The God Who Promises

Original Date: 
Sunday, May 18, 2014

Genesis 11:27-12:9 The God Who Promises

I invite you to open your Bibles to Genesis 11:27. Today we are embarking on a new journey, a journey through the stories about Father Abraham.

You’ve probably sung the song: “Father Abraham, had many sons, and many sons had father Abraham.” I’m hoping you’ve sung it, otherwise I feel pretty silly. It’s kind of the Christian version of Hokey-Pokey, with a lot of arms and legs and standing up and sitting down.

Abraham, of course, is a very important figure in the Bible. The New Testament calls him the “Father of all who believe” (Rom. 4:11) and he is the “go to” illustration whenever the topic is faith. Indeed, faith is the main theme of Abraham’s story: from the beginning--(as we will see today) when God called him to leave his country and his family—to the end—when he will be called to sacrifice Isaac—Abraham’s journey is a journey of faith.

And so, we’ll be talking about faith a lot in the next few weeks. We’re going to learn from Abraham’s example as he struggles to keep his faith in God, and hopefully we’ll find encouragement for our own journey of faith.

More than that, though, we’re going to be looking at the God Abraham placed His faith in. The main character in Abraham’s story is not Abraham, but the God who called him. That’s true of every Bible story: the main character is always God.

That’s why I’m calling this series “The God Who…”, and the title of each week’s sermon is going to begin with “The God Who…” It’s nice to learn from Abraham’s example, but even more important is for us to learn about the God whom Abraham followed.

But, before we get into the details of Abraham’s faith walk, we are going to have to understand why we should be interested in Abraham and his God at all. Let’s read the scripture passage. It’s not too long this week, so I’ll read the whole thing. Genesis 11:27-12:9:

27This is the account of Terah. Terah became the father of Abram, Nahor and Haran. And Haran became the father of Lot. 28While his father Terah was still alive, Haran died in Ur of the Chaldeans, in the land of his birth. 29Abram and Nahor both married. The name of Abram's wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor's wife was Milcah; she was the daughter of Haran, the father of both Milcah and Iscah. 30Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.

31Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there. 32Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Haran.

1The Lord had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. 2"I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."

4So Abram left, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. 5He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
6Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7The Lord appeared to Abram and said, "To your offspring I will give this land." So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord . 9Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.

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The Scandal of Particularity
This passage of scripture marks a pretty major turning point in the Bible. Here we are introduced to Abraham and from this point on the Bible is going to shine its spotlight exclusively on him and his family.

[By the way, through most of this series I’ll probably call Abraham by his more familiar name, even though at this point in the Bible he is still called Abram. It’s just easier to keep things straight. God changes his name in Genesis 17, and we’ll talk about the significance of that when we get there.]

Up to this point, the Bible has been pretty universal—Creation, a worldwide flood, the scattering of the nations at Babel—those were events that affected all the people on earth. But, here in Genesis 11:27, the Bible focuses in like a laser beam. It gets pretty particular. It’s all about Abraham and his descendants from here on out. From Genesis 11 on, the Bible becomes a one family book.

This narrowing of focus causes us to ask a question: Why should we care? Why should we care what happens to a long dead, ancient middle-easterner and the people who descended from him? Why?

And I don’t mean: Why did God choose Abraham? That’s a question which God alone in His sovereignty can answer. But I do mean: Why does it matter to us? Why should the history of this man make any difference to us?

This probably isn’t something you have thought about too much, but it is a question worth asking: Why does the Bible—and I’m talking especially about the Old Testament now—matter to you? Why do we need to know the history of this one family?

Read through your Bibles and you’ll read a rather extensive—sometimes tedious—history of the descendants of Abraham. You’ll get extensive genealogies, tables of kings, and specific prophecies—all focusing on this little group of people we know as Jews, Israelites, or Hebrews. Sometimes you’ll read the sort of stuff which might have merited a banner headline in today’s newspapers—such as when the armies of Babylon destroy the city of Jerusalem—and other times you’ll read stuff which would have barely merited attention in today’s society page—such as when a Moabite woman named Ruth is courted and married by a grain farmer named Boaz.

