God’s Call and the Life of Faith

May 19, 2019 ()

Bible Text: Genesis 11:27-32, Genesis 12:1-9 |


God’s Call and the Life of Faith | Genesis 11:27-12:9
Brian Hedges | May 19, 2019

Turn in your Bibles this morning to the book of Genesis, Genesis 11 and 12. This morning we are launching a new series. It’s actually kind of a continuation of an ongoing trek through the book of Genesis, and we’re touching this over the years. Every year to 18 months or so we’re doing another segment of this lengthy book, so in the spring of 2016 we looked at the creation and fall in Genesis 1-3, and then last year, during the winter season of 2018, we looked at the stories from Genesis 4-11 and salvation through judgment, the stories of Cain and Abel and the Noah and the Flood and then the Tower of Babel.

This morning we’re beginning a new segment. We’re going to look at the Abraham narratives over the next eight to ten weeks; we’ll be working our way from Genesis 12-25. I’m calling this segment of our series “The God of Promise and the Life of Faith.”

Now, I’m excited about doing this. I’ve preached a few sermons on Abraham over the years, but never sequentially through the Abraham narratives. I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, so it’s exciting to be digging in.

Let me give you some of the reasons why it’s exciting. First of all, it’s exciting because they are great stories, and isn’t it a marvelous thing that God, in giving us his word, has given us such a variety of different kinds of literature? Now, I love the teaching parts of Scripture, the letters of Paul, sermons and letters and epistles; I enjoy digging into that. I love reading about the life of Jesus and the parables and the miracles of Jesus, and especially the narratives regarding Jesus’ cross and resurrection; we’ve just been in that in the gospel according to Luke. But I love getting into the stories! The stories are a little challenging for us sometimes, but they speak to us in unique ways, and I think everyone loves a good story, and these are good stories. They’re real stories (this is history), but it’s given to us in a very literary, story kind of format, and that makes it very engaging for us as we dig into it.

But not only do we have stories here, we have wonderful theology in the book of Genesis. The book of Genesis is full of stories that reveal to us something about our God. In fact, when we get into these narratives of Abraham, one of the things we will begin to see is that God is unveiling his character to us in these stories, he is showing us something about his heart for this family of Abraham and also his heart for the nations. We begin to understand something about God’s covenant and God’s promises to us, and we learn about God’s grace, his mercy, and the life of faith, what it means to believe and to follow God through faith.

That means that these stories are also very practical. They’re very practical. Romans 15:4 says that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” So we have good reason to use the Old Testament Scriptures in this way, not only to teach us the truth about God, but these Scriptures give us very practical teaching about what it means to walk by faith.

In fact, Charles Spurgeon said something about Abraham that I thought was interesting. It’s interesting to me, Spurgeon almost never preached series. He didn’t do what I’m doing. He wouldn’t take a book of the Bible and just march sequentially through it, and he had very specific reasons for doing that. But every once in awhile (I think Spurgeon just couldn’t help himself), he would preach a short series. He did that with the life of Abraham in 1868, and in his first sermon on Abraham this is what he said.

He said, “Abraham, the man of faith, is a type of all believing men, and the narrative of his life, if rightly considered, is the mirror of the history of all the saints of God.”

I think Spurgeon is right. I think that as we read the story of Abraham we will see that it’s a mirror for our experience as well, our experience of God’s grace and what it means to live by faith and to walk by faith. So this morning we begin where the Abraham narratives begin, in Genesis 11:27-32, and then we look at the first segment of the story in chapter 12:1-9.

We begin with the genealogy in chapter 11:27. This is a major break in the book of Genesis, the beginning of a new segment, so it’s appropriate to begin here. So let’s read the text, and then let’s consider the call of God and the life of faith. Listen to God’s word, Genesis 11:27.

“Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran fathered Lot. Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his kindred, in Ur of the Chaldeans. And Abram and Nahor took wives. The name of Abram's wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor's wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. Now Sarai was barren; she had no child. Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife, and 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. The days of Terah were 205 years, and Terah died in Haran. Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 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.’ So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb.”

This is God’s word.

