Do You Trust the Lord’s Promises

Explore the Bible Series

January 27, 2008

 

Background Passage: Genesis 15:1-17:27

Lesson Passage: Genesis 15:1-6; 16:1-3; 17:1-2; 17:17-19

 

Introduction: Normally, our lesson authors begin with an anecdote that introduces the theme of our study.  This week’s story touched my heart.  An elderly Christian lady kept a prayer journal for many years.  She drew a line down the middle of each page.  On one side she listed her petitions, and, on the other, the dear lady recorded God’s answers to her requests.  Our author mentioned that some of this woman’s prayers were not yet answered, and she left blank spots in her journal as she awaited the Lord’s answers.  As she spoke with our lesson author about the blank lines, she observed, “There is no faith without doubt.”  The elder woman’s transparency touched me.

 

I was raised in a form of fundamentalism that possessed all the answers to time and eternity. Parishioners went to great pains to create the illusion of perfection, and they gravitated, as I did, to confident, popular preachers who provided convincing, simple answers to complex problems.  Frankly, this attitude characterized much of my thirty years in the pastoral ministry.  Somehow I believed that, as pastor of the church, people expected me to be the “answer man.”  Yet, in my private moments, I had serious questions about the things of God.  I subdued these questions by engaging in more intense study, reading authors that I regarded as “answer men”, and preaching in a bold, confident manner.  Eventually, of course, I knew this charade could not continue.  I don’t know where one goes to “resign” from one’s position as an “answer man” fundamentalist, but I have the letter ready!

 

Flannery O’Conner once wrote, “Doubt always coexists with faith, for, in the presence of certainty, who would need faith at all?”  Time and experience have taught me that doubt is not the opposite of faith; rather, indifference is.  Abraham, the great man of faith, experienced long seasons of doubt. Like King David, Abraham’s foot almost slipped.  His wonderful, godly man staggered, at times, at the tension between his experience and God’s promises.  Honestly, I can identify with Abraham’s struggle, and I think most thoughtful, honest Christians experience the same doubts and struggles. The old patriarch did not cease to be a man of faith when he staggered at God’s promises, and times of doubt do not invalidate your faith either. 

 

In a few weeks, our little church will sponsor our first “Doubt Day.”  On this Sunday I plan to preach about the questions our people have raised with me.  Furthermore, we want to invite the community to ask questions as well.  I have tried to foster a spirit of honesty and transparency in our group, and the Lord seems to have helped us in this regard.  We have given our people the license to open their hearts about the things that confuse and trouble them.  God did not abandon a doubting Abraham, and I want our community to know that our church won’t discard or reject those with genuine questions about the Christian faith. I think Abraham might feel right at home in a church like that.

Outline of the Lesson:

 

I.                   God’s Help to a Doubting Man (15:1-20): Everywhere Abram looked he saw barrenness.  God had led him to a new land, and as soon as Abram entered Canaan, a terrible famine struck the region.  Upon his return from Egypt, the countryside again failed to support the flocks of the patriarch and his nephew Lot.  Lot chose the fertile Jordan River Valley and left his uncle with the less verdant, desert region west of ancient Sodom. Most importantly, Sarai had still failed to conceive, despite the Lord’s promise to Abram. After years of hardship Abram’s faith flagged.  The great man of faith experienced genuine doubt about the veracity of God’s promises. The constant barrenness of Abram’s circumstances eroded his faith and he was afraid.

A.    Jehovah’s three-fold reassurance for Abram (v. 1)

1.      “fear not”:  Abram feared that his situation would not change.  The patriarch’s relationship with God stood in the balance.  If God did not keep his word then the entire covenant relation was nullified, and the foundation of Abram’s life would crumbled.  He had staked everything on God’s promises.

2.      “I am your shield”: Jehovah reminded his servant that “I am” made the situation secure.  No harm would come to Abram; indeed, the test of his faith would bring no real injury.  Fear is the handmaiden of doubt, fear of the future and of relying upon the faithfulness of God.  Abram, no doubt, felt helpless against his circumstances, and only God could alter the hopeless situation.

3.      “and very great reward”:  We must exercise great care I interpreting this phrase.  The Apostle Paul, in his meditations of Abraham, made clear that the patriarch did not merit the favor of God; instead, he received God’s blessing by grace.  The reward, therefore, cannot be some “wage” that Abraham earned.  God, by his matchless grace, called Abraham to have hope in a hopeless situation, and he pledged that Abraham’s hope centered in the Lord.  Note that God does not identify the land or an heir as Abraham’s reward. God himself was Abraham’s reward.

B.     Abram’s doubt (v. 3): Abram, despite his faith in God’s promise, had nothing to show for his confidence.  Apparently, in ancient Chaldean culture, an esteemed servant served as heir for childless families. Eliezer of Damascus was Abram’s only heir. 

C.     God’s reaffirmation of the Abrahamic Covenant (vv. 4-20)

1.      The word of the Lord came to Abram (vv. 48): The Lord’s reassurances began with a theological reminder. Human covenants may fail, but Abram had received the sure word of Jehovah.  Abram would not count Eliezer as his heir, rather, Abram’s own son, who would come from his own body, would fulfill the promises of the Lord.  Jehovah directed the patriarch’s attention to the stars.  If God had fashioned the heavens, could he not also give Abram a son?  The offspring of Abram would outnumber the stars in the sky. God’s word invigorated the patriarch’s waning faith, and the Lord counted this faith to Abram as righteousness.  The Apostle Paul, in the Epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, used verse six as a pivotal text in demonstrating the concept of justification by faith.

2.      The Lord affirmed the renewal of the covenant through an unusual and unique rite (vv 9-20):  Abram sacrificed five animals by splitting their carcasses in two. This mysterious occurrence sealed God’s promises to Abram and predicted the enslavement and ultimate victory of Abram’s seed. The fire, perhaps, represents the presence of God, much as the pillar of fire during the time of the Exodus.

 

II.                Another Season of Doubt (16:1-15): Chapter Sixteen continues the account ofthis anguishing period in the lives of Sarai and Abram.  The years continue to pass without a son, and the elderly couple grew desperate.

A.    Sarai’s scheme (vv. 1-2): In her desperation to gain an heir, Sarai determined to offer a slave woman to Abram. Foolishly, the patriarch complied with Sarai’s plan, and Hagar, after relations with Abram, conceived a child.

B.     Sarai’s anger with Hagar (vv. 3-6): Predictably, Sarai, after learning of Hagar’s pregnancy, grew jealous and bitter.  Her anger quickly degenerated into abuse, and Hagar fled from her cruel mistress.  The awkward situation also caused tension between Abram and Sarai.  Frankly, Abram appears weak and indecisive, in this story.  Perhaps the pressure of years of childlessness had drained the poor man of resolve. 

C.     Hagar’s flight from Sarai (vv. 7-15): The pregnant slave woman took refuge near a desert spring, and there the angel of the Lord appeared to Hagar.  The heavenly messenger told the woman to return and submit to her mistress. Soon she would bear a son named Ishmael, and he would be father to many descendants. Also, the angel predicted that Ishmael would be a wild man and make many enemies.  In time, Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, when Abram was eighty-five years old.

 

III.             Circumcision, the Sign of the Covenant (17:1-27)

A.    The change of Abram’s name (vv. 1-8): Fourteen more years pass, and Abram and Sarai remained childless. God reconfirmed the covenant, and pressed Abram about covenant responsibilities.  God restated the promise of making Abram the father of many nations, and changed the patriarch’s name to Abraham, “father of a multitude.”  As a provision of the covenant, God again promised that Abraham’s people would inherit the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession.

B.     The institution of circumcision (vv. 9-14): Jehovah designated circumcision as the sign of the covenant with Abraham’s descendents.  Every male child was to be circumcised on the eighth day. 

C.     The change of Sarai’s name (vv. 15-16): After God changed Sarai’s name, he reconfirmed that she would soon bear a son. Both names identify Sarah as a “princess”, and describe her as the regal mother of a royal household.

D.    Abraham’ recurrent doubt (vv. 17-20): This time, Abraham laughed at the Lord’s promise, and suggested that the Lord might change his plans concerning Ishmael, but the Lord told the poor doubting man that a son, Isaac, would fulfill the covenant.  A great nation would proceed from the son of promise.

E.     Abraham’s obedience (vv. 23-27): Despite his struggles, Abraham obeyed God and circumcised his entire household.