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Abraham’s Faith (5)

Stage Five (Gen. 22)
by Bob Whitaker

We are considering another stage of faith that developed in the life of Abraham – Genesis 22. This part of the story might not the final stage of faith in Abraham’s journey, but it was certainly the most epic.  We might describe this step of faith with these words: Trust me when faith produces terror.

At this point in Abraham’s life the promise is finally fulfilled – Isaac has been born.  What a euphoric experience the birth of Isaac must have been!  What a delight it must have been to see him grow up in Abraham’s household.  Isaac was the living, walking, breathing, laughing illustration of the faithfulness of God.  If you are a parent, you know the joy of young children – every smile, every wiggle, every step, every word is a joyful celebration.  Abraham and Sarah were experiencing this…and then the hammer drops. 

God says to Abraham, I want you to take your son, your only son, to the land of Moriah and sacrifice him on an altar.”  What must have gone through Abraham’s mind?  “Lord, you promised, we waited and then you fulfilled the promise. Remember how I chose to believe that nothing was impossible with you?  And now this!  I’ve walked with you all these years and still I have no answers but I also have no choice because I know I must follow you.”

It is interesting that this devastating news came at a high point.  Isaac was now a young man, he had survived infancy, and the promise was even more real.  Still, Abraham trusted God.  When they got to the foot of the mountain it was Isaac who asked this penetrating question:  Father, we have the wood and the fire but where is the sacrifice?”  To which Abraham replied, God will provide the sacrifice.”  Abraham made another remarkable statement of faith to his servants at the bottom of the mountain.  Stay here while the boy and I go to worship and then we will return.”

You know the rest of the story.  When Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac, an angel called out for him not to harm the boy, and there appeared in the thicket a ram which was used for the sacrifice. The New Testament sees this as a picture of Jesus Christ, but of course, unlike Isaac, Jesus was not spared from death – he was sacrificed for us.  The writer of the book of Hebrews said that Abraham had the faith to believe that even if Isaac died, the same God who produced the miracle of his birth is the God who would produce the miracle of resurrection.  What a wonderful picture of Jesus Christ.

As with the example of Abraham, sometimes faith produces terror.  Sometimes God calls us to do things, to walk through situations that seem impossible but remember, nothing is impossible with God.  Walk with God through the fear and the fire because in the end God will always produce a resurrection.  That’s what God always does!

Abraham’s Faith (4)

Stage Four (Genesis 18)
by Bob Whitaker

Once again, I invite you to explore Abraham’s faith with me today.  I’m calling this stage, Trust me when it seems foolish.”  An intriguing story develops in Genesis 18.   It had been a long time since God originally promised Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son. They have reached the age when it seems foolish to trust.  Then the promise is once again renewed for Abraham and Sarah – this renewal comes with an angelic visit.  And this time the promise is attached to a date – the angel promises that within one year they will have a son.  When Sarah hears this inside the tent she laughs out loud – this is impossible at her age.  Now, think about it.  Who can blame her for laughing?  She is almost 90.  Remember Sarah has been listening to this promise for 25 years. Who can blame her if she thinks this latest promise is foolish?

Often, we forget that Sarah was also in this journey of faith – she has to trust, too.  She may have thought to herself, “This crazy husband of mine has come home with new promises for the last 25 years.”  In order to believe God, she has to believe her husband. She has to believe that there is an invisible God who speaks to him and gives him instructions that seem foolish.  When she laughed at this news it might have been a way of saying this:  “Don’t play with my emotions again!  Don’t insult my intelligence!  Don’t mock me!  I’ve heard this promise over and over again! I need more than words!”  Again, who can blame her for thoughts like that?

This is real life and as you read this story and vicariously feel the pain of Sarah, maybe it seems like your story.  Maybe you have been trusting God.  You have been following God, worshipping God, being faithful, but you are exhausted.  It seems like the promises of God are for others but not for you.  I don’t want to belittle your pain, but I do want to encourage you to continue in faith.  I hope that you can trust God even when it seems foolish.  It doesn’t mean that you will get the outcome you were looking for, but it does mean that you will have a loving God at your side.  It is that God, the God of promises that says, ”I will never leave you or forsake you and where I am, someday you will be there with me.”  Life might not always turn out the way we want it but the promise of eternal life will eclipse all the trouble that we experience here and now.  Trust the God who promises eternal life, because as the Psalmist said, In his presence there is fullness of joy, at his right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

Abraham’s Faith (3)

Stage Three (Gen. 15-17)
by Bob Whitaker

We have been thinking about the stages in the journey of Abraham’s faith.  This stage I am calling, “trust me in the silences.”  As you may recall, Sarah and Abraham had been promised a son to carry on their name, one who would make them a great nation and a child that would bless the whole world.  By the time we get to this part of the story in Genesis 15, we realize that Abraham and Sarah waited for 25 years for the promise to be fulfilled.

