Faith Like Abraham (1)

            In Jon Bloom’s book “Not By Sight”, he talks about Peter walking on the water.  You remember the story in Matthew 14 where the disciples are rowing across the Sea of Galilee when Jesus comes up to them walking on the water.  And after getting over the shock of seeing him, Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (Matthew 14:28).

            And, of course, Jesus says, “Come” and Peter steps out onto the water and he begins walking toward Jesus until he sees the wind and the waves all around him, and he becomes afraid and he begins to sink. 

            But Bloom points out something in his book that I’d never really thought about.  He said, “Have you ever noticed that Peter didn’t sink like a rock?  The last time you jumped into a swimming pool, how gradually did you sink?”

            You see, when Peter’s faith shifted from Jesus to the uncertainty of his circumstances, Jesus let him sink slowly.  And that was a good thing for Peter.  Because it gave him time to cry out to Jesus.  And when he did, Jesus caught him by the hand and he said, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31)

            But there’s a very important question that I think needs to be considered from this story – What was it that held Peter up, what was it that allowed him to walk on the water?  And you may be tempted to say that it was his faith.  But I would suggest to you this morning that that’s not true.  It wasn’t Peter’s faith that kept him afloat.  It was Jesus.

            Now, you may think there’s really no difference between the two and it’s all just a matter of semantics.  But I would suggest that there is a difference and, in fact, it’s a very important difference.  Because the faith we need to have is not faith in our faith, but faith in Jesus.  Let me say that again because it may take you a minute to get your mind wrapped around it — the faith that we need to have is not a faith in our faith, but a faith in Jesus. 

            Now, if you don’t quite understand the difference, hang in there because I’m going to come back to this in just a little bit and explain further what I mean by that.

            But it’s very important that we ask ourselves the question, what do we really believe?  And how strongly do we believe it?  Faith is, of course, one of the most important concepts in all the Bible.  Faith has been fundamental to man’s relationship with God from the very beginning.  In Hebrews chapter 11, that great chapter of faith, we see the importance of faith in the lives of Abel and Enoch and Noah and Jacob and so many others.

            And, of course, faith is fundamental to our salvation and our continuing relationship with God.  If there’s one word that sums up what our response to God should be, that one word would have to be “faith.”  That’s why Paul says in Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.”

            The word translated “faith” or “believe” occurs over 500 times in the New Testament.  It is very likely the most frequent command given by God.

            And so, in view of that, you would think that faith would be one of the best understood Christian concepts.  If any word could be easily defined and explained, it would be faith.  But my experience tells me that’s not the case.

            If I were to ask you this morning, “What is faith?”, someone might speak up and say, “Well, faith is believing.”  But then if I ask you what belief is, you would probably say, “Belief is faith.”  And that obviously doesn’t help us much.

            Mark Twain once said that faith is “believing what you know ain’t so.”  And that’s definitely not a good definition of faith.  In fact, Hebrews 11:1 (NIV) tells us that “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”  

            Someone else might make the observation that faith expresses itself through works. Quoting James 2, they would say that faith without works is dead.  And while it is true that faith expresses itself by way of our actions, that still doesn’t define what faith itself is.  

            So, let me give you what I think is the best definition of faith.  Normally, I don’t like to use an English dictionary to define a Greek word, because usually there’s a big difference between how a word in used in the Bible and how we use it in our everyday language today.  But this is one time that I think the English dictionary gets it exactly right.  The dictionary definition of faith is “complete trust or confidence in someone or something.”  I don’t think there’s a better word to describe the concept of faith than the word “trust”.

            But it should be obvious that there are different levels of trust.  It’s possible for us to have a lot of trust in someone, or we may have just a little bit of trust.

            Those of you who are parents understand this.  If you need to leave your children in someone else’s care for a while, there are some people you would trust fully.  You could leave your kids with them for a week without a second thought and have the full assurance that they are in good hands.  There are other people whom you trust a little.  You might trust them to watch your kids for a couple of hours in an emergency.  And then, of course, there are some people you wouldn’t trust at all.      

            There are different levels of trust, and therein lies the problem for most Christians.  Because we often wonder — What level of trust do I need to have to be acceptable to God?  We all believe we have faith, but how do we know if we have “enough” faith?

