Have you ever watched something on television, whether a ball game, a show or film and right when there is that most important play, or dramatic announcement or revelation, the frame freezes or the DVD’s scratched? You see it more now because everything is streamed. It looks like someone pressed the pause button and refuses to press play. I have no patience with that kind of stuff. I want to reboot everything immediately or call the cable company. Sometimes we may even want to throw something at the television. If it’s a ball game, you feel like everyone else has gone ahead of you and you are the only one in all of the world stuck in this twilight zone of death of not knowing the outcome.
Obviously, this is a “first world” problem, but have you ever felt like your life was stuck on pause? God has called you to Himself. You believed in Christ for your salvation and everything was going along nicely and then all of a sudden, boom! Everything comes to this sudden halt, as if someone pressed the pause button for your life. Now there you are, biting your nails, getting angry at times, impatient, wanting to throw something at somebody or somewhere and then feeling like everyone else has everything working right on their end and you are the only one stuck on pause. How do you feel when there is a huge difference between what you felt like God has promised and what you actually see in front of you? What do you do when the vision you once had of the way your life was supposed to turn out or work out crumbles before you like dust? For some people, it is a sudden and unexpected unemployment, where prospects of a new job seem unlikely. Or it might be some news of health problems. For others, it is waiting to find that spouse or have that child or it might be that you are simply waiting for a particular season of waiting to end. As a result, we feel “stuck,” and sometimes hopeless, despairing at times, wondering if someone can please press the “play” button again. Sometimes in this gap, we are tempted to despair and give up. Other times we are tempted to take shortcuts, taking matters into our own hands. All of these circumstances often put our hearts into a tailspin as we ponder, what one author calls, how to live in the “reality gap between what God has promised and the circumstances in which you find yourself.”
If that is you today, welcome to the story of Abraham. Genesis 1-11 was about the history of the world and now we will be in the second half of the book, Genesis 12-50, which will be about the history of Israel, starting with Abraham. One-fourth of the book of Genesis is devoted to Abraham’s life (Gen 11:27-25:18). Abraham’s name occurs 234 times in the Old Testament and 74 times in the New Testament. He is definitely a key figure in the Bible. Lord willing, we will be studying his life for the next few weeks. His whole life was about promises and faith, being constantly tested in and often failing in believing God. He had to learn to live in the gap between God’s promises and the reality of them. What kept him going?
Remember again that Moses is writing to the children of Israel who are also living in the gap. God had promised them a land. Their unbelief got them in trouble so they ended up wandering for 40 years. As Moses is writing this, the people of Israel are on the Plains of Moab about to enter the Land of Canaan, the Promised Land. Now what will keep them motivated and not give up? What is Moses reminding them by sharing this story? And again, we are not simply learning to be like Abraham, but going with these messages in Genesis, back to the Gospel, the only true power for our lives to change. We have been looking at how the Gospel of grace invades and intersects every area of our lives and so we will look at the true and better Abraham, Jesus Christ. Jesus entered our reality gap, into our darkness, having God’s promises with Him, but nevertheless, having to suffer before entering glory. So we will, with the Lord’s enablement, look through this story, a new beginning, through the lens of the gospel of grace.
So why is Moses writing this? I believe Moses here is motivating the people of God to see that what will keep them going and thriving in the gap is obeying and embracing the call of God, which is backed up by the promises of God to bring the kingdom of God on the earth for the glory of God. That is a mouthful, but we are going to try to unpack that today and next time. I want to talk about the call of God. You are not a Christian until you have embraced His call to Himself. This was true for them and guess what? This is true for us as well! So let’s start with this:
I. God’s call breaks into our hopelessness and impossibilities (Gen. 11:27-30)
In the beginning God created the earth as His Kingdom where He would be worshipped and served as the Great King. Mankind did not like that. Making alliance with Satan, who came as a serpent, we chose to rebel against that plan since we wanted to be our own kings. God promised that there will be an epic battle between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15). We have seen that time and time again, the seed of the serpent would rise up, but each time, the seed of the woman prevailed. Cain and Abel die, God raises up Seth (Gen. 4). God judges the seed of the serpent in the Flood and preserves Noah, the seed of the woman (Gen. 5-9). Ham’s descendants go the way of the seed of the serpent by building a huge tower to themselves (Gen. 11), and again God judged the seed of the serpent, as we saw last week.
