Too Good to Be True?, Genesis 12:1-4, 15:1-21, 2/9/14

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Feb 092014
 

Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church

1Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

 

4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran…

 

1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 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, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4 But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

 

7 Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

 

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. 13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; 14 but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”

 

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” (Genesis 12:1-3, 15:1-21, NRSV)

 

 

I have some very exciting news to share.  Out of the blue this week I received an e-mail from an esteemed businessman in Nigeria who apparently found my name on an international web site directory and chose my name from among thousands of other names because, in his words, it had an “esteeming and reputable nature.”  I guess Jeff Chapman sounded to him like a person with whom he could entrust his business.  Little did I know that my name and e-mail conveyed such depth of character!

 

Anyway, this was such good news to receive because apparently this gentleman is the only son of a very wealthy cocoa merchant there in Nigeria and thus the sole heir to his late father’s $12,000,000 fortune.  For reasons not entirely clear to me in his e-mail, this businessman is looking for a foreign partner like myself to help him transfer these funds to a more secure account here in America so that it can be invested.  All he needs from me is my bank account information here in the States so that he can make the transfer.  That’s it.  It’s as simple as that.  And for my services – this is the amazing part – I will be compensated 15% of the fortune.  I did the math.  That’s nearly $2,000,000.  Can you believe it?  It almost sounds too good to be true!

 

Rest easy.  I’m not sending my bank account information to anybody in Nigeria anytime soon.  Though some people do fall for these sorts of e-mail scams, most of us are sensible enough to sniff out an offer like this that actually is too good to be true.

 

Thousands of years ago there lived a man named Abram who received out of the blue one day an offer that to him must have seemed equally too good to be true.  Abram was an old man, especially by the standards of his day.  He was an old man married to an old woman.  Though they certainly had tried and tried, Abram and his wife had not been able to produce even one child which was, in those days, an unmitigated disaster.  We know better today, but in the ancient world a large family was believed to be a clear sign of God’s blessing while infertility was seen as a curse.[1]  Without children there was no one to carry on your family line, preserve the family inheritance, look after you in old age, or secure your soul’s rest in the life to come.  Now well into his 70’s, Abram had long ago resigned himself that it was a curse, rather than a blessing, that he had received from heaven.

 

Then one day the Lord comes to Abram.  God comes with a command and a promise.  The command was a tall order.  God tells Abram, “Leave your home, your nation and your family and go to a place I will show you.”  The promise was too good to be true.  “I will make your descendants a great nation,” God says.  “I will bless you.  You will be famous.  I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.  And one day, all the families of the earth will be blessed through your family.”

 

The Hebrew word for bless here in the original text is the word barak.  As a side note, this is the root of my daughter’s name.  Bereket literally means blessing, which she is.  In Hebrew, to bless somebody means, literally, to endue them with power for success, prosperity, fertility and longevity.[2]  Put simply, the promise of blessing was the promise that in time everything in your life would be set right again.  This is what Abram was promised, and not only him and his family but the whole world through him and his family!

 

It is not hard for me to imagine that upon hearing this promise Abram felt a bit like I felt after receiving that e-mail from my Nigerian friend.  This is way too good to be true.  Abram is convinced that he and his wife are cursed.  Now God is telling him that he is blessed.  How difficult this must have been to accept.  And maybe some of you can relate.  You read the promises of God but they don’t seem to line up with the circumstances of life which at times makes it very, very easy to wonder if the promises of God maybe are, in the end, simply too good to be true.  Anybody here besides me ever feel like that?

 

I like Abram because he’s like me.  We’re told that Abram does obey God and leave his homeland, which means that he was a man of at least some faith.  Even so, it’s not long before the doubts creep in.  In the beginning of chapter 15 the Lord comes to Abram and says, “Do not be afraid, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  Abram is trying to trust God but apparently it’s not coming easy.  “O Lord God,” he pleads, “what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”  You see, in those days if you didn’t have children then a slave of your house could stand in line to be your heir.  Abram knows what God has promised but he simply cannot see how God can deliver the goods.  God is promising all these grandchildren but Abram, who isn’t getting any younger, doesn’t even have children and you can’t have grandchildren unless you first have children.  It’s actually never been done before.  So Abram doubts God, he doubts God’s power, God’s faithfulness, maybe even God’s memory.  And can we blame him?  How long can a person live on promises alone?

