October 2, 2005
Time To Define The Relationship”
Intro: We have all experienced what it is like to hit the pivotal moment in life when we need to do a DTR: “Define The Relationship!” A couple has been dating for a number of months, things are going well, and everyone seems happy with how things are proceeding. Then things begin to get a little more serious. Both parties involved are wondering, “Is this the real deal?” One or both of them sense a need to sit down and ask the big questions, “What are we doing here?” Where are we going? What comes next in this relationship? Is this the one for me? This is a DTR! A DTR is when we have to ask ourselves, “Am I going to take this relationship to the next level?”
Abraham discovered the DTR moments happen with God all through life if we are paying attention and are ready to respond. Over and over God invited Abraham to a new place of intimacy, a new level of commitment, and a deeper place of community. In each case, Abraham moved out of the DTR moment into a new place of faith. In the same way, God invites us to keep taking steps of faith as we walk with him. He wants us to tune in and recognize when we have DTR moments so that we can respond and go to deeper places of faith and love.
Genesis 1 through 11, as you know, charted both God’s goodness, but also the downward spiral of the human race. In the first chapter, God blesses Adam--Genesis 1:28--but Adam and his descendents disobey. So God begins again. In Genesis 9:1 it says God blesses Noah, but things go from bad to worse. There’s kind of a climax at Babel where people say, “We will make a name for ourselves. We’ll be like God and devote ourselves to our own glorification.”
And we wonder as we read, will God run out of patience? Is his dream of community amongst human beings made in his image lost? No, it is not. God will begin again with a new strategy. He will work with one man--a man originally named Abram, which means “exalted father” whose name God changes to Abraham, which means “the father of many nations.”
God will form a covenant with Abraham. Now covenant is, in fact, our key word for this morning. Interestingly, we know a lot more about ancient covenants than people did a hundred years ago. Archaeologists have found a large number of covenants between overlords and their vassals in Hittite texts from between the 14th and 13th centuries B.C.
I’ll give you a definition here. A covenant is a means to establish a binding relationship, where none existed before, based on faithfulness to a solemn vow. Sometimes covenants were unilateral, that is they were made between a more powerful and a less powerful partner like a king and his subjects. Sometimes they were bilateral, where both parties agree to a covenant as equals, like a covenant of friendship.
But with Abraham something remarkable is happening. God is entering a covenant with ordinary human beings. God is promising himself to fallen people. And this morning we’ll walk through Abraham’s life and focus on three of eight encounters he has with God, where the nature of this covenant gets clearer, sharper and deeper.
I want to start just before chapter 12 with Genesis 11:31: “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there. Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Haran.”
1. God calls Abraham to leave and promises him many blessings. (Genesis 12:1-9)
“The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into 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.’”
God has a single command for Abraham: “Leave. Leave your country. Leave your people, your tribe, your father’s household. Leave everything safe and familiar including your old gods.” Abraham had not known God.
We’re told in Joshua 24:2, “Long ago,” Joshua says to the people of Israel, “your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham, lived beyond the Euphrates River and worshiped other gods.” God said, “I want you to leave all of that.”
There’s an Old Testament principle here that might be called the “Principle of Separation.” God says, “I want you to be separate from other gods and the cultures built around them--from your old values, your old priorities, your old identity. I want you to separate yourself from that and be separate for God, for Me in this mission I have for you.”
Look again at verse one: “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go’”--go where? “Go to the land I will show you.” This is a little vague, isn’t it? There is not much to tell Sarah, and wives like to know details about these sorts of things.
Just think about it, because these are real people. Imagine the conversation they must have had. “Sarah, pack up all our belongings. We’re moving away from everyone and everything familiar to us.” “Where are we going?” “I don’t know exactly. I’ll know it when I see it.”
And she says to him what any wife would say to her husband: “How will we know if we get lost? Who are you going to ask for directions?” “We won’t get lost. God will tell me when we get there.”
This would be the one trip in human history where when a wife would say, “Where are in the world are we?” and the husband would say, “God only knows,” he’d be speaking literal truth.
Now let’s look at God’s promise to Abraham in verses 2 & 3. The essence of this promise consists of a single word. Bless. Remember, God initially wanted to bless Adam. God wanted to bless Noah. God says, “Now, I’ll bless you. I’ll make you a great nation.” We already know from Genesis 11:30 that Abraham and his wife are childless.
God says, “I will make your name great.” Do you remember what group of people said, “We’re going to make our name great”? It was the people of Babel ironically. God loves to exalt people, but he can only do it for the humble. If the arrogant are exalted it just gets destructive for everyone.
