June 3, 2010 David Balzer

Genesis 15:1-18:15: Giving God a Helping Hand

I don’t know about YOU, but I HATE it when people don’t BELIEVE me. When they don’t take me at my word. Like when you have to open a new bank account. You go into the bank, and they ask you your name. And you say “David Balzer”

You’d think that would be enough. But NO. They don’t BELIEVE you. Because then they say “PROVE it”. You’ve got to get out your driver’s license, and your passport, and three bills with your name and address on them. You’ve got to make up 100 points on their little form. Just to PROVE that you ARE who you SAY you are.

It’s frustrating when people don’t BELIEVE you. Let me tell you something that happened to a friend of mine. It REALLY steamed HIM up. Let’s call him Noel.

He was on a committee with another minister, Keith. And it was Noel’s job to write a report in time for the next meeting. A month ahead. It was a big job! But he SAID he’d do it. NO WORRIES.

Now Noel didn’t mean he was going to do it the next DAY. Or even the next WEEK. He meant he’d do it before the next monthly meeting. Which left him a full 29 days before he had to panic.

So when Keith rings him up a few days later and says “Have you done the report yet?,” Noel says, “No Keith, but no worries. We’ve got three and a half weeks to the meeting. Trust me. I’ll have it done by then like I said.”

And he rings the next week. Same question. “No, Keith. We’ve got two and a half weeks to the meeting. Leave it to me. It’s going to be there. Just like I promised. Trust me.”

Now you can probably predict what happened. It comes to the day of the meeting. Noel’s unclipping his briefcase ready to hand out the beautifully typed report that’s still hot from the photocopier. And KEITH starts passing around a bundle of papers as well.

And Noel says, “Wait a minute – what’s that? And Keith says, “Oh, it’s the report. I DIDN’T THINK YOU WERE GOING TO DO IT. SO I DID IT MYSELF.”

Now, let’s leave aside the OTHER morals of the story. Like Noel probably SHOULD have done the report earlier. But the problem was/ Keith DIDN’T TRUST him. The longer things went on, the LESS he believed what was promised. So Keith said, “Blow this for a joke, I’LL ORGANISE IT MYSELF”

1. Prove it!

Which is JUST the situation we’ve got in these chapters of Genesis. It’s exactly what Abram does when he gets impatient with the promises of God. “Blow this for a joke – I’ll organise it myself!

You’ll remember last week we looked at Gen 12, where God told Abram to get up and leave his old way of life, and move to a new country. And he promised Abram that, in return, he’d make him into a great nation. He’d give him the land of Canaan, and he’d be a blessing for everyone on earth. Huge promises.

And it all happened when Abram was 75 years old.

Jump forward to chapter 15. Some time later. Probably YEARS. Abram’s starting to WONDER. To get SCARED. To DOUBT it’s EVER going to happen. There’s still no kids on the horizon. And Abram and his wife are no spring chickens. So God appears to him, “Don’t be afraid. I’M your shield. I’M your great reward. I PROMISE.”

But Abram’s not convinced. “PROVE IT!” he says. V2. “What can you give me since I remain childless”

So in v5 God takes him outside, and gives him an astronomy lesson.

“Look up at the heavens and count the stars–if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

I reckon in congested, floodlit, smoggy Sydney, we shrug our shoulders a bit at that. But many of you know what it’s like – when you actually go out into the bush. Where there’s not a single streetlight. There’s no smoke, or pollution. And you look up at the sky – it’s as if there’s been AN EXPLOSION. And there’s about A MILLION TIMES as many stars as you’ve ever seen before. They just keep going ON AND ON. Deeper and deeper. Like the difference between seeing something in 2 dimensions, and suddenly seeing it in 3D.

That’s what God’s got in mind. That many descendants. Too many to count.

And then we get to v6. Which I want to suggest is just about the most important verse in the whole Bible. Have a look at it carefully.