And yet, no matter what you’re reading, whether it is the story of a national exodus from Egypt or the story of Queen Esther in a battle of wits with Haman, you might wonder why any of this qualifies as a Holy Book for you. You’re not Jewish, you don’t live in the Middle East, so why do you need to know the ancient history of Israel?

The scholars call it the “scandal of particularity”--the claim that God has chosen one particular people as His own. And, for some people, that’s reason enough to reject the Bible out of hand. If the Bible is going to be so exclusive, they say—if God is going to be so intent on one group of people—then they just don’t care to listen.

Think of it this way: several years ago Beth and I took a mission trip to the Ukraine. While we were there, we visited an orphanage. It’s not the sort of thing we have in this country. We were in this classroom full of 6 and 7 year olds, and they all lined up to meet us and say hello. And we weren’t there as prospective parents, but I tried to imagine what that would be like. If we were looking to adopt, and all these kids were lined up in front of us, how would we pick just one?

That’s sort of what God is doing here. All the nations of the earth are lined up before Him, and He chooses Abraham as His own—and, by default, He does not pick any of the others.

Now, we might pick the kid with the cutest smile, or the one the teacher says is best behaved; but that’s not how God picks. As we are going to see, there was nothing special to set Abraham apart from anyone else. God just chooses to make Abraham and His descendants His special people. And He doesn’t choose anyone else.

But, of course, to get too caught up in the scandal of particularity is to miss God’s larger purposes behind it. God’s focused attention on Abraham does have implications for the rest of the world, and we’ll see that here in the first few verses of Genesis 12.

Genesis 12:1-3 are like a sneak preview for the rest of the Bible, and these verses are the key to understanding everything that follows.

The Call
The story of Abraham proper begins with Genesis 12:1 Everything in the last few verses of chapter 11 is more or less introductory—sort of like the cast of characters listed in a playbill—but the real action begins in 12:1.

1The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.”

God hasn’t spoken to men in the book of Genesis since Noah—at least 10 generations—but now he speaks to Abraham. And his first words are a command to get up and go.

Let’s talk geography a little bit. Abraham starts out in Ur of the Chaldeans and gets as far as Haran while his father is alive. There is some scholarly debate over where exactly these places are located, but most agree that they could both be found between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Now, I don’t know how much you remember from your ancient history classes, but the area between the Tigris and Euphrates (modern day Iraq) is called the “Fertile Crescent.” Most historians agree that civilization started in this area, and the first cities would have been built there.

And now God is telling Abraham to get up and leave. He doesn’t tell Abraham where he’s going at first (He calls it “the land I will show you”) but we know that the eventual destination will be Canaan, anywhere from 400 to 500 miles away.

When I Beth and I moved to the Chicagoland area so I could go to seminary, that was 480 miles from my parents’ home in Hospers. It took us about 9 hours by car to travel back and forth.

For us, that was a pretty significant move. We didn’t see family very often anymore. We left behind a lot of friends. We left behind our church. We left behind the familiar.

But, of course, Abraham lived a couple thousand years before Jesus, not in 21st Century America. He didn’t have telephones, or internet, or airplanes, or even mini-vans. All he had were his feet and some pack animals. So for Abraham, 400 to 500 miles away could have just as well been moving to the moon.

And yet, God comes and tells him to move.

God tells him to leave behind his country—the Fertile Crescent, the birthplace of civilization, the cities. Whatever conveniences the world might have known at this point, they were likely to be found there, not in Canaan.

God tells him to leave behind his people—his friends. This is what would have been familiar to Abraham. A whole culture, a religion of worshipping idols, a way of life.

And God tells him leave behind his father’s household—his family. He waits to make the break until his father has died, but in a family-based culture like this there would have been all kinds of extended relatives, now God is telling Abraham to put them in his rearview mirror.

Notice how particular this is. In this first verse, the word “you” shows up four times. God is focusing entirely on Abraham now. God is offering His exclusive services as Abraham’s travel agent, and He’s telling him to leave everything and everybody he knows and venture out on a journey of faith.

And that’s precisely what this is: a journey of faith. Remember, God hasn’t even told Abraham where he is going at this point, He just says “Go! I’ll tell you to stop when you get there.”