So, two things that I want us to look at this morning, the call of God and the life of faith. I think it would be appropriate to say that the whole Christian life can be summarized in these two things. The whole Christian life is a life of response to the call of God. Everything that happens in your life as a Christian happens because it begins with God’s call, and everything that happens in your life as a Christian happens under the umbrella of faith. So God’s call and the life of faith; those are the two things I want us to consider.

I. The Call of God

But I want to show you several things about each one of these, because I think Abraham’s call is something of a paradigm for our own experience. Now, it’s true that Abraham was unique in some ways in salvation history. He is the father of the nation of Israel, he is the father of the faithful, he is the one through whom God will bring his Son into the world, this promised seed. The seed of Abraham, Galatians 3 tells us, is ultimately Christ. Christ is the great descendant of Abraham. So Abraham is unique in many ways, but he’s also very typical of the believer, and I think it’s right, as we read the story of Abraham, to see in Abraham’s story a mirror for our own.

Now Abraham, of course, in this passage is called Abram. His name isn’t changed until chapter 17. I’m probably going to slip up and keep calling him Abraham, so Abraham, Abram; same person, just depending on what part of the text you’re in.

So as we look at Abraham’s call, let’s notice several things, I think, that it teaches us about our own.

(1) Here’s the first: the call of God in Abraham’s life; we see, first of all, that God calls us out of darkness, and he called Abram out of darkness as well. Now, this isn’t, perhaps, obvious, because we don’t really know the geography and the history and the culture in which Abraham lived, without a little bit of digging. But when you start digging, this is what you discover.

Verses 28 and 31 in chapter 11 tell us that Abram was in “Ur of the Chaldeans.” This was the city he was from. This was probably a city in southern Mesopotamia, and it was a center of idolatry. In fact, this city was excavated in the 1920s and ’30s by Sir Leonard Woolley, and as they excavated this city they found a ziggurat; there’s a picture. Here you can see a picture of this ziggurat. It was somewhat reconstructed, but the top level of this is original. It was a ziggurat where they worshipped the moon god, called Sin or Nanna. This was a moon god, and so they were characterized by moon worship. That was this culture. They were moon-worshippers.

In fact, the commentaries tell us that even the names Terah, Sarai, and Milcah all have some kind of resonance with this moon worship. So they were even named according to this paganism.

So Abram was called out of this idolatry. He was called out of this pagan lifestyle and culture. In fact, it was so awful (this is one of the things that they discovered in the excavation in the ’20s and ’30s); they discovered a cemetery within this ziggurat area, and within the cemetery it was very obvious that there had been human sacrifices. So this was an awful, idolatrous kind of worship, right? This is where Abram was, this is where he was from, and this is what God called him out of.

There’s another passage of Scripture that I think removes any possible doubt that this is the case, and this is from Joshua 24:2. Listen to what Joshua says. This is generations later, and he is here calling the people of Israel to worship the one and true God, and he reminds them of their past. Listen to what he says, Joshua 24:2.

“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and Nahor, and they served other gods.” That was the background. This is what God called them out of. He called them out of darkness, he called them out of idolatry, he called them out of paganism.

This is what God does for every single person who comes to faith in Christ. He calls us from our idolatry. Now, we may not worship other gods that we bow down to, we may not worship the moon or the sun, but we have idols. We have idols. We worship ambition, we worship wealth, we worship comfort, we worship ourselves, the great god I. We’re all idolaters by nature. Wasn’t it Calvin who said our hearts our factories of idols. And God calls us out of that darkness into the light of his grace.

(2) That leads to the second thing: he calls us by grace. I think this is obvious, just on the surface of the text. Here’s Abram, in this cultural center of idolatry and paganism and darkness, and God does something. God picks Abraham and he starts something new with him. In so many ways, Abraham is the great prototype, he’s the great example in the Old Testament, of divine and sovereign election. God chooses him! He chooses him out of his entire culture. He chooses him, and he makes promises to him.

A.W. Tozer once said, “Before a man can seek God, God must first have sought the man.” God always takes the initiative. God’s word comes, God speaks, and when he speaks he’s calling Abram to himself.

