December 14, 2014

The Blessings of Faithfulness

In Matthew 25, the apostle records three parables Jesus told His disciples shortly before He headed down the road of the cross.  All three are pretty dramatic in the truths they present, but one has always stood out to me as a clarion call to step out with boldness to put the gifts God has given us to work as effectively as we possibly can: the parable of the talents.  In the parable of the talents, a wealthy man leaves town for some indeterminate period of time.  As he is headed out the door he gives three servants a portion of his estate to manage for him while he’s gone.  Eventually he comes back and asks for a report.  The first servant took the money, put it to work for him and wound up doubling the initial investment.  The second servant didn’t receive as large an initial gift as the first servant did, but he puts it to work all the same and doubles it as well.  The third servant, though, gets cold feet about all the what-ifs that come along with investing money and decides that the best course of action is to dig a hole and stick it in the ground.  When he turns over the original amount in full to his master his reception is somewhat less than warm and fuzzy.

Now, usually when looking at this story we spend most of our time talking about this bum-of-a-third-servant.  He was lazy.  He was a coward.  He wasn’t really faithful to the intentions of his master.  He paid justly for his insolence.  And so on and so forth.  We’re usually shamed after all this into doing more for God just like those first two servants.  I’m not sure that’s totally the point of the parable, but it sounds good—especially if a pastor is trying to drum up volunteers or money for some project.  But what if we looked the other way and focused on the first two servants.  Put yourself in their shoes for a minute.  You’ve just been entrusted with a huge amount of money, more specifically, of someone else’s money.  Furthermore, after you receive it, you are told that at some point in the future (you’re not told when) you will be called to account for how you’ve used it.  That’s a pretty scary prospect if you think about it.  Put in those terms we can easily see why the third servant reacted like he did.  What if we invest it and lose it all?  What if someone steals it from us?  What if we increase the size of the gift, but don’t meet with the master’s expectations?  What if we get all the money tied up in an attempt to do the most with it we can when the master returns unexpectedly and we don’t have a way to give the money back to him immediately?  The possibilities are endless here.  And yet, these two guys set out with all that in mind and doubled the amount they were initially given.  They stepped out with wisdom and faith and were rewarded for it not merely by the doubling of their investments, but also by being given the whole amount as a reward for their faithfulness.  What a reward!  They started as poor servants and wound up filthy rich because of their faithfulness to the commands of their master.  That’s quite a blessing for faithfulness.  The truth is, though, faithfulness always brings blessing.

This morning we are in the second part of a four part Advent series called Obeying God in the Hard.  The big idea here is that there are times in our lives—just like there was once a time in the life of Mary and Joseph—when God calls us to do something hard.  He calls us to move in a direction that goes against our natural inclinations.  He calls us to work to reconcile a relationship which we have no interest in reconciling.  He calls us to talk to a person we don’t like.  He calls us to commit way more of our resources to something than we feel comfortable doing.  He calls us to give up things of value without letting us immediately see what He’s going to put in their place.  He calls us to walk into raging rivers and off the side of steep cliffs (figuratively, of course) without showing us how intends to help us get from there to the next place.  He calls us to do something that seems nigh on impossible not only at the first glance, but the second, third, and fourth as well.  In fact, it doesn’t stop seeming impossible until we step out in obedience and witness for ourselves the ways that all things are indeed possible with God (and even then we look back and think, “That was impossible!”).

Last week as we started this conversation we looked at the basic idea of how to respond when God makes such a call in our lives.  We looked at the story of Joshua leading the people of Israel in crossing the flood-swollen Jordan River in order to begin their conquest of the Promised Land.  The priests carrying the ark of the covenant were told to head out front to lead the people and were told further to go plant their feet—with the ark on their shoulders—in the riverbed.  At that point and not until then God would act on behalf of the nation and stop the waters of the Jordan from flowing so the people could cross on dry ground.  What we saw here is that when God has called us to something hard, the steps beyond the first one won’t be revealed to us until we take the first.  Henry Blackaby, the author of Experiencing God, calls these moments crises of faith.  When we come to such a place in life, our forward activity with God essentially stops until we face down the crisis and step out in obedience.

