12. Faith against the odds

Meditations on ‘Focusing Faith’ : 12.  Faith against the odds

Heb 11:11,12   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.

In unpacking these verses there are various aspects to be considered. First of all God made a promise. We find it first in Gen 12: I will make you into a great nation.” (v.2a) There is more to the promise but that is the basic aspect of it. The significance of this promise is only realised when you read a few verses earlier, “Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.” (Gen 11:30) So here is Abram, this simple pagan who appears to hear God telling him to leave his homeland and go to Canaan and, ‘oh, by the way, I’ll make you into a great nation.’ Not just a little nation, but a great nation. But my wife is barren; we cannot have children. Now that may have gone through his mind at some point and all the more because Sarai was past child-bearing age, but in the long-term it did not put him off.

The promise of a land and of becoming a nation seem to come together and we are told, “Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran,” (Gen 12:4) and so if the word had come to him back in Ur, it may have been some years before that, but it would seem he was at least seventy when the promise first came. Later we read, “Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.” (Gen 21:5) At least twenty five years, if not more, passed between the word coming and the word being fulfilled.

Now not wanting to be too indelicate about it, to have children a couple need to have sexual relations  and if you have been promised you’ll have children, you keep on and keep on – for twenty five years. I cannot think what Sarai must have felt about this. The more the years pass the more impossible it must seem and therefore the more futile it appear, and yet Abram carried on hoping. Yes they go through the disaster involving Hagar (Gen 16) but the actual fulfillment that involves Sarai doesn’t happen for a long time! Yet, for some reason, Abram is sure he has heard God and he believes what he has heard and acts upon it. So first of all they start out from Ur and second they start trying for a child again. This is double faith.

The Hebrews writer marvels over this, “even though he was past age–and Sarah herself was barren,” and “as good as dead,” (which sounds a bit hard but was essentially the truth as far a child-bearing was concerned). Those were the facts, they were both too old, humanly speaking. These facts that make this impossible keep getting put before us as if to say, it doesn’t matter how impossible a situation appears, if God speaks into it, it is no longer impossible!

But this is the thing about faith, “faith is being sure of what we hope for,” (v.1) and it is a hope that is based upon something. Most of the time we focus on the end product – “was  enabled to become a father” and with “descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore” – but the reason that came about was “because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.” What kept Abram trying throughout those twenty five years or more? He trusted in God’s faithfulness. How incredible!

It is indeed incredible. We have the whole Bible that builds our faith but Abram had nothing – except what he was hearing directly from God. Next time you doubt what you are hearing, remember Abram.  Now of course the truth is that after that initial hearing from God that resulted in Abram leaving Ur, there were a reasonable number of times when God spoke and moved on Abram’s behalf and each of these would have built this sense of security, this confidence in God’s faithfulness, this sureness that if God says something He will do it.

The Lord acted on their behalf down in Egypt (Gen 12:17-20), he had a reassurance from the Lord about the land and his offspring (Gen 13:14-17), and reassurance about his son in a dream (Gen 15:1-5) and it was at that point that we read those famous words, “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Gen 15;6) After this the Lord reassured him about the land again (Gen 15:7-19) making a covenant with him that was quite spectacular.  After the birth of Ishmael the Lord again came and reassured Abram (Gen 17:1-8) