A Step Of FaithErwin W. Lutzer | September 4, 2005
Selected highlights from this sermon
When God makes a promise, He never breaks it. When He asks us to take a step of faith, He provides us with the grace and strength to take that step. Abram (Abraham) was called by God to leave his home. And at the same time, God made him a promise that he would become a great nation.
God’s promise to Abram was not only personal, it was national, and it was universal. From Abram’s lineage the Messiah would come. And though Abram would not live to see Jesus walk on Earth, God’s promise was fulfilled. God’s Word will not be broken.
So what do we make of the present conflict that is taking place in the land of Israel? The conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis, of Israel giving back the land, the endless conflict and endless terrorism? How do we connect that and biblical history?
Standing at the headwaters of it all is a man by the name of Abraham; a colossus of a man, historically speaking. He’s the one who is claimed by all three faiths. The Jews of course claim him as the first Hebrew. In fact, in the fourteenth chapter of Genesis he is called a “Hebrew,” the use of the word the first time in the Bible. He’s really the first Jew and so they look at him as their ancestor.
He’s claimed by us as Christians because the Apostle Paul says in the book of Galatians that, “Through faith in Jesus Christ, Abraham is the father of us all,” so we all claim him and say he’s ours.
And, he’s also claimed by the Muslims, who refer to him as “El allele”, as we would also; Abraham, the friend of God. It is repeated twice in Scripture that he is God’s friend. And so there stands Abraham, a controversial figure. A figure of great impact not only in biblical history, but the ongoing consequences as we shall see even today.
In the year 2000 BC when he was living there in Ur of the Chaldeans, it was a very sophisticated place. It was one of the high points of ancient religion. It had a library. The third dynasty of the time was very high class, so far as people were concerned. They lived in houses and not tents. So when God came to Abraham and asked him to leave, God was asking a great deal of him. Ur is about 250 miles from Baghdad in the country of Iraq.
You know, if Iraq could ever solve its problems and become a nation of peace it could make millions and millions of dollars on tourism. Because we think of Baghdad; Babylon is just close by, maybe 50 or 75 miles away. Ancient Babylon, we’d all love to go there but probably it will never happen.
And so Abraham leaves and he goes on a journey that will take him nearly 1,000 miles to the land of Canaan. He goes to Haran, and there he is for a number of years. It says that he settled there until his dad died, until Terah died. It’s about 600 miles from Ur and then another 400 miles to the land. Imagine traveling with camels and sheep and goats and herdsman, 300, and you have to negotiate all the way along the line for food and for water because most of that area is desert. What a trek he assumed.
The Bible tells us in Genesis chapter 12, and that’s the passage that I want you to turn to today, Genesis chapter 12. The opening of Genesis 12 really begins in the last part of chapter 11 where we have the story of Terah and the journey to Haran. And Abraham was there until his dad died and then he left for the land.
It says in chapter twelve, verse one, one of the most important chapters in all of the Bible, “Now the Lord said to Abraham,” and I’m going to use the word “Abraham” even though your Bible says “Abram,” because at this time he was not yet called Abraham. But for sake of consistency I will always refer to him as Abraham. “Now the Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” God came and says, “Now I want to take you somewhere. Go to a land that I will lead you to.”
Remember that Ur of the Chaldeans was polytheistic; they believed in many gods. If you were there today you could even see a monument to the sun god because people worship the sun, they worship nature. The temptation to do that is very strong. We think of Katrina, I should say the hurricane that took place. There was a sign put up in New Orleans that said, “Oh Katrina, have mercy on us.” Now of course in back of Katrina is God, but people tended to worship nature.
And so it was there that they had many different kinds of gods and God steps into Abraham’s life now and says, “Abraham, you come with me. I am Jehovah and I will show you a land that you are going to inherit.” And Abraham becomes the first clear monotheist in that pagan culture. He now believes in only one God. You say, “Well how did God come to Abraham? Did He come with a voice?” Most assuredly because God spoke directly. How did Abraham know that this was the true God? Very probably that voice had such a sense of authenticity and integrity that Abraham knew that he was hearing from the true and the one God.
And God steps onto this scene, even though Abraham is a pagan, and sovereignly chooses Abraham to be His man, to begin the process of bringing a Redeemer to the world. God had said in Genesis chapter three that through the seed of the woman the work of the enemy is going to be destroyed, and so God now begins that process. And Abraham is going to be the man through whom it will be accomplished.
Now God not only called Abraham, but God had to give to Abraham the faith to be obedient to that calling. This is all one-sided, this is all of God. And so God says, “Abraham, leave your country, leave your kindred, that is your family, and even your immediate family, your father’s house, and go to a land that I will show you.” And when Abraham leaves with his dad Terah, he doesn’t enter into the land as I mentioned. He goes to Haran and they settle down there until his father Terah dies. God says to Abraham, “You can’t go into the land until the death of your father. You have to leave all of those family members behind. Lot can go with you but your parent’s can’t.” God sometimes calls us into great things and He asks us to leave our families for His glory and for His purposes.
