By Faith – Sermon on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12

Last week we discovered that God’s vision in creation is to be with us. Adam and Eve chose a different vision. By their choice, sin and the sinful nature entered the human race. Yet, God passionately pursues us at great cost. God will do whatever it takes to get us back.

The deal with Noah hadn’t worked.
Sin was still the problem, even in the most righteous person God could find.
So instead of working with the most likely candidate for the job, God goes with the least likely possibility, an old man from Ur.

Ur was very near where Eden may have been, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Nearby, many people who all had one language had tried to build the Tower of Babel. God confounded their language and the nations scattered.
God chose to create a new nation in this area of the world.

God chose Abram and Sarai when they were very old, well past the age to have children. Their parents and grandparents had worshiped pagan gods. They were probably the least qualified people on earth to give birth to a great nation that would bless the whole world. God chose an old and unlikely couple so that all people would look to God, knowing that all that happens is God at work. God wants people to see him and understand his plan. And it’s pretty simple, really.

In Genesis 12, God lays out the deal for Abram. In this agreement, God states clearly what he expects from Abram when he says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (12:1)

Then God goes on to offer his share of the deal. He makes four promises:

  1. I will make of you a great nation, and
  2. I will bless you, and
  3. make your name great, so that
  4. you will be a blessing.  (Genesis 12:2)

God promises to bless all the nations of the world through Abraham and the new nation that will come from him. God will use this new nation to reveal his heart and his plan to win us back. Abraham believes what God promises, and God credits his faith as righteousness.

But things don’t go exactly the way God intended. Once again, humans assume they know how to act on God’s behalf. And once again, they mess it up.

Sarai decides that she will help God along in his purpose, and she proposes her own way to start the new nation (Genesis 16). Because Sarai is old, she offers Hagar to Abraham and Ishmael is born. God blesses Ishmael, but Ishmael will not be the one God uses to keep his promise to Abraham. Sarai may have intended her servant Hagar to be a surrogate, but God has a better plan.

When Abraham is 100 years old, and Sarah is 90, they are promised their own child. Sarai laughs at this prospect, and the child who is born to them is named Isaac, which means “laughter.” (Genesis 18) This is the first time laughter is mentioned in the Bible. Joy has entered the human experience of God!

Then God tests Abraham by commanding him to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. (Genesis 22) Abraham responds with obedience, believing that God can raise his beloved son to life from the dead (Hebrews 11:7). Isaac is spared and a ram is offered in sacrifice. Centuries later another beloved Son will be sacrificed and is not spared (John 3:16).

Randy Frazee writes, “In every chapter of The Story there are clues as to what God’s grand plan is. Notice the parallel language between Genesis 22:2 and John 3:16 – “Take your son your only son whom you love and sacrifice him” compared to “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son.”

Abraham ascends Mount Moriah to sacrifice Isaac. Most scholars believe that the hill of Moriah is most likely in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 3:1). This is where God’s one and only son would be offered up as a sacrifice on a cross, on a hill, more than 2000 years later.  Jesus was the only, the final, the ultimate sacrifice. God will win us back at great cost to himself.

If you come to my study, you will see a lot of books called “Bible commentaries.” People who write commentaries have studied a particular section of the Bible with great detail and care. They have done all the research behind the text, and then added their own interpretation to what they have learned. Some commentaries are more helpful than others, but the ones I like best are the commentaries that come directly from the Bible itself.

We find them all through scripture, but the New Testament is particularly rich in the way it interprets the Old Testament. Jesus often commented on familiar passages from the psalms and the prophets, and his interpretation gave those passages a new meaning. Paul interprets Old Testament writings as well, but perhaps the most complete interpretation of today’s story about Abraham comes from the book of Hebrews, chapter eleven.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
8By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. 12Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” (Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12)

By choosing Abraham and Sarah to begin the new nation, God reveals a pattern that we will see again and again in scripture. God chooses unlikely people who are not the smartest, the most beautiful and handsome with the best resumes. God chooses ordinary people like you and me.
The only qualification he looks for is faith.

Sometimes he chooses the least likely candidate for the job, so that there’s no mistake about who is really performing God’s great work. That might be you. You might think you don’t meet the criteria to be used greatly in God’s great Story. Yet he calls you to reveal his love for the world, and to reflect his plan to win us back. God calls you to faith.

