[The following is the text of a sermon preached in our church on Sunday 9th December 2018]
A few weeks ago when I was first praying and journaling about what I would preach on today I was impressed with the idea of speaking on destination and journey. I was pointed towards Acts 7 which is Stephen's speech to the Sanhedrin before he was stoned to death. A deal of that speech talks about Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and Moses and their journeying with God – often physical journeys, but whose physical journeys mirror their spiritual journeys.
Let me read a small portion of Stephen’s speech about Abraham from Acts 7:2-5 from the CSB.
"The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he settled in Haran,and said to him: Leave your country and relatives, and come to the land that I will show you.“Then he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. From there, after his father died, God had him move to this land in which you are now living.He didn’t give him an inheritance in it — not even a foot of ground — but he promised to give it to him as a possession, and to his descendants after him, even though he was childless.
We get a broader more poetic view from the letter to the Hebrews in chapter 11 which is that great chapter on faith. I’d like to read what that author has to say about Abraham and Sarah from Hebrews 11:8-13.
By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed and set out for a place that he was going to receive as an inheritance. He went out, even though he did not know where he was going.By faith he stayed as a foreigner in the land of promise, living in tents as did Isaac and Jacob, coheirs of the same promise.For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.By faith even Sarah herself, when she was unable to have children, received power to conceive offspring, even though she was past the age, since she considered that the one who had promised was faithful.Therefore, from one man — in fact, from one as good as dead — came offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and as innumerable as the grains of sand along the seashore.These all died in faith, although they had not received the things that were promised. But they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth.
My sermon today is a little different from my usual style. It is a first person narrative of the journeys of Abraham. I have taken a little license with history, but I pray that you will see that it is grounded in Scripture. I also pray that you will see and understand more of your own journey with or towards God as Abraham narrates some of his journey.
I am Av-raham. My name means father of a multitude, but I have not always held that name, and there was doubt if I would be the father of any for many years of my life.
In a way my story finishes on Mt Moriah the day I was about to sacrifice my son, Isaac on the altar. You see, that day was the completion of a journey – from fear to faith.
The events of that day on Mt Moriah were borne out of testing, suffering, the crucible of living and following God for the previous forty years. And so the story of what I learnt and how I responded on the Mount that day were written through many events and circumstances in my life before that point.
I must tell you of some of those events – some of my failings, some of my successes so you can understand how I eventually learnt obedience and lived by faith – that perhaps my story will help you.
My life is two journeys – the first a physical journey from the land of my birth to a new country; but related to that is my second journey – a journey of the spirit as I have come to know and trust my God.
When my God first spoke to me, he said to leave my country and go to a land he would show me. He gave me a destination. But I never found rest in that place. My God became my destination and my journey. He was both purpose and pathway. It is one that I urge you all to embrace!
Do you know my God? His name is Yahweh and he has a story to be told in this world – a story that begins, in many ways with me and perhaps finishes with you. For you see my story and your story are connected, for you, if you believe in my God Yahweh are one of my descendants by spirit and by faith.
But my story, our common story begins in my tribal home.
My father's name was Terah, and I was born in Ur of the Chaldeans, along with my two brothers, Haran and Nahor. We all took wives. Mine was a beautiful woman called Sar-ai. My brother Haran was married. I can't recall his wife's name but she bore a son, Lot. But then Haran died. My other brother Nahor was married to Milcah and they had many, many children. My wife Sar-ai and I had none.
One day my father Terah called to me and said we were to leave Ur and travel to a new country to the west. And so we packed up everything and headed off. West of us is desert so we did not travel directly. Instead we went up the Euphrates valley – away from the morning sun. We travelled for about 600 miles to a place called Haran – the same name as my dead brother.
We stayed there a long time. My father, Terah died there at the age of 205.
It was some time after that that I heard Him. Even today I do not know if anyone else could hear His voice or if it was just me. I was tending the flocks and the animals nearest me turned towards me when I heard it. They must have heard or sensed something.
Even today I can remember exactly what he said, "Go out from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, I will curse anyone who treats you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you." (Genesis 12:1-3). It was funny because, as I have told you, my wife was unable to conceive. But I think on that day I hoped that this may be true – that a barren wife and her aged husband could be a great nation.
Have you heard my God? Do you recognise His voice? He still speaks – though quietly. If we will not listen, we will not hear. He speaks into our spirits in a voice we can all learn to understand.
So we did as my God had told me. We left Haran – me, Sar-ai, our nephew Lot and our herds, servants and other possessions. It wasn't long after my 75th birthday. We headed south from Haran following the better grazing areas to the land of the Canaanites.