The great reformer John Calvin paraphrased this verse by having God say: “I command thee to go forth with closed eyes…” (Waltke, 205). The book of Hebrews defines faith as “being certain of what we do not see” (11:1). Abraham’s going to need a lot of faith to follow God on this one.

The Promise
But, of course, God has not left Abraham without incentive. In the next two verses God makes no less than 5 promises to Abraham if he will follow these radical instructions.

My friend Matt paraphrases these three verses like this: "Leave your country, your people, and your father's household...and I will bless your socks off!" (3/23/03)

God promises to bless Abraham—that word, “bless”, shows up no less than 5 times here in short order. Listen to the promises God makes:

1 “I will make you into a great nation”

2 “I will bless you”

3 “I will make your name great”

4 “I will bless those who bless you”

5 “and whoever curses you I will curse”

These are fantastic, almost unbelievable blessings. 5 major promises from God, one major act of faith from Abraham.

This is what theologians call "The Offer of the Abrahamic Covenant."

A covenant is an agreement between two parties. Like a contract. Here God offers the covenant. In chapter 15, they will actually make it. And in chapter 17, they will confirm it. God is offering to enter into a contractual relationship with Abraham.

Here, too, we are being introduced to some of the major tensions that are going to carry us through Abraham’s story. God says that Abraham is going to be a great nation, but 11:30 has already told us that his wife is barren. If God is really going to bless Abraham, some things in his family life are going to have to change.

Plus, if Abraham is going to be a great nation, he’s going to have to have some land. Great nations aren’t usually nomadic wanderers going God alone knows where.

As we go farther into the story of Abraham we’ll see these questions of land and descendants again and again.

But, more than that (and more central to our purposes today) we see the scandal of particularity here. God promises to bless Abraham. God promises to protect Abraham. He says, “Whoever blesses you I will bless and whoever curses you I will curse.” In other words: “Look out if you are messing with Abraham, because God’s on his side.”

It’s like going to the beach with your older brother—you know other kids won’t mess with you because your brother is so big. Well, Abraham’s “big brother” is very big indeed.

So, good for Abraham. God takes this obscure man from Iraq and promises to give him a family and a home and to protect him and make his name great. God offers a covenant to Abraham--good for him, he got a great deal.

We have to ask the question again, though: If this is all about Abraham and his family, then why does it matter to us?

The Result
Before we get too frustrated and throw our Bibles away, we need to see God’s intention for this relationship with Abraham

The blessings God offers to Abraham are not just for Abraham’s sake. Look at the end of verse 2: “you will be a blessing.” Then, again, look at the end of verse 3, “all peoples on earth will blessed through you.”

Yes, God is narrowing the focus here. Yes, God is choosing one man out of all the people on earth with whom to covenant with. Yes, from this point on the Bible is going to be pretty exclusively about one tiny little nation. But that does not mean God is callous to the rest of the world. It does not mean that He’s forgotten about them.

Just when it appears the Bible couldn’t get any more exclusive, God reveals his purpose to fling the gates wide open. God’s intention in choosing Abraham is to bless “all the peoples of the earth.”

Here we get a look at the mind of God: He has a plan to choose certain people and through them to bring blessing to the world.

This is truly a pivotal moment in the history of the world. Up to now God has used temporary means to deal with sin. The whole point of the first 11 chapters of the Bible is to emphasize what a problem sin is--from the garden to the flood to the tower of Babel.

There are a few good men in those first 11 chapters—men like Abel and Enoch and Noah—but they are only good individually. God works out salvation with them, but not with the rest of the world. The Chinese Christian Watchmen Nee says Abel, Enoch, and Noah are like “three good rocks in the midst of a sinful torrent.” But now, in Abraham, God is beginning to turn the tide. Now God is actually doing something about the sinful situation. (Nee, 17)

You see where this is going, don’t you?

How is God going to bless all the people of the earth through Abraham? He’s going to do it by having His Son born into Abraham’s family. Abraham is going to bless the world when his great, great, great, great, many great grandson is born. Abraham and his family are going to be a blessing through Jesus. That’s what I mean when I call this a sneak preview of the rest of Bible.

