Abraham the Father of all Believers (6)

God’s unilateral agreement of grace

Scripture Readings

  • Galatians 3:6-18
  • Genesis 15

Introduction

Dear family of God,

It is impossible for the sinking swimmer to negotiate with the lifesaver agreements before he is rescued.  At that point in time the lifesaver is in charge; the troubled swimmer is in need.  To survive he needs to obey the commands shouted out to him; he has to trust the lifesaver with his life.  There is no time for doubts; he does not have the luxury to question the credentials of the lifesaver or his equipment.  If he wants to survive he has to cooperate because it is a matter of life and death.

When God calls us into a relationship with Him the Bible calls it a covenant relationship.  In this relationship we, as the sinking sinner, have no say, other than to, against all odds, stretch out our hands to the saving God who delights in saving us and making us his children.  That obedient stretching out of our hand is faith.  Faith is not a form of good works; it is what you do when you know you deserve nothing else but to sink into eternal hell, and then see the saving hand of the Saviour.  At that stage faith does not ask questions, or it cannot doubt – it is the only possible option to survive:  all preparations for the rescue operation are done; God does not initiate a rescue plan with flaws in it.  It is complete, and God has to be trusted for it.

To then stretch out our hand is what the Bible calls faith.  To not do so is called unbelief which leads to eternal condemnation.

Do not be afraid

I am your shield

Our chapter begins with, “After this …”  It clearly takes us back to chapter 14.  There Abraham rescued his nephew, Lot, from the hands of the mighty kings.  One might think that those kings could get it in their hearts to call another campaign in retribution to punish Abraham.  But God assured him that he should not be afraid.  He promised to be his shield.  In seeking righteousness according to the principles of God’s kingdom and for the sake of Christ, Christians expose themselves to the hatred of the world.  We must remember:  Do not be afraid, God is our shield.  The enemy might be able to destroy our bodies, but they will never be able to touch our souls.

The son of the HMAS leader, who converted to Christ, declared in an interview after he very strongly spoke out against Islam, that his life might be in danger, that he might be hunted down for what he is saying, but he is confident that they will never silence his testimony and they have no right on his soul.  May God protect him.

I am you reward

Abraham decided to not take his award for the campaign against the mighty kings, and he gave it all away to the king of Sodom.  Although he put his life in danger to rescue Lot, he put his trust in God to provide for him.  God had already promised him all of the land to the west, eats, north and the south.

In this verse God assured him that He is Abraham’s reward.  God is our portion; or put it the other way round, our portion is God.  The elder son in the parable of Jesus did not understand this, although he lived with is father while the younger brother squandered is inheritance.  While refusing to call his lost brother “brother”, but rather refer to him as “this son of yours”, he complained with his father that he never got anything, not even a goat to celebrate with his friends, but his father said:

‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.’ (Luke 15:31, NIV)

To be joyful in the Lord we, by faith, need to embrace this reality:  God is our portion.  In Christ our reward is sins forgiven, and life everlasting with Him in the world to come.

What if circumstances proves different?

Personally I think that Bible translators gave us a translation leaving us with the idea that Abraham did not believe God.  Verse two in our translation begins with “but”, whereas it can and should rightfully be translated as “and”.

Abraham did not complain with the Lord in a “but” sense; he accepted God’s blessing upon him, but he wanted to know how this is going to work out.  His language is almost that of the man who prayed, “I believe, help me to have faith.”

His reply to the Lord, “What can you give me?” is not a challenge to God as if God’s promise was meaningless.  It was more with a sense of anticipation that he asked this question.

When I was involved in the Inland Mission, more than once I found myself in a financial predicament.  In those times I would constantly ask God if He wanted me to continue with the work; and every time I was assured that He indeed wanted me to continue.  That assurance did not put money in my pocket to pay for diesel or the rego.  God taught me not to doubt Him and it became a matter of faithful anticipation of his provision every time I opened the mailbox.  At one time the rego ran out and I needed about $650.00 to renew it.  I prayed about it and later went to the post office knowing that God will provide.  I got a letter in the mail for a ladies group, which read, “We thought you might need money to your rego.  Please accept this donation.” Rego was due that day, and the amount was $650.00.

Abraham did not question the Lord in unbelief; rather he, with anticipation asked, “How?” With him he only had his financial manager, Eliezer of Damascus.  Was he the one God would use to fulfil his promises?  No children of his own yet?  No, not Eliezer,

This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” (Genesis 15:4, NIV)

Look up to the heavens and look at the stars.  You cannot count them. and the Lord said to Abraham:

“Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:5, NIV)

Looking at the mighty and glorious display of the handiwork of God clearly visible in the night sky, Abraham believed God.  If God could call of that stars into existence out of nothing, surely giving Abraham an offspring in not such a great deal.

Abraham believed God.  This takes us back to the previous chapter where we first read about the king of righteousness.  We then understood that Abraham, in his meeting with Melchizedek, had a glimpse of the ultimate King of Righteousness and Peace, Jesus Christ.  What seemed humanly impossible is possible with God, and every promise God made with Abraham, and every step He took Abraham through would point to Christ who is the eternal High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek.  Abraham was still on his maturity in faith, but the light, although dim, was burning.  He had to learn more for God.

God took him back to his salvation from the futility of serving idols and who brought him to that point in his life:

“I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” (Genesis 15:7, NIV)

God used his covenant Name, YHWH.  He is the creator of heaven and earth.  He holds nations in his hands; He holds time in his hand.  He had all the right to give Abraham and his offspring any land He wanted to. Little wonder then that Abraham called out: “O, Sovereign Lord!” Lord of Lords!  God of gods!  “Show me how this is going to work out.  Give me a sign.”

So, what if circumstance proves different?  Trust God.  Don’t give up.  The Almighty God of gods is working out his eternal plan.

God’s Comprehensive (unilateral) agreement of grace

How would God accomplish his plan with Abraham?

Through sacrifice

God ordered Abraham to bring a heifer, a goat and a ram, together with a dove and a young pigeon.  The bigger animals were of perfect age – three years.

In ancient times kings made agreements by cutting animals in half and then walk in the middle between the different parts as a sign that if they were not faithful to the agreement the lot of the animals would be their lot.

What God introduced here is his covenant of grace sealed in blood. The animals mentioned here are those that were later used in the later sacrificial system.

Through suffering

At first it seemed that God was not in it.  In waiting for God birds of pray descended upon it.  God later made it clear to Abraham that these birds symbolised the Egyptians who would enslave his descendants. The dreadful dark clouds we read about which Abraham saw in this vision stressed the point even further.  The deep sleep of Abraham symbolised that time where it would seem as if Israel was forgotten, and that God had forgotten his promises to Abraham. God wanted Abraham to know that through much suffering God will call his people back to the promised land.  All of this called forward to Christ who was God’s suffering servant who saved by suffering himself to free those who are in bondage of sin.

A limited time

In all of this God gave Abraham two promises:  the time of slavery will be limited, and the oppressors will be punished.  For those who are currently brutally oppressed in the Middle East and Africa, this should be comforting.  Let’s all remember this, God will avenge the blood of those who are beheaded because of their testimony of Christ.  The book of Revelation gives us a glimpse of what is happening behind the scenes and why:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been. (Revelation 6:9–11, NIV)

Back to Abraham’s vision.  Why wait?  Why can’t God give him what He promised there and then?  Because of God’s long-suffering, patience and grace.  The Amorites, then living in the land, still had time to repent.  if they didn’t, their sin will reach full measure.  Then God will make the descendants of Abraham return.

God’s grace alone

With Abraham still looking on, and with the darkness of night approaching, something happened:  there was a smoking pot and a blazing torch passing between the pieces of the animals. God often appeared in smoke, like on the mountain when He gave them the Law.  He also appeared to his people leading them through the cloud column by day and the pillar of fire by night.  This was God passing through the cut animals.  He was alone.  He did not ask Abraham to be with him, as was the custom when people made an covenant. There was nothing Abraham could bring to make the agreement valid.  It rested upon God alone.  He saved by grace, and whoever believes in Him will not be ashamed.

