My funeral, my life

Series title:  “Better things are coming”

Scripture Readings

  • Romans 6:1-14
  • 1 Peter 4:1-6

Introduction

There’s only one thing more sure than life, and that is death.

Death is so final.  The time of death can’t really be postponed to create opportunities for the person who is dying or for the close relatives to put things right.  It is only in very rare occasions that people have this opportunity.  But once death has arrived, it’s all over.  Those who are left behind can speak, but there is no reaction from the one who just passed away.

Death is decisive and absolute.  There is this final moment of moving from this world into the next.  There is the final heartbeat and the final breath.  Once death has stepped in, it’s over; nothing can beat or cheat death; it always has the last say, and it leaves human beings speechless in its power.

Death is certain.  Apart from Enoch and Elijah, who did not die the normal, but was taken to God by Himself, death has a 100% success rate.  It’s inescapable.  It was not so from the beginning, but man’s rebellion and sin against God brought death into our world, and life on earth has become a painful place.  If God left man to himself he would live in misery and he would die in misery.  Nothing would have any meaning, not even meaning itself.

Spiritual death – a life without Christ

Apart from dying physically, every person born into this life has to reckon with the fact that he/she is spiritually dead.  Not only does our heart stop beating and do we stop breathing and do our bodies become lifeless, but spiritually we are headed for a spiritual death, the second death.

The non-Christian or non-believer in God, is controlled by human desires.  This is the “me”-life.  It’s about what I want for myself; it’s self-termination and a life determined by what my heart desire.

It’s a life of thumbing the nose at God.  When it’s all about me and my desires, it quickly becomes an immoral life.  I become the standard of who I do and what is right.

Verses 3-4 of 1 Peter 4 refers to (1) sexual sins—indecency, lust; (2) sins displaying a lack of restraint—drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties; and (3) wrong religious practices—disgusting worship of idols.

For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. (1 Peter 4:3–4, NIV)

Drunkenness conveys not only excessive drinking, but habitual intoxication Orgies describes the result of excessive drinking; another way of expressing it is excessive feasting, wild parties. Drinking parties is similar to orgies, but one is result of drunkenness, and the other provides the occasion for it. Included in the word is the idea of drinking competitions to see who can drink the most. I get a vision pub crawls. Wild parties used to be the exception; it seems as if people are now creating reasons to have it.  Going to a sporting event now has become the reason to be drunk and drugged.  One’s heart cringes to think ahead of the coming Christmas season!

To better understand what Peter is conveying here one can combine the meanings of orgies and drinking parties.  It’s not uncommon in our day for people to habitually and specifically create occasions to get together to drink a great deal and act in a shameful manner, and almost consider it as a human right to be drunk and become immoral and disgustingly silly.

Peter refers to a flood of dissipation.  Literally it means to pouring out, or to overflow, like a river which bursts its banks; here it refers to the overflowing in immoral acts. The way of life of the prodigal son was reckless (Luke 15:13, the same word is used there). Paul uses the same word when he writes:

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, (Ephesians 5:18, NIV)  

Applied to the life of an elder, Paul writes:

An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. (Titus 1:6, NIV)

The flood of dissipation describes a person who no longer cares about anything as long as he can enjoy the pleasures of life. In reckless living he lives a life without any limits, or living in such a way as to fulfil every desire of his body.  We live in the “who cares” generation.  In other words, living without concern for the consequences of what one is doing.  This was the way hippies chose to live.  Of course one can only live this way if some others don’t:  at the least the doctor, nursing staff, police and the ambulance driver need to be responsible and sober-minded!

Living such a life is to be a nothing, a non-entity in the eyes of God.  Peter writes in 2:10:

Once you were not a people … once you had not received mercy … (1 Peter 2:10, NIV)

This leads to judgement.

But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. (1 Peter 4:5, NIV)

Some who heard the message of the Gospel did not respond to the grace of God and they died.  Peter says:

For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit. (1 Peter 4:6, NIV)

What does it say?  They hear the Gospel; they reject the grace of the Gospel call; they die; what they did in their bodies stand as judgement against them; and at the day of judgement God will deal with them applying the standards of his eternal judgement.  Spiritual death leads to the second death, which is eternal and like physical death final, irreversible, and certain.

