There will be seasons where it feels like God’s completely abandoned you, and the promises God gave you are simply not coming true. You feel like you’re wandering in the wilderness, and the question is, is God really trustworthy? Can I really trust Him? It’s a very hard place.
Abraham and the Walk of Faith
Lent 2, 2017 (Genesis 12:1-9; Romans 4:1-17)
Rev. Doug Floyd
St. Brendan’s Anglican Church
Last week, the Old Testament reading was about Adam, and the New Testament reading in Romans discussed how Jesus retells the story of Adam and fulfills it. He recapitulates it. Jesus is literally reenacting the story and completing it. In that sense, Jesus is recapitulating all of history. He’s retelling the story of a humanity turned away from Him and the story of humanity turned back toward God. As He lives out this story, He is leading us all with Him back toward the Father.
This week, we are taken to a new story, the story of Abraham. I thought we might talk about Abraham in a slightly different way. In the Romans reading, we see hints at how Jesus will fulfill the faith of Abraham, and we actually see a fuller explanation of the fulfillment of Abraham’s faith in Galatians, because Jesus is the promise. He brings the fulfillment of the promise, that is the promise of the Spirit, which is actually the fulfillment of Genesis 12.
Paul will make that argument in Galatians. In Romans, on the other hand, he will show how Abraham’s faith is the basis for our faith. Stories are helpful for us to think about our own faith, our own story, our own life. It’s part of the way humans process our life. People across the ages have told stories, and I actually love reading folk stories, and many of you probably do, too. The truths of a culture are embedded in the stories of a culture.
Even in our comic book films, I just saw the Logan, and it captures something about an anguish or struggle in our culture. Our stories often tell what we’re thinking about, what we’re wrestling over in a culture. Biblical stories are revealed stories about the nature of our relationship with God, and our call to God, and God’s purposes in us. At the same time, all stories can speak to us about life in some way.
The story of Abraham is one of my favorite Biblical stories. I’ve often read my life through the story of Abraham, and I think many of you might identify with characters in Scripture. Some people like the story of David. It’s a story that they return to again and again, or the story of Moses, or Daniel. Some people resonate with the story of Joseph, or Hannah. There are so many different great stories in Scripture that suddenly awaken our imagination. When we read them we say, “Oh, yeah. That’s my own story.” I thought I might talk a little bit about the faith of Abraham. In college, I had this profound awakening, this sense that God had called me to ministry. I had a little drama team. We were traveling around, and I would speak at different venues. I was sitting in a concert, 1985, at Aslan’s Lair. I don’t know if anybody in here had ever been to Aslan’s Lair, back in those days.
Billy Sprague was playing a concert. He was a popular Christian artist. He was sharing his faith, and as I was sitting in the concert, I thought, “I wish I was up there sharing. I feel like I’m called to preach, and wish I was up there preaching.” Right after that thought went through my mind, it’s like the whole room became silent, and there was a sense someone was sitting beside me. I literally heard, “The time is not yet.” I wrote it in my journal. The other day, I actually dug out my old journal because I thought, “Oh, I’ll tell all the details.” Turns out, I didn’t write many details back then in stories. I just wrote a teeny bit. I was telling Kelly this morning, I went through this journal and I thought, “My goodness. It looks like all I did was write Scriptures and goals that I kept failing at.”
I’d be like, this year I’m going to read the Bible through two times, but didn’t happen, or I would say, “I’m gonna work out this amount, and do this, and that.” None of that seemed to happen, but it’s a good record of my failures. Anyway, I had a sense of God speaking to me, “The time is not yet.” Even as I heard those words, it was almost a distinct word, which doesn’t even sound like a calling, but when I heard that, it’s like I saw a flash of my life. I had been preparing for seminary at that point, and I had a sense that in that one moment, the Lord was saying, “I’m calling you to a place that will not be pleasant, that will involve suffering, that will be a lot of wilderness and a lot of wandering. That’s how I plan to shape you.” That’s how Abraham became one of my favorite characters. While my life has been very different from his life, I identified with the call of God to abandon what I knew and trust in the faithfulness of God.
I thought I would briefly talk about different aspects of Abraham’s faith, and this isn’t comprehensive, but a few ways to think about faith. When I grew up, I often heard people give the example that faith is like sitting in a chair, and you’ve probably heard that example. Do you have confidence that this chair will hold you up? Then you want to go through and explain why the chair could hold a person up. That’s really not the nature of biblical faith. Biblical faith is not trusting in an object but a person. For example, consider the question, “Do you believe your father would catch you?” The chair example is a bit like saying, “Well, he has the physical ability to catch you.” That would be trying to prove a characteristic as opposed to character.
