May 9, 2010

Against All Odds

Who do you want to be? I think somewhere in our minds, in our hearts is a picture formed over the course of our lives of who we want to be. This picture varies wildly from person to person and is informed by the experiences we have encountered as well as by the images with which we are most surrounded. Some of those images are incidental and some of them are put there intentionally. The intentional images are there at the behest of two different intentions: ours and the world.s. We surround ourselves with images that fit with the person we want to be or in fact are. Speaking personally, I approach God and worship Him most freely through an intellectual medium (I know, that comes as a huge surprise). Now, that.s no better or worse than someone who worships God most freely through nature, or liturgy, or service, or music, or anything else, it.s just me. But, as a function of this part of who God has designed me to be, the part of me most concerned with my image desires to be known as an intellectual. Where this glorifies God it.s great, but where it doesn.t, it.s egotistical. Either way, if you look at the images with which I intentionally surround myself, many of them bespeak an intellectual. I am blessed to have several bookshelves full of scholarly-looking tomes. These are some of the ways I seek to reinforce the image I desire to project. These are not, however, the only images in my life. I am also surrounded by the world.s images. I have control over these to some extent, but not a great one. These images are made up of TV commercials, newspaper advertisements, internet ads, billboards, fashion pictures in stores at the mall, the people around me, and surely a number of other sources I.m overlooking. These images try and steer me to be more reflective of the image the world wants me to have. This image is inconsistent in nature at best, but it is consistent in its opposition to the image God has in mind for me.

I am far from the only person in this room impacted by these images. We are all affected by this. The ruler of this world has an image in mind for us. It is an image that conforms rigidly to the image he has in mind for everyone else around us: mindless slaves driven mercilessly by a desire to fit in with our cultures. We are all affected by this herd mentality that threatens to drive us off the cliff of unrighteousness. At the same time, there is another image for us to consider. This image is in direct opposition to the image of the world. It is an image in correspondence to one thing: the person God created us to be. You see, God created us with a plan in mind. He created us with a totally unique blend of personality, passions, gifts, talents, and abilities, all with the goal in mind of our fitting perfectly into a special place in His kingdom. When we come to even a rudimentary understanding of this image, we quickly recognize that it is exactly in line with the deepest desires of our heart. Indeed, my goal for each one of you is to see you come to fully reflect this image.

There is a problem we face here, though. We.ve already mentioned the problem: this divine image is in direct opposition to the image of the world. So on the one hand, we have the image God has in mind for us, and on the other we have the image of the world. These two are in constant conflict at every point. But the nature of their conflict is not as it is so often portrayed by our culture. The portrayal of this conflict by our culture is of something like two plates of the earth.s crust pushing against each other. The plates push and push and push and eventually there is this huge eruption and one of the plates comes out on top. There really is no rhyme or reason why one plate “triumphs” except that at some point one of the plates scored a slight advantage over the other. This explanation is popular, but it is not reflective of reality. The truth is this: the image God has designed us to show forth is reality. It is grounded deeply in the rock of all being. We cannot change it; we can only alter our lives to be more in line with it. The false image of the world is a truly capricious force. It varies from place to place and shifts with the times, but is always in opposition to God.s image. This false image throws itself with seemingly tireless effort against the walls of reality in futile hope of breaking them down. It is relentless in its pursuit of seeing God.s image crumble to dust. The only time it lets up is when we submit. In the end, though, because it is not in fact reality, all these efforts will be revealed to be fruitless and futile. This is a point of great hope for us in the long term, but in the short term we must still deal with the relentless efforts to oppose God.s image for our lives. For us to stand stolidly opposed to this false image in favor of the true image that captures our heart.s deepest desires, therefore, takes a great deal of one of the Biblical virtues that often goes unsung in our modern, fast-paced, impatient culture: perseverance. This virtue is one of the most powerful in our arsenal of kingdom tools in its ability to help us withstand the tide of the world. And in the end, we can be sure that God honors the one who perseveres.