And I’m not the only one who sees it that way. The Apostle Paul calls this verse the “gospel in advance” in the book of Galatians. He sees God, at the very beginning of the Old Testament, announcing the intentions that will lead to the New Testament and the Christian church. Here’s what Paul says:

8The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ (Galatians 3:8)

When God broke His silence and spoke to Abraham he set into motion a plan that would lead us right where we are today: Gentiles worshipping Jesus Christ in a local church that is part of a worldwide church that is increasingly made up of people from all kinds of tribes, and tongues, and nations.

This is why we read about genealogies and kings or about Moses and Esther saving their people from extinction or about the kingly line begun in the union of Boaz and Ruth and all the other stories: so that we can see God preserving His people and readying the world for the appearance of His Son Jesus Christ on earth. This is why this book matters to us. This is why the history of the family of Abraham matters to us. Because it is through this family that God is going to bring His blessing to all the earth.

Epilogue
The rest of our passage is rather anti-climatic—or, depending on how you want to look at it, sets the stage for what will follow. Given an offer like this, Abraham jumps at it. Genesis 12:4 is one of the great statements of obedience in all the Bible:

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

70 years old with a barren wife, accompanied by a squirrelly nephew and with his eyes firmly closed, Abraham goes and begins his journey of faith.

There are going to be some missteps along the way, but Abraham is going to learn what it really means to believe in the Lord.

So Abraham sets out, he sees the Promised Land, he travels through it, and he worships the Lord.

But the verse I really want us to focus on as we wind things down is verse 8. When Abraham reaches this place between Bethel and Ai he builds his second altar and, the verse says, “called on the name of the Lord.” It seems pretty innocuous, but it is significant, because scholars tell us that this expression in this context could just as easily be translated “preached.”

In other words, the program of blessing has begun. Abraham has entered the Promised Land, he’s seen the Canaanites in it (v. 6) and he has begun to proclaim the name of the Lord. He’s begun to tell people about His God.

If the main lesson of this passage is that God has a plan to choose certain people and through them bring blessing to the world, then the application would seem to be that we who have been blessed by God must go forward in faith to participate in His plan.

In other words, we who have been blessed must not keep that blessing to ourselves, but pour it out to the rest of the world.

The same charge of particularity is sometimes leveled against the church today. “Oh, they claim to have it all figured out. They say Jesus is the only way and they’re saved and the rest of the world is going to hell. Well, if they’re going to be so exclusive, then we don’t need them.”

If that’s what people are saying about us, then we’ve got it all wrong. We’re painting the wrong picture. God hasn’t blessed us with salvation in Jesus Christ so that we can flaunt our redemption while taunting the rest of the world with their lostness. That isn’t God’s intention at all.

He’s blessed us so that we can be a blessing. He’s poured out His grace upon on us so that we can be conduits of that grace to the rest of the world.

Do you see this? Do you see how Abraham received God’s blessing and then began to dispense it to those around him?

Some people are like puddles—they want God to pour out all sorts of blessings into them and then they keep it to themselves. But God wants us to be rivers—mighty flowing streams channeling what He has given us in Jesus Christ to the rest of the world.

God’s intention with Abraham was to bless him and thereby set in motion a plan that would bring blessing—and the offer of salvation—to all the world.

In the same way, those of us who are now a part of Abraham’s family by faith—and if you believe in Jesus, then that is what you are: the New Testament makes it clear that the promises made to Abraham are now being fulfilled in the church (cf. Gal 3:16, 26-28)—we have been blessed so that we can pass that blessing on.

Blessed to be a blessing. I’m sure you’ve heard that expression before. It’s something of a cliché. But it is very Biblical as well. If God has blessed you with financial resources, it is Biblical to bless others with what you have. If God has blessed you with talent, it is Biblical to use that talent to bless others. If God has blessed you with time, it is Biblical to use that time to serve others. And if God has blessed you with the gift of salvation—and this is something we all have access to--it is Biblical to share that gift with others.

God’s promises to Abraham grow out in ever expanding circles: individual, national, universal. Abraham, his descendants, all peoples on earth. The Bible is a missionary guide, and we are called to be blessing bearers of salvation to the world.