Biblical faith is rooted in the character of God. This is more like trying to show the father will catch the child because he has caught all his other children. This would be a way of demonstrating his faithfulness. That’s actually the nature of faith in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. The Bible never tries to prove God’s existence. What it does say is that He is trustworthy. In the story of Abraham, we begin to see faith not as a set of ideas, or a moment, but as a walk, as a pilgrimage.
Actually, there are several types of faith I think that we see in Abraham’s story, and so I wrote some of these down. This isn’t necessarily comprehensive, but I wrote down several different ways we might think of the faith of Abraham and how he is learning to trust in God’s faithfulness: inspired faith, disciplined faith, applied faith, vulnerable faith, priestly faith, and mature faith. Rather than thinking of these as some kind of steps on a journey, these are more like part of the journey, that he constantly passed through. Part of the walk of faith in Abraham’s story is not that once he’s passed one phase, he has forever finished that phase, but rather that his life (and our life) is often moving between different types of faith as we’re learning how to trust in God.
Inspired Faith – By inspired faith, I mean faith that stirs as a result of an encounter with God. In Genesis 12, God speaks a word to Abraham, or Abram at that point. On the basis of that word, Abram can trust that God is with him, and he goes out and lives on the basis of that word. When a person has a dramatic conversion experience, we could call it inspired faith. Sometimes that occurs at a certain time in our lives, particularly in high school and college. Many high school and college students will do amazing things in response to the call of God. If you look throughout history, many people shape the world at that age group. They play a fundamental role.
In fact, John Calvin was slightly older, but he was still in his twenties when he wrote his Institutes of the Faith. He was a young man, and he wrote a set of ideas that would shape the faith for 500 years. Never despise youth, because there’s often, there’s something that youth are willing to do, to go overseas, abandon everything, take risks.
Sometimes that also happens later in life. There’s this inspired moment. Sometimes it’s the result of some kind of transition, a job loss, maybe a death. Sometimes there’s something else that happens later in life, or just a dramatic encounter with God, that causes people to be able to sell everything and do something new. It’s very difficult as we age to do that, but it actually does happen sometimes. If you think of today’s story, Abraham is 75, but he has some kind of profound encounter with God, and is willing to leave all that he knows behind. Sometimes we may lament that we don’t have that kind of faith all the time. We may not always feel that excitement or energy later in life, but that is a very particular encounter that we don’t live on all the time. And yet, God is always free, to call us beyond anything we ever thought was possible.
Disciplined Faith – If we kept reading Genesis 12, we see immediately that Abraham builds an altar. In fact, if you follow the story of Abraham, the one thing he does is build altars. Everywhere he goes, he builds an altar. I call that disciplined faith, and by that, I mean it is Abraham’s response to God on a regular basis. It’s actually one of the first images of liturgy in scripture, because his rhythm, or his pattern, is a literal challenge to the gods of the land. Everywhere he goes, he is saying, “The gods of this land are not gods. There’s one God, and He is to be worshiped in this land.” In every land Abraham goes to, he’s building an altar. In a sense, he’s claiming that land for the worship of Yahweh. It is the pattern. This is the dailyness of faith.
The reason I wrote discipline is because it doesn’t often feel as dramatic. It is the pattern of reading scripture daily, praying daily. It is daily rhythms, but these are the things that literally shape us and give us stability. It is the decision to try to read scripture through. Whether we make it or not. It’s the decision to try to read it, to try to meditate, to take time to pray, so this is just the pattern, the dailyness.
Applied Faith may not be the best word, but it refers to practical, lived out faith. Abraham has to live out this trust in Yahweh in the midst of a messy situation, with family and strangers. Lot is traveling with him, who is his nephew, and it’s clear there’s a conflict between Lot’s servants and Abraham’s servants. Abraham comes into contact with two different rulers, the Pharaoh of Egypt and the Abimelech.
He has to live out his faith and trust in the Lord with his relationship with Sarah, and it’s messy all through the story. Often, it’s not clear. Often, he is struggling to know what it means to obey God in those relationships. Very difficult, and this is where we live most of our lives, in this messiness of faith.
