Texts: Hebrews 11:8-10, Genesis 15:1-6
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Aug. 7, 2016
It was one of those defining moments in my life. One era had come to an end. A new phase was about to begin. So many contradictory emotions raced through my being. Sadness that I was leaving the only life I had ever known, and my family and friends. Excitement at the thought that I could meet the challenges the future had in store. Fear that I might fail.
The next day I would leave for Bible college to prepare for ministry. That night, fifty-four years ago this month, I prayed asking God to guide me, to protect me and to give me some assurance that I was doing the right thing. Then, I did something had done a hundred times before but would never dream of doing now. I closed my eyes, opened my Bible and pointed. The verse I hit upon was Hebrews 11:8 "By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive for an inheritance; and he set out not knowing where he was going." I felt comforted. I claimed it as God's word to me. Over the years, I have come to believe that indeed it was.
This verse, as you undoubtedly recognize, comes in the midst of today's epistle. The writer of this letter is addressing a congregation, who having started their faith journey, has encountered persecution. Faced with a difficult situation they were discouraged and are beginning to wonder if there was anything to this Christianity at all. Was it for real? Was it a cruel hoax? Should we chuck it all? They were at a crossroads. It was a defining moment.
The author writes to encourage them to continue in the faith. In this 11th chapter of Hebrews a whole catalogue of Old Testament heroes, who in the midst of difficult circumstances were persistent in the faith, are set forth as models. The implication is clear. If God was faithful to these Old Testament folk in difficult situations, surely He would be faithful to this New Testament Church. “Keep the faith!” is God’s message to them.
Of all the heroes mentioned in this chapter, Abraham stands out above them all as the father of the faithful. It is, therefore, instructive for us to turn to the pages of the Old Testament where his life is spelled out in detail to better understand the nature of his faithfulness.
In the book of Genesis, we find in Abraham a man, who in response to a call from God, leaves his home and the protective fellowship of his tribal family to seek a new land in which to settle.
Economic difficulties toss him back and forth between Egypt and Palestine. Fear and anxiety make him uncertain of his relationship to his neighbors. In one instance he turns to a shameful lie, passing his wife off as his sister. Then he had the embarrassing and frightening task of explaining why Pharaoh can't marry her.
Because of his nephew, Lot he gets in trouble with his neighbors and has to fend off enemies all around. In short, the picture the Bible paints is one in which we find Abraham to be a lonesome man, hounded by fear, uncertain of his goals, and in the end, weary and resigned. This is the father of the people of God, the father of the faithful!
Sound familiar? Let me tell you, there is not one of us who has fewer qualifications than Abraham to be the father or mother of God's people! Abraham is not unlike Peter in the New Testament. He is full of enthusiastic zeal and painful denial. But as he places himself in the hands of God, he becomes the "rock" of the church.
In today’s Old Testament reading, we find that Abraham is confronted by the promise of God. He has just been attacked by his enemies. They had stolen a lot of his cattle and sheep. In the midst of his anxiety and uncertainty Abraham has a vision. In the vision God speaks to him. "Fear not, I am your shield and your great reward!" Can't you just see Abraham, half-awake, thinking to himself: "Some shield you are Lord, my enemies have stolen all my sheep. What kind of reward is that?"
Indeed, Abraham responds to this message by reminding God of the last time he had a vision. "God, you promised you would make of me a great nation, and that you would give me all the land that I could see when I was standing on that mountain." "I'm an old man, God, and my wife is old." We've got no kid's we own no land, and our sheep and the cattle have just been stolen. Even if we get them back will go to my servant Eleazar when I die because you have disinherited my nephew Lot. Don't give me this stuff about being my shield and my great reward."
Have you ever felt that way? That all the high platitudes you hear in Church on Sunday morning have absolutely no relevance to where you live or work? Well, Abraham felt that way, and he wasn't afraid to express his true feelings to God! Abraham is a despondent skeptic, even in the presence of God's Word. He can see only the grayness of his present situation darkened by the lowering clouds of his unfulfilled hopes. He cries out to God out of a need which finds its echo in each of us. God’s Word to us and the raw actuality of our lives so often seem to be in hopeless contradiction.
God understands. He takes Abraham by the hand, leads him out of his gloomy tent and places him beneath the twinkling firmament of an oriental evening sky. Then He speaks. “Abraham, start counting the stars if you can! That will be the number of your descendants. We are not told how Abraham responded. Only a brief concluding sentence follows. "Abraham believed the Lord, and he reckoned to him as righteousness."
Somewhere along the way, we are not told when, God's word to Abraham took root. From then on, no matter what the situation, no matter how dark the clouds became, something deep within him, caused him to believe and kept him keeping on.
As with Abraham, the father of the faithful, so too with us, the people of God. God did not give up on Abraham. He does not give up on us. Somewhere along the way, perhaps in the midst of a crisis in our lives, or maybe just in the everydayness of our routines, it dawns upon us that God is there. His word is true. We discover that we can live out our lives in obedience and in trust.
In the troubled times of the New Testament Church the author of the Book of Hebrews knew that, and reminded his congregation of Abraham. He went on to say that God in Jesus is the same, yesterday, today and forever.
A couple of years ago I traveled to Michigan. t was a journey back in time. I attended my 50th high school class reunion. As I drove toward my childhood home memories of my youth came flooding back. Faces of classmates as we had worked and played together flashed on the screen in the back of my mind. Faces of teachers who taught me lessons that I have drawn upon throughout my life were suddenly front and center. They were the memories of the hopes and fears which shaped the reality of my youth. Then suddenly, without warning I remembered that night before I left for college and the promise I felt that God had made to me.
From the vantage point of fifty years, I looked back. My life has been very different than I anticipated it. There has been a lot of pain. A lot of joy as well. But somewhere in the midst of all that, somewhere in the struggle, in the floundering and in the doubt, I came to know, God's word was true. Even though at times it seemed that I was merely treading water, I knew that whatever happens in the future I could stand. The model of Abraham, the reminder of the author of Hebrews is as true today, as it was then. What have been true for me is true for St. Paul’s as well. Already, we look forward to next year when we will be celebrating our 50th anniversary. We will be reminded of many events in the past when God came through for us. We will celebrate with confidence that He has great things in store for us in our future life together. And it my prayer for you today is that what we have found true as a church, you have found to be true in your personal lives as well as well. Amen!
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