Sermon 08-17-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 2: Abraham”

August 26, 2014

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Prior to today’s scripture, Abraham had sacrificed plenty for the sake of God’s call. But everything he did, one could argue, he did in order to receive the promise from God. The question Satan asked of Job, he could ask of Abraham: Does Abraham serve God for nothing? What would Abraham do if God took his blessings away? Would Abraham remain faithful?

What about me? Do I serve God for nothing? What about you? This is an intensely personal sermon for me. Enjoy!

 Sermon Text: Genesis 22:1-18

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I know many of us were deeply saddened to learn last Monday that actor and comedian Robin Williams committed suicide. He was only 63. Williams, as we’ve all since learned, struggled with clinical depression and alcoholism. He had only in the past few years fallen off the wagon after many years of sobriety.

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I suppose each of us has our favorite Robin Williams movie or moment. But I can say with great confidence that for many men of my generation, Williams’s portrayal of English teacher John Keating in the movie Dead Poets Society deeply moved us. In the movie, Keating teaches at an elite, all-boys preparatory school in New England in the late-’50s. He challenges his students to “seize the day”—carpe deim in Latin—to find the courage to be your own person, to not be shackled by other people’s expectations, to live life to the fullest.

I was 19 when that movie came out—the perfect age to be blown away by the movie’s message. And not just me! Every young man I knew!

My good friend John and I were working for the student newspaper at Georgia Tech at the time. And John was—well, he was a nuclear engineering major—and if you’ve seen The Big Bang Theory, he was like a character on that show. Heck, I was too! But whereas I was more like a cool nerd—like Leonard, except without the girlfriend—John was more like Raj—I mean, he was so shy he could hardly speak to a girl! And I point this out because John was in love with a very pretty co-ed who also worked at the newspaper. But all he could do was pine for her in secret—because his knees became like Jell-O if he so much as looked in her direction!

But then we saw Dead Poets Society… And John was ready to seize the day! He resolved that he was going to win her love. He was going to ask her out. But he realized that he had talk to her first. But he was going to do it! “Today is the day, Brent!” he would tell me. “Today I’m going to talk to her! I’m going to ask her out! Carpe deim!” And I’d be like, “Carpe deim, John!” Later that evening: “Did you talk to her?” “No, I chickened out.” And then the next day: “Today is the day! Carpe deim!” “Carpe deim, John!” Then later that day: “Did you talk to her?” “No!” This went on for, like, a month, until, finally, John summoned the courage to ask her out and… well, they celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary last June!

No, I’m kidding. When he finally did ask her out, she of course said no! Then she got a restraining order and… the rest is history.

Butthe point is he summoned the courage to talk to her… to ask! And it was all because of Robin Williams! Seize the day!

In the movie, one of Keating’s students, Neil, is so inspired to seize the day that he decides to pursue his dream of becoming an actor. So he auditions for a Shakespeare play at a community theater and gets the lead role. Which seems great… until his father finds out and accuses Mr. Keating of putting wild ideas into his son’s head. No son of his is going to be an actor. No son of his is going to be a starving artist! No, his son is going to go to Harvard, just like he did, and he’s going to become a doctor, like he did… a respectable profession. Neil protests, but the father withdraws him from school and enrolls his son in a military school. Tragically, in response, Neil commits suicide.

I always loved the movie, but as I was reflecting on the it this past week, I realized something: that movie kind of hits close to home for me. In a way, I’m not so different from Neil. I’ve told you before that when I was 14, Jesus got hold of me and didn’t let go! When I was in high school, I was very active in church. I was a leader in our church’s youth group—I led Bible studies and prayer groups. Someone at church—a college-aged student who was a mentor to me—he said that he believed I should consider ministry as a career, that maybe God was calling me to do that. And I thought, “Yeah, maybe so.”

So I told my parents—and they hit the roof! They got angry! Their attitude at the time was this: “Church and religion were all well and good. It’s important to ‘get right’ with God and be saved so you’ll go to heaven when you die. But let’s not get crazy. Let’s not be fanatical about it. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, it’s fiercely competitive, and when it comes to making it in the real world, you’ve got to get a good job that pays the bills. Ministers don’t make a lot of money,” they said. And they referred to our church’s youth minister, whom I loved, and they said, “I bet he doesn’t make $25,000 a year, and he’s been working at the church for 20 years!”