One of my pastimes (some of you may not know this) is I enjoy playing the game of chess. Now, unless you’re a chess player that just sounds incredibly boring, but if you know chess, you enjoy chess, it’s an intricate game, it’s a very interesting game. One of the interesting things about the game of chess is that you have two colors, white and black, and white always begins first. White always begins the game, which means white always starts with the initiative.

In the same way, God, if you were to think of your life in relationship with God as a game of chess, God is always white. He always makes the first move. He always takes the initiative.

Have you ever seen this picture, a picture of a turtle on a fencepost? Have you ever seen this? You see a picture like that, and here’s the one thing that you know: he didn’t get there by himself. Right? Somebody put him there. In the same way, if you know God, if you believe in Jesus, you didn’t get there by yourself. If you have been called out of darkness into the light of God’s grace, it’s only because you’ve been called by grace.

That means that there is every reason for us to be humble, because we didn’t get where we are on our own, and it also means that there is hope for the very worst possible sinner. No one is outside of God’s reach. God can rescue anyone. He rescued Abraham from this pagan idolatry, he did it by grace; he rescued you, he rescued me, and he can rescue anyone by his grace.

(3) How does he do that? God calls us by grace, and then thirdly, he calls us through his word. Look at chapter 12:1. It says, “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country.’”

Derek Kidner says, “The history of redemption, like that of creation, begins with God speaking.” Remember in Genesis 1 God speaks into the formlessness and the void of this nonexistent world, and he says, “Let there be light,” and there was light! He speaks, and in the same way God speaks into the formlessness and void, the chaos of our own hearts, into the darkness of our own hearts, and he brings the light of his grace, and he does it through his word. Romans 10:17, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” John Calvin said, “Faith needs the word as much as fruit needs the living root of the tree.”

Again, the way you and I have been saved is we’ve been saved through the word of God, the word coming to us, speaking to us, confronting us. We hear the gospel, the call to believe and to repent, and then in responding to that call find salvation. The word of God.

(4) Then fourthly, God’s call includes both command and promise. The Lord says to Abram, “Go”; there’s the command, and then it’s followed by five “I wills,” five promises that God makes to Abram. It’s a sevenfold promise, but five times God says, “I will. I will do something.”

The gospel is like that. The gospel comes with both promise, the promise of forgiveness, the promise of blessing, the promise of reconciliation with God, the promise of restored fellowship, the promise of pardon of all of our sins, the promise of a new beginning, of new life, and the promise of eternal life, future resurrection from the dead, escape from the judgment of God, and death; but the gospel also comes with a command. The gospel comes and says, “Believe and repent,” and we have to keep the command and the promise together.

I think it’s right for us to read this as gospel, because the apostle Paul does this. In Galatians 3 Paul quotes from Genesis 12:3, and this is what he says. This is Galatians 3:7-9. He says, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 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.”

God preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham. When did he do it? He did it right here, Genesis 12:1-3, as he gave a promise. What is this promise? It is a promise that “I’m going to give you a son. Through you and your seed, your descendants, all the nations, all the families of the earth, will be blessed.” Every Gentile, every non-Jewish person who ever comes to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ comes because God fulfilled this promise to Abraham. God’s call includes both command promise.

(5) Then finally, number five under this first point, God’s call overcomes seemingly impossible obstacles. Now, it’s interesting that when you look at the promises that God made to Abraham, these promises basically boil down to two things. He promises to give him descendants and he promises to give him land, right? Seed and land.

In both cases, both of these promises, Abraham is immediately confronted with obstacles. He’s confronted with an obstacle regarding the promise of a son because he’s 75 years old and because his wife, Sarai, is barren. You see that in chapter 11:30: “Now Sarai was barren, she had no child.” Much like the story of Hannah that we read together last week, Sarai is one of these great mothers of the Bible, one of the great mothers of Scripture, but it was impossible for her to conceive. She was too old to have children! She had never had children. She was infertile. That was an obstacle.

But as we will learn in this story, what seems impossible with man is possible with God, and God, to fulfill his promise to Abram, will grant, supernaturally, conception of a child.

There’s also an obstacle to the land promise. The promise that God gives regarding land actually comes down in verse 7, where the Lord appears to Abram and says, “To your offspring I will give this land,” and that’s the land of Canaan, through which Abram has just sojourned, through which he has just walked. But here’s the problem: the problem, at the end of verse 6, is that at that time the Canaanites were in the land.