When we arrived in Canaan I saw the Lord. He said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” But we didn't stay long. Famine came, and our flocks and herds would die and us with them so we kept moving south. We came to Egypt. We did not trust the men there. My wife, Sar-ai, as I have told you, is very beautiful. Men look at her. So I said to Sar-ai, “if anyone asks, tell them you are my sister”. Men did look. They did ask. And Pharaoh heard about Sar-ai. He took my wife to his palace but before he knew her disease struck Pharaoh and his household. He was very angry. He told us all to leave. We did. We travelled with much wealth and livestock through the Negev back towards Canaan.
Looking back, there was much I did not entrust to God. I wanted to protect my life and my possessions from Pharaoh and his men. We told the truth – for Sar-ai is my half-sister, but we withheld part of the truth – for she is my wife.
Do you sometimes withhold part of the truth? Do you fear men more than God?
When we left Egypt our herds were sizeable and my herdsmen were quarrelling with Lot's herdsmen so I said to Lot he could choose a portion of the country to live in. He chose the Jordan to the east. It's nearby cities were Sodom and Gomorrah. You may have heard of them. So I went west to Hebron. At that time I again heard from God confirming that the land I was in would be for me and my descendants. At that stage all I had was a wife, many servants, many many herds, but no offspring.
Do you trust my God? What he says, he will do. I have learnt that the hard way. There are easier ways. My friends, learn the easier ways.
My nephew Lot in choosing the Jordan chose the better land but the worse companions. He mixed with bad company. The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah went to war against their neighbours and lost. Lot and his family and possessions were taken north. I called my men together and we chased the hordes as far as Damascus. We freed Lot and his household and recovered his possessions. Foolish man he was.
As we were returning to our land, the King of Salem who goes by the name Melchizedek came out from his city. I had heard rumours and stories about this enigmatic figure – that he was both King of Salem and High Priest of our Most High God. I had also heard that he had no parents – being without beginning or end. The King and High Priest brought bread and wine to refresh us. He blessed me. In return I gave him one tenth of all I had. The lesser was certainly blessed by the greater that day.
Around this time, once again I heard my God. He said, a son would come from my own body who would be my heir and that my offspring would be as many as the stars I could count in the sky. I believed God, and he recognised that as righteousness. My God called me righteous because I believed Him.
Do you believe my God? Our God? His word and His promises? You can be counted as righteous through belief, through faith.
He also confirmed that the land I was standing in would be my possession. Yahweh had made some big promises to me – that I would be the father of many when I was a father of none; and that he would give me land that my offspring would occupy when I possessed no land. Such agreements we call covenants and they must be sealed, confirmed. My Lord told me to take some animals and birds, and to cut the animals open and divide them. As evening came I had a vision, and a darkness came over me – thick and dreadful it was. The Lord spoke again that I would have descendants and they would occupy this land. I saw a smoking fire-pot and blazing torch pass between the divided animals. God's promise was sealed. It must come to pass.
What promises has my God made to you? Do you believe Him? Do you walk in a manner that proves your trust? What has my Lord done for you to prove His trustworthiness? How do you show him that you believe him?
I am sorry to say that despite my God's repeated promises confirmed by the sealing of the covenant that dark night, Sar-ai and I thought we needed to help God along a bit. It was Sar-ai's suggestion that I take her maidservant, Hagar, as an additional wife that I might father a child who would be my heir. This was when I was 85 years of age – some 10 years after I first heard God call me to a new land and to be the father of promise, faith and a great nation.
Ten years had passed but still no child from Sar-ai so we thought it best to move things along. It was a mistake. My son from Hagar was Ishmael and he has been nothing but trouble ever since. Many of us can conceive an Ishmael when we do not wait for God – when we step outside of God's plans and timing.
Have you ever tried to hurry God up, to help him out? Have you ever conceived an Ishmael – something that seemed like a good idea at the time but became a hindrance and a stumbling block? Wait for God's timing. It will be perfect if we trust. Trust my God in the journey as you keep your eyes on the destination.
Thirteen years passed. Despite the disaster that was Ishmael, the Lord then appeared to me again. He is patient! He said, “I am God Almighty. Live in my presence and be blameless.” Not an easy thing to do for someone of such advanced years! But my Lord restated the covenant he had declared many years earlier – that I would be the father of many nations and they would possess the land of Canaan. I was given the sign of circumcision. More importantly I was given a new name – I was no longer to be called Av-ram – exalted father, but Av-raham – father of a multitude.
In my culture names mean something – they describe ones' character, nature, purpose. My wife Sar-ai was also given a new name – Sar-ah – from 'she that strives' to 'princess of many'.
Has my God given you a new name? Have you moved from your old ways to new? Do you have a new character, a new nature, a new purpose because you have met my God?
Not long after, we were in Mamre when I looked up and saw three men. They were awesome, majestic in appearance. I convinced them to stay – to eat with us and rest. The Lord told us that next year my wife would bear a son. She was somewhat foolish. She laughed, and our Lord asked her why she laughed. She was foolish again and denied it. She knew that God knew.