Now what will God do? It looks like the seed of the woman has died and is gone. Will God abandon His plan of establish His Kingdom on the earth? Absolutely not! No amount of our stupidity and rebellion will thwart the sovereign plans of God. The seed of the woman will prevail and we have learned it will come through the line of Shem (Gen. 9:26-27). So we see that 10 generations from Noah will come someone named Abram. For all practical purposes, I will call him Abraham from now on. Abram simply means “exalted father” and God will name him later “Abraham” which means “father of a multitude.” One means “Daddy,” and the other means “Big Daddy.” I am also going to call “Sarai” Sarah. I hope you don’t mind me doing that.
Look over at Gen. 11:10-32. We learn a few things already. Notice how much younger people are having children and people’s lifespans are getting shorter. Abraham’s grandfather, Nahor in Gen. 11:24 at the age of 29 is the youngest to be a parent. Things are a lot different from how it used to be. This will be significant because Abraham and Sarah are much older and childless (75 and 65 respectively). Notice the author making mention of Sarah’s barrenness twice in Gen. 11:30. No child means that Abraham’s family is going to end right here. Sarah lived in a society where a woman’s value was measured by her fertility. Moreover, Sarai’s barrenness would have potentially resulted in a fragile marriage (since failure to deliver children to the family was the most common cause of divorce.) She must have shed many bitter tears over her infertility.
Commentator Walter Brueggemann adds, “This family…has played out its future and has nowhere else to go. Barrenness...is an effective metaphor for hopelessness. There is no foreseeable future. There is no human power to invent a future.”Paul says that Abraham looked at his body and thought that it was “good as dead” (Rom. 4:19). In other words, 2 2=4. I know dead when I see it. It’s dead! Can’t squeeze any more life out of this thing! Right away, we see irreparable hopelessness. It is impossible. This is a dead end. Look at all the people in the line. Their ancestors have all had kids at much earlier ages and looks like it’s over for me.
Secondly, notice they are from the Ur of the Chaldeans. This is an ancient city 125 miles from Babylon, which is present-day Iraq. Connect the dots. Babylonia is associated with Babel, where we learned last week about mankind wanting a name for themselves, sticking together in self-preservation and rebelling against God’s mandate to fill the earth (Gen. 1:28; 9:1). God’s judgment came down in this area. It also turns out that Abraham and his family are idol worshippers (Josh. 24:2). There is a strong possibility that Terah was named after the moon, which suggests that they were worshippers of the moon. They even built a ziggurat (just like at the Tower of Babel) for the moon gods.
So you have a really old, childless, idol-worshipping man living in a place where God has specifically judged. Moreover, Ur was “one of the most civilized, progressive, magnificent city of Abraham’s day…considered the most magnificent city in the world, eclipsed later only by Babylon. It was an exciting, highly sophisticated, bustling world center that revolved around several universities offering the best education in the world of that day, international banking and shipping, and religious worship of a moon.” So Abraham and family are well to do, secure and living the good life, except they have no kids and no potential to have kids, from human estimation.
If I was God and I’m glad I’m not (though I act like I am a lot) and wanted to start a nation and a kingdom, I would probably not be hanging out at the nursing home looking at a 75 year old man and 65 year old barren woman as potentials. Secondly, I would definitely not look from the place of total rebellion, where I judged people. Thirdly, among idol worshippers? Fourthly, we have a family that is financially secure and well off. Wouldn’t it be easier to promise a nation to a poor kid so he would want to leave? Fifthly, using a woman whose name means “princess”? Can you say high maintenance? Run if you ever see a girl with a t-shirt that says “princess” unless she is under the age of 10. I’m just kidding. God actually names her princess, but other reasons. Sarah was apparently an attractive grandma as Pharaoh wanted to be with her (Gen. 12:10-20), which we will see.
