Sermon 03-12-2023: “Features of Faithful Christian Living”

March 21, 2023

Scripture: Genesis 11:27-12:9

If you turned on the radio in 1997, chances are you heard a song called “MmmBop,” by a band of three brothers who called themselves “Hanson.” “MmmBop” was a number one song in America and around the world—the biggest song of the year, one of the biggest songs of the decade! The band has made a lot of music since then, but they are by far most remembered for “MmmBop.”

Last month, to the surprise of many, the drummer of Hanson—Zac Hanson, who’s married with five kids—got ordained as a deacon in an Eastern Orthodox Church. 

To say the least, it is a long journey from pop superstardom and life at the top of the charts to answering God’s call into ordained ministry.

I think we can all agree, Zac Hanson did not follow the easiest, the most predictable, or the most direct path

So perhaps in this way Zac Hanson has at least a little bit in common with Abraham in today’s scripture. Abraham, like Zac Hanson, answers God’s call, but his life hardly follows any kind of easy or direct or predictable or trouble-free path!

And that’s what this sermon is about: When we, like Abraham, answer God’s call—as all of us do when we decide to become disciples of Jesus Christ… but when we answer God’s call, today’s scripture highlights three features that will characterize our lives: Number one, failure. Number two, uncertainty. Number three, Jesus: our lives will be all about Jesus.

By the way, Abram and Sarai, as they’re called in today’s scripture, will later have their names changed to Abraham and Sarah—names by which they are much better known. So I’m calling them Abraham and Sarah throughout this sermon!

But Point Number One, failure is a feature when we answer God’s call…

In today’s scripture Abraham travels from Ur of the Chaldeans—present-day Iraq—up to a place called Haran—present-day Turkey—and down through Syria to a city in Canaan, the “Promised Land,” called Negeb, which is in the south of present-day Israel. If airplanes existed back then, the shortest route from Ur of the Chaldeans to Canaan would be due west. But you couldn’t travel by land that way because you’d have to cross the Arabian Desert. So you had to go around the desert, which is why Abraham’s family traveled northwest to Haran, and then southwest to Negeb. 

We need to notice chapter 11, verse 31: “they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there.” In other words, Abraham and his family intended to go to Canaan, but they stopped halfway, in a place called Haran. 

Why were they going to Canaan in the first place? Because Abraham received a call from God, which we don’t read about until we get to chapter 12, verse 1.

Which means that verse 1 of chapter 12 is a flashback to what happened before chapter 11, verse 31. Indeed, if you look at the footnote of the ESV on chapter 12, verse 1, it says that you could translate it, “Now the Lord had said”—because it was something that God already told Abraham… in the past. Indeed, that’s the way the NIV, the NLT, and the King James translate it. Abraham’s call took place before his family was in Haran… when they were still in Ur of the Chaldeans.

And this sequence of events fits perfectly well with what Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian faith, says much later in Acts 7:2-3, when he’s giving a speech before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council: 

Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia [Mesopotamia is the same place as “Ur of the Chaldeans”] before he lived in Haran, and said to him, “Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.”

Stephen is definitely referring to Genesis 12:1, except he’s saying that Abraham got this call before he settled in Haran, while he was still living in his homeland of Ur of the Chaldeans. 

Why would Moses, the author of Genesis, tell the story in this confusing way? One commentator explained that he wanted to close the book on the brief story of Terah, Abraham’s father, so he could start fresh with the far more important story of Abraham in chapter 12, verse 1—which is going to take many more chapters to tell.

But my point in emphasizing the timeline is this: Abraham received the call from God to “go to the land I will show you.” And he knew that he was supposed to go to Canaan. Yet, by settling in Haran instead, Abraham was only halfway to the place God was calling him to go.

But that raises another intriguing question: Why were Terah, Abraham’s father, and Lot, his nephew, with Abraham in the first place?

Remember God’s call: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…” “Kindred” isn’t a word that we use very much anymore, but it just means what? Family. “Leave your family.” And that surely includes leaving one’s father, too—especially because God tells, “Leave your father’s house”—that surely doesn’t mean only the physical house itself! No, it means, “Leave your father, too.”

But Abraham doesn’t do that… Instead of leaving his family, he takes them with him, which implies that right here, at the very beginning of answering God’s call, Abraham disobeys God in not one but two ways! He doesn’t go all the way to Canaan and he doesn’t leave his family behind!

“And okay,” you  might say, “but we’re all sinners. Including Abraham. The important thing is that Abraham learns from his mistakes, repents of his sins, and grows closer to God as a result.