Spiritual Funeral

The verse we look at now is 1Peter 4:1

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. (1 Peter 4:1, NIV)

It’s the last part of this verse we need to look at now.  “… whoever suffers in the body is done with sin.

Paul helps us to understand this better:

We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:2, 6–7. NIV)

Paul continues:

… count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. (Romans 6:11–13, NIV)

Back to 1Peter 4:1-2.  One of the marks of a Christian is his union with Christ.  He is willing to suffer with Christ, for Christ and like Christ – but thank God, not the same way Christ suffered, and surely not for the same reason and purpose.

This verse implies that anyone who in his/her walk and witness as Christian suffers physically at the hands of those who reject Christ has turned his back on sin, and no longer has any desire to keep on sinning.  He has said no to sinning and has turned away from sinning.  This takes us back to chapter 2:11

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. (1 Peter 2:11, NIV)

There we have seen that this abstain has the meaning of being satisfied with what what one has in Christ.  The Christian is not controlled by his own desires, but now lives under the control of God’s will.

This life-changing event makes to non-Christian wonder.  Why not enjoy the so-called good things in life?  You choose to become one of those who can’t enjoy yourself!  What’s wrong with you?  And you call what we do wrong?  Come one, just one night of wild parties, what can go wrong?  If a wild night results in the conception of a child, just abort it!   Do you really tell me that you will forever be satisfied with one woman or man?  Are you keeping your body from enjoying what everyone enjoys?

I find it interesting that a so-called scientific study has now found that being homophobic is the result of something that is psychologically wrong, which calls for treatment.  Those who practice homosexuality just do what is naturally right!  In a matter of a short space of time right has become wrong, and wrong has become right.

But living under the grace of God changes everything.  It changes the way I look at things, the way I laugh and what I laugh about; I changes the way I choose my friends and who I hang out with;  it changes the way in which I spend my money;  and moreover, the saving grace of God changes the way I spend my time. My previous life was a waste of time, it was a waste of oxygen and energy.  God loves me in Jesus Christ and gave me eternal life, and I owe my life to Him:  I need to love Him with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength and all my mind.

Conclusion

I met this lady in Sydney.  I was billeted to her during one of the Assemblies.  She was well into her seventies.  I was surprised to see many theological and other very good Christian books on her bookshelf in the sitting room.

The way she spent her days also intrigued me:  every day of the week was filled activities connected to the church of which she was a member – Bible studies, hospital visitation, evangelism, caring for those in need, feeding the hungry.

I asked her one night to tell me more about her life in the Lord.  She told me her husband had become very ill and ended up in hospital, terminally ill.  At that stage he was not a Christian, but the pastor of the church of her daughter came to visit him and led him to Christ.  He died in peace knowing that his sins were forgiven.  At his funeral the same pastor preached.  The pastor told the story of how her husband repented of his sins, confessed it to the Lord and asked for forgiveness, accepting God’s grace in Christ.  He then said, “We will  join him in heaven one day.”  Next to her were her daughter and son-in-law, a minister himself.

My lady-host said God worked it in her heart to understand that if she wanted to see her husband again, let alone see Christ and God and heaven, she must do the same:  before the sun set that day she confessed her sins to God and received the grace of Christ.  She was a new person.

Then she said to me,

“I have wasted a lot of time in my life.  There is so much to know about God, and I can’t stop reading about Him; there are so many people who do not know God, and I can’t stop helping them to learn more about his love and forgiveness.”  

Her life without Christ was spiritual death, aimed at herself – but it led her nowhere.  Her turning to Christ was her spiritual funeral – there she said no to sin and she became obedient to the will of God; she learned to reckon that she was dead to sin.  She heard the Gospel call and she responded with her whole life.  Her life in Christ was the beginning of her walk to eternal glory.  She was prepared. She knew better things were coming.

I enquired about her when I saw her son-in-law last time.  He told me she went into glory with God.

The big question now today:  have you been to your spiritual funeral?  Are you living a life to the glory of God where only his will counts?  Can you face the ridicule of the world and the sufferings of a Christian? Do you do so because by faith you know better things are coming?  Amen

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on 1st November 2015

 

Dead in sin, alive in Christ

Communion Service – association with and participation in Christ

Scripture Readings

  • Colossians 2:13-3:4

Introduction

First, an illustration.  Heila and I visited a very interesting shop not so long ago during a visit to the Blue Mountains in NSW.  This particular shop is home to the largest collection of teapots in the world. On shelves about pelmet height, are displayed more than 4,000 teapots.  But that’s not all:  apart from this very extensive collection of teapots, you can find every conceivable piece of glassware.  Wherever to put your foot down or swing your arm or point your finger at, you bump into precious glassware.  Don’t go there with grandchildren; if you have to use a walking stick, stay away!

