May 2, 2010

Not By Sight

How many of you like hearing good stories? I love a good story. A couple of weeks ago when I was at Johnston-Willis waiting with the Henshaws for the nurse to come get us so we could go back and see Horace before his surgery began the six of us were sitting in the waiting area telling stories to pass the time. We were laughing so hard I.m surprised we didn.t get any dirty looks from the other people there waiting. I heard all kinds of stories about Gilbert and Veda Henshaw and their daughter Rebecca that I probably shouldn.t tell from here. I heard stories about Pam Christopher wrestling her goat. I told stories about my family and where I had come from. I think Louise was the only one who escaped the time I was there without having any stories told on her. Though the reason for our being gathered there that morning was a somber one (with a successful outcome, praise the Lord), we were having a lot of fun just sitting there swapping stories. In college I had to take two semesters of organic chemistry (which I loved…sometimes it.s easier to just embrace nerd-dom). The professor for my first semester was Dr. Afzal. He was a very nice man who knew organic chemistry really well and enjoyed teaching it. His teaching approach, though, was to convey the information necessary for us to know. Organic chemistry was what he did and he would get really excited talking about various molecules and how they interacted. Most students were not that excited about the subject matter and really didn.t care for his class. My second semester was taught by Dr. Hoffman. He was a rancher. He raised Black Angus cows. He loved his cows. He loved even more telling stories about his cows and his farming and how it all related to organic chemistry. Now, when I wasn.t frantically trying to take notes in hopes of capturing at least the gist of what the professor was saying, I occasionally observed my classmates. In Dr. Afzal.s class, folks were generally taking notes somewhat disinterestedly. Their eyes were kind of glazed over and when it looked like they had absorbed all the information they could stand, most students checked out. On the other hand, in Dr. Hoffman.s class, just when it seemed like the information was about to overload most of the students he would launch into another story and the whole class would be back with him again. His ability to be a great storyteller made him the delight of many of his students, including me. We learned a lot about organic hemistry in the process too.

Shifting gears just a bit, there are a lot of people who have trouble mustering up a desire to really dig into Scripture. One of the reasons for this is that the Bible often comes across as a dry, boring book that may have information applicable to our lives, but this information is so buried by the boring stuff that it.s not worth the effort to dig down to it. Now, the reality is that there are a lot of places in the Bible that are difficult for us to approach because of their complex form or culturally obscure details. But there.s hope. A significant percentage of the Bible, including a very significant percentage of the Old Testament (the part of the Bible that people have the most trouble with) is made up of stories. And as we said before we can deal with stories. When I was growing up I was a reader. My parents wisely leveraged this fact and gave me a calendar with a Bible story to read for each day of the year. I usually read while I ate breakfast, but the stories in the calendar were far too short to last an entire meal so instead of reading one a day I read several. I can.t tell you how many times I read through that calendar because it was something to do while I ate my huge bowls of cereal. In the process, I learned the stories of the Bible, particularly the stories of the Old Testament. You see, part of the power of stories is not only that they are able to hold our attention but that we learn from them. Why do you think Aesop.s Fables are so popular? Most of us learn more from stories than from anything else in the world. We learn about organic chemistry. We learn about life. We learn about faith. We learn about the kind of people God made us to be. With all of this in mind, I want to spend the next few weeks with you telling and retelling some of the great stories of the Old Testament. And I don.t want to tell you just any stories; I want to tell you the stories of the people. My passionate belief is that the Bible contains the words of God which are designed to bring us life. If we don.t know those words, for whatever reason, we are not living as fully as we could if we did. Furthermore, God put all the things we have in this incredible book in there for a reason. That means we can look at the stories of characters like Abraham and Sarah, like Jacob and Joseph, like Joshua and Deborah and Elijah and Jeremiah, and learn from them some of the life lessons and biblical virtues we need in order to be more reflective of the kind of people God calls us to be. We can learn both characteristics to emulate and pitfalls to avoid. We can find stories of people not so different from ourselves and journey with them as we endeavor to become more like Christ. For the next few weeks, then, we are going to look at each of these characters and their stories to see what they have to teach us of being more like Christ. And so this morning as we begin this journey, let.s take a look at perhaps one of the most important characters in the Old Testament, the father of three world-changing religious movements: Abraham, a man of faith.

