When Abram Believed God

“When Abram Believed God”

Gen 15-1 not afraid

Genesis 15:1-6 (15:6) – June 10, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

Fear. Anxiety. Not knowing which way is up, you’re so worried. I am sadly familiar with these kinds of emotions, since I’d often encounter them in the hospital, working as a chaplain. There is a certain kind of anxiety and worry that sometimes comes with having no one related to you. I have been with and accompanied patients who had no one to be with them as they were extremely sick, or even at the point of death. Family certainly is important.

This is our second week considering the passages where the Bible tells us to “Be Not Afraid!” In one of our Scripture passages today, we read of the Lord telling Abram not to be afraid. But, why? Why did God tell Abram something like that?

For the answer to that, we need to look at what happened in the few chapters before Genesis 15, chapters 11 through 14. Here we learn that Abram and his wife Sarai are recent immigrants from far away who came to the region escaping famine. Abram and his only relative Lot are feuding over wealth, and how to distribute it. Even worse, Lot has been captured in regional fighting, and Abram and his men need to rescue him. [1]

Yet, this is not all. God has made a big promise to Abram that has not come true. Abram is now eighty years old, his wife not far behind him in age. Since God promised Abram would be the father of many nations, and there is no son yet, Abram is probably wondering, what gives? God, what now?

I suspect that Abram must have been more than afraid. He probably was disheartened, too, perhaps even depressed. Long-term depression, too. Here the Almighty God who created heaven and earth had promised Abram that he would have a son, some years before. As time continued, no son. Just think, in Abram’s time, there was no fertility clinic, no medical advisor, nothing at all like that. Except, hoping and praying and perhaps sacrificing to God, pleading and imploring God to be gracious and grant Abram and Sarai a son.

Today, there are also people who pray for children of their own, couples who have difficulty with fertility, or carrying a baby to term. Fertility clinics and specialists certainly aid many couples in fulfilling dreams of a child of their own. But, that is today, with all of the technological and medical advances of the 21st century. Abram and Sarai had nothing at all like these treatments and medical capabilities.

Worry, fear, anxiety. How long, Lord? What gives? Am I doing something wrong? What about my wife, my husband, or my partner? Are any of us doing something wonky, or saying something they shouldn’t? What do I need to do, or say, or sacrifice, in order to get a son?  

I realize this topic of yearning for a child may be a difficult topic for some to hear. I do apologize, if that is the case for you, or for a loved one. I would humbly like to point out that this situation is something that is highlighted in Genesis. It’s referenced a number of times in other places in the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments.

After we find out that Abram is afraid, or fearful, what happens next? God shows up! By the word choice and behavior in Genesis 15:1, we see a particularly special thing is happening. “The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.” This construction in Hebrew means that this is a particularly marvelous thing. This is the only time we have these particular words written in the first five books of the Bible, period.

Plus, these words have special significance, wherever they appear in the Bible. These words flag us that God is going to show up, up close and personal. These words can even mean that an appearance of God in a way that humans can understand and deal with. A fancy word called “Theophany,” meaning “Learning from or making an appearance by God.”

And, what super-special thing does the Lord have to say in this super-special appearance? “Be not afraid, Abram!”  This is a momentous occasion, let me tell you. God doesn’t just happen to stop by. God doesn’t just pop in, or make appearances to any random person. No, the Lord really wants to communicate to Abram.

In this situation from long ago in Genesis, Abram is revealed to have a prophetic voice.  “The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.”  How awesome is that? God had a special delivery message, just for Abram. (for Abram, and his wife Sarai, too, of course.)

What else does God say to Abram? “I am your shield; your reward will be very great.” Wow! Let me ask you: what would you think if God communicated with you like this? Do you have any fears, any really big anxieties? What would it mean to you to have the Lord tell you that the Lord will shield you from harm? From worry? From evil intent?

What’s more, what would it be like to have God call you by name? By your personal name, not “O, mortal!” or even your family name. God is being extremely intimate with Abram here. That is powerful stuff!

Sure, Abram had been waiting for a long time. Even after this reassurance, he questions God! He has a contingency plan, an heir to all his property, just in case. However, as biblical commentator Sara Koenig points out, “Abram expects — and believes — God will keep God’s word, which is why Abram speaks in the way he does.” [2] God comes back at him with the marvelous statement/repeated promise, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then God said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

How heartening is that? Such a personal, individualized promise! The next words we read are, “Abram believed the Lord, and God credited it to him as righteousness.” Pretty powerful stuff, indeed.

Even though continuing situations can be telling us that the situation is really bad, almost hopeless, we can still hope in God. Even though Abram went for years with no son, no assurance of this promise from God, God’s faithful promises still came through, in God’s time.

Did Abram have fear and anxiety in his life? Was he probably disheartened, even depressed, long-term? Yes. Did the Lord supernaturally step in and move Abram from fear to faith? Yes. The testimony of Hebrews 11 tells us “By faith Abraham made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she[b] considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.”

Yes, this is the rest of the story. This is how God miraculously continued to work in the lives of Abram and Sarai (that was before God gave them the new names Abraham and Sarah.)

Can the Lord move us from fear to faith, too? Yes! We, too, can look forward to that eternal city, whose architect and builder is God. We can claim the eternal promises of God, by faith, and pass through our fear, anxiety and worry to life in God’s faithful promises.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] Ivaska, David, Be Not Afraid (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 22.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1730

Commentary, Genesis 15:1-6, Sara Koenig, Pentecost 12C Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

All in the Family!

john-8-36-freedom-in-christ

“All in the Family!”

