Abraham... So What?
March 19, 2017
ABRAHAM ... SO WHAT?
March 19th, 2017
Everything has a starting point, including you and I.
For Christians, the dedication of an infant to God points back a starting point - the conviction and decision by parents to do their best to raise a child in a Christian home.
Similarly, baptism is a starting point - but again, it really is pointing back to another starting point: the starting point of faith or belief.
Regardless of whether we grew up in a Christian home, or in a home where another religious tradition was honoured, or in an atheistic home, we sometimes outgrow the faith tradition of our childhood homes or places of worship.
Most often, it isn’t so much that we evaluate what our own beliefs are, and then affirm or reject them. It’s just that life gets complicated, life happens, and there are other things that get our attention. Most often another person, or studies, or a career. It’s like we’re driving a car and we see our faith get smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror as we speed into relationships, into busyness, and into new responsibilities of life. When that happens, in order for us to get back to God, we need to push a restart button at one time or another.
For me that time came at age 19. I had abandoned my childhood faith, had stopped praying or even thinking about God, and now needed to push the restart button if I wanted to go on with God.
We don’t think too much about is faith having a starting point or possibly a re-starting point if we walked away from our childhood faith.
And if we have faith, we are likely to think even less about the beginning of our faith tradition. And isn’t it obvious in any case? Just think of the three monotheistic faith traditions. Didn’t the Jewish faith begin with Moses, the Christian faith with Jesus, and the Muslim faith with Mohammed?
But today I want us to think about the possibility that all three had a starting point other than the obvious. I want us to think about a man with the name of Abraham, because all three faith traditions in fact think of Abraham as foundational to their very existence and foundational to the way that they think about living out their faith, their belief.
Abraham lived such a long time ago, possibly sometime around 2000 BC. Of what possible consequence could he be?
Why Abraham? All three monotheistic traditions recognize that human beings mess up and make mistakes. In fact, they would all agree that every human being not only has the potential, but actually does, make the very same mistakes and messes ON PURPOSE. All three traditions call this sin.
When we look at the world today, the level of sin that we encounter should stagger us. The injustices in the world appear to be grave and never ending. Unspeakable violence and oppression is used keep the corrupt in power. In some places courts decide in favour of the powerful and corrupt. Mankind pollutes the world and destroys it all for the sake of money. Human trafficking and the sexual and financial exploitation of children and adults are found everywhere in the world.
But now think back to ancient times where things were even worse. ONLY might makes right. The powerless had absolutely no recourse for justice. Slavery was accepted by all, and kidnapping and exploitation the norm. The strongest and most ruthless did the best. This was a time before city states or laws in Canaan, before the code of Hammurabi or the Mosaic Law. This was a time when the world as a whole was even more chaotic and offensive to our modern sensibilities than today.
All three monotheistic faith traditions believe that God stared into the world and realized that sin had taken a hold of humanity. At that point God could have hung an “out of order” sign on earth, gone somewhere else in order to do something else. Or he could have wiped out humanity, as he did at the time of Noah. But instead, God decided to wade into the mess that is humanity, in order to start a process that was to bring a correction to what was going on.
He decided to do so by interacting strategically with one particular human being by the name of Abraham in order to start the process of fixing the sin problem.
The story of Abraham touches on a tension that you and I may have felt and wrestled with personally. IF the Creator of the universe really exists, how do I stand with him - how am I doing? Is he happy or unhappy with me? Does he or doesn’t he accept me? Or is there something that I need to do for him to be happy with me and accept me?
One pastor I listened to recently recounted a time when his daughter is in the kitchen and accidentally knocks over a shelf full of glasses which then crashes down on two other shelves, knocking everything down. The glasses and dishes break and the daughter, who is barefoot at the time, is left standing in a sea of chards.
The pastor said that he ran into the kitchen, pointed his finger at her, and angrily said, “Serves you right, you should have been more careful. You figure out how to get out of this mess. You just stand there and bleed. And call me once you get this mess cleaned up.”
He goes on to point out that those who know him, would not have believed in a minute that he had actually said those words.
Yet many people picture God as the angry God who has no compassion or patience with them when they make a mess of their lives. That God just stares at them bleeding in their own sea of chards and tells them to walk barefoot over that mess and go clean it up.
So they believe that he, the pastor, actually has more compassion than God. Which would make him godlier than God.
What the pastor actually told his daughter was not to move. He then walked across the chards, had her climb on his back and then walked back over the chards to get her out of her predicament, and then he got the Band-Aids to deal with the cuts she had received. He did what any good father would have done.
So how do the three faith traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam look back to Abraham? Let’s begin with the Jewish view of Abraham.