What does my faith say about this job when I’m really mad at the people I work with, at the situations I’m in, or the struggles of living in family or in relationship day after day? Where is He? Why is His presence not here? How do I learn to trust Him in the school, when the teacher seems unfair? This is really where we live much of our life, in the messiness of life, in relationships to the people.
Vulnerable Faith – The Romans passage today alludes to Genesis 15, but the Old Testament lectionary passage we read was from Genesis 12. Romans 4 is actually alluding to Genesis 15, and this is where we might talk about vulnerable faith. In Genesis 14, Abraham’s nephew Lot has been taken captive, as are several kingdoms, very small kingdoms, basically cities. They’ve been taken captive by this other group of cities that have banded together, formed a little army, and they’ve come in, and captured Lot, and several other people, and taken them captive. Abraham rouses his servants, and it’s clear his servants are not simply people who work with the animals. They’re fighting men, so they go to battle, and they rescue Lot, and it’s clear Abraham doesn’t really like the people, like the King of Sodom and the relationship he has with Sodom. It’s clear he doesn’t like him, because he won’t receive any blessings from him.
That’s when we have the famous encounter of Abraham and Melchizedek, and he recognizes Melchizedek as a true priest of God. This priest is from an alien culture, which is fascinating. Later, of course, in Hebrews, we’ll be told that Jesus is from the order of Melchizedek, which is really in left field, because he’s not even a Hebrew.
In Genesis 15, Abraham is in the midst of a struggle. It could be as a result of the battle he just finished. It could be as a result of just the fact that he hasn’t had a son yet, and he’s gone to battle on behalf of Lot and all these other people, and yet, he hasn’t seen God move on his behalf. We don’t know how many years have gone by, but years have gone by since this point where he abandoned everything for the sake of God.
In Genesis 15, it says, “After these things, the Word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision. ‘Fear not, Abram, for I am your shield. Your reward shall be very great.’ “But Abram said, ‘Oh, Lord. What will You give me, for I continue childless and the heir of my house is Eleizer of Damascus?’ Abram said, ‘Behold, You have given me no offspring. A member of my household be my heir.’ Behold, the Word of the Lord came to him. ‘This man shall not be your heir. Your very own son shall be your heir.'” (Genesis 15:1-4)
I’m not going to keep reading, but we see there’s a struggle. Abraham is coming up with a fundamental question, and I would suggest this is actually the main point. It’s interesting that Paul is using this passage. He’s alluding to this passage in Romans 4, when he says Abraham believed God, and God credited to him his righteousness. This is directly quoting Genesis 15, because in this passage, Abraham is having to decide, Is God trustworthy? Is He good? These are at least three words I see in this. Is He great? Is He actually able to do what He says He’s able to do? This mean He is great.
Great not as in a sense of, that’s really great cereal, but great as in, there is no power that could stand against Him. He is sovereign. That’s what great really means, so is He great? Is He powerful? Is He good? Can I trust His Word?
I would suggest in one way or another, all of us will pass through these questions. We have to come to this place. In fact, we may hit it again and again, where we ask these hard questions. For whatever reason, not everybody has the same kinds of experiences. Some people never have quite the same struggle, but for some people, this will be part of the journey of faith. There will be seasons where it feels like God’s completely abandoned you, and the promises God gave you are simply not coming true. You feel like you’re wandering in the wilderness, and the question is, is God really trustworthy? Can I really trust Him? It’s a very hard place. Hebrews warns against the root of bitterness, and it’s possible in these places where people can become bitter.
They can feel like God has forsaken them. But this is also the time when we truly come to the place of trusting. God is absolutely faithful, in spite of the struggles we may face. Paul is suggesting we see this trust in Abraham. He hasn’t had his name changed yet at this point, so he’s still Abram, which means father, but he will later be called father of many. In the rest of Genesis 15, we see the covenantal image, which I didn’t read where God comes and confirms, “I have not abandoned you, and I will not forsake you.”
This is fundamental in our life journey. Inspired Faith and Vulnerable Faith never look alike. Two people from may look and talk from these two different vantage points. The person on fire with inspired faith may look at a person of vulnerable faith and not even think he’s a Christian. How could you question God? When I’m in this place of absolute excitement, God’s moved dramatically, I have no way of understanding the story of a person who feels like God has forsaken him.