            And I suspect that all of you have asked that question at some point in your life.  Because I think all Christians are plagued by periods of doubt.  Most of us would readily admit that we don’t have enough faith. We can relate to the apostles to whom Jesus said so many times, “O you of little faith!”  And I think every conscientious Christian would say, “I’d like to have more faith than I do right now.”  We’re like the father of the demon-possessed boy who said to Jesus, “I believe.  Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). 

            But, as a result of feeling this way, we tend to lack confidence in our salvation.  We know that we need to “trust God” and we do trust God, but the problem is — we worry about our level of trust.  If we could achieve a level of trust that’s way up here, if we could have “complete” faith in God every day of our lives, we’d feel pretty good about our salvation.  But what that means is that we tend to put our faith in our level of faith. 

            The problem is – none of us are likely to experience that level of absolute faith. There are times in our lives when we’re going to have doubts.  There are times when the trials and difficulties of life that come our way discourage us.  Some of the sacrifices God has called us to make, we make reluctantly.  And we are continually reminded of our spiritual inadequacy.

            And so, in light of all of this, Christians tend to ask themselves the question, “Do I believe enough?  Do I have enough faith?”   Which brings us to the heart of the issue concerning the subject of faith.  Is a saving faith determined by the amount of faith a person has, or by the kind of faith he or she has?

            For an answer to that question, I’d like for us to look at the life of Abraham.  I want to warn you in advance that this is a two-part lesson, and I’m going to be raising some questions this morning that won’t be answered until next week’s lesson, so you’ll need to come back next week to hear “the rest of the story.”

            In Romans 4:16, God tells us that salvation is available today to those who have the “faith of Abraham.”  This nomad, this guy who traveled around living in a tent, had a faith that God said is the model for our faith.  Now it’s hard for me to adequately explain just how incredible Abraham’s faith was. 

            When it comes to trusting people, we recognize that there needs to be a basis for that trust.  Trust has to be earned.  And if someone we know has broken our trust in some way, it may take a while for that trust to be re-built. 

            And so, for us to trust God is a relatively easy thing to do.  Because God has proven himself over and over throughout history.  Every time God made a promise, he kept that promise.  Every time God said he would do something, he did it.  God has earned our trust.

            But Abraham didn’t have that level of confidence.  He didn’t have a Bible where he could read about all the things that God had done for Adam and Eve, and Enoch, and Noah.  So, how was Abraham able to trust God so much?  Let’s find out.

            The story of Abraham begins in the land of Mesopotamia in the city of Ur.  We know from archaeology that the city of Ur was a great city, a prosperous city, a cultural center.  Some estimate that it was the biggest city in the world at that time.  You might say it was the New York City of its day.  But God came to Abraham while he was living in Ur and told him to leave.   

            In Acts 7, Stephen is giving the history of Abraham, and he says, “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia [in the city of Ur]…and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’  Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran.” (Acts 7:2-4)

            It’s important to keep in mind that, at this time, Abraham was a pagan, a Gentile, an unbeliever.  And we know that because in Joshua 24, Joshua said to the Israelites, “Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates. Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor, and they served other gods.” (Joshua 24:2).  Joshua said before God called Abraham, he, along with his father and his brother, served other gods; they were pagans. Ur was especially known for worshiping the moon god. 

            So, Abraham was a typical Gentile pagan. But God comes to him and he calls him in this amazing way, and he says, leave life as you know it, everything of comfort, everything that is familiar to you, leave your country, your people, your family, leave the language you’re used to, leave all of these things behind, and go to the land that I will show you.  This was a command to step into the great unknown.  I don’t know if Abraham had any idea where he was going.  I’m sure once he got started, he must have been given a direction. God must have at least said, “Go west.”  But beyond that, we just don’t know.

            God told Abraham to “leave your kindred, leave your family, leave your country, leave it all.”  And we understand that the reason God did this is because Yahweh is a jealous God.  In Exodus 20, God will say to the Israelites, “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other Gods before me.” (Exodus 20:2-3).  God refuses to have any rivals in our hearts, so the first thing God does is to get Abraham away from that pagan influence.