Now the question, how can the owners assure that they conduct a profitable business?  One possible answer to this intriguing question possibly lies in the notice at the entrance of this shop.  It says You brake it, you pay for it. Entering into the shop, accepting this condition, makes you a partner of the business for the duration of the visit, sharing in the risk of running it.

The operative words here are association and participation.  This takes us back to Colossians 2:11-15. I will try to explain this fairly complex paragraph in the word of God by breaking it up in little bits.

Old Testament Covenant

The background of the verses 11-14 is the Biblical doctrine of God’s Covenant with his people.  God called Israel, which is the Church in Old Testament times, to be his people.  He made an agreement with them in which He was the principle partner, and they the minor partners.  Because God is the only God who could save, provide, protect and assure safety, He by grace took Israel to be his people.  He placed upon them obligations stipulated in His covenant, requiring of them to live holy lives as people of God.

He also gave them signs as a seal of this covenant:  all male children had to be circumcised.  This circumcision was ultimately a circumcision of the heart, something not done by hands but by the Holy Spirit of God. This sign was a sign of God’s grace, but by this sign they would be set apart from the rest of the nations as God’s holy nation.  They had to turn from their evil practices, not live as the nations around them and worship God only as He commanded them. The term we may use for their sanctification within this context is the term we find in our verse of Col 2:11 – they had to put to death their sinful nature.

In Leviticus 19:2 God commanded Moses to speak to the people:  “Say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord you God am holy.’” They had to revere their parents, keep the Sabbaths, turn away from idols, serve God only and bring sacrifices to them in the prescribed way, love their neighbours, not steal, not cheat, do honest work, etc.  And about every time God gives them the command, He adds to it: “I am the Lord your God.”  Why?  Well, He saved them and made a covenant with them.  That’s why.  He owns them and the stipulations of his covenant demanded it.

The sign of circumcision (as an Old Testament sacrament) was accompanied by sacrifices.  All sacrifices had their fulfilment in the Passover Lamb (the other Old Testament sacrament). The sacrifices they were to bring to the Lord assured that they could enjoy communion with Him because of their sins being forgiven.  They did not die for their sins, but the animals did.  Their participation in the act of sacrifice and their association with the blood of the animal brought to them forgiveness.

New Testament Covenant

Let’s go back to Colossians.  God extended his covenant of mercy to all nations through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  People from all tribes and tongues and nations now become members of the household of God.  How?  The same way as the people of the Old Testament:  by grace, by covenant and through sacrifice. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ is like the animals killed for their salvation.  His death and resurrection now is just enormously more and ultimately more perfect than animal sacrifice.

God also gives to his New Covenant people a sign of his covenant.  It is the same circumcision not done by hands; it remains the mysterious and gracious work of the Holy Spirit. He gives them a circumcision of the heart, here called the circumcision of Christ.

Now we need to take it step by step to understand the argument of the apostle Paul.  The people did not die and pay the price of sin; but by association and participation in the death and blood of the sacrificial animal God granted them forgiveness.  The same now applies for the New Covenant people.  We don’t die or pay the price for our sins, but by faith we associate with and participate in the death of Jesus Christ.  So, when He died on the cross, we died.  When He was buried, we were buried.  When He rose again, we rose.  Now, and this is a very legitimate question, how do I know it is for sure?  God gave us signs as a seal and guarantee like He gave to the people of the Old Testament.  To them He gave the sign of circumcision, to us He gives us the circumcision of Christ’s complete righteousness and baptism is the new sign of the very same covenant of grace.  When we are baptised, all Jesus Christ did to meet the righteousness of God, by faith became ours.  Baptism is the sign that Jesus Christ is the One who died and was raised again in my place so I can become part of God’s family.  By faith I participate in his death.  As God worked in Jesus Christ to raise Him from the dead, so we are raised with Him through the eternal power of God.  By faith I participate in his resurrection. We only need the sign that associates us with Him and assures us of our participation in his redemption.  The rest is God’s act of mercy and grace.  Listen:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:13-14)

The Passover Lamb was nailed to the cross of Calvary to take away our sins.  He cancelled the written code, always reminding us of our unrighteousness having all our trespasses written in and He nailed it to the cross.  This is what we remember and celebrate at the Lord’s Table.