Priestly Faith – We’re constantly moving between different aspects of our faith. I think the only real connection I see are these next, maybe these three. The rest of them I think we move through all the time, but it is later in his life that we see the image of priestly faith in Abraham. The three visitors show up and Abraham offers them a meal. He shows the gift of hospitality. Then they tell him they’re on their way to assess Sodom, to decide whether or not they’re going to destroy it.
Abraham’s faith now is not about his heir. It’s not about his kingdom. It’s about preserving another kingdom that has absolutely nothing to do with him. It’s a totally different kind of expression of God’s trustworthiness. Now my trust in God has nothing to do with my own destiny, but God, will You remember those people? There are many great saints throughout the church history that have prayed really unbelievable prayers, including Moses, and Paul, as well as many of the great mystics who would pray to be accursed so that others might be saved.
It’s just an unthinkable prayer, but this kind of prayer, you see Paul praying something very similar to that, and Moses praying something like that. Lord, let me be a curse that others might be blessed. It’s an unthinkable prayer. It’s a priestly prayer because Jesus is the only one who truly can fulfill the prayer. He is cursed that others can be blessed, so in some sense, Abraham enters into the depths of that priestly prayer.
There are seasons in life, and often, it’s difficult for me to see how I can truly pray that until I come to the place knowing God is absolutely trustworthy. He is absolutely trustworthy, no matter what happens. I can lose everything. Anything can be taken from me. I know He is absolutely trustworthy. I am unshakable. The person who has passed through that place really is a person one who is absolutely at rest in the faithfulness of God.
Mature Faith – While there are other aspects of Abraham’s faith we could explore, I am going to reflect on only one more. We come to the story of Abraham sacrificing Jacob, or being willing to, and it’s a holy story. It’s a story that’s on holy ground, that we almost have to be careful to mention without misunderstanding it, because God has called Abraham to do something that is unthinkable. To sacrifice Isaac. We sometimes say, “How could God call him that?” That’s like a standing in judgment on a holy story that we don’t have any grasp of.
Abraham has come to the place of knowing that God is absolutely trustworthy, and he can absolutely trust the faithfulness of God, that God can resurrect Isaac from the dead. Of course Abraham never sacrifices Isaac because the Lord sends an angel to stop him and provides a ram in the thicket. Isaac comes down the mountain.
Some Rabbis call Isaac, the man who was born twice because they say when Abraham goes up the mountain with Isaac and he comes back down, that’s a new Isaac. Isaac has been born twice. For us, Isaac becomes the picture of Jesus Christ. Abraham has absolute confidence in the faithfulness of God. That He will not abandon Abraham or Isaac in the sacrifice.
This is a mature faith that literally can abandon everything to the hands of God. I can let go of the past, the future, and in this sense, and we don’t have time to talk about this, but what Abraham is doing is literally recreating time and space.
If you study Thomas Cahill, he talks about this. The Western notion of history comes from the story of Abraham, our understanding of history. He literally alters the understanding of how time and space work, so we live in a world that says, we’ve already figured it all out, how time and space work. It is like this, in this little box, but people of God say, “No, that’s not how it is.” There are aspects of the way the world works that you simply cannot see, that are rooted in the faithfulness of God.
That’s what Abraham is doing, and in a sense that’s what we are doing. We are trusting the faithfulness of God day by day. Through us, he is changing the world. One of the things the Jews say about Abraham is at the beginning of the story, it’s a story about hearing. By the time we get to this part of the story, Genesis 22, it’s a story about seeing, because all the Hebrew words in that passage have to do with seeing.
Abraham becomes a man of vision, so he becomes the true seer, or the true prophet. I thought this just might help us meditate as we walk through the Lenten journey about the nature of faith, and that we have different seasons in life. Sometimes when people don’t have the excitement, and the joy, and the passion of this inspired faith, they might feel discouraged, like somehow they’ve lost something. The reality is, life is very challenging, and God is leading us all in different paths, in different seasons. This might help me to rest in what God’s doing in me, as well as allow God to do what He’s doing in other people, and not assume that they have to be at the same place I am.
We are all in different places as we follow Him, Who is leading us to fullness of faith, so we’ll stop there. Father, thank You for the story of Abraham, for Your call upon us to be a people who transform the world, who reveal Your love, and kindness, and generosity. That’s all we need. Have mercy upon us. Thank You for the witness of Abraham, and the fulfillment of Abraham in Jesus Christ, and even how Christ fulfills our own story. Amen.