Sunday, August 12, 2007

God's Sovereign Timing, God's Faithful Plan

Texts: Genesis 15:1-21; Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

AS YOU HEARD WHEN I WAS introduced at the beginning of the service, I worked in architecture before I went to seminary.

For me, getting into Architecture was a call from God. I started college as an art major, but towards the end of my second year, all sorts of things came together that proved to me that God wanted me to do Architecture instead.

The way I understood it, I was called to do what’s called Advocacy Planning-- work with cities to build low-cost housing for poor people. Or I was going to rehabilitate rundown urban neighborhoods so they could be safe and habitable again.

But I graduated from architecture school in the mid-’70s and the economy was bad. I moved to Philadelphia--a lot of urban rehab was going on there-- but even there I couldn’t get a job doing it. Ten years later, I was back in my home town working for a small firm that did custom-designed house additions for extremely wealthy clients. I’d be at my drafting table crying out to God, "Lord, I thought You called me to work in behalf of poor people! Then why am I sitting here drawing up marble bathrooms for the filthy rich?!"

So I can understand Abram’s feelings here in the fifteenth chapter of Genesis. About eight years before this the Lord had called Abram and his wife Sarai out of Haran in Syria, to go to the land of Canaan, which is the land of Israel today. The Lord told him,

I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.

When Abram and his family got to Canaan, the Lord told him, "To your offspring [or, ‘your seed’] I will give this land."

But here it is eight years later, and Abram and his household still don’t own a square inch of the real estate! What’s more, Abram’s about eighty-four years old, Sarai’s about seventy-four: they have no children and no prospect of begetting any!

"Lord," cries out Abram, "I thought You called me to become a great nation and be a blessing! I thought You promised that my offspring would inherit this land! Then why am I sitting here, an old man with no children? Why will everything I have go to Eliezer my servant?"

I can sympathize!

What does God say? "Oops, Abram, I goofed"? Does the Lord say, "Sorry, Abram, I got distracted elsewhere and forgot to give you kids before Sarai’s biological clock timed out"? Or worse, does the Lord say, "Ha, ha, tricked ya! You came all that way from Haran in Syria and before that a thousand miles from Ur of the Chaldees for nothing! Ha, ha, ha!"?

Does God say that? Of course He does not. And praise His name, that He does not.

No, the God who is Abram’s Lord and ours replies, "This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir." And the Lord draws Abram outside the tent and tells him to look up at the stars in the sky. I’ve never seen the night sky in the desert, but I’m told the stars will hurt your eyes, they’re so many and so bright. The Lord says, "Count those stars. I challenge you to try. Your offspring will be like that. Millions upon millions!"

People of no faith would complain that that’s no proof that God’s promise was true. Just more words from an invisible being. Maybe just some crazy thought going through Abram’s own head.

But Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord credited his faith to him as righteousness.

Abram took God at His word. He didn’t say, "All right, God, I’ll go have relations with my wife tonight, and we’ll wait a month or two and if she’s expecting, I’ll believe You." No, Abram believed the Lord right away. He believed that when God makes a promise, He means it. He believed that when God gives His word, He’ll keep it. And Abram believed that the Lord has the power to keep His promises, no matter how impossible the circumstances may seem.

And so, as we read in Hebrews 11, God was not ashamed to be called Abram Abraham’s God. Abraham was called "the friend of God," because he took the Lord at His word and obeyed Him.
The Lord then says, "I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it."

Abram replies, "O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?"

Now, I’m looking at that, and I’m thinking, "Hey, wait a minute, Abram, what happened to your faith?"

But there’s a difference between skepticism and wanting a solid foundation for your faith. Abram wanted confirmation of God’s promise. Perhaps he wanted to make sure that the words he heard were truly from the Lord, and not just the noise of his own desires. So he asks, "How can I know?"

And the Lord our God responded with an amazing sign.

I wonder, what did you think when we read these verses about the animals and the birds cut in two? Here’s Abram’s deep sleep and the dreadful darkness, and the firepot and the blazing torch passing between the pieces! Did it all seem like fantasy? Did your mind disengage till we got back to something familiar? Or would you agree it was an amazing sign indeed?

Well, actually, a lot of it wasn’t amazing at all. At least, it wouldn’t have amazed anyone in Old Testament times. What’s happening is, the Lord God is cutting a covenant with His friend Abram. It’s the way it was often done. When two people or two towns or two nations wanted to make a solemn agreement, the chosen animals would be cut in two and arranged a certain distance apart, wide enough so two people could walk between them. The terms of the covenant would be recited or read, then the parties to the covenant, or their representatives, would walk together between the pieces of the dead animals and birds. The meaning was, "If I break this covenant with you, may I become like these dead birds. May I be cut in half like this heifer, this goat, and this ram."

Nothing amazing about that, for Abram’s day. Covenants were ratified that way all the time.

No, here’s the amazing part of the sign the Lord gives:

He put Abram into a deep sleep or trance, so Abram couldn’t walk between the pieces. The Lord alone, represented by the smoking firepot and the blazing torch: the Lord alone passes between the dead animal halves and swears on His own life that His promise to give Abram and his descendants the land will be kept. Abram didn’t need to promise anything! All he had to do is believe that the Lord would be faithful to His word and that the Lord had the power to keep His promise.