And you might say that, but… it’s not as if these two early instances of sin and disobedience are the only failures of Abraham… Because another major part of God’s call is that he and Sarah were supposed to have a promised son… together… And through this child God was going to make of them a great nation. And, yes, this is going to take faith in a miracle for this to happen because the couple are no longer of child-bearing years, and even when they were younger, they were physically unable to have kids. 

So they wait patiently, right?

Wrong! Several more years pass… Still no child! Still no son! Still no heir to the promise! And in Genesis 16, Abraham and Sarah decide that God is obviously not going to keep his promise to give them their promised son. So here’s their alternative plan: What if Abraham takes Sarah’s young Egyptian servant, Hagar, as his concubine, or his “secondary wife,” sleeps with her, and has a son with her? Legally, the child would become Sarah’s son. So they think, “Yeah! That’s the ticket!”

And sure enough, Hagar has a son with Abraham. His name is Ishmael. And that whole story ends about as badly as you can imagine! Hagar and Ishmael end up okay, but, oh my goodness, there’s a lot of heartache before that happens!

Also, on two different occasions, Abraham lies about Sarah being his wife, and allows her to be sold into a king’s harem… He allows both the Pharaoh of Egypt and Abimelech, king of Gerar, to take Sarah as a concubine. In Abimelech’s case, this takes place even after God told Abraham and Sarah that within one year, Sarah would give birth to the promised son!

In both cases, Abraham brings this trouble upon himself and Sarah because of his fear!

But do you see how disastrous that might have been? How could God fulfill his promise to give Abraham a child through Sarah if Sarah is no longer even living with Abraham! In both those cases, of course, God bails Abraham out to ensure that both Pharaoh and Abimelech give Sarah back without touching her. But Abraham makes big mistakes! He experiences huge lapses in judgment and not to mention faith in God. He sins in spectacular ways!

I promise I’m not picking on Abraham. He does plenty of things right, as well!

But here’s what I want us to consider: If it were possible for Abraham to derail God’s plan for his life, guess what…? Abraham would have derailed it… many times over!

Did any of y’all see that submarine movie, U-571, from the year 2000, starring a young Matthew McConaughey? It’s set during World War II. In it, the Americans go on a top-secret mission to capture a German submarine. And when the Germans find out about it, the Americans inside the German sub have to evade enemy depth charges by going really, really deep in the ocean. And the deeper they go, the greater the pressure on the ship. It’s as if the hull of the ship is being squeezed. You can hear the sound of metal crunching and almost giving way. Bolts are breaking and shooting around like bullets on the inside. One of the American officers, played by Harvey Keitel, is amazed that they’re all still alive… that the ship is holding together in spite of the intense pressure. The movie implies that American submarines at that time weren’t nearly as shipshape as their German counterparts! 

Finally, Keitel looks around and whispers to his shipmates—and using an ethnic slur for Germans that I won’t repeat—but he says the movie’s most memorable line: “These [Germans] know how to build a boat!”

He’s impressed… These Americans, after all, practically speaking, have done nearly everything they can to destroy this ship, yet somehow it keeps holding together!

In a nutshell, that’s what God’s plan for Abraham is like! Abraham is going to do everything he can to put God’s plan for him to the test—to misdirect that plan, to derail it, to destroy it… 

Let’s review just four important ways that Abraham tries to derail God’s plan, which we’ve already seen: First, he tries to derail God’s plan with Haran. Remember? What does Haran represent? It represents settling for something that is far less than the best that God wants for our lives. 

So Abraham was willing to settle for less… Yet God doesn’t give up on Abraham; God remains faithful to his plan! 

Next, Abraham tries to derail God’s plan with Terah and Lot. What do they represent? They represent continuing to associate with people from whom God has said, “Get away now! Don’t entangle yourself with these people. They are not good for you.” 

So Abraham messed around with the wrong people. Yet God doesn’t give up on Abraham; God remains faithful to his plan!

Next, Abraham tries to derail God’s plan with Hagar and Ishmael. What do they represent? They represent doubting God’s promises… They represent our failure to trust in God’s Word… and instead to trust in ourselves, to lean on our own understanding, to be “wise in our own eyes.” 1 Proverbs 3:5 through 7. They represent being foolish

So Abraham was incredibly foolish. Yet God doesn’t give up on Abraham; God remains faithful to his plan!

Finally, Abraham tries to derail God’s plan with Pharaoh and Abimelech. What do they represent? They represent giving in to fear. Acting out of fear, instead of trusting in Almighty God. The psalmist says, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” Psalm 118:6. Abraham believes that “man” can do much harm to him. And he is very afraid… He’s afraid because doesn’t believe that God is powerful enough to protect him from these powerful, frightening people or circumstances.” 