 

I know that there are more than a few of us here who know just how Abram must have been feeling.  Maybe you are somebody who has done your best to follow God, to trust in the things God has promised in the Bible.  And yet things in your life have not gotten better or easier as you imagined they would get better or easier.  The peace you thought would come with faith is not there.  And you might be able to hang in there if you could just somehow get assurance that even if you have to wait for it, there will come a day when God will do all that God has promised to do.  Honestly, there are some of us here who are not going where God is telling us to go and doing what God is telling us to do because we do not have enough assurance that God will come through in the end.

 

This is the place in which we find Abram.  He’s left his country and his family.  He’s made this great leap of faith.  He’s far away from home in a foreign land.  It’s nighttime.  He’s alone.  He’s discouraged.  He’s just about out of hope.  But God doesn’t leave him there.  Instead, God leads him outside and has him stand in the middle of a field and look up to the heavens.  And God says to him, “Abram, count the stars if you are able.”  So Abram tries to count the stars and, of course, he cannot.  Try it sometime.  There are simply too many.  After a moment God then says to Abram, in what I imagine to be a very tender voice, “So shall your descendants be.”[3]  In other words, “Trust me, Abram.  Trust me.  I will bless you.  I am faithful.  I will do for you everything that I have said I will do.”

 

The next verse, verse 6, is one of the great verses in all of scripture.  “Abram,” were told, “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him righteousness.”[4]  At the end of the day Abram trusted God.  And because he trusted God he was declared righteous by God.  He was set right with God.  Even here in the Old Testament we see what the New Testament so clearly proclaimed.  God does not require us to earn our blessing from him.  The blessing is always freely offered.  All we must do is have faith, letting go of our own efforts and trusting God’s efforts.  We are not saved by what we do but by believing in what God has already done.  Christians call this grace and I hope you are coming to see that it is as prevalent in the Old Testament as it is in the New.

 

Even in his faith, however, Abram still struggles.  God promises him in verse 7 to give him a great land to possess.  Abram is honest with God.  “How, Lord?  How can I have assurance that this will happen?”  Abram so much wants to believe.  He just needs some guarantee.  He’s entrusting his whole life here to God and he wants to know that God is trustworthy.  How can I know you will never fail me?  How can I know I am truly forgiven?  How can I know death will not be the end?  How can I be certain you will get me through to tomorrow?  How can I be positive my enemies will not overcome me?  Haven’t you also struggled with questions like these?

 

Notice what God does in response.  God does not scold or rebuke Abram.  God does not scold us either if our struggle to believe is genuine, even when our belief is full of questions and doubts.  Instead, to the person who genuinely wants to believe, God will give what is needed to believe.  It’s what he’s about to do here for Abram, in the most astounding way.

 

God’s next command makes no sense to us.  Abram is told to go out and bring back to God a cow, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon.  Then he is told to cut each animal in half and to lay each half on the ground opposite one another with a space in the middle.

 

What?!  What in the world is this all about?  It sounds like Abram is being asked to make a sacrifice.  He’s not, however.  If this were a sacrifice there would be an altar and there is no altar.  No, the animals are not to be killed for the purpose of sacrifice but for the purpose of making an oath.

 

In our day we have all sorts of customs we use when somebody is going to make an oath, many of which would seem very strange to somebody from another age.  Elected officials take the oath of office by raising their right hand and placing their left hand on the Bible.  Witnesses do something similar in court, promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  If you want the bank to loan you money, your signature at the bottom of a very official document will be your oath.  In many parts of our world, a handshake is still a person’s word.  At weddings we exchange rings.  In the Muslim world one makes an oath by referring to the beard of the Prophet Mohammed.  Children use the tried and tested pinky swear, a tradition that in Japan originally meant that if you broke your promise you must cut off your pinky.

 

They did not pinky swear in Abram’s day.  Instead, they would perform what was called a Covenant Ceremony.  Specifically, when a great lord wanted to make a covenant with a servant, animals like cows and sheep would be cut along the backbone into two pieces and placed in two rows, each half facing the other with a space marked off in between.  Then in the presence of his master the servant would declare his covenant as he walked through the pieces of the animals.  In doing so he was acting out the curse of the covenant.  In other words, the servant was essentially saying to his master, “I swear loyalty to you and if I do not remain loyal to you then may I be cut into pieces like this animal was cut into pieces.”[5]  Aren’t you glad we just shake on it!

