37. Genesis 15:1-6

III. A. continued

2. The Covenant of Revelation

a) Abram’s Faith (Genesis 15:1-6)

So far we have covered about a decade of Abram’s life, arriving now at yet another turning point. It would seem that when God call’s a person to leave his home and go to a “land that I will show you” it is a major turning point, but with God there is never just one turning point. Life is a series of turning points which serve like telephone poles that hold the strands of life above ground. At this point Abram was 85 years old and it was the year 2074 b.c.

The details of this decade of Abram’s life are pretty sparse. God chose two kinds of events to preserve in the biblical record, each for the specific purpose of advancing the revelation. Most of Abram’s life was like ours: just the dull routine of living, buying, selling, dealing with neighbors and family. The events God chose to have remembered were, first of all, what Abram did right that could serve to instruct us how best to think about God and behave around Him; and secondly, what Abram did wrong that could serve to instruct us how best to think about God and behave around Him. Being chosen by God is more difficult than being a celebrity. Who needs paparazzi when the Spirit is recording snapshots of what you do or do not do? At least the Spirit is not insensitive and obnoxious, but it is still difficult to be in the public eye, and not just the public eye of the contemporary tabloids but the public eye of all time and all people.

But doing such “correct” acts of faith was not what won him God’s favor as we habitually are bound to think. He already had God’s favor before he was called. The fact that God spoke to Abram that first time was proof that Abram didn’t do any thing to win God over. Men did not try out for God’s calling like models walking down the runway hoping God would pick them for the great beauty of their deep faith. Nor could failing in such a “fundamental of the Faith” lose them God’s favor, like some poor guy who strikes out just at the critical time and loses the game, to forever be remember as  the One-Who-Failed-Us-When-We-Counted-On-Him. God chose events from Abram’s life, and the rest of the characters of the Bible so that we could understand a bit better what true Winning and Losing in Life was like. And what it wasn’t like. It is not whether you or I are weak or strong that counts; it is whether God is weak or strong that counts. Abram’s life shows us both how important faith is and how unimportant it is.

We have subtly altered the definition of faith over the years. Our culture uses the word “faith” to mean either a set of statements that we believe intellectually, or the act of believing things without any logical basis, (or even better, in spite of logical reasons to the contrary). The faith that Abram showed, that the Bible spotlights as the central trait of any human life, was nothing like either of these definitions. Abram did not know very much about God, he did not have much information about God to believe in, so the first definition is obviously no good. We will spend the rest of this section considering the second definition. Exactly how irrational was Abram? What exactly was he doing when he believed God? Is it impossible for a modern, scientific person to do the same thing?

Some fundamentalist Christians as well as some liberal Christians, glory in having a “faith” that is entirely irrational, as if their lack of intellectual effort was a badge of honor. Some rabid pagans caricature all religious faith as silly belief in things that can’t be reasonably entertained and that are beneath any sophisticated person. In the Bible, “faith” is a synonym of “trust”, not a set of doctrines, not necessarily a belief at all. It is not the conviction that God exists; it is the attitude toward God once one has the conviction that He exists. Faith can express itself in varying ways. First, it can make us choose what we don’t want to choose simply because we are convicted that God wants us to. It can make us to choose the riskier alternative or the more dangerous alternative. It can make us refrain from doing something because we have the conviction that God has to do it Himself and we don’t want to trespass. It can make us refrain from taking advantage of what we know we are entitled to simply because we want people to know it was a gift from God and not something we acquired by our own power. And finally it can make us hopeful because we have a conviction that God is the kind of God who likes to surprise people with good things beyond their expectations.

And so we come to the fourth time God appeared to Abram. This time He greeted Abram with “Do not fear”. God had never begun a visit that way before. Why would Abram be afraid to hear from God at this point, having just won a great military victory? I think God knew that Abram was beginning to fear that God’s promises might prove in vain. God had appeared to him just three times during the previous ten years, and pretty much nothing had come of those appearances. Had he misunderstood God’s intent in those visits? Might God have lost interest in him? Or perhaps God was not able to bring off what He had promised? What if Abram was trusting in Someone who just couldn’t be counted on to come through? Most of us have these sorts of doubts eventually. Trusting God is only easy when not much is at stake, but God never lets any of us get too comfortable for very long. He pushes us to the edge of what we can trust. He pushes us to the edge of our hopes, making us rely on Him to provide the very thing we want so much that it will be devastating if He failed. However He does it, He wants us to be in the position of risking everything that is important to us on the chance that He can bring it off. And if we “pass the test” and manage to trust Him through it all, it usually means that we go on to some harder test, some more devastating risk.

