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


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.


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!


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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



Forfeited grace

To not honour the Lord

Scripture Readings

  • Acts 3:1-26
  • Daniel 5:1-30


My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

They tell the story of the young man who wanted to rent a room off the old lady who lived right next to a railway line.  First she showed him the room, and showed him around.  Then the two settled on a rental amount.   Just to be honest the old lady pointed out to the young man that the place was right next to the railway line.  “The first week or so,” she said, “you will find the noise of the trains intrusive, but you will get used to it.”  “Never mind,” he replied, “I have a friend not too far away. I will stay with him for the first week.”

Being exposed to the noise of the train for some time can desensitise one so that after some time you might not even hear it.

How many times have you heard the Gospel of forgiveness in the Lord Jesus Christ?  Do you perhaps come from a family where the Lord is served by godly parents or grandparents?  You have seen the grace of God at work all around you; you heard about it; you see the effects of grace changing the lives of people as they become redeemed children of God. But what about you?  Have you responded to it?

Amazing grace at work

A life changed in the face of grace

Belshazzar, the king of Babylon, grew up in a palace where his grandfather, once the great king of the most powerful kingdom in the known world of his time, came to know the Lord in a most dramatic way. It changed his life and he saw to it that all of his subjects knew about it.

At the end of his life Nebuchadnezzar declared this about God:

At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. His dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:34-35)

To which he added:

“Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything He does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride He is able to humble.” (Daniel 4:37)

There was a time that Daniel, who had been elevated by the king to a high position in his kingdom and moved very closely to the king at that time, were concerned about the king’s eternal life before God.  Daniel said to the king:

Please accept my advice: renounce your sin by doing what is right and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed.  It may be that then your prosperity will continue.

By all accounts, after being humbled by the Lord for a time, Nebuchadnezzar heeded the advice of Daniel and became a worshipper of God.  The impact of this repentance of this once godless king must have been enormous, not only right through his kingdom, but also in his palace.  But fact is, the successors of old Nebuchadnezzar did not follow in his footsteps. This takes us now to Daniel chapter 5.

Amazing grace forgotten

A life lost in the face of grace

Who is Belshazzar?  He was the grandson of Nebuchadnezzar.  Nebuchadnezzar dies old, and his son Evel-Merodach took over the kingdom. His brother killed him, and took over as king.  But in a conspiracy an outsider, Nabonidus, gains the throne, marries Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter.  Their eldest son was Belshazzar.  With the Medes and the Persians about to attack the city, Nabonidus moved to Arabia, and gave his son Belshazzar the control of Babylon.

In the meantime the Medes and Persians under Cyrus were closing in.  They camped outside the city wall for several weeks.  Inside Babylon there is enough provision for years of siege if necessary.

The date is Saturday, October 12, 539 BC – and Belshazzar called a party for his officials.  In the face of sure destruction this dumb and thick-headed king chose to live out his philosophy:  if I worry I die; if I don’t worry, I die; so, why worry!  Let us drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!  Like the parachuter who realised his parachute won’t open.  Sure that he was going to die and that he was not able to do much about it, he decided to sit tight and at least enjoy the scenery.

In the midst of the orgy of lust and drunkenness where the officials, the kings wives and his concubines desecrated the holy objects which had been taken out of the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem when the people of Israel were taken into captivity, and at which they blasphemed the Living God of heaven and earth by worshipping the gods of gold and silver and bronze and iron and wood and stone, Belshazzar saw a hand writing on the wall of his great banquet hall.

Like with a cutting torch, this hand wrote four words on the wall into the plaster.  One gets the impression Belshazzar was the only one to see this miracle.  And in his drunkenness he became very scared. His face turned pale, his knees knocked together and he passed out on the floor.

The music stopped. The dancers looked at one another, and perhaps some thought the king had too much to drink.  For a moment they thought to carry on with their blasphemies. But the king was not hazy and unclear.  All of a sudden his mind was clear.  He knew this was something awesome and extraordinary.

He couldn’t get any sense out of his astrologers and wise men and diviners.  They were dumb-struck.  His nobles were baffled – and probably scared to death, because it was the whim of kings to have their astrologers killed if they could not declare a dream.