There on the cross Jesus Christ also triumphed over all powers to that they may never have a claim over our lives (verse 15). Paul states it like this in his letter to Timothy:

“… our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2 Timothy 1:10)

The author of Hebrews underscores this by saying

“Since the children have flesh and blood, He [Christ] too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14)

Two signs in the Old Testament and two signs in the New Testament, pointing to the same act of grace from God in two different dispensations.  Circumcision is replaced by baptism; the sacrificial system replaced by the cross of Jesus as we remember it at the Lord’s Table.  In both these cases the principle to have part in salvation applies:  by faith we associate with Him; by faith we participate in his victory over sin and death. This is the amazing, remarkable and incredible fact of the grace of God.

One with Christ in holy living

Now, just as circumcision did not save God’s Church in the Old Testament, so baptism does not save the people of God’s Church in the New Testament. It was a sign of God’s grace; it is not grace itself. Through Christ God’s people become members of his body, and we are called to live holy lives, dedicated to God.  We need to put to death our earthly nature.

This then takes us to chapter 3 where Paul resumes the argument:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1,3)

Here the principle of association with and participation in comes in again.  The Sacraments bind us to Christ.  This assures our participation in his death and resurrection, but it calls for our association with Him in setting our hearts on things above where He is, because our lives are hidden in Him. This is essentially the same as what Paul says in Rom 12:2:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:2)

He also stresses the same point in Rom 8:

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. (Romans 6:8, 11-13)

Conclusion

Let’s for one moment get back to where we started.  Remember the glassware shop and the notice You brake it, you pay for it? We pointed out to the principle of association with and participation in.  Going into that shop poses a risk:  I might enjoy what I see, but I might walk away from it a lot poorer than I walked into it.

It is so much different when I walk into God’s grace.  First of all, I enter into his grace by his invitation, not by my decision. Secondly, my broken life and the rest of God’s creation that I effected so badly because of my sinfulness do not have a notice You brake, you pay for it on it.  The wonder of God’s grace is that, although I am truly responsible, and therefore accountable to God, someone else paid to make it whole and repair what I broke.  Jesus Christ is that one.  By faith what He did becomes mine.  Faith gives what belongs to Him to me.  I associate with Him and participate in Him.  That’s grace!

Two or three years before the death of John Newton, well-known minister of the Word in the 18th Century and author of the beloved hymn Amazing Grace, when his sight was so dim that he was no longer able to read, a friend and brother in the ministry called to have breakfast with him. Their custom was to read the Word of God following mealtime, after which Newton would make a few short remarks on the Biblical passage, and then they prayed. On a specific day, however, there was silence after the words of Scripture “by the grace of God I am what I am” were read.

Finally, after several minutes, Newton spoke,

“I am not what I ought to be! How imperfect and deficient I am! I am not what I wish to be, although I abhor that which is evil and would cleave to what is good! I am not what I hope to be, but soon I shall be out of mortality, and with it all sin and imperfection. Though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor yet what I hope to be, I can truly say I am not what I once was: a slave to sin and Satan. I can heartily join with the apostle and acknowledge that by the grace of God I am what I am!” 

Then, after a pause, he said. “Now let us pray!”

Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 7 December 2014 (Communion Service)

Abraham, the Father of all Believers (9)

See, I make everything new

Scripture Readings

  • Romans 4:16-25
  • Genesis 17:1-19

Introduction

When I went to high school I met a giant.  He was in year eleven and stood six foot and 10 inches tall in his shoes.  When he finished school at the age of eighteen, he was a full seven foot tall.  In the new language it is 2.13 meters.

Andrew Hall’s hight came in handy at the end of school days when he could close any school classroom window without ever reaching out for a stick.  He would take the rugby ball and just through it where he wanted on the rugby field.

Andrew met a girl about six inches shorter than him.  Their car was a Mini, with no back seat; the front seats were mounted on extra long rails, which made them look like they were filling all of the Mini.

Interestingly, the seven foot tall Andrew Hall had a nickname which he carried into the rest of his life:  Tiny.  I heard his boy were also called by that name.