This is a land that’s already possessed, it’s already inhabited! In fact, what’s happened is Abraham has left Ur of the Chaldeans, he’s left ancient Mesopotamia, he has journeyed some 800 miles to the land of Canaan, he’s left one place of idolatry to a new place of idolatry. He doesn’t immediately find a home there, but God promises it to him. It’s a promise that will take 400 years before it is fulfilled, as God finally brings Abraham’s descendants into the land of Canaan.

This is the way God’s call works. We see it working this way in history with Abraham, but it also works its way in our own lives. God calls us out of darkness, he calls us by his grace, he calls us through his word, he calls us giving us both commands and promises, and his call overcomes all of the obstacles in the fulfillment of God’s promises.

Years ago I enjoyed reading the biography of Peter Marshall [A Man Called Peter]. Peter Marshall was a Scottish Presbyterian who emigrated to the United States, became a pastor in the United States, and then eventually became a chaplain in the U.S. Senate. Peter Marshall’s conversion, I think, was a very interesting story.

There was a day when Peter was walking home, and it was actually at night, and it was a very, very dark night where the moon was not shining, it was almost pitch black. Peter was aware that there was a quarry near the route where he was walking, but he thought he would be safe to avoid it.

He’s walking along the road, and all of a sudden he actually heard a voice. The voice said, “Peter!” It arrested him in his tracks. He stopped dead in his tracks, and again the voice said, “Peter!” It just stopped him and startled. He tried to figure out what was going on, and only after a few moments did he realize that he was right on the precipice of this quarry and had just about walked in, and it probably would have been his death.

He knew at that moment that God was the source of that voice, that God had been speaking to him, and that God had some special calling, some special plan in Peter Marshall’s life. That calling ended up being a call into the ministry.

Years later, Peter Marshall, who was an amazing preacher, preached a sermon called “The Tap on the Shoulder.” I want to read you a quote from his sermon. This is what Marshall said.

He said, “The tap on the shoulder that called me to the ministry came to me, and his call brooks no refusal. That call that we cannot ignore, the call that brings us to heel, to fall adoring and wondering at the feet of Christ. Now if you were walking down the street and someone came up behind you and tapped you on the shoulder, what would you do? Naturally, you would turn around. Well, that is exactly what happens in the spiritual world. A man walks on through life with the external call ringing in his ears but with no response stirring in his heart, and then suddenly, without any warning, the Spirit taps him on the shoulder. What happens? He turns around. The word repentance means turning around. He repents and believes and is saved. The tap on the shoulder is the almighty power of God acting without help or hindrance upon an elect, fallen sinner so as to produce a new creature.”

Here’s what I want to ask you this morning: have you felt the tap on your shoulder? Have you heard that call? I’m not just talking about the call of the gospel as it comes through the preaching of the word, but internally and effectually, has the Spirit of God made that comes home to your heart till it’s pierced your heart? You heard a message or you’ve read a verse or you’ve heard the gospel, and suddenly you realize, “This is for me! I’m the sinner, I’m in darkness; I need grace, I need rescue.” You recognize that God is calling you; the call of God.

If you haven’t experienced that this morning, my prayer is that the Spirit of God would work right now. I know that he needs to work right now. Not every person in this room is a Christian. Not every person knows Jesus in a personal, saving faith. If you don’t, hear the call of God through his word, through his grace, as he calls you out of darkness into the marvelous light of Christ. Answer that call, and if you answer that call you will begin the life of faith.

II. The Life of Faith

That’s what the second half of this passage teaches us about, the life of faith. We see it all in Abram’s response in chapter 12:4-9. Now, it’s true that faith is not mentioned in this text. Abram’s faith doesn’t come into view in the narratives in Genesis until Genesis 15:6. His response, nevertheless, demonstrates faith, and indeed, Hebrews 11:8 tells us that it was by faith that Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as his inheritance, and he went out not knowing where he was going. He obeyed this call by faith. It is faith that rests on the bare promise of God.

