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Twickenham URC 5 September 1999

The life of Abraham part 5:

The promise is sealed

(Genesis 15: 1-21 + Hebrews 10:19-39)

This morning's reading from Genesis 15 starts with the words: "The word of the Lord came to Abram". In Genesis 13, after Abram and Lot have parted, God first makes a promise to Abram that he will have numerous descendants who will occupy all the land around him. The LORD said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, "Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring for ever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you." (Gen 13:14-17 NIV)

Then in the last part of this series we read of conflict, of Abram raising up a force of men to rescue Lot, and of Melchizedek, priest and king greeting him on his return with bread and wine, and receiving one tenth of what Abram has. And so we come to today's passage. The fighting is over and Abram starts to wonder what it was all about. There has been the cost of battle. He has given one tenth of what he owned to Melchizedek. He is old, tired, childless, has travelled hard and long, and the promises made to him seem to have come to nothing. Once again God comes to him.

'God comes to him'. If the Queen wanted to discuss something with you, you would expect to be summoned to the Palace. You would not expect the Queen to come to your house: you might or might not be embarrassed if she did. A gas man one turned up on my doorstep without warning because the gas was being cut off; he looked around sadly and said "If I may make so bold, you haven't got a woman living here have you". I looked at him all innocent and replied, "Why, does it show?". No doubt the Queen would say "If one may make so bold ...."!

Our God is mightier than any earthly ruler, yet, like the father in the story of the prodigal son, is ready to take the initiative and stretch out a loving hand. Unlike some other religions we are not mere nothings against an all powerful and distant God whom we worship out of fear. Our God, the one who created us, wants to engage with us, wants us to reach out to him, and wants us to be part of his plan. Time and time again in this series we will see this. God comes to Abram tells him to set off for an unknown land. On the return from Egypt and his separation from Lot, God comes to him. God comes to him through Melchizedek bringing bread and wine. Now God comes to him as he sleeps. And God will come again through the visit of the angels, will speak to him as he goes to sacrifice Isaac. Again and again and again God takes the initiative and comes to man.

Abram is weary from battle, probably worried about the threat of reprisals. God has seen this. He has seen Abram's refusal to accept the offerings of the king of Sodom. He tells Abram that he will have his reward. "But what good will that do me?", Abram asks, conscious that he has no heir other than his servant, probably personal steward, Eliezer of Damascus. In passing we will meet Eliezer again later in this series when he is sent off to find a wife for Isaac. He is someone Abraham has a close relationship, someone he can trust implicitly. But he is not a son.

God sees Abram's depression and outlines what will happen. He has seen Abram's refusal to become indebted to the King of Sodom. He has seen his willingness to hand over one tenth of what he had to Melchizedek. "I am your reward", God says. And as our first hymn says "Nothing compares to the promise I have in you". God repeats the promise first given in Genesis 13. All this land that Abram walks over will belong to his descendants, natural descendants, descendants so many that they cannot be counted, and they will take possession of the land you see. Have faith, Abram. Don't despair. What you conceive as impossible, God will bring about. Look at the stars: you will have this many descendants.

Not only is God a God who wants to communicate with us, he is one who is ready to listen to our inmost concerns. Given that the Queen is unlikely to turn up on your doorstep, suppose you got an invitation to the Palace and found yourself in conversation with a member of the Royal Family, I think that most of us would make polite conversation. It would certainly be out of place for us to bring up our own concerns without being given a cue to do so. But God is ready to listen.

Are we weak and heavy laden,
Cumbered with a load of care?
Take it to the Lord in prayer.

Abram feels discouraged. Later Elijah likewise, after his encounter on Mount Carmel. Jonah and many others have since felt the same way. The wonderful thing is that the God we worship is open to us sharing what we are thinking. He does not demand polite small talk. We can, indeed should be, ready to share our inmost thought with God, and allow him to help us both through his immediate response to our prayers, but also through those Christian friends that he has given us.

After Abram's first question, "How can this be?", comes a request for a sign, "How can I know?". Abram, like Gideon and many others in the centuries to follow, asks for a sign. How can I know that these things will happen. God tells him to prepare a sacrifice. He lays it out and waits. The sun goes down. He falls into a deep sleep, and we are told that a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. And through this darkness the Lord again speaks to him. This land will be yours, but not for four hundred years. You will die in peace. Your people will be enslaved and cruelly treated. But when the time is right I will give all this land to them. The Hebrew word for covenant, beriyth, is derived from the word for cut. As a sign of sealing a solemn agreement it was the custom to sacrifice an animal, cut it into two halves, then walk between them. We read about this in Jeremiah 34. 18ff: "The men who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, I will hand over to their enemies who seek their lives. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth".

Then God puts his signature to the promise he has made by sending a flaming torch between the divided carcasses. The promise has been made and sealed.

This is an agreement with a long long time period. God has his own timetable. We could have sung 'God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year'. God's timetable is not our timetable. This series will probably have 13 parts - 13 parts you may think: at this rate he'll still be on it come the next century! But Abram and we have to learn to move at God's pace not ours.

In future parts of this series we will see Abram and Sarah deciding that God needs a helping hand, and so he has a child by Sarah's maid, Hagar - and not surprisingly this causes problems. He then has to wait a further twelve years before the promise is reaffirmed and the promised son is given. God does listen to our prayers: sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no, and sometimes not yet. Moses laboured for years before God called him, Jesus was around 30 when he was baptised and then had to spend forty days in the desert before he started his ministry, and after Paul's conversion it was some while before he began his missionary work. This is not wasted time, or should not be time wasted. We need to trust in God to bring his promises to fruition in his own time and have to be ready to let him set the timetable. From our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews we get the impression that the members of the church were starting to slip away. They had read the promises of a second coming, but because they had not happened within a relatively short period they were beginning to have doubts. They are told "You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised".

Our God is a God who keeps his promises. We see this as the Old Testament unfolds. The Bible contains numerous promises to us, promises on which we can claim. And most of all we see the fulfillment of so many Old Testament promises in the coming of Jesus Christ, with that great promise that all who believe in him shall not perish but have everlasting life. Thanks be to God for this greatest of all promises.

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Hymns: Shout to the Lord; R&S: 556: Have faith in God, my heart; 121: The God of Abraham praise; 731: You are before me, Lord (Psalm 139); Jesus Christ, our Living Lord