Abram

Abram’s name, unlike that of Tiny, was not something given to him to mock him, although it would have been quite easy to do so.

In the time of Abram it was the tradition to, when, introduced make much of the name of every person.  Names meant something.  It was common to ask this question, because it was important to the people of the middle east. It would go like this:  “Good morning, what is your name?”  “Abram.” “Well that means ‘father of many’.  May I ask how many children do you have?”   “One.”  “One?”

It is not impossible, because of his riches, that Abram met many traders in his tents.  These questions would be asked over and over again, and every time Abram faced the surprised faces of his guests.

He was now ninety nine years old, and still there was only one child.  And in the back of his mind, Abram knew that that son, was not the son of the promise.  He held on to the promises of the Lord, but his name, “Father of many” began to sound like the seven foot Tiny’s nickname.

Between the year Ismael was born and now, thirteen years passed by and not a word of the Lord.  Was it impossible to think that Abram was thinking of getting himself another name to spare him the possible ridicule?

God Almighty

And then God appeared to him again.  Abram and Sarai was that old that if they had given up hope to have a child of their own, getting one would all the more point to the glorious power of God who can do what no man can.

It was the first time God introduced Himself by this Name:  El Shaddai! This name revealed something about the Person of God that made Abram fell flat on his face.  Like Daniel and John:

While He was saying this to me, I bowed with my face toward the ground and was speechless. (Daniel 10:15, NIV)

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. (Revelation 1:17, NIV)

Abram was unable to bear the sight of the divine glory.  He humbled himself in reverence before the holy God who bowed down from heaven to speak to him personally.

Our fellowship with God may never lead to familiarity.  If we ever thought that we can get God to our level, we need to ask ourselves if we indeed know the glorious God of creation and re-creation.  It is a sickness of our time that reverence for God has flown our the back door when we gather for his worship.  No, in worship we are gathered in the throne room of the Creator of the universe who is holy, clothed in majesty, glorious in power and great in limitless wisdom, power and might.  It is only when we understand what it means to bow in adoration, giving Him the glory of due his Name, that we will find meaning worshipping Him.

God Almighty speaks to Abram.  He is the all-sufficient God who always does enough in completeness.  He is enough in Himself; He is self-sufficient; He has everything, yet He needs nothing.  He calls us into covenant with Him and therefore He is enough for us, we have enough in Him, because He satisfies all we need.  David says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I will lack nothing.” The Psalmist confesses:

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. (Psalm 73:25, NIV)

Facedown before the Almighty God Abram is commanded to blamelessly walk before God.  The holy God demands that those who believe in Him and walk in a covenant relationship with Him would reflect something of his own character.  “Be holy as I am holy.”  The right attitude of a sinner living in a relationship with God would be the same as that of David:

Keep your servant also from wilful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression. (Psalm 19:13, NIV)

It calls for integrity, honesty, it is to set God always before us, and to think, and speak, and act, in everything, as if we are always under his eye. It is to have a constant regard to his Word as our rule, and to his glory as our end in all our actions, and to be continually in his fear.  Listen to these verses:

As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, till he shows us his mercy. (Psalm 123:2, NIV)

If Abram thought his name was embarrassing because he had only one son at that stage, what God had to say would change his life.  Abram’s name would change from “father of many” to “father of many nations”.  Not only was the covenant something God promised, but now it would be established and sealed with a sign. How God would do this would be spectacularly impossible for any human being:  a man of almost hundred, and his wife ninety, will have a son.

Sarah

Sarai’s name was changed too.  She was now a princes, the mother of many kings; the mother of many nations.  It all had its beginning with one son.  God honoured the marriage between Abraham and Sarah to fulfil his promise to them.  Not Ismael, who was born from a marriage not blessed in the first instance by God; not a son born out of the plans made by a man and his wives, but a son born when all seemed so impossible, so that God would receive all the honour.

Isaac

Within a year, the barren princess Sarah would give birth to a son.  God gave him his name:  Isaac! Verse 17, I think, does not tell us that Abraham mocked God if God could not do what He said he would.  No, I see a man flat on his face on the ground, in joy, laughing as laugh of jubilation.  Yes, there was initial unbelief, because he was still thinking that maybe Ishmael would have a part in it.