So God wants to initiate a covenant of blessing with Abraham. Now, you may remember I mentioned earlier that there were two different kinds of covenants. A bilateral covenant between two equals, or a unilateral covenant between a stronger partner and a weaker partner. This covenant between God and Abraham, is it bilateral or unilateral? It’s unilateral. God is way up here.
Now, in unilateral covenants--and there were lots of them in the ancient world--the stronger partner was always after something: water rights, land to graze cattle and so on. The stronger partner always had an agenda in mind. Here’s the question: What does God, the stronger partner, get out of this deal? He knows the human race. The whole first 11 chapters of Genesis have been a setup on this. The human race means heartache and ingratitude and folly and corruption and sin.
What does God get out of this deal? He gets someone to bless. He gets someone on whom to pour out the affection and warmth and love of his heart. This is why all through the Old Testament the writers are undone, staggered by the fact that God would make a covenant with human beings. This is why the Old Testament refers to the covenant 285 times. God, in the Old Testament, is always the God of the covenant.
And the key phrase comes at the end of verse three where God says, “And all people of the earth will be blessed through you.” From the very beginning, from the very first encounter, Abraham and his descendents were chosen to be a kind of model community that would cause all the people, the whole world, to be intrigued by and love and follow the God of the covenant.
You could put it like this: God so loved the world that he made a covenant with Abraham that all the world should be blessed through him. Paul writes about this in his letter to the church at Galatia in the New Testament. Galatians 3:8 says, ““The Scripture forsaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’”
The Great Commission, evangelism, doesn’t really start in the New Testament. It really starts in Genesis 12:3. So this God comes to Abraham and says, “Leave everything and go where I tell you.” Now, Abraham could have stayed home because life in Haran was safe, comfortable, secure. To leave for the wilderness is a bad career move.
Now we come to verse 4, and the whole story of Abraham, in a sense the whole story of the Old Testament, hinges on a single phrase in verse 4--two words in the Hebrew--wayelek ’avram. It means “Abraham went.” So Abraham left as the Lord had told him and Lot went with him. Abraham was 75 years old when he set out from Haran. He was 75 years old, and he chose to bet the farm on God.
Now let me just pause for a moment to ask you: Do you ever trust God like that? Is God asking you to leave anything? Any idol, any sin, any fear? Is God asking you to go someplace--a new ministry, a new adventure in evangelism and bless somebody in your world? Do you ever trust God like that?
Now, you need to understand this: Abraham is not a pillar of spiritual perfection. The first thing he does is he goes to Canaan. There’s a famine in the land of Canaan, so he goes on to Egypt where there’s more food. In those days, travel was extremely dangerous. It wasn’t like it is today, especially for women who had no rights. Women depended on the protection of their husbands.
And in chapter 12:11 take a look at what happens. We read the very first words of Abraham recorded in Scripture. This great man of faith, these are his first words in Scripture: “As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.’”
This is not a great moment in the history of husbanding. And Sarah gets stuck in Pharaoh’s harem, and God has to intervene. And Pharaoh, the Pharaoh of Egypt, ends up giving a lesson on integrity to Abraham, the man of God in the new community. And the lesson apparently doesn’t strike a real deep cord, because in chapter 20 Abraham uses the same lie on another king named Abimelech. This man is not a pillar of spiritual perfection.
2. God makes a covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15:1-21)
Now, you need to understand this. To enter into a covenant was a very serious business. In Genesis 15:18 it says, “On that day the Lord made a covenant.” It’s the first time the word covenant is used relative to Abraham.
Now the Hebrew phrase “to make a covenant” there and often literally is “to cut a covenant.” I want to tell you why. When people made a covenant, there would be a ceremony connected with it. And one of the things that they would do is take some animals and literally cut them into two pieces. They would separate those two pieces and put them next to each other.
Then they would go for a covenant walk. They would pass between the pieces of the animal, and the symbolic meaning of this walk was, “May this be my fate if I don’t live up to the covenant.” Jeremiah 34:18 says, “Those who have violated my covenant, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces.”
When people make a covenant, they cut a covenant. That’s serious business. They say, “You can trust my word on this or may pain come to me.” There’s a tiny reflection of this in our day. Generally little kids do this. Adults usually don’t do this. If they make a real serious promise they’ll say, “I promise. Cross my heart and hope to die.” And then if they’re really serious, “Stick a needle in my eye.” That’s kind of gruesome, isn’t it?
See, when somebody violates a covenant, it’s not voided. It’s not ripped up. At that point, sanctions come into play and things get very unpleasant for the violator. Now look at Genesis 15:9. God has made a promise to Abraham about their covenant and his descendents. And Abraham asks, “How can I know I’m going to gain possession of the land you promised me?”