This morning I want to go one step further with you to look at what happens when we do this.  When we step out and obey God in the hard, what happens?  How does He respond when we rise up to the challenges and tests He places before us to grow our faith?  Perhaps you feel like you already know the answer to that question this morning, but if you’re like most folks you know what you’ve perhaps been told to believe all your life, but you don’t really know.  In order to see this, I want to take you to a story in the Old Testament that’s really hard, but really important both for our purposes this morning, but also in the pattern it establishes in terms of how we are to respond to God’s calls in our lives.  The story can be found in Genesis 22 and if you will grab a copy of the Scriptures nearby you can take a look at this with me.

Genesis 22 is the last chapter in the Bible in which Abraham features as the main character.  Abraham is often heralded as the paradigmatic example of faith in the Bible.  If you want to know what faith looks like, we are taught—and not without good reason—look to Abraham.  This chapter serves as a kind of capstone to his faith growth and development.  This was kind of like his faith final exam from God.  But, let us not fool ourselves into thinking that Abraham’s arc to this place in life was all smooth sailing.  His journey started when God called him to do something impossibly hard—especially in his day: leave behind everything familiar and go to a to-be-revealed location.  Talk about a first step leading you right off a cliff!  Yet Abraham took the step and like Indiana Jones from the clip last week, landed with his feet on solid ground.  God caught him and went with him from place to place as he lived for many years as a nomad.

Things didn’t get any easier for Abraham, though.  His journey with God began with a promise to make a great nation out of his descendants and yet 25 years later—when he was 100—he still didn’t have a son.  He’d tried to take things into his own hands to fulfill the promise of God but that didn’t go well.  He’d doubted God’s goodness and ability a time or three.  He’d wrestled and struggled with the impossibility of what God had told him over and over again.  And yet, through all of this, he kept moving in the direction God was gradually herding him to go.  At long last, when he was late in his 100th year of life with his wife Sarah late in her 90th, the two of them celebrated the joyful arrival of their first and only son into the world.  Now they could finally see in much more tangible terms, how God could possibly go about fulfilling the incredible promise He kept making to them.

And then this in Genesis 22:1: “After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, ‘Abraham!’  And he said, ‘Here am I.’”  Hadn’t Abraham already been through enough tests?  I mean, he had waited 25 years on God’s promise to give him a son with his wife, Sarah.  He’d rescued his nephew Lot from trouble—twice—once bargaining with God to save as many other folks in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as he could.  He’d trusted God when He told Abraham to send away the son he had with Sarah’s Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar, along with Hagar herself.  What more could God possibly expect Abraham to do for Him?

This: “[God] said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah…”  Great!  A father-son trip.  Maybe the test was for them to not kill each other on the journey.  That wouldn’t be so bad.  God was testing his ability to be a good parent to the boy from whom God was intending to build a nation.  Piece of cake.  Too bad that wasn’t what God had in mind.

“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.”  Or perhaps let’s put that another way.  “Hey Abraham, this is God.  I would like you to take the thing in this world which is most precious to you, the thing on which are resting all your hopes and dreams, and get rid of it entirely.”  How would you respond?  Listen to how Abraham responded and then we’ll talk about it.

Look with me at this starting at v. 3: “So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac.  And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.  On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar.  Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.’  And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son.  And he took in his hand the fire and the knife.  So they went both of them together.  And Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘My father!’  And he said, ‘Here am I, my son.’  He said, ‘Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’  Abraham said, ‘God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’  So they went both of them together.  When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood.  Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.”