God calls him to go to a land that he will show him. He doesn’t even know where he’s going! He calls him to leave his kindred, his home, his family, and to go, and he says, “I will bless you.” I want you to see how Abram responds to this call, and I want to show you seven things in the next 15-20 minutes or so, seven things about the life of faith that are right here, apparent, I think, in the text, as we look at Abram’s response. These are seven things that characterize the life of faith.

(1) Number one, obedience. You see it in verse 4, as the text says, “So Abram went as the Lord had told him.” God said, “Go”; Abram went. He obeyed the Lord. The obedience of faith.

When you look at the verbs in this passage - this is one of the things I was doing this week as I was studying the passage; I went through and I underlined every verb to see what does Abraham do? These are the verbs: he “went as the Lord had told him,” verse 4; he “departed from Haran,” verse 4; he “took Sarai and lot and set out to go to the land of Canaan,” verse 5; he “came to the land,” he “passed through the land,” verse 6; he “built an altar,” verses 7 and 8; he “moved and pitched his tent,” verse 8; he “called on the name of the Lord,” verse 8; and he “journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb,” verse 9.

In every single one of those actions, Abram is responding to the Lord. He is responding in obedience, he’s responding in faith. They’re all a response to the call. This is what happens, isn’t it, when God calls us by his grace: the response of our hearts is to believe and obey. You remember the words of that old hymn,

“Trust and obey,
For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus,
But to trust and obey.

“Where he says I will go,
What he says I will do…”

Right? To trust and obey the Lord; that’s the call, and that’s how we are to respond. We respond with obedience.

(2) Secondly, the life of faith is characterized by separation. In verse 4, “He departed from Haran.” There was a separation. There was a separation between Abram and his old life, between Abram and his pagan, idolatrous family. There’s a separation between what he once was and who he now was to become.

For Abram, this was literal. It was a literal separation. He literally had to leave. Sometimes that is also part of the call. You remember how Jesus, when he came calling his disciples, they had to literally forsake their nets in order to follow Christ, and there are some times when God calls someone to faith in Christ, and he calls them out of an unbelieving family, out of an unbelieving home, and to obey that call involves separation.

But for every single one of us, whether it means an actual division with our birth family or our nuclear family, for every single one of us, to obey the call of God and to walk by faith means to be separate. It means to be called out of the world. It means to be set apart, to be sanctified, to live a holy life. It means that we separate ourselves from idolatry.

Remember what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6, using a whole litany of Old Testament quotations? He says, “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.’” Go out! Be separate! That’s part of the life of faith.

Someone once defined faith using this acronym, using the letters of the faith, F-A-I-T-H: Forsaking All, I Trust Him. That’s faith. Faith means that I turn my back on everything else in order to embrace Christ. Don’t we sing this often?

“I have decided to follow Jesus,
No turning back, no turning back.

“The world behind me, the cross before me,
No turning back, no turning back.”

There’s a separation! There’s a call to repent, there’s a call to live a holy life and to be separated from sin. Now, as we will learn in future weeks, Abram didn’t do this perfectly, and neither do you and I. We don’t do this perfectly, but this is the call, and even through all the struggles and the ups and downs of faith, this is characteristic of the life of faith, someone who is moving towards obedience and separation and holiness.

(3) Thirdly, the life of faith is also a pilgrimage. It’s a pilgrimage. It’s a journey. When God calls us to himself and we respond to that call, we embark on a journey. Once again, for Abram it was literal. He journeyed from Ur to the land of Canaan, some 800 miles, and then when he’s in Canaan, as you trace the geography in this passage, he traverses the whole land, from Shechem in the north to the hill country between Bethel and Ai, down south towards the Negeb.

Now, the reason that’s important is because Abram is essentially marking out in his journey the land that God will give to his children, to Abraham’s descendants, to the children of Israel. He’s marking out, surveying the land of Canaan. In fact, the route that he follows is exactly the same route that Jacob will later follow in Jacob’s journeys, and it’s the same route that the children of Israel will follow as they conquer the promised land in the book of Joshua.

