to believe it.

Abraham laughed because he half-believed it himself.

Abraham laughed because laughing felt better than crying.

Abraham laughed because if by some crazy chance it all happened to come true, then he’d really have something to laugh about.

God must have a sense of humour because in v19 God says:

“No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac.” [which means ‘he laughs’].

God wanted Abraham and his descendants to remember that God is a God that does the laughable, the impossible, the unbelievable.

We are left with these laughable questions:

“Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (V17-18)

Maybe God is wanting to do the impossible in your life today.

We might sense God is stirring within us and appearing to us and we throw back our heads and laugh. “Me being used by God?” or “Me taking on a new role at my old age or at my young age?” Come off it!

If we are willing to entrust ourselves to this God, to say ‘yes’ to God, to walk before and with this God and to be prepared to live a distinctive life, God might be the one who will get the last laugh.

If you’re feeling weak, lacking in experience and totally inadequate, that’s just how you should feel.

Remember, this God with whom we walk is called El Shaddai, ‘God Almighty’. Thanks be to God.

Prayer

Loving God,

forgive us when we have excused ourselves from active service for you.

Forgive us when we have succumbed to the views of others that make us feel disqualified because we’re too old or too young or too bad to be of use to you.

Cleanse us. Recommission us. Liberate us from low expectations.

Living God, enable us to be in a position where we can notice you and be transformed by your appearance and your activity in our lives.

Bolster our faith in your almighty power and in your grace that calls us into covenant with you.

Give us the courage to partner with you, to stand with you and for you, to be glad to bear the new name that you give to us and to live lives that are distinctive.

Wherever we are in relation to you today, help us now to receive your invitation to walk before you, to choose you and to be creative and to be fruitful.

We pray in the name of the one who is the Lord Almighty.

Amen.

Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram…

Where are you seeing ageism (discrimination on the basis of old age, young age)?

When have you been on the receiving end of ageism and how did you feel?

How have you lowered your expectations that God could use you because of your age, your stage or some other excuse?

“The Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty…’” 

As you have been praying recently, with what name have you addressed God and why?

God keeps giving Abram and Sarai new names for God, to freshen up their relationship or to point out some new facet of God’s character. Then Hagar calls God by a new name.

Is there a new name that you might like to bring to God at the moment? Why?

‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.’ 

What would this call and invitation mean for you?

Some people and churches have emphasized the first step of faith (‘the hour of decision’) rather than the walk of faith. The stress has been on embarking rather than enduring.

What has been your experience of these emphases?

Covenant, Commitment, Circumcision (2-27)

What are the truths that surface for you in this passage?

How might we grow in a more lasting, committed and vibrant relationship with God Almighty?

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”

How do we grow in our belief and expectation that God can do wonderful things through us?

Prayer

Pray that we can stay in a position whereby God can use us, regardless of our age, or stage or history.

God Almighty, enable us to walk before you and be blameless and fruitful.

 

[1] Sanders, John Oswald, Teara. The CIM became the OMF (Overseas Missionary Fellowship).

[2] ‘Bring Many Names’ by Brian Wren. YouTube.

[3] Hour of Decision, Wikipedia.

[4] A list of name changes in the Bible can be found at ‘Name Changes in the Bible’, Godwords. Interesting that there are very few women like Sarai who had a name change.

[5] Acts 15: 7-10, Galatians 5:2; 6:15.

[6] These next few statements beginning, ‘Abraham laughed’, are an adaptation of an entry entitled, ‘Faith’, in a book called Wishful Thinking by Frederick Buechner.