Let’s just stop right there for minute and digest this.  What are you thinking if you were Abraham right there?  Let’s be honest and say this: most of us—probably all of us—wouldn’t have been right there.  When God came and said, “Hey, I want you to sacrifice your child as a burnt offering to Me,” we would have said, “Heck no!” and started following someone else.  When we just read the text here it runs almost like we’re reading a newspaper—sanitized and kind of boring.   But, think about what was happening here.  Do you think Abraham was really emotionless?  Do you suspect Isaac stood there dispassionately as his father tied him up and lifted him up onto the pile of wood.  Or do you think perhaps that Abraham was somewhat less than stoic in all of this?

After his question Isaac probably assumed that there was going to be an animal waiting for them at the top of the mountain.  He probably repeated his question a couple more times as they neared the summit.  “Dad, where’s the lamb?”  “We’re nearly there now, Dad, and I haven’t seen anything that looks like it’ll work for a sacrifice.  What are you planning to use here?”  Abraham could only mumble in answer, “God will provide it, son; God will provide it…”  He could only mumble his answers because any louder and the sob he was holding in would have burst out and a great rush.  The teasr welling up in his eyes were no doubt streaming down his cheeks by the time they arrived at the place for the sacrifice.  Isaac was getting more and more restless as he watched his father lay the wood on the altar.  You can almost hear his question: “What are you doing, Dad,” as Abraham turned around and came toward him with the rope.  “The Lord will provide, son,” he heaved.  Isaac knew the faith of his father and no doubt trusted it, but he had to have cried out in a panic as Abraham raised the knife over him.  I wonder if Abraham said anything as he prepared to follow through on this grim task to which God had set him.  He didn’t know how God’s promise was still going to be fulfilled after this, much less what he was going to tell Sarah when he returned home, but the same God who had carried them this far wasn’t going to leave them now.

Friends, this is a frightening and emotional scene.  Had this played itself out today Abraham would have been arrested and given a lifetime membership in a psych ward somewhere.  I’m not at all saying this is the pattern we should follow.  Of course it’s not.  God hasn’t asked this of anybody since and I don’t suspect He will.  In fact, if you pay careful attention to the text itself, God never intended for Abraham to kill Isaac in the first place.  This was all an elaborate test.  Now, we can debate to the ground another time why God would have put him through something like this, but something is clear out of all of this.  If there is something in our lives that threatens to compete with God for first place, He’s going to ask us to give it up entirely and He doesn’t much care what it is.  Whatever it is, if it is threatening His place in our lives, the thing it is really threatening is not Him, but us.  Separation from Him means death and so no matter what it is, if it separates us from God, it is an instrument of death and He wants it gone not for His sake, but for ours.  Isaac was this for Abraham.  I mean think about it: every father back then wanted a son to carry on the family name.  Fathers today still want this.  Abraham waited literally 100 years for this blessing.  What more, the last 25 of those years came after God promised to give him the son he had always desired.  There wasn’t anything so precious to Abraham in all the world as Isaac.  You think your kids are precious to you?  You’ve got nothing on Abraham.   And so God said, “Abraham, give it up.  How much do you really trust Me?  Do you trust me to be able to do what I said I would do without the only thing you think is possible to use to see it done?  Give him up, Abraham, and trust me.”

Now, before this becomes a sermon about something else, let me bring us back around to where we’re going.  Sometimes God asks us to do things that are hard.  We understand that.  We’ve been there.  Maybe you are there.  But sometimes, God asks us to do things that don’t even make any sense.  That’s what this was.  God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac didn’t make any sense to him.  It couldn’t have.  It still doesn’t make any sense to a lot of folks today.  This is one of those stories, though, that is either true or else the Bible is an immoral book.  It reveals that our salvation, our very lives, reside firmly in the hands of God and no others.  That all said, though, I want to focus our attention on the nature of what God asks Abraham to do.  Again: this thing God asked Abraham to do didn’t make sense.  This went beyond hard to nonsensical.  Indeed, sometimes the things to which God calls us aren’t merely hard, they defy rational explanation.  And yet He asks because He has a plan for our blessing and the road leads right through our obedience in this hard.