Abraham lived in Lower Mesapotamia in the ancient city of Ur. God appeared to him and told him to move to a land that he would show him. As it turned out, the land was Caanan before it came to be known as Israel.
In Judaism, every Jew considers himself or herself to be the physical descendant of Abraham, his son Isaac, Isaac’s son Jacob, and a descendant of one of the 12 sons of Jacob.
Every Jew would be the direct result of God’s promise to Abraham to make him into a great nation:
YHWH said to Abram, “Leave your country and your people and your father’s household and go to the land that I will show you.
And I will make you into a great nation.
And I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing ….
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.
I am YHWH who brought you out of Ur in the land of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess it.
So Abraham was to leave everything that was familiar to him, his own people and family, his circle of influence and comfort, and to travel with his wife, who was not able to have kids, to a distant land. That’s a lot to give up on his perception of what God was telling him to do.
There are a number of promises contained in God’s command to Abraham. And, by the way, God reiterated his promises to Abraham over and over again, as recorded between Genesis 12 and 22.
So for one, Abraham would have a large multitude of descendants, to the point that they will become a great nation. For Jews, this is a clear reference to what would become the nation of Israel. In Genesis 17:4, that is repeated, but also expanded to include a multitude of nations rather than just one. Jews may have interpreted this to include the nation of Israel and the nation of Judah.
Another promise was the possession of the land that he would move to. That is why Canaan is called “The Promised Land”. This God reaffirms as recorded in Genesis 15:7
The third promise was that Abraham would become so great that his name will be widely known. If you heard of Abraham before today raise your hand. Isn’t that amazing? Anybody ever heard of Kedorlaomer?
At the time of Abraham, Kedorlaomer was actually the king of Edom. While everyone in Canaan in the time of Abraham would have known of Kedoraomer, today, almost no one does. In fact the kingdom of Edom ceased to existing a long, long time ago, when it was destroyed by the Babylonians under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar (587/586 BC).
And finally, there was the promise that all the nations of the earth will be blessed because of Abraham. This was fleshed out a bit more right after Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, as recorded in Genesis 22.
And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.
In your offspring [lit. seed] all the nations of the earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.
So somehow, Abraham, but in reality his descendants, will bring a blessing of God on all other nations. I’ve included another verse from Isaiah, from one of the so-called servant songs, to give you an example of how the promise that Abraham’s descendants would become a blessing to the nations many hundreds of years later. In it the servant of YHWH is told:
You will be my servant who will raise up Jacob and bring back the remnant of Israel. I will also make you a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. Isaiah 49:6
The problem with this initial promise to Abraham was that he did as he was told. He travelled to the Promised Land. But decades went by and Abraham’s wife Sarah was still barren. Both Abraham and Sarah had become so old, that God’s promise seems to have become a pipe dream. So Abraham prayed to God about it.
Oh Lord YHWH, what will you give me, for I continue to be childless and, should I die, my servant Eliezer of Damascus will become my heir. Genesis 15:2
And God replied to Abraham:
“This man will not be your heir, but your physical son will be.” And he took Abraham outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you are able.” Then he said, “So will your descendants be.” Genesis 15:4-5
God’s words don’t make a lot of sense in today’s world where there is so much light pollution at night, particularly if you live anywhere near a city. “Oh look. I see 12 stars. No wait, one of them is moving, that’s a jet. Look, I see 11 stars. Oh no, that one is Venus. Look, I can actually see 10 stars.” But on a clear moonless night in the middle of nowhere, without any light pollution, you could see a lot more.
But perhaps not as many as we would think. It’s estimated that a young person with perfect eyesight would be able to count about 5,000 stars from horizon to horizon.
5,000 people even in Abraham’s day would not be considered a nation. That would be a large clan or a very small tribe, but not a nation. However, even in Abraham’s day there was the recognition that the number of stars was innumerably larger, particular when you consider the light coming from the Milky Way. Even back then they understood that the stars in that section alone were innumerable. Today it is estimated that there are 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, that’s 100 with an additional 9 zeros attached.
At this point, God changed both the name of Abraham and his wife. Abraham’s original name was Abram (means “exalted [or high] father”). His wife’s original name was Sarai [pronounced Sarei] (means “she who strives” = that is, someone who is a contentious person). God renamed them both, Abram became Abraham, which means “father of a multitude” (Gen 17:5) because he “will be a father of a multitude of nations” (Gen 17:4,6) and Sarai became Sarah, which means “princess” (Gen 17:15) because “nations will descend from her and she will be the mother of kings” (Gen 17:16).
But there was something even beyond the promises we have seen so far. God also promises that he would establish a personal covenant relationship with Abraham and his descendants.