So Abraham often let fear control him. Yet God doesn’t give up on Abraham; God remains faithful to his plan!

To say the least, God’s plan often succeeded in spite of Abraham, not because of him!

And what do we call that? What do we call this stick-to-it-iveness on God’s part… this stubborn insistence by God that his plan, rather than any human plan, comes to pass? That’s called grace. Even after we answer God’s call and resolve to live according to his plan, we never stop needing or depending on or living by God’s grace.

And since that’s the case, you tell me… What is your Haran? What is your Terah and Lot? What is your Hagar and Ishmael? What is your Pharaoh and Abimelech?

Listen: if you’re a child of God through faith in his Son Jesus, there is no mistake, no sin, no failure, no foolish decision, no setback, no circumstance that God can’t or won’t redeem. 

There is no divorce, no broken relationship, no sinful relationship, no job loss, no bankruptcy, no business failure, no problem with your kids, no addiction, no drug problem, no alcoholism, no frightening medical diagnosis, no sickness, no disease, no legal problem… that God can’t or won’t redeem and use as part of his plan for your life… if only you’re turn to God’s Son Jesus, and trust in him, and surrender to him! 

If you’ve answered God’s call, you’re just not strong enough to derail God’s plan for your life!

Do you worry that you’ve made some terrible mistake, that you’ve suffered some awful setback, that you’ve sinned in some spectacular way, and now you’re hopelessly out of God’s will?

Don’t you believe it for a moment!

Because listen…. when God made his plan for your life, he factored in your failures. Did you hear that? When God made his plan for your life, he factored in your failures! He already knew the mistakes you were going to make; the sins you were going to sin. So your failures become a part of God’s plan for you.

And now listen to what the apostle Paul says about his failure in 1 Timothy 1:15 and 16:

This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all. But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life.

Do you hear what Paul is saying? Well, he’s saying a lot… But one important thing he’s saying is this: All of Paul’s failures have now become features of Christ’s faithfulness to him. He’s saying, “If God did this for me, think of what he can do for you!” These failures in his past are now a cause for God’s glory!

So… Don’t say “I’ve made a mess of my life, now I’m out of God’s will.” Instead, say, “God’s will… is to turn these failures into features of Christ’s faithfulness to me.”

Let me repeat: If you’re a child of God, you’re never outside of God’s will because God’s will is to turn your failures into features of Christ’s faithfulness to you!

And he’ll do it, too! Be honest with him. Confess your sins! He’ll give you grace, he’ll give you power to turn away from your sins and turn to him!

So that’s Point Number One: Failures become features of God’s faithfulness to us!

Point Number Two: Uncertainty is another feature of answering God’s call. In other words, when we answer God’s call, it will often be far from clear exactly what God is up to in our lives… and God’s plan usually won’t work out the way we expect.

My family and I are big fans of the show Survivor. Season 44 recently started. And I’m delighted to say that this year a Georgia Tech student named Carson Garrett is one of the contestants… and he’s doing well so far. He’s an aerospace engineering student who interns with NASA. And my son Townshend knows him! Because he’s in the same campus Christian organization that Townshend is in! So Carson is a Christian!

Anyway, as you probably know, when tribes compete with one another, their competitions often involve solving puzzles—like giant jigsaw puzzles. It takes the whole team to move the pieces into place.

And on last week’s show, Carson explained that in preparation for being on the show, he printed out 3-D replicas of all past puzzles from Survivor—using a 3D printer, which is the most Georgia Tech thing to do. And then he practiced putting each of these puzzles together. 

He did so in hopes that when he’s on the show, the puzzle he or his team is asked to solve will be just like one of these… or at least very similar.

And that may be a good strategy on Survivor, but it won’t help us very much when it comes to God’s plan for our lives!

After all, consider verse 1 again: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” To the land that I will show you… “Where is this land? When will you show it to me?” God doesn’t say exactly… He doesn’t say, “Let me give you the longitude and the latitude before you take these first steps of faith to answer my call.” That’s not the way God’s plan usually works!

And this uncertainty can bother us!

It bothered the prophet Jeremiah! God has called Jeremiah to share with the people of Judah some very unwelcome news: Because of Judah’s unrepentant idolatry and sinfulness, God is sending the Babylonians to conquer them and send them into exile. 

So Jeremiah does exactly what God tells him to do—he shares this message of judgment with his fellow countrymen, he performs whatever prophetic actions God asks him to perform—but in chapter 20, Jeremiah experiences for the first time violent opposition to his message. The priest in charge of the temple has him beaten and put in stocks. 