The message my parents communicated to me, in so many words, was, “You cannot be a successful, productive, respectable member of society and be a minister. Forget about it. Do something else instead.”

And so I did… for a long time.

Don’t misunderstand me. My parents blessed me in so many ways, and later in life they both experienced a deepening, a strengthening, of their own Christian faith. But early on they tried to instill within me a definition of success that was mostly measured in terms of the Almighty Dollar rather than Almighty God!

And these discouraging words about ministry had an effect on me. And if I’m completely honest, they still do. I’m learning to tune this voice out, I promise, but if I listen closely enough I can still hear my father’s voice in the back of my mind saying, “You’re not successful enough. You haven’t achieved enough. You haven’t earned enough. You’re not measuring up to my standard of success.”

And so, as a result, there’s at least a small part of me that always feels as if I have something to prove: to myself, to my parents, to other people—to prove that I am successful. And I wonder, “Will there come a day when I won’t have anything left to prove, when I’ll know for sure that I’ve finally arrived, when it will be obvious to me and everyone else that I am a success?”

And if that day comes, what would that success look like in order to quiet that voice? Would I have to become like Billy Graham and lead a stadium full of people to faith in Christ through the power of my eloquent preaching? Would I have to become like Rick Warren, pastor a mega-church, and publish best-selling devotional books? Would I have to be elected a bishop and lead our United Methodist Church to a bright and faithful future?

Ah, who am I kidding? Unless I change, no matter what success I achieve, it would never be enough.

After all, suppose I was like the character Neil in Dead Poets Society. Suppose I wanted to be an actor. How would I measure success then? Having a number-one prime-time TV show? Starring in some of the most financially successful and critically acclaimed movies ever made? Living in mansions? Dating supermodels? Being beloved by millions? Winning Academy Awards?

Good heavens, Robin Williams was an actor who accomplished all of these things and more—and they weren’t enough for him. He said so in an interview just a few years ago. He said that no matter what dizzying heights of fame and fortune you achieve, “You bottom out… People say, ‘You have an Academy Award.’ The Academy Award lasted about a week, then one week later people are going, ‘Hey, Mork.’”

None of these things were enough for him to make him happy or contented in life—and I don’t think it’s just because he was depressed. If any of us are counting on people, or popularity, or money, or fame, or awards, or recognition, or any kind of material success to bring us happiness, we are going to be sorely disappointed. As Robin Williams indicated, we can’t live off those things for very long and be happy.

And I know this, and I preach this: true happiness is found in God alone, in obeying God alone, in serving God alone. Nothing else. But when I read today’s scripture, I come face to face with the depressing fact that while I want to love God with all my heart, I want seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, I want to take up my cross and follow Jesus, the truth is that I want other things, too—including trophies, and prizes, and awards. I want other people to recognize how successful I am.

And at my sinful worst I think, “If I can’t have that kind of worldly success, what good am I?”

When I was in Alpharetta, a church member talked me into joining the Lion’s Club. And I was at a Lion’s Club social and I met a fellow member of the club who was a wealthy business executive who recently moved here from Germany. His name was Yorg, and he was about my age. And he was successful by my dad’s standards of success. And Yorg spoke with a heavy German accent, which made him even more intimidating. And when I told him what I did for a living, he literally laughed at me. He said, “I’m sorry. I just can’t fathom anyone going into ministry. I’ve never known anyone my age who was a pastor. No one where I’m from even goes to church. We go when we’re children, and then we all drop out.”

So, you can imagine how his words wounded my fragile ego, right?

Anyway, months passed—maybe a year—and I saw Yorg at a Lion’s Club meeting. “Brent, you’re not going to believe this! A few months ago, I started going with my family to the North Point Church. And I liked it. I got all these questions answered. And I believe now! And I’m reading the Bible—every night. Every night!”

And I thought, “Oh, yeah! That’s what true success in life looks like, Brent! Believing in Jesus Christ as your Savior and following him as your Lord! It’s not all that other stuff, dummy! You’re supposed to know that! That’s why God called you into ministry—to lead people like Yorg to the Lord.” There’s nothing more important. It doesn’t matter what other people think. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.

