We are deep into a study of faith. We understand that faith needs to be defined or recognized before it can adequately be pursued. In Hebrews 11 the Bible defines and reveals the nature of faith.
We have looked at the rationality of faith when applied to creation. We also looked at the examples of faith as seen in Abel, Enoch and Noah. This morning we look at one of the centerpieces of this teaching on faith: Abraham.
It is very important that we clarify something. Our job is not to be like Abraham. Our job is to learn from the faith of Abraham and seek to apply that faith to our lives. We are people who long for heroes. We want someone to inspire us. As a result, we are much too quick to erect idols.
It is easy to become followers of teachers, Pastors, authors, Christian Artists, and even friends who seem to be living a vital life. This is idolatry and practically will lead to disappointment and disillusionment. No person can maintain the consistency that we crave. No human being can provide what we seek. As the old saying goes: “Even the best of men are only men at best.”
If you read the story of Abraham you will see that even though he was a man who had faith, he was not perfect. He made some bad decisions in the course of his life. However, it is important to remember that the focus of being a person of faith is not how good we are . . . it is how fully we trust the Lord.
We are going to see a couple of snapshots this week of the life of Abraham and then a summary about the examples we have seen so far. From this we draw a few lessons about what faith entails.
Faith Involves Listening and Responding
8 It was by faith that 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. 9 And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith—for he was like a foreigner, living in tents. And so did Isaac and Jacob, who inherited the same promise. 10 Abraham was confidently looking forward to a city with eternal foundations, a city designed and built by God.
In Genesis 12 we see the story of Abraham’s calling by God. Abraham was 75 years old. He was a descendant of Shem, the son of Abraham. We don’t know whether Abraham was a follower of the Lord before that time or not. We are simply told that the Lord told Abraham to leave his country and was promised God’s blessing. The response was simple: “So Abram left, as the Lord had told him” (Genesis 12:4)
This raises a question in my mind: how did he hear the voice of God? Did that voice one day startle him like Moses when God’s voice came out of a burning bush? Did Abraham hear God in a dream? Was he on a search for something that was more real than the gods of stone, wood, and metal that surrounded him? Was he restless and seeking or did God arrest his attention in a surprise move? We don’t know. Was he seeking?
Perhaps verse 10 gives us a little insight: The ESV (a much more literal translation) renders the verse:
10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (ESV)
Perhaps Abraham was looking for something more in life than what he could currently see. He was looking for a city that had foundations . . . unlike the cities around him. He was looking for something with a deeper meaning than he had found to this point. Perhaps Abraham was open and searching. God responded.
There are stories even today of people who had unmistakable messages from God that led to their salvation and conversion. Some were people who were actually adherents of other faiths. Was this encounter like those encounters? All we know for sure is that God spoke and he spoke clearly. Abraham listened, and did what God said.
As I try to apply this truth to my life I can’t help but ask, “How did Abraham know that this voice was from God?” How did he know that it was not something inside of him just telling him what he wanted to hear? (Have you ever felt led to buy that new car, or something similar that you had been yearning or lusting for?)
I’ve had impressions. A little voice inside that says, “call someone, visit someone, initiate a conversation, ask a question”. Are those all whispers from God? I’ve also awakened after strange dreams and wondered, “Was God trying to tell me something?”
God speaks most clearly when we are listening most attentively. I believe I have had some dramatic encounters with the Lord because I was listening and hungering. However, even in these situations, we must be careful. It is good to go through a little checklist. Satan also whispers to us so we need to ask some questions.
- Is this consistent with the character and Word of God? God will not tell you to do something that He forbids in His Word. For example, God will never tell you to be unfaithful to your spouse or to randomly go into a store and shoot innocent people. Such urges are the voice of evil.
- Has God confirmed His Word in some fashion? Abraham acted but God reassured him several times in the years to come. If you are listening and trying to be obedient, God will confirm what you believe you heard. It may be a Bible verse, a comment from someone you respect, it could be a confirmation by another believer. God will make sure we understand. Think about the story of Gideon. He believed he had heard what God said but it didn’t seem to make any sense (God told him to go to war with only 300 men). Gideon was not resisting God, he was seeking confirmation of what God had told him. So Gideon asked God to confirm what he had been told . . .twice! God did confirm His word. It’s not very often you will need this kind of confirmation. And you probably will never need to do what Gideon did. However, God wants to lead you and will confirm what He said as long as you are asking in order to obey rather than out of resistance to obedience.
- What do other believers say? You have to be careful who you ask. It is always easy to ask people you know will give you the answer you want. It is also possible to ask people who do not seek to obey in their own life. They will give you the advice of the world. Find someone who has a heart for discernment; someone open to the voice of God.
Notice the second thing: not only did God communicate with Abraham as to what he wanted Him to do . . . Abraham obeyed. The only condition for Abraham to be blessed was this: he had to do what God told Him to do. The real test of faith is not understanding – it is acting on what we understand. Faith requires that we lean on God’s character rather than our understanding.
Can you imagine how Sarah responded when Abraham told her they were moving? Perhaps she asked, “Where are we moving?” Abraham could only answer, “I don’t know. God said He would show us.” There was no security. No guarantees. Only the Word of God. Faith says the Word of God (because we trust the character of God) is enough.
If we want to live by faith we will need to dare to trust God more than we trust our senses, our experience, or even our desires. In fact, we must grow to desire the city with foundations (God’s eternal Kindgom . . .what we might call Heaven) more than we desire the temporary trinkets of the world.
Faith Means Believing the God of the Impossible
11 It was by faith that even Sarah was able to have a child, though she was barren and was too old. She believed that God would keep his promise. 12 And so a whole nation came from this one man who was as good as dead—a nation with so many people that, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, there is no way to count them.