Our Lord went through Gethsemane alone, He walked the streets of Jerusalem as the despised, and there on Calvary’s Hill He took the punishment alone. The curse of covenant-breaking which was ours, He took on Him, and his body was broken, his blood was shed like the animals of Abraham.  Abraham was an onlooker; God’s covenant was one of grace.  And so it is today.

The Gospel to us through Abraham

We read from Galatians 3 this morning.  Paul writes:

Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” (Galatians 3:8, NIV)

How did this work out?  Let’s hear from Paul again:

The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. (Galatians 3:16, NIV)

Yes, God did give the Promised Land to Abraham and his descendants, but they were merely custodians of the land for as long as God prepared they way for the Messiah to come, for from them He was born.  After Christ fulfilled  his work of salvation the prominence of Israel as God’s sole covenant people was superseded by the Church.  Listen:

He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Galatians 3:14, NIV)

And Jesus commanded his church to evangelise the nations, baptise them and teach them all the things He commanded.  All who believe in Christ are now children of Abraham according to the promise.  We in Wee Waa, not from the Jewish line, by faith have become children of Abraham:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:28–29, NIV)

Conclusion

This is our Gospel:  Not relying on us, not asking anything from us, God made an agreement, one-sidedly, by grace to make us his children.  Through Christ, the blessings of Abraham are ours – but only because of Christ.  Take it by faith, and be saved by grace.  AMEN.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 31 August 2014

Remember your creator

Public Profession of Faith of new members

Scripture Readings

  • 2 Timothy 3:10-17
  • Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:8

Introduction

My dear young friends,

Today is one of the most important days in your life:  Today, before God and his congregation, in the Name of Jesus Christ, you made profession of your faith in God.  You did it publicly, so that all might know that you love the Lord Jesus Christ.  This public profession of your faith will now be followed-up by repeatedly sitting at the table of the Lord where you will declare that you remember that He died for your sin, that He rose to give you new life, that He called you to serve Him with all your heart, mind and soul; you will also proclaim to the world that you are waiting for his return and that you long to be with Him into all eternity.

You would want to get some wise words today; some ideas that will keep you on track as a young Christian till the day of Christ’s return.  We can go to some people of fame for advise.  Like:

Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot. (Charlie Chaplin)

In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years. (Abraham Lincoln)

Only those are fit to live who are not afraid to die. (General McArthur)

Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood. (Helen Keller)

But we should go to the Bible.  The verses I chose to preach from today is from Ecclesiastes.

It’s all in vain

It is generally accepted that king Solomon, or at least someone who were close to him, wrote the book of Ecclesiastes.  It was maybe a collection of his thoughts when he became an old man – even after he strayed from God.  Solomon, although an exceptionally wise man who got what he had as a gift from God, did not end up dying as a wise man.  We read this about Solomon:

As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. The Lord became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. Although he had forbidden Solomon to follow other gods, Solomon did not keep the Lord’s command. (1 Kings 11:4, 9–10, NIV)

It seems then that Solomon entered the last stages of his life as a man who lost his vision of life and on God.  The first verse of the book of Ecclesiastes begins like this:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, NIV)

To him wisdom became meaningless, pleasures became meaningless:  he tried out wine and laughter – that was meaningless!  He tried out great projects – houses, gardens, parks, silver and gold, women (ending up with 1,000 altogether!) – yes, he says, “I denied myself nothing” (Ecc 2:10), but even that seemed meaningless in the end.  He found out that both human wisdom and folly, both hard work and laziness lead to nothing but meaninglessness.

He even got to the low point in his life to argue that there is not much difference between the righteous and the unrighteous:  both comes under the judgement of the Lord (Ecc 3:18-19).  His life spiralled down into what seems like a depression;  it seems he became lonely with no one to cheer him up, so he writes about the value of having a friend:

If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. (Ecclesiastes 4:10, NIV)

Squandered opportunities

It was not that the king did not know better.  No, he was privileged to have it all in his hand, but somehow he let go of it.  Listen:

Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to heed a warning. (Ecclesiastes 4:13, NIV)

There was a time that he stood in the presence of the Living God who chose him to be the king of Israel.  He made certain promises to God, but now it seems that he had not been not sincere.  Now he understands the value of being honest with God:

When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfil it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfil your vow. It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfil it. Therefore fear God. (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5,7 NIV)

After living in a period of extraordinary wealth in which he accumulated chariots and horses, and the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills (1 Kings 10:26–27, NIV), he ended up saying:

Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands. (Ecclesiastes 5:15, NIV)

Someone said the shroud of death has no pockets.  Solomon understood that very clearly.

He ended up saying that instead of searching of riches and pleasure, his time would have been better spent with those mourning the death of a loved one.  He says, “Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.” (Ecclesiastes 7:3, NIV)

There is still meaning in life

In amongst all this pessimism and meaningless Solomon found something which is worthwhile and meaningful.

A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:24–26, NIV)

Then, apparently much later in life, he gives this testimony:

You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. (Ecclesiastes 11:9, NIV)

There is almost a sadness in this verse.  This wise king who had everything going for him, wasted his opportunities, his gifts, his talents – he was just a bad steward of the things God apportioned to him.  Now, at the end of his life, he looks back and instead of thanking God for all he had, he fears God’s judgment.

We have to understand that God did not put us on earth to never experience joy and happiness.  It is also wrong to think that to follow one’s dreams is sinful.  No, all of us received from God talents, skills, friends, family and opportunities to enjoy the time God appointed for us on earth.  What is more unattractive that a lemon-faced Christian!  As a matter of fact, the fruit of the Spirit are all things which make the children of God so much different that those who do not believe Him:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22–23, NIV)

We are not meant to be locked up in cloisters and monasteries where we have to renounce all pleasures and joys.  Paul writes about people who just can’t help themselves but to add to the Gospel, making rules of “Do not handle!”, “Do not taste!” and “Do not touch!”  What sort of life is that?  The word “joy” is repeated over and over again in the Bible.  The Christian, of all people, should be joyful and happy.

But for the Christian joy does not lie in getting drunk of be given to all sorts of worldly pleasures.  The concept of joy in the bible is always connected to the child of God’s life in the presence of God.  In his letter to Timothy Paul writes:

Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2:22, NIV)

Worldly pleasures, or sinful pleasures are a killer.  This is what got Solomon where he found himself:  his joy abandoned him, and his life was filled with regret and sadness.  Ask about every adult here today about their regret about sin and the pain it brought in their hearts and their relationships with one another and above all, their relationship with God.

Remember your Creator

There is a remedy against spiritual nothingness and meaninglessness.  It would be horrible to live a life, to have had all opportunities, skills and talents, and then, when one is old to then say, “I find no pleasure in life.”

The good advise of a man who seemingly threw it all away is this:

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”— (Ecclesiastes 12:1, NIV)

What does this “remember” mean? It surely means more than to remember someone’s birthday, or to remember when the exams start.

The Biblical “remember” has something of “constantly keeping in one’s mind”, so that one’s path is determined by what you are thinking about.

To remember our Creator is exactly that:  to always understand the God created you.  He created the world, time, talent and opportunities.  To remember this is to then direct one’s way in obedience to the Creator to please Him in all one does.  This is why the Bible teaches:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters. (Colossians 3:23, NIV)

So, when you now start your journey as communicant members of the church of Christ, you must remember your Creator.

But the “remember” of the Bible constantly takes the people of God back to the salvation of God; through Christ and his Spirit he re-created us.  To remember God is to remember his acts of mercy.  Our minds should be filled with thanksgiving for the fact that Jesus Christ took our punishment upon Him when He died on the cross.  It also means that our minds must be filled with thankfulness that his resurrection means our new life.

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (Colossians 3:1, NIV)

The days of trouble

Just briefly this warning:  the opposite of remember is to forget, or at least to delay – tomorrow, or later.

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”— (Ecclesiastes 12:1, NIV)

There are millions of people who found the way to eternal hell just because they thought there would be another day.  Besides, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

But the reality is also that constant delay may lead to a day that the delight of the Gospel will not be the pleasure of your soul.  O, the number of old people I come across who repeat these words, “I find no pleasure in the Gospel!”  The brain has become misty and foggy; the heart is hard and the mind stubborn.  What tragedy then that they unwittingly repeat the words of Solomon, “It is all meaningless; all comes to nothing!”