If it was up to me, I would want to find a young guy, with lots of potential and a fertile woman ready to be a mom, and they guy would have been walking with God for his entire life with lots of experience and he may not have with a lot of money, so he can be more likely to be open to a possibility of a future. That makes sense to me, but this? What does that tell you? God is a God of incredible grace. God is so gracious. Abraham is not qualified to be a representative of God, to be a father of faith. The call of God does not come to you because you are qualified. You are qualified because it comes. Without the call of God, our lives are a dead end; our lives are barren; it is going nowhere.
Do you see what God is doing here? Into the darkness of barrenness, brokenness, impossibilities darkness of false religion, place of rebellion, worldly wealth and security, God’s call breaks through! Impossibilities and hopelessness are not obstacles to God, but opportunities to demonstrate His power and glory! How do I know that? Because God saved you! And God saved me! If He can do that, nothing is impossible for Him!
The prophet Elijah was once in a contest with the prophets of a false god named Baal. You can read about this in 1 Kings 18.The contest was about which god was the true god and whoever was the real god would show Himself strong, by bringing fire down on an altar. Then Elijah did a strange thing. He said, “Pour water on the altar.” He said to do this three times. The water was flowing all around it and filled even the trenches. In other words, let’s do something here that we know only God can do. It will not be magic. It will not be trickery. It will be a God-thing. And then God came down, set the whole thing on fire and even licked up all the water around. Let us pray to God that He would a God-thing in our lives. A good prayer I love to pray is, “Lord, do something so great that you alone get the glory!” There are times you might feel like things are getting worse than better, where you feel like God is pouring water on your altar when you are trying to get a fire going. That’s ok! He might just wanting to do something so great that He alone will get the glory! Abraham will know for the rest of his life that if God can show up in the Ur of the Chaldeans and save someone like me, what can’t God do in my life? And Abraham could never take credit. Paul says Abraham gave God the glory (Rom. 4:20).
If you are stuck on pause today in your life and perhaps wondering and waiting or even despairing at times, let this encourage you, that the God who called you to Himself, is faithful to carry you through impossibilities and hopelessness. The very fact that we are saved is a miracle. The more I read the Bible, the more I see that the hardest people to bring into the Kingdom are the religious folk. And that was me. I’m a recovering Pharisee. I was a “good sinner.” I was so content and happy in my religiosity and self-righteousness that I didn’t need a Savior. My salvation was in my own good works. Looking back, I cannot believe God saved me. But the God of the Universe came down the dark heart of a town outside New York City, and in the back of the room, found this dark heart closed to Him and saved this Pharisee. He did the impossible. He made this blind man, see! And so I am reminded of that whenever I face situations I count off as impossible.
Today in our barrenness, our brokenness, our despair, in all the things we look to for security, in our idol worship, in our darkness and situations, God’s light breaks through! Nothing is impossible with our God! If He can hover over the dark, barren chaos and create a world, and if He can bring life out of a dark barren womb for Sarah, and if He can send His Son to redeem the dark, barren, chaotic humanity and enter the womb of a poor Jewish girl, and if He can enter into each of our dark and barren lives and rescue us for Himself, then we have no reason to doubt our God can’t break through in our dark barren chaotic heart right now! As Claire Booth Lace has said, “There are no hopeless situations. There are only people who have grown hopeless about them.” Our God breaks through into the most hopeless and impossible of situations! Lord, help our unbelief! God speaks into barrenness. Secondly,
II. Embracing God’s call means surrendering control (Gen. 11:31-12:1)
Interestingly, we find that Terah picks up his family to go the land of Canaan, but ends up settling in Haran in Gen. 11:31-32. Lots of questions come up here. Why is Terah moving? Why does he want to go to Canaan? Why does he stop at Haran? What happened to Nahor and his wife Milcah? And how did Haran die? Lot of these questions we do not know the answer and it is not the author’s desire for us to know.
However, when we use other portions of Scripture, we find out that God’s call actually came to Abraham while he was in Ur (Acts 7:2-3; Gen. 15:7). So somehow God must have convinced Terah and his family to go. However, Terah ends up stopping at Haran, around 700 miles away, which was actually another prosperous city like Ur, which also worshipped the moon god. For reasons unknown to us, they stopped there. Some scholars think that once Terah dies, God calls Abraham again. But I think we are given the nature of the call the first time since the word “said” in Gen. 12:1 could mean “had said.”