6 Abram BELIEVED the LORD, and he CREDITED it to him as RIGHTEOUSNESS.

In other words, Abram TRUSTED God’s word, and God COUNTED that faith as SUFFICIENT to bring him into A RIGHT STANDING with him.

Was it PERFECT faith? 100%? No. But it’s just what God needed to WORK with. And God says “That’ll DO. I’ll put you RIGHT with me. You’re on MY SIDE”

Because as we saw last week. It’s not so much about perfect FAITH. As the perfect FAITHFUL one. Not so much about trusting the promises COMPLETELY/ as it is about the COMPLETE TRUSTWORTHINESS of the one MAKING the promises. Not so much about the Abram’s BELIEF / as it is about GOD who CREDITS it as righteousness.

You can see that’s the way to take it when we look at what comes next. V7. God promises AGAIN that he’ll give the land to Abram. At which point Abram says it AGAIN. Prove it. V8.

“O Sovereign LORD, HOW CAN I KNOW that I will gain possession of it?”

And so God does it AGAIN. Proves it. He’s already shown Abram the STARS. Now he’s got something ELSE to show him. A VISION. And it’s here that things get a little weird.

God tells Abram to fetch a cow, a goat, a sheep, a dove and a pigeon. Abram cuts the big animals down the middle. And arranges the two halves opposite each other.

Pretty gruesome. Probably blood everywhere. And the smell attracts some spectators. When the vultures come in for a look, he drives them away. As the day finishes, V12 tells us that Abram falls into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. A bit like the spooky music in a movie when you know something bad’s about to happen.

And here it comes. God’s message in the dream. V13.

“Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years.

He’s talking about Egypt. And it’s only 3 generations away. His grandson Jacob. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. They WILL come back to the land.

And then here’s the weird bit. V17. God CONFIRMS his promise with a vision.

17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, A SMOKING FIREPOT with A BLAZING TORCH appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a COVENANT with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land,

Smoke and fire pass through the middle of the cut-up animals. So what’s going on? The trick’s in the word COVENANT. It’s a fancy word for agreement, or contract.

It’s the same sort of thing we do in a marriage ceremony. The bride and groom PROMISE to live together until death. Then they give and receive rings as a SIGN of their commitment. It’s not the RINGS that make them married – it’s the PROMISES that make them married. But the rings are a SIGN of that commitment.

And in Abram’s day, there was something SIMILAR. A covenant ceremony. Two people who were making a deal would PROMISE it, then they’d split an animal in TWO, then they’d both walk through the middle of the two pieces. It was a sign of their promises that said something like, “May it so be done to me if I break this promise. May I be broken in two if I break my promise.”

And the ceremony was LITERALLY called CUTTING a covenant.

And when Abram sees the smoking firepot and the blazing torch passing between the pieces. It’s God saying “This is ME who’s walking between the pieces. I’m the one making this promise. This commitment to you.

Because it’s SMOKE and FIRE that Israel would come to associate with God himself. When he led them out of Egypt, it would be as a cloud of smoke, or a pillar of fire.

Abram says PROVE IT. And God does. A ceremony to CONFIRM his promise. His COVENANT.

Is that good enough for Abram? NO! How annoying when people don’t believe you!

2. Giving God a helping hand

Jump forward to Ch 16. Ten years has passed. And STILL there’s no kids. So Abram and Sarai decide to take matters into their own hands. To give God a helping hand. Time for a little LATERAL THINKING.

Because, after all, God had only said that a son would come from ABRAM’S body. He hadn’t said anything about Sarai. So, perhaps there was ANOTHER WAY.

16:1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; 2 so she said to Abram, “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family THROUGH HER.”

See what she’s saying? She’s saying, “God’s not going to bless us at all. We’ve tried doing things HIS way. And it’s not doing any good. We’ve waited long enough. He’s stopping me from having children. So we’ll do things another way.”

And the plan is, they’ll bring about God’s promise with A SHORTCUT. Instead of waiting and trusting, they’ll do it themselves. Because 10 years is just too long to keep waiting.

