Sunday, April 29, 2012

Abraham & Sarah - "When you're not sure about God's plan"

It’s been said that life is like a marathon; but of course the difference between a marathon and the race of life is that in a marathon you know exactly how long the race is…26 miles, 385 yards.   John Maxwell in his book, Running with the Giantsmakes the point that the race of life is not like that.  We don’t know exactly how long the race will last, and we don’t really know where the finish line is until we cross it. When we read in Heb. 12:1 that we are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses”…we may picture a stadium in which men and women of faith who have gone before us, are cheering us on as we run.  Instead of entering the stadium at the end of the race, however, let’s picture ourselves, as John Maxwell does, entering the stadium somewhere in mid-race, to the inspiring cheers and thunderous roar of the crowd.

Imagine next that some of these great heroes of the faith begin coming down one by one from the stands to jog a lap with us; and to encourage us on our journey.  As we begin our first lap, we see a very old man and woman coming down to greet us...their faces are weathered, yet their eyes radiate with life:  “I am Abraham….and I am Sarah,” they say.  Abraham and Sarah?  Yes, Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of the Hebrews, and the Arabic peoples too, renowned for their faith in God; and the ancestors of Y'shua (Jesus) the Messiah!  Abraham and Sarah, with whom the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan for the whole world really began...and here they are, jogging along side us. We only run a few steps when they turn and say with confidence, “You can trust God’s plan" (words spoken, not like an empty platitude, but as though the whole universe revolved around them).  They go on to say...

(i) You can trust God’s plan…when the future is unclear. The Bible tells us that God sent Abraham from his country and people in Haran, to a land that he would show them.  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.” – Gen. 12:1.  It's interesting to me that Abraham is first told to go; but only later told where to go.  Personally, I’d like God to show me before I go.  Yet, it is not until Abraham arrives in Shechem that God says, “To your offspring I will give this land.”  [NOTE: We cannot corroborate Abraham's historical existence from extra biblical sources, but archaeological evidence does confirm that Shechem, Dothan, and Bethel were indeed the main settlements in Canaan between 2000-1700 BC, the approximate time of Abraham’s entrance into the land (see G. Ernest Wright, Biblical Archaeology)]. 

Abraham’s journey to Canaan reminds me of a popular game in England called letterboxing in which participants find hinged wooden boxes containing clues to one of thousands of other boxes concealed throughout the countryside.  The object is not to find the last box, but to get to the next one.  Now that's how God led Abraham. We want to know the final destination, but God says, “Go…and then I will show you.”  “Start walking, and I will reveal my will to you on the road.” Friends, we can become so preoccupied with the future that we miss God’s will for us here and now. I sense that our own congregation is at a cross roads right now…like Abraham & Sarah, we are listening for God’s next set of instructions on our way to Canaan, the vision he has for us as a church in this city.  Thank you Abraham for helping us to see this journey as an exciting one…even if our destination is not yet clear. 

(ii) You can trust God’s plan…is a blessing, not a curse. God says to Abraham: “I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing….and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”  - Genesis 12: 2-3.  How many of us have ever worried that if we follow God or step out in faith our life will be ruined?  Certainly Abraham and Sarah had cause to think this…since they left everything familiar behind in order to move to Canaan.  In response to that fear, the Lord reminds Abraham that in obeying his voice, he would experience four kinds of blessing: nationhood, a great name, divine protection, and then this: the opportunity to be a blessing to others.  This is the reason his name is changed from Abram, "Exalted Father" to Abraham, "Father of Multitudes."

We know intuitively that living for ourselves is a dead end.  To be blessed is not enough, we want to be a blessing.  Listen to the vision statements of some well known companies.  Hilton: “to fill the world with the light and warmth of hospitality.” CVS Pharmacy: “to improve the quality of human life.”  Johnson & Johnson Orthopedic: “restoring the joy of motion”  Toys R Us: “to put joy in kids’ hearts; and a smile on parents’ faces.”  These dreams are not just about making a profit; they’re about making a difference… these are amazingly similar to kingdom goals!  Shouldn’t we who follow the King desire to be hospitable to strangers and outcasts, declare freedom of motion in Christ, bring joy to children and adults; improve the quality of human life?!  As followers of Y'shua, we are convicted that God’s promise to bless Abraham and, through him, the nations - is being realized in the mission of Abraham’s greater Son! 

(iii) Next, You can trust God’s plan …regardless of your age or abilities. Notice that “Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran” (Gen. 12: 4) and ninety-nine years old before he and Sarah had the child that God had promised them. Samuel and David were boys when God called them. Jesus was thirty-three. The point is that age is totally irrelevant when it comes to God's call because God always provides the strength, wisdom and gifts necessary to do what he commands. It is never too late (or too early) to follow God… and to be a part of what he is doing in the world.  But what if we are seventy-five or even ninety-five when we hear God’s call?  Henry Blackaby writes: “Through you, God will do more in days and weeks than you could ever accomplish in years of labor, if only you will yield yourself to him.”   If my grandfather could give his life to Christ at the Abrahamic age of 91, it is not too late to give your life to him either…   

(iv) You can trust God’s plan …even when it’s laughable.  Abraham and Sarah could not fathom God’s promise of a son in their advanced age. We can imagine Sarah saying something like this: “You  know Abraham, we’re not getting any younger!  It’s obvious that God’s words can’t be taken literally.  He can’t really mean that I am going to become pregnant at this advanced age." Abraham nods in agreement: “This just doesn’t make any sense.”  “But,” says Sarah, “What if you were to take Hagar my maidservant as your wife and have a baby with her.   This sounds more realistic.”  So they did, and Ishmael was born . 