 

Now you can understand that as Abram goes about collecting, and slaughtering, and arranging these animals, all the time he knows exactly what is going to happen next.  His great Lord is going to ask him to walk through the middle of these animals and pledge his loyalty, promising that he will faithfully obey and follow God or else be destroyed as these animals were destroyed.  Abram knows that the time had finally come to put up or shut up.

 

The text tells us that after everything was arranged a deep sleep came over Abram and he was filled, maybe in his dreams, with a terrible sense of dread.  And what was the source of his dread?  Could it be that here Abram is facing a great and terrible mystery which every person who has ever made a serious go at following God has faced?

 

Tim Keller, who is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has been a great help to me here.[6]  As he puts it, there is a great and central tension which runs all the way through the Bible, a tension between the law of God on the one hand and the love of God on the other.  It’s a tension he says we will come across on nearly every page of every book of the Bible.

 

On one hand, the law of God is laid out very clearly in scripture. God tells his people over and over and over again how they are to live and then tells them that he will not, in fact, cannot bless them if they are disobedient.  To overlook sin is contrary to God’s nature.  Hundreds and hundreds of times God makes clear in scripture that he cannot watch humans rebel against heaven and bring destruction on one another and the earth and then simply wink at it all and bless the whole lot of us anyway.  On the one hand, God is absolutely holy and righteous and full of justice and therefore God simply cannot bless a disobedient people.

 

On the other hand, the love of God is just as clearly laid out in scripture.  Hundreds, if not thousands of times God tells his people in the Bible that he will never leave us or forsake us.  God loves his creation and loves people best in creation.  Countless times God promises that no matter what we do, he will never turn his back on us.

 

Can you see the tension?  How can these two, the law of God and the love of God, be reconciled?  If God blesses those who don’t keep the law, what can then be said about God’s holiness and justice?  But if God refuses to bless his people because they have been unfaithful, what are we then to say about God’s mercy and faithfulness?  Keller puts the question this way, “Are the blessings of God conditional or unconditional?”  God promises to bless Abram in the end.  But now God has set up a covenant ceremony to see if Abram will pledge his loyalty.  So what if Abram does not keep his pledge?  What if we do not keep our pledge?  Will we only be blessed if we do?  If we don’t, when we don’t, will God bless us anyway as he has promised to do?

 

I hope you can see that the Bible is presenting a great contradiction here.  And I would bet that instead of living with the tension, most of you have come down on one side or the other.

 

Some of you have decided that love, even God’s love, cannot simply erase law and so you have come to believe, though you might not put it quite this way, that even though God loves you, you still must be a good person or he will not accept you in the end.  Sometimes people with this view are called moralists, and they often go through life carrying around a tremendous amount of fear or guilt, always wondering if they have done enough to earn God’s favor.

 

Others of you have decided the opposite.  In your view God’s law is indeed an important thing which we should try to keep, but in the end it doesn’t matter how good you are at keeping it because God will love you and accept you no matter what.  Sometimes people with this view are called relativists because at the end of the day they believe that how you live or what you believe is ultimately irrelevant because God will love you anyway.  In the end, love wins whether or not the law is kept.

 

If we’re all honest, most of us would have to admit that we would really like the Bible to lean one way or the other.  Problem is, the Bible never does.  Ever.  Read it yourself.  Never is God’s demand for faithful obedience softened.  If anything, when Jesus came he raises the bar as he tells his disciples things like, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”[7]  At the same time, God’s insistence that his mercy and love will overcome all in the end is equally as strong.  Never once in scripture does God withdraw his promise to bless the whole world through Abram.

 

You see, I think Abram sunk into dread darkness just before he was to walk through the dead animals because he does not see how this tension can be resolved.  God’s promises of blessing and faithfulness have been guaranteed by the stars in the sky.  But now God is going to ask him to make an oath of absolute loyalty with his life, an oath he must rightly know he will never be able to keep.  How in the world can God’s blessing be conditional and unconditional all at the same time?