            It’s the same in our calling as Christians.  God calls us to leave everything behind, all of our allegiances, so that our heart will be connected to him and nothing else.  God refuses to have any rivals, not your father and mother, not your husband or wife, not your children, not your possessions, not your houses or lands or anything else.  God says, “I will not settle for second place in your life.  I will be your number one priority or I will be nothing at all.”

            And so, from the very beginning of the call of Abraham, we have God telling him to sever all ties with everything that was familiar and comfortable because he wants to put Abraham in a position where he has no one else to turn to, no one else to lean on, except for God.

            And Abraham had enough faith to believe the message which he received from God and that faith led him to do what God asked him to do.  He had enough faith to forsake the pagan gods to follow the true God who called him.  He had enough faith to leave Ur and all of its comforts.  He had enough faith to migrate in the direction which God directed him.  So, how was Abraham able to have that much trust in God?

            The answer may be found in what Stephen said.  Stephen said, “The God of glory appeared to our father, Abraham.” (Acts 7:2).  There was apparently some sort of a glorious appearance of God to Abraham.  Abraham did not venture out because he heard voices inside his head.  I believe that God showed himself to be infinitely greater than anything Abraham could leave behind.  More glorious, more satisfying, more of a treasure than anything Abraham had in Ur.  God gave Abraham a foretaste of glory, and that changed everything for Abraham.  From that point on, all he wanted was God — I want God, I want to please him, I want to know him, I want to seek him.  He’s what I want, and I will leave everything else behind in order that I may have that.

            It’s what Jesus described in his parable of the hidden treasure.  In Matthew 13, Jesus said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again and then in his joy sold everything he had and bought that field.” (Matthew 13:44).  When you realize what a treasure God is, you’re willing to give up everything to follow him, to be with him. 

            Paul said in Philippians 3 that compared to the opportunity to know Jesus Christ, everything else is worthless, he calls it dung.  And I think that’s what we see here with Abraham.  God showed his glory, and for the rest of his life, Abraham wanted to see more and more of it.

            So, Abraham had faith, I think we would even say that he had a great faith, but it wasn’t a perfect faith.  Because God didn’t just tell Abraham to leave Ur, he told him to leave his family, but when Abraham left Ur, some of his family went with him.  Now it’s possible that Abraham’s father Terah made the decision that the family would go with Abraham, and Abraham didn’t have any say in the matter.  In Genesis 11:31, we read that Terah “took” the family on the journey, which seems to indicate that he was in charge. 

            At any rate, they all traveled to the city of Haran, and it was only after Terah died that God came to Abraham a second time.  And basically, he gave him the same message he gave back in Ur: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1).  Once again, Abraham was told to leave his country (which was now Haran), to leave his kindred (those who had migrated with him and those who had been born there), to leave his father’s house, and to go to a place which God would show him. 

            This time, Abraham did exactly what he was told and his father wasn’t there to hold him back.  Abraham was 75 years old when God called him the second time.  And, in return for his obedience, God promised Abraham that he would make his descendants into a great nation, that he would bless him, that he would make his name great, and God would bring a blessing to all families on the face of the earth through him.

            But, in order to receive those blessings, Abraham had to obey God and leave.  We don’t like leaving stuff behind.  We like things that are familiar, things that are comfortable; we like having some level of predictability in our lives; not to mention all that stuff that we have accumulated.

            And so, I want you to see that God’s request presented several challenges to Abraham’s faith.  First of all, he had to leave his family.  There are a lot of people today who are so close to their family that they would never leave their family for any reason, not even for God. 

            Secondly, Abraham had to leave the place he had settled – a place where everything was familiar and comfortable.  Something we may not appreciate in our mobile society today is that, in Abraham’s day, to leave your family and homeland was to leave your source of security.  To be with your family was a “safety net” of protection.  By commanding Abraham to leave his home and his family, God was forcing him to depend solely on him.

            Thirdly, and perhaps most difficult, Abraham had to leave what was known for something that was unknown.  God didn’t tell him anything about his destination.  In fact, the Hebrew writer says, “He went out, not knowing where he was going.” (Hebrews 11:8).  Abraham did not know where he would end up or how long he would stay there. 

