God Reassures Abram
Passage: Genesis 15:1–15:21
How does God strengthen flickering faith?
When you were a kid and you really wanted to make sure someone would do what they said they would do, maybe you said, “Will you pinky swear?” We would bind the other person by the unbreakable contract of the pinky swear.
As adults, we do the same thing, but usually with different words. When we want to make sure someone will do what they have said, we ask, “Do you promise?” At times, we just need more reassurance than simply hearing, “Yes, I’ll do it.”
Whether we are kids, teenagers, or adults, we understand the importance of someone keeping their word. Relationships are built on trust. We are going to consider two questions as we start our time. First, how does it feel not knowing whether someone will do what they say? How does it feel when someone breaks a promise? [see left side of whiteboard in image]
That’s the negative and I started there because I had a hard time thinking of the positive. I thought it would help to start negative because then we could maybe think of the opposite. So how does it feel knowing someone will do what they say? How does it feel when someone keeps a promise? [see left side of whiteboard in image]
In our Beginning the Journey Home series in the book of Genesis, we are continuing to walk with Abram in his story. God’s plan is to bring blessing back to the world through Abram. God wants to use Abram to bring humanity back home.
Last week, we saw Abram renew his trust in God after a failure of faith down in Egypt. Then he rescued his nephew who became a prisoner of war in a battle between two groups of kings. We saw how clinging to God as his hope enabled Abram to open his hand in generosity.
In today’s passage, we see Abram is struggling to trust. God promised to make him into a great nation some time ago but here he still sits with no children and no land to call his own. Abram seems to be thinking, “God, you told me that I would become a great nation, but I am still childless and landless.”
We may wonder, “What’s up with this guy? His trust in God goes up and down all the time. But isn’t this how our life of faith often goes as well? We make decisions one day that show our great trust in God, then the next day we act the opposite. [Illustration] I love building and then sitting around campfires. Arranging sticks and paper in the firepit, getting it started, carefully adding more sticks to grow it, then eventually adding logs. As you sit around the firepit, the fire will slowly die down then you need to add more logs and the flames get bright, hot, and high again. Our faith works like a fire. Sometimes it is a roaring fire! Then sometimes it dies down and maybe feels like all we have left are some smouldering coals.
The big question this passage answers is: How does God strengthen flickering faith? How does God strengthen flickering faith?
There are two cycles of God responding to Abram’s flickering faith in this passage. In the first cycle, God addresses Abram’s doubts over being childless in verses 1 through 6.
Cause for Doubt: Childless (Genesis 15:1-6)
Verse 1 tells us:
1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” (Genesis 15:1)
Sometime after the battle and rescue of his nephew in the last chapter, God comes to talk with Abram. Often when God appears to people in the Bible, they are afraid and need to be comforted. But here, Abram has something on his mind and God has come to talk through it with him. Abram is fearful and worried and God tells him, “Don’t be afraid, Abram. Your reward shall be very great.” He needs to be reminded that God desires to bless him. In verse 2, Abram tells God what is on his mind.
2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:2-3)
Abram is just over 75 years old right now. His wife is barren. They’ve tried for decades to have kids and haven’t been able to have any. Then God came to Abram and said: “I am going to make you into a great nation.” Later he promised that Abram’s descendants would be as numerous as the sand on the seashore. But now it’s perhaps been months or years and still, Sarai, his wife, isn’t pregnant. Eliezer of Damascus is probably one of Abram’s trusted servants and Abram’s plan is to sign over all his stuff to Eliezer in his will when he dies. God made him a promise, but Abram is feeling fearful and doubting. “Is this really going to happen God? You haven’t done it yet.” How many of you have ever felt like Abram, wondering if God is going to come through? How does God respond? First, he reassures him verbally in verse 4:
4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” (Genesis 15:4)
Then he reassures him visually in verse 5. In the darkness of night, God leads Abram out of his tent and says:
“Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:5)
I’d imagine this moment is one Abram came back to over and over again. It’s special experiences like this that stick in our minds for years. Maybe you have some special moments in your life where you felt God guiding you and speaking to you and reassuring you.