But still, didn’t Abram ask, "How shall I gain possession of the land?" After all, the Lord had said, "I brought you out . . . to give you this land to take possession of it." And in the Hebrew, the word ‘you’ is singular. But as the Lord cuts the covenant, He repeatedly speaks of Abram’s descendants possessing the land. In fact, the Lord says they won’t really get it for over four hundred years, not till after those descendants have suffered bitter slavery in a land not their own. How does this fulfill God’s promise to Abram?

Before we get upset on Abram’s behalf, we have to notice that there’s no record that he was upset about this at all. This shifting of beneficiaries bothers us because we are a very individualistic culture. We Americans band together in families and clubs and societies as long as it benefits us, but ultimately we each identify with ourselves, with our individual wants and needs.

But in Bible times, it wasn’t like that. In ancient culture, you identified with your family and your family with you. If disaster was prophesied for your grandchildren, it was a disaster for you, even if you should die in bed. If riches and blessings were ordained for your great-grandchildren, that was riches and blessings for you.

I’m not saying that people were more altruistic in those days. They could be just as selfish and self-centered as we can be. But the circle of what a person considered "mine" was a lot bigger. Your identity was with your tribe and your household. So when God promises the land to Abram’s distant descendants, Abram is satisfied. What benefits them, benefits him.

And I hope we’re satisfied with that promise, too, because that promise and the way it was made also affects us.

Yes, us. God chose that Hebrew culture and their way of thinking on purpose. He chose it because those covenant promises weren’t just for Abram Abraham and his blood offspring, they were also for us, who are his spiritual descendants through faith in God. We are the descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. We are the children as countless as the sand by the sea.

How can that be? Abraham’s legal offspring are counted through his son Isaac, and then through Isaac’s son Israel. Aren’t they all Jews?

Yes, Abraham’s blood offspring are all Jews. But it’s not Abraham’s blood offspring that God ultimately has in mind. It is Abram’s spiritual descendants, whether Jew or Gentile, who will finally inherit the promises.

(And when I say "spiritual," I mean born through the Spirit of God. Be certain of this: when the Holy Scriptures speak of something being "spiritual," it’s something more real and more lasting than anything on this temporary and decaying earth could ever be.)

But how do we become Abram’s spiritual offspring? By pretending to be Jews? By working really hard to show God how good and deserving we are?

No, we join the family of Abraham by faith in his offspring, the Israelite Jesus Christ.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he makes this statement: "The promises were spoken to Abraham and his seed. The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds," meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ."

Now, technically, this Hebrew word meaning ‘seed’ or ‘offspring’ can be singular or plural. It’s like the English word ‘sheep.’ But the Holy Spirit is driving St. Paul to make an important point: That when it came down to it, the only absolutely true and faithful descendant Abraham ever had was Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary, the Son of God. He was the only one who truly followed and improved on Father Abraham’s example of obedient faith. He is the true and only heir of the Patriarch, and all of us, Jew and Gentile alike, all of us inherit the promised land only through faith in Him. Through faith in Him we become Christ’s brothers and sisters. Through faith in Him we become descendants of Abraham. Through faith in Him we are reborn as children of God.

Jesus Christ made it possible for our God to keep the solemn covenant He made with Abram. For, time and time again, God’s people Israel were so faithless, so disobedient, so wicked that God could not keep His promises and still be the holy and righteous Lord. But God had pledged that if He ever broke His promise to Abram, He Himself would die.

How can the Lord keep His promise despite our wickedness? How can the eternal God die?

He keeps His promise by sending His divine eternal Son to earth to be faithful and obedient. In His perfect, sinless life our Lord Jesus Christ was and is the faithful descendant of Abraham that no ordinary human being could be.

And God dies in the body of that same divine, incarnate Son, who paid for our faithlessness and rose again to fulfill God’s promises in all those who believe in Him. In that one faithful act of our Lord Jesus, the Lord’s covenant with Abraham is both kept and renewed.

God in Christ kept the covenant; God in Christ died for the covenant; and God in Christ is the perfect Offspring and fulfillment of the promises of the covenant. In Him we have hope of more and greater things than we can even imagine.

It took a long time for God to reveal His Christ. Abram and millions of his descendants were already dead without seeing the how God would keep His word. And we have not yet seen how God will finally keep all His promises to us. But we can believe in Jesus Christ and what He did for us, and our Father in heaven will credit it to us as righteousness. Because we know God and hear His voice, we can look forward in patience and hope, to the day when our elder Brother Jesus Christ will come in glory and we and father Abraham and all our numberless brothers and sisters will inherit the country He has prepared for us.

And meanwhile, we can have faith that whatever happens to us in our lives, however long it may take, whatever suffering it involves, however much we may not understand what God is doing and why He’s doing it, that the Lord is working out His sovereign plan for our lives. We can have faith, because all those plans are centered in His Son Jesus Christ, and in Him we are assured that all God’s promises are faithful and true.

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