Regardless look at Gen. 12:1. Notice the “Lord said.” The same God who uses His creative Word to call the world into being, now calls Abram to reestablish God’s kingdom on the earth and to bring a nation into existence. God’s Word breaks into the barrenness and can create life. But God’s call comes with personal sacrifice. Notice the ascending order of sacrifice given by God: “your country (ok, difficult, but perhaps doable), your kindred (distant relatives, much harder) and your father’s house” (immediate family. Impossible). This is everything that Abraham knows. This is his very identity. His father’s house was his house. His father’s stuff was His stuff. This was a break from his economic security, his ethnic security and his familial security. It is interesting that Jesus tells us to do the same thing in the Gospels (Matt. 10:37ff).
Then to make it even harder, God is vague on the destination: “to the land I will show you.” Abram only realizes what this land is until he gets there! There are no GPS directions, take 25 miles on the interstate, third exit, etc. I like how Calvin paraphrases God’s command here (whom I will paraphrase): “‘I command you to go forth with closed eyes, and forbid you to inquire where I am about to lead you, until, having renounced your country, you shall have given yourself wholly to me.” At the heart, the call of God is a surrender of the will. It is a surrender to what is known for the unknown.
Many people don’t like this about God. Most people are like, “God, I will get out if you show me where you are taking me and if it makes sense to me. I’ll go IF I know exactly what I’m getting myself into. Will I have to stop doing this? Will I have to start doing that?” God’s call does not work like that. God’s call means surrendering control of our lives. It’s getting out of the driver’s seat. It’s getting off the throne of our lives. The opposite of faith/trust is unbelief, and unbelief is manifested by our desire to control our lives. We say, “Show me and I will believe.” But Christ says, “Believe me and I will show you.”
As Oswald Chambers says, “Faith never knows where it is being led, it knows and loves the One Who is leading. It is a life of faith, not of intelligence and reason, but a life of knowing Who is making me “go.” The writer of Hebrews says, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). God promises Abraham that He would show him. He had God’s Word, but that also means that God is going with Abraham. How else is He going to show him if He is not with him? Abraham, like Noah, did not have all the explanations, just the promises. Is that enough for us as well?
Abraham’s life is all about faith and surrender. God says, “Go to the land!” Abraham says, “Where?” God responds, “I will show you.” God says, “You’re going to have a son!” Abraham says, “How?” God responds, “I will show you.” Then later, “Kill your son on top of the mountain!” Abraham responds, “Why?” and God says, “I will show you.” And we will find that when Abraham took that first step, God reveals more to him. We see God is a show-er and a giver. Abraham is going to get something better than being in Ur, a new nation, something better than being an idol worshipper, a worshipper of the God of the Universe. He will get something better than his family for through him all the families of the world will be blessed! God has His best for Abraham. See, if we hold on and not surrender to the call of God, we lose God’s best for us. We lose God and intimacy with Him!
The story is told of a General, Douglas MacArthur, was meeting his foe, a Japanese general. The meeting was set up for the Japanese general to officially surrender. The Japanese general stuck out his hand to shake MacArthur’s hand and MacArthur said, “I cannot shake your hand, sir, until you first surrender your sword.” We can’t be friends as long as that sword is hanging by your side. Give me the sword and then we’ll shake hands. A lot of us want to shake God’s hand while we carry our sword, the sword of our will. We must surrender our wills to God before we can be in complete fellowship with Him.