Yet a dry treatise on perseverance would not do much to help us commandeer this virtue in our own lives (except perhaps by helping you put the virtue into practice for the duration of the sermon). Additionally, it would not fit in with the journey we began last week. We are on a journey of taking a look at different stories of people in the Old Testament. Through these stories, my hope is that we pick up a few lessons on kingdom living that we can make more apparent in our own lives. As we were just talking about, the broader hope is that this journey helps us become more reflective of the kind of people God made us to be. And so on this day set aside for honoring the mothers in our midst, I want to tell you the story of the second most famous mother in the Bible and the most famous in the Old Testament. I want to tell you the other side of the story we looked at last week. I want to tell you the story of Sarah, the mother of Israel. Sarah was a woman of perseverance. You see, just because God called Abraham out of Mesopotamia doesn.t mean He did not also call Sarah to a great task. We so often focus all of our attention on Abraham in Genesis, chapters 12-23, that we forget he was neither alone in his incredible journey of faith, nor was he singularly affected by it. God had an image for Sarah just as much as He did for Abraham. But the world had an image for her as well. It was shaped by the culture in which she lived that viewed wives and women as unimportant and little more valuable than base property. As we talk through her story, we will see how her world, her culture, and even her husband tried to force this image on her. Now, did this make them irredeemably evil? No. It merely meant they weren.t operating according to God.s principles for the moment. What it did mean for Sarah, though, was that she had to persevere through a host of storms in order to remain reflective of God.s image for her. So let me tell you some of her story this morning and then we.ll spend our last few minutes talking about it. In the end, we will see that God honors the one who perseveres.

We know from last week that God called Abraham out of his homeland and away from his family to a land God would show him at the appropriate time. Thus began an incredible journey of faith. Thankfully, the Bible presents this story as it really was, warts and all. Abraham sometimes got everything right, as when he offered Lot the first choice of grazing land, and sometimes he got everything wrong, as when he twice told Sarah to claim to be his sister. The Bible reserves both commendation and condemnation in these instances, preferring instead to let us see the journey of Abraham for what it really was and take from that what God has for us. But what was Sarah doing throughout this time? She certainly traveled with her husband for all of his journeys, but was this all God had in mind for her? To be a faithful observer as He made Abraham fully into the person he was designed to be? Hardly! God was just as involved with helping Sarah become fully who He designed her to be.

So who was this person? Well, if God was molding Abraham into the kind of man who could be the father of an entire nation of, He was molding Sarah into the kind of woman who could be the mother of an entire nation of. She did not know this was her image at first, though. She had married into a successful family and was perhaps looking forward to settling down to a quiet life of loving her husband and raising her children. Yet God had other plans. He wanted to honor her visions of motherhood, but in a way far grander than anything she could have imaged. He called her family to a journey of faith and promise unlike any that had ever been taken before. He gave her husband this incredible promise of blessing: “I.ll make you a great nation and bless you. I.ll make you famous; you.ll be a blessing. I.ll bless those who bless you; those who curse you I.ll curse. All the families of the Earth will be blessed through you.” This was the kind of promise that someone could really hold on to and let carry them far in life. And so the little family went. They journeyed for several long months until they settled in the southern region of what would later be the land of Israel. At this point things were good, but as we talked about last week, things did not stay as such. This life faithfully gives us situations through which we must persevere in order to reach the real life God has for us.

The first of these situations for Sarah came not long after the family settled in the Negev. The text tells us in Genesis 12:10 that a famine came to the land. And in this first chance for her husband to prove his faithfulness to God he flees to Egypt, seemingly abandoning the life God has for him and Sarah in the Promised Land. As the couple drew near to Egypt, Abraham.s fears began to manifest themselves. Listen to what he said to her: “Look. We both know that you.re a beautiful woman. When the Egyptians see you they are going to say, „Aha! That.s his wife!. and kill me. But they.ll let you live. Do me a favor: tell them you.re my sister.

