Abraham - Jon Fryer
Why Abraham? Abraham is one of the most famous characters in the Old Testament, revered by the Jews as their first ancestor and spiritual father, revered by the Moslems as their first ancestor and spiritual forefather, and revered by Christians as the man with the most faith in the entire Bible. Hebrews 11, which lists all of the great Old Testament heroes of the Christian faith spends more time on Abraham than anyone else. The Book of Genesis spends thirteen of its fifty chapters talking about Abraham.
I find this really interesting, because compared to Moses and Elijah and all of the others, he doesn’t do anything! Ever! The most dynamic thing Abraham accomplishes in those thirteen chapters is to move house! Moses – pillar of fire, water from the rock, ten plagues, parting the Red Sea. Elijah – chariots of fire, visions and prophecies, raising the dead. Abraham – nothing. Nada. Zip. Not one miracle. Not one vision. Not a single prophecy. So why does everyone – Jews, Muslims, Christians, God Himself – why do they all say, Abraham, He’s the one with faith, he’s the one to be like? What is so special about Abraham?
I believe that the answer is to be found in Genesis, where we find three specific things about Abraham’s character that please God.
Firstly, Abraham sees God clearly.
Genesis 18; 1-10: The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.
He said, "If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant."
"Very well," they answered, "do as you say."
So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. "Quick," he said, "get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread."
Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.
"Where is your wife Sarah?" they asked him.
"There, in the tent," he said.
Then the LORD said, "I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son."
Do you notice what happens there? Verse 2 - Abraham is sitting at the door of his tent when he sees three men. Who are they? We, the readers, have already been told that this is the Lord visiting Abraham back in verse one, (Father, Spirit, Son perhaps?) but he doesn’t know that. All he sees are three men. Verse 3 – Abraham speaks to them, but rather than say ‘My Lords’, which would be proper, he simply says ‘My Lord’ and addresses only one – despite the fact that this is a normal afternoon he instantly recognises that it is the one true God he is speaking to. By verse 10 the author has given up trying to disguise the fact that the three men are God, and simply says ‘Then the LORD said to Abraham’. In the story we start out with an earthly view of the three men at the table, but by the end we have slipped into Abraham’s spiritual perspective and simply recognise that it is God who is present. This is the story immortalised in the Rubilev icon, showing Abraham’s three guests at the table, and inviting us to recognise them and to join them at the empty space at the table.
This is the first reason Abraham is special – he sees and hears God clearly. He doesn’t let the world get in the way of seeing the truth, and this characterises his entire life. At many points Abraham is just going about his day, running his business, walking in his fields, and God will speak to him, and Abraham instantly recognises God’s voice and stops to talk to Him. This is the first lesson we can learn from Abraham – we need to spend time with the Holy Spirit of God on a regular basis so that we recognise Him when He visits. We need to spend time learning what God sounds like, perhaps by reading the Bible or spending time in prayer, so that when God speaks out of the blue, like Abraham we recognise the voice of God and drop what we are doing.
This brings us on to the second thing about Abram: Abraham hears God and obeys. Genesis 12;1-5 – The Lord had said to Abraham ‘Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household and go to the land that I will show you.’… so Abraham left, as the Lord had told him. Abram was seventy five years old when he set out from Haran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possesions they had accumulated and all the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there’.
Can you imagine that? You’re an OAP, you’ve lived all of your life in one place, and then God says ‘Get up and move’. That’s a majorly traumatic upheaval, but Abraham says ‘OK’, and simply gets up and goes. Abraham hears God and obeys… and this the basis of faith. Faith is not about belief, as much as it is about action.
Hebrews 11; 8-10:
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
Abraham’s simple action of moving home proves his faith in God far more than any miracle or spiritual gift ever could. Abraham hears God and obeys. In fact, as far as we can tell from what the Bible says, Abraham always simply obeys God whenever he is asked by God to do something.
Imagine if you will, that one day your dad is walking in the fields when suddenly he starts talking to the sky. This isn’t particularly scary because he does it all the time. He says ‘Come on son, lets go make a sacrifice to God’, which again is nothing new, but this time he gets everything ready and you set out, but the silly old duffer has forgotten the sheep. How can you make a sacrifice without the sheep? You ask him about this, but he says that God will provide the lamb when you get there – ok, a bit weird, but the old man does some strange things from time to time – he is over a hundred years old after all!
Maybe it all starts to get a bit scary when you get there though. There is no sheep around, but your dad has a funny look on his face. He looks like he is struggling with something real bad. Maybe he is talking to God again. People who talk to someone who isn’t there are a bit scary really when you think about it – you never really know what they are going to do next.
Anyway, Abraham has this terrible look of reluctance and determination on his face, and it seems as if he is being driven by something unseen as he clears a spot on the mountain... And then he prepares the funeral pyre, I mean altar table... And then he ties your hands. Do you think you’d be scared yet?... And then he ties your feet... And then he lays you on the altar... And then he pulls out a wicked sharp rusty carving knife. Are you scared yet? How far do you trust someone who talks to the air?.. And then he takes a deep breath... And then he pulls back your head by the hair. Are we scared yet?... And then he raises the knife over your throat.... And then he gives a load yell and starts to bring down the knife….
…and everything stops…
… and an angel grabs his wrist as God says ‘Abraham! Stop!’…. and Isaac faints.