Often, we think of Abraham as being in constant communication with God.  That may have been true.  He may have been in conversation with God every day, feeling his real presence, but the communication with God concerning the promise of a child…well, those conversations included large gaps.  It could be that God renewed his promise vocally to Abraham every day, but that is not how it is recorded in Genesis.  The renewals of the covenant were many years apart.

One time when God renewed the promise to Abraham, he literally fell down laughing.  In effect he was saying, “Seriously, God?  At my age?”  Sometimes we remember how Sarah laughed when the angels visited with a renewed promise, but Abraham laughed, too.

Here is the point:  Abraham had many long segments of silence between the renewed promises from God.  As one author has said, God’s voice comes intermittently, not in unbroken chatter but in episodes of speech punctuating seasons of silence.”  My, how true that is!  We forget that faith means trusting God during the silent times.  God does not need to remind us daily, he expects us to take him at his word and trust in the midst of the silence.

Have you ever experienced those spiritual dry times when it seems like you can’t hear from God?  You probably have and during those silent times your faith actually grows.  We understand this concept in the physical world – our muscles develop only when they are stretched and under duress, when exercise puts strain upon them.  In much the same way our spiritual growth happens under stress and there are few things more stressful than periods of silence from God.

When we do not feel God’s presence it is not necessarily punishment, it is often for our good.  God wants us to walk by faith and not by sight.  So here is the reminder that I need.  I need to remember that God is still there even when I don’t hear him.  I need to remember that God still loves me even when it seems that he is absent.  Even in the silences, God is there.  Remember that today.

Abraham’s Faith (2)

Stage Two (Gen. 12:1-9)
By Bob Whitaker

Today we look at stage two of Abraham’s faith. Abraham has traveled to the new land and God now challenges him, “Trust me when you are most vulnerable.”  After arriving in Canaan, the land faced a disastrous famine.   To the south of Canaan was the land of Egypt, back then known as the “bread basket of the world.”  When Abraham and his family were staring in the face of starvation, he conceived of a plan.  It may have been during this difficult time that Abraham began to question his decision to follow the advice of an invisible God.  It could have been that his family and his servants questioned his judgment in moving away from home.  With all of that in the background, Abraham conceived of a plan – go to Egypt where the food is plentiful.

When he arrived in Egypt, it occurred to him that he had another problem.  His wife Sarah was beautiful, and he was concerned that the king might kill him and take Sarah as his wife.  So, he conspired with Sarah to say that she was not his wife but was his sister.  That plan did not work very well because Pharaoh found out the truth and confronted Abraham.  How could you do this,” he said to Abraham, I might have taken her to be my wife and God would have punished me.  Take these gifts and get out of my land.”

Realizing how foolish he had been, Abraham takes the gifts and heads back to Canaan.  But notice something.  In spite Abraham’s foolish decision God blesses him through Pharaoh.  Clearly Abraham conceived of his own plan and did not trust God.  He was overwhelmed with self-protection.  In fact, he actually put Sarah in harm’s way and there is no indication that he was really worried about her; instead, he was looking out for himself.  This is a strange story but there is a silver lining of encouragement in all of Abraham’s foolishness.  In spite of his self-centered ways God did not revoke his promise to Abraham.  He still used him in spite of his sins.

It reminds me that no one has perfect faith, not even Abraham.  It encourages me because I see myself in Abraham’s story.  Sometimes I am willing to follow God and other times I am just plain stupid.  When I feel most vulnerable I often become the most foolish.  When my back is to the wall I come up with crazy plans that have nothing to do with following God.  When I am afraid, I become self-centered and self-protective.  In times like those I need to remind myself that the Lord is my shepherd.  I need to remember that God will supply all my needs according to his riches in glory through Christ Jesus.

I have a feeling that I am not alone in this dilemma.  I suspect that some of you right now are feeling very vulnerable.  Don’t do something foolish.  Don’t trust your own wisdom.  Instead, follow your faithful, all-wise, and good shepherd.   

