Abraham, Journey of Faith (2)

You may think I’m a little strange for this, but I am fascinated by people who have humorous epitaphs put on their tombstone. All of the following epitaphs that I’m going to share with you are real.

Here lays Butch,
We planted him raw.
He was quick on the trigger,
But slow on the draw. (Silver City, Nevada)

Anna Wallace
The children of Israel wanted bread
And the Lord sent them manna,
Old clerk Wallace wanted a wife,
And the Devil sent him Anna. (Ribbesford, England)

Margaret Daniels
She always said her feet were killing her
but nobody believed her. (Richmond, Virginia)

Anna Hopewell
Here lies the body of our Anna
Done to death by a banana
It wasn’t the fruit that laid her low
But the skin of the thing that made her go.
(Enosburg Falls, Vermont)

Harry Edsel Smith
Born 1903–Died 1942
Looked up the elevator shaft to see if
the car was on the way down. It was. (Albany, New York)

In Memory of Beza Wood
Here lies one Wood
Enclosed in wood
One Wood
Within another.
The outer wood
Is very good:
We cannot praise
The other. (Winslow, Maine)

As humorous as that is, it’s actually very sad to think that someone could come to the end of her life and not have others be able to say anything good about her! Hebrews 11 could be viewed as a collection of epitaphs of people who died. The chapter begins with these words:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation.” (Hebrews 11:1-2)

I like how the New Century Version translates verse 2: “Faith is the reason we remember great people who lived in the past.” And that’s true, isn’t it? Every single person in the Bible we regard as “great” was a man or woman of faith. That faith made a difference in the way they lived, the way they responded to God. That’s why we remember them.

Because it’s easy to say we believe, but faith is not an easy thing to put into practice. We started talking about faith last week and for the benefit of those of you who weren’t here, let me give you a quick overview of what was said. We began by talking about what faith is, and I said that perhaps the best word to sum up biblical faith is the word “trust”. But there are different levels of trust. We can trust someone a lot or we can not trust them very much at all. So, as Christians, although we all have faith, we often wonder, “Do I have enough faith? Is my faith as strong as it should be?”

We saw that the Bible character whose faith is held up for us as a model more often than any other is Abraham. And so, we began looking at Abraham’s early life in the city of Ur with his family worshiping heathen gods, and how God called him out of Ur and later out of Haran. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1).

We talked about the great amount of faith that it would take to leave your family and your home and to leave without even knowing your destination. And while there was some wavering on Abraham’s part in those early years, he still exhibited a tremendous amount of faith. And yet, at this early stage, Abraham did not yet have a faith that was credited to him for righteousness.

I said we would find out when that was in this morning’s lesson. And you may be somewhat surprised to find out when Abraham’s faith reached that point. If you think it was at the offering of Isaac, you’re wrong. We’ll find out when it was in just a few minutes.

But let’s pick up first in Genesis chapter 13. After Abraham and Lot separated from one another, God renewed his promise to Abraham. God said that all the land Abraham could see would one day belong to his descendants, and that his descendants would be as numerous as the dust on the earth, too many to count. Which is an amazing promise to a man who doesn’t yet have any children.

In chapter 15, God appeared to Abraham in a vision. Now, by this time, Abraham was beginning to have some serious doubts about Sarah bearing him a son. And he knew that if he didn’t have a son, God couldn’t give him anything that he had promised. So, Abraham came to God with an alternative solution. He requested that God accept his servant Eliezer as his heir. He could be like an adopted son.

But God rejected that proposal and he said in verse 4, “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” (Genesis 15:4). And once again God declared that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens.

Now, when God said that, Abraham believed God’s promise. And it was at that point that his faith was credited to him for righteousness. Verse 6, “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6), or as the New Living Translation puts it, “the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith.”

Now, you may wonder what it is that is significant about this particular point in time, and so I want you to notice that it was only when Abraham trusted God’s promise in the face of his own doubts that God credited Abraham’s faith for righteousness.

It is important for us to notice that, physically, nothing had changed at this point. Sarah was barren in Ur. She was barren in Haran. She was barren when she arrived in Canaan. She was still barren at this time. Nothing physically indicated she had been given the ability to conceive. God simply said that a son was going to be born.

And on nothing more than the promise of God, Abraham believed it would happen. He believed that God would keep his promise simply because God said that he would. He trusted God to keep his promise at a time when Abraham had genuine doubts. And that is the faith which God credits for righteousness.

There was still a lot that Abraham and Sarah didn’t understand. And after some years went by and a child still wasn’t born, they continued to have their doubts.

In fact, you may recall that Sarah came up with her own alternative plan. She decided to give Abraham her handmaid, Hagar. Hagar could conceive a child on Sarah’s behalf – a surrogate child. That child could then be regarded as Sarah’s and he would be considered their heir. And so Ishmael was born when Abraham was 86 years old. But thirteen years later, at the age of 99, Abraham received word from God that Ishmael was not the promised son.