Because of you, they.ll welcome me and let me live.” Now, we might be tempted to look at this as an example of Abraham wisely taking steps to preserve his life. After all, we wouldn.t want the father of a nation to die prematurely. But the reality is that this was faithless cowardice on Abraham.s part. And Sarah paid the price for it. Consider the implications of Abraham.s request. As his wife, Sarah was to be the mother of a nation. By asking her to embrace the lie that she was his sister, Abraham was asking her to remove herself from the scope of God.s promise. Perhaps the most offensive part of this was that Abraham blamed his flawed reasoning on her beauty instead of owning up to his own cowardice. Moreover, he was happy to let her become the sexual plaything of Pharaoh.s house if it meant preserving his life and making him wealthier. And Sarah could have reacted to this situation in a number of ways. She could have left him and gone back home. She could have refused and watched him be killed. She could have said, “Well, if I am to be so popular in Pharaoh.s house, perhaps I will just go and live there.” But she didn.t do any of that. Instead, she did just what he asked. You see, she had the words of God.s promise propelling her as well. She understood the implications of this promise for her life. She understood and trusted God to fulfill His promise regardless of the circumstances aligned against her. And so she persevered. She persevered, because she knew that God honors the one who perseveres. She even persevered many years later when Abraham made the same mistake. As it turned out, God did honor her perseverance. He delivered her both times and delivered a stinging rebuke to Abraham in the process. Indeed, there are times in our life we have to persevere not only the world, but also friends and family standing in the way of God.s image for us. These times are many, but God honors the one who perseveres.

For Sarah, and also for us, the world is not the only thing that stands in the way of God.s image for us. Sometimes it can seem like God Himself is standing in the way of His own promise. This was certainly the case for Sarah. Even though she had the words of God.s promise to Abraham, and even though she had been living in the Promised Land for many years, she was still no closer to becoming the mother of a nation than when He had first called them out of Mesopotamia. You see, there were two big problems facing Sarah: she was barren and she was about 75. Those two facts don.t lend themselves to give a woman great hope that she will conceive and give birth to a child. At this stage of her life, Sarah had persevered for a long time. She had persevered many years and many efforts by the world to take her eyes off of the vision God had given her of who she was to be. God certainly honors the one who perseveres, but she was tired of persevering and wanted some action. And so with the full consent of her husband (which should never have been given by the way), they conspired to bring about God.s promise on their own. After all, it had been so long that He had surely forgotten by now. There was a law of the day that allowed a man to have a son with his wife.s handmaiden if he and his wife had no biological son of their own. This son would be considered the biological child of the man and his wife. So Sarah gave her Egyptian handmaiden Hagar to Abraham so that the two of them could produce and heir. Now Sarah had a son and though he was not biologically hers, should a great nation come from him she would be legally considered the mother of a nation. The problem is that this was not God.s promise to her husband. She was to be the biological mother of a nation. This failure of perseverance only created problems. It created problems that tore apart her family and many other families since. God honors the one who perseveres, but those who do not must live with the consequences of their impatience. Thankfully, our impatience with God.s plans does not thwart God.s plans. This case was no exception. As promised, though after there was any reasonable hope of human agency accomplishing God.s plans, Sarah did become pregnant and gave birth to a son whom they named Isaac. Isaac.s wife gave birth to two sons. The younger son was named Jacob, who God renamed Israel. Jacob.s 12 sons became the 12 tribes of Israel. Sarah was indeed the biological mother of a nation. The image that God gave her proved itself to be the most pressing and permanent reality in life. It was not easy. She faced a number of trials from the world aimed at blowing her off course and forcing her to accept the world.s image for her. But Sarah was convinced in her heart that God.s image was the best image and so she persevered through every trial she faced in order that she could see this image become a reality. And again, this was far from easy and her perseverance was far from perfect, but in the end it bore
beautiful fruit. Indeed, God honors the one who perseveres.