“So the Lord said to him, ‘Bring a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.’ Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other.”
In verses 13 and following, God makes promises to Abraham in a kind of dream. Then in verse 17, I want you to notice who takes the covenant walk. “When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking brazier with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.”
In the Old Testament, especially the Pentateuch, smoke and fire symbolized God’s presence. The fire and the torch passed between the pieces. That’s God. God is so desirous for Abraham to trust him, for somebody to trust him, that he condescends to take an oath. “Abraham, I want so much for you to trust me, I’ll take the covenant walk. May it be so with me if I don’t keep my promise to you. I’m a promise-making, promise-keeping God.”
I want to make one other point here about the New Testament. Now, you understand the significance of the moment when Jesus says to his friends at the Last Supper, “This cup is the new covenant of my blood.” See, the old covenant between God and the human race had been shattered by the human race, not God. Somebody had to pay. A covenant was violated.
And Jesus says, “I’ll pay. I’ll suffer. I will cut a new covenant with my body. The blood that is shed will be my blood. I will be cut.” We just celebrated communion. The covenant ceremony often had a covenant meal. That’s why for the followers of Christ a commitment to observe communion is so important. This is the covenant meal of sacrificial love.
Abraham blows it again. All right, back to Abraham. God says he’s going to make a community out of Abraham’s descendents. There’s only one problem. What’s the problem? There are no kids, and he’s in his eighties, and Sarah is in her seventies. Look at 16:1: “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian servant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, ‘The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my servant; perhaps I can build a family through her.’ Abram agreed to what Sarai said.”
3. God tests Abraham’s faith (Genesis 22:1-18)
Genesis 22. “Some time later God tested Abraham.” Now the writer wants us to know what Abraham does not yet know that this is only a test. The writer knows that the strain of this story will be too much for the reader if they don’t understand at the beginning that this is a test.
“He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ ‘Here I am,’ he replied.” You understand when Abraham says, “Here I am,” he is not giving geographical information. He is saying, “Speak, I will obey. I am available. I’ve followed you my whole life long.” All his life, Abraham has heard this voice. The voice told him to leave home, and he did. It told him that he was to be in a covenant with God, that he would be a father, that he must be circumcised. And he was.
And now the voice speaks to him once more. This is the last time Abraham will hear God’s voice in Scripture. Verse 2: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there.” You might want to make a little note in verse 2. That’s the first time the word love is used in all of Scripture. It is used for a father who is willing to sacrifice his beloved son. And this is not just his son. This is a promise of a dream. God said he was going to create the new community from this child. There was no one else. So for three days, Abraham walks towards Moriah with his son. In verse 6 it says that he gives the wood to Isaac to carry, and then there’s this little detail.
And the test is will he still trust God, this God of the covenant, when he doesn’t understand? Isaac asks Abraham in verse 7: “Father?” “Yes, my son?” “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” “God will provide my son.” He keeps saying, “My son. My son.”
Then they come to the place, and the writer keeps telling us about Abraham’s obedience. He builds the altar. He takes the wood off Isaac’s back. And Abraham stretches as he lays it on the altar. And now it’s time. Abraham takes Isaac to him, the promise of the new community, the dream of God, the reason he left everything, left his home. And not just that, but his son, his only son, Isaac, whom he loves.
I can hardly imagine this. He ties up his legs and binds his arms so there will be no struggle at the end. And he picks up his son, bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh, and he holds the same body that he held on the first day that it came from Sarah’s womb--the little body that he fed and bathed and rocked and would tell stories of a home somewhere far behind him, and a greater home somewhere in the future that Abraham would never know, but maybe Isaac would.
The little body that he would check on at night sometimes to make sure it was still breathing, and hold sometimes just to laugh with at the sheer impossibility of it all. And he places that body on the altar, and he reaches toward heaven with the knife in his hand to destroy with a single motion the life that he had created. And with it all of his hope and all of his joy and all of his future.
Then God says, “Abraham! Abraham!” And Abraham says, “Here I am.” The same words as at the beginning of the story. “Here I am, God. Where else would I go? What else would I do? Who else would I follow? I don’t understand. Here I am.” And God says, “Don’t harm your son.”
In a world that was filled with infant sacrifice, human sacrifice to gods, God makes it really clear that that is intolerable before him. God says, “Now I know how you fear me and honor me and reverence me and trust me.” And Abraham breathes again. And he receives his son, and he receives his dream. And he knows God can be trusted. He has walked with God all these years.
•What do you need to leave if you are going to fully follow God?
•Are you walking in covenant relationship with God through Jesus?
•Is your faith growing deeper in the Lord?
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