When you read through the book of Genesis, the first eleven chapters of the book pretty clearly go together. God creates the world and everything in it and people gradually populate the earth and start to learn what it means to be made in God.s image. Through the stories of the Flood and the Tower of Babel, it becomes pretty clear that we are not going to follow God on our own. The story of human history comes to this dramatic turning point. All the introductory material meant to establish the basics of who God is and who we are is out of the way and we get down to business. God has demonstrated that people don.t have what it takes to get out of the mess of sin they are in and so He starts His redemptive work in history in an obvious way. In the mind of the uninformed reader, God should probably have done something dramatic again like the Flood. He promised not to destroy the earth, but maybe if He just went ahead and came down Himself He could simply tell the people what they need to be doing, lead them in doing it for a while, and then leave them to see how the lesson took. Instead, God speaks to this character who seemed otherwise unimportant at his introduction moments before: “God told Abram: „Leave your country, your family, and your father.s home for a land that I will show you..” God could have done something we would easily recognize as great and mighty but instead calls this obscure man to leave his clan and go somewhere else, withholding for the time being the information as to where this somewhere else would be. And for you who know this story you.re thinking: “I know, I know. God calls Abram and promises to bless him and he goes to the Promised Land.” But stay with me for just a minute. In the culture of this day, family was everything. People had big families and the families all stayed together as a clan and even all lived together in the same land. The reason for this was that the world was a wild place. This was still pretty early on in the history of people and there weren.t a lot of them. You couldn.t drive fifteen minutes to Food Lion to pick up something you needed from the store. You couldn.t whip out your cell phone and call the police if bandits attacked. To leave your family and your land was a death sentence. In fact, a few hundred years later when Moses received the Law, one of the most severe punishments for breaking it was to separate the offender from the rest of the people. You could be attacked and left for dead by brigands. You could wander on to someone else.s land who didn.t want you there and be killed or enslaved. You could find yourself in land that didn.t have enough resources to support you and your family and starve to death. Wild animals might attack and eat you. Anything could happen and most of it wasn.t good. All of
Abram.s friends and family would have thought him to be certifiably insane for even contemplating the command of this god whom they had never met.

But Abram went. The reasons for which he decided to follow the words of this God who promised a lavish blessing on him are lost to us, but we must say that it took incredible faith on his part to make such a decision. This faith was not blind as some might suggest—he did have the words of the blessing promised him—but it was certainly not by sight. Faith is never by sight. He went and along the way God appeared to him and announced that He would give the land Abram had entered to his descendants. For this promise Abram worshiped God. There was one problem, of course: Abram had no descendants. Yet this seems to be of little consequence to our hero as he traveled throughout the land, eventually settling in its southernmost region. He was still a young man and there were many years ahead of him for bearing and raising children. He went forward on faith that God would show the way just as He had in leading him from his homeland to Canaan. Indeed, faith is never by sight. His faith was strong and things were good.

Yet you know as well as I do that things do not always stay so smooth. After Abram had lived in the region for a few years famine came to the land. In the arid climate of what is now Southern Israel a famine such as this is not so unusual a thing. Regular or not, however, a famine makes life tough for people who live in the affected region. What this proved to be for Abram was the first real test of his faith. He failed miserably. He left the land to which God had sent him and headed for Egypt. But Abram.s failure did not end there. When he and his wife Sarai arrived in Egypt, he told her to tell the people of Egypt that she was his sister. His reasoning was that she was so beautiful that if the men of Egypt thought he was her husband, they might kill him in order to take her for themselves. There was a backhanded compliment if I.ve ever heard one. “Honey, you.re so beautiful that people are going to kill me to get to you. Let.s pretend we.re not really married so that if other men want to take advantage of you they won.t feel the need to kill me to do it.” Abram, the man with this incredible faith in the God he.d just met that led him to leave behind everything familiar and go to a yet-to-be-revealed foreign land, has a chance to prove his faith by letting this same God sustain him through a famine and falls flat on his face. Is this really the same Abram who is celebrated for his great faith in God? It is and I.ll tell you why: Abram, who God would later rename Abraham, was a human being just like you and me. He endeavored to live by faith, but his was not a smooth journey. Abraham.s journey was an up and down one. He went from a period of faith, to one of doubt. From a time of triumph to one of failure.

Sometime after Abraham.s trials in Egypt, he and his nephew Lot.s flocks had grown too large to share the same land any longer. As a result, the two decided to part ways. Abraham graciously gave Lot the first choice of land and he chose what looked to him to be the most lush and fertile land available, leaving Abraham whatever was left. Abraham had learned his lesson. He faithfully trusted that God would sustain him regardless of the resources of the land available to him. As a result this display of faith, God reaffirmed His promise to make a great nation from Abraham.s descendants. As of yet, however, Abraham and Sarah were still without a biological child. Even in light of God powerfully reaffirming this promise to him again a few years later, this was a major point of faith for Abraham. He had the record of God.s faithfulness to him since calling him out of Mesopotamia many years before, but the fact of the couple.s childlessness remained cold and hard in front of them. The faith it took for them to keep their eyes on God through all this was not blind, but it was certainly without sight. Faith is never by sight. A life of faith is like an extreme case of nearsightedness. We can make out the general shape of distant objects, but there is no clarity to them. We are not blind in this life, but neither are we in a place where pushing forward completely unaided is a wise decision. Such a step would be like this person with extreme nearsightedness taking off her glasses before running a marathon.

