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Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Great Faith (Genesis 15.1-6)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
December 11, 2011
Some Music Used
Prelude : "Good Christians, All Rejoice" (Johann Michael Bach)
Advent Candle Hymn: "We Light the Advent Candle" (Grindal)
Hymn of Praise: "Long Ago, Prophets Knew" (Fred Pratt Green)
  The Word in Music: "Come, Come, Emmanuel" - Children's Choir (Bailey & Mayo)

Offering of Music: "Do You Have Room?" - Jim Terrell (Shawna Edwards)
Hymn of Sending: "Joy to the World" (ANTIOCH)
Postlude: "Joyful, Joyful/Jesu, Joy" (arr. Ham)

A Great Faith
Text: Genesis 15:1-6; Luke 1:46-55)

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

We’ve been looking at the story of Abram in Genesis as we move through Advent and prepare for Christmas. While the connection between Abram/Abraham and baby Jesus may not seem apparent, there are a number of connections between the two. Abram was waiting for the birth of a baby as God fulfilling His covenant promise to His people. This baby would signal God’s blessing on the world through a particular people. Abram faced obstacles, doubt, temptation, and even periods of unfaithfulness; and God was faithful. So it was with God’s people, Israel, as they waited for the coming of the Messiah. So it ever has been with us as we wait on God to keep His promises in our own lives.

Today we will see the humanness of Abram – both the doubt of his “back-up plan” and the great faith he put in God after a renewal of the promise. We will be reminded what faith is – with no answer in sight, it is believing that the Lord is faithful and true, and will come through. 

Back-Up Plan (vv. 1-4)

In chapter 14, we saw how the Lord sent a messenger, in the form of Melchizedek, to remind Abram of the greatness of the “Most High God.” Having refused to keep the earthly reward gained in the local “war of kings,” Abram tithes it to Melchizedek. Now, in chapter 15, the Lord speaks to Abram in a vision to remind him of the covenant. The Lord begins, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be very great.”

It is at this point that Abram breaks out his back-up plan. The covenant promises of land and blessing seemed to be developing well enough, but Abram had not yet had a child to be his heir. So, he has lined up a relative in his house, one Eliezer of Damascus. But this was not what God had promised, as unlikely as God’s plan seemed to be at this point. Surely this was just pragmatism. In order for Abram’s house to continue, he had to have an heir. And so, he lined up Eliezer.

And yet, there is a touch of rebellion or impatience. Abram addresses God, seemingly in complaint, “Since you have given no offspring to me… (like you promised!)” (v. 3).

But God counters directly, “This man will not be your heir; but one who comes forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” Well, there could be no confusing the covenant promise now. There is no way to think that God meant the promise metaphorically or non-literally. God has re-upped and specified exactly what He would do. Abram will have a biological son and heir, period. 

A Renewed Promise (vv. 5-6)

At this point, God renews the original covenant promise in one of the most memorable and vivid descriptions in scripture. He takes Abram outside and tells him to look toward the heavens and count the stars… if he is able. Implicit in that statement is that God is able to count them, because God made them. This is the power standing behind the promise. And the Lord continues, “So shall your descendants be.” … uncountable. Even more explicitly than the first time, God has spelled out that Abram would have biological descendants numbering more than anyone could count.

I am reminded of one of the verses of the song, “Step by Step,” that I sing with the preschoolers. In the verse, Rich Mullins sang of this covenant promise, seeing himself in the midst of it:
Sometimes I think of Abraham
How one star he saw had been lit for me
He was a stranger in this land
And I am that, no less than he
And on this road to righteousness
Sometimes the climb can be so steep
I may falter in my steps
But never beyond Your reach
That’s precisely the connection we’ve been looking at. We are part of the promise to Abraham as well as those to whom God has promised He would never leave.

And finally, we are told of a great faith – not without moments of doubt, but with no answer yet in sight, believing that the Lord is faithful and true, and will come through. Look at verse 6: “Then [Abram] believed in the Lord; and [the Lord] reckoned it to him as righteousness. Hebrews later holds up this faith as an example of saving faith in the Old Testament. Abram trusted that God would do what He said He would do. God would yet do all the work, even as He would in Christ. But, in faith, Abram trusted. 

Mary: the Faith of a Mother (Luke 1)

I am reminded again of Mary, whose story is told in Luke 1. Last week we saw the connection between Melchizedek and Gabriel. So also this week I see a parallel between Abram and Mary. After receiving the news from Gabriel, Mary goes to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who is also pregnant. Elizabeth testifies again to the promises and faithfulness of God, even as in the vision Abram had. And, in response to this reminder of the promise, Mary speaks the words that have become known by their Latin name, the Magnificat.

She praises God for what He has promised, what He is doing through her child, and for what this would mean for future generations (v. 48). What I most wanted to highlight for you, comes in verses 54-55. She makes a direct connection between the faithful promises of God kept through her own pregnancy and the impending birth of Jesus, and the promises made to Abraham and his descendants, Israel. Listen… “[God] has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his descendants forever.”

I’m not making this connection up! God’s promise to Abram for land, descendants, and blessing – for the sake of the world – was not only fulfilled provisionally in the Old Testament, but completely through the birth of Jesus Christ. Even before Jesus was born, Mary recognized the connection with the promises of old. While Isaac would be the child Abram longed to hold, Jesus would be the child in whom the promise was finally fulfilled. 

Faith in the Age of iPads

So, here we are two thousand years later, rolling rapidly towards another Christmas morning. For what do we hope? Maybe it’s an iPad or the latest game or the newest fashion trend.

If you are a Christian, you know in your head that Christmas is about more than those things. If you stop and take time – which we encourage you to do! – you know that the Christmas question is not “For what do you hope?” but “In Whom do you hope?”

But here’s the challenge, and it’s the same challenge Abram and Mary faced. When there is no answer in sight, what do you do with God? When the second coming has not yet come, the heartfelt prayers have not been answered, and perhaps even the earthly material needs aren’t being met… what do you do with that? Especially at Christmastime… what do you do with that?

Abram started making his own back-up plan, just in case the God-thing didn’t work out. Do you do that? Do you have a back-up to God’s plan for you? It seemed to cross Joseph’s mind… or at least the narrator of the story. He could have “put Mary away quietly” to avoid the disgrace of her having a child out of wedlock. But, reminded of God’s faithfulness to His promises, Abram, Mary, and Joseph all trusted. They demonstrated faith.

That’s what I want to do this morning. It’s my one real purpose with this sermon. I want to remind you of God’s faithfulness to His promises – not to give us everything we wish for, but faithfulness to His promises. God is faithful! His story is told and validated throughout the pages of this Bible. His faithfulness is demonstrated once and for all through Jesus Christ, born at Christmas and obedient to the point of death for us on Good Friday… and God’s faithfulness is proven yet again on Easter morning. God IS faithful.

So what is your response to God? With Abram and Mary, God help me, I will believe! Will you? God grant us the strength and wisdom for it to be so. Amen.

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