3. God makes promises - 10th February 2013 - Dave Walker

Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-21                                                                  

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Andy is trying to make it work. He’s a father of two, and they have some problems. He’s working all the hours he can while his sons are at school, knowing that the rest of the time he has his hands full just with them. He does his best, he really does. But it’s not working. Not really. Because a little while back his wife, the boys mother, left them. The relationship which matters so much is broken beyond repair. And everything else, everything else suffers as a result. It’s all broken. And without that relationship being fixed, it will stay broken.

That’s a bit like where we’re up to in our journey through the story of the Bible, isn’t it? The world is broken, because the most important relationship is broken, and that affects everything else. An ultra short version of the story so far goes like this: God, the relational Trinitarian God, made the world good, and that means that he made the world with relationships at the centre. Humans were made to be his image bearers, to reflect who he is, by being relational: relating to God as his much loved creatures, relating to each other and relating to the world as good, kind rulers. But the whole thing was broken when the main relationship was broken. Adam and Eve and the rest of humanity with them turned away from God. And that sin broke everything else; like when a stone hits a windscreen and the cracks run outwards. Everything else was damaged. Instead of being filled with blessing, the world is under curse. Yes, there are still traces of God’s blessing in creation – big traces – but there is also more and more sin and therefore more and more of God’s punishment of sin. The world is double edged, and the bad edge is really bad and it cuts really far.

That’s the story of the bit of Genesis so far that we haven’t read. There’s the story of Noah, how the sin of the people of the world got so bad that God decided to wipe the slate clean by wiping them away. But that didn’t fix it – Noah and his family were still sinful and it all began again. Last week we heard about thetowerofBabel, a story of how humans tried to fix the problems themselves by clubbing together and using their cleverness without God. People are always doing that, aren’t they? Trying to fix the world while ignoring its maker. It didn’t work atBabel. It doesn’t work now. But in all that grimness and failure there are just some hints that God has better things planned. That little hint that we heard of one coming who will crush the head of the serpent, the devil. The promise that God gives to Noah that he won’t just wipe the whole world out. God has not given up on his creation. He has not given up on humans. He has better things planned.

Today we see God rolling out his plans and saying “this is where I’m going.” It’s like when a new Bond film comes out, or a new Star Wars film or the Hobbit or the new Bridget Jones – whatever takes your fancy – they roll out a trailer, don’t they? The trailer gives you a teaser. It shows you where the film is going, and gives you hints of the action along the way. It doesn’t tell you everything about how it will work out, but it points you in the right direction, so that you want to know more. That’s what we see in today’s readings – a trailer for the rest of the Bible. There to set us off in the right direction, hinting at masses of thrilling action ahead, whetting our appetite for more.

So God has a plan to restore the mess of creation and, not surprisingly, that plan is all about restoring the relationship between God and humans. It’s like a windscreen repair – if you want to fix the damage caused by that stone chip then you have to inject the special resin right at the point of impact, where the stone hit. If God is going to re-make his creation then right at the middle of it will be re-made relationship between God and humans. It’s like a new creation, and a new creation has a new Adam: this one’s called Abram, or Abraham as he becomes. And if the creation is going to be restored, remade, re-created, well then clearly all that has to depend on God. It’s not something we can do – when we try it ends in the folly ofBabel. God is the creator; God is the redeemer. God’s plan to save depends on God.

1. God’s plan to save depends on God.

What does God do with Abraham? He chooses him, doesn’t he? Now when you are chosen, that’s something that happens to you, isn’t it? You don’t do it. The person who is choosing does it. Do you remember when you were at school and they would do that thing where there would be two team captains choosing a team? And everyone would be standing there in the middle saying “pick me! Pick me!” But the captain would just choose who they wanted to choose.  It was up to them. Abram isn’t chosen because he’s great. He doesn’t get chosen because of anything he does. God just chooses him for his own reasons. It’s God who does it; he makes the difference. He makes the choice. The whole plan and everything to do with how it gets carried out depends on God. He’s the creator; he’s the redeemer. He’s the one who saves.

We’ve got two big Bible words to think about today. If we want to understand the message of the Bible then there are some words, some concepts that we just have to get if any of it is going to make any sense. One of those words is ‘grace.’ We talk about grace a lot, don’t we; we sing about it; but still many people don’t understand it.

Grace is God’s unforced, undeserved generosity. Grace is God being generous just because he wants to, just because that’s the sort of God he is. Unforced, undeserved generosity – that’s grace. The opposite of grace is works or merit – that’s the idea that earn what you get, that you do the work and put in the effort and you get what you deserve. That’s the opposite of grace. And the whole Bible, the whole story of God’s plan to save is built on grace. You’ve got to understand that or else you’ll completely miss the point. You’ll think that the Bible is a heavy weight around your neck; you’ll think that the Bible is all about God telling us how we ought to be good and laying guilt on us when we’ve not been good enough. No. The Bible is about God’s grace. God stepping in to save his fallen creation, it’s not because we deserve it – we don’t deserve it, we’ve turned away from God, what we deserve is God turning away from us in judgment – no he promises to save because he is a God of grace.

