Faith Like Abraham (2)

You may think I’m a little strange for this, but I am fascinated by humorous epitaphs that some people have 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)

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 may be, it’s actually quite sad to think that this woman came to the end of her life and nobody had anything good to say 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 a woman of faith.  Their 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 always an easy thing to put into practice.  We started talking about faith last week and for the benefit of those who weren’t here, let me give you a quick overview.  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 trust them a little.  So, as Christians, even though 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 an example more 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 then later called him 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 tremendous amount of faith it would take to leave your family, to leave your home, and to leave without even knowing where you’re going.  And while Abraham’s faith wavered some in those early years, he still exhibited a great amount of faith. 

            In Genesis chapter 13, after Abraham and Lot separated from one another and went their separate ways, God renewed his promise to Abraham.  God told Abraham that all the land he 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, Abraham was beginning to have some doubts about Sarah bearing him a son.  And he knew that if he didn’t have a son, God couldn’t give him any of those promises.  So, Abraham came to God with an alternative solution.  He asked God to 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 we read, “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 was about this particular point in time that was so significant.  And I think this is what it was — it was only when Abraham trusted God’s promise in the face of his own doubts that God credited Abraham’s faith for righteousness.

Keep in mind that, physically, nothing had changed at this point.  Sarah was barren when they lived in Ur.  She was barren when they lived 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. 

I think that’s significant for all of us.  Doubt is a topic we don’t like to talk about much in church, even though there are whole books of the Bible that deal with the issue of doubt in various ways — Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Habakkuk. Many of the psalms touch on the theme of doubt and feeling abandoned by God.

And the truth is, we all experience doubt from time to time.  Doubt itself is not sinful or wrong.  In fact, it often can be the catalyst to new spiritual growth. Someone has said that our doubts tend to fall into three categories:

First, there are intellectual doubts. These are doubts most often raised by those outside the Christian faith. Is the Bible the Word of God? Is Jesus the Son of God?  Was he really resurrected from the dead?

Second, there are spiritual doubts. These tend to be the doubts of those inside the church. Am I really a Christian? Have I truly believed? Why is it so hard to pray? Why do I still feel so guilty?

Third, there are circumstantial doubts. This is the largest category because it encompasses all the “whys” of life. Why did my child die? Why did my marriage break up? Why can’t I find a husband?  Why did my friend betray me?  Where was God when my uncle was abusing me?  These are the kinds of questions that really challenge our faith as we live in the pain of a fallen world.

Some people think that doubt is the opposite of faith, but it isn’t.  Unbelief is the opposite of faith. Unbelief refers to a willful refusal to believe, while doubt simply refers to uncertainty.

Some people think that God condemns us when we doubt, when we question him, but he doesn’t.  Both Job and David repeatedly questioned God, but they weren’t condemned for it.  God is big enough to handle all our doubts and all our questions.

Some people think struggling with God means we lack faith, but that’s not true. Struggling with God is a sign that we truly have faith.  If we never struggle, our faith will never grow stronger.

            So, Abraham struggled in his faith.  He had doubts.  There was a lot that Abraham and Sarah didn’t understand.  And after more 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 her handmaid, Hagar, to Abraham for him to sleep with.  Hagar could get pregnant and it would be a surrogate child.  That child could then be regarded as Abraham and Sarah’s and he would be considered their heir. 

And so, Ishmael was born when Abraham was 86 years old.  But thirteen years later, 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 serve as a sign of the covenant between Abraham and his family and God. 

            Abraham’s initial reaction was this – in 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 that Abraham had. When God stopped talking with him, 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.  Because he believed that God would keep his promise. 

            That’s the kind of faith that 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 he did.

            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 although we have heard this story many times, we still find it incredible that God would demand this of Abraham.

            There are very few things in life that are more painful than the pain of losing a child. Nothing in all the world seems more unnatural than for parents to have to bury their children.  To any parent, that alone would be a terrible tragedy.  But God took it one step further.  He told Abraham that he had to be the one responsible for the death of his son.

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

(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 seems to be out of character with who God is.

(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 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 of Abraham’s descendants were going to come. It was Isaac’s descendants who were to possess the land of Canaan.  It was Isaac’s 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 didn’t make any sense.

Abraham didn’t have any idea 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’s going to keep his word.  If we have faith, we will trust God and we will leave the “how” in the hands of Almighty God.  If we try to figure out “how” God is going to take care of us, we will end up doing things our way and not God’s way.

And so, Abraham got up early the next morning (22:3).  He saddled a donkey and selected two young men to accompany him and Isaac on their journey.  He cut the wood for the sacrifice, and he took the wood and fire with him (vs. 4-5).  When he got close to the place of offering, he ordered the young servants to staybehind (v.5), probably to make sure that no one 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 Abraham’s hopes and all of his dreams.  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 he carried the knife and the fire.  It’s hard to see how Abraham could even speak 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 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 that?  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 counted as righteousness.

            And, of course, we know that the angel stopped Abraham from actually doing that.  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 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 limited to Isaac’s life and well-being?  And there was only one way to find out.

            And I think that’s a question that 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, are we still 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.  Abraham trusted God.  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 was certain 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).  And 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 some 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 only right that a man of such 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 said in James 2, “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works.” (James 2:22)

            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.  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.  Afterhaving 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 doesn’t 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?

  • “Lord, I believe, but my heart is filled with doubt.”
  • “Lord, I know you can, but I’m not sure you will.”
  • “Lord, the situation seems hopeless. Help me to trust you.”

Abraham had doubts.  But he had the highest level of trust that we’re capable of having.  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 that kind of faith can’t really exist in a person’s life until he comes to a time in his life that forces him to 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 us and will lead us to obey God completely.

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