And it is not a one-time surrender. It is a constant surrender. Faith is a constant gaze at the Faithful one. Where in our lives are we not listening to the call of God? Maybe God’s been telling us to witness to a family member, but we are afraid of rejection and so we are waiting to do it and the right time to do it, which never seems to come. Is God calling us to surrender our control of our timing? Is God calling us to surrender the whats, the hows and the whys and the whens we are looking for in our lives? Can we tell the Lord, “I will follow you Lord wherever your leading because YOU are the one leading me. I can’t trace your hand, but I sure do trust your heart.” Thirdly,
III. God’s call always pulls you in to send you out (Gen. 12:2-3)
God’s commands are always accompanied by God’s promises. God makes seven promises here to Abraham. Notice the repeated “I WILL.” This is God’s doing. There is a partnership here, but all Abraham is asked to do is to trust and obey. God does the rest. This is directly contradicting the Babel-builders who said, “LET US.” Notice also the repetition of the word “great” and God promising to make Abraham’s name GREAT. Again, this is in contrast to Babel, who wanted to “make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4). John Piper says, “When man undertakes to make his own name great, he takes credit for his own accomplishments and does not give glory to God. But when God undertakes to make a person great, the only proper response is trust and gratitude on the part of man, which gives all glory back to God, where it belongs.”
This tells us something I have said in the past: If we take care of our character, God takes care of our reputation. Desiring greatness is not bad, but how we go about it (Jesus says, he who desires to be great should be a servant). In fact, it is interesting how God made Abraham great. Besides being the father of faith, God will use Abraham’s name to introduce Himself from now on! (I am the God of Abraham…)
Here is the famous Abrahamic Covenant that promised three things: land, seed and blessing. It is because of the land that we have all the fighting right now in the Middle East. Promising a nation means that Abraham’s seed is the seed of the woman. As a result, there is blessing. But what is all of this for? Notice the “so that” in Gen. 12:2. You are going to be blessed Abraham, so you can be a blessing. The seed of the woman is where the blessing is and to reject to be on that side is to be cursed. Abraham, I am not making you a reservoir of blessing, but a channel of blessing. You are going to know me, so that you can make me known. You will know me so that you will show me to the world. We know that this is looking forward to Christ, a Semite where all the families of the earth will be blessed. It came true!
But here we continue to see the missional heart of God. The Babylonian builders, like Jonah, were tribal. A tribal community exists for themselves and for self-preservation. They want to make sure they protect themselves from those who are different from them. They run away from their enemies. They hoard God’s blessings for themselves. They are like reservoirs instead of channels. They think if everyone were like us, this world would be a better place. The missional heart does not care about self-preservation, but self-sacrifice. The missional community is willing to sacrifice inconvenience and comfort to reach others on God’s behalf. They run toward their enemies. In this way, they are like God, who not only runs toward His enemies, but even dies for them.
God always pulls you in to get you out. For example, He reveals Himself to Moses and then immediately sends him to Pharaoh. He revealed Himself to Isaiah and told Isaiah to go. Isaiah said, “Here I am! Send me!” (Is. 6:8). He revealed Himself to Peter and told him, “From now on you will be catching men” (Luke 5:10). We see that again and again that when we get a grip on who God really is, we want to get out and tell everyone. God will never bless you except to make you a blessing. He doesn’t pull you in and bless you except to send you out and make you a blessing. This why Jesus says before He dies, “As you have sent me into the world, I send them into the world” (John 17:18). Do I have a tribal heart? Or a missional heart? If we do not have a missional heart, it is not even that we are not listening to God, we are not even like God.
In one sense, all Christians are called to ministry. We are all called to get out. Isn’t that how Jesus started His ministry? Follow me? And then how did He close His earthly ministry? Go into the all the world!” And this does not just mean we all pack up and go overseas. This means we are willing to lose things. We will go to make God look great, to be a blessing. We are willing to lose our reputation, status, money, time, family, etc. for God’s glory. If we don’t get a grip on this, we will keep serving ourselves. We will be consumers. We will be constantly looking at “what’s in it for me?” We will not have true joy until and unless we serve something bigger than ourselves. Something bigger than our career advancement. Something bigger than our love life or the lack thereof. Something bigger than licking our wounds. Our happiness is tied to our serving!
In undergrad I was introduced to this book called Cat and Dog Theology by Bob Sjogren. In it, he says there are two types of Christians and he compared them to cats and dogs. A dog says, “You pet me, you feed me, you shelter me, you love me, You must be God.” A cat says, “You pet me, you feed me, you shelter me, you love me, I must be God. He says there is a cat and dog inside all of us constantly at odds. It is the perspective that counts! We are like cats, when we are happy because we have walked away from hell. But we are like dogs, when we experience joy because they are walking toward God. Both Cats and Dogs want obedience in their lives. Dogs want to obey God. Cats want God to obey them. You usually see this reflected in their prayer lives. Cats underline the verses that talk about themselves and benefit themselves. Cats like to gather blessings for themselves. Dogs like to give to others.