So it’s a literal journey, but this is also a metaphor, isn’t it? It’s a picture of the pilgrimage to which we are all called. We are all called to begin and to continue on the pilgrim’s progress, called to walk this walk of faith. I think that’s exactly how the writer to the Hebrews is using this language, when he says (Hebrews 11:9-10), “By faith Abraham went to live in the land of promise as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose maker and builder is God.” You are called to that same journey, called to walk by faith and not by sight.

When you read this text, one of the things you might have noticed is that Abram pitched his tent and he built an altar. He’s not building a dwelling, he’s not building a house. There’s no permanence in the life of Abram except for the altars that he leaves behind. Again, that’s a good picture, I think, for the Christian life. We are to hold the things of this life loosely. We pitch tents, we hold them loosely. We’re willing to let things go, because we recognize that “this world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.” We recognize that we’re looking for a city whose builder and maker is God. We’re journeying on to something in the future.

Martin Luther put it this way: he said, “This life, therefore, is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness; not health, but healing; not being, but becoming; not rest, but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”

Are you on the journey of faith like Abram?

(4) Number four, we see this life of faith leads to growth. It leads to growth. Abram is growing in this walk with God. He’s growing in this journey. One of the ways you see this in verse 7. In verse 7, you have the very first theophany in Scripture, where the Lord appears to Abram. Now, we have no details of this. We don’t know whether it was a vision, we don’t know exactly what he saw; but in some way the Lord appeared to Abram. Before, the Lord had spoken, it was auditory; but now it’s visual. Now it’s a vision, some kind of a theophany.

It’s interesting that Abram only experiences this after he obeys the call that God has already given. So often in the life of faith we grow to know God and we grow to understand spiritual reality only after we obey the truth we’ve already received.

Remember how Jesus said in Matthew 13, “To the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken from him.” To the one who has, more will be given!

In John 7, Jesus says, “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.”

Obedience always brings growth in the knowledge of God, in the experience of God, and that’s part of the life of faith; it’s to grow in knowing him.

(5) Then we also see this, that the life of faith is characterized by worship. In verses 7 and 8, Abram builds an altar. Two times he build an altar, and also a couple of other times in the Abraham narratives. He’s somewhat like Noah before him, who built an altar and offered a sacrifice. The text doesn’t tell us that Abram offered sacrifices, but I think that’s reasonable to assume. That’s what altars were for, after all. So it seems that Abram had some understanding of this new kind of worship into which God had called him, the worship that required atonement, where a sacrificial animal would be offered that would grant him this access to God. Of course, it’s a picture, it’s a foreshadowing of the great sacrifice that will be offered on Calvary.

Here’s another thing that’s just interesting to note: the place where Abram built this first altar is Shechem, and Shechem is an important place in the Old Testament Scriptures. It’s always a place of decision.

It was in the past between two mountains, Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. You remember that’s exactly where Moses speaks to the children of Israel in Deuteronomy, and he calls one mountain the mountain of blessing and the other mountain the mountain of curses. He calls on them to make a decision to follow the Lord.

It’s the place where Joshua would give his last charge, in Joshua 24. And it’s in Shechem, this place of decision, that Abram builds an altar. Notice this: it says that he does this after going to the oak of Moreh. What is that? The oak of Moreh.

Well, evidently it was a big tree. Some texts translate this as a terebinth tree; it was probably an oak, a big tree, and scholars seem to think that it was a sacred tree, that it was a place which was known among the idolaters, the pagan cultures, it was a place known for receiving oracles from the gods. That’s what the word Moreh means; it means teacher, so someone who would speak.

So this is the place where people, it seems, would gather for worship. They were worshipping false gods. Abram goes there, right in the middle of the pagan culture, and there he builds a monument to the worship of Yahweh, the worship of the one true God, who has revealed himself to him.

The same tree turns up in Genesis 35, where Jacob tells his household to “put away the foreign gods that are among you, purify yourselves, and change your garments.” And he says, “Let us arise and go to Bethel, so that we may there build an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress.” They give all of their foreign gods, their idols, to Jacob, and Jacob buries them under the terebinth tree that is near Shechem. This tree had great significance in that culture, and it’s right there that Abram builds an altar.