How does Abram respond? Verse 6 says:
6 And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6)
Abram believed the Lord. He trusted him. Abram is an old man with no children and a wife who hasn’t been able to get pregnant their entire marriage. We can assume they have still been trying to get pregnant and still haven’t! Even though nothing has changed about his circumstances, Abram believed God when he told him, “You will have a son and your descendants will be as numerous as the stars.” Even though when he looks at himself there is no evidence that would suggest he would be a great nation, he believes God.
Let’s consider the 4Gs here. These are four characteristics of God that work as a good summary of what God is like. Which of these does Abram need to believe in this situation? (God is great, God is glorious, God is good, God is gracious)
This verse is quoted four times in the New Testament. We read one in Romans 4 earlier. A righteous life is what God requires from us. Living righteously means we love God and we love others. The problem is that none of us actually does that perfectly. Usually we love ourselves more than we love anyone else which is shown in our great concern with what happens to us and what’s in it for us.
In this verse, Abram is not credited with righteousness because he lives a righteous life. He is credited with righteousness because he trusts God. The word “counted” is an economic term. It’s like he has a bank account and when he trusts God, righteousness is deposited into his account. Where does this righteousness come from? In the New Testament, we learn that it comes from Jesus. When Jesus died on the cross, he paid the penalty for our unrighteous lives so that now whoever trusts in him swaps their unrighteousness for his righteousness. Our unrighteousness was put into his account on the cross and he paid it off. When we trust in him, his righteousness gets put into our account. Even though we are guilty, unrighteous, selfish, and ungodly, God declares us righteous based on his grace and what Jesus has done.
The apostle Paul who wrote Romans 4 passionately argued with the Jewish leaders of his day about where righteousness comes from. They said it comes from a righteous life. You need to work for and earn righteousness. But he points back to Abram and says: “No, look. Righteousness comes through faith. If it comes through our works, then no one will ever be righteous. But it comes through faith as a gift from God.” If you have trusted in Jesus, it has been counted to you as righteous.
But our faith can flicker just like Abram’s did. We can feel it dying down from a roaring fire to a small flickering flame. God says he saves, but we may look at our situation and ask: “God, why haven't you healed me? God, why do I still struggle with this sin? God, why am I still prideful and selfish and anxious? God, why can’t I overcome this stuff? God, why am I suffering? Why is life so hard? Why are things hard with my kids? Why are things hard with my marriage? Why are things hard at work? Why are things hard at school? Why are things hard with my friends? God, why aren’t you helping!?”
When we met for our Gospel Fluency Group this week, Nik pointed out that Abram doesn’t just ask for help, but he brings his doubts and struggles to God. Then the good news is that God reassures him! God doesn’t dismiss him and tell him, “Just trust me!” God actually made the first move toward Abram when he saw his doubt. Do you believe that God is willing and eager to reassure you that he loves you and is for you and is with you? If you are like me, you believe the lie that God is just watching and waiting for you to get your act together. But this passage itself reassures us that God is not like that. He wants to help us through our doubts and fears.
That’s the first cycle of God’s interaction with Abram. In the second, Abram brings up the issue of land.
Cause for Doubt: Landless (Genesis 15:7-21)
God knows more is on Abram’s mind so he reassures him again in verse 7:
7 And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” (Genesis 15:7)
Remember, God called Abram to leave his place and his people. He left Ur where his family had settled for a place God would show him. And the crazy part is Abram did it! He showed remarkable trust in God. But now, having left the security of his family behind for the promises of God, he sits with no children and no land to call his own. So God reminds him: “I called you out of what you knew and out of your place of security to give you this land you are looking at. That promise still stands, Abram.” God recognizes what Abram left behind and reminds him of what he has to look forward to. When we surrender our lives to Jesus, that means we are going to leave things behind. We are going to make sacrifices. God values those and receives them as sacrifices of praise to him. But he also sets our eyes on the greater prize.