The only way to get the “cat” out of us is to look away to someone better and bigger than Abraham. Paul says in Galatians that these promises are actually with Christ in view (Gal. 3:16). Abraham is waiting for a son and that is pointing to the true Son, Jesus Christ. We serve a God who got out. Abraham left home and family to go to a backward nation with God’s command and promise. But Christ left His Father’s side in Heaven to come to earth and all backward hearts. Jesus left the ultimate Father's house, left the ultimate security. Jesus went to the ultimate abyss. Jesus lost his Father so we could get the Father. He lost all His security so that we could be brought into His family.
So the call of God comes to you saying, “If you realize that I answered the original and ultimate call away from security, so that you can have the ultimate security of knowing you are loved in me, adopted into the family, you can get out too and do serve me without fear. You can surrender your control of your life, because I have already died for your sins to give you new life and I secure you in me. And you can be free to give up your kingdom for mine and advance my Kingdom and not yours.”
Why are we sitting here at Living Hope today? Are we here thinking, “What do we get out of being here? How can this church serve me?” Or, “what does God get from me being part of His work to spread His glory? And shifting our thinking and put God in the center and realizing that I exist to serve Him makes all the difference. When we do so, we start to see that maybe God gets glory through His servant being stoned to death. Or God gets glory by sending a famine into our land so we can spread the gospel in another? Or God will get glory want you beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked, naked, cold and hungry, alone in the sea, beaten with 39 lashes multiple times because it gives Him glory. God’s call is for God’s glory, not ours. It is to establish His kingdom, not ours. I don’t want to be a bunch of fat cats sitting here singing some songs, listening to some sermon, eating some rice and going to buffets. I want us to radiate His glory! I want to make His name great in Glendale Heights! Five loaves and too fish in a little boy’s hand is just barely lunch for him, but in the hands of Christ, it feeds a multitude! God has blessed us Living Hope. But the reason for our existence as individuals and as a church is the glory of God!
I want to pause here. We will look at how Abraham responded to the call in a couple of weeks, Lord willing as we start a new year. Is your life on pause right now? Embrace the call of God for you. Perhaps there are areas of control we need to surrender and perhaps we have been sitting instead of getting out and perhaps we are in hopelessness and despair, trapped. May God’s voice speak to you, call you to something bigger than you and as you surrender control, find His glory your joy.
Duguid, Iain M. (1999). Living in the Gap Between Promise and Reality: The Gospel According to Abraham (1). Phillipsburg, NJ: Pand R Publishing.
Greidanus, S (2007). Preaching Christ from Genesis (145). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Duguid, I. (10).
Walton, J. H. (2009). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament) Volume 1: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (68). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Brueggemann, W. (1982). Genesis. Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (116). Atlanta: John Knox Press.
Hamilton, V. P. (1990). The Book of Genesis. Chapters 1-17. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (363). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Lotz, A. G. (2009). God's story. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Keller, T. as mentioned in http://westloop-church.org/messages/old-testament/15-genesis/172-the-call-of-god-genesis-1127-129 accessed 16 December 2011.
As quoted in Water, M. (2000). The New Encyclopedia of Christian Quotations (495). Alresford, Hampshire: John Hunt Publishers Ltd.
Calvin, J., & King, J. (2010). Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (Gen. 12:1). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
Chambers, O. (1996). Not Knowing Where. Grand Rapids: Discovery House.
Keller, T. Ibid.
Evans, T. (2009). Tony Evans' Book of Illustrations: Stories, Quotes, and Anecdotes from more than 30 years of Preaching and Public Speaking (315). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
Piper, J. (2003). Desiring God (310–311). Sisters, Or.: Multnomah Publishers.
Tchividjian, Tullian (2010). Surprised by Grace: God’s Relentless Pursuit of Rebels (135). Crossway: Wheaton, IL.