The reality of our broken natures, though, is that we keep our glasses off a lot more than we should. Abraham had been given every reason to keep his on as well as assurances that he would see clearly when he arrived at the destination, but his humanity took over again and created a mess. God kept promising Sarah and him a child, but the years were wearing long on both of them. Finally, they decided to take things into their own hands. Abraham sired a child through Sarah.s Egyptian maidservant Hagar. Let us not be afraid to call this what it was: a complete and total faith meltdown. The author of Genesis put this episode in Genesis 16 immediately after the story of God.s dramatically reaffirming His covenant with Abraham regarding his descendants and the land God would give them for a reason. In other words, soon after God.s giving Abraham an incredible reason for faith, he abandons faith for sight. And as we know very well today, this failure of faith had far-reaching consequences. But God was faithful and after this tragic failure on Abraham.s part He came yet again to reaffirm His plans for him.

Finally, when it seemed to the couple that all hope was really gone, regardless of God.s multiple attestations of His intentions, Sarah discovered that she was pregnant. At ninety. The text says in Genesis 20:1 and following that “God visited Sarah exactly as he said he would; God did to Sarah what he promised: Sarah became pregnant and gave Abraham a son in his old age, and at the very time God had set.” At the fulfillment of time she gave birth to a son who they named Isaac, meaning laughter, as God had commanded them. The vision that was once blurry and distant came into brilliantly sharp focus. But then, just when it seemed to Abraham that he was finally starting to see clearly enough to walk by sight, God blurred things nearly beyond recognition. God called Abraham to go to another place that would be revealed at the right time. But this time instead of putting down roots, God.s command seemed to point to his tearing them up. From Genesis 22:2: “Take your dear son Isaac whom you love and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I.ll point out to you.” The Abraham of a generation before would have told God where He could take such a command. But the post-Isaac Abraham had learned very well that when God promised to do, He would follow through. He had learned that though real faith is not blind, it is never by sight. And so he took Isaac to the mountain with the full intention of putting him to death there. He had learned that even when our vision is blurry, if we have on the right glasses, then we can both trust the image in front of us and that the blurry vision ahead of us will be clear at the right time. In this way, faith is never by sight.

As the story goes, God stopped Abraham from following through on this terrible deed, his faith in God proved beyond any shadow of doubt. The last picture of Abraham.s life I want to look at with you this morning is found just a chapter over from this story of faith and sacrifice. A few years after Isaac was born, Sarah passed away. Now, when a loved one dies, we look to bury them in a place where we will settle for a long time. We aim for this because we want our final resting place to be where our families will be close. Abraham could have done a lot of things at this point. He was fabulously wealthy. He could have buried Sarah anywhere. But, took the words of God.s promise and bought a plot in the Promised Land in which he could bury his wife and in which he would later himself be buried. He bought this land on God.s promise that though life might take his descendants out of this land, He would surely bring them back to it. In fact, God foretold to him the fact of his descendants. time of slavery in Egypt and their eventual return to the Promised Land. With this assurance, Abraham faithfully buried Sarah in this land.

The question we are left with at the end of all this is why it matters. Abraham has a pretty incredible story, but is it more than merely that? Well, we wouldn.t be here if it wasn.t. Throughout the entire Bible, Abraham is held up as the paradigmatic man of faith. In the Hall of Faithfulness of Hebrews 11 there are more verses dedicated to Abraham.s acts of faith than any other character in the Bible. More so than anyone else in history (save Jesus), Abraham is characterized by his faith in God. And the things Abraham did, the journeys he took are pretty incredible, but if we are not careful we run the risk of putting him up on this huge pedestal that we.ll never actually reach. The problem with this is that it takes him out of a place where we can really see ourselves learning anything from him. We don.t believe we.ll ever reach his level of faith and so we don.t really try. But when we take a minute to look closely at Abraham.s story, we find someone who demonstrates clearly that faith is never by sight, but also that it doesn.t take a superhuman effort to take ownership of such faith. Just a divine one.