We are sometimes taught that the person of genuine faith will just believe and never doubt, that wrestling with doubt is a sign of spiritual weakness, that doubt can even cause God to change His mind about His own promises or commitment to us. This is certainly a strange view of faith, and an unbiblical one. It is a view that looks on faith as something we do to prove ourselves. The important thing is not whether or not we doubt, but what we do with doubts when they arise. Do we capitulate at the first murmuring of that murky little voice? Or do we bury the doubt, pretend it is not there, pretend that we are some spiritual hero and carry on blindly? Or do we face the doubt and master it? The first is unabashed cowardice, the second is mere posturing, the third is where strength is developed. We may be so afraid of doubts because we fear God will be angry with us because of them. But God’s gentle handling of Abram was remembered and recorded just to reassure us that God is faithful to us, and that He does not find fault with our weakness. It is only by facing doubt and choosing to trust in spite of it that there is any hope of getting past the doubt, of getting to the point where we will be able to look back on the doubt and see it for what it always was.

Because doubt is not a sin, God began by reassuring him. In fact, it is the contrary. If you are following God, if you are truly exercising faith in God, you will doubt. You will come to a point of doubt because you are following God and He will take you on dangerous paths, to the very limits of what you can believe. If we fail the testing of our faith, it just means that we must go back and try that stretch of ground another time when we are more ready. If we pass the test than we go on to a yet more dangerous road. Just as there is never any question of deserving God’s favor, so there is never any danger of losing it. When we fail, He will try us again.

Abram does seem to be having doubt at this point. It may seem odd, but the period immediately after a great victory is the time doubt is most likely to hit hardest, like the reaction that sets in after a sugar high. He had been in the land for ten years and apart from having a lot of livestock, what had he gotten out of it? Nothing. He could have gotten cows and goats back in Haran, and done it more comfortably. God had the right to take His time, of course, but if this was what He meant by being “a blessing to all the nations” then it was a bit disappointing. And he didn’t even have a son. What’s the point of being a blessing to all the nations if you don’t even have a son to take care of your cows when you are gone? Thoughts like these must have nagged at him, and nagged at him more as the years passed.

So “do not fear, Abram” was the right introduction at that point. And then He told Abram that his reward was to be very great. Reward for what? Abram had done nothing to be rewarded for and he knew it. But it was not for something he had done. He was being rewarded because God was his shield. It was what God had done that got him a reward, not what he had done. In particular, he was not being rewarded for his faith, as if his faith were a good work that had earned him spiritual credit (this is a point that deserves repetition). Abram was being rewarded because God was determined to reward him and there was no deeper reason for it.

The root of the problem that plagued Abram was this: Abram had become very rich, but still he had no son. God had been promising to give him children, but he had been in the land for ten years and nothing was happening. In accordance with the custom of the day, since Abram had no child of his own, he had adopted a servant from his household, Eliezer of Damascus, as his heir. Eliezer had been born in his household and so had probably been with him since before he had left Ur. However long it had been, Eliezer must have become a beloved and trusted servant for Abram to choose him as his heir. Nonetheless, however much Abram may have loved Eliezer, it was a source of grief to him that he had no son of his own. Abram was clearly beginning to wonder if God was somehow unable to bring it off.

From the outside and in retrospect it is easy to see that God was waiting on children deliberately until all human hope of children was gone. Abram had done well so far in waiting on God to fulfill His promises, but God intended to take him all the way down that road. He intended that Abram should wait until there was no human hope left. Meanwhile, God set about addressing Abram’s doubts. There are many different kinds of doubt. Abram’s doubt was the doubt that one might feel toward the word of a person that one still does not know very well. Abram had as close a relationship with God as anyone in the world in his day, he knew a little of God’s history, and he had a little experience interacting with God himself, but they were still in the “betrothal” stage, still engaged, intending to marry but working out their future relationship. Whatever the metaphor, God was not offended by Abram’s doubt. But He used his doubt to take the revelation to the next stage.

What He did was the oddest thing: He brought Abram outside to look at the night sky, and then He repeated His promise of descendants in that most unlikely place.  The vision He gave Abram of the sky was not a matter of seeing such an innumerable collection of lights as it was of seeing an innumerable collection of lights. Abram was not being invited to count the stars; he was being invited to measure them, to estimate them in terms of importance, significance, value, worth. It was the quality, not the quantity, of Abram’s descendants that was the point of the vision. He would have descendants like the stars, and the quantity was not the focal point. There are only about 6000 stars that can be seen by the naked eye on a perfect night, quite countable if one is careful. This is a number that was exceeded by Abram’s descendants within five or six generations. The number of actual stars in the sky visible by any means exceeds the total number of people in the human race through all history. The point is not the number, not how many there would be, but who they would be.