It shows us the importance of living a counter-cultural life of worship. We live in a society that is pluralistic, there are many different religions, there are many different faiths. We live in a society that is characterized by all kinds of sin and wickedness, and we are called in the middle of a pagan culture to live lives of worship and of consecration and of devotion to God, so that our lives are a counter-cultural witness to those around us, that there is a true God, and that we worship this God.

(6) That leads to the next thing; the life of faith is one of witness. In verse 8 it says that Abram not only built an altar, but he called on the name of the Lord. That verb, called on the name of the Lord, can carry the idea of proclaiming. So it’s not only that he’s invoking God’s name, but that he is also proclaiming God’s name.

There’s one other little detail that I think is interesting. In verse 5 it says that Abram went on this journey along with “all of his possessions and the people they had acquired.” You might read that and think, “Oh, that’s talking about slaves.” But there’s one more scholar - well, more than one, but one scholar in particular, Umberto Cassuto, who says that this would better be understand as those they had won, the people they had won. He says this is better exegesis, and the idea here is that Abram and his family were living lives of witness, so that they were proselytizing others. They were bringing them into the faith, they were joining them in worship. So the people they had acquired are actually people they had won to the Lord, people who began to share in the blessing given to Abram because they were worshipping the same God.

You and I are called to the same thing, aren’t we? We are called to share our faith with others. I referenced it many times this morning, but let me quote it now, 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” We’re called to proclaim through witness, through testimony, through evangelism, to proclaim our faith to others, to point others to the one true God who’s revealed himself through Jesus Christ.

(7) That leads, finally, to the life of faith bringing blessing to others. The life of faith brings blessing to others. You see it in verses 2-3. God has told Abram to go, and in verses 2 and 3 he says, “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 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.” So, five times you have this word “bless” or “blessing.”

The reason that’s important is because the author of Genesis is very carefully crafting together this book with all kinds of literary clues and features that show us how the book fits together. If you read carefully Genesis 1-11, you’ll see that in those eleven chapters, five times a curse is pronounced. Now, in Genesis 12, as God calls Abram to himself and make a promise, he proclaims a fivefold blessing that answers the tragedy of the fall and the judgment that fell on humankind through Adam’s sin. Five times God pronounces a curse, or a curse is pronounced, in the text of Genesis, and now there’s a fivefold blessing to answer that curse. It’s showing us that Abram is the channel, he is the funnel through which God will pour out his blessing to the world. God will bless the world, and he’ll do it through this one man, Abram, through his promised seed.

That same principle holds true for us. God blesses us so that we will be a blessing to others. Psalm 67 is one of the great missionary psalms of the Old Testament. In Psalm 67:1-3 we read this prayer: “May God be gracious to us and bless us, and make his face to shine upon us, so that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all the nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!” God blesses us so that we can bless others.

In other words, the blessing is never meant to terminate on us. The blessing is never meant to stop with us. The blessing wasn’t only for Abram, it wasn’t just for his family. It was a blessing that through him and through his family would lead to blessing to all the nations, all the families of the earth.

Someday, in the new heavens and the new earth, when that great international throng is gathered around the throne of God and there are people from every tongue and tribe and nation on the earth and people are singing the praises of the Lamb who was slain, from all of these multiple nationalities, we will see that the promise has been fulfilled, that the nations have come to worship the true God, and they’ve done it because of what Jesus Christ, the true seed of Abraham, has done to bring salvation to the world. Part of our task as believers in Jesus Christ now is to share that blessing with others, to pray this prayer, “God, be gracious to us and bless us so that your way may be known.”

One of the things we’ll see as we study these narratives together is that, over and over again, people within Abraham’s life are blessed when they are attached to Abraham in a positive way, and they fall under a curse, or they are not blessed, or when they somehow depart from Abraham. The blessing comes in connection with this chosen man of God who is the father of the chosen people of God, the chosen man of God who lived a life of faith.

Let me conclude with an episode from a story. This comes from George MacDonald. I don’t agree with nearly everything he thought theologically, but he was a great storyteller, kind of a grandfather, literarily speaking, to C.S. Lewis. George MacDonald wrote a book called The Princess and the Goblin, and in this book there’s a little girl named Irene.

