Monday, September 16, 2013

The Great Story: God Builds a Nation with Tools of Grace and Faith

Preached on Sunday, September 15, 2013
Scripture readings: Genesis 12:1-13; Genesis 22:1-18
July Summer 2013: Church and Manse Gardens
We are living characters in a living story about a living God who created the world as a place to live with us. It could have been the story of a happy adventure. It became a story gone wrong, almost as soon as we came along.
We humans put the story wrong. God created the ideal setting for human life, and gave us no reason to be moved by anything other than love. It was a sin against love that made the story to go wrong and this sin altered human nature, because we were made to love.
God showed us, from the very moment that we went wrong, that he himself would come to set us right. God also allowed the human story to continue, in order to demonstrate that we could not expect to save ourselves.
The experiment of Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve, demonstrated that some future generation will not be able to change the world. The experiment of righteous Noah and his family demonstrated that, given a fresh start, the best and brightest people in the world will not be able to change the world.
God, himself, would need to come into the world for our story to be set right; but first he would create an environment for his coming. God would create a family, a tribe, a people, a nation in which to make his home and live.
God would use this special environment to discipline the human race in the use of the proper tools for transforming human life. These tools could only be used at their best when the building material for our transformation was finally delivered.
There is a sense in which God became human, in Jesus, so that God, himself, would be the new human material for a human story that was set right.
The Bible word for the core center of human nature is the word “heart”. In the Bible the heart is not just about human emotions and feelings. The heart is about priorities, and choices, and the human will.
More than simply beating, our heart is what makes us tick; and the wrong things make our heart tick. Every human being has a “heart-problem”.
We inherit our heart from Adam and Eve. They gave us the motivations that make all humans tick. God became human in Jesus to make a new human heart so that all humans could receive that heart; so that all human hearts might tick with the love and the passions of God. This is what we were created for.
Jesus met and exposed himself to the disease of our sick hearts. He met and defeated our sin and death. So Jesus has a heart with the perfect resistance (the perfect immune system) to sin and death. Having the heart of the Son of God within us gives us eternal life.
The tools of God for transforming human life are like surgical instruments that will make the transplant possible. God first introduced those instruments to Adam and Eve, when they left the Garden of Eden. Noah knew about these instruments as well. But God planned to create an environment full of people who would be trained and disciplined to use these instruments, and teach their use to others, when the time came for the new human heart to arrive.
God’s surgical instruments of transformation are grace and faith. The environment of people which God intended to create was the family of Abraham. In our story, which is God’s story, God planned to transform Abraham and Sarah into a family, and then into a nation.
Then (through the coming of God in Christ, through his death for our sins on the cross, and through his resurrection to conquer death) God would transform the nation of Abraham into a kingdom for all the nations. It would be a kingdom that had the heart of Jesus at its center. Every man, woman, and child of that kingdom would have the heart of Jesus beating within them, and that kingdom would be called the Kingdom of God.
The two surgical instruments of God to transform human life are grace and faith.
The Bible tells us about a seventy-five year old man named Abram (though we usually call him Abraham) and his more-or-less sixty-five year old wife Sarai (or Sarah). They were a couple who were settling into a dignified and childless old age. They were city people and well-to-do.
The Lord came to Abraham and told him to go into the desert to live, and become a nomad, and that he would lead Abraham to a land that would become his family’s future home. (And, by the way, Abraham, you and your wife are going to have a baby.) This calling was the gift of grace, and this grace made the faith of Abraham possible.
The Bible doesn’t tell us that the Lord visited Sarah with this news at this time. I think he was very prudent to give that job to Abram.
Mark Twain told a story where a school boy was asked by his teacher to define the word “faith”. The boy said it like this, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” In Lewis Carol’s “Through the Looking Glass” (“Alice in Wonderland”) the White Queen says to Alice, “Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
It can look as if the Lord gave Abram any number of impossible things to believe at the same time. Seeing it like this can give us a serious misunderstanding of faith. It can make us think that faith is a matter of thinking something, or holding a troubling thought in your head, and telling yourself not to bother about it.
The truth is that we often find ourselves believing impossible things. If those things are nothing more than our own ideas (or if they are the ideas of just anyone) then that can get us into a lot of trouble.
But the call to go and live as a nomad, and the call to go and be parents, and the call to go and live a blessed life (and to be a blessing to others, and to the whole world, for all time to come) were not Abram’s own ideas. They were God’s ideas.
And Abram didn’t merely hold them together in his head as well as he could manage. Abram actually did those impossible things. He didn’t live to see them all through to the end, but he started them, and the generations to come also did their part in those things.
It was all to create an expanding environment of faith: a culture and a way of life of faith. As a way of life, it wasn’t a way of merely thinking. It was always a way of life. It was a way of living.
At the same time, Abraham, and those who followed him, didn’t do a very good job of it. Whether we could have done it any better than they did, we will never know, and that’s not even the point.
The surprising point is that they actually did it. They didn’t do it in a very attractive way. They didn’t do it in a very likeable way.
But they did it. And they faltered. They hesitated. They stumbled.
They sinned. Abraham lied about his wife being his sister and not his wife, at all, so that the Egyptians would not kill him in order to get her.