Not only does God choose to work through people who are least qualified to accomplish that work, he works with the mess they can make to create something good. Sarah decided to help God out with his covenant by offering her servant Hagar to provide offspring for Abraham. The result was a son who would father a great nation, but Ishmael’s tribe would always be at odds with God’s promised nation, the family of Isaac.

Later, Isaac’s wife Rebekah will “help” God out by encouraging her favorite son Jacob to trick his father out of the blessing and birthright intended for Esau. And Jacob’s sons will send their brother Joseph to Egypt as a slave. Through three generations, God will turn the mess humans make into blessing. Israel will become a strong nation, in spite of itself.

God often chooses to accomplish his purpose in the most difficult way possible. This is to remind us that God is in charge, that God’s actions come from God, not from human effort or ability. With God, all things are possible. What he asks of us, is simple faith. The writer of Hebrews tells us:

8By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 

Abraham’s faith led him out of Ur to a place he had not seen. He did not know where he was going, only that God was sending him there. And God was also leading him there. Abraham didn’t know where God was sending and leading him, but he knew it was away from the familiar and the comfortable.

God was sending and leading Abraham into a promise. Abraham believed that promise. He didn’t just believe in God, he believed what God said. And it made him righteous in God’s eyes. Because he believed, he became a blessing to all the nations of the world, for one of his descendants died on a cross to save the whole world from sin.

In his book, Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church, Reggie McNeal writes:

“The role of the church is simply this: to bless the world. In doing this, the people of God reveal God’s heart for the world.
To understand what it means to be the people of God, it’s important to go all the way back to where their story got going. It’s in Genesis 12, in the deal God cut with Abraham. In that God-initiated covenant, God didn’t declare to Abraham, ‘I’m going to bless you, just you and people like you.” Not at all. The point of that blessing was its external focus: ‘I’m going to bless you,’ God said, ‘so you can be a blessing to everybody else.’ This included people not in Abraham’s tribe, people not like Abraham, people who didn’t know God or were even looking for him – everybody, period.
Followers of Jesus have inherited this blessing, meaning we are free to bless everyone and responsible for blessing everyone. This includes people like us and people not like us, people we like and people we don’t like, people who share our values and people who don’t.” (McNeal, 46)

Blessing people isn’t evangelism as many of us may think of evangelism. It isn’t some kind of activity or program of the church. It isn’t a strategy that makes us cringe or feel guilty if we don’t participate. What would happen if, instead of having an evangelism strategy, we developed a blessing strategy?

Wouldn’t that be more in line with the covenant God presented to Abram when he said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)?

What would happen if each of us made a conscious effort to bless three people this week? And what if we made sure that at least one of those people didn’t deserve it! “Of course, none of us deserves it! That’s the good news of the Good news – that we get the undeserved blessings of God. We don’t own the blessings of God, and we sure don’t get to decide who deserves them. … God blesses everyone because that’s just who he is and what he likes to do.” (McNeal, 47)

God chose the most unlikely people he could find to become the parents of a new nation, so that people would look to God to explain how it happened. God chooses the most unlikely people he can find today to spread his blessing to the whole world. God’s strategy of picking the least likely candidate to succeed could be your opportunity to be picked for a God-sized project, so others will be able to see him when great things happen in you and through you.

God created a nation to reveal God’s plan to get us back. We are part of that plan. Just as Abraham was both sent and led by God into a life of faith and blessing, so we are sent into the world to share good news as followers of Christ.

Following Jesus means being sent by Jesus to reach new people where they already are. This means that wherever you go, the church is there. What might your life look like if you were to recognize how you bring the church to others wherever you go? What particular gift, what particular weakness can you offer to God in faith, as you follow Jesus and are sent by Jesus to be his representative in your daily life?

Here’s your challenge for the coming week. It’s the same challenge Reggie McNeal offers. Find three people to bless this week. Make sure at least one of them doesn’t deserve it! Maybe it’s the person who sells you a cup of coffee, or the person who stocks the produce at the grocery store. Maybe it’s the person who cuts your hair or waits on your table at a restaurant. Maybe it’s someone in your own family.

Whoever it is, ask them this simple question: “How can I ask God to bless you?” Then pray for that blessing, and see what God might do through you, as he sends you to follow him into this hurting world, by faith. Let us pray.

God, give us faith. Make us a blessing, even as you have blessed us with the promise of abundant life through your Son, Jesus Christ. Help us to begin the radical shift from seeking your blessing for ourselves, to sharing your blessing with everyone we meet. As you send us out, let us follow where you lead, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

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