In fact, when he looked at the sky that night he was experiencing revelation in its most basic form. He had looked at the night sky in all its glory perhaps thousands of times during his life, without the hindrance of streetlights. No doubt he carried a lot of Mesopotamian religious baggage about the stars and the various gods and myths about them. But this night, when God brought him outside his tent, he connected the dots for the first time: the God who was standing by him and speaking with him was the one who created those lights. He had heard the story in Genesis 1 recited throughout his whole life, the oral tradition, and now it fell into place, if not for the first time, then for the first time in this way. He saw through the words to the glory of what they meant. That is where this faith came from. He knew God could keep His promise about a son because this was the God who invented stars, this was a God beyond what he had imagined that he now imagined for the first time. He was a God who could call into existence things that did not exist.

God made the sky into something of a sacrament to Abram. From that time on, every time he looked at the night sky he would remember God’s promise to give him descendants. Every time he looked at the sky he would be reminded that the God who claimed to have made those stars had also claimed that He would give such descendants to Abram, descendants who were like the stars in glory. Abram’s children would be children who were like the stars. From the viewpoint of an ancient Mesopotamian man like Abram, God was promising that Abram’s children would be like the gods.

This promise is a promise that is beyond all hope, beyond all question of proof or disproof, beyond all accounting. This is a promise that is so outrageous that it utterly transcends the question of whether it is rational to believe or not. Nothing in the world could prepare you for that kind of promise and nothing in the world could help you decide to believe or to disbelieve. In mathematical jargon, this is a question of choosing an axiom, not proving a theorem. It is the promise that hits a parent in his or her innermost being where it is the most delicate. To have a son, yes, but to have a son who will be a glory in the world; to have a son who will shine; to have a son who will not be like me, full of my stupidities and regrets and failures; who will not be doomed to inherit my weak condition and repeat my mistakes, but who will be the good man I had once hoped to be. God’s promise to Abram was beyond any miracle, beyond the mere having a child in his old age, beyond even having a dozen children in his old age. God’s promise to Abram was beyond mere belief or disbelief, the promise of something so astounding and desirable that it could not be imagined entirely.

But Abram believed what he could not imagine. He didn’t say anything out loud. He simply believed it, in his heart, and God knew that he believed Him. This simple belief in God’s word is faith, trust, in its most basic and primitive form. It is the faith “as small as a mustard seed”, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. It is important to understand that Abram’s faith was not great, it was not the faith that commands a dead man to rise, or commands the Red Sea to part, or enables you to walk out and face a lion. It was humble, the germ of something that would grow.

This nearly invisible faith “was reckoned as righteousness”. There are two enormously important bits of revelation we can receive from this. First of all, it means that there is nothing essentially righteous about faith. Where is the merit in simply believing God, who is all goodness and cannot lie? Of all entities in or out of the universe, God ought most to be believed; God simply deserves that we accept what He says and not doubt His integrity or question His competence. If faith were something good in itself, then it wouldn’t have to be reckoned as good; it just would be. Nevertheless, though it is no more than He deserves, no more than we owe Him, He counts it as righteousness, as if it were a good deed.

Second, it means that God chooses to count faith as righteous. He need not have counted faith as righteous, but He decided to. When God reckoned faith as righteousness, what He was really doing was choosing a strategy. God was setting up the terms by which He would deal with people and eventually work out the salvation of the world. There was no inevitability to it. He could conceivably have chosen to save the world through some quite different method not involving faith in a central way at all, but He chose to do it this way. Why did He do it? The best answer, I think, is the one Paul gives in the letter to the Romans: He chose faith because it is nothing to brag about.

Third, God had to choose something to reckon as righteous. In other words, there was no real righteousness there to accept. God chose to count faith as righteousness in order to have a starting point for the relationship, for the Covenant He was about to make. There was no good thing in Abram, no foundation on which he could stand before God, so God said in effect: “Very well. Let’s begin with less than nothing. Let’s begin with you simply believing Me and we’ll go from there.” We, like Abram, have no place to stand, so He creates a platform for us out of nothing. Using the same raw materials that went into the creation of the universe, it is His style, His specialty, to make the Beautiful, the Good, the True out of nothing at all.

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