Abraham’s Faith (1)

Stage One (Gen. 12:1-9)
By Bob Whitaker

For the next few devotional segments, I want to explore the nature of faith by looking at the life of Abraham.  In order to do this, I would like to consider the stages of faith that God brought him through during his long life.  The first stage of faith comes when God says, “Trust me even when the future is unknown.  I want you to leave your country and journey away to an unknown future.”  Now, most of us think it would be a sacrifice to give up the land of our birth and move to an unknown place.  Of course, it does happen but it comes with numerous challenges.  Missionaries leave their country to go to a foreign land in order to share the Gospel.  Immigrants leave their country for a variety of reasons, some to escape persecution, others to simply find a better life.  They leave behind their native language, a familiar landscape, food and customs.  Perhaps most importantly, they leave behind all their contacts, such as friends, business associates, even the familiarity of which person to call when someone breaks into your house or your vehicle.

It is difficult enough to leave all your contacts, but it is often more difficult to leave your family.  In those days it is likely that leaving family meant leaving an inheritance that included land.  God says to Abraham, I want you to leave your people and your land for a journey to an unknown land.”  If we were traveling to a remote location in another part of the world, it is likely that we would do our research.  We have plenty of resources to find current information on places all over the world – travel books, documentaries on the country and of course we can Google almost anything.  But with Abraham there was no way to research the land where God was sending him.  He simply had to trust God.

Of course, God did provide a promise.  If you follow me to this unknown land I will bless you.  I will give you a son and make you a great nation.  In fact, the whole world will be blessed through you.”  That is a wonderful promise but there are no details, just a promise.  He must have wondered about this strange, unknown land.  What would it be like?  Who would be its inhabitants?  Would they be friendly or hostile?  Would they accept a nomadic farmer like Abraham or would he be viewed with suspicion?  Was it dangerous?  These and many others must have been the questions that Abraham asked.  So far as we know, God did not answer the questions, he just said, “Follow me.” The message was simple:  “Trust me when your future is unknown.”  Have you been there personally?  Maybe you haven’t been called to leave your country for an unknown destination but you have probably been asked to trust God when your future is unknown.  Things are very uncertain for many of us right now.  What does the future hold?  Will we be safe?  Will our families be okay?  When will things get back to normal?  Right now is a good time to remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness.  He called Abraham to follow and he calls us daily to follow him into an unknown future.  I hope you are ready to trust God and follow him no matter how uncertain things may seem.

Grace Awakening

September 9, 2020 by Bob Whitaker

I like to take road trips because the open road is therapeutic for me.  In Luke 24 we read a story of two disciples who were on the road to Emmaus following the crucifixion of Jesus.  They were bewildered by the events that led to Jesus’ death and devastated by the fact that the Messiah of God was dead.  How could this happen?  What were they supposed to do now?  We don’t know why they were taking the journey to Emmaus but they could never have predicted what they would encounter on this road trip.

As they journeyed a stranger joined them.  He asked what they talking about on the journey. They said, “Are you the only visitor in Jerusalem that has not heard about the recent events?”  The stranger said, “What events?”  So, the disciples retold the story to the stranger.  Of course, the stranger was Jesus and he began to chide them for not understanding the events.  He accused them of “being slow of heart” in believing all that the prophets had said concerning the Messiah.  Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he explained it to them.

I wish I had been on that road trip!  By the end of the journey when they were about to eat together, Jesus broke the bread and gave thanks, and the disciples’ eyes were opened to realize who had been travelling with them.  At that point Jesus disappeared from their sight.  The Bible says that they were kept from recognizing him but it does not tell us why – we are left to wonder why they didn’t see him.

One obvious reason is that Jesus himself kept them from seeing him.  Perhaps the whole thing was part of his plan so that he could uncover divine history for them.  It is also possible that they failed to recognize him because they were overcome with grief.  Grief often does that to us.  But perhaps they did not recognize him because they were always “slow of heart” to believe.  After all, Jesus had routinely predicted his death, burial and resurrection but the disciples had missed it.  It is almost as though the Gospels were written as a confession by the disciples to admit how “slow of heart” they were to believe.  But what remains curious is how they could have been so close to the source and still missed it. This story is a reminder to us concerning how often we might miss the presence of Jesus.  There are many reasons for this.  Like them we have our own traditions, which can put blinders on our sight.  Sometimes we are blinded by self, our sins or our personal expectations.  We all need a grace awakening from time to time.  Grace awakenings come in different ways and different stages of life but it is inevitable that for Christ-followers they will come.  Be open to the grace awakenings today – watch and listen for Jesus.  He might actually surprise you on the road trip of life.