Conclusion

You have made a good choice to make profession of your faith now while you are young.  We praise and thank God for you.  It is with excitement that I recommended you to the elders for membership.  Your knowledge of the things of our Lord and the Scripture is exemplary.  I look forward to work with you in the body of the Lord – for his glory.  I plead with the congregation to stand by their commitment to set a godly example for you, to pray for you and to encourage you in your walk with the Lord.

But you will eventually move on, leave school, meet friends and chisel out you career, and get married.  I plead with you in the Name of Jesus Christ, your Redeemer:  “Remember your Creator!”  Do this and life will never be meaningless.

AMEN

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 24 August 2014

Abraham, the father of all believers (5)

The battle belongs to the Lord

http://filewillbepublishedhere

Scripture Readings

  • Hebrews 7:1-10
  • Genesis 14:1-24

Introduction

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

It was told of Charles William Eliot, once president of Harvard University, who had a conversation with a campus labourer who said: “There is not much difference between men, but the little difference there is makes all the difference in the world.”

There was not much difference between Abraham and those around him living in Canaan.  But the difference between him and other leaders made all the difference for the rest of history as we know it.  Abraham was not a special man, with an extraordinary skill-set;  he was just a man who trusted the God who called him out of the futility of worshipping idols, and he trusted the God promised to carry him all the way till those promises were fulfilled – even long after he died.

Things did not always work out for the man of God and his wife.  Their life in more than one way is our experience as Christians every day.  They expected fertility, but they found famine.  There were conquering armies and disputatious stockmen. Maybe Sarah had dreams of a peaceful home, instead she experienced temporary exile.  Abraham possibly had visions of many little children running around, instead he found himself preparing for the battlefield to rescue his nephew. If anyone of us received the promise of Genesis 12:1–3, we might have felt being deceived – at face value at least, nothing seemed to come to fruition.

Abraham and the first war in the Bible

It is almost as if the first verse of Genesis 14 takes us back to the world out of which Abraham was called.  It is sort of a reality check.  The first king mentioned in that verse is Amraphel, king of Shinar.  It was from this valley that Abraham had come.  In coalition with two other kings he descended onto the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah and three other cities in the Jordan valley and brutally subjected them.  For twelve years long they became servants of the northern kings, but in the 13th year they rebelled.  This invoked the anger of their oppressors which then went on a rampage by taking far more territory that previously had.  At first the folk in the Jordan Valley thought they could stand against the northern kings, but soon they realised their weakness against the superior armies and withdrew in humiliation.  They lost their cities and livelihood.  The people were taken into captivity – which included the nephew of Abraham, Lot.

This was not just a little localised squirm between insignificant personalities.  It was a major shift of political powers of international importance which, in terms of land mass, covers an area inclusive of all of modern day Israel, Lebanon, Syria and parts of the present day Iraq.

Lot, who in the previous chapter, chose go and live in the green Jordan valley where everything looked so attractive – and remember he went there because he had many possessions – lost everything.  He went there to increase his possessions but ended up with nothing.  This holds a great lesson for us.  In a way I think Lot’s history is a practical outworking of what God said in Genesis 12:1-3:

“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. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:1–3, NIV)

Lot was not under the blessing of Abraham anymore.  Yes he was of the same family line, but he deliberately chose to move out from under that blessing.  Now he found himself with nothing, destined to serve as a slave to godless people.

Abraham – and the Most High God

It seems that at that stage Abraham had gained influence in the Promised Land.  For security reasons Mamre and his two brothers, Eschol and Aner, allied with Abraham, who had trained 318 men as soldiers.  This number reminds us of the small army of men with Gideon.

Without hesitation Abraham mustered his men and went in pursuit of the armies of Kedorlaomer and his allies to rescue his nephew.  Abraham had no political ambition, although it would have been the perfect opportunity to claim his stake on the land if God would allow him the victory.  God had already promised him the land, he had no need to fight for it.

As Christians we have no need to go into military battle for the world; Christ defeated the powers of this world on the cross and He declared that all power and authority have been given to Him.  We don’t go into battle with destructive weaponry; we don’t don’t demand of people, facing the barrel of a gun, to repent of die. We don’t blow up buildings – we don’t need any military power to achieve what God wants us to do.  Christians may not find themselves involved in a holy war with real armies and battle gear.  It is not by power and by might, but by the Spirit of God.

Abraham did not blame Lot for what happened to him.  He did not say that he should sleep on the bed he made.  The case was not lost; rescuing Lot was possible, and maybe he might come to his senses to trust God once again in and with his life.

For all practical reasons the pursuit was doomed even before it began: who in his right mind would go after established armies with a handful of people with no real war experience.

But for Abraham the cause was right.  It was God’s will that he rescue Lot – and that was the end of the argument.  The God who rescue him from slavery of sin, made promises to him, and he trusted that God to bring him home safely.

He also trusted God for wisdom as to how he should plan and execute the rescue.  David more than once said God taught him to battle against his enemy:

He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze. (Psalm 18:34, NIV)

With the wisdom which God gave him he pursued the armies where they were going to the north, even north of Damascus.  God gave him the mercy to rescue the goods and people stolen from Sodom and Gomorrah.  He brought back his nephew Lot too.

The battle belongs to God.  It was not the strength of military expertise of Abraham or his courage that brought about the victory.  It was God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, who delivered hi enemies into his hand. (Genesis 14:19-20)

What grace it was to Lot!  You would have thought that he would not go back to Sodom, the evil place.  One would have thought that even Sodom and Gomorrah would have repented to worship the God of Abraham.  But it apparently made not impact on them.  Lot settled there again and the sin of Sodom compounded. Their next visitation as not from hostile earthly kings, but from the holy, just and righteous God.

Abraham and Christ

On his return, as he went past Salem, two very important people came out to meet Abraham.  If I were in Abraham’s shoes I would have thought, “Rightly so! I have just routed the armies of the enemy, gained some international recognition as a military leader. I have put my life on the line while these folks did nothing!”

In the Valley of Kings these two kings met with Abraham. The first was Melchizedek.  He was also a priest of God Most High.  With him had bread and wine.  He was king of righteousness, while at the same time, as king of Salem, he was king of peace. As priest he was ministering, not to one peculiar people, as the Levites afterwards did, but to mankind at large without any distinction.

He blessed Abraham.  This was the first person Abraham came across in the Promised Land whom he could relate to: they served the same God.  The Bible gives us very little about Melchizedek, but God sent him to Abraham for encouragement.  I don’t think it’s beyond comprehension to think that these two men spent wonderful moments of fellowship in the Lord:  the Valley of Kings that day became the Valley of The King – God Most High.

God revealed something to Abraham in his meeting with Melchizedek:  there is something great about who that man represents.  By faith he saw something that is hidden to the unspiritual eye:  Abraham was not great, even after his victory; Melchizedek and who he represented was great! We need to go to Hebrews 7 now.  Verse 2:

First, the name Melchizedek means “king of righteousness”; then also, “king of Salem” means “king of peace.” (Hebrews 7:2, NIV)

It is by the righteousness that God provides through the priesthood of Jesus Christ that peace comes to us.  The writer of the Hebrews explains to us that Christ is priest in the order of Melchizedek: not according to the tribe of Levi – Jesus was born from the tribe of Judah. He met the righteousness of God by being far more than any earthly priest could be:  he was sinless and there was no need for him to make atonement for Himself.  He was an end to the earthly priesthood of intercession by the blood of bulls and calves: his won perfect sacrifice of body and blood brings peace to us.  He is is “the great High Priest” that once ministered on earth, and is now passed into the heavens to offer incense before the throne of God. In Him alone, after Melchizedek, were combined the offices of King and Priest: He and he only is “a Priest upon his throne.”

By faith, this is what Abraham saw on the Valley of the Kings.  That’s why he give gave him a tenth of all of the loot.  One does not give something like this to human beings – only to God.

Did you notice that Melchizedek did not offer sacrifices when he met with Abraham?  He had bread and wine to feed the hungry and weary soul just back from war.  In this he also exemplifies our Lord who feed us on the signs of wine and bread: his body and his blood – and we look back to his victory on the cross, and we look forward to the eternal rest when He comes again.