 

John 8:36 – October 30, 2016

Happy Reformation Day! Today is Reformation Sunday. When I say Reformation Sunday, what do you think of? “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God!” Or, Martin Luther, beginning the separation from the Catholic faith on October 31, 1517. What about a day to remember and lift up the Protestant Reformation? Or even all the faithful man and women of integrity through the centuries, who suffered and died for being true to their faith?

The Gospel reading for our sermon has a fascinating connection to Reformation Sunday. Jesus is teaching. And as often happens, His listeners do not understand what Jesus says.

All of this chapter of John—the eighth chapter—takes place in Jerusalem during the Festival of Booths. That is a yearly harvest-time celebration where the Jewish people commemorate God’s protection and accompaniment of the Jews on their wilderness wanderings; when they flee from bondage in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land.

I think Jesus said it clearly enough, but I wasn’t there. I didn’t hear His words, with first-century ears. And we all know about hindsight. Looking back on things past, hindsight is so often 20/20. Rewinding the tape, living life forwards, the Jewish audience in the Temple in Jerusalem wrangle over what Jesus means by His words. Some agree, some disagree, with contention back and forth.

What are the exact words Jesus says, again? “31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to My teaching, you are really My disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The listening Jews—who include the disciples—do misunderstand. Therein lies the source of a great deal of bickering back and forth.

The Jews listening to the Rabbi Jesus are—for the most part—really sincere. They really want to live righteous lives, pleasing to God. But—HOW to do this? That is the problem. And, competing teachers or rabbis had different plans, or step-by-step procedures to help people get closer to God. (It sounds pretty similar to today, doesn’t it?)

Let’s dig deeper, and look at the first phrase Jesus said: “If you hold to My teaching.” This is a phrase that can be translated in several different ways. A more literal way of translating it is “If you abide-dwell in My word.” Remember, we are talking about people who sincerely, legitimately want to get closer to God; see God more clearly, and follow God more nearly.

I suspect people have had difficulty in this area for centuries. Not connecting with God, I mean. Merely “teaching” sounds like it might be possible to get away with just having a nodding acquaintance with God. A kind of distant relationship where we might once in a while attend services, and think about God just a bit, and maybe drop a little money in the basket. But, not much more. Not get really involved.

What about the more literal translation? What was that Jesus said? “If you abide-dwell in My word—” Abide, or dwell. That sounds permanent. Moving in, and putting down roots! And, “in My word.” That is, digging deep! Learning more, and exploring the riches of God’s word. No surface stuff here. Not a nodding acquaintance only, as far as Jesus is concerned. He wants us to move in, lock, stock and barrel. Get to know God, really well, and get to know God’s word. That’s how to show we are really Jesus’s disciples!

Now, the second part of this if-then statement. Because, that’s just what it is. If we abide-dwell in Jesus’s words, then we are really Jesus’s disciples. If we know the truth, then the truth will make us free.

What on earth? Who is free? Who is a slave? What is Jesus saying here?

Can you see the scene in the Temple, here? The Rabbi Jesus makes an incredible statement, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Let’s quote the exact words, the comeback these people gave to Jesus: “They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”

A Reformation Day paraphrase could be: “We are the theological descendants of Martin Luther, and have never been slaves to anyone!”

In other words, “What gives? Who are you calling slaves? Slaves to what? We are free-born people, not slaves!”  Jesus has a ready answer. Verse 34: “ Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”

Did everyone here listen? Did you all hear what Jesus said? Sounds a lot like Romans 3. Paul quotes from Psalms: “As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; … there is no one who does good, not even one.’” And further on in chapter 3: “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

That does not sound like good news. But—does the Apostle Paul tell us that we are permanently worthless, and there is absolutely no way to reconcile to God? Does Jesus stop right there, and leave us enmeshed in sin? Certainly not!

Jesus “is not talking about physical slavery but a spiritual, even existential state of being enslaved to sin.” [1] The Jewish listeners in the audience around the Rabbi Jesus just did not understand. They could not wrap their heads around the concept of “slaves to sin.”

Quoting again from a commentator: “Further, one is not delivered from such slavery by either history or birth right, but rather by a present and ongoing relationship — relationship to the Son, the one who is in the bosom of the Father and makes the Father known (1:18). Only those who abide with, dwell in, and are in intimate relationship with the Son, the living Word, the logos of God, are free indeed.” [2]

This is exactly what Martin Luther was preaching, from the moment he posted those 95 Theses on the chapel door at the University of Wittenberg. We are not hopeless slaves to sin. We are not people with merely a nodding acquaintance with God. Instead, we have an intimate relationship with the Son, with Jesus. Moreover, we are freed through our belief in Jesus Christ and His death on the cross for our sins. That’s yours and mine. All done! All gone. Our every sin is covered, taken away, is no longer separating us from God.

That is not only good news, that is great news! Tremendous news! And the best news of all? If we abide in His word, Jesus says we are now in God’s family. Listen to what He says in our Scripture passage today: “35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Jesus lets us know that a relationship with God is not only a possibility, but a reality. And, the closest relationship of all! All in the family. We can call ourselves the children of God; sons and daughters of the Almighty. We can enter into intimacy with God. We have the right, the privilege to crawl up into our Heavenly Parent’s lap, and call out, “Abba!”

That freedom was what Martin Luther got excited about. That intimacy is the foundation of the Protestant Reformation. That relationship is what we are heirs to today.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=827 , Commentary on John 8:31-36, October 31, 2010, David Lose.

[2] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)