So, graciously God calls Abram and he makes some wonderful promises to him. Let’s have a look at what those promises are – chapter 12 verse 2:

“I will make you a great nation” – there’s the first promise. God isn’t just going to have one chosen person, he’s going to have lots of people. Just like God started with Adam but wanted many more, so now he starts with Abram but he’s promising many more. A new people of God, people to relate to God, in the midst of the old world. Descendents for Abraham.

And he goes on: “I will make you a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Which is the word that keeps cropping up in those couple of verses? Bless. Blessing. Now remember a couple of weeks ago we said that blessing was all about right relationship. Blessing is God’s smile; it’s about being in harmonious relationship with each other and especially with God. That’s blessing. And here God is promising Abraham that he and his descendents will enjoy that blessing, and that through them somehow the blessing of God will reach all the nations of the world. This is the heart of the matter isn’t it? The world is under God’s curse because human sin has shattered the relationship with God. But now God steps in and blesses, and like the resin running along the cracks in the car windscreen, mending it as it goes, well so the smile of God’s blessing will reach out to the ends of the earth through Abraham and his descendents. Not to everyone without qualification – God says ‘whoever curses you I will curse’, doesn’t he? People who set themselves up against Abraham are against God, and if you’re against God the smile of his blessing turns into the frown of his curse. So it’s not for everybody without exception but nonetheless what is happening here is God’s plan to save the world. God starts small with one man but he has the world in his sights. He will remake this broken creation through the descendents of Abraham.

Just a quick aside – God’s plans are always worldwide. When God called Abraham he had the world in his sights. If you are a follower of Jesus God has called you too – but he still has the world in his sights. He hasn’t called you just for your own benefit. He has called you into his family so that you may enjoy wonderful relationship with God and so that others too might come into his family and enjoy wonderful relationship with God. He has smiled on you so that through you he might smile on others. If you and I do not have a missionary focus for those around us, well then we’ve missed the point of God’s call.

So God promises lots of people and he promises his blessing. There’s a third thing he promises too – a place. Chapter 12 verse 7 and again in chapter 15 God promises Abraham a land, a place where he and his descendents will be able to live with God, a bit like Adam & Eve back in the garden of Eden at the start. So God promises people – descendents; he promises blessing – right relationship with him; and he promises a place where they will live with him. It’s all a lot likeEden, isn’t it? It’s a picture of the world being put to rights. The world as it should be, all centred on relationship with God, and all based on the promise that God himself will do it.

But in that second reading we had, Abram asks God the million dollar question. The question is “why should I trust you?” Look, it’s there in verse 2 and 3 where Abram says ‘God I know you’ve promised me these descendents but I’m still childless after all these years.’ And again in verse 8 where he says ‘I know you’ve promised me this land but how can I know that? It seems pretty far off at the moment.’ God has made these promises; Abram wants to know if he will keep them. A promise is no good if it is never kept. Why should I go on trusting you, God?

Now God could zap him for asking that, couldn’t he? This is God – he has always been trustworthy, his word has always been his bond. Why should Abraham ever doubt him? But he doesn’t zap Abraham. Instead he does a wonderfully kind thing. He firms up his promises; he fleshes them out; he makes a covenant.

2. God’s promises are covenant promises.

So here’s our second big word for today which you need to understand: Covenant. What is a covenant? A covenant is a binding relationship; the deepest sort of relationship with the deepest level of commitment; breakable only by death. Think of a marriage. It’s a relationship which is built on love, where you make promises and tie yourself to those promises. That’s what makes the promises so secure. It’s not like living together, where you might make a commitment, but you can always go back on it in the time it takes to move all your stuff out again. It’s more like marriage and less like just living together. I’ve heard somebody say that a covenant is ‘promises with teeth.’ If promises are things that you keep, covenant promises keep you.

That’s what God does for Abraham. He binds himself to his promises. That’s what is going on in that strange ritual at the end of chapter 15 – did you think that was a bit odd? Just have a look over it, it’s chapter 15 verse 9 onwards. God asks Abram to cut a load of animals in half and lay them out so that there is a path between them. That’s a bit gory – what can that mean? Well back in the day this was quite a common way of formalising a covenant. The two parties who made covenant would walk down the path between the sacrifices together. It was a way of saying “we’re really in, the promises are really sealed” not least because as you walked between the sacrifices you were saying “and if I break the promises, may I become like those animals.” This is promising on pain of death. Do you remember from primary school days that rhyme “make friends, make friends, never never break friends – if you do, you’ll turn blue and that will be the end of you.” If I break the covenant relationship, may I die.

But who is it that walks the path between the sacrifices in verse 17? It’s a smoking brazier and a blazing torch – a little pillar of cloud and pillar of fire – a symbol of the presence of God himself. God walks the path between the sacrifices. He makes the covenant promises on pain of death. The promises with teeth. He ties himself to his promises in the strongest possible way. This is the big answer to Abraham’s ‘how do I know?’

That is how sure God’s promises are. God has planned to bless – to restore his creation through Abraham – he has promised it, he has tied himself to those promises, so he will do it. It all depends on him. This is what theologians call the Covenant of Grace. The binding unbreakable promises of God’s unforced undeserved kindness. The Covenant of Grace.