Now with that background what I want us to do is very briefly to see first of all the promises that God made to Abraham; the promises that he received. And these promises are really three in number. The first is a personal promise. He says in verse two, “And I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great.” Go to Israel today and you will find out that this has been accomplished, because people will be talking about Abraham and the controversy that has to do with Abraham.
And God says, “I’m going to bless you personally. I’m going to give you even more flocks, and more herds, and more servants. And you are going to become a very, very wealthy man. I will bless you and I will make of you a great name.” Interestingly, at the Tower of Babel, the people built that tower because they said, “We want to make for ourselves a name.” And God says, “I’m putting an end to those plans.” Never have in life a desire to make for yourself a name.
Years ago the Lord impressed upon my heart those words of Scripture that say, “Seekest thou great things for thyself, seek them not.” Don’t seek to be great, seek to be Godly. And in the process if God wants to make you great, that has to be His decision and not yours. Abraham was plucked out of paganism and God says, “I am going to make you great.” And that of course has been fulfilled. So the first blessing was personal.
The second blessing was a national blessing. He says, “I will make of you a great nation,” and that’s been accomplished. The Jewish nation had been a great nation, it is becoming a great nation, and it will still be a great nation in the future because God says of Abraham’s seed, “I will make of you a great nation.” And so the Jews have never really been assimilated into other kinds of cultures like the rest of us have been.
They are something like the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream flows through the ocean and it’s a part of the ocean, and yet it remains to have its distinctive identity. And the Gulf Stream can have a great impact. In fact, there are places in northern Scotland even though it is very cold where the Gulf Stream has such an influence that it is almost tropical.
And in the very same way the Jewish nation has become a part of culture of course, but it has retained its identity throughout all these years. So, there are still many people, many of whom are listening to me today saying, “Yes I am Jewish.” It has maintained its identity. And God says that there are going to be national blessings; “I will bless you.”
If you know me at all, you know that I often say to people, “God bless you.” I said that twice to people yesterday in a restaurant even as I was paying for our breakfast that my wife and I had together, “God bless you.” But when I say it, it is only a wish. I am only praying and I am only wishing that God will bless them.
But when God says, “I will bless you,” God has the resources for that blessing. Because everything that God promises, He has the ability and the resource to carry out. God says, “I will bless you. And if there is someone who is going to curse you, I will curse that person. If someone dishonors you, I will curse that person, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” God says. Anti-Semitism at its root is rebellion and anger against God’s choice, as we shall see in later messages. So there are personal blessings and there are national blessings.
There are also universal blessings. I already read the text. It says, “In you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” When the Bible uses the word “all,” it doesn’t mean every single person on Planet Earth is going to be blessed. It means “all” in terms of classes. Some people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation because of what God has done. And so it means “all” not in terms of every particular, but all generally. All at least from the standpoint of the representatives of the world, and they will be blessed through you. And you and I have been blessed because of Abraham, because it is through Abraham that the seed of Jesus Christ has come.
And now look at that little phrase in the last part of verse three: “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” In that phrase “in you,” entailed in it is the Messiah. Because there is no way that Abraham could be a blessing to everybody. That is not possible. And so God says it’s going to happen “in you,” because God knows that the seed is going to come from Abraham. So those are the promises that God gave to Abraham—personal promises, national promises, and universal promises.
And now the journey to the land begins. You’ll notice it says in verse four, “So Abraham went as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him, that is his nephew. Abraham was 75 years when he departed from Haran.” That’s where his father died, “and Abraham took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions, and all that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. And so they began their journey.” It was probably a journey of many, many months.
And then finally they arrive in the land that God has promised them. And the land is peopled by folks who are called Canaanites. But it is there that God now appears to Abraham again and God is going to confirm His covenant with Abraham many, many times. And He says in verse seven, “Then the Lord appeared to Abraham and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’”
My wife and I have never had a title deed to a house. Usually it is because we owned part of the house and the bank always owned most of the house, so I assumed that the bank had the title deed. But, some of you may have the title deed to your house. And that title deed is stamped, it’s signed, and you’ve had attorney’s making sure that it is absolutely right, so you are the owner of the house and here’s the piece of paper to prove it.
My friend, believe me when I tell you that there is no title deed to the land that is more impeccable, there is no title deed to the land that is more certain, that is more sure, than the one that God gave to Abraham that day when He said, “To you I will give this land.” God has spoken, and when God speaks it happens. That land and that promise belong to Abraham. The Jews believe that and the Muslims believe it too.
