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Monday, August 9, 2010

Sermon from August 8, 2010

“By Faith? Abraham: A Case Study”

Abraham is a central figure in the scriptural witness. He is often lifted up as righteous and faithful to God outside the book of Genesis. For instance:

In Nehemiah 9:8 We hear that Abraham’s hear was faithful before the Lord God.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story about a rich man and Lazarus where Abraham is in a seat of honor. Lazarus, a poor man, dies and is taken by the angels to be with Abraham. But when the rich man dies he goes to a place of torment. The rich man sees Lazarus sitting next to Abraham and begins a dialog with him because apparently it is hot in the flames of Hades and he wants to save his brothers (Luke 16:19-31). Abraham becomes an authoritative voice on behalf of God.

The Apostle Paul lifts up the faith of Abraham in Romans 4:1-25, in which he quotes a first from our first reading today, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6), Paul also paraphrases this verse in Galatians 3:6 (this phrase is also found in James 2:23). Another passage in Galatians reads “those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed” (Galatians 3:9).

The writer of Hebrews says of Abraham, “having patiently endured, obtained the promise” (Hebrews 6:15). In our second reading in a section about faith, there is a lengthy recitation of Abraham’s faith, By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore” (Hebrews 11:8-12).

So who is this Abraham character? Who is this person who lives out the definition of faith found in Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Let’s turn to the scriptural narrative of Abraham, which takes a good portion of Genesis (Genesis 12-25), to see what the life of this faithful person looked like.

Let me first set the stage for this and quickly review Genesis 1-11. Right after creation it didn’t take humans long to want to forget the Creator and start out on their own. Adam and Eve are enticed not to trust God, and to be like God. Cain is jealous of and then murders his brother Abel. Then humans spiral down in wickedness so that God wants to start over, with Noah and his family. Not long after the flood the spiral starts with Noah’s sons and continues downward with the subsequent generations, then comes the building of the Tower of Babel when humankind wants to make their name great.

So, God tries again with Abram/Abraham, this time is going do something different. God makes three promises to Abram in Genesis 12: land (12:1), descendants (a great nation, 12:2), and that through him all the families of the earth will be blessed (12:3).

God has a lot at stake with this new plan, it rides on one guy and his wife, Sarai (who, we find out right before this promise in Genesis 11:30, is barren). Fairly soon after God makes these three promises, Abram does something that makes me wonder about Go’sd choice. There is a famine in the land so he and Sarai go to Egypt to ride it out. The first test of God’s promise to Abram plays out here. Because Sarai is beautiful Abram is certain that the Pharaoh will want her as a wife, and knowing that he is the dead weight that the Pharaoh could easily kill, he saves his own life by telling Sarai to lie to the Pharaoh. For a man who is known for his great faithfulness, he is not off to a good start.

God intervenes by afflicting the Pharaoh with plagues, it is the Pharaoh who figures out Abram lied, Abram did not confess it on his own. However God is faithful to the promise and Abram and Sarai are sent on their way without harm. Abram then settles in the land of Canaan where God renews again and expands on the promise of land and descendants (Genesis 13:14-17).

Time passes. After a battle scene in Genesis 14, where Abram is victorious, he receives a blessing from the priest and king Melchizedek. The king of Sodom wants to give him riches but Abram wisely obeys God’s commend not to take anything from him.

Next in Genesis 15 we have our first reading for today (Genesis 15:1-6). God comes to Abram in a vision and says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, for I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram can’t see how, especially the part about having descendants. A few years have passed from when God landed the promise of descendants in his lap and Abram has yet to see that one come to fruition. He has had no children of his own in the intervening years all that he has in his possession is a slave who will become his legal heir. But God reiterates that he will have an heir, and he will have as many descendents at there are stars in the sky.

More time passes. Sarai his wife is still childless, now she is getting nervous that Abram has no heirs. So she offers her slave, Hagar, to him. Now does he resist and say that the Lord will provide? No, he listens to her and has a son with Hagar. It is only a matter of time before Sarai gets jealous of this relationship and makes life miserable for Hagar (Genesis 16:1-16). God will intervene here on behalf of Hagar and Ishmael. God will also promise many descendents to Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 16:10).

Thirteen years later, when Abram is 99 years old, God appears to him again and renews the covenant of descendants, and gets a new name Abraham, from exalted ancestor to ancestor of a multitude. Sarai receives a new name, Sarah. It is interesting to note that God also has a new name “El Shaddai,” translated God Almighty, but literally it is “God of the mountains.” At this time God announces the birth of their son, Isaac, who will arrive in a year’s time (Genesis 17:1-27).

Fast forwarding through Abraham’s life he offers hospitality to three divine visitors by the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18:1-15), he bargains with God for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33), these are great and faithful acts. However we jump ahead to Genesis 20 and we find Abraham in another region with a King to whom he says, “She is my sister” (Genesis 20:2). Has he not learned anything? This didn’t work with the Pharaoh of Egypt, why does he think he can get away with it now? Once again God intervenes by going to King Abimelech in a dream by night and says to him, “You are about to die because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a married woman” (Genesis 20:3). Once again God intervenes but the “faithful” Abraham does not confess his wrong doing.

Finally a son is born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age (Genesis 21:1-7). The promise is now realized after waiting many years. However when Isaac is a young boy, God commands Abraham to offer Isaac to God as a sacrifice. This is prefaced in scripture as a “test” but it is a cruel one, which Abraham does follow through to the point of binding his son and raising his knife. Then God intervenes and provides another sacrifice (Genesis 22:1-14). God speaks of the promise again to bless him, to make his offspring “as numerous as the stars of heaven,” and that the earth will be blessed because of him (Genesis 22:15-18).

The rest is history, Abraham’s descendents go on to become a multitude, out of his family come the twelve tribes of Israel, listed at his descendants are Moses, David, and Jesus.

Even though we may see Abraham’s faith as questionable at times, we see over and over again God’s faithfulness to the promises made to Abraham. The covenant God makes “has to do with the promises from God’s side. God will never annul or break the covenant. The language does not specify that Abraham must walk before God in order for God to keep the covenant” (Abraham: Trials of Family and Faith by Terence Fretheim, p.42). Scholar John Goldingay states: “Although the covenant involves a walk before Yhwh with integrity, evidently it is not exactly dependent on it. It issues solely from Yhwh’s desire to make it, and the same dynamic makes the covenant a permanency . . . When God makes a commitment, it stands . . . Neither divine fickleness nor human perversity can imperil the covenant” (as quoted in Fretheim, p.42).

Abraham did live by faith, sometimes he was more faithful than others. But God was always faithful. We have been blessed through him and Abraham’s faith does become an example for us. We too live by faith, sometimes we are more faithful than others. There are times when we are more trusting of God than others. There are times when are more trusting of God’s ways than others. There are times when we want to be faithful and/or trusting but struggle to follow through. However, God’s faithfulness endures forever.

Oh, the bravery of God in trusting humans! Mount Olive’s anniversary book, Faith of our Forbearers, is the story of Abraham and Sarah’s descendents in faith, and your forbearers, who are sometimes more faithful than others, sometimes more trusting that others. It, too, is a story of God working through human quirks and routines, through human weaknesses and strengths, through human successes and failures, to remind us all that God is faithful and God’s promises endure. There are chapters yet to be written, we do not know exactly what they will be but we do know that no matter what God will remain the author and director of our future.

Dear Friends in Christ, we live by faith and God’s faithfulness. By faith we step forward into this new chapter of our lives. Amen.

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