It’s all there in the next six words. “ABRAM AGREED TO WHAT SARAI SAID. So Sarai took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.” There it is.

DOESN’T MATTER WHAT EXCUSES YOU WANT TO MAKE, DOESN’T MATTER HOW RIGHT IT SEEMS AT THE TIME. GOD’S BLESSING IS NEVER GOING TO COME FROM FIXING THINGS YOURSELF.

And from that moment, things start to fall apart. And God’s blessing looks a million miles away. Slave and mistress starts fighting. Husband and wife start blaming each other. Slave runs away. It’s misery all round.

And what’s more, when the baby’s born. Ishmael. The angel says Ishmael will be the cause of misery for the world. He says, in v12, that Ishmael will be a wild donkey of a man. His hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him.

Because as the story unfolds, Ishmael becomes the father of tribes and nations. People that, down through the generations, were always fighting with Israel.

But that’s not all. These tribes are the ancestors of the modern day Arab nations. And how much conflict has there been in THAT part of the world?

All because Abram and Sarai couldn’t WAIT for God. One commentator makes this comment.

“What happens here seems trifling, but the effects of Abram and Sarai’s defective faith endure even to this day. Centuries and centuries of disharmony, opposition, quarrelling and tension have resulted. Abram and Sarai’s small act of unfaithfulness has spread like oil on the water, with the result that even TODAY lives are being lost and millions upon millions of dollars are being spent to make war and to strive for peace. All because two people could not wait for God but had to do it their own way. (Salvation Begins, Andrew Reid, p127)

Doesn’t matter what excuses you want to make, doesn’t matter how right it seems at the time. God’s blessing is never going to come from FIXING THINGS YOURSELF. Whether it was back then, or whether it’s TODAY.

Do you reckon God needs a helping hand to fix YOUR life?

I read an article in the SMH Good Weekend a while back. About single people. And one of the ladies interviewed was in her early 40’s. And she said, she was a Christian. Which meant, in her singleness she’d remain sexually pure. But now, at age 42, she said she REGRETTED it. Because she felt she’d MISSED OUT on intimacy. Felt she’d have been better off if she’d slept around. Than be obedient.

So would she? Or not? It’s tough, isn’t it, to trust God?

But God’s blessing is never going to come from FIXING THINGS YOURSELF.

Perhaps you think happiness will come if you lie about that qualification to get that good job. Or take that dodgy business opportunity because you’ll make a killing. Or cheat on your tax return, because you really need the extra money this year.

But God’s blessing is never going to come from FIXING THINGS YOURSELF.

Perhaps you think that happiness is found in that harmless friendship with the guy at work/ because your husband doesn’t listen to you, or understand you anymore. And it’s just too much hard work.

But, as hard as marriage often is, it never gets easier when we try to fix things ourselves. Separation, divorce, re-marriage, step-children might seem an attractive option. But blessing never comes from disobedience – from not trusting God’s promises.

Or perhaps you think that blessing will come by taking on that promotion, which means $20,000 extra, but also an extra 10 hours a week, and so family and church commitments have to get dropped.

Or what about REVENGE? Someone rips us off, or cuts us off on the road, or takes out their bad day on us. And we want to get them back. But God promises that vengeance and punishment are HIS. We are to leave it up to him. Do you TRUST him with that. Or do you try to SHORT-CUT things, and fix it yourself?

But God’s blessing is never going to come from FIXING THINGS YOURSELF. It comes by TRUSTING God’s promises – no matter HOW long it takes.

(pause) You might think Abram and Sarai had been pretty patient – 10 years is a long time to keep your hopes up. Especially when you’re as old as THEY were.

But that’s only the BEGINNING. Look at the end of Ch 16. Abram’s 86 when Ishmael’s born. Now look at the first verse of Ch 17.

