ABRAHAM AND GOD’S PROMISE
Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18
Feb. 21, 2016
Dr. Mickey Anders tells a hilarious story about a man who took his film to a one-hour photo developing service in downtown Chicago. He left his film and returned in an hour to discover that the place was no longer a one-hour photo shop. Now it was a one-hour dry cleaners.
The confused man hesitantly entered the store, met the same clerk, and asked about his film. The gentleman behind the counter said, “Was that a suit or just shirts?”
The man replied, “It was 35-millimeter film.”
The clerk asked, “Was it to be pressed or just cleaned?”
The man said, “It was film to be developed.”
The clerk said, “Do you want to look through these suits to see if one of them belongs to you?”
The man, getting a little agitated by now, said with a bit of tension in his voice, “I didn’t HAVE A SUIT, I HAD FILM.”
The clerk asked the gentleman if he ever watched TV.
He said, “Sometimes.”
Then the clerk announced, “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!”
Do you remember the famous line as the show goes off the air? Mr. Allen Funt states, “Remember, when you least expect it, someone, somewhere may walk up to you and say, ‘Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.”
Sometimes life is confusing, isn’t it? It would not surprise us at all to have someone say to us, “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!”
Today’s wilderness story has a Candid Camera feel to it. The Old Testament patriarch Abraham, or Abram as he was known at that time in his life, was 75 years old when God called him to leave his home and his extended family to go to a land that God would show him. And Abram did as God commanded. He did so because he was obedient to God. He also did so because God made him a promise— a promise that he would father a great nation. This was quite an amazing promise considering that Abram and his wife Sarai were senior citizens when God first issued this call, and they had no children. But this was the promise: God promised Abram that he would father a mighty nation.
When we come to today’s Scripture lesson, many years have passed and Sarai is still barren. She is now in her 70s. Children? Even if she had a child at this advanced age, how would she ever have the energy to keep up with it? What hope could there possibly be that God would ever grant Abraham and Sarai their deepest and most significant dream, that of parenthood? Many couples through the years have identified with Abram and Sarai’s predicament. Abram was troubled and he let God know it.
How did God respond? Did God strike Abram down and chastise him for doubting God’s word? Not at all. God took Abram outside and showed him the sky. It was night and all the stars had come out. They did not have the light pollution problem that we have today. You have to get far away from civilization today to really see the magnificence of the night sky. Artificial lights, as well as pollution from city smokestacks and automobiles, obscure parts of the heavens if you are too near a large city. Not so in Abram’s time. There would have been thousands and thousands of stars visible to the naked eye. “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them,” God said to Abram. Then God reaffirmed that all-important promise. God declared Abram, “So shall your descendents be.”
God had not forgotten his promise. The only question was the timetable. Abram assumed that God’s promise delayed was God’s promise denied.
Hey, fellow wilderness wanderers, have you ever made that same mistake? You’ve offered up a prayer to God, but seemingly no answer came, and so you assume that God wasn’t listening, or didn’t care, or at least had said, “No!”
Do you understand that God doesn’t measure time like we measure time? I don’t want to wax philosophical on you, but the creator God stands outside the constraints of time and space. The writer of 2 Peter cites the words of the Psalmist and declares, “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like 1000 years, and 1000 years are like a day.” And that’s true. Time does not mean the same thing to God as it means to us.
It was Einstein who introduced us to the theory of relativity, often illustrated like this: A second seated on a hot stove seems like an hour; an hour in the arms of your beloved seems like a second. Time is relative. Now imagine the truth that God stands outside time. God is timeless. God does not age. And when God looks at God’s creation, which is locked in by both time and space, God sees it all with one glance. God knows our future as well as our past. It’s all the same to God. So when we go to God, what seems to be a “no” is often simply a “not yet.”
We’re impatient people, aren’t we? We want what we want and we want it now. But there are some things that cannot be hurried. God’s timetable is not our timetable. In a true Candid Camera moment, Abram and Sarai did give birth to a child, but it was not until Sarai was 90 and Abram was 100. Surprise!
We don’t know why God waited so long. Maybe it was to test Abram’s faith. Abram would be known later as a man of great faith. No one can have great faith at all times in all circumstances. We would have to be superhuman to do that. Maybe God knew that Abram and Sarai, for one reason or another, were not ready for this blessed event. God’s understanding of our needs is far greater than our understanding.
Pastor Richard Overgard said that when his youngest daughter was about three years old she came to him and said, “Daddy, I’d like to have a red convertible.” Three years old.
Her father said, “I know what you need, honey,” and he bought her a red tricycle. He heard what she wanted, “A convertible,” but he knew what she needed, wheels. He gave her what she needed and could handle.
When she was 13, she came to him again and said, “Daddy, I’d still like to have a red convertible.”
