Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Journey of Faith - God's Friendly Persuasion

Preached on Sunday, October 16, 2016
Scripture reading: Genesis 15:1-21
A husband and wife were talking in the kitchen, one morning, while their kids were getting ready for school, and the wife said, “You know, it’s been a lot easier to get Junior up for school ever since he got his nose ring.”
Tall Timber Ranch (Church Camp Retreat Center)
Leavenworth WA: October 2016
Faith isn’t exactly a nose ring held in the guiding hand of God, but maybe we should think of it as something like that, a sensitive spot in the soul, a soft spot in the heart.
Sometimes we think of faith as strength. In his letter to the Ephesians (6:16) Paul describes faith as if it were part of the fighting equipment of a soldier. He calls faith, “the shield of faith”. And so it is. Faith is a strong thing. But the armor that the shield of faith belongs to is “the armor of God” which means that it is either the presence and activity of God that protects us and gives us strength, or else it means that the armor of God is the armor that comes from God.
Faith is the gift of God, which means that the shield of faith is a strength that is not truly our own. Faith itself is a strength supplied by God where we need it most.
The whole point of armor is that we have our sensitive spots, our soft spots. The strength of faith begins when God’s strength is held close to our weakness. When the strength of God comes close to our sensitive spots, our soft spots, then faith comes to life, faith stays alive, faith gives us life, faith helps us to live.
Faith was brought back to life in Abraham when the Lord came to Abraham to encourage him in a time of weakness. The story tells us that Abraham was afraid. The Lord came to Abraham, and said, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”
Let’s list what made Abraham afraid. Abraham’s fear came from a strange pattern of success and failure. The Lord, first of all, had made himself known to Abraham. The Lord had tapped him on the shoulder, and given him and his family a special calling in life. The Lord called him to be a new kind of person: a person whose life was a journey, a journey with God. It was a life where the whole point was to move, and to grow, and, most of all, to trust: to live by faith, to let God be his source of security, to let God be his shield.
In order to follow God’s call, Abraham originally set out from the ancient city of Ur where he was raised. Ur was a place that rested on the past. It was stable, predictable, safe. To leave, for anywhere else, was scary.
But Abraham succeeded. He followed the Lord’s directions daily, until he and his family arrived at the land the Lord had promised them. When they got there the Lord announced, “Here it is!” Only there were other people living on the premises. Those other people, the ones with legal title to the land, lived in secure and stable towns, protected by high walls and towers. Abraham and his family had no place to go but to go on living in tents on the edge.
In their God-given land, they had no land of their own. They avoided getting too close to the well-settled areas. They migrated with their sheep and goats on their yearly journey between winter and summer pasture.
The Lord told Abraham that he still had many years ahead of him, and that he would die in this land, and eventually his descendants would go down to Egypt, where they would be slaves for four hundred years. Then God would lead them back and give them this land. That was God’s promise about land. It was very encouraging. Or was it?
Actually the nomad life was good for Abraham, and he was good at it. He prospered. The people in the towns were a little bit afraid and a little jealous of him. At least in the good years.
It wasn’t long, though, before there was a string of bad years. There was a drought, and Abraham saw no other way to survive than to take his family and his growing tribe down to Egypt.
That turned out to be a bad move. Once he got there, Abraham was afraid that the king of Egypt would want his wife Sarah. Even though Sarah was almost ninety, she is said to have been beautiful.
(And that is a mystery. But it is no greater mystery than to say that, just as God kept Abraham strong at a hundred, so God kept Sarah beautiful at ninety. Someone has said that Sarah had a special beauty secret, and that it was called the Oil of Delay, but the real reason was that the Lord had a special purpose for these two.)
So Abraham passed Sarah off as his sister (which was half true). But the King figured this out and gave Abraham a stern moral lecture, which made Abraham look like a moral midget, and the king sent them all packing.
The drought ended, and Abraham and his family were so successful again that they became too big an operation to stay in one group any longer. Abraham told his nephew, Lot, to take first pick of the range-land so that they could keep their herds apart.
Lot was greedy and lazy, and he claimed all the best land for himself. Abraham found himself taken advantage of by his own family. What kind of leader was he, anyway?
Next his nephew’s division of the tribe got caught in a war. Lot and his family were taken captive by the allied armies of four kings who had invaded the land for plunder. They were about to be made into slaves. So Abraham took the men of his tribe, and beat the invading army, and freed his nephew’s family, and all the rest of the prisoners.
