Speaker Bruce Millar
The Bible tells of many journeys. Israel’s journey to the Promised Land. The prophets Samuel, Elijah and Elisha all feature journeys. Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Jesus journeyed on his ministry and so on. Last week, Leslie used the apostle Paul’s journey to Rome, interrupted by a terrible storm and shipwreck that left him washed up on the island of Malta to teach us how to handle storms — storms pass, get your bearings, light a fire, shake off a snake.
All of these journeys ended; they reached a terminus. But this morning I want to look at a journey that never reached a goal — and perhaps never will — referring, of course, to the life of Abraham, chapters 11 to 25 of Genesis. Since Christian life is regularly described as a walk — we are exhorted to “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16), to “walk by faith” (2 Corinthians 5:7) and “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4) — I hope we may find it instructive to our own journey in life. Let’s start with the summary in Hebrews 11:8-11 —
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place where he was to receive an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he 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 designer and builder is God.”
Abraham is one of the towering figures of human history. He is of special significance to us because of the unique relationship in which we stand to him. Bear with me in another quotation, excerpted from Galatians 3:6-9.
“Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 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.”
Did you catch that phrase: “… those who are of faith are the sons of Abraham?” What does it mean to be such a son? Recall the tense debate found in John 8 between Jesus and the Jewish leaders? They were upset because Jesus declared that he was doing the will of God his Father and angrily retorted that Abraham was their father. Jesus agreed that as ethnic Jews they had a genetic link to the patriarch, but he countered “if you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works that Abraham did.” The term “father” is sometimes used in the Bible in the sense of “the first one of a kind”; for example, Genesis 4:21 states that “Jubal … was the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe.” This is the sense Jesus was using, which Paul picked up on. Abraham is the first of a particular line of people — people of faith — whose faith is evidenced by their actions or works; the same point made by James in his letter (James 2:21). These kind of people are his family, his sons, his tribe or clan.
At this point, we need a working definition of the faith I’m talking about. I find Tom Wright helpful: “Faith is not a general religious attitude to life. It’s not simply believing difficult or impossible things for the sake of it, as though credulity was Itself a virtue. Faith hears the promise of God, the assured word of the world’s creator that he is also its redeemer, and that is through the strange fortunes of Abraham’s family (that is his clan) he is working out this eternal purpose.” Let’s think about this as we follow Abraham’s story.
Abraham’s faith-journey began from the town of Haran, in what is now southeast Turkey with a word from the Lord. How this happened and how he recognised it, we don’t know, but he sets out south and for the rest of his life he is on the move. He will stay in some places for a period of time, sometimes lengthy, but he never puts down roots or builds a permanent place called home. The journey embraces extraordinary events, but most of the time it is very ordinary; it has highs and lows, joys and sorrows, times when nothing is happening and times when everything is happening. But the unique feature of the journey is that it never reaches a final destination. Abraham never arrives; his journeying never finishes. Hebrews 11:13 says that he and others “died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen and greeted them from afar and recognised that they were strangers and wanderers in the land...”
Our text mentions two major elements to Abraham’s journeying:
1. Perennial Leaving
All journeys start with a leaving; but Abraham’s leaving was extraordinary in the extreme. Granted that people lived longer back then, at 75 years of age Abraham is no spring chicken when God called him. He is required to leave everything that was familiar and loved, his home, his wider family, his natural desire for security, safety and a settled comfortable lifestyle, to journey into a strange foreign land where he would be regarded with suspicion as on outsider, and live in a tent with all the insecurity and vulnerability that entails, having absolutely no idea where he was, where he was going or what lay ahead for him and Sarah.
Furthermore, he would be a nomad, moving from place to place — sometimes because his flocks needed fresh pasture, sometimes because the native inhabitants didn’t want him around, sometimes because he decided to and sometimes because God directed him — but it all meant he had to keep leaving and move on, over and over again. In short, Abraham is called to a life that from a human perspective was the epitome of uncertainty and mystery, walking by faith in a God that at the start of the journey he hardly knew.