He said, “I know what you need, honey.” And he bought her a red bicycle. Again, he gave her what she needed, wheels, and it was something she could handle.
“God is very much like that,” says Pastor Overgard. “We ask for the things we want and He gives us what we need.” Then he adds, “I guess that’s why I’m still driving a VW instead of a Cadillac.” Now, he says, his daughter is married. So when she comes and says, “Daddy I still want a red convertible,” he replies, “Well, ask your husband.”
God knows our needs, both those needs that we can discern and those larger needs that only God can discern. The important thing is that God can be trusted. God does hear our prayers and does answer them. Millions of followers of Christ through the ages can testify to that one truth. God is faithful to God’s promises.
In his book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of The Boat, John Ortberg tells about a very remarkable lady named Henrietta Mears.
Ms. Mears taught college-age, single young people for decades at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. She was a formative influence on the life of a whole generation of Christian leaders including Billy Graham, campus Crusade founder Bill Bright, former Senate chaplain Richard Halverson, and hundreds of others.
Ms. Mears was frustrated at not being able to give her students first-rate material to educate them, so she began a little publishing enterprise out of a garage. It grew into Gospel Light Publishers, a major Christian publisher in its day.
She was also frustrated because she knew so many Christians living in crowded Los Angeles who needed somewhere to withdraw and be with God outdoors where they could hear him better. So she drove up into the San Gabriel Mountains and found what she thought would be the perfect location. She talked to God about how much it was needed. Then she talked to the man who owned it, and although he hadn’t been inclined to sell it, he never really had a prayer. It grew into Forest Home, one of the premier spiritual conference centers in the country.
Henrietta Mears was frustrated by not having a good single-volume introduction to the Bible that could help her students understand what it was all about, so she wrote one herself that sold hundreds of thousands of copies and continues to sell today, decades after her death. She did all these things and many more, despite doing them in a day when many people thought a woman had no business doing such things. Time and again she took the step of faith, and time and again she succeeded.
At the end of this remarkable life, as she lay on her deathbed, someone asked Henrietta Mears, “Miss Mears, if you had it all to do over again, would you do anything differently?”
She thought for a moment and replied, “If I had it all to do over again–I would have trusted God more.”
Here was a woman who had trusted God for so much, and yet, if she could do one thing differently, she would trust God even more.
I wonder if, at the end of his life, Abram, or Abraham as he came to be known, would not have said the same thing. Abraham did some stupid things in his life as most of you know. He passed his wife off as his sister, he fathered a son by his servant-girl, just to mention a couple. And both of these embarrassments occurred because he did not trust God enough.
God took Abram out and showed him the stars. “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendents be.” An amazing promise to make to two senior citizens with no children. But think of it, today literally millions of Christians, Jews, and even Muslims trace their spiritual heritage back to this old man who trusted God.
The message here: Don’t give up. God still keeps his promises. God promised Abraham that he would father a great people, and that is exactly what he did. Isn’t it thrilling when someone is driven by a great vision or dream, as was Abraham?
In 1630 John Winthrop sold everything he had and moved his family from England to the New World, where he would serve as the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Before disembarking and setting foot on the soil of America, Winthrop stood on the deck of the Arabella and spoke to pilgrims of the life they would have in the New World. It was a motivational message of hope. “We shall be as a city on a hill,” he said. “The eyes of all people are upon us.”
Arriving on land, Winthrop and his fellow pilgrims found themselves in a wilderness clearing, where their “city on a hill” consisted of a few crude huts. Many were already sick and malnourished from the journey, and a lot of the provisions they had brought with them had spoiled. A few days after their arrival, Winthrop’s son drowned in the river. But Winthrop and his people worked hard, built shelters, and planted crops. The colonists suffered through a terrible winter; of the thousand colonists who had come on the first few ships, 200 died. When spring came, another 200 gave up and returned to England.
But over the next decade, Winthrop governed his people and motivated them with the same message of hope he had given them from the deck of the Arabella: “We shall be as a city on a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”
John Winthrop did not live to fully see and appreciate his “city on a hill.” Would he be astounded if he could see our nation today in this 21st-century? The wilderness has been conquered. The city, which is America, has been built.
It’s a thrilling story. However, there is a far more important wilderness story told in Scripture. It is the story of God’s redemption of the people of this world. It is about a city yet to come, a city which will come down out of the heavens, prepared as a bride for her bridegroom, the new Jerusalem. And it began with an old man standing out under the stars who heard God give him an unlikely promise.
Beloved, whatever your greatest need is this day, whatever your discouragement, whatever the test to your faith, don’t give up. God’s timetable is not our timetable. That does not mean that he does not hear. It does not mean that he does not answer. It could be said of many, many people who lay on their deathbed, what one thing they could have done differently: “I would’ve trusted God more.”