Abraham left his relatives in the east and headed for Canaan. He knew only this: God said go and God promised blessings, including lots of kids. The hitch: Abraham was old – 75 – and his wife couldn’t have kids. But, he went.
Time passed. God blessed Abraham, and later said to him again: “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth.” Wonderful promise, but still no children for Abe and Sarah.
More time passed. The LORD spoke to Abraham again, saying: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” For the first time, Abraham fires back: “What can you give me since I remain childless…? You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” The LORD responds: “A son coming from your own body will be your heir.” And “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”
Ten years go by. Still no son. Sarah gets an idea. She says: “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abraham does the math. He’s not getting younger. Sarah’s not getting less barren. He sleeps with another woman and, lo and behold, Ishmael’s born. Perhaps God’s promised son?
He isn’t. Thirteen years later, the LORD appears to Abraham. He repeats all His promises about blessings and children and owning the land. And then goes further, saying: “I will bless [your wife] and will surely give you a son by her.” In other words, Ishmael isn't the promised son. And what happened with Hagar was not pleasing to God: it was adultery, plain and simple. Yet, here’s Abraham: “He laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?’ And Abraham said to God, ‘If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!’” God took it in stride: “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.” A year later, with Abraham 100 and Sarah still barren, Sarah gave birth to Isaac, the promised son.
Hebrews says today: “By faith Abraham, even though he was past age – and Sarah herself was barren – was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.” The Spirit commends Abraham’s behavior over the course of this twenty-five year wait. By grace, God counts Abraham’s faith as righteousness. We read about a faith that looked in all the right places, that clung to God’s promises, that clung to Christ. But, listen closely. You also heard wavering; you saw eyes drifting in other directions. You saw a faith looking elsewhere than at God.
Abraham was as good as dead. 75, 85, and 99 year olds don’t have children. Barren women don’t suddenly become fertile. Knowing that, Abraham looked elsewhere. He looked to his servant, Eliezer. “He will be my son. This is how God will keep this promise.” Abraham tries to think good thoughts, but he can’t quite grasp God’s promise. He looked to the fertile womb of Hagar, and said, “Here’s my son. This is how God will keep this promise.” Far less good thoughts here. God doesn’t make people commit adultery. He didn’t grasp God’s promise. Finally, Abraham threw up his hands, “I’m 100! Sarah’s barren! Just use Ishmael!”
Abraham’s faith rode a roller coaster, like ours. He believed the LORD and God credited that faith as righteousness. Yet, he also spent time putting faith elsewhere. A dangerous, a deadly, a damnable thing to do: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Jesus said today.
God is patient, yet His patience wears out. Faith looking in the wrong places won’t find God, can’t find God. That faith won’t be ready when the Master returns. Scripture says nothing good about that. It’s either faith in Jesus or faith in something else, and faith in something else, anything else, means hell.
This happened to Israel. After centuries of idolatry and spiritual adultery, God said, “All that you could have had is no more.” This nearly happened to Abraham. God means it. When faith looks inward and not at Him, then He leaves, He rejects, He revokes covenants and promises.
Since we’re talking about children, let’s talk about children. We live in a society that deals with children and childbirth as something we control. We speak about birth “control.” We have pills, barriers, and surgeries that allow us to have children (or not). Worse, we have pills and surgeries that remove living children from our wombs, because we don’t want them. We’ve designed procedures that allow us to preempt or cut off that which God has begun. We take control. We look to doctors and medicine. We look at bank accounts and career paths. We look at convenience. We try to stop what God starts. As if God can be stopped. We forget the old man and the barren wife. We forget the unmarried virgin.
And even if we have an understanding of these things, even if we carefully avoid birth control or conception procedures that end lives, even if we search the Scriptures and conform our motives for having or delaying the having of children so that they’re God-pleasing, we can still find ourselves looking in the wrong places.
Abraham had expectations. And when God didn’t meet them, Abraham formed his own plans. He couldn’t handle this cross, so he did things his way. He looked to himself. We hear God say that His ways and our ways aren’t the same, that we can’t understand His ways, and intellectually we might get that, but spiritually we don’t always. We give God a moment to do what He says, but that’s all. Our faith expects to see certain things. We expect fertility. We expect what we expect and desire. We expect success and comfort. We demand it. We complain to God about all that’s gone wrong. We question him vigorously when something goes awry. But when things work out, there’s silence, because God’s supposed to do that. But God works through the barren wife. God works through the virgin. God works life through death. “[God] calls things that are not as though they were.” For example, the wavering heart of Abraham, for the sake of Christ, because it held to Christ, even if ever so weakly at times, God counts it as perfect faith, He credits it to Abraham as righteousness, the righteousness of faith, the righteousness of Christ, which is the gift of forgiveness and eternal life.
Hebrews again: “By faith Abraham, even though he was past age – and Sarah herself was barren – was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.” Abraham had only one place to look – at God. And this is the gift of faith: it looks in all the right places. The Spirit does this to our weak, sinful, twisted, hate-filled, enemy-of-God, look-at-me hearts. The Spirit pulls our eyes to God.
The Spirit pulls our eyes to God who enables. “Abraham was enabled to become a father.” God made Abraham’s reproductive system work, just as He makes ours work. Just as He makes the universe work, just as He makes everything work. He had a plan for Abraham, a reason for making him wait 100 years. It focused Abraham on the promise, “Not your will, but My will! Not your power, but mine!” The Maker of the rules can break them. He did for Abraham and Sarah. He did for Zechariah and Elizabeth. He did for Mary. He does for you. Perhaps He hasn’t yet or didn’t bless you with children, or as many as you desired. He still can. He may use some God-pleasing science. He may break through what’s broken and fix it. Or, He may not. He may have other uses for you. But He enables all these things. And greater, He promises.
And the Promiser proves faithful. Abraham had Isaac. From dead ones came life. We cling to this same Promising One. About this, Paul wrote: “The promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring – not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed – the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”
To end all doubt, look at the one Descendant on account of whom this happened. Out of Abraham’s many descendants, God focuses all attention on one. Hear the angel speak to a soon-to-be-father named Joseph, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” A promised son. What a gift to give to people whose faith routinely looks in all the wrong places.
This is the point. Abraham’s faith was imperfect, because of the sin brought into the world by Adam. So too is ours. That one sin opened the path to countless others. That one sin kills us as dead as Sarah’s womb. But one gift and promise of God brought life to our dead bodies just as surely as it brought life to Sarah's womb. Hear Paul: “For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Again, the gift of God is not like the result of the one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”
Faith looks in all the right places. By faith, we see the promised descendant of Abraham. We see Jesus. We see His perfect life. We see His perfect faith. We see His atoning death, pouring out His blood to cover over our sins. We see His justifying resurrection, bringing life from death, His life, and our life. We see this as we look at God, not ourselves. We see this as God shows Himself to us, and in showing Himself to us, in showing us Jesus, in giving us Jesus in Word, and Water, and Meal, He shows us the one right place, the place where there is life and hope and peace and safety and salvation and forgiveness and heaven. He gives us Jesus. The promised Son. Look there and live. Amen!