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Scripture Passage – Genesis 15:1-6 and Romans 4:17-15
Description – The First Sermon of the 2010 Advent Series
(Introduction was a dramatic reading from the Advent Series ‘While Shepherd’s Watched,’ by Arden W. Mead. © 1999 Creative Communication for the Parish)
I begin with a question, “If you had to move from where you are currently living, what would be the most difficult place for you to move to?”
(Allow for congregational responses)
I want us to keep in mind the various emotions that we might be feeling in response to this question as we turn our attention to Abraham and Sarah.
(Slide one) The Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu once said “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”
Our dramatic introduction has Abraham and Sarah well down the road of their “thousand mile journey.” It has been many, many years perhaps seventy or eighty since God said, as we read in the opening verses of Genesis 12, “Leave your country, your relatives, and your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you. I will cause you to become the father of a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and I will make you a blessing to others.” (One source I consulted had Abraham at 75 years of age when he left family at Haran and who knows how long it had been since he had left his birthplace of Ur.)
Well Abraham left, perhaps very reluctantly and journeyed until he came to the place that the Lord said to him, (verse 7) “I am going to give this land to your offspring.”
But Abraham kept walking and walking for a while. He walked into some interesting situations. One was in Egypt as we read in verses 10 through 18 of Genesis 12. He was afraid he might be killed because of Sarah being his wife and so he told her to lie and say that she was his sister.
Then there were the two situations at Sodom where in the first he rescued his nephew Lot who had been captured by a group of armies at war with the other kings and communities in the area. And in the second, a very fascinating conversation takes place between God and Abraham (Genesis 18) who is trying to spare Lot’s life and that of a community he had helped to save earlier. But what overshadowed all of this was the challenging, and for Sarah, painfully hard, journey of childlessness. Many people can identify with both the joys and sorrows of Abraham’s (and Sarah’s) journey.
Our Advent journey this year takes us outdoors, if you will, and into the fields with shepherds. (Slide two) Today we are spending time with Abraham. Next week we shall journey with Moses then, we will walk with David, and finally end up visiting the shepherds outside of Bethlehem that wonderful night.
I am using parts of a resource this advent season entitled “While Shepherds Watched” and I think that it is important that we focus on the word ‘watched’ in the next four weeks.
Now the word “watched” is the past tense for the word ‘watch.’ But it also implies an active view as in “He expectantly watched for the gift of chocolate to come in the mail unharmed.” And I when I say ‘watch’ I do not mean this (Slide three)
… but something like this… (Slide three a)
And really like this… (Slide three b)
Watching is about looking. It is a purposed action in which we are looking either at or for something in a very intentional way.
In Luke 15 we read about the value of “looking for” in three legendary parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. All underscore our Heavenly Father’s passionate desire of looking for and finding us so that we can come home to Him.
All of this thinking about watching and looking causes me to ask us this morning this very common question (slide four), ‘What are you looking for?”
But also I think about this question (slide five), ‘What/who are you looking at?”
Our dramatic reading has Abraham looking at the sky, the same sky that God told him to look at years before the time period in our dramatic dialogue when He promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great number of people too numerous to count like the stars!
Now, as we are becoming and have already become aware of again this time of the year, one of the things that are looked for are… gifts! And a side theme, important to this series, is that there are certain gifts God has given to us we need to accept, open, and enjoy them by using them.
We read in Ephesians 2:8-9 “God saved you by his special favor when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.”
In our Genesis text, after God told Abraham (still Abram at this point) that he would be the father of people too numerous to count we read about the gift that was given to Abraham, “And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord declared him righteous because of his faith.”
Faith is a very, very important gift. And it is important in Abram’s situation that due to his faith, God declared him righteous. In other words, God declared him right with Him.
We read in Hebrews 12:2 that, “God gave his approval to people in days of old because of their faith.” This included Abraham, as we read further down in chapter 12. Faith is a gift that, as Paul says in Ephesians 2, we cannot earn but only receive from God otherwise we would brag about our ability to be right with God instead of humbly accepting his gift of salvation which requires of us faith.
(Slide six) This gift of faith requires us to look in the right direction and in Abraham’s case it was up. When you read Hebrews 12 you realize that those of who are spoken as to their great and abiding faith in God, looked in a different direction as we read in verse 16 “But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland.”
People with faith look at things differently and they see things differently than others do. And sometimes that vision, that looking, cause them to be mocked, ridiculed, even beaten because what and who they are looking at and for, is far, far different than others.
