The Faith of Abraham

This sermon involves Abraham — I wish I had read this before this afternoon; it would have been a fantastic opening joke.

Mt. Carmel Baptist Church
Aug. 12, 2007
Genesis 15:1-6 (NRSV)
1After 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.”
2But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”
3And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”
4But 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.”
5He 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.”
6And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

I think they have changed the signs now, but it used to be that as you were driving in Maury County on U.S. 412, from east to west, you would approach Interstate 65 and you would see a sign before you got to the interstate that read “Welcome to Columbia.” Then, after you had crossed under the Interstate, you would see one of those green mileage signs that the state puts up, and it said “Columbia, eight miles.”

Well, that makes no sense. How can you be in Columbia and Columbia still be eight miles away?

The explanation for the two road signs is pretty routine. In Tennessee, mileage signs are measured from the seat of government – the county courthouse or city or town hall. That means you could be standing right outside the city limits and the mileage sign, if there was one, could still say that you were miles away. Normally, for this reason, they don’t put mileage signs too close to a city, just because it’s sort of confusing. But in this case, the mileage sign had been put up years earlier, and in the meantime Columbia had annexed property all the way out to the Interstate. So you had a city limit sign, and then a sign that said Columbia was still eight miles away.

In some ways, God’s promises to us are like those two signs. God’s promises to us are real in the here and now, but they also look forward to something a few miles down the road. In one sense, God is saying to us, “welcome to the Kingdom of Heaven,” and in another sense, he’s saying “the Kingdom of Heaven is coming soon.”

Today’s Bible passages deal with Abram, or – as he was later known — Abraham. In most ancient cultures, much of who you are rested on the idea of having many descendants. Abraham had been traveling with his nephew Lot, who had served as a sort of surrogate son, but he wasn’t really a son, and eventually the two men had gone their separate ways. In the 14th chapter of Genesis, right before the passage that I read a moment ago, Lot is taken into captivity and Abraham rescues him. As a result of this great military triumph, the priest Melchizedek blesses Abraham.

Abraham should be at the top of the world – but he is, no doubt, still dogged by the idea that he doesn’t have an heir. There’s an old saying that goes, “success without a successor is failure,” and Abraham may have felt like a failure even in the midst of military and economic success.

So the word of the Lord comes to Abraham in a vision. This is the first time that particular terminology is used in regard to Abraham; Abraham was used to listening to God, but this was something special, something unique, something he hadn’t experienced before. No doubt, that’s why God begins by telling Abraham not to be afraid. In fact, the purpose of this vision is to reassure Abraham that God has great blessings in store for him.

God’s promise to Abraham was a big one – that Abraham would be the father to a great race of people, that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore.

Naturally, the phrase “as many as the stars in the sky” is a figure of speech. Back in the old golden age of Hollywood, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, MGM, had a slogan which promised “more stars than there are in heaven.” MGM employed a lot of stars, I know, but it’s really all just a figure of speech.

The people in Middle Eastern cultures are known for hyperbole – for exaggerated statements. That sometimes causes trouble for us when we as a country deal with various Middle Eastern nations. We hear some Middle Eastern leader talking about making the blood of his enemies run hip deep through the streets, and it sounds strange to us – that’s not the way we talk, even to our enemies. So when God promised Abraham that he would have many descendants and would be the father of a great nation, he did it in a way that the people of that culture would understand – in a big way.

But, just to satisfy my curiosity, I wondered how many stars there really are.

I found one estimate which stated that scientists’ best guess is that there are 400 billion stars in the Milky Way, which is the galaxy in which we live. There’s a wide margin for error, however, because there may be debris that keeps us from seeing all the stars that are out there, and there may be types of stars called “brown dwarfs” that aren’t as visible as the stars we normally think about.

But the Milky Way is only one galaxy. When you consider all of the different galaxies, one astronomer has estimated that there are 70 sextillion stars in the universe. A sextillion is the number one followed by 22 zeros. So 70 sextillion is a pretty high number. It’s also 10 times the number of grains of sand on earth.