And Jeremiah says something remarkable in verse 7 of chapter 20. He prays to God and says, “O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived… I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me.”

Wait… What is Jeremiah talking about? God hasn’t deceived him. What does he mean by that?

Well, Jeremiah was under the false impression that if only he was faithful in doing what God told him to do, he would be okay… as he defines “okay.” In other words, Jeremiah had certain expectations about how God’s plan would work out for him. If God’s plan were like a jigsaw puzzle, Jeremiah knew precisely how those pieces were supposed to fit together… To say the least, God’s plan, as far as knew, should not have included being arrested, being put in stocks, being beaten, being mocked, being laughed at… facing widespread rejection from people he knows and loves.

God, he believed, didn’t keep up his end of the bargain!

Jeremiah assumed that if God was powerful enough to send an army to defeat Judah, God was more than powerful enough to protect him from this kind of mistreatment at the hands of his fellow countrymen. Granted, God never told him he was going to protect him from harm; that’s just what he assumed. That’s what he expected. That’s how he thought God’s plan was going to work out in his life. And God let him down… because God’s plan didn’t work out according to his expectations.

See, I told you in Point Number One that we’re going to fail, but our failures don’t have the power to derail God’s plans for our lives… 

Okay, but what about when we don’t fail? What about when we’re faithful? What about those times when we mostly do everything right? Shouldn’t God’s plan, in that case, be smooth sailing?

That’s what Point Number Two is about!

Maybe we say:

“I’m doing what you asked me to do, Lord! Why do I keep encountering these obstacles?”

“I know I’m far from perfect, Lord, but good grief… I’m better than I used to be! Why does my life continue to be so hard?”

“I’m trying my best to stand on the truth of your Word, Lord. Why won’t you show me your favor in a more conspicuous way? Why is life such a struggle?”

I’m sure I wouldn’t be quite so honest, so candid,or so blunt, as Jeremiah… and accuse God of “deceiving me.” But still… I probably have this expectation that when I’m faithful to God, or inasmuch as I’m faithful to God, he will show me his favor by doing X, Y, and Z. And if he doesn’t do X, Y, and Z, I’ll be disappointed.

Listen… Twenty-five years passed between the time when Abraham first heard God’s call and the promise of a son in verse 1 and the time when Sarah actually had the promised son! Twenty-five years of waiting—with just a few episodes in between when God was actually talking to Abraham.

That sounds incredibly hard, doesn’t it?

What’s true for Jeremiah and what’s true for Abraham is also true for us: Trouble in our lives is not necessarily a sign that God is unhappy with us. It’s is not necessarily a sign that we’re doing something wrong. It’s not necessarily a sign that God is failing to show us his favor

After all, consider Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians chapter 1, verses 8 and 9:

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.

Why did Paul say it happened? Because these evil men thew them in prison and mistreated them and almost killed them? No… There was a deeper reason that those evil men knew nothing about when they mistreated Paul and his fellow missionaries so badly. And that deeper reason, Paul says, is “that we might not rely on ourselves but on God.

It’s safe to say that this imprisonment wasn’t something that Paul expected or wanted… It’s safe to say that it wasn’t Paul’s plan. But it was God’s plan, and no matter how much trouble it was, God used it for Paul’s good.

And God does the same for us, too!

That’s Point Number Two.

Point Number Three… When we answer God’s call, our lives will be all about Jesus! After all, Abraham’s life was all about Jesus!

See verse 3: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And the ultimate way in which “all the families of the earth are blessed” is through one of Abraham’s descendants: Jesus… through his life, death, and resurrection he makes it possible for us to have our sins forgiven, to be adopted into God’s family forever, and to have eternal life.

The apostle Paul interprets this scripture in Galatians 3:8 and 9:

And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

We are “blessed along with Abraham.” Why? 

The author of Hebrews said that Abraham and other Old Testament saints “died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar…” 2

What Abraham could only “see and greet from afar,” we have living within our hearts! Because we have Jesus. We have his very Spirit living within us! 

Paul writes in Philippians 3:8, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”

Knowing Jesus is the greatest treasure any of us can have—it’s a treasure that we begin enjoying right now; it’s better than any treasure world offers. And it’s a treasure we’ll enjoy in all its fullness on the other side of death, eternity, and resurrection!

Do you know this treasure? 

If you’ve answered God’s call by receiving Christ as Savior and Lord, of course you won’t want to keep this treasure for yourself, you’ll want to share it with others!

What could God be calling you to do, even this week, to share Jesus with others?

  1.  Proverbs 3:5-7
  2.  Hebrews 11:13a

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