Abraham went on his journey as happy man.  God sealed his promise to Abraham through the ministry of Word and sacrament.  But there was another choice to make.

Abraham and the anti-Christ

While still in the Valley of the Kings, another king arrived.  It was Bera the king of Sodom.  Although he was in no position to deal with Abraham, he made him an offer. The devil is good at this.  He even tried to trick Jesus into giving Him what rightly already belonged to Him: the kingdoms of the world. Communists are good at this game too: they often want you to sit down around the negotiation table so that they can discuss how to deal with the things belonging to other parties.

Keep in mind Bera was a defeated king.  That part of his people now in the custody of Abraham and their possessions only existed because of Abraham, but he insisted on getting his people back in exchange for their possessions which he thought Abraham could keep.  If Abraham went into a deal with him this could be held against Abraham in the future.

But after his dealings with Melchizedek and the vision of God’s Kingdom in Jesus Christ, Abraham did as God requires of us in our conduct with the world:  no deals!  There is no fellowship between light and darkness.  There is no harmony between Christ and Belial.  What does a believer have in common with and unbeliever?  What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? (2Corinthians 6:15-16)

Abraham had made up his mind:

But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’ (Genesis 14:22–23, NIV)

Give the devil no honour.  Abraham’s honour was the glory of God who delivered his enemies into his hands.  If his allies, Mamre, Aner and Eschol wanted something of the lot, they could take it, but he would not take a thing.

Does it surprise us then that in the next verse God appeared to Abraham and said:

After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” (Genesis 15:1, NIV)

There is a real possibility that the church of Christ, and of course members individually, find themselves in compromise with the devil:  but one’s spiritual life suffers as a result.  The spiritual life of the church suffers when we make deals with the world:  God’s Spirit cannot minister to us the riches of God’s grace if there are certain corners of our lives we have compromised because we are not walking in the pure light of God’s Word.

Conclusion

There was this day that all of this became very clear to Abraham: it was either Christ – as the king and priest Melchizedek ministered to him the righteousness and peace of God, and they ate the bread and drank the wine – all pointing to the One who would fulfil everything, according to the same order as that of Melchizedek, as the perfect priest, king and prophet of his Father by giving Himself a ransom for many to bring them to God.

… they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:15–16, NIV)

May God give us such a vision:  that we would be satisfied with Him, that we would feast on his promises, that we would not compromise ourselves with the devil – that indeed we, like Abraham, would march out in the power of the Lord Jesus, for the battle belongs to HIm.  To Him all glory in heaven and on earth.  AMEN.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 17 August 2014

Abraham the Father of all believers (4)

Alone, but with God

Scripture Readings

  • Hebrews 6:13-20
  • Genesis 13:5-18

Introduction

A Sunday school teacher asked if any of his students could remember an instance in Scripture of anyone making a bad decision.

“I do,” replied a boy, “Esau made a bad decision when he sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.”

A second said, “Judas made a bad decision when he sold his Lord for thirty pieces of silver.”

A third replied, “Ananias and Sapphira made a bad decision when they sold their land and then told Peter a falsehood about it.”

A fourth observed. “Our Lord tells us that he makes a bad decision who, to gain the whole world, loses his own soul.”

Something of this last example happened in the life of both Abraham and Lot.  It was Abraham’s idea to lie about Sarah in Egypt to save his own skin.  By the grace of God, he and his whole company, including Lot, was saved from this lie, and brought back to the land of promise.  Being back to where he belonged Abraham called upon the Name of the Lord. From the whole framework of the Scriptures one can deduce that Abraham made confession of his sins.  In the tone of the lost son he went back to his father’s house only to realise that, as one commentator puts it,

“Swine-husks are often the hors d’oeuvres before the fatted calf. The only way to get back into the will of God is to go back to the very cause of the departure, confess it, forsake it, and return to the place of fellowship.” (Donald Grey Barnhouse)

Lot was with Abraham and went through the ordeal in Egypt.  But later had to make a choice:  he pitched his tents near Sodom.  He gained the world, but lost his soul.  That seems the difference between Abraham and Lot: Abraham went back to the place where he worshipped the Lord; Lot went to the place which seemed good and green and lush – but endangered his walk with the Lord.

The privileged Lot

The custom of the middle east was to adopt the son of your brother when he died.  I see no reason to think that Abraham committed as sin to bring Lot along into the Promised Land in the first place.  He had done what was culturally demanded of him.  It is therefore reasonable to think that Lot shared in the blessings of God which he made to Abraham – not by his own choice in the first instance, but by God’s provision for him.

In a sense, then, Lot was in a very privileged situation:  the childless couple, Abraham and Sarah, had someone in their household who shared what they had as if he was their own.  Lot was first in line to inherit if Abraham died, because women did not have a particular high legal standing those days.

It might even be that Abraham looked at Lot like his own son.  Remember, Sarah was barren.  It was quite possible that Abraham interpreted God’s promise to him to have many descendants as something that will come about through Lot.  At face value it was the only possible way.

In many respects Abraham specially care for Lot.  The very fact that they both became rich tells the story of care from Abraham’s side.  Instead of keeping everything to himself, he shared with Lot.  Abraham was the older man, Lot the younger who had the future and therefore he had to be set up well to be in a position to take it further should Abraham die.

The grand plan of God

Man proposes, but God disposes.  Abraham and Lot’s plans were not the plan of God.

It must have been a hard decision for Abraham to one day face Lot with a proposal to part ways, but the tension between them became untenable.  We know the awkwardness which sometimes creeps into a relationship: at first it’s hard to talk about, but in the end everyone knows that the festering sore has become impossible to ignore.  Maybe Abraham and Sarah spoke about this many a time when they couldn’t sleep.  Did they discuss the consequence of parting ways with Lot and what it would mean in terms of the promises of God? At that stage it seemed that Lot was the only one through whom the promises would become a reality.

So, he approached Lot:

Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.” (Genesis 13:9, NIV)

In this Abraham still held on the that of the promise: the whole land will eventually belong to his descendants.  It was the how it would happen that changed.

Surely Abraham would have had the right to make the first choice. Lot was only the junior partner, yet he got the first choice.  But Abraham had learned in Egypt that God’s choice would be the best for him.

Now the theme of Abraham’s life is developing.  When, many years later, God tested his obedience to sacrifice his one and only son, Isaac, on the mountains of Moriah, he said:  “God will provide.”  This is the language of faith, the language of one who has seen and experienced the hard knocks of disappointments of own decision-making.

There on the heights of the Judean  mountains, looking down on the Jordan valley with its green pastures and all its promises, both men stood: they had choices to make.

A bad choice

The Bible pictures Lot as a man without real principles.  The first choice he could make was to submit to the leadership of Abraham and order his herdsman to stop the quarrelling.  He chose to follow material wealth and comfort above the company of the chosen friend of God and the blessings it would have brought him.  To him everything looked like the garden of Eden, and even Egypt with it’s green pastures all along the Nile River, constantly fed by a life-giving stream of water all year round.

Isn’t it interesting that for shallow Christians things can sometimes appear to have both spiritual as well as worldly value?  It’s like with the seed which that fell on the rocky ground:  it sprang up quickly because the soil was shallow, but when the sun came up, the plants were scorched and they withered because they had no root. Of these people the Lord said:

But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. (Mark 4:17, NIV)

We know this very well; the church has such members.  They understand the power of prayer, but only when they are in need – you see them at days of prayers for rain or a national disaster, or when death and sickness have come near them.  When the blue skies return to them, they disappear.  They sit on two chairs and talk both languages – they see Sodom but think it is the Garden of Eden; they live in Egypt, but have friends in Paradise. If tempted by the devil they would have jumped from the mountainside trusting that angels would be there to catch them.

The promise of the evil one is a hollow promise: the green pastures soon turn into the salt pits of God’s destruction upon this world.  The argument goes that they can serve God there too.  Don’t the green plains of this world need witness too?  The question is:  Did Lot witness for the Lord while he was pitching his tents there?  Do you witness for the Lord when you go there, or is it just a very convenient way of saying you can’t really make a choice to follow Christ with an undivided heart?