And in response to promises like that, what does Abram do? He trusts God, doesn’t he? Look at verse 6: “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” Abram sees how reliable God is, and he trusts him. He rests himself on the promises of God. He trusts himself to God. And as he trusts God, God counts that as righteousness. Righteousness is right standing with God; it’s being in God’s good books. Abram doesn’t do anything to make himself righteous, does he? All he does is trust himself to God. He leans on God. And if you lean on God, you are saved.

People get very anxious about the strength of their faith. I often hear people saying things like “oh I don’t know if my faith is strong enough” or “I wish I had really strong faith like such and such.” But the thing that matters is not how strong your faith is. The thing that matters is who or what your faith rests on. Stuart Briscoe said “strong faith on thin ice leads to a chilling experience.” You can have all the faith in the world, but if it’s leaning on something weak, it’s no good. But even weak faith on really, really thick ice will hold. Not because your faith is strong, but because the 3 foot thick ice will hold your weight. Abram’s faith is not without questions is it? We’re told he believed God, but in the next verse he’s asking God “how can I be sure?” He doesn’t have all his questions answered yet, but he trusts God as a person. He knows that God can be trusted, so he leans on him. That’s faith. It’s personal trust. It’s that attitude that says “I may not know all the details of what is ahead but I know that you Lord are trustworthy. You have made your promises and you will keep them. You have promised yourself to us in covenant and that is enough for me.”

Of course, we need to make sure that our faith is resting on what God has promised, don’t we? If you’re a believer in Jesus he has promised you himself, he has covenanted with you so that he has promised you himself, and that means love and forgiveness and peace and membership of his family and his never failing presence by his Holy Spirit and a glorious future enjoying him forever. That is certain, that is sure; that is true. That is the best you could ever hope for. He hasn’t promised you everything you might like now. He hasn’t promised you a great job and an easy life and permanently good health and the perfect partner. We can get into all sorts of trouble if we read the things that we want, even the things that God might have lead us towards in life, if we read those things as God’s everlasting promises then we will get into a mess. Because when those things don’t come true we feel that God has broken his promises. But he hasn’t. Get to know what God has promised you in the Bible, rest on those promises and you will find that they are glorious and they are enough for you.

And of course you have to take the plunge. If you do not lean on God he will not support you. You have to trust yourself to him. You have to respond like Abram. A covenant, like a marriage, involves you having to say “I will”. If you don’t trust the Lord then you’re not in with his promises. If you’ve not come to that point yet of trusting the Lord personally, of saying ‘I will’, you need to. You need to.

The rest of the book of Genesis is about how God starts to fulfil those promises he made to Abraham. But it’s not an easy story. Again and again Abraham and his descendents find themselves taken to the edge of their trust in God so that they can peer over that cliff and see more of just how trustworthy God is. It must have felt hard for Abraham for all the years before he had any children. Barrenness is a theme that keeps coming up and when we see it we’re meant to think ‘how will God save the world without descendents for Abraham?’ But in the end God provides.

It must have been even harder when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis chapter 22. Do you know the story? Isaac carrying the wood, making an altar, asking where the sacrifice is, Abraham saying “the Lord will provide” –  and then just as Abraham raises the knife God shouts “stop” and provides the ram in the thicket instead. Just in time. Have you ever found that story odd? If you’ve not read it, read it: it’s in Genesis chapter 22. It is odd – it must have been acutely painful, but all the more when you see that everything was riding on that boy. The salvation of the world was riding on him. Here is the first descendent for Abraham, the first step in God’s world-saving plan. But God comes good. Again and again God teaches Abraham and his descendents that he can be trusted. He does it by taking him to the very edge and then stepping in. Again and again God underlines the fact that it’s down to him and they have to trust him. He keeps choosing in ways that surprise them – Isaac not Ishmael; Jacob not Esau. Not the strong ones, not the ones you’d expect. And God keeps turning events on their head and bringing victory through what looks like defeat and failure – Joseph. God keeps taking them to the very edge and then showing them more of how trustworthy he is. So that they trust him.

Trust is one of the hardest lessons to learn isn’t it? Why is it so hard? Because it’s right at the heart of relationship with God. Without faith, without trust in God, we have no relationship with him. So it shouldn’t surprise us that so much of the Bible is teaching us about trust. And it shouldn’t surprise you if again and again in your life you find God taking you to the edge of your trust, so that he can let you peer over the edge of that cliff and see more of his trustworthiness.

I’ve put coffee questions on the sheet to help you think about this and talk about it: When do you find it hard to trust God? Why? What has God done in your life to teach you to trust him? Use those questions.

And remember just how solid God’s promises are. He has bound himself to us in covenant. We have much more reason now to trust God even than Abraham did. Because if Abraham is the trailer, Jesus is the movie. In Jesus God has made even bigger promises and he has tied himself even more tightly to them. Because just before Jesus died what did he say? He said “this is the new covenant”, and he broke his own body. All the promises of God, sealed for ever with the death of the Son of God. The ice is very thick indeed. Will you trust him?