Tell Your Story

September 2, 2020 by Bob Whitaker

Do you ever feel inadequate when it comes to sharing your faith?  Sometimes certain people, whether friends, family or strangers might have questions about your faith that seem difficult to answer.  Sometimes in an attempt to have the “right answer” we study arguments for the reasonableness of our faith.  There is nothing wrong with seeking answers for hard questions that come from critics.  In fact, I have spent a good bit of my life attempting to understand and “defend the faith” against critics who believe it is irrational.  There is real value in preparing to answer difficult questions, but well-reasoned answers for the critic is often not as important as an individual life that testifies to faith.

In the ninth chapter of John’s gospel, we read a story about a man who was born blind but was miraculously healed by Jesus.  Those who were critics of Jesus heard of the miracle and quizzed the formerly blind man with many questions.  “Who is he?  What did he say?  He healed you on the Sabbath, correct?  You know that it is unlawful to heal on the Sabbath, right?  What is your opinion of this man who healed you?  Do you think the man who healed you is a sinner?” The man who had been healed by Jesus was bewildered by their questions and no doubt felt trapped by their interrogation.  As he tried to answer their questions they became angry.  They even accused him of lecturing them which outraged them because he did not have their level of education.  Finally, exasperated by their questions he said to them, “Look, I can’t answer all your questions but I know this: I was blind and now I can see.”

This story can be an encouragement for all of us who want to share our faith but feel inadequate to answer the tough questions.  First, we will never have all the answers.  Second, even if we had all the answers it would not be enough for some people.  In other words, don’t be overwhelmed by the questions and don’t feel the burden of trying to answer all the objections.  I will never forget the advice my father gave me when I first started to preach.  He said to me, “Son there are going to be times when your tongue gets tied, when the words don’t come out right and when you feel like you don’t have the answers.  When that happens just stop and tell your story.”  He then reminded me how often the Apostle Paul gave his testimony about being blinded by the light of God on the road to Damascus.  Paul is best remembered for the powerful words in the epistles that he wrote, letters which are read by people every day all around the world.  Sometimes his words are difficult and hard to understand; even the Apostle Peter said that about Paul’s words.  However, we should not forget that the inspired words of his epistles emerge from a story.  His story is simple.  One day he encountered Jesus and his life changed forever.

You may never be a great orator.  When asked difficult questions, you may feel that your tongue is tied and your mind is frozen, but don’t be discouraged.  Don’t worry about having all the answers.  Don’t be concerned that your evangelistic methods are not perfect.  Instead, tell your story.  Tell the story about how Jesus changed your life.  Make the words of the blind man your own words: Once I was blind but now I can see.  This is my story…

Growing in Grace

August 27, 2020 by Bob Whitaker

From what we know historically, the epistles of I and II Peter were written to a group of Christians who were attempting to follow Jesus in the midst of persecution. Peter opens the second epistle with an encouraging word: May God give you more and more grace and peace as you grow in your knowledge of God and Jesus our Lord (II Peter 1:2).  Then at the end of the same epistle he repeats that phrase as an admonition:  But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  To him be glory both now and forevermore! Amen (II Peter 3:18).  Those are powerful words of encouragement and admonition, so how should we follow them?  There are many ways we might follow this advice but I invite you to consider three.

In God’s Economy, Less Is More

daily reading plan

Aug. 4, 2020 by Bob Whitaker

Maybe you have heard a saying like this, “your greatest weakness is actually a strength overdone.”  As with many catchy statements like this there is some truth to them even if they are incomplete.  At the very least they grab our attention.  This statement, however incomplete, has an application for those who live by faith.  I’m reminded of Paul’s famous statement – his strength is made perfect in my weakness.  There is also a story in the Old Testament that illustrates this well in the life of Gideon (Judges 6-7).  There are at least three examples in this story of how less is actually more.  The first example is when God comes to Gideon and calls him a mighty warrior.  This was simply not true of Gideon.  He was not a soldier experienced in war and because of that he questioned the angel messenger.  In effect he said “you’ve got the wrong man.”  Of course, God doesn’t make mistakes so in spite of Gideon’s self-doubt God was correct.  He would be a mighty warrior in the cause for which God had chosen him.

A second example of less being more is when God prepares Gideon for battle with the Midianites.  They outnumber the Israelites dramatically!  The scripture says it was impossible to count them because the numbers were so numerous.  Gideon knows there is no way humanly possible for Israel to prevail against the hordes of Midian.  Yet once again God uses less, namely a small army from Israel, and makes them greater than their enemies.

The third example of less being more is when God directs Gideon to design a battle plan.  Gideon goes about it in a reasonable manner, calling on as many men as possible to enter the battle, but God changes the plan.  He reduces the number of troops from 32,000 to 10,000.  If that is not drastic enough, he calls Gideon to reduce the number again.  Before it is all over Gideon has only 300 soldiers to face the gigantic, numberless army of the Midianites.