Both men, Abraham and Lot were rich, but Lot’s riches owned him and dictated his actions – he wanted more!  What Abraham owned did not posses him – he was content with God’s choice for him.  Lot eventually lost everything – even his wife – and fled the city with his tail between his legs: humiliated and only just alive. Paul writes:

… Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica.(2 Timothy 4:9–10, NIV)

The word for “go one his way” is the same word used in Luke 8:14 for the seed that were choked by life’s worries.  I think there is a similarity here: Demas, once a co-worker with Paul was not whole-heartedly in it: he loved the world and eventually deserted Paul and went his way.   Don’t go there!  Peter writes:

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time (or: the rest of your life) in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. (1 Peter 4:1–2, ESV)

Wandering off can be a process.  First, Lot just look towards Sodom.  There was something in this “looking”; Abraham also saw what Lot saw, and he knew what Lot knew looking at Sodom.  Lot’s looking was driven by a heart that saw worldly riches and pleasures.  Secondly, he then chose to go and live “near Sodom”.  Why? He also knew it was a utterly wicked city.  He would not initially mix with them. Thirdly, it did not take him too long to find himself living right in the midst of them.  2Peter 2:7-8 says he was tormented by the lawlessness of the people of Sodom, but it seems his wife and daughters were not.  Then, the last in this downward journey, he became part of them.  Genesis 19:1 suggests that he became an elder of Sodom as he sat in the gateway of the city.  The next time we see him as a refugee fleeing for his life, having lost everything but his life.

There is nothing this world has on offer which is lasting.  The pie in the sky when you die does not apply to believing Christians; it applies to half-baked Christians, and those who reject the authority of God in Jesus Christ. Don’t go there!

Man proposes, but God disposes

After Lot’s departure Abraham found himself alone – but with God.  If ever he had hoped that God would bring his promised blessings to fruition through Lot, he now needed to rethink everything from scratch.  One can only wonder what kept his mind ticking in sleepless nights ahead of him. He was getting older, his wife was barren and there was no successor in sight.

We have an interesting text straight after Lot left Abraham:  the Lord commanded Abraham to look up.  Lot had also looked up; Abraham’s looking up was not what the world had on offer for him.  The text says:

“Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward … Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” (Genesis 13:14, 17, ESV)

Yes, Abraham did lose Lot, and he probably did not get what he would have chosen for himself, but he gained the renewed assurance from the God of glory who saved him from worshipping lifeless idols that his promise still stands. Interesting, when Jacob was fleeing from Esau he slept in Bethel.  His head rested on a rock.  This was nothing compared to the green pastures of the Sodom valley.  It was dusty, dry and rocky country – but it was God’s country!

Abraham stood on the rocky outcrops and what he saw was probably not much to be desired.  But God was with him.  There he could build an altar to the living God.  He once again learned to trust God – even if his soul was downcast and he longed to have Lot with him.  But he was dependent on God to provide every step of the way.

Look up!

For us who live on this side of the cross of Jesus Christ, who is the fulfilment of all the promises of God, the One who has gone ahead of us to prepare our heavenly promised land, there is also a “Look up!”  Hebrews 2:9 says:

But we see Him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:9, ESV)

For our journey we have the heroes of faith, including Abraham listed in Hebrews 11, but we have the One who fully completed the race and has overcome in the most definite sense, Jesus Christ, our Lord and we, lookto Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2, ESV)

Him we consider so that we will not grow weary and lose heart (Hebrews 12:3). The world we are living in speaks to us in a conflicting discord of voices. They come from without and within—from the world, the flesh, and the Devil.  If we listen to them we become confused and ineffective as Christians. The cure for that is to lift up our eyes to Jesus and listen to Him only.

More than that, Abraham went back to the tree of Mamre, that place where he built the first altar to the Lord, the place where the Canaanites worshipped their gods of fertility.  God promised him that land. At time it was filled with evil, but Abraham worshipped God.  It reminds us of something Jesus Christ said when He visited Samaria, which is geographically not far from Bethel:

Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. (John 4:35, ESV)

Look up! To inherit this land of promise means to see that the harvest is ripe.  There’s work to do.  But Christ also said:

And look, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Look like Abraham; see what he saw by faith.  We are not alone. Jesus said, “Look, I am with you.”  The land, the world, is not settled yet.  There’s work to do.

AMEN.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 10 August 2014

Abraham the father of all believers (3)

A straight blow with a crooked stick

Scripture Readings

  • Matthew 14:22-36
  • Genesis 12:9-13:4

Introduction

It happens slowly, gradually:  we enjoyed the glow and presence of the God who called us out of darkness to his wonderful light.  There was a time that we found ourselves on cloud nine:  we cherished the goodness of God’s grace in Jesus Christ; we marvelled in the provision of the Lord, and our prayer life set the temperature for our daily walk with Him.  We, almost romantically, expected of God provision for every day in every circumstance, and hardly did we let the opportunity go by to speak to Him and to speak to others about Him.

But then, slowly and gradually the glow seemed to become colder, our dedication and wonder for God’s grace declined.  Our expectation of his provision faded, and our Christian walk became a drag and a tedious chore.  The spark of trust and expectation have gone, and more and more we leaned on our energy to keep our relationship with God going, sometimes even feeling that it is all gone.  Our prayer life halted, we found it difficult to speak about our Saviour, and our study of the Scriptures became dry and meaningless.  We know our spiritual life has nothing more to offer than those who do not believe.  It is just so dry within.  And in these times we hear the constant charge of the Accuser that we have failed, and that following the Lord after all is not such a big deal.  The effect of all of this is that we allow compromises in our life, and the world becomes an attractive place.  We are now more inclined to let go of some of our dear-held principles.

To sum it up, we are not in a place where God wants us to be; we are exposed, vulnerable and spiritually fragile.

This is where Abraham found himself in the last part of Genesis 12.  And in some way, this is where Peter found himself when he took his eyes off Jesus on that stormy night:  he saw the wind, he was afraid and he began to sink.

The crooked stick

Abraham, a man like us

A brave move in faith

For some reason, we think Abraham must have been a very special person, even a sort of supernatural human being.  But have we have seen last week, God saved him our of Mesopotamia where he was worshipping other gods (Joshua 24:2-3).

Yes, this is something in Abraham which makes us look up to him.  When God called him to leave his country, his family and his father’s house, it took a special kind of obedience for him to back his bags and set out to a place where had he no idea about what it would be like.

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. (Hebrews 11:8)

This land did not mean easy living:  there were Canaanites there who were a hostile, war-hungry, devil worshipping, and child-sacrificing group of people. For Abraham then to build an altar to the God of glory who appeared to him in Mesopotamia right at the place of worship of the Canaanites is something we admire.  This is the sort of thing God wants of his people: we need to brave to go out in this world to proclaim the wonders of Him who saves by grace.  That’s why some leave home and loved ones go to places like Portugal, and others almost put their lives on the line to tell about Christ in our public schools.

A gradual shift away

But not long after we read about Abraham claiming the land in the Name of the God of glory, we hear about him setting out to the Negev, this is the southern parts of Judah, of which some were known to be desert-like. (Map) The Hebrew, if we would translate very literally, could sound like this: “Abram pulled up his tent pegs, and kept pulling up the pegs into the Negev.” It was a process; gradually he moved south.

I don’t think Abraham going south into the Negev was a such a sinful thing to do. He was still in the land which God promised to him.  But there are two very important geographical markers in our text:  in verse 8 he built a second altar to the Lord and worshipped Him there.  Chapter 13:4 takes us back to this point, and Abraham once again worshipped the Lord; that’s the one geographical marker:  the altar built to God where Abraham worshipped God.  The second place which plays a role in this episode of Abraham’s life is Egypt – and we don’t read about Abraham worshipping God there.  As a matter of fact, it is almost as if Abraham thought God is not in Egypt.

So, I think we need to focus on these markers to help us understand the story of Abraham.

A test of faith

Whilst in the Negev God allowed a drought to happen – not just and ordinary drought, the Bible says it was severe. Where Abraham found himself then there was a sort of a highway which ran north to south, from Damascus to Egypt.  It was most probably here where Abraham heard that things looked  much better in Egypt than in Canaan.  It seems then that Abraham lent an ear to the rumours more than he would listen to the voice of God.

