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!)

“Generous With Our Possessions”

“Generous With Our Possessions”

fish, bread and wheat photo credit - Jerry Bridges

fish, bread and wheat
photo credit – Jerry Bridges

John 6:12-14 – March 8, 2015

A memorable picture book I dearly remember from my childhood is called “Stone Soup.” I remember reading it to my children, too. This story is about a small village in Europe after the wars, several hundred years ago. The villagers are frightened of strangers. As a result, they are tight-fisted, and keep their precious food to themselves. They hide the food, until coaxed to bring it out; be generous and share it all together. And then, all the village has a wonderful feast.

Our Gospel reading today from John 6 has a similar sort of idea. Someone is generous, and food is shared. Jesus blesses the food, multiplies it, and all the people end up having a wonderful feast.

In today’s Scripture reading—which appears in all four Gospels, by the way—we see Jesus and His disciples traveling far away from town, to pray. Far away from a ready source of food. Yet, here comes a huge crowd of people, pursuing Jesus!

I am not certain why they are coming after Him. Perhaps it’s because the Rabbi Jesus has been healing so many people. Perhaps some of these are disabled, deaf, or sick. Maybe some of them are poor, and want to hear what the great Rabbi has to say. Maybe some are wondering whether this charismatic rabbi could possibly be a Messiah, a political leader!

Can you see the hungry crowd? Can you hear their hungry cries? Can you understand the hunger—yes, immediate and physical, but also spiritual! I suspect that Jesus knew all of these reasons, and all of these expectations. I know He understood the deep hunger of their souls.

Jesus sees the crowd, too! The Gospel has recorded an exchange He had with his disciples Philip and Andrew. Jesus asks Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” I can just see Philip, serious and earnest, rapidly trying to figure out how on earth they are to feed several thousand people on a moment’s notice! I can just hear what he might say: “This feeding thing? Much too expensive! We couldn’t possibly afford it!” Or, perhaps, “This feeding thing? We don’t have enough volunteers! And the budget won’t stretch that far. Not by a long shot!” And what about even, “Not again, Jesus! You are setting a negative precedent with this kind of free hand-outs.” I don’t want to diminish Philip’s practical concerns, at all! Quite valid, and absolutely understandable.

When you and I are uncertain, anxious, or afraid about practical concerns, what is our response? What would we say if we were asked a similar question? “Where shall we buy bread for this huge crowd of people to eat?” Would we get uncertain or anxious? Are we overwhelmed by the massive size of the crowd? Would we freeze up? Perhaps even get angry, or bluster about? Jesus asked Philip—and us—a great question!

Turning to Andrew, he also responds to Jesus. Andrew has gone outside of the safe constraints of the well-intentioned church budget to uncharted territory. He has found a boy with a bag lunch, and the boy has offered his food to Jesus, to share.

Let’s step back and take a look at our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, from the book of 2 Kings. The prophet Elisha is called upon to perform a miracle of feeding. There are obvious parallels, too. Someone comes up with a small offering of food. A bag lunch, again. Barley loaves—what a poor person might eat—is the bread in question. Even the question from Elisha’s disciple and Jesus’ disciple is similar: “How far will they go among so many?”

How many times are we overwhelmed with the problems we face today? Anxious because of the lack of resources, volunteers, or finances? We see so many today striving to get enough to eat. Unemployed people and their families lining up for food at the food pantries—like Maine Township Food Pantry. We realize God promises us abundance and generosity repeatedly in the Scripture. How on earth will this be accomplished? We ask—what is Jesus going to do?

We can praise God! Jesus knew very well what He was planning to do. He accepted the boy’s gift of the bag lunch. The boy was generous! And he willingly gave his food to Jesus.

Just a minute! Richard Niell Donovan poses the question: “What if the boy were unwilling to share his lunch? What if he were to say, ‘I need this for myself’ – or ‘My little bit won’t make any difference’?” (How many times have we uttered these words to ourselves or to those with whom we serve in ministry? Or, in Church Council? Or in the congregation?)

The unnamed boy here turns his food over to Jesus. I can just see him, giving Jesus the little lunch, perhaps wrapped in a cloth by his mother that morning. He empties the food from his hands into those of Jesus. Jesus turns around, blesses the food, and miraculously multiplies it to feed thousands of people.

What about us? Are we frightened and fearful, like the villagers in the picture book “Stone Soup?” Are we hesitant to share our food, our resources, our money, time and talents with Jesus? Jesus can take what we offer and turn it into such abundance! Just as the boy was generous and turned over his lunch, look at what a marvel Jesus did with that!

We don’t know what happened to this boy afterwards, either. Can you imagine this event becoming the defining event in his life? Imagine, the Rabbi Jesus took his lunch and multiplied it into enough to serve 5000 men! Plus women and children? I suspect that once this boy has seen Jesus work a miracle—perhaps right in front of this boy’s very eyes!—that this boy’s life was never the same.

Jesus transforms the bag lunch, the little bit that was generously offered, into the more-than-enough. Biblical commentator William Barclay writes, “There would have been one great and shining deed fewer in history if that boy had refused to come or if he had withheld his loaves and fishes. The fact of life is that Jesus Christ needs what we can bring Him. We may not have much to bring but He needs what we have.”

As Jesus’ followers today, we are also invited to be generous. To see God’s abundance, and to stretch our hearts, minds, and hands. Not like the disciples, who were constrained by practical problems, economic and logistical drawbacks. They couldn’t see that God wants people to be open to God’s working, and willing to serve. Willing to be generous with whatever they have to offer.

Suppose I took a one dollar bill. Here. ( holds up bill ) Suppose each one of you were to donate one dollar to the food pantry. We would have a pile of ones collected after the service. That’s something. Now, suppose I were to take a five dollar bill. Here. ( holds up bill ) Suppose each one of us were to donate five dollars, and we took a collection for the food pantry. We would have a large pile of fives after the service, and a nice freewill donation for the pantry, besides!

Everyone has something to offer. If each of us gives our little bit, and we gather it all together, it turns out to be a whole lot! Not only food, but time. Talents. Money, when possible. In addition, what about prayer? Some of us have the gift of praying. too! We can pray for those who are hungry. Pray that they may know God’s abundance—through our generosity, as well!

All life and all good gifts come from God. Jesus comes to open our hearts, our hands and our minds to those around us, especially to those in need. We can do that only because Jesus also comes to open our hearts, minds and eyes to His own presence in our midst. May God increase our generosity! And may God increase our love and caring for all who hunger after the abundance that Jesus offers.

Thanks to the friends at the website “Radical Gratitude,” www.umfnw.org, Stewardship Emphasis, and Tanya Barnett for several ideas that I have interwoven into this message.

@chaplaineliza

Thanks to the kind friends at http://www.40acts.org.uk – I am using their sermon suggestions for Lent 2015. Do Lent generously!

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. Thanks!)