Just imagine the picture:  the Sovereign God of heaven had the mightiest king and his nobles in the palm of his hand, scared to death with their knees knocking together.  Such is our God.

There is one thing we need to take along this morning:  God is powerful and He is Sovereign.  The Bible is full of references to the fact that He disposes kings as He wishes.  He controls the universe and He controls kingdoms.  He brings down the haughty, and He exalts the lowly. Old Nebuchadnezzar understood that all to well.  And he knew to bow under this Sovereign God in worship.

But his grandson has this opportunity to learn slip through his fingers.  He had it in his hand, but then all was lost in one moment.

He had to learn once again from his grandmother, the queen-mother, who then made presence known in the banquet hall of the revellers, that God had gifted a man with knowledge.  She knew about it, because she saw the difference in the life of her late husband.

Grace – once again

And now Belshazzar had to face that man who was the messenger of the living God. Daniel walked in, now not as the young man we meet in the first chapters of this book, but as a man of well into his seventies, maybe eighties.  He was not interested in the gifts of the King.  After all, his God had provided for him all his life, and even rescued him from a sure death in the lions’ den.  “Keep your gifts”, he said, “I will nevertheless tell you what the dream means.”

When Daniel spoke to Belshazzar he was not beating around the bush.  He cut straight into it.  The reason he told him about his grandfather was not to tell him something he had not known; he wanted to apply to him the truth that he had been given grace, but that God tested him and found him wanting. It must have cut to the heart of Belshazzar when he heard these words:

But you his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this. (Daniel 5:22)

You knew about God, about his sovereign power, about his grace and mercy as it was seen in the life of your grandfather, but instead, you spurned that grace and made of yourself a god.  You snubbed grace and trampled underfoot the grace of God by sinking so low in your sin that you desecrated the things holy unto God.

Grace forfeited

Listen Belshazzar, you think you can withstand the onslaught of the enemy who is right at your door as you are given in drunkenness and lust and idolatry because you have mighty army and high walls around your city, but listen:  God has numbered your days.  In fact, Belshazzar do not see the sun rise the next morning.

Further, Belshazzar might have many mighty friends in high positions scattered all over his kingdom and they thought the world of him and all his mighty deeds, but it was a different story in the eyes of God.  In the eyes of God he was nothing.  God put him on the scales and he was found wanting.

How dreadful the truth of this verse:  you might win the world, but you might lose your soul. One might be mighty and wonderful in the eyes of the world, but what if God shines his light upon one’s soul?  What if He puts one in his scales?  What am I in God’s eye?  Without Jesus Christ I am nothing, worthy of eternal condemnation.

For Belshazzar it was the end, not only of his life, but also of his kingdom.  But it was also the beginning of eternity in hell. As his counsellors and mighty men were gathered to celebrate their greatness, they had to learn that their show of force was the moment of their weakness: together they would fall in the hand of the enemy.  And, very suddenly, all was over.  It was gone.  The glitter, the power, the authority, the security, the esteem, life itself! – all was stripped from them.  All of a sudden they were before God and his judgement throne.


My dear friend, how many times have you heard the message of God’s grace?  How many times have you come very close to giving your life to God and turn away from eternal disaster?  How many times have you thought that you will have another chance?  I don’t know, and to be honest, no one knows, if there will be another opportunity. But one thing we learned from the Bible this morning is that not even a king in all his splendour and majesty can escape death and judgement, to face God on his own merits.  When we stand before God we stand stripped of all pretence, we can hide nothing, we can say nothing, we can present nothing – we are speechless and without excuse.  That’s the moment of truth when God will look at the scale and declare us wanting.

Unless, of course, we have found refuge in the Saviour, Jesus Christ.  He is God’s grace to us.  In Him we hear a Daniel calling us to repentance.  In Him we find the Friend who put his life in the scale of God’s wrath.  He took the full punishment of our sin and paid the full price of salvation.  He calls us through his infallible Word this morning to a new life of forgiveness.  Don’t go home this morning before you made very sure that you will be able to face God before his judgement throne, only to hear that He would welcome you into his heaven.  Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on 6 July 2014