Years pass and now Abraham is one hundred years old and his wife is ninety! Ishamael is a teenager, but God tells Abraham that the promise he made to Sarah was not fulfilled by having a baby with Hagar… this was a human solution to a God-sized assignment. (Yes, Ishmael is also blessed by God according to Abraham's wishes, Genesis 17:20...but the promise to Sarah had yet to be fulfilled, and this is the point here). “I will bless Sarah and…I will give you a son by her” God repeats.  This time, it seems the old man just can't take it anymore.  We read that Abraham falls to the ground laughing at the absurdity of it all (Gen. 17:17). Later, Sarah does the same when told about this impossible plan (Gen. 18:12).  Yet God says again, “Your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and just to prove my point, his name will be Isaac, meaning laughter (Gen. 21)! We may laugh at God's plans, but "God always gets the last laugh!"

Indeed, Abraham learned that day that if you ever doubt God has a sense of humor…go look in the mirror!  How incredibly patient God is with us, and how determined he is to turn our laughing disbelief into the laughter of hilarious joy when we see the proof of his power and goodness!  It is a long standing tradition at the pastor’s conference I attend that we set aside Thursday night to laugh, mostly at ourselves.  Because we serve pizza and other beverages, we have to go off the Christian Conference grounds to do it:  (I had a Diet Coke, of course.)  The venue staff always looks a little puzzled at 400 pastors roaring with laughter and having a beer.  One woman serving food that night said to me, “I didn’t know pastors had fun like this?”  “We try to keep it a secret,” I replied.  There is a time for tears, but the Bible says there is also a time to for laughter...laughter instead of fear… laughter instead of despair or doubt… laughter because we have boundless hope in God who has cried & laughed with us in Christ.

(v) You can trust God’s plan…even when it requires sacrifice.  No doubt the greatest test of Abraham’s faith was when God asked him to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Gen. 22: 11-13).  Why would God ask him to offer up his one and only miracle son, born to them in their old age?!  It was inconceivable, but Abraham obeyed, because by now he trusted God’s heart.  He knew that God had promised to bless him and make of him a great nation (Gen. 12).  He knew that God would never destroy the innocent, as was the case when he questioned God about his plan to destroy the City of Sodom (Gen. 18).  He knew that God told him to name his son, Isaac, which means “laughter.” And so Abraham held on to hope as he trusted that God would do the right thing.

As we near the end of our lap with Abraham and Sarah, they share about this greatest test of their faith.  “You see we finally trusted the God who had called us and sustained us all those years; and we were not disappointed.   As you know, God stopped me from sacrificing my son, and provided a ram for the offering.  I learned it was God’s plan to provide the sacrifice for our sin, not us…and certainly not our children.  I learned that the darkness of this world will never be fixed by human effort alone; but by the power and love of God."   We nod in agreement with Abraham and Sarah because both they and we have witnessed that mercy most powerfully displayed in Abraham’s greater Son, Jesus.  Indeed, said Jesus: “Abraham rejoiced when he saw my day; he saw it and was glad…for before Abraham was, I am” (John 8: 56-58).  The sacrifice which God really desires, is the sacrifice of our trust in him…in the one who has already sacrificed everything for us…because he loves us. 

By the way, I was grabbing a cup of coffee this morning down at the corner coffee house…when a man who recognized me approached me with a question about Christianity.  My first thought was…I’ve got to get to church...I've got some 'spiritual things' to do, but as we continued talking, I knew this was a divine interruption.  In fact, we planned to pick up the conversation at a later date. Do you believe God has the right to interrupt your schedule on a Sunday morning, or a Monday school or in the order to be available to demonstrate compassion, to listen, or to share your experience of life in Christ?  Abraham and Sarah teach us to trust God's plan..even when it requires the sacrifice of our time, our resources, our prestige, or our personal agendas. 

Before returning to the stands, this faith-filled couple pray for us: “Lord, we ask that you help our friends trust your plan; to have patience even when that plan seems confusing, to trust and even laugh in their doubts, to rejoice in wonder at your great mercy and love; to know that you are faithful even when they are not; and that all your ways are truly just and good.”

Acknowledgments: Many thanks to John Maxwell and his book, Running with the Giants, for providing some of the inspiration of this series, though not the expositional content. In particular, I'm grateful for the notion of jogging with the great heroes of the faith around a stadium track as suggested by Heb.12:1.

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