Abraham’s unbelief is met with the confirmation of God, “Yes your wife Sarah will bear you a son.” Ismael will be blessed, but not in the same way.  The name Isaac, which means laughter or joy, will bring joy to millions others whom God by grace will include into his covenant. All believers in every age should be looked upon as Abraham’s spiritual seed, and that he should be called, not only the friend of God, but the father of all believers.  Years later Paul writes:

As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not. (Romans 4:17, NIV)

God’s covenant with Abraham was everlasting in an evangelical sense. The covenant of grace is everlasting. It is from everlasting to everlasting in its consequences.  In his body Abraham got the irreversible sign of circumcision, the very organ used to procreate and bring forth seed, is now externally marked:  Abraham became the father of all who believe because in him God established the covenant from which “The Seed”, Jesus Christ would come.  The covenant had an internal blessing which was by the Spirit of Christ’s seed to gather children for God in every age.

Christian

By the same grace God showed to Abraham, and through the same covenant we get a name change too.  By faith in God and his Son Jesus Christ we become children of God and we are called “Christian” – we belong to Christ.  God promised to his people:

The nations will see your vindication, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow. You will be a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. (Isaiah 62:2–3, NIV)

John and James, disciples of Jesus, had a name change too.  First they were “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17), then John became the apostle of love.

Paul writes that every family in heaven and on earth derives its name from the Father (Ephesians 3:14–15).  John even refers to disciples of Christ who went out for the sake of the Name, forsaking everything to bring glory to Christ (3John 7)

I make everything new

For Abraham and Sarah that day was a new beginning:  a new name, a new sign, a new promise, a newborn son – all by God Almighty, who says what He does, and does what He says.  And it ultimately pointed forward to Christ, whose name is Immanuel, and Jesus, the one who saves. Because of his death and resurrection we hear:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV)

This Christ, the seed of Abraham, now seated on the throne promises:

“I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:5, NIV)  He also promised:

 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it. (Revelation 2:17, NIV)

Conclusion

We have real names, and we have nicknames.  But what really counts is the name we received when we believe like Abraham and Sarah:

Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. (Romans 4:20–24, NIV)

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 21 September 2014

Abraham Father of All Believers (7)

Do not be wise in your own eyes

Scripture Readings

  • Galatians 4:21-5:6
  • Genesis 16:1-7

Introduction

Dear fellow believers,

Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England, had his portrait done by Sir Peter Lely.  Lely had the skill of painting away the not so flattering features of the royals, but when commissioned to do Cromwell’s painting,  the instruction of Oliver was clear:

“Mr Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it.”

If the Bible was my book and I had a say in what should be in it, it would be thinner and it would focus on the beauty of the glory of God only.  I would omit chapter 16 of Genesis.  Chapter 15 is good, because is records God’s grace to Abraham and his offspring.  But chapter 16 exposes the ugliness of what happens when a hero in faith relies on his own understanding.

But the path of faith is not walked by perfect feet.  Certainly, it tells about the glory and grace of the omnipotent and all-wise God who shows compassion towards fallen sinners; but, it includes the stories of fallen man like us.  Now I can understand how the holy God, through Jesus Christ, reaches out to me and make me his child: and all of that by grace!

Sarai speaks

Up to this point in Genesis, the Bible does not record any spoken word of Sarai.  The account of God’s dealing with Abraham excludes any direct dialogue between God and Sarai, and Sarai with Abraham.  It seems as if she was, included in the words and actions of Abraham, was the silent, believing partner.  Even in the story of what happened in Egypt where she was given into the house of the pharaoh, not a word of Sarai was recorded.

Then, after the mountain-top experience of her husband where God revealed his unilateral agreement of grace to Abraham and his offspring to make him the father of all believers, Sarai speaks.

Surely her husband had shared with her all the things God communicated with him.  She was included in the deal.  She thought about it. But she had a few of her own ideas about it.

She was barren

This was the first thing she spoke about: “The Lord has kept me from having children.”  Or, “The Lord restrained me.

She thought about what God said to Abraham, she looked at her own inability, and she understood (for a human point of view) that God would exclude her from what is going to happen to Abraham.  She, at this stage, did not protest her barrenness; she took it as something which God allowed to happen.  One could say that she, in all humility before the will of God, submitted to the idea that she will never have any children.