            I don’t know of very many people today who would make a move like that with so little information.  “Sueanne, pack your bags.  We’re moving.”  Where to?  “Can’t tell you.  You’ll see when you get there.”  Now I’m not saying Sueanne wouldn’t be willing to do that.  What I am saying is that it requires a very high level of trust in someone.

            Abraham did not know where he was going. But that’s where faith comes in.  Maybe you’re in a situation like that right now where you don’t know what the future holds for you.  We have to trust in God and walk by faith.  That’s the way it was with Abraham.  He didn’t know where the next place would be that he would pitch his tent.

            And God likes to do that a lot.  God would later do the same thing with Israel during their time in the wilderness.  He said, “I’ll let you know when it’s time to move.”  When the cloud got up, “Okay we’re moving.”  When it settled back down, they stayed there. And so, step by step, God led his people, and they never knew just where the next step was going to be.  Which is why we need faith.

            Once again, Abraham possessed a remarkable faith.  He left his family and the security of Haran for an unknown destination.  He traveled to Canaan, and he trusted that God would take care of him.

            That’s not to say that Abraham’s faith was perfect; it wasn’t.  When a famine forced Abraham to travel to Egypt, he was afraid that the Egyptians would kill him and take his beautiful wife, Sarah.  So, he told the Egyptians that she was his sister and deliberately hid the fact that she was his wife.  He even went so far as to allow another man to take Sarah to be his wife all because Abraham didn’t trust that God would take care of them.

            Abraham’s faith in God wasn’t perfect, but it was a strong faith.  And what we see in Abraham is that true, genuine faith always produces a consistent pattern of obedience to God’s commands.   True faith produces obedience, it always produces obedience.  That’s what Paul said in Romans 1, “Through Him and for His name’s sake, we….call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.” (Romans 1:5)

            That’s how Romans begins. And Romans ends exactly the same way.  In Romans 16:26, “So that all nations might believe and obey Him.”  Believe and obey.  James tells us that without obedience, faith is dead.  And so, Abraham’s faith was demonstrated by his obedience.

            What do you suppose Abraham’s neighbors must have thought as he had his yard sale and sold all of his stuff?  “What are you doing, Abraham?”  Well, I’m going away.  “Really, where are you going?”  I don’t know.  I think it’s somewhere to the west.  They must have thought he was crazy.  But Abraham wasn’t crazy.  It was just radical obedience.  I wonder what there is in your life that you’re doing by faith that makes no sense to the unbelievers around you.

            For Abraham, it was that yard sale and his leaving.  It was obedience to God, and the rest of his life there’s going to be a pattern of sacrifice, a pattern of giving things up for God.  It’s going to culminate as we’ll see next week in the command to sacrifice his son, his only son, Isaac.  Abraham reminds us that it’s not always easy to obey God.  But his faith led him to obey.  And that was something he did for the rest of his life.  It wasn’t a whim or a fancy, it wasn’t something that was done on the spur of the moment.  For the rest of his life, Abraham was going to listen to the voice of God and obey it, as God led him step by step.

Conclusion:

            I remember when our children were younger – much younger — they would sometimes go up a stairway a step, maybe two, and jump down to the ground.  If they were daring — as Joshua often was — they might even jump from the third or fourth step.  But any higher than that was just a bit too much.  And they would never jump from that height — unless dad stood at the bottom of the stairs.

            In order to make the jump, they would have to be convinced of several things.  First of all, they had to know that dad was there.  It meant having a basic assurance that dad would not move – that he would be where he promised and would stand where he said he would. 

            Secondly, it meant believing that dad could catch them if they jumped. It meant being convinced that dad had the ability — that his arms would be strong enough to catch them. 

            But there’s one more thing that was needed. They needed to trust that dad actually would catch them when they jumped.  And it was only when they were convinced of all three of those things that they would let themselves go.

            Our faith in God is a lot like that.  Before we can commit our lives to him, we have to know, to be assured that God is there.  Second, we have to believe that God can save us, that he has the power, the ability and the desire.  And then, third, we have to believe that God actually will save us, and to do that, we have to trust him to keep his promises.

            And it is only when our faith reaches that point that we have enough trust in God to “let go”, to give up everything to go wherever God may lead us. 

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