In any case, it’s clear that God is promising Abraham many descendants, which – as I was saying earlier – was a sign of blessing and success in ancient times. This was a remarkable promise, especially given Abraham’s age at the time. But Abraham was able to believe God’s promises and act upon them.

The writer of Hebrews is impressed by this ability. That brings us to our second Bible passage of the morning:

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 (NRSV)
1Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
8By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9 By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.
10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old–and Sarah herself was barren–because he considered him faithful who had promised.
12Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”
13All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

The writer of Hebrews notes that Abraham had the kind of faith that caused him to look forward. Abraham set out, not knowing where he was going. He looked forward to a city with foundations, designed by God himself.

In one way, Abraham saw the fulfillment of God’s promise. Even though he and his wife Sarah were far past the normal child-bearing age, God gave them a son – Isaac. But of course, Abraham never got to see the complete fulfillment of God’s prophecy. He never got to see, at least not in his earthly existence, God’s promise of millions of descendants.

God promised a nation to Abraham – but Abraham lived in tents, not in a house. And his son Isaac lived in tents. And Isaac’s son Jacob, also known as Israel, lived in tents – until Jacob and all his sons moved away from Abraham’s promised land into the land of Egypt. It was generations until Abraham’s descendants were able to return and settle permanently in the land that God had promised Abraham. The writer of Hebrews said that Abraham “died in faith without having received the promises.” But Abraham was able to see that God’s promise was good. He was able to see God’s miraculous intervention in his own lifetime, in the form of his son Isaac. But he was also able to look ahead to the day when God’s promise would come into its fullness.

And there’s even another layer to the story. Listen again to the writer of Hebrews: “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.”

In one sense, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph were looking towards the day when they would possess their ancestral homeland. But in another sense, they, like we, knew that they weren’t really citizens of some little patch of property in the Middle East. They knew that the real promised land is even further down the road. Welcome to Columbia, but Columbia is still eight miles away.

Today, of course, Abraham is revered in three religions. He is considered the father of the Jews, and of course we as Christians recognize him, but he is also revered in the Muslim faith, although some of their stories about him conflict with the accounts in the Bible.

As we move through our lives, we have God’s promises of protection and blessing. But they aren’t always fulfilled in the way we expect, or on our own personal schedule.

God expects of us an ability to see his blessings in the here and now. There are so many things that God has given us that we miss – whether it’s the beauty of nature, or the little blessings of our family, or those “coincidences” that may not really be coincidental.

But I think God also expects of us an ability to see the bigger picture – the coming kingdom. Sometimes, we tend to get the two confused. You see these preachers on TV who read verses about how God is going to bless us and who interpret that to mean that God wants everyone to be financially wealthy right away – and if you aren’t wealthy, or if you get sick, it must be because you don’t have enough faith.

What these TV preachers don’t understand is that God blesses us according to his timetable – not ours. And God blesses us according to his priorities – not ours. We are strangers and foreigners on the Earth, as the writer of Hebrews says. We are in the world, but not of the world – and the things that are important to the world may not be the things that are important to God, or the things that should be important to us. God doesn’t say he’s going to become a part of our kingdom; he wants to make us a part of his kingdom.

One of my favorite Christian singer / songwriters, Randy Stonehill, came out with a song back in the 1980s called “Celebrate This Heartbeat,” and one of the lines of that song went like this: “I don’t understand all the mysteries of the master plan / but I know the Master does, so that’s OK.”

Abraham understood that God had blessings waiting for him. It didn’t matter to Abraham whether he realized all of those blessings right away, or even whether he realized them all during his earthly lifetime. Genesis says that Abraham “believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Abraham was just a man – a sinner just as all of us are sinners. But he had faith in the master plan, and faith in the Master, and that became his righteousness.

May the same be said of us.