Point is, he thought had to do something: his existence was endangered because of the famine.  He wanted to provide for his family.  The man who trusted God earlier so much that he left everything behind for the sake of following God, now was in charge of his own plans. If we read Hebrews 11 correctly, he very well understood that going back to Ur or Haran was not the right thing. (Hebrews 11:15)

If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. (Hebrews 11:15, NIV)

So, Abraham must have been convinced that Egypt was the only option, but we don’t hear him speaking to God about it. In essence it was his idea to escape the famine. It was only later in his journey of faith that he learned to wait upon God.

Only temporary – “sojourn”

Abraham’s plan was not to leave Canaan permanently.  The word for “live” in verse 10, comes from the Hebrew to live among people who are not blood relatives. It was not that Abraham gave up upon God’s promises, but, as we shall see in the rest of this series, Abraham sometimes understood them wrongly.  Here he thought he had to step in and do something.

This is what happens when we slowly drift away from the presence of God and we think we need to step in for what seems like God is not with us.  The problem of course is not that God is not with us anymore, but we are not with God anymore.  Now we take things in our own hands.  And it more often than not leeds to some sort of mess-up.  Faith means trust; faith does not mean starting out in our own direction and then trust that God would follow.  We might think that we are not moving away permanently or giving up on God’s providence, but the fact it we are moving away from Him.

Bargaining to save himself

Moving out of the Promised Land, Abraham is faced with a custom of the Egyptians:  the Pharaoh had the first choice when it came to women. He held a huge harem out of which would pick and choose partners to give him children to secure his posterity.  If you were married to a women, the marriage could annulled with you dying.  If you were not married, the father or eldest brother would be given a handsome dowry and the women then became part of the harem.  David had Uriah killed in the same way to get Bathsheba as wife.

Abraham and Sarah were actually half brother and sister (Genesis 20:12), but they were also married.  For convenience sake when it was necessary he fell back on the “she-is-my-sister”act.  A half truth is nothing else but a full lie. Abraham was extremely selfish: “Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” (Genesis 12:13).  Maybe Abraham just could not work out that God honoured his marriage to Sarah and that both of them were important in the promises of God.

Abraham’s eye were not on God – he had to bargain for his future, and in the process is marriage, and God’s promise to give them children, were put at risk.

Humiliation

Unbeknownst to Abraham’s in his faithfulness God intervened.  He kept their marriage from being desecrated, and inflicted the Pharaoh and his clan with serious diseases.  Abraham’s half truth exposed his full lie:  he and Sarah were married.  The both of them were sent away in humiliation.  They were not welcome even in the place they thought they would temporarily seek refuge.  The chosen one of God faced the rebuke and a slap in the face by the world.

Their grand plan did not work out.  It was a disaster.  It was back to the drawing board for them, back to where they started to drift away from worshipping and trusting God.  They journeyed back through the Negev.  Not much is mentioned about his walk with the Lord until he got back to Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier; then we read, “There Abraham called on the Name of the Lord.” (Genesis 13:4)

Abraham is our father in faith, not because he was a hero.  He is our father in faith because he was just like we are:  there were times that he drifted away from God, he relied upon his own wisdom, he failed – but he learned from his mistakes.  We should learn from him:  life outside of the place where God wants us to be is doomed to fail, it is dangerous and precarious.  We need to go back to our first love, there where we got to know God as He declared his promises to us, now true and fulfilled in his Sons, our Saviour, Jesus Christ.  With our eyes fixed on the waves around us, in stead of on Jesus Christ, we are doomed to sink.  Drinking from the cisterns of this world leads to spiritual thirst and starvation.  A fountain cannot have fresh and brackish water; the water of this world does not satisfy – in fact, it causes diseases.  So, lets go back to where we belong:  at the altar where found grace, there where all the promises of God came true in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. In Him we have an eternal promised land.

The straight blow

The Egyptians did treat Abraham well: he had been a wealthy man before all this happened, but now he got even more.  But what he got more was nothing of his own doing.  God bestowed it upon him.  Not because he was disobedient as a form of reward for unbelief.

A precursor of salvation

We have to look at this episode in the light of the rest of the Scripture.  Further in God’s dealings with his people He sent a famine in the Promised Land.  This led to Jacob and his family of 70 souls to dwell in Egypt as sojourners.  Then 430 years later God brought them out because He loved them and because kept his promise. In preparation for this mighty act of salvation Joseph was sold out by his brothers and was the reason for their survival, in the same way Jesus was sold out by his brothers to prepare salvation for us.

When they left Egypt, like Abraham, they left with the belongings of the Egyptians as God’s provision for them to survive the journey home.

A precursor to the cross

The story of Abraham is the story of man’s disobedience, but is also the story of God’s faithfulness.  It is the story of God’s grace in Jesus Christ to not leave us completely fall when we lean on our own devises, but to provide for us on our journey home.  It’s the story which points to Jesus Christ who remained faithful to the end, but was sent to the spiritual Egypt of this world to redeem us and take us home.

It’s the story which should be a warning to those who oppose God:  don’t curse those whom God blessed; He will curse those who curse those who belongs to Him – all because Christ became the cursed One in our place.  He is our only hope for salvation.  In Him we will arrive home to call on the Name of our Father – forever!

Conclusion

Are we backslidden?  Are we trying to work out our own thing?  Are we where God wants us to be?  If not, let’s go back to the altar of the cross, confess our sins, and follow Christ.  Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 27 July 2014

 

Abraham, the father of all believers (2)

Pilgrim through a barren land

(audio file will be posted here)

Scripture Readings

  • Acts 7:1-8
  • Genesis 12:1-9

Introduction

My dear brother and sister in the Lord,

Someone said in a writer’s conference. “If you want to write, put glue on the seat of your pants and sit in a chair!” He said no amount of talent or conducive atmosphere can make up for hard work—stick-to-it-ive-ness!

As Thomas Carlyle neared completion of his masterpiece, The French Revolution, a thoughtless cleaner gathered up the his written pages and tossed them into the fire. Disappointed and heartsick Carlyle did not pamper himself with self-pity nor did he harm the cleaner—he sat down and rewrote it from memory.

Noah Webster thought he could complete his dictionary in “three to five years.” It required twenty-one!  What persistence!

It was faith and faithful obedience that kept Abraham going in a barren land with nothing to drive him, other than God Himself, and the promise of the God of glory who called him out of idolatry to freedom.

The God of glory

As we saw last week, Abraham was no better than all the people living around him before God called him.  In fact, the Bible tells us that he worshipped idols at the time of his calling.  God did not look from heaven for a good bloke to start a nation whom He would make a covenant with.  There was none.  All people after Adam were born professional sinners, by nature inclined to worship anyone else but God.  And that includes us. It calls for a divinely appointed work of grace to make us see who God is, and then become aware of our sin.  Once again it is only more grace that helps us turn away from the folly of our sinful existence to follow God.

Our reading of Acts 7 made mention of this in the life of Abraham.  Stephen was about to be stoned to death for his witness of Jesus Christ when he said:

“Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran.” (Acts 7:2, NIV)

The God of glory appeared to him.  That made the difference.  This expression is used of moments in the life of God’s people when He appeared in majesty to them to assure them of his holy presence.  It was usually in the form of a cloud or fire, or both.  When the Israelites left Egypt because God made redemption possible for them, we read, while they were still a short distance out of Egypt:

He spread out a cloud as a covering, and a fire to give light at night. (Psalm 105:39, NIV)

When they faced the Red Sea ahead of them and the armies of the pharaoh behind them:

Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long. (Exodus 14:19–20, NIV)

This is the God of glory who revealed Himself as the Deliverer of his people.  When the people groaned before Moses about their food, Moses said:

In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him.” (Exodus 16:6–7, NIV)

When the people were grumbling because of the lack of water, this is how the Lord answered:

… and the glory of the Lord appeared to them [Moses and Aaron]. The Lord said to Moses, “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.” (Numbers 20:6–8, NIV)

When the Tabernacle was completed, and later the Temple, on both occasions we read:

When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple. (1 Kings 8:10–11, NIV)

This was the sure sign to the people of God that He was in their midst to guide them, protect them and to have communion with them.