But there is even more … now Gideon provides some strange instructions to his 300 soldiers.  They are directed to surround the enemy camp at night, break the pitchers that contained torches and shout the For the Lord and for Gideon.  After that shout they are instructed to rush into the camp and fight.  Can you imagine being one of the soldiers hearing these instructions – this is crazy!  Of course, the end of the story is that Gideon defeats the huge army. 

There are several things we learn from this story.  You don’t have to be big for God to use you.  You don’t have to be strong for God to use you.  You don’t have to be smart for God to use you.  God strips us down to prepare us.

Here are some questions for us to ponder today: 1) God, what are you doing in my life?  2) What are you trying to teach me?  3) What do I need to surrender in order to follow?

I and My Father’s House

daily reading plan

July 30, 2020 by Steven Lulich

Even I and my father’s house have sinned.
Nehemiah 1:6

One day when I was in the third grade, I came to school late (I don’t remember the circumstances). Apparently, there had been some sort of to-do either in the classroom or on the playground that morning, and the teacher was upset. I arrived just in time to participate in the consequent corporate punishment, which was to copy some sentences from the blackboard into our notebooks. I think the sentences were a kind of confession and a resolution to do better in the future, but that part of my memory is pretty hazy. It wasn’t a harsh punishment, and I really didn’t mind writing down the words (I was a pretty compliant child). But my pride was a bit wounded because I wasn’t guilty. I didn’t even know what had happened (and I still don’t).

In its own small way, my experience of corporate guilt and confession as a third-grader is really not that uncommon. I had a much more dramatic (though less personal) experience of this as a college exchange student in Germany. My group of exchange students, spread across several universities around Germany, met together for a field trip at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp outside Weimar. In addition to us Americans, there were a handful of German students as well as the “grown-ups” leading the exchange program and the tour. At one point, one of the German students realized that the six death camps (including Auschwitz) were all located in (Nazi-occupied) Poland. “So it wasn’t us!” he exclaimed. The “grown-ups” in the room immediately responded, horrified, “Yes, yes, it was us!” None of the people in the room was even alive during Nazi rule. The generation born in the aftermath of World War II grew up with the corporate national guilt felt by their parents, and they still hold on to it. In contrast, the younger generations increasingly feel oppressed by the weight of guilt for something that they had no personal knowledge of.

Late in the year 446 BC (“in the twentieth year” of the Persian king Artaxerxes I), roughly 140 years after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king.  He was born in captivity, long after the final years of the Israelite Monarchies, which were destroyed because they “acted very corruptly against [God] and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that [God] commanded [His] servant Moses” (v. 7). One of the many remarkable features of Nehemiah’s career is his prayer of confession, recorded in chapter 1.

In this prayer, Nehemiah makes no distinctions. He does not say “some of the people of former generations have sinned”. He might well have done so – after all, the abandonment of God in favor of rank idolatry was not universal.  Throughout the twilight years of the First Temple period, faithful prophets (e.g. Jeremiah), kings (e.g. Josiah), and citizens (e.g. the Rechabites, Jer. 35) were to be found. But like Daniel before him (Dan. 9), Nehemiah prays a corporate prayer of confession to God. He does not excuse anyone who lived in those days. He does not excuse himself, who had no part in those days. He instead places himself directly in the line of fire. “O Lord God of heaven … hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned” (vs. 5-6).

Nehemiah offers us a wonderful example of humility: he completely swallowed his pride when he made this prayer to God. He also offers us an extraordinary model of corporate confession of guilt. As the apostle Paul would later explain, “all have sinned” without exception (Rom. 3:23). It is as important as it is difficult for us to remember that, in spite of our existence within a highly individualistic society, the body of Christ is a single corps (the word “corp-orate” means “in a single body”). “If one member suffers, all suffer together” (1 Cor. 12:26a).

Likewise, the opposite is also true: “if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26b). Nehemiah recognized this, citing God’s promise of corporate restoration: “but if you return to me … though your dispersed be under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place that I have chosen, to make my name dwell there” (v. 9, drawing on Deuteronomy 30:1-3).

The Church is a body of redeemed sinners. Let us not forget that we suffer and rejoice, fall and rise, as a single body that stretches across both space and time. In “its appropriate time” (Ecc. 3:1), let us pray that we will swallow our pride like Nehemiah, joining with him in corporate confession without any excuses, so that we might also participate with him in receiving corporate mercy and blessings.