Abraham demonstrates this unique vision of faith as we read in Hebrews 12, “Abraham obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going. And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith—for he was like a foreigner, living in a tent.”
The promise that God gave Abraham, in the face of apparent childlessness (how many 80 year old mothers and fathers do you know?) gave challenge to his faith and that of his wife. But it was not an empty promise, it was a God promise.
Now one of the challenges of faith is believing that a great promise is also a God promise. And sometimes it seems we hang onto what we believe is a God promise and it turns out that it is not and disappointment and disillusionment sets it. This was Sarah’s problem. She laughed at God’s promise and was called out on it! But Abraham had this steady faith because He believed God. He did not just believe in what God said, he believed in God Himself. An important distinction here. Faith requires us to believe in God alone and apart from what He can do for us.
And faith requires of us many things. And one of the biggest things that faith requires, as Abraham demonstrates, is learning to wait.
One of the themes of Advent according to Joan Chittister is waiting. She writes “Advent is about learning to wait. It is about not having to know exactly what is coming tomorrow, only that whatever it is, it is of the essence of sanctification for us. Every piece of it, some hard, some uplifting, is the sign of the work of God alive in us. We are becoming as we go… Life, we come eventually to know, is an exercise in transformation, the mechanics of which take a lifetime of practice, of patience, of slow, slow growth.” She goes on to say that “waiting –the cold, dry period of life when nothing seems to be enough and something else beckons within us- is the grace that Advent comes to bring.”
(Source: The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittister. Published by Thomas Nelson.)
What are you waiting for? We give a lot of good answers to this question. We are waiting for Washington to get its act together. We are waiting for our finances to improve. We are waiting for more work to come our way. We are waiting for a certain gift item to go on sale so that we can get it at an even lower price with the 30% coupon we are holding onto! We are waiting in line!
But I think at rock bottom what we are waiting for is really faith, hope, and love. We are waiting for our faith to be renewed after having one disappointing experience after another. We are waiting for our hope to be renewed after having it shattered by circumstances or people. We are waiting for love, a love that really, really satisfies us to come along.
We are waiting for God to not just show up but to come through. Just like Abraham and Sarah were waiting.
But this waiting has a purpose. This waiting during Advent, anticipating and expecting the baby in the manger to again appear, be seen, and worshipped, is a waiting that we do… often throughout the year.
We are waiting on God. We are waiting for God… as we take one step at a time in a direction of faith in Christ and the subsequent journey that we do not know where it is taking us.
Where then are you looking for this faith, hope, and love? Where are you looking for God? Like Abraham we have to look up! Up into the face of God who is alone the ultimate source of our faith, hope, and love.
Where are you at in your life journey today? What next step of faith are you finding it hard to take?
I ask a similar question on my Facebook page this week and this is what I heard…( The question was “Other than a step of religious faith, “What is the hardest step of faith a human being has to take?” )
… giving your life to your marriage partner
…having had two major surgeries
… the hardest step of faith is [trusting] Jesus Christ with my life. Trusting Him to save my soul was the easy part.
… Allowing your children to grow and make their own decisions. Gotta have faith that the values you instill in them will surface when they need them most!
… Sending your teenage daughters away to college, hoping they will become independent, successful women. Then understanding your role completely changes when they become independent, successful women.
… I think its surgery. Letting someone put you out and paralyze you so that they have to help you breath!
… Parachuting from an air plane you have 50 percent chance your chute could open or not.
… to Surrender all!
… Asking God to do something and then NOT tell him how to do it. Shut up and get out of his way and let him do it HIS way and on HIS time frame and not yours.
… It was the day that my husband left me and my 3 children. I had to take a huge step of faith in the Lord and myself.”
We are on a journey that at points is rough and difficult and then at other times an absolutely joyful and fun. God is present every step of the way. The question is “Are we believing in Him and His wonderful promises whether or not they have been realized at this point?”
The gift of faith is, at times, a seemingly impossible gift. It requires of us the ability to believe, to hope, and to love when circumstances and choices seem to be going against what God has promised. But without it is impossible to walk with God and experience His forgiving grace and mercy as we are reminded of in Hebrews 11:6 “And it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him.”
We must not lose faith! We must keep looking up believing God and taking Him at His word! We must keep trusting and believing the Lord! He is the source of our faith, our hope, and our love.
We are all on a journey of a thousand steps. God’s purposes and mission for us may not be as large and important as Abraham’s was, but because it is God’s and not ours, it is very important. And it requires us to open and use the gift of faith.
Let us keep believing in a great and good God whose plans and purposes will be done. Amen and Amen.