You will be the father of a multitude of nations. ... I will establish my covenant with you and your descendants after you, from generation to generation. This is my everlasting covenant: I will be always be your God and the God of your descendants after you.
In Jewish thought, it was this relationship, this covenant relationship, which was to make all the difference when it came to the problem of sin. It was to bring about a change, first in Abraham’s own life, then in the life of his offspring, regardless of how many there would be.
One defining event for this relationship was when God asked Abraham to kill Isaac, which would have put an end to the possibility of the promise to Abraham that his descendants through Isaac would become a great nation.
When God provided a ram instead (seen in the bottom right hand in the painting on the overhead), the ram taking the son’s place, it pointed ahead to the Passover lamb and the sacrificial system of the worship system in the temple at Jerusalem, and God’s willingness to forgive those with whom he is in relationship.
The Jewish people could say that they were the fulfillment of the promises of God to Abraham. They were the nation which came from Abraham and Sarah’s physical descendants. They are again living in the land of promise. They were the ones who initially pointed all nations to the one true God, the Creator of heaven and earth.
And in order to be in relationship with the God of the Universe, is either to be devout physical descendant of Abraham – with all that entails, or to become just like one, particularly living according to the Mosaic Law, in which are found the Sabbath and food laws, the Jewish feasts and festivals, and the 10 Commandments.
- Do not worship any other gods
- Do not carve any idols
- Do not use YHWH’s name frivolously
- Keep the Sabbath day holy
- Honour your father and mother
- Do not kill
- Do not commit adultery
- Do not steal
- Do not lie in court
Do not desire your neighbour’s house, wife, male or female slaves, livestock, or any of his other possessions.
That is what it means to deal with the sin problem and come into relationship with God.
Now, Islam also considers Abraham to be a key historical figure through whom God impacted the world in a significant way.
In Islam, Abraham receives the title “friend of God,” Muslims believe that Abraham was THE righteous man in his day. Abraham was the one who not only believed in the existence of but one God, but was a crusader against idol worship. His actions lead to the destruction of idol worship in both the Arabian Peninsula and Canaan.
According to Islamic belief, Abraham and his son Ishmael reconstructed the Kaaba in Mecca (which was said to have been destroyed by the flood), and reformed it as a place of worshipping for the one true God. This is a look inside of the Kaaba, which actually is quite small, about 10 meters by 8.25 meters or 33 feet by 27 feet.
According to Islam, it was Abraham who instituted the rite of pilgrimage (Hajj) to the Kaaba, which is to signify the return of a devout person to the perfection of Abraham’s faith. This is why Mecca is often referred to as the city of Abraham, while Medina is referred to as the city of the prophet.
In this way, Abraham was the great reformer of his day who turned the people back, and in this way, a precursor to the reforms instituted by Muhammad 2,600 years later.
In Islam, Ishmael, Abraham’s son with Hagar, who was Abraham’s first-born son is of importance, as can be seen in the OT where God promises to make Ishmael into a great nation.
The angel of YHWH speaking to Hagar:
I [YHWH] will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will also be too many to count. Genesis 16:10
This God also mentions to Abraham:
Look, I will bless Ishmael and make him fruitful and multiply him exceedingly. From him will come twelve rulers and I will make him into a great nation. Genesis 17:20
Especially the second verse points out that, just as through Isaac there would be twelve tribes that constituted the nation of Israel, so there will be 12 rulers who would constitute the nation that would constitute the nation who would descend from Ishmael.
In the Muslim faith, it is Ishmael (or Ismail in Arabic) who was the son of promise, not Isaac. Further, God told Abraham to kill Ishmael, not Isaac, and then demonstrate his real will by telling Abraham not to do it.
Muslims believe that the Arabic nations are direct descendants of Ishmael and that, most importantly, Ishmael was the direct ancestor of Muhammed. Muslims would say that the promises to Abraham are fulfilled in them since Muhammad, the physical descendant of Abraham’s son of promise, pointed his followers into the same devotion to the one true God that Abraham had.
After all, Islam literally means “submission” or “surrender” in reference to God. Similarly, Muslim literally indicates a person who fully submits or surrenders to God’s will.
So how is one to deal with the question of sin and be in relationship with God? The primary need is to model the personal righteousness of Abraham by following the teachings of Muhammad, God’s prophet, which would include the five pillars of the Islam.
- Declare that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger
- Pray five times a day facing Mecca
- Give 2.5% of your income to charity
- Do not eat or drink during daylight hours in the month of Ramadan
- Travel to the Kaaba in Mecca once in your lifetime
In the end, after you die, God will weigh all of your bad deeds and all of your good deeds and accordingly assign you either to an eternity in heaven or hell. Until then you really do not know, unless you die in battle for the cause of Islam.