Let’s state the obvious again: God isn’t going to ask you to offer one of your children as a burnt offering in the place He shows you.  Rest easy there.  But, I know this about you because it’s true of me too: there is something in your life that is just as precious to you as Isaac was to Abraham.  What more, because we are all broken by sin, let’s just be honest and say that it probably isn’t your children.  For some of us it may be a physical object.  We can’t imagine life without this thing.  For others it’s something intangible.  Perhaps you are defining yourself by a particular relationship.  Maybe it’s a certain public image: you have to be known as ____________.  It could be a hobby.  But whatever it is, there is something in your life that you hold dear enough that it threatens—or simply has taken—the place of God in your life.  It is precious enough to you that for God to ask you to give it up in order to fill the space with Him would seem totally nonsensical.  You wouldn’t be able to wrap your mind around it.   And yet one day—assuming He hasn’t already—just like He did with Abraham, He’s going to do it.  He’s going to do it because He has more for you, but in order to receive it you need to have open hands and an open heart and right now they are filled with whatever this other thing is.  How are you going to obey God in this hard?

That’s a good question.  But, there’s another question probably pressing a bit more firmly and fully on your heart and mind: how is God going to respond if I do?  Again, this thing is precious enough to you that you can’t imagine life without whatever it is.  It’ll be like kicking the leg out from under a one-legged table.  How will you still be able to stand and face life any longer?  How is God going to respond if you follow Him in this hard?

Come back to the text with me and we’ll see how.  Verse 11: “But the angel of the Lord [whom some interpreters think was the preincarnate Christ] called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!”  And he said, “Here am I.”  He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”  And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by his horns.  And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called the name of that place, ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’  And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.  And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.’  So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba.  And Abraham lived at Beersheba.”

For Abraham when God asked him to do something that didn’t make any sense and he responded with, “Well God, this doesn’t really make any sense, but I’ve learned that even when it doesn’t make any sense following You leads to a better place than not following You so I’ll do it,” God responded with blessing.  He responded with blessing, though, not only for Abraham, not only for his descendants, but for everybody.  Remember what God said?  “…in your offspring [which Paul later told the Galatian churches is singular in form because it’s referring to Christ] shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.”  And why?  “Because you have obeyed my voice.”  Abraham chose faithfulness even when God asked him to give up the thing in this world most precious to him.  He chose faithfulness even when it didn’t make any sense.  And God responded with blessing.  God responds to faithfulness with blessing.

I’ve been saying it now for two weeks, but all of us face times in our lives when God has called us to something hard.  It might even be something, like Abraham faced, that doesn’t even make sense.  It may be something hard in a generic sort of way.  It could be, though, that God asks us to step up out and trust Him in such a way that we aren’t sure there will be anything of us left when the dust settles.  When we respond with faithfulness, though, He will respond with blessing.  God responds to faithfulness with blessing.  What more, the nature of the blessing from God is that it is never just for us.  By Abraham answering God’s seemingly nonsensical request with faithfulness God responded with blessing for the whole world.  The same thing happened again 2,500 years later when a young, engaged couple followed God through the seemingly impossible and we are evidence of the blessing He gave.  Who might God be seeking to bless through your faithful response to the hard—even the seemingly senseless thing He has called you to do?  Your spouse?  Your children?  Your grandchildren?  Your co-workers?  Your siblings?  Your parents?  Who?  The trickle-down effect of God’s blessing is always a wonderful thing to see and experience and He longs to make you a starting point for it.  But that can’t happen until you are willing to trust Him with even your single most precious thing, trusting that He will do with it what is right for you, it, and everyone else.  When you respond with faithfulness to God’s call to obey Him in the hard, He will respond with blessing.  God responds to faithfulness with blessing.  So seek in your hard to be faithful in order that you may both know and be the blessing of God.  God responds to faithfulness with blessing.