Do you ever laugh at God? Do you wonder and doubt the things he has said, the things he has done? Do not! We may laugh with God and delight in His ways, but we must not laugh at our God, to show derision or disbelief for His ways are far above ours.
And then my Lord did something beyond my understanding. He told me His plans for Sodom and Gomorrah and the reasons. He said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is immense, and their sin is extremely serious. I will go down to see if what they have done justifies the cry that has come up to me. If not, I will find out.”
I did something I never thought I would do. I challenged my God. I asked “What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away instead of sparing the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people who are in it?" My Lord Yahweh answered that if he found fifty righteous people, Sodom would be spared.
I was emboldened: What about forty-five I asked. Again my Lord relented. For the sake of forty-five righteous souls he would spare the city. I tried again, what about forty, then thirty, then twenty, then ten. He answered, “I will not destroy it on account of ten.”
But do you know there were not ten righteous people in that whole city. Only my nephew Lot and his wife and daughters. Not even his two daughters betrothed believed my nephew, Lot. Both of them perished that day. Indeed Lot's wife fled with him, but turned back longingly. Only three escaped the anger of God that day.
How many righteous people are in your town? More than fifty I trust. How much does your righteousness impact those around you? Do you know that though my God is sovereign and powerful he has chosen to limit His actions in this world such that he sometimes only responds to our prayer. Often if we do not pray, he will not act.
That next year flew by. Sar-ah became with child. Ninety-nine year old Av-raham and ninety year old Sar-ah. Sar-ah gave birth. A fine looking boy! We called him Isaac as our God had told us. He was circumcised on the eighth day. We had to keep that covenant. Hagar and Ishmael were still around. Ishmael was mocking Sar-ah and Isaac. Sar-ah told me to send them away. I did.
Isaac was born when I was 100. I had first heard God's call over 25 years earlier. Our son of promise grew to be a fine lad. He was going to be the father of many nations just as I was. My nations began with him.
Do you try to rush my God? He has His plans and purposes, but he also has the times and the seasons in His hands.
One day many years later I heard God's voice again. It was a day I will never forget. He said, “Take your son... and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
I was dumbfounded. How, why would God ask, no, tell me to sacrifice my son? He was the promised one. He held future nations. He was the fulfilment of my God's promises. He could not die. He must not die. He was our hope. He was our future. He was everything to Sar-ah and me....Perhaps that is why.
We headed off – my son, two servants, and some wood loaded onto a donkey. For two days we travelled. I would hardly talk, I could hardly breath. On the third day I saw it – Mt Moriah – in the distance. We left the servants. I gave the wood to Isaac to carry and I, myself carried the knife and fire.
Along the way Isaac – a fine, healthy young man looked at me and said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" I replied, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." What else could I say?
We arrived on the mount. We built an altar. I bound my son. He did not struggle or call out, though we was bewildered and very scared. I took the knife [raising hand] and was about to kill my promised son. Those were the longest seconds of my life. I heard an angel call out my name and say, "Do not lay a hand on the boy or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son from me".
My arm shook. Relief flooded my soul. I released the lad and we saw a ram caught in a thicket. It became our sacrifice. My Lord found a substitute, the Lord Himself provided our sacrifice.
Could I have even considered killing my own son had it not been for the things my Lord had shown me over the previous forty years? Haran, Canaan, Egypt and Pharaoh, Ishmael, my wife laughing before God. Certainly not. What I had learnt, what I had experienced, my victories and my failings of the past forty years had all prepared me for this time. I knew, I believed that my God was able to raise my son from death – had it come to that. Thank my God it didn't. Finally my faith was made complete by obedience.
What is it that holds you back from fully following God? Is it a family member like it was for me? Perhaps a career or travel? Is it fear of the future or the unknown? Is it money or health, or the lack of either? Can our God truly say to you, “Now I know that you fear Me, since you have not withheld from me”?
As I depart I want to leave you with one word, one thought. The word is shalom. It means “peace” but it means much more than that. It means wholeness, restoration, completeness, fulfilment. It is the peace we receive from my God, our God when we hear His voice and follow it; when we know that what we are praying for is His will and will be granted; when we let go of the things that are holding us back from following God. When we have done these things, we know, we experience shalom. So my word, my prayer, my hope and my blessing for you is that you find shalom in and through and because of our God.
Preaching in the first person from the Old Testament obviously does restrict any direct references to Jesus in a sermon.
Clearly he is the perfect sacrifice pointed to by Abraham and Isaac on Mt Moriah. Jesus says in John 14:6 that he is the way and the truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through him.
Jesus is the pathway or the journey – the narrow way that leads to the Father who is the destination.
What Abraham and Jacob and Joseph and Moses discovered is that God is both the journey and the destination.
As you consider Abraham’s spiritual journey from fear to faith, you may see something of your own spiritual journey reflected in his.