It was this God of glory who appeared to Abraham while he was still worshipping other gods in Mesopotamia. This appearance is life changing.  This is, I believe, the same thing that happened to Paul on the road to Damascus.  It changed his life around from being a persecutor of the church to a missionary of the church of Christ.

The God of glory appeared to Abraham while his was still in Mesopotamia” – while he was worshipping other gods.   Joshua 24:2 shines a light on another aspect of Abraham’s salvation.  This is an act of God:

But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. (Joshua 24:3, NIV)

It is by an act of mercy from God that we are saved.  It is his work, revealing Him in his glory in Jesus Christ.  Have you read this next verse carefully?  Listen:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. (Luke 2:8–9, NIV)

Jesus Christ is the glory of the Lord personified.  John puts this way:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, NIV)

Let us not be amazed by the calling of Abraham, as if he was a special human being, having done special things before God in order to be called to be the father of believers.  They way in which he was saved – by grace, called away from the idols of this world to a new obedience – is exactly why he is the father of all believers: we are saved the same way.  We don’t deserve grace, but we are given grace.  This grace is life-changing.  It surely changed Abraham’s life from an idol-worshipper to a worshipper of the only God.

God’s claim on Abraham’s life

God’s call

What is conversion?  What defines one’s life as a converted sinner?

The Lord, calling Abraham, said:

‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’ (Acts 7:3, NIV) 

This is stated in more detail in Genesis 12:

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. (Genesis 12:1, NIV)

It is important that we understand God’s call to Abraham, and as such, to us:  In Abraham’s case it involved a definitive separation from his past. Although Abraham had no good in him that could possibly commend him to God, but this does not mean that there was nothing for Abraham to do once God called him into a relationship with Him. An essential part of God’s call was for Abraham to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household.

Ur in Abraham’s time was apparently where the deep and rich soil, washed down by the Tigris and the Euphrates to the Persian Gulf, gathered in a delta.  It was a pleasant part of the world.  There were apples, grapes, pomegranates, and tamarisks growing wild. It called for a certain resolution to leave a country like that and trek across the Arabian desert to an unknown and less desirable land. But this is what God told Abram to do. He said, “Leave your country.…

But there was another part to God’s command to Abraham: he had to leave his people.  In those days being among one’s own people meant acceptance, prosperity, and security.  Abraham had to go out nearly alone into a world filled potential enemies.  As a matter of fact the Bible states:

At that time the Canaanites were in the land. (Genesis 12:6, NIV)

Applied to us, it does not demand of us to all pack our bags and go live somewhere else.  One commentator says, in demanding these from Abraham meant that he had to

… disentangle himself from the idolatries of his native land, and even sever his connection with the nearest and the dearest, rather than imperil his salvation by remaining in Chaldæa; and in a like spirit does the voice of Jesus in the gospel direct men to forsake the world … to renounce its possessions, occupations, amusements; yea, to dissolve its friendships and endearing relationships, if they would now be numbered among his disciples, and eventually enter into life.

That is conversion.

God’s mission

Added to the other things, Abraham had to leave his immediate relations behind.  It would not have been so bad perhaps if they could all have migrated as a clan, which would mean support and protection.  It was necessary for his spiritual growth to leave them behind. His environment was not conducive to that growth. His family would not help him in the pilgrimage.

The demands are still the same.  Jesus Said:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? (Luke 9:23–25, NIV)

It is to ask for too much?  If not, we could gain the world and forfeit our very self.

Ahraham met the God of glory, he encountered this glory and the his world did not stack up.  Consequently the Bible tells:  “So he left the land of the Chaldeans.”  He left, and God sent him.  That’s what Stephen says in Acts 7.  God enabled him to answer the call, and He enabled him to go.

We should not embellish on what the Bible does not clearly state, but to go and settle in Canaan the living God called and sent him there would not be easy.

It was a land where Baal and Astarte were the main gods in a pantheon of gods, most prominent were the gods of fertility and war.  Temple prostitution was common, and worshippers sacrificed their children.  The religion appealed to immoral and in-born sinfulness of the natural man.  It was almost like one does not believe in something; you just do what comes naturally, give yourself over to the sin that controls your life – what you then indulge in is your religion.   You only need to look at some programs on TV to understand that the world of Abraham was not much different – and it has become a religion in our day too.

Abraham journeyed into the land and found himself at the great tree of Moreh.  It seems as if this tree, or clump of trees, was the place where the Canaanites worshipped and where they got there oracles from.  It was at this place that the Canaanites gathered to indulge in their primitive religion of human sacrifice and prostitution.  What a place to come too after the holy God of glory called you into his service!  But what did Abraham do?  He built an altar to the Lord.  He distinguishes his God from the gods of the place and its tree by building an altar to Yahweh who has appeared to him.

What made the difference in Abraham’s life?  The God of glory who appeared to him in Ur is the God who sent him there, and He is the God who once again appeared to him – none less glorious than before.

God’s promise

There, at the altar and tree where the godless worshipped, there God appeared to him and promised him, “To your offspring I will give this land.”

A commentator remarks:

God’s [Yahweh’s] word to Abram and his response in setting up the altar together tear the seamless web connecting gods and people and land in Canaan.

Abraham’s altar may have looked the same as those already there, but God’s promise to give this land to his descendants, becomes to Abraham a sign of eventual possession of that land. Factually the Canaanites occupied the land as their sacred symbol showed, but Abraham occupied it in symbol only.  Abraham’s altar speaks of a future rooted in the past – God’s call and promise: he claimed his future, not by building a rival city, but by building an altar. His altar remained as witness to the fact that in this place a child of God once knelt and prayed, proclaimed the gospel of grace, and claimed that spot for God’s glory.

This is something the church of Jesus Christ must learn to understand.  We do not build rival cities by gathering earthly signs of power.  We spend our time on earth as pilgrims with no permanent address.  Abraham is an example of how we are to be in the world and yet not of it, of what it means to be a pilgrim.  Canaan was never exactly the same after he had passed through.  He built altars to the living God.  His business was God’s Kingdom.  What is our business?

A pilgrim is one who has left home but is also traveling to another home. A pilgrim has had a vision of a goal, a destination, and is determined to only have a tent until he can move in to the house.  When the Lord appeared to him at the trees of Moreh, he understood that God is in Canaan too, and that one day, in God’s own timing, the whole place will belong to his people; till then, he was just a pilgrim through the barren, trusting God only – although he sometimes misunderstood God’s guidance.

Conclusion

My dear friend, Abraham is in more than one instance an example to follow.  His faith in God was accredited to him as righteousness.  His obedience to trust God when all looked bleak should help us to trust God, even when we have to, as Hebrews puts it, have confidence in only what we hope for, and have assurance in the things we don’t yet see .

But more so was our Lord Jesus Christ.  He is far more than just an example.  He left his Father’s glory to establish the kingdom of God on earth.  Not a kingdom in political sense.  Pilate heard it from Him, “My kingdom is not from this world, it is from another place.” (John 18:36)  Yes, He is King.  Pilate was correct when he had the inscription made, “The King of the Jews.” (John 19:19) But that inscription was nailed with Jesus to the cross where He died, only to rise again, to open the door to the city Abraham saw by faith, built by God.  There was no other pilgrim like our Lord Jesus Christ. There was no barren land like the one He came to die in and for.

He now calls us to leave everything behind to follow Him, and to like Abraham erect spiritual altars in this godless Canaan to the God of glory.  Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on sunday 20 July 2014

 

Abraham, the father of all believers – Grace and promise

Scripture Readings

  • Hebrews 11:8-10
  • Genesis 11:27-12:8

Introduction

Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord, today marks the first in a series of sermons on Abraham, the father of all believers.  Our series will take us through episodes in the life of Abraham and his responses to the covenant grace of God.

The challenge of every sermon is to see the redemptive plan of God at work at any point of history, how it is fulfilled in Christ Jesus and what it teaches about the reason why God called his church into existence.   May God help us to see that.