Irene discovers a woman upstairs in the attic of this old house; she discovers this woman who is called Grandmother. She’s actually kind of like a fairy godmother type figure. This old woman is sitting at a spinning wheel, and she gives Irene a ring, and it’s a very special ring. It’s a ring which will always lead her out of danger.

She tells Irene, “Anytime you’re in danger, if you’ll take this ring and you put it under your pillow, you’ll find that there’s a thread, and if you’ll follow the thread, the thread will lead you back to safety.” It’s an invisible thread, but it’s the kind of thing that if she takes the ring off she’ll feel that there’s a pull on this ring, and she just follows the thread, and the thread will lead her where she needs to go.

So she thinks, “When I’m in danger, if I take off the ring it’ll lead me straight back to Grandmother upstairs.”

Sure enough, she finds herself in danger, as goblins invade this old house and she’s afraid. She takes off the ring and she feels the tug and she begins to follow the thread. But to her surprise, the thread does not lead upstairs, it leads her outside, and it leads her through the dark and through the valley and then up to the side of a mountain. She begins to climb the mountain, and it leads her to this wall of stones, boulders, that are piled up one on top of another.

She actually just finds herself in a moment of despair. This hasn’t led her at all where she thought it would go. So she decides to go back, and she turns around and the thread is gone. She finds she can’t move backwards; she can only move forwards.

So she thinks the only thing she can do is continue to move forward. The thread goes right there through the rocks, so she begins to pull away the stones, pull away the rocks. When she does, she discovers that it’s a little cave, and inside the cave there’s a little boy. The little boy is named Curdie, and the boy was in need of rescue.

What she discovered is that in following the thread it led her not to where she thought it would go, but it led her to another person who was in need, another person who needed rescue.

Isn’t that a wonderful picture of what the Christian life is like? When you follow the call of God through faith, you go where he says go, you follow where he says, you follow him by faith, you obey, you take these risks, you go on this journey; when you do that, it will always lead to the blessing of other people.

So perhaps one way for us to evaluate our lives this morning, in light of this text, is to ask ourselves the question, “Am I engaging others in ways that lead them to encounter God? Am I living a life that leads to blessing of others?” It’s one of the ways to know that we’re actually following, that we’re actually living a life of faith.

As we conclude this morning, think about these two things we’ve considered. Think about the call of God, think about the life of faith. Have you felt the tap on the shoulder? Have you answered the call? Are you living life as Abram lived it? Are you living by faith in the promises of God, walking by faith with this pilgrim mentality, this eternal perspective, looking for the city whose build and whose maker is God? That’s the call, that’s the challenge. If you’re not a believer in Jesus Christ this morning, hear the call of the gospel, repent, believe, turn away from the idols, turn to the true and living God, follow him in faith, and he will rescue you, save your soul. Let’s pray together.

Our gracious God, we’ve considered a lot together this morning in this story of Abram, and my prayer is that we would not miss the main point of the passage, that you are a God of grace, a God of promise, you are the God who effectually calls people to yourself. Our responsibility to hear and to heed that call, respond in faith and in obedience. I pray, even now, that you would give us the heart to do that.

Lord, where there is hardness in our hearts, I pray that you would remove it and you would give us soft, sensitive, tender hearts to hear your voice as you speak to us by your Spirit through your word. Where there is idolatry and self-seeking in our lives, I ask you to give us repentance so that we would turn from the darkness and we would turn to life.

Lord, I pray that you would give us hearts to live by faith, to walk by faith and not by sight. It may be that there are just practical ways that this needs to be fleshed out in our lives, that there’s uncertainty in our lives, some decisions that need to be made and some aspects of our future that we find ourselves somewhat like Abram, not knowing where we’re going, not knowing the end of the story. Lord, I pray that in not knowing the whats and the wherefores of our stories we would remember that we know the who, we know you, we know the true and living God.

Lord, as we come to the table this morning, may we come with deep trust in Christ, the true seed of Abraham. We pray that as we take the bread and take the juice that you would renew our hearts in faith, renew our devotion to you, renew our obedience to you. May it be a strengthening sacrament to us, so that as we move forward into the next week we will be stronger, recognizing our inherent weakness but also recognizing the strength that you give us. Draw near to us in these moments as we confess our need for you; we pray it in Jesus’ name, Amen.