At the beginning of today’s scripture, Abraham—like Robin Williams—achieved all the success that the world of his day could offer. About 40 years earlier, God called Abraham and his wife Sarah to embark on a special mission: to leave their home and family and native country and go to a land that God would show them. God said that he would make of them a great nation and that through their descendants the whole world would be blessed—a blessing that was ultimately fulfilled through Jesus Christ.

But if God were going to make a great nation of Abraham and Sarah’s descendants, they would first have to have a child. And they were childless and infertile—and long past the point of having children anyway. Finally, after 25 years of trying to get pregnant—with a lot of trouble and heartache in between—Sarah gets pregnant and they have the promised son, Isaac. Then a few years after that, after some more trouble and heartache, they have a permanent place to call home—on a small piece of the Promised Land that would later belong to Israel.

So Abraham was successful in every way! He had wealth. He had land. He had peace and security. He had a son. And, most importantly… he had the promise of God: “I will make of you a great nation,” God said, “and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[1] “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be.”[2]

Abraham answered the call and did everything God asked of him—not perfectly, not without sin or doubt—but he did it. If there was anyone who had nothing left to prove, surely it was Abraham, right?

Wrong! Abraham still had one thing left to prove.

See, while it’s true that Abraham had sacrificed and suffered in response to God’s call, he sacrificed and suffered in order to get something in return… in order to receive God’s promise.

Some of you may remember Satan’s accusation against Job: “Does he serve God for nothing?” In other words, “You treat Job so well, God, and have blessed him with so many children, so much land, and so many possessions, no wonder he serves you! If you remove all of these blessings from him, he’ll curse you to your face!”[3]

The test in today’s scripture is this: Does Abraham serve God for nothing? Is Abraham willing to serve God even if it means forfeiting the promise? Is he willing to follow God if there’s nothing in it for him? Is he willing to follow God if all he gets in return is… God?

Is God enough for Abraham? Is God enough for me? Is God enough for you?

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The Rev. Canon Andrew White, “Vicar of Baghdad”

There are Christians in Iraq who are being tested by God right now, and they’re proving on a daily basis that God is enough for them—even if holding onto God means losing everything else, including their very lives. Andrew White, known as the “Vicar of Baghdad,” is a priest in the Church of England. He pastors the only Anglican church left in Iraq. Many of his parishioners have fled the country; but most have stayed. He said in an interview last week that if his parishioners decide to stay in Iraq, alongside him, “You have to be prepared to die for your faith.” Because that’s what’s happening every day, he said: He’s seen Christians beheaded; he’s seen their children slaughtered and sawed in half—all because they refuse to renounce their faith.

His example, and the examples of his fellow Christians, inspires me… and challenges me. Because I think, “If God tested me the way he’s testing my brothers and sisters in Iraq, I wonder if I would pass the test—the way so many of them have?” On my best days, waffling and wavering sinner that I am, even I believe that I could pass the test and lay down my life for my Lord. But how can I know—when I’m so often unwilling to lay down far less than that for him—like my sinful pride, my ego, my fragile self-esteem, my time—including time spent in prayer, time spent serving and loving my neighbor—my money. Every dollar I make belongs to God, and I’m always wondering, “How much do I have to give?” when I should be asking, “How much do I need to keep?”

When Abraham passes the test in today’s scripture, God tells him, “Now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” In other words, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son, whom he loved, is proof of Abraham’s love for God.

If that’s the proof of true love, then we can be confident that God loves us: because he didn’t ask Abraham to do anything that he himself wasn’t willing to do—when God the Father sent his Son, his only Son, with whom he was well-pleased, to die on a cross. And God didn’t require Isaac to submit to something that he wasn’t also willing to submit to—when God the Son willingly submitted to death on the cross, out of love, for sinners like you and me—so that we could be reconciled to God; that we could have our sins forgiven; that we could become children of God; that we could be saved; that we could have new power in our lives through the Holy Spirit; that we could have eternal live and future resurrection. Amen.

[1] Genesis 12:2-3.

[2] Genesis 15:5

[3] Paraphrase of Job 1:9-11

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