And, once again, in Genesis 17, God renewed his promise. God would give Abraham many descendants and God would make Abraham the father of a multitude of nations.

Then Abraham was told to seal this covenant with God with a very specific act: every male in his house was to be circumcised. From this point on, circumcision would stand as a sign of the covenant between Abraham and God.

Now, the reaction of Abraham was this – verse 17, he fell on his face and laughed. Abraham wanted to know, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Genesis 17:17). Then Abraham begged God to accept Ishmael as his heir. I want you to see what a struggle this was for Abraham. I want you to see the doubt that he felt in his heart. From Abraham’s perspective, there seemed to be absolutely no way for God to keep his promise.

But God’s reply was clear. Ishmael would not be the heir. Another son named Isaac would be born of Sarah. In fact, Sarah would give birth to Isaac at that same time in one year.

Now I want you to notice the kind of faith which God counts for righteousness. When God stopped talking with Abraham, Abraham immediately circumcised Ishmael, every male under his authority, and himself. And he did that because he had absolute confidence that God would keep his promise.

What had changed? Nothing. Was Sarah pregnant? Nope, and she wouldn’t be for another three months. What tangible evidence did Abraham have that God would do what he said he would do? Absolutely none. But in the midst of those uncertainties, Abraham trusted God.

Based on God’s promise and nothing more, Abraham circumcised himself and every male under his oversight. This was a terribly painful thing for Abraham to do. But Abraham did it to keep his part of the covenant. He did it because he believed that God would keep his promise.

That’s the kind of faith made Abraham righteous before God. Abraham was obedient, but it was not the obedience of being circumcised that made him righteous. It was his faith — a faith which prompted the circumcision – it was that faith that made him righteous.

And one year later, Abraham and Sarah were the proud parents of a baby boy named Isaac. And things were starting to look up. God had kept his promise exactly like he said that he would. And, after having a child at the age of 100, you would think that Abraham would never struggle with doubt again. But you’d be wrong.

Because once again God spoke to Abraham. This time it was a short message with no explanation: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” (Genesis 22:2). And though we’ve heard this story many times, we still find it incredible that God would demand this of Abraham.

There are few things in this life more painful than the sorrow of losing a child. To any parent, that alone would be an unspeakable tragedy. Nothing in all the world seems more unnatural than for parents to bury their children. But, this took one it step further. God told Abraham to offer his own son.

There are a lot of ways that Abraham could have reacted to that command.

(1) He could have doubted that it was God who was speaking to him. After all, God had never before required human sacrifice. The very command seemed to be out of character with God.

(2) He could have ignored the command because it didn’t make sense. It seemed to go against what God had promised in Ur and in Haran and in Canaan. It seemed to violate the very covenant that God had made with Abraham.

God had promised Abraham a son, and God specifically said that Isaac was that promised son. God made it quite clear that Isaac was the one through whom all those descendants were to come. It was his descendants who were to possess the land of Canaan. It was his descendants through whom the blessing was to come for all the earth. Without Isaac, none of that could happen. And Abraham could have refused to obey simply on the basis that it just didn’t make any sense.

Abraham didn’t know how God could keep his promises if Isaac was dead. He just knew that God would do it somehow. And that’s an important lesson for all of us. When God makes a promise, we don’t need to wonder how he will keep his word. Faith will trust God and leave the “how” in the hands of Almighty God. If we try to figure out “how” God will take care of us, we will end up doing things our way and not God’s way.

And so, Abraham rose up early the next morning (22:3). He saddled a donkey for himself and selected two young men to accompany and to assist them on the journey. He cut the wood for the sacrifice, and he took the wood and fire with him (vs. 4-5).

When he neared the place of offering, he ordered the young servants to stay behind (v.5), probably to make sure that no one would interfere with what he was about to do.

The entire situation is almost too painful to imagine. Here was a man over 100 years old with his son whose birth he had looked forward to for decades. He loved Isaac more than he loved his own life. Isaac represented all of the hopes and the dreams of Abraham’s future. For three days, Abraham traveled with his son knowing that every step took them closer to Isaac’s death. For three days, he watched and listened to the son he loved knowing that these were the last days he would ever see him.

And if the journey was difficult, think about how painful those final moments must have been. When they reached the mountain, Abraham had Isaac carry the wood for his own sacrifice while Abraham carried the knife and the fire. It’s hard to see how Abraham could even speak to answer when Isaac asked him, “Father, where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”

Imagine the emotions Abraham must have experienced as they built the altar and laid the wood on it. What kind of faith is it which would move a man to tie up the son he loves more than life itself, to place that son helplessly on the altar, and to look at that son’s face as he raises the knife to end the boy’s life?

What kind of faith would do such a thing? The answer is: A faith which believed that God, regardless of circumstances, would keep his promises. A faith which believed that even Isaac’s death could not stop God from keeping his covenant. A faith which trusted God so much that it would obey God even when God’s request couldn’t be understood. That was the faith that God reckoned for righteousness.