The second illustration of Abraham’s faith was the birth of his son, Isaac. Abraham had been promised descendants as numerous as the stars. The problem was he was getting old. It had been 25 years. Abraham’s wife, Sarah, had long ago gone through menopause; she was past the age when she could have children.
In Genesis 18 we read the story of angels appearing to Abraham and Sarah. The angels told Abraham that he was going to have a son with Sarah. Sarah was listening on the other side of the tent and couldn’t help but laugh. The angel asked Abraham why Sarah laughed and then said these words, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”
What a haunting question! In our head we know that for the God who created all there is and all there ever will be, nothing is beyond His ability. But in practice we aren’t so sure. God does not often do the impossible but . . . sometimes He does.
- Jonah spent three days inside of a fish.
- Daniel escaped the Lion’s Den.
- Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego survived the fiery furnace.
- Elilsha raised someone from the dead. Jesus brought three people back from the dead as (Jairus’ daughter, the wido of Nain’s son, and Lazarus)
- A man born blind was given sight; the lame walked.
- The crucified Savior rose from the grave.
These are just a few of the examples of God doing what seemed impossible. Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born (Genesis 21:5) and Sarah was 90 or 91! This qualifies as a birth that was out of the ordinary!
Having faith means believing God can do what He says He will do. Even when it sounds impossible. He can and will equip us for what He sends us to do. If God is calling you to do something, He will equip you.
- He can give us the words when we are pressed about our beliefs.
- He can give us strength to survive persecution.
- He can meet even our most desperate financial need.
- He can heal the person who is broken both physically and emotionally.
- He can enable you to lead a bold new ministry.
- He can make even the hardest heart new.
- He can help you endure even the most devastating trial.
- He can provide what we desperately need to serve Him.
I wonder how many times I have missed what God was telling me because the practical side of me said, “Oh, that is impossible!” Like Sarah our “common sense” sometimes gets in the way of our faith. Throughout the course of history common people did astounding things because they were willing to believe in the God of the impossible.
Let me caution: I am not advocating recklessness! We should only step out in bold and daring faith when God has clearly told us to do something. My point is this: we should not conclude that a message is not from God because it is outside of our comfort zone or seems impossible to us. God specializes in the impossible. He loves situations where it is obvious that He is the one who should get the glory for what happens.
Faith is daring and bold. It moves forward with confidence.
Faith Hangs on; It is Not Impatient
13 All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. 14 Obviously people who say such things are looking forward to a country they can call their own. 15 If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. 16 But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
These are remarkable words. It is a look back at the lives of Abel, Enoch, Noah and Abraham. They were made great promises by God but they never saw the fulfillment of those promises. Abraham died not long after his Grandsons (Jacob and Esau) were born. His family was still small but He believed God’s promise. His descendants were a long way from being as numerous as the stars in the sky.
Think of the many centuries that passed as prophets continued to proclaim the coming of the Savior. Think of the time that continues to pass as we faithfully affirm that Jesus is going to return to earth as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. We even await the promise of Heaven which obviously we will not experience in this life.
Here is something we need to understand: True faith is more about trusting the Lord than about results. God cares about results but they may not be results we can see. We tend to consider ourselves a failure if we don’t see results immediately. We feel we have fallen short if we continuously share our faith but no one seems to respond. Even as a Pastor, I sometimes feel that I have failed when people are inconsistent in their attendance, or make destructive choices in spite of my efforts to guide them away from those decisions.
Think about the parents who feel they have failed because their children struggle. Or the missionaries who labor for years and never seem to see results. Think of the musician who shares their music but never gets that recording contract.
The key to faith is to keep our focus on the Lord, rather than on what is happening or is not happening. Faith means walking and acting in the truth and following God’s directives even if it seems we are making no progress.
We are a results oriented society. Television programs are canceled after just few episodes if they don’t have a big enough audience. Athletes are traded or released if they have a bad season. Some children are labeled “slow” or “developmentally challenged” if they don’t have good grades in the early years of school. Executives are fired if profits do not meet expectations. God does not function the same way. He does not measure us by results but rather by our faithfulness.
God looks at the long term picture. He understands that it sometimes takes centuries (or even millennia) to accomplish something. Where we see tragedy or failure, God may merely see a building block he is preparing for the future.
We don’t know what God is doing or will do in the future through the seeds we are planting today. We have no idea how He will use our faithfulness today in the story of tomorrow. I suspect some of the “success stories” of today will be seen as simple passing fads through the lens of eternity.
One of the tests NOT to use in evaluating whether or not God has spoken is “results”.
One of the biggest dangers to the life of faith is the worship of success. Think about it. Abel died young. Noah had to start all over after the flood. People may very well have viewed Abraham as a crazy dreamer. He was a man who believed he was going to be used by God greatly and he died a nomad without a homeland and with just a small family. His contemporaries may have viewed him with scorn. But as we look back from these thousands of years later, we can see God used Abraham in a way much greater than he (or anyone else) could have dreamed.
I wonder how many people live their lives discouraged but are actually being used by God in ways that will lead people in the future to marvel. I wonder how many people will be in the Kingdom of God because of the seeds planted by people who believed they were unsuccessful in their service. It makes you wonder what God is planning to do through you and me.
The challenge of faith is actually pretty simple (that’s not the same as easy). The faithful person does what God tells them to do. We listen to the Bible and the whispers of God’s Spirit and obey. We can forget about looking at the scoreboard. The key is to keep looking at Him.
It sounds so simple doesn’t it? But let’s be honest, the only way we will live faithfully, is if we fervently ask Him to help us. Let’s do that right now.