In this series we are going to study the conflict between Islam and the Jewish religion as it relates to the promises. And, we will find out that the Koran speaks about Abraham. And we will find out also that Muslim tradition says that it is really to Ishmael, who is the inheritor of the promise, and so the conflict in the Middle East is set up.
But God says to Abraham, “I’m giving you the land and it is going to be yours,” and later on He’s going to say, “I’m giving it to you for an everlasting possession,” and He’s even going to give him the boundaries of it. And so Abraham has this experience of going into the land. He’s received this word from God. It is not an agreement among equals. The covenant that God made with Abraham is unconditional in the sense that God is saying, “I am taking full responsibility for it; I give you the revelation. Then I will give you the grace, and the strength, and the faith, and the ability to obey so that it will be carried out.” And the word of God is sure and will come to pass.
What are some of the lessons that Abraham learned that you and I need to learn as well? First of all, the lesson that God always calls us by His promises. Again and again God is going to reiterate these promises to Abraham. God is going to assure him that the land is going to be his. But Abraham is going to struggle massively with these promises.
For example, the promise regarding the seed. He is going to fall into disobedience trying to help God out to make sure the promise happens, because this is going to be on Abraham’s mind all the time. He is going to have to learn to live with delayed promises. He begins to see the promise that he will have a seed fulfilled, and it is fulfilled later on in Isaac. But as far as the promise of the land is concerned, he dies without it being fulfilled. The Bible says that he dies in faith not having seen the promises.
You see, God wants to teach Abraham faith by delaying the promises. God gives us promises in His word, and those promises are not ours today yet. We don’t see them happen. But the invisible God invites us to believe Him no matter what, whether those promises can be substantiated right in the here and now or not. God says, “I will keep My word. You have patience and you believe. The promises will be fulfilled.”
God’s Word says, “that a time is coming when the knowledge of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.” We are a long way from seeing that fulfilled, aren’t we? We see waters cover New Orleans, but we have no idea what it would be like to have the knowledge of the Lord cover the earth as waters cover the sea. But, God says it is going to happen.
In fact, there is a passage in the book of [Isaiah] that says that the time is coming when all of the families are going to do obedience to Jesus Christ. There is a time coming when the law shall go forth from Zion and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem and they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. It has not been fulfilled and it is not going to be fulfilled by the United Nations.
But God says, “In My word I have made this promise whether you see it in this life or not. My word will not be broken. I am going to keep it. Keep believing and trusting.” And Abraham is going to have to live with that. He is going to have to live with the struggle of a God whom he has come to know, whose promises he has believed, but whose promises he does not see being fulfilled. So he knows now that God has led him by His promises, and we are led by the promises of God. Not by the promises that God gave to Abraham, necessarily.
When I was in Sunday school we used to sing a little chorus that went, “Every promise in the book is mine, every chapter, every verse, every line.” But that’s not true, is it? When God says to Abraham, “I am going to make your name great and you are going to have the right seed,” that’s not a promise for us. But, we have plenty of promises. The New Testament talks about “exceeding, great, and precious promises, that by these we might be partakers of the divine nature.” And so God says, “I always call you through My promises; the promises that I will be with you, the promise that I have sent a Redeemer, the promise that your sins can be forgiven.” God calls us through His promises, and Abraham learned that.
Second, Abraham learned that we are but pilgrims in this world. You’ll notice it says in verse seven, “Then the Lord appeared to him and God made that promise. 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 on the name of the Lord.”
Wherever Abraham goes now, he has a tent. He had a home in Ur. In Ur they had houses. But God says, “If you are going to be mine you have to exchange your house for a tent.” And the tent become symbolic of the fact that Abraham is a wanderer; he is a pilgrim; this world is not his home. I love that old song that many of us used to sing: “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.” And so Abraham has to realize now that this is not permanent, this is only a very temporary place.
And the Scripture says that, “He looked for a city which had foundations, whose builder and maker was God.” Even in Jewish tradition today the idea that the world is not our home is carried out. For example, Rothschild’s house in London—there is a part of it that is unfinished. People used to come there and say, “Why can’t this wealthy man finish his own house?” Well, the answer is that it was deliberately left unfinished because there was a time in Jewish customs when houses were left unfinished as a reminder that in this life we are never finished. We are only passing through and we are going somewhere else.
So God says to Abraham, “I want you to know that this isn’t the place where you put down deep roots.” There’s that old story of the man who was using a tent and going from place to place with his friend. And as the man was pounding those pegs into the ground his friend said to him, “Don’t pound them in too deeply because we are leaving in the morning.” Well, we are leaving in the morning.