The sinfulness of man and the grace of God

It might help if we make a distinction between general history and redemptive history.  Why? We might understand the Bible better that way.

Every minute of the past belongs to God.  All history is therefore in the hands of God.  He is the reason for history, and history explains the way in which God unfolded his plan with his creation.

Historical facts recorded in the Bible are correct, but not all history is recorded in the Bible.  The Bible’s purpose was to record redemptive history.  There are chapters in the Bible, like Genesis 5 and 10 which serves as “fast-forward” events; it probably covers hundreds of years.  But the main message of the Bible here is to help us understand four major aspects of God and man:  man is sinful, God is holy, God punishes sin, and no sinful event can ever put a stopper on the plan of God to save his elect.

This explains the pattern:

  • man sins
  • God’s holiness demands punishment
  • God does not fully destroy man because of his sin
  • God fulfil his promises in Jesus Christ

Babel: the plan of man against the plan of God

In a certain sense the story of Babel is a repeat of what happened in paradise:  man wanted to be like God.

“Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4)

Two things we see in this verse:  they wanted to oppose God to be like Him and they wanted to oppose the command of God to fill the earth.

Their plans started with “Come!”.  This was the inception of a plan which most probably came from the likes of Nimrod.  The Bible tells about this man, who was a tyrant who had a kingdom (and this is the first time in the Scriptures we hear the word “kingdom”, not describing the kingdom of God.  He established Babel and Shinar.  A paraphrase of Genesis 10:8-12 might sound like this:

Cush became the father of Nimrod; he began to be a mighty despot in the land. He was an arrogant tyrant, defiant before the face of the Lord; of him it is said, ‘Nimrod, the mighty despot, is proud before the face of the Lord. And the homeland of his empire was Babel … in the land of Shinar. From this base he invaded the kingdom of Asshur, and built Nineveh, and Rehoboth-Ir, and Calah, and Resin between Nineveh and Calah. These made up one great city.

The Hebrew puts an emphasis on “for us”:  the purpose of building the city was to point to their greatness and their achievement.  When it comes to the tower that pointed to the skies, there are different ways to look at it.  Did they really wanted to build a tower that reached as high as the heavens?  The word “reach” is not in the original.  Montgomery Boice asked this question:  “Are we to think, then, that Satan was entirely absent from the original attempt to build a civilization without God? Was he absent from the formation of this first nonbiblical religion?” Boice quotes another scholar, Morris, who said,

“A great temple at its apex would provide a center and an altar where men could offer their sacrifices and worship God. The signs of the zodiac would be emblazoned on the ornate ceiling and walls of the temple, signifying the great story of creation and redemption, as told by the antediluvian patriarchs.

The problem was God was not in it.  It was a man-made religion which glorified man and his achievements.  Right through the Scriptures Babel represents false religion.

It is interesting that the same word used for “tower” here in other places in the Bible points to “greatness” and “importance”.  In Ezekiel 38:23 we read about God:  “And so I will show my greatness and my holiness, and I will make myself known in the sight of many nations. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” (Ezekiel 38:23, NIV)  In Isaiah 10:15 the same basic word is used to show how evil man attempts to magnify himself against the Lord.  I think  it is not impossible to think that Nimrod and his men had much of this in mind when they built their city and temple.

God put an end to this.  Nimrod and his comrades thought they built something majestic, but God still stooped down from heaven – not because He had no idea what was going on there, but to exercise punishment.  The “coming” of the Lord in most cases implied terror on sinners.  In one swoop He confused the language of the people and they could not finish their work.  Later, when the Spirit of God was poured out on Pentecost Day, this curse on Babel was redeemed:  all people may now hear the wondrous deeds of God in Christ and repent to forgiveness of sin.

Fast forward to redemption

In what follows in Genesis chapter 11 we see, as it were, a fast forward over many years to the next event of redemption.  We are presented with a list of names of the descendants of Shem, the son of Noah, out of which Abraham was born. We now move from grace in spite of rebellion, to grace presented in promise.  We are now introduced to another big theme of the Scriptures:  the Covenant of grace.

We usually find genealogies boring – and most of the time they are.  But there is something in Genesis 11:10-26 which we should not miss:  on average the men became fathers when they were 32-34 years old.  But when we come to Abraham’s father we read he was 70.  The story of Abram in the Bible begins when he was 70, and his wife was barren.  This rises tension – how would God fulfil his promises to Abram?  Redemptive history beyond this chapter hinges on how God dealt with Abraham.

Let’s go to the next problem.  Abram was not better than anyone around him.  This is what we learn from the Bible:

“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your ancestors, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. (Joshua 24:2–3, NIV)

Did you pick it up?  Abraham and his father worshipped other gods!  It was God’s plan to, through Abraham, call a nation in existence – his own covenant people – and from them the Saviour of the world would be born.

For God this was not impossible: a barren wife and old man who worshipped other gods would receive God’s grace.  God did the impossible:  by grace he redeemed and by grace He fulfilled his promises to them – and they believed!

Saving grace

This is God’s pattern through the ages, and it teaches us at least two things:

1.  We are not saved by our own works.  The great things of Nimrod came to nothing. God indeed resist the proud; all people and peoples receive redemption only because God wants them to have a part in his redemptive history.  The apostle Paul sums this truth up in Ephesians 2,

“All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:3–5, NIV)

Abraham was not justified by works.  Paul also writes in Romans,

“If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. (Romans 4:2, NIV)

2.  Abraham was not a good bloke and therefore got saved.  This has enormous implications for everyone who stands before God and the only thing they are aware of is that they deserve death because of the holy God’s punishment on sin.  There was the tax collector who knew he deserved nothing else but wrath, and then he called on the mercies of God, “Have mercy of my, for I am a sinner.”  The Lord says he went home a righteous man.  So, don’t have the devil tell you you can’t be saved because you are sinful.  God showed mercy to Abram in spite of him worshipping other gods.

God does his miracle of redemption even when it seems impossible.  Abram was and old man, Sarai was barren, but it is precisely in our weaknesses that God shows Himself powerful.  Otherwise we would want the glory for ourself.  The parents of Samson could not believe when the angel announced that they would become parents – but God gave them a son to deliver his people from their oppression.  The parents of John the Baptist had the same experience, but God did the impossible: He gave them a son to become the forerunner of the Messiah.  The message is the same today:  Don’t think God can’t raise a people for Himself out of the valley of dead bones of our godless culture.  He can, and He will.  Nothing can stand in his way.

Promises on promises

On that black day of Adam and Eve’s fall in paradise, God gave them a promise:  from them will come someone who would crush the head of the serpent.  God did not forget that promise.  After all the rebellions before the Flood and in the Tower of Babel, God stepped in to renew that promise, now in the different way.

He made a Covenant of grace with Abram.  He did not deserve it, he did not ask for it, he did not qualify for it, he had no idea about how God would fulfil it.  But he believed it.

Abram was slow in the beginning.  He did move out of Babylon, but he then stopped over in Haran. Then God spoke to Abram,

“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. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2–3, NIV)

I will bless you”. It’s the blessing of God that made the difference, and the Bible says, “So Abram left.”  Hebrews says he did not know where he was going, but he understood the promise God made to him to be real, and he believed God.  That was accredited to him as righteousness.  Ultimately he had his eye on more than just Canaan:  his eyes were on his heavenly city, so real was his faith.  To the people of Canaan the altars he built when he arrived there was to just another god; but Abram believed the One who took him from the hollow worship of idols to the real worship of the God who made the heavens and the earth and placed him in a covenant relationship of grace.  That was what kept him going. With the altars he claimed the land God had promised to him.

Conclusion

My dear friend in the Lord, God is a God of grace.  His holiness demands justice because of our sins.  Ultimately, because it is all grace, He takes us as his church, not on account of what we have done, but because of Him who came long after Abraham, born from the loins of Abraham, Jesus Christ the promised Redeemer, who is our righteousness because of the sacrifice He made on the cross.  If we believe in Him we should proclaim his greatness to the world we live in, so that the blessing given to Abraham becomes the blessing of the peoples.

Our God is rich in mercy.  Our God keeps his promises. Let’s praise his Name.

Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 13 June 2014

 

 

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