It seems a natural thing to look at your circumstances, weigh up the impossibilities, and then look at all other possibilities.  That’s how human nature works.

Perfectly acceptable custom

In those days it was perfectly okay and acceptable to give your personal slave girl to your husband as a surrogate to bear children if your proved to be barren.  Any child born out of that union would be regarded as the child of the first wife.

Sarai looked at this option.  She might even have thought that it was by the providence of God that she and Abraham had to go to Egypt so she could get Hagar as a slave: she was Gods hand-picked choice to bear the child of the promise.  There would be no shame in this arrangement; as a matter of fact this was an arrangement that would take away the shame from both Abraham and Sarai, because in those days there was a stigma to barren women.

Willing to stand back

In perfect submission to her husband and all which God promised to him, Sarai was quite willing to play second fiddle, stand back and disappear on the background. If this was God’s will for her life, so be it.  What as picture of submission and humility.

God’s kingdom be built

She said to Abraham:

The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” (Genesis 16:2, NIV)

In these words Sarai thought in some way she would be included, although not directly.  “I could built my family through her.”  It was the second option, but rather this than nothing!

It as surely the desire of Abraham too that Sarai would be included into God’s plan for all who would believe. Just imagine, God called this man and his wife, she agreed to be with him wherever he goes, whatever the circumstance, whatever the cost. But in the end she was not part of it, God had to launch “Plan B”: get Hagar into his plan, because He overlooked one small bit of detail:  Sarai was barren.

Abraham acts

Did God really intended Sarai to have direct part?

Maybe, at this point of time, Abraham went through all the encounters he had with God. “To your descendants I give this land.”  “Your descendants will be be as many as the the stars and the sand of the seashore.”  It’s about Abraham’s seed; Sarai is not explicitly mentioned here. The more he thought about it, the more it became clear to him:  “I’m the father; Sarai is barren; there’s another women in the house.  God allowed her to part of the family.  She is an Egyptian, and did God not say all the nations of the earth will be blessed through me?  This is from God.  I’s my second choice, but it could be God’s first choice!”

Mutual agreement

Abraham agreed to what Sarai said.”  Abraham was an honourable man; what he did was not without the consent of his lawfully wedded wife.  I suppose they talked about it, weighed up the pros and cons, and in the end a day was set for Abraham to formally take Hagar as his secondary wife.

This happened “ten years after they arrived in Canaan” (verse 3), still waiting for the promises of God to come true. I don’t think the inclusion of this line is in the Bible for nothing.  It is almost as if Moses wrote it there for us to understand that all possible human recourses were exhausted.

Sarai gave away her rights to Hagar, and Abraham did what he did for one thing, and one thing only:  they wanted to be obedient to the Lord to see his promises come true.

Hagar fell pregnant.  What a relief! It worked! It would still be better if this was a boy.

By faith?

Sarai

Sarai’s actions seemed plausible and laudable. But her actions speak of unbelief.  Her answer to her barrenness did not keep in mind the power of God.  Further, it seems as if Hagar had no say in the whole scheme.  She was treated the way you would expect of unbelievers.  It might have been politically correct to do pass on your maidservant to your husband as secondary wife, but it was not according to the plan of God. Sarai’s polygamous solution was conventional and proper in the eyes of everyone, but God.

Further, her words, “I can build my family through her” (verse 3) completely kept God out of the picture.  God could not do it, now I will have to step up and do it! Faith flew out the backdoor.

Someone comments:

It was wrong against God, Whose word had been given and Whose time should have been waited. It was wrong against Abraham, leading him out of the pathway of patient waiting for God’s will. It was wrong against Hagar, and did not recognize her individuality and rights in the matter. It was wrong against Sarah herself, robbing her of a high privilege as well as leading to disobedience

Abraham

Like Adam in the Garden, listened to his wife.  Although already legally married to one wife, Abraham here acted like the unbelievers in the country they came to live.  God’s calling for them was to be holy and different from the nations and their customs, but here he used the customs of heathen nations to justify has actions to become the husband of more than one wife.

Once he had followed the voice of God in Ur and obeyed.  He heard God’s promises spelled out to him over and over again.  In the shadow of chapter 15, where God explicitly, in a very unambiguous way, demonstrated to him that all is in God’s hands, he still fell back on his own wisdom.  There was no direction from God to take Hagar as his wife.  Instead, now he listened to the voice of his wife.