Every loss that we endure, every challenge that we face, every heartache, every health issue that God brings into our life, all of that is a reminder that this world is not where it is at. We are passing through and we have a country, and we have a hope, and we have a city to which we look forward to, and it is beyond this present world. God says, “Abraham, you are only a pilgrim, you’re not an owner,” and he dies a pilgrim.
My wife, who I had the privilege of marrying 36 years ago and what a blessing she has been, she nevertheless has a peculiar habit. Can I tell you about it? When we are flying to Europe and that big plane takes off, before it lands in a European capital, whether it is Frankfurt or London, I already have changed my wristwatch to local time. I want to know what time it is over there. She never changes her wristwatch to local time. She always has it Chicago time. Now she knows when she is there what time it is locally because it is seven hours different, and she constantly looks at her watch and she does the math. And so she knows exactly what time it is where she is. But it is always Chicago time.
And I have been troubled by that. I say, “Rebecca, honey, why don’t you change that wristwatch to local time?” And she says, “No. Every time I look at my wristwatch I want to be reminded of home and what my children and grandchildren are doing.”
You know, in this life we never really do adjust our wristwatch, so to speak, our wristwatch to this life and to this environment. As Christians we are on a different divine timetable. We have different interests and we are always supposed to be reminded that we are not home yet. Like Morrison, I read the story yesterday actually, and it is a true story about him and his wife doing missionary work and coming over and landing in New York on a ship, being on a ship and coming into the harbor of New York with Roosevelt who also had been on the ship. And you have this huge delegation that meets them there at the harbor in New York to meet the President and his entourage.
And Morrison is beginning to think, “You know, we serve the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, and there is nobody there at the harbor to meet us. We had to pick up our own suitcases and go our own way.” And he complained to the Lord about it and said, “Lord, this isn’t right! We come home and nobody is there for us. The President comes home and there is a delegation to meet him.” And God says, “Morrison, you’re not home yet.” This world is not our home, it’s only a tent. Abraham learned that God calls by His promises and God now expects us only to be pilgrims.
Third: there has to be an altar. You’ll notice wherever Abraham goes, when he is in fellowship with God he has an altar. It says here, “And there he built an altar to the Lord.” It says it again in the previous verse: “He built an altar to the Lord,” I’m in verse eight now: “And he called on the name of the Lord.”
What does the altar signify? The altar signifies sin, it signifies sacrifice, and an animal dies so that you don’t have to die. Of course you die physically, but you don’t die spiritually. Your sin is forgiven. The whole idea of substitution is found there in an altar, and he cries to the name of the Lord. These altars in the Old Testament prefigured the coming of Jesus Christ. Because when Jesus Christ would die on the cross, that in effect became the altar. He died once for all for sinners.
And, He died in such a way that we who trust Him as our Savior discover that we have access to God and we also can cry unto the Lord even as Abraham did. And we will be heard if we come in the name of Jesus and based on what He has done. And the completeness of His work is so astounding and so wonderful. Nothing can ever be added to what Jesus Christ did on the cross for us. And as a result, we here at The Moody Church today do not have an altar, did you know that? We do not have an altar. Some of you come from churches where they had altars. The reason that they had altars is that they believed that the work that Jesus did on the cross was not yet totally complete and Jesus has to be reoffered, or some kind of a sacrifice has to be made again.
You say, “Well Pastor Lutzer, you have a communion table here.” Yes, we have a communion table, but the communion table is only a table. It is not an altar. We come to God through Jesus Christ who died on the cross, who shed His blood, who died for sinners. And we come in such a way with confidence and with joy, and we draw near in faith believing that the work was totally and completely accomplished. It is finished!
But Abraham had an altar that became the means by which God graciously allowed him to understand redemption and to come to faith in what a gracious God would do. But today we have the cross, and the cross is empty because Jesus rose from the dead.
I’m reminded of the story of the little boy who was lost. The police were trying to find out whether or not he knew where he lived. He did not know his address and he did not know his street. And then he said, “But, you know we live close to that church with that great big cross.” He said, “If you take me to the cross I’ll find my way home.” When it comes time for you and me to die, take us to the cross and we’ll find our way home.
Let’s pray. “Our Father we want to thank you today for the life of this remarkable man. Thank you that he becomes a model of faith despite his failures which are all recorded in your Holy Word. And we pray today that you might invigorate us by his example and to remember that we too are called to the Book. We are called to the Book and its promises. We are called to the tent to be pilgrims and we are called to the altar of the cross. Teach us that today, Father, we pray. And for those who are here today who have never trusted Christ as Savior, we ask Father that in grace You will cause them to believe. Help them to see the wonder and the beauty of Jesus and may they accept Him as their very own.”
Now before I close this prayer, what is it that you need to tell God today? As a Christian or as one who has never trusted Christ, you talk to God if God has talked to you. “Hear our prayer today oh Lord God, for we are needy. In Jesus' name, amen.”