Abraham exemplifies walking by faith. He’s not an idol to admire but a model to emulate, as indicated in the following chapter 12:1 — “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us …. run the race that is set before us…” The logic is “If they can do it, so can we.” Like him then, we are called to be travellers not settlers, to experience change, embrace unpredictability, expect disruption and as a result encounter fresh discovery. Just to be clear, I’m talking about spiritual mindset not actual mileage. For some, such as apostles, travel may feature in their faith journey, but we can keep moving on in God even if we never move house. It’s our life in God that is not intended to be static — but that’s the rub since for most people being settled and comfortable is a very human default desire. We swing to it as surely as a compass needle seeks north. We love stability, security, order, and the familiar and trusted, what we’re used to; we don’t mind a couple of weeks on holiday overseas, but then we get itchy for home. This pandemic and its lockdowns was an adventure for the first few weeks but now we all want the old normality back. I observe that we all invariably sit in the same places in church, and if we change the chair layout, in a few weeks we’ll all sit in the same new places again.
The tendency to settle in our natural lives is often reflected in our spiritual lives too. Paul urged Timothy to “stir up the gift of God within him” (2 Timothy 1:6) for this very reason. We sing a song: “There must be more than this” asking The Spirit of God to stir up within us a passion for His Name, but I wonder if the reality is that we’re reluctant to respond to the Spirit leading us to live by faith, leave our comfort zone of present experience and knowledge to enter the unknown where change and uncertainty are the preconditions to new encounters with God? The opposite of faith is not doubt; it is certainty, for certainty has it all worked out, everything is fixed and nailed down, written in stone. Faith is redundant when there is certainty. Faith operates in the arena of doubts and questions, of divine delay and silences, of not knowing, the realm of the unseen and the humanly impossible. The only constant in the life of faith is the Lord God Almighty, the Creator and Sustainer of all things — and even then, there is continuing movement and progression. To live by faith, one has to constantly leave where one is at! Absent this, we settle and stagnate.
2. Perpetual Learning
The second element to the journey of faith is a perpetual learning. Abraham did not become a paragon of faith at his call. He strayed from the path of faith on a number of occasions, as we shall see; but God does not castigate or punish him for doing so, though Abraham has to live with the consequences. One has to learn the way of faith, and mistakes are valuable teaching experiences.
a. He was learning to discern between faith and belief
On entering Canaan for the first time, famine hits the land (Genesis 12) and Abraham moves his family to Egypt. God did not tell him to go there; he believed it was the sensible and obvious action to take. But that belief got him into trouble, to fear, lying and deception. Had God not intervened, it might have destroyed his marriage as well as God’s purpose for his life by Sarah becoming Pharaoh’s concubine.
Again, after 12 years in Canaan (Genesis 16), Abraham, who has recently received God’s covenanted promise that he would father a son from whom would descend a family more numerous than the stars of space, is frustrated that he and Sarah are still childless. We’re told they had a belief that God has left Sarah barren and the only way the promise can be realised is to adopt the pagan practice of surrogacy where Sarah’s slave Hagar bears Abraham a son legally regarded as Sarah’s. But this was never part of God’s purpose and it backfired spectacularly and created huge, painful consequences still being played out in the Middle East today.
In both instances, Abraham’s belief was genuine, but it was not true faith. Belief and faith are both valid entities, and share an etymological root, but they are not synonymous. A belief is an idea that a person holds to be true. It may actually be true, or it may not.
Almost 50% of the USA’s population have a genuine belief that the last presidential election was rigged despite the absence of real evidence. By contrast, a few days ago, the world’s cosmological community was thrown into confusion because recent scientific discoveries about dark matter in space shattered a core belief about the nature of the Universe. In the former, people tenaciously cling to their belief; in the latter, the scientists acknowledge they must ditch their old belief and find a better explanation. So what is more important? What we believe to be true or what is actually true?
In Jesus’ time, the Jewish leaders were the Evangelicals of the period. They studied and searched the Scripture, debated and defined their beliefs about the person and nature of God and of the kingdom of God; it’s written in the Talmud. Then Jesus comes with a different view about God, His kingdom and the way it operated — and the Jewish leaders would not leave their long-held beliefs to embrace the truth Jesus proclaimed, even though it was endorsed by the signs and wonders He did. Their solution to the impasse was to crucify Him, for to follow Jesus’ way of faith would destroy their position as the guardians of Jewish belief.