So Abraham is an important figure in Judaism and in Islam. What about Christianity. Is Abraham at all important to Christians? Should he be? And if “yes”, why?
If you do not think that Abraham is not important to Christianity or not important in the NT, think again. In fact, the genealogy of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew begins with Abraham.
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, … and Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, who gave birth to Jesus who is called the Messiah. Matthew 1:2,16
It was important for the author of Matthew to point out that Jesus’ lineage goes directly back to Abraham. Jesus is a physical descendant of Abraham, through the Jewish lineage of Isaac, not Ishmael.
Second, the apostle Paul refers to Abraham in both his most theological letters, that is, in his letter to the believers in Rome and his letter to the believers in the Roman province of Galatia.
Paul believed that the promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed because of one of his descendants, literally, his seed, was a direct reference to Jesus. Jesus was THE descendant, THE seed, through whom all nations would be blessed.
Now the promises were made to Abraham and his seed. It does not say “to his seeds” which would be the case if he was referring to many, but to one: “to his seed”, who is Christ. Galatians 3:16
The nations would receive God’s blessing through this one descendant of Abraham, Jesus.
Further, for Paul, the key event in Abraham’s life was the time when Abraham and Sarah had gotten really old and could no longer see God keeping his promise to make their physical descendants into a great nation, and in response God showing Abraham the stars in the night sky. This is the how Abraham responds in Genesis 15.
And he took Abraham outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you are able.” Then he said, “So will your descendants be.” And Abraham believed YHWH, and YHWH credited it to him as righteousness. Genesis 15:5-6
Paul realized that God credited Abraham with righteousness, which meant that Abraham had right standing with God because he believed in God’s promise despite all appearances to the contrary. Abraham believed, against all odds, that God would honour his promise. And Paul is convinced that this one moment of faith or trust points out God’s plan in dealing with the problem of sin for all of humanity. It all comes down to belief or faith or trust.
Being in relationship with God is not based on keeping the Mosaic Law or the Five Pillars of Islam, or any other list of rules and regulations. It depends on trust and belief.
Paul looks back at the promises of God to Abraham and sees their fulfillment on all those who come to God with the same kind of trust and faith as Abraham, regardless of whether or not they are physical descendants of the Patriarch.
Abraham … was fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his belief was credited to him as righteousness. … and righteousness will be credited to us who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. Romans 4:21-24
Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. Therefore know that those who believe are the real children of Abraham. … In Christ Jesus you are all Abraham’s children, heirs of the promise.
When God made his promise to Abraham. This was not about Abraham or about the nation of Israel. It was about all mankind.
This is also what the writer of the gospel of John comments on when he makes the connection between faith or trust and being a child of God.
To everyone who believe in the name of Jesus, he gave the right to become children of God. They were born not based on physical birth or based on physical or human decisions, but based on God’s will. John 1:12-13
So whether we realize or not, the whole Christian faith is based upon that one verse in Genesis 15 that deals with Abraham. More people than can be counted will come to God based on the same trust that Abraham showed, but this time with trust with regard to Jesus being God’s Messiah who, like the ram given to Abraham, would die for the sins of the world.
So great. We’ve seen that Abraham is a very important figure in the three great monotheistic religions. But what, if anything, does this mean to for me today? I mean, I’m interested in how God can benefit me today, what he can do for me today, how I stand with him today.
If I had to put this whole sermon into one sentence it would be this:
THE WAY TO GOD IS NOT THROUGH ATTEMPTS AT PERSONAL GOODNESS, BUT THROUGH TRUST IN GOD’S OFFER OF RELATIONSHIP AND FORGIVENESS.
Of course, the question is whether or not we have started our relationship with trust in Jesus’ death for me, prefigured in Abraham’s day by the ram, or am I trying to earn my way into God’s good graces in my own power? The invitation from God is always open.
In Paul’s day, this message was accepted by some, rejected by others, and misunderstood as a license to live a depraved lifestyle.
One closing thought. This week I had a conversation with a friend who was wondering if his attempts at being strong and self-controlled and self-disciplined were falling short because he has not learned what it means to lean in to God so close that change becomes something that will be inevitable. In other words, are most Christians simply not walking close enough with God to allow the Holy Spirit to do his reforming work?
As Paul asks the believers in Galatia, having begun with faith and trust when we came to Christ, are we now trying to live the Christian life by our own efforts?
Because of this conversation, I also included the final slide.
What is faith when it comes to living the Christian life?
Is the following good advice?
Draw near to God. Pray. Get close. Relax.
Trust God to do what you can’t in your own strength.
Give this some thought. Perhaps it can be a point of discussion in small groups or at the dinner table or over coffee.