Coming right down to it, let me take you back to the image you have for yourself that we spoke of a few minutes ago. Whose image is it? What sources most inform your image? Is it primarily informed by the Siren songs of the world? Or is it primarily informed by the grace-filled word of God? Is it shaped by the constant bombardment of who the culture wants you to be? Or it is shaped by the vision the Holy Spirit has given you of who God designed you to be? On this Mother.s Day, let.s speak even more specifically. The picture of biblical womanhood and biblical motherhood as defined in Scripture is under attack in our culture. In fact, there are times when it seems like the biggest cultural guns the world has are aimed right at women who are doing their best to live out the lifestyle of the kingdom of God. This is not a new phenomenon, however. Remember the image that God gave Sarah? She took God.s promise that she would bear a child and persevered through a lifetime of troubles before seeing the fulfillment of His words to her husband and her. She persevered through Abraham treating her more like property than like a wife (all arguments of culture and technical family circumstances aside). She persevered through Abraham.s taking of her bad advice and the consequences of such a faithless choice. As we talked about last week, she even persevered through God.s incredible tests of faith including calling for the sacrifice of her precious, only son. She persevered and is recognized as the mother of Israel. God honors the one who perseveres. Sarah.s story is a great testament to this fact. Because of her faithful perseverance and dedication to the image God gave her, she is regularly held up as a model of godliness for women in general and mothers in particular.

Now, the lessons of Sarah.s perseverance apply equally to both men and women who are in pursuit of the image God has created them to fulfill. But this morning I want to speak right to the women in the congregation. Because men and women are wired differently, the temptation for you to listen to the voices of this world is great. It doesn.t take much in the way of observation to figure out that the vast majority of advertisements are aimed at creating a certain picture of what the ideal woman looks like. The problem of course, is that the number of women who actually fit the world.s profile would probably not fill this room. Here.s the reality: God has a very specific image for each and every one of His daughters. Furthermore, I believe that God gives each one of His daughters a glimpse of this image at some point in her life. Women need to learn to trust the vision God has given them instead of the apparent realities of this world. There are a lot of different voices today telling women what they have to be, what they have to do, in order to be culturally acceptable. Yet there is only one voice that makes any difference. This is not the voice of your husband. It.s not the voice of your mother. It.s not the voice of your best friend. It.s not the voice of your kids. Though each of these voices might be helpful in encouraging you to fully embrace God.s image for you, because they are not God they will necessarily come at you from their own perspectives and with their own agendas. In both the long and the short run the only voice that matters is the voice of God. It will take great perseverance to pursue His voice to the exclusion of all others. Yet take heart, God honors the one who perseveres.

In this effort, know well that the closer the voices are to you personally the more difficult their Siren song will be to avoid. Sarah.s husband Abraham was a man of faith to be sure, but he did not always act toward her from the place of his relationship with God. Make no mistake friends, the Enemy will use any means necessary to knock us off the path God has for us. He knows very well that the closer and more personal the voice he throws at us the more effective it will be. Women, if your first priority is to submit to God, He will give you the strength you need to persevere even when the people in your life closest to you are not treating you as they should. And as a word to men, Paul makes very clear in his words on marriage in Ephesians 5 that our job is to love our wives just as Christ loves the church. Christ.s love for the church propels Him to do everything within His power to see it become fully what God created it to be. To do any less for our wives is to fail in our duties as husbands. Ultimately, if wives, if mothers, if women in general make giving themselves to God their first priority, He will do incredible things in their lives and in their families regardless of what their external circumstances suggest should happen. Now, Sarah never lived to see the fulfillment of God.s promises, but she persevered so that others could. This is the model of selfless perseverance for all of God.s children to follow today. To all of the mothers in the room then, let me thank you and encourage you. Given that the faith is always a single generation from extinction, your perseverance to raise a generation that fears God has guaranteed another generation of Christ-followers. Your perseverance has without question expanded the borders of the kingdom of God. Without a doubt, God honors the ones who persevere.