Belief is a product of information we have imbibed or obtained by our life experiences; it’s a product of the human mind. It’s valid and valuable as far as it goes. But beliefs change. When I became a Christian sixty-odd years ago my church gave a series of teachings entitled “Fundamental Truths” and I took it all on board. However over the years I discovered that much of what was taught was neither fundamental nor true; it was the belief of the day but got officially changed as fresh insight was gained in expanded biblical understanding and interpretation. Church history shows it has been ever thus.
The fact is that Christians disagree on many matters of belief. It’s not my job to tell you what to believe: “Let every man be persuaded in his own mind.” One has to develop the capacity to think for oneself. But belief is not faith. Abraham’s belief was that impotent husbands and barren wives couldn’t have children. It was an unassailable fact, proven throughout all human experience. But when he and Sarah, still learning the way of faith, became willing to lay aside that long-established belief and be open to God’s omnipotence working in them, a delighted centenarian and his overjoyed 90-year old wife obtained in due time a physical makeover and produced the promised baby boy! They’re not the only ones! Hebrews 11 speaks of a great cloud of them. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is not mentioned among them, but her faith in response to the angelic announcement took precedence over her well-founded belief that virgin women don’t have babies.
As with Abraham, so with us; to make progress on our journey, faith must lead belief.
b. He was learning that faith’s prize is God Himself.
Hebrews 11:11“For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” Looking through Genesis chapters 11 to 25 you will not find reference to this city anywhere. God did promise Abraham a land inheritance, but when the patriarch died he didn’t possess a square foot of territory other than the cave of Machpelah which he purchased as a burial place — but there is no mention of a city.
So it appears that verse 11 is the writer’s summary of the tenor of Abraham’s life with all its highs and lows, its fears and failures, its wrestlings and longings, promises and covenant. The patriarch is constantly developing learning of the nature and purpose of God that is being outworked in himself and his children who walk by faith. That purpose is described as a city built by God, and Abraham died in faith looking forward to seeing it. This same city is spoken of in Hebrews 12:22 as the “… city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…” and in Hebrews 13:14 as “the city that is to come” on God’s renewed earth. It also features in Revelation 21 and 22.
In old Jerusalem, the central sacred space in the temple was a cube-shaped room — the Holy of Holies. God dwelt there, in the form of a blazing white fireball known as the Shekinah, hidden by curtains and veils, inaccessible to all but the High Priest on one day each year. In the New Jerusalem, there is no temple for the gigantic cuboid city is itself the Holy of Holies, where God dwells, with no barriers or curtains, openly accessible and approachable 24/7 to everybody. It’s a city of peace whose only business is the healing of the nations, where the world is put right, tears are wiped away, creation is liberated and every act done to achieve this is seen as an act of worship. Here the glory of God, His own Presence, shines in every street and from every stone, for all this is utterly beyond the power of mankind to accomplish. Only God can design and build this city!
Of course, this is all symbolic imagery. It is not an actual place like Athens, Rome or London. It’s the same kind of language Paul uses in speaking of believers as the Temple built together as a dwelling place of God’s Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22. But while the language is symbolic it is nonetheless real. One day, “the earth will be full of the glory of the Lord” at the restoration of all things.
Jesus said, “Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad.” John 8:56. The 175-year old patriarch died in faith knowing that in the future he would obtain his inheritance — not just Canaan but the whole world — sharing it with his family of faith. But the greatest thing Abraham learned was that God Himself was the prize of faith. To know Him and to know there is always infinitely more to know of Him is what makes eternity exciting. God is always going to be immeasurably greater than our knowledge of Him! The Bible speaks of Him but He cannot be confined to it or by it. That’s why faith will still be required in the age to come. 1 Corinthians 13:13 “And now three things continue forever: faith, hope and love.” The journey of faith will never end!
As I close, may I encourage you to let Abraham inspire you to emulate him? May we keep moving in God and not settle for where we’re at. Let’s be open to hear His voice call us out of our comfort zone to secure His purposes through us. Let’s become less security conscious and more God-conscious. Let God direct us to new places. Let’s do as 2 Peter 3:18 urges and “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” — there more to know than we presently know.