Abram responds in verse 8:
8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (Genesis 15:8)
Abram owns none of it now and it seems so far from his current reality so he asks for some reassurance. Abram has already expressed his trust in God and he is trying to grow that trust. Once Jesus talked to a man about faith and the man responded, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” We can bring our unbelief and doubt to God and ask for help.
God responds in a remarkable way: he enters into a covenant with Abram. God enters into a binding contract. “Abram, you can be certain that you shall possess this land because I am signing a contract with you.”
The ritual for making the covenant may seem foreign and strange to us, but it would have made total sense to Abram. There are other examples like this from Abram’s time. God gives Abram a list of animals to get. Abram cuts them in half and separates the two halves to make this bloody pathway between them. As the sun goes does, God comes to Abram and reassures him verbally. God tells him that before his descendents take possession of the land, they will be sojourners in a different land where they will become servants and be afflicted. This is referring to their enslavement in Egypt. Abram’s family becomes enslaved by the Egyptians then Moses leads them out in the exodus 400 years later. Even though this bad stuff will happen, God assures Abram that they will come back to this land to call it their own.
What’s the reason for the delay? In verse 16 God says it is because the sin of the Amorites is not yet complete. The Amorites live in the land of Canaan that God is going to give to Abram’s family, but he isn’t going to just kick out the Amorites to play favorites with Abram’s family. In the wise outworking of God’s plan, God is going to use Abram’s family to administer justice by remove the Amorites who have forfeited the land.
After this verbal reassurance, God reassures Abram visually. A smoking fire pot and flaming torch appear, representing the presence of God. They pass between the two halves of the animals Abram cut up. In some cases, the message would be: “May this happen to me if I break this covenant.” What’s amazing is that only God passes between the pieces. God is making a covenant with Abram, but God is the only one who binds himself to fulfill it. God is taking full responsibility for meeting the demands of the covenant. No matter what Abram and his family do, God will give this land to them. It’s unconditional. That’s grace. Whether they deserve it or not, God will do it. God is telling Abram, “I am completely committed to you. I will not break this promise. You can bank on it.” How would you feel if you knew God was that committed to you? How would you feel if you knew God loved you this much?
The good news is that he is that if you have trusted in Jesus that he is that committed to you and he does love you that much. Head: Know that God always keeps his promises. Always. God never breaks a promise, God never goes back on his word. God always does what he says he will do. Second Corinthians 1:20 says that all the promises of God find their “yes” in Jesus. Through Jesus, God promises are fulfilled.
The big question this passage answers is: How does God strengthen flickering faith? Here’s how: Promises from God are fuel for faith in God.
When the fire of our faith dies down to a small flicker or a few smouldering coals, the logs of God’s promises are what bring it back to life and strengthen it. The fuel that keeps faith burning is the promises of God. We need to know that we can trust him and that he will keep his word.
We need to know what those promises are. God hasn’t promised to do whatever we ask. He has promised to do what he said he will do. Abram is promised children, but we aren’t promised that. Abram is promised a land and we are too, just not in the same sense: we are promised a new creation to inherit.
Here are three categories for thinking about God’s promises to those who trust in Jesus. He promises that we have been saved from the penalty of sin, that we are being saved from the power of sin, that we will be saved from the presence of sin. Now, let’s fill these in a bit.
- If God promises we have been saved from the penalty of sin, what does that mean is true of us?
- If God promises we are being saved from the power of sin, what does that mean is true of us?
- If God promises we will be saved from the presence of sin, what does that mean is true of us?
- [see right side of whiteboard in image]
God has done all this out of grace. These promises are not based on how good we are or our righteous lives. We don’t deserve them, we couldn’t earn them. They are a gift received by faith. And we can trust God that they are true.
Like Abram, we will have ups and downs in our faith. We need to look to God and his promises to strengthen our faith. There’s a band called Rend Collective who say that someone trying to follow Jesus on their own is like a branch taken from the fire that is lifeless and cold. Our faith will never be on fire if we are trying to follow Jesus on our own. We are reminded of God’s promises by our brothers and sisters in Christ and God works through others to show us his grace, mercy, and love. Only if we trust in God’s promises together, will we be a blessing to the world like God call us to be.