17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him

Thirteen more years. And STILL no kids. That’s 23 years since God first promised it. That’s A LONG TIME to keep trusting.

Perhaps you’ve been praying that long for something. For an illness to be healed. Or for a family member to be converted. Or a marriage to improve. Or for a missionary serving overseas. But perhaps God just wants you to keep praying for a little longer.

It’s what he did with Abram. STILL God says, after 23 years – nothing’s changed. Stick with it. There in v1.

“I am God Almighty; WALK BEFORE ME and be BLAMELESS.

It’s what he wants from Abram, and it’s what he wants from YOU. As you walk through life, do everything with the recognition that God is WATCHING you. Guiding you. Hearing your words and thoughts, watching your actions, knowing your motivations. Be BLAMELESS.

Show by your ACTIONS that you TRUST me.

We’ve seen the NEGATIVE side of that – trying to short-cut God – to give him a helping hand. But the POSITIVE side is there in v1. Here’s how you SHOW that trust. Walk before me and be blameless.

Paul sums up that sort of life, in his letter to the Romans, Ch 1 v5. (p795). You might like to turn there – it’s where we’ll finish today. He talks about his mission in life,

5 Through Jesus and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to THE OBEDIENCE THAT COMES FROM FAITH.

The life he was calling people to was about OBEDIENCE that COMES FROM FAITH. Which says that faith isn’t just a feeling. But a confidence in God’s promises/ that leads TO CONCRETE DECISIONS. To OBEDIENCE. It’s a trust… that says, I’ll do it God’s way. And not try to fix it myself.

A few chapters on, over in Ch 4, Paul comes back to this idea of FAITH. And in particular the faith of ABRAHAM.

Down in v19 of Ch 4, he says that, ultimately, Abraham didn’t weaken in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead…

Verse 20 He

was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that GOD HAD POWER TO DO WHAT HE HAD PROMISED. 22 This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Does that verse sound familiar? It’s a quote from Genesis Ch 15:6. Remember I said it was probably the most important verse in the Bible? God PROMISED it. And “Abram BELIEVED God, and God credited it to him as righteousness”.

Year in and year out, Abram trusted that God would KEEP HIS WORD. And as he LIVED THAT OUT, that’s what God needed to see to make Abraham his friend. To bring him into a right standing before him.

It’s probably the most important verse in the Bible because it’s not just about Abraham. It’s about US TOO. Look at how Paul goes on. In Rom 4 v23.

23 The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, 24 but also for US, to whom God will credit righteousness-for US WHO BELIEVE IN HIM WHO RAISED JESUS OUR LORD FROM THE DEAD. 25 He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for OUR JUSTIFICATION (to put us RIGHT).

God didn’t just bring a son from Abram’s old body, but he RAISED a son from death. HIS son – Jesus. When we believe THAT. That Jesus died in our place – the innocent for the guilty. And that he was raised to life to conquer DEATH. Then God credits THAT FAITH as righteousness. He FORGIVES us. He makes us his CHILDREN.

Which is not just something that’s relevant WHEN WE DIE. IT affects every day we live HERE AND NOW. Have a look at how Paul goes on into Ch 5.

5:1 Therefore, SINCE we have been justified through faith, we have PEACE WITH GOD through our Lord Jesus Christ,

Peace with God – that’s not just about judgment when you die – it’s something that makes life rich and genuine and gives it meaning and purpose NOW.

And look at what ELSE he says. He goes on (v3)

3 Not only so, but we also REJOICE IN OUR SUFFERINGS, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

That’s what a life of TRUST looks like. That no matter how many years you’ve waited, or how tough the wait’s been. Or how tempting it is to think you can give God a helping hand to fix your life up. You can REJOICE because, no matter how tough things get, that God is working them to make you more like Jesus – to develop your character and perseverance and hope.

Because the God who’s working in your life/ is the God who’s delivered over his own Son to death for YOU, and raised him to life again.

Believe it. Live it. No matter how tough it gets.

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