But, of course, the angel stopped Abraham. So what was the point? Why did God tell Abraham to do that? We sometimes say, “It was a test of Abraham’s faith” and I think that’s true, but Abraham had already proven his faith in God in many other ways. He had left Ur and Haran, he left his family, he wandered in Canaan, built altars, and he had trusted God to give him an heir. What need was there for further proof? What specifically did God hope to accomplish by this test?

I think what God wanted to test was this: Did Abraham place his faith in the fact that Isaac was alive? Or did Abraham place his faith in the God who gave him Isaac?

Now, I want that to sink in for a moment. Because, if we’re not careful, we can put our trust in the things which God has given us rather than trusting the God who gave us those things.

After the birth of Isaac, it was easy for Abraham to trust God. He had a son! But God wanted to know: If Isaac was gone, would Abraham’s trust in God continue? Or, was Abraham’s confidence in God now limited to Isaac’s life and well-being? And there was only one way to find out.

It’s a question that I think we all need to ask ourselves: Is our faith in God, or is our faith in the things which God has given us? For example, we trust that God will provide for our needs. It’s easy to trust that if you have a job. But is your trust in God or is your trust in the job which God has given you? Or, to put it another way, if your job was taken away from you, would you still trust that God will take care of you?

Could you still trust in God if your health was taken away? What if someone you dearly love passes away? My point is that it’s easy to trust God when everything’s going great. But if everything we have is taken away from us, would we still be able to trust that God will take care of us and that everything will be all right? And if we can’t trust God in those circumstances, then maybe our trust isn’t really in God – maybe it’s in the things or the people that God has given us.

But Abraham proved that his life was ruled by an absolute confidence in God. God was the one that Abraham trusted. The God who gave him Isaac. And that same God would keep his promises even if Isaac died. Abraham didn’t understand how, he didn’t have a clue, but he knew that God would keep his word.

The Hebrew writer put it this way: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’

“He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” (Hebrews 11:17-19). It was because of that kind of faith that God regarded Abraham as a righteous man.

Now, Abraham was a man of obedience. Leaving Ur and Haran, wandering as a foreigner in the land of Canaan for many years, and his willingness to sacrifice Isaac rank among the greatest acts of obedience of all time. And yet, it is the faith of Abraham which is held up to us as an example.

It’s significant that a man of great obedience would be our example of faith because there is not and never has been a conflict between those two things. Obedience and faith are so connected that either one is meaningless without the other. As James 2:22 says, “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works.”

As I said earlier, Abraham was obedient, but it was not his obedience that made him righteous. It was his faith — the faith which prompted the obedience — which made him righteous. It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one.

“For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’” (Romans 4:3)

Biblical faith doesn’t negate the importance of obedience. In fact, it produces a superior form of obedience. When Abraham obeyed God in offering Isaac, he acted promptly and he did exactly what God instructed him to do. There can be no higher level of obedience that Abraham demonstrated on that occasion. And he was able to obey to that extent because of his faith in God’s promises. Faith allows us to trust completely in God’s ability to keep his promises. And faith then compels us to obey God promptly and completely.

But Abraham shows us that even a strong faith is not characterized by perfect obedience. As obedient as Abraham was, he still made his mistakes. After having enough faith to leave Haran, Abraham didn’t trust God enough to keep him safe in Egypt and so he lied about Sarah. Then he laughed at the thought of Sarah having a child. Then, Abraham lied again – this time to King Abimelech. It’s significant that even after Abraham had the faith which God counted for righteousness, he still let God down from time to time. Obviously, having a strong faith does not mean obeying perfectly.

And the faith which God credits for righteousness is not characterized by never having any doubts. In fact, Abraham first attained that level of faith at a time when doubt moved him to ask God to accept Eliezer as his heir. And long after Abraham had developed that faith, he experienced his most severe doubts — laughing at the idea of having a child and declaring in his heart that it was impossible. Having a faith which God credits for righteousness doesn’t mean never having any doubts.

The question for us as Christians is not, “Do we ever have doubts?” The question is, “When we have doubts, do we still trust the fact that God will keep his word?

The trust that God saw in Abraham is the highest level of trust that we’re capable of having. It’s the kind of trust which exists when a person will accept and act on God’s promises simply because God has given his assurance.

“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)

And, I think it’s the case that this kind of faith cannot exist in a person’s life until he comes to a time in his life that demands that he trust God and not himself. Until you find yourself in a position where you can do nothing but depend on God, you may never be able to develop such a strong faith.

It’s a faith that says, “God, even when everything goes wrong, even when I don’t understand how you’re working things out, even when it seems impossible, you’ve never let me down and I know that you will continue to keep your promises to me.” That’s the kind of faith that will sustain you and will lead you to obey God completely.

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