The language in this chapter is almost identical to that of chapter three.  There Eve said to Adam and he agreed; here Sarai said to Abraham and he agreed.  There Eve took and gave to her husband; here Sarai took and gave to her husband. Both Adam and Eve partook willingly; here, both Abraham and Sari partook willingly

The consequences

Hagar

Up to this point Hagar was treated like a commodity, a soulless baby machine.  She was dragged into this drama to solve the problems of the childless parents, and she was used for nothing else.

Little wonder then that she, after falling pregnant, despised Sarai.

This is what happens when we take things in our hands, and not wait upon God.  Someone said, “He who believes should never be in a hurry.”  If we are, we have to face the consequences.

One consequence is sin comes into our lives and dominate it.  At first there was just Abraham and Sarai; now it was Hagar first, then Abraham and Sarai.  What seemed to be background music, now became in-your-face-noise.  The fruit of our schemes become unwelcome quests, but we just can’t rid of it – it’s pregnant!

Hagar was treated badly – yes she was mistreated, the same word used for cursed.

Bitterness

The easy-going Sarai now became an erupting volcano. Bitterness sprang up, the blame game began:  “Your are responsible for my wrong.”  Even the fact that Hagar despised Sarai became Abraham’s fault.  She realises that what she and Abraham had done can only be judged by God, but she put it in such a way as she expected God to punish Abraham.

Too late!

This is where we see that Abraham was actually no hero.  Like Elijah who in one chapter saw the glory of God in victory of the Baal priests, and in the next find himself in the bush, wishing that he was never born, here we see Abraham falling from the heights of his experience with the living God falling to the depths of humiliation and weakness.

Your servant is in your hands. Do with her whatever you think best.” (verse 6) Yes, but she is pregnant with your child! What a love triangle; what a disaster! As a strong husband he should have assured Sarai of his love and that she was first. He should have accepted the full blame and responsibility. He should have dealt kindly and firmly with Hagar.  He didn’t. He should have sought the face of God in prayer, apologised to his wife and cared for the woman now carrying his baby.

It is interesting that neither Abraham nor Sarai referred to Hagar by name:  she was just “the servant”!

A commentator writes:

“The thing that shouts loudest here in the story is that there was not an honorable character in the lot. All were ignoble. Abram was the worst. He was pathetic, passive, impotent, and uncaring of either woman. Neither woman had any compassion on the other. Sarai was worse, but you get the idea that Hagar would have done the same if she could. Notwithstanding, Hagar was the prime victim. And Sarai was a not-so-distant second.

All of this started when one becomes wise in one’s own eyes, not trusting God.

Conclusion

Before we condemn Abraham, Sarai and Hagar, we need to be honest before God here.  Aren’t we just the same?  One moment on the mountaintop of grace, the next we take things in our own hands, and when it blows up we blame God for it!  Or we blame one another.

We learn from this to always trust God who is powerful, all-wise and perfect in his ways.  Never can we do God’s work for Him.  We’ll be sure to mess it up.

God honours marriage. Let’s leaner this from this story.  God has never intended for marriage to be between more than just one man and one wife.  The mere fact is very clear from what Paul later declared:

After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” (Ephesians 5:29–31, NIV)

In matters spiritual beware of what might look like good advice, but not tested by the Word of God, even if that comes from those closest to you.  Even Job’s wife enticed him to curse God and die.

We need to confess to God that our plans are not his plans.  We need to submit to Him and ask Him to teach us patience, which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

If we in the process wronged anyone we need to go back and beg forgiveness in the Name of Jesus Christ.

If in the process we have set things in motion which will have consequences beyond our control, we need to beg God’s forgiveness and pray that He will somehow teach us how to best deal with it.

As church, the body of Christ, we need to ask Him to keep us within his will, love his Word, keep praying for his guidance, not embark on any program if it may in any way be against his declared will in the Scriptures.

We need to go on our knees and thank God that He did not abandon his plan of salvation even in the face of disbelief and disobedience, but that He brought it to fruition by sending Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Redeemer through the true son of the promise, honouring the marriage of Abrham ans Sarai.

Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them. (Proverbs 26:12, NIV)

Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. (Isaiah 5:21, NIV)

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil. (Proverbs 3:5–7, NIV)

Amen.

Sermon preached by Rev D Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 7 September 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 (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