Here are some of the realities of Abraham.s story for us. Abraham couldn.t see God and didn.t know where he was going for most of his journey, yet he went. His story demonstrates definitively that faith is never by sight (for when sight comes, faith becomes unnecessary). But it.s no good to say that Abraham was simply an exceptional man. When God called him, there was nothing exceptional about him. In Genesis 12 when God calls Abram out of his father.s land, he.s just some random guy God picked to accomplish His purposes. Of course God knew of his potential, but neither Abram nor anybody else around him did. Furthermore, Abraham didn.t have the faith for which we know him at this point in his journey. His faith developed over a lifetime. And it was not a smooth journey. Our individual journeys of faith begin when we start following God. They begin when we are willing to acknowledge that we are hopelessly nearsighted in this life and put on the Christian faith as a lens through which to see the world. Our nearsightedness won.t necessarily end, but God will make sure we have enough information to take the next step. Sometimes we.ll make the right choice and sometimes we won.t. Yet like Abraham, we must neither let the ups get us overly confident, nor must we let the downs discourage us beyond the pale. We can rest assured that our enemy will try and use both instances to pull us off track. Another encouragement we can take from Abraham.s story of faith is that God doesn.t give us a vision for where He wants us to go and then remains uninvolved thereafter. He knows our faith needs encouragement and will help us along as we need it. God routinely gives us enough evidence of Himself that we can find Him, but not so much as to make faith unnecessary. He will bear with us gently, helping us when we are weak, but also firmly, holding us to account when we abandon faith for sight, for faith is never by sight.

Let me close this morning by speaking personally to you about this church. I believe God has given me a vision for where He wants to take us. I have shared this vision with many of you both personally and corporately in this forum. It is a vision of our becoming fully the church He has designed us to be: a place marked by belonging, learning, and serving. As we continue to walk together along this road, this faith of Abraham will be our constant companion. There have been a number of things set in motion—some new changes, some old and brought to life again—that I sincerely hope and expect will begin yielding some fruit in the coming months. As we journey together towards becoming fully ourselves, be active in prayer for God.s wisdom and guidance for the church as a whole and also for helping in understanding both who He has created you to be and what He wants you to do in light of that. Like Abraham.s journey, there will be highlights and lowlights, trials and successes on ours. But in the end, if we learn the lessons He is teaching us, we will leave behind us a legacy of kingdom glory for our descendants that will lead them faithfully down the path of life. Our faith in this process is far from blind for we have the assurances of the Word to keep us encouraged, but neither is it by sight. Faith is never by sight.

When God called Abraham out of the Promised Land, the vision for where He was calling him to go was not clear. God simply told him to go to the land that He would show him. As Abraham.s descendants gradually came to know and trust this God more and more, He gave His people another vision for their future. But, this time, instead of a very murky vision that required an abundance of faith to even take the first step, God gave them a vision of a future life with Him. For this vision, the final destination is clear, but the path to this destination and the length of the journey are not. When Jesus came, He clarified this vision even further, explaining that those who put their trust, their faith, in Him would live forever with their heavenly Father. It was by placing our faith in His death and resurrection and what was accomplished by these incredible acts that we find the road to our final destination. Today, for we modern followers of Christ, we have been given fresh eyes to see and the vision itself is clear, but the path and the length of the journey are still no clearer than they were when the vision was first given. And so this morning we are going to participate in an act that requires faith in two ways: First, we have faith in what Jesus accomplished for us 2,000 years ago on the cross; second, we have faith in what Jesus promised us as the final reward for our faithfulness. You know this act of faith and celebration more familiarly as the Lord.s Supper. The reality of our current states is that we are broken by sin and as Paul pointed out in Romans, the only just penalty for sin is death. A contract with God would merit us little help in solving this problem for we are unable to fulfill our end of any bargain with God thanks to our sinful natures. What we needed was a new covenant with God; a covenant in which He guaranteed us life if we give Him our lives. The clear witness of Scripture on covenants, however, is that covenants require blood. Every covenant God made with His people required blood. So you see our problem. We needed a body broken to pay for sin and blood spilled to sign and seal a new covenant. Thanks to the limitations of our broken natures, however, no single person could make such a sacrifice. Indeed, the only way such a sacrifice could be made is if God made it Himself. This He did in Jesus Christ. This we celebrate this morning in the Lord.s Supper; our faith given eyes and wonderfully affirmed for all time. As we have said so many times before, let me remind you once again. In the bread you see before you we have a symbol of Christ.s body broken because of our sin that we might be made whole, paying sin.s price once and for all. In the juice, we have a symbol of Christ.s blood spilled to sign and seal a covenant of life with God for us for all eternity. And as Paul so eloquently assured us in 1 Corinthians: as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we remember the death and resurrection of our Great Master until He comes again, expressing our faith in what He did and in what His action will accomplish for us in the future. So as we participate in this sacred meal this morning, take a moment and prepare your hearts. Thank God for the faith by which He sustains you every day. Confess and repent of the lapses in faith you have had because of your desire to walk by sight. Ask Him for the faith to keep your eyes on the vision He has given you of who He created you to be. If necessary, take a minute and ask Him to give you such a vision. And then, when the deacons come around to serve you, eat and drink when your hearts are prepared. If you belong to Christ, then this meal belongs to you. Deacons, come on down as I pray.