Abraham turned out to be a big man. But this is where we come in, at chapter fifteen of the book of Genesis, and we find that Abraham is afraid. Why was he afraid?
God had called him from the security of the great, rich city of Ur, and made him the beginning of a new kind of people. The plan was that there would be a tribe of people who traveled with God by faith. God had made part of his promise to Abraham to consist of land, and of children who would inherit the heritage.
Abraham was like a child, himself, on a long drive who keeps asking, “Are we there yet? When will we get there?” But Abraham was a one-hundred-year-old child, and he had reasons to be in a hurry. His years were passing and nothing was happening with the promises.
You can see the pattern. That was why Abraham was afraid. Here was his sensitive spot, his soft spot.
But there is another pattern that you can see in this story. The pattern has to do with the strength and the shield of faith. The pattern is that the Lord keeps coming back to Abraham. Four times in the four chapters (twelve through fifteen) God repeats the promises. Whether Abraham is succeeding or failing, the Lord is always doing something in the middle of it.  The promises get repeated in such a way that those promises about the future almost don’t matter so much.
It’s the presence of God, that keeps coming back, that matters. It’s the pattern of visitation that is the message.
In Isaiah (41:8) God calls Abraham his friend. The many visits of God were a pattern of friendship, and this is where Abraham’s faith came from. God’s friendship became Abraham’s most sensitive spot. When God touched Abraham there, Abraham listened.
Who calls you to share life with them? Who cares about your fears? Who keeps you focused on your dreams and your hopes? There are people who are gifts of God, who fit the pattern of abiding friendship and love. They are your soft spot, and you listen to them. There is God’s pattern of faithful and continuing presence. Faith means responding to this pattern and living accordingly.
Abraham had a choice of two patterns to respond to. There was the repeated pattern of difficulties, hardships, battles, failures, and fears. And there was the repeated pattern of the faithful presence of God.
There’s a verse in Romans (10:17) which I know better in the King James Version, and don’t want to take the time to discuss why it is different in the more modern translations. But Paul says, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” The word from God teaches you to hear, and hearing teaches you to trust the God who speaks to you.
God has a message for you, a message of promise: a message of faith, and hope, and love. The Lord has a desire to give you something, and he has designed a pattern of visitation around you, it is a plan to open up a soft spot in your heart, a sensitive spot in your soul, with the aim of your hearing that message: a message that would set you apart for a life of walking in faith with God. God’s aim is to open up your heart so that you can hear and respond.
There are these two patterns there for you to read. One is a pattern of repeated uncertainties, difficulties, competition, fears, reasons not to hope, reasons not to try, reasons to make yourself hard, or angry, miserable, or fearful. It is a pattern made up of real things, real hurts, real dangers, real obstacles.
The other pattern is the pattern of the faithful presence, and wisdom, and promise of God. There is a pattern of real visits from God. Whether you have noticed it or not, whether you saw the good or the bad going on around you, the Lord was there.
If you looked around yourself, right now, you would see more good gifts than you could count. On my retreat a couple days ago we were given a spiritual exercise. We were told to take five minutes to list ten things we were thankful for. Then we were to pause and then spend five more minutes listing ten more things we were thankful for. Then we were to pause and list ten more things that we were thankful for. Then we were told to look for patterns. We were told to see something that God wanted to tell us; something God wanted us to know.
God is here. And when you leave this room, God will go home with you. Will you ask him to help you see what he has given to you, to help you and strengthen you?
Most of all, the Lord has visited you, though it seems like a long time ago, when he came down to earth in Jesus Christ, and showed you how much he identifies with you, and how he loves you so much that he would carry your sins, and your weakness, and your shame, and your fears on the cross. Ask him to help you think about that cross, and ask what that cross has to do with you now.
Abraham asked the Lord, “How can I know...?”  We too should ask the Lord to help us know. The Lord would like to repeat his promises and strengthen them in your heart. Faith can be the soft, tender soft spot in our heart that enables us to hear God speak. It’s that funny tender spot where we receive the assurance of God’s love.
Faith is a sensitive spot. Like a ring through our nose, it makes us more willing to go through the difficulties of living by faith than the alternative of living without faith, and without God.

Faith is the surrender we make so that the Lord can make us into the new person he dreams of, so the old person of frustration and fear can end, and the new person of faith can be led by God into freedom.

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