They lied and they cheated. Jacob tricked and cheated his father Isaac and his brother Esau. Jacob’s therapy, under the surgical instruments of God’s grace and faith, was to get tricked by almost everyone who knew him for the rest of his life.
They took advantage of each other. Lot took advantage of his Uncle Abraham’s generosity. He took all the best land when Abraham offered him first choice when they needed to divide their territory between them.
But here the instrument of faith still worked, because the Lord didn’t want Abram in the land that Lot would have chosen. Lot chose to live in the land of Sodom and Gomorrah which, even in our ignorant times, we sort of know must have been the wrong place to be.
What happened to Abraham is that he did live by faith. When he gave his nephew Lot the first choice of territory Abraham was living by faith.
Faith is not so much about thoughts and expectations, although our thoughts and expectations can wreck our faith. Faith is not even about our obedience, though faith requires our obedience in order to avoid being make-believe and phony. God will not allow a make-believe faith that avoids actually living itself out. As James says, “Faith without works is dead (or useless).” (James 2:20)
Faith is a kind of surrender. Faith is like dying to yourself because it is the only way of coming to the end of your self, and coming into the resources of some one else. Faith is letting the water support you when you swim. Faith is letting the surgeon do his work. Faith allows God to make you a new creation on his own terms.
“The Story” of the Bible, as we are learning it, is about God’s love for us, but that doesn’t make the story all about us. When you meet someone who wants the story of their life to be about you, what better time can you find to make your story about them? That, in part, is how faith works. It is that kind of surrender.
The sin of Eden was a sin against love and trust. Faith is a relationship of love and trust. Imperfect Abraham and his horrible family tell us a story of a relationship that was always based on love and trust, however imperfect it worked out. More than that, their relationship of faith was based on the strange twin of faith. Faith has a twin surgical instrument of transformation that we call grace.
Grace and faith cannot work separately. They are tools that go together. The call of God to go and be a blessing was a gift. It was grace.
The people whose lives most fill our hearts are the people who have become a blessing to us. They are grace. The people who live the most are not the daredevils and the wild ones. The people who live most are not even the heroes who get all the attention of this world and who get reported in the news, unless they are people of blessing.
The people who live most are the people of blessing. For those people everything and everyone is grace. Those are the people who teach us most about love.
God’s calling to Abraham and Sarah was pure and undeserved grace. The grace of this calling had the power to unsettle an absolutely settled old man and his old woman. Without the appearance of the grace of God in his visit and calling to Abraham, Abraham and Sarah would never have moved, and we would never have possessed their heritage of training in the transforming purposes of faith and grace.
Like Abraham and Sarah, faith makes us let go of ourselves as we know ourselves. It is the same as dying to ourselves, and so the impossible happens.
It was almost thirty years later when Abraham and Sarah had their son. They lived the life of always hanging in the balance between faith and impossibility for thirty years. And then it happened. Grace and faith did their work.
The story of Sarah’s maid Hagar was a shortcut to the promises of God. It went wrong and became the story of a surrogate mother who got thrown out with her child in the middle of the desert. But grace came and created faith.
Abram was almost the killer of his son, and Isaac was almost killed by his own father. What a life! As horrific as this was; grace came and even Isaac, for all he went through grew up to be a quiet man who had the faith to pray to the God of his Father Abraham.
Jacob ran away from home because he had cheated his brother of his share of the inheritance and because his brother threatened to kill him. After years of exile, the Lord commanded Jacob to go back to his brother. Jacob had no idea, apart from his brother’s death threats, of what to expect when he came home. But Esau was gracious to Jacob.
Jacob was so surprised that he told his brother “To see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably.” (Genesis 33:10) Grace and faith go together.
If you want to know the God of The Story (the God who made the world for you and you for the world; the God who came in Jesus to set all things right), if you want to call yourself a person of faith, you have to know God’s pattern. You have to know that God’s plan is to transform you by his special surgical instruments of grace and faith, and that calls you to a life of impossible possibilities.
I had to go into the ministry because it was the peculiar version of impossibility that God had designed for me. Just because you fear something that does not mean that God is calling you to it. But, sometimes, God will require you to face what you fear so that you surrender your idea of what you should be. Then you will find his idea of what he created you to be.
If you have a fear of water, the God of grace and faith may require you to be a deep sea diver. If you have a fear of gambling, the God of grace and faith may require you to be a farmer. 
So what are you afraid of? What barriers seem to make it impossible to be what God calls you to be? Is it the barrier your age? Is it the barrier of time? Is it the barrier of your upbringing, or your life history? Is it the barrier of your talents, or your own pride and dignity, or something else?
There is no other God than the God of grace and faith. There is no other reality, and so where else will you go?
You have to face the impossible and not allow it to be an objection against your life with God. In this way, God is truly relentless. That is why this story is so long. The length of the story is the relentlessness of the God of grace and faith in making all things new, including you. So we see that it is a serious business to say that God is love.

The story of God building a nation upon the life of Abraham is the story of a God who transforms lives using the tools of grace and faith. These are the instruments of love, and God intends to use them to build an new heaven and earth. Then the kingdom of God, and his dwelling place, will truly be with us. But, until that time comes, grace and faith are the way that God has designed for us to live with him right now. The heart of God’s grace and faith are in Jesus. Follow him.

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