 

But then something happens that solves the riddle, something that even Abram himself never could have seen coming.  A smoking fire pot, the kind used in those days to refine metal, suddenly appears in the darkness, along with a torch of fire.  Both clearly were meant to symbolize the very presence and person of God himself.  The Lord is there in the darkness with Abram, there with the blood and the animals and the great mystery of law and love, there to do the very last thing Abram would ever have expected.  God does himself what Abram expected he was going to have to do.  God himself walks through the pieces and repeats the promise of the covenant to Abram.  In doing so, God himself promises that if he should ever fail to fulfill his promise to bless Abram that the fate of these animals will be his fate.

 

If that were not enough, not only does God walk through the pieces but then Abram is not asked to do so himself.  This was unheard of.  A great lord in those days never made the oath.  It was always the servant.  But here it is the Lord God making the promise for both of them, taking the curse of the covenant on for both of them.  Follow me here.  It’s amazing enough that the Lord promises that he will be torn to pieces if he does not fulfill his end of the covenant.  It’s unthinkable to consider that the Lord also promises that he will be torn to pieces even if Abram fails to keep his end of the covenant.  All in the same act, God makes clear that his love will never be compromised, but neither will his law.

 

So let me ask the question again.  Are God’s blessings unconditional or conditional?  Yes.  Apparently they are both.

 

Is the blessing unconditional?  Absolutely.  God’s blessing will be made available to Abram and through Abram to the world even if the law is not kept.  Is the blessing conditional?  Absolutely.  If the law is broken then justice must be enacted and somebody, as a consequence, must be torn apart.  The shock here is that when the law is broken it is not the lawbreaker who is torn apart, but God himself.

 

Thousands of years later the Apostle Paul wrote these words in his letter to the Galatians:

 

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.[8]

 

This is the very Gospel of Jesus Christ, buried here deep in the heart of the Old Testament.  In Jesus Christ, God’s Son, crucified on our behalf, we see the ultimate reconciliation of the tension between God’s law and God’s love.  Christ fulfills the requirements of the covenant and earns the blessing of God by living a life of perfect obedience but then, to everyone’s surprise, also takes upon himself the curse of the covenant brought down by human sin by allowing himself, in our place, to be sacrificially torn apart on the cross.  Christ takes upon himself the curse so that the blessing due him is made available to anybody who will receive it in faith.

 

The Gospel seems too good to be true but is, in the end, true after all.  It is a truth which will, once you come to understand it, change everything in your life.  Like Abram, you will give your life in complete devotion to God, seeking with all your might to live, by God’s grace, in serious obedience to God’s law.  But you will not do this out of fear or guilt, for the sacrifice of Christ has left no room for fear or guilt.  And when you fail, as you will fail time and time again, you will not despair because you know that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.[9]

 

As Christians, we obey the law not to earn God’s love but instead we obey in response to God’s love.  And in the end, if you are somebody who has believed God and placed your faith in Jesus Christ his Son, then what was said of Abram can also now be said of you, “He believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.  She trusted Christ; and Christ set her right with God.”

 

Amen.

 

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The Next Step

A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application

Read Genesis 12:1-4 and 15:1-21.  What do you first notice?

 

Abram seems to need assurance from God that these blessings will indeed come about.  Is it wrong for us to need or want assurance?

 

Why is it said of Abram, “The Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness”?  What does that mean?  Was Abram righteous?

 

What does it mean to you that God is the one who walks through the pieces of the animals in the Covenant Ceremony instead of Abram?

 

The question was asked: Are God’s blessings to us conditional or unconditional?  How do you answer that question?

 

What is Paul teaching us about this story when he writes the following in Galatians 3:13-14: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”

 

When all is said and done, do you believe that God is going to bless you?  Why or why not?

 

How has this scripture and this message changed you?

 

 



[1] See Psalm 27:3-5.

[2] Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, edited by R. Laird Harris, (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1980), p. 132.

[3] Earlier, in Genesis 13:16, God had promised Abram that his descendants would be as numerous as the dust of the earth.

[4] See the wonderful New Testament references to this verse in Romans 4:11 and Hebrews 11:7.

[5] Historical background here from Godron J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15, (Waco: Word Books, 1987), p. 331.

[6] I’m relying heavily here on Keller’s sermon entitled “A Covenant Relationship” which he preached at Redeemer Presbyterian Church on September 9, 2007.  Listen to it in full at http://sermons2.redeemer.com/sermons/covenant-relationship

[7] Matthew 5:20, NIV.

[8] Galatians 3:13-14, NRSV.

[9] See Romans 8:1.