That all goes by very quickly in the Bible text, but can you imagine it? How awful it is? God isn’t asking Abraham to do something in supernatural power, and he is not asking him to do something spiritual where if he gets it wrong he will simply look a bit silly. No, God has asked him to something simple and yet something terrible and irrevocable which will have life changing consequences. This is his boy, his only boy. God has asked Abraham to obey without any supernatural support or any spiritual comfort, and despite everything inside of him he is driven to obey, because he has sworn to give God whatever he asks.
This is why Abraham is viewed as having such great faith. People who listen to God and simply obey are impressive, or even downright scary to everyone around them! Although Abraham ultimately doesn’t have to go through with it, can you see what a terrible experience the whole thing was for everyone involved? And yet Abraham obeyed. Why did God ask him to do this, and why did he obey? God and Abraham had a covenant relationship with each other. What does this mean? Abraham and God had made a deal with each other earlier in Abraham’s life that was like a legal contract, but without the terms being agred in advance – instead Abraham and God had agreed that whatever the other asked of them they would do without question. When Abraham answers God he says ‘Here I am – I am ready to do anything you ask.’ – this is the relationship they have together.
Why is this important to us? Because Abraham does not withhold even his only son from God, God knows how deep the relationship goes, and as part of their covenant, Abraham and his decendents now can ask the same in return. This seemingly insignificant scene on a lonely mountain is one of the most important moments in history, because it is one of things that absolutely must happen if Jesus is to come five thousand years later – by God’s own rules this relationship has to be set up with Abraham to allow Jesus to be able to redeem us later on – part of the ‘deeper magic’ that CS Lewis talks about in the Narnia books. Because of what Abraham was ready to do, God is willing and able to do the same in return for us and give up His only beloved Son to the covenant relationship God has with his people. Mount Moriah, where God sent Abraham to do the deed, is where Jerusalem is now, and thousands of years later God re-enacted this drama with his own Son Jesus on the very same spot.
OK, so Abraham sees and hears God clearly. Abraham obeys God without question… but finally, and most importantly, Abraham believed God.
Before Isaac was born, the word of the Lord came to Abraham:
"Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield, and your portion
your very great reward."
But Abram said, "O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir."
Then the word of the LORD came to him: "This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir." He took him outside and said, "Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your offspring be."
Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
This is the thing that makes Abraham really special. No matter how impossible it seems, Abraham believes God’s words, even when he can not see how they will come true. Abraham and Sarah were childless, and yet God says that he will give them a son… which isn’t such a hard thing to believe until you remember that not only was Abraham ninety-nine years old at his point, but his wife Sarah was ninety herself, and way past child-bearing age! …and yet Abraham believed.
Hebrews 11;11-12 + 17-19:
By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.
Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.
Abraham was still living by faith when he died. He did not receive the things promised; he only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And he admitted that he was an alien and a stranger on the earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If he had been thinking of the country he had left, he would have had opportunity to return. Instead, he was longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called the God of Abraham.
The most profound thing Abraham did was to believe God all the days of his life, whatever God said to him. This is the thing that most of the world remembers him for five thousand years later, and this is why God remembers him.
The special thing about Abraham is that he is one of the little people. He is not a king, or a prophet. He has no special powers, and no special calling from God. He’s just a little guy going about his business, and every now and again God talks to him, and he is remembered because he believed God and obeyed. Abraham is just like us… and in fact the Bible is full of people like him and like us, who are remembered thousands of years later simply because they believed God and obeyed.
Take Moses for example. Moses probably does more miracles than anyone else in the Bible with the exception of Jesus himself, but Moses came within minutes of never being born. Exodus 1;15-17 says:
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, "When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live." The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.
Without Shiphrah and Puah there would be no Moses, no Exodus, and ultimately no Jesus… just little people, nurses who refused to abort some babies simply because they feared God, and four thousand years later we still know their names… and yet the name of that king of Egypt is forgotten in the sand.
Why do you think the Bible is full of names? The technical answer is all about history and genealogies and tribal relationships, but the real and true answer is because God loves people. He loves the little people who believe and obey, just as much as he loves all of the great heroes of the faith, and he will not allow their names to be forgotten, even to the very ending of the world. If you read the books of the Bible that people call boring, such as Kings and Chronicles etc, what you find is that there are thousands and thousands of names and hundreds of tiny short stories. Some little guys only get a single verse that say ‘Bob obeyed God, and God remembers him’, but their names live on thousands of years later when the kings and the ‘big’ people are all forgotten.
This is what faith is about - its not about having your hands in the air in worship (although worship in spirit and in truth does please God), its not about telling everyone about your beliefs (although doing the work of an evangelist does please God), its not about giving to the poor (although to feed the hungry does please God). Faith is about what you do when no-one else can see, when you are all alone in the dark, and no-one will ever know what you have done except you and God. Faith is about what you do when the Devil comes looking for you with whatever temptation it is that bothers you most, and you have the chance to do it and not get caught. Will you believe God and obey, or will you fall? What will you do, knowing there is no eartly reward for obedience, and no earthly consequences either? Obedience in faith gains you nothing other than the knowledge that 'this time I pleased God'. You gain nothing other than the fact that I may have screwed up in the past, and I may fall again tomorrow, but this time, when the Devil came looking for me, this time I said 'No'... and God remembers.
What will you be remembered for in a thousand years time? That Sam guy, he was in some films that no-one remembers anymore, but he believed God, and God remembers him. Ali, he painted some pictures which rotted away centuries ago, but he believed God, and God remembers him.
God took Abraham outside and said ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if inded you can count them… so shall your offspring be’. Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness…
…we remember Abraham because he believed God, and you can bet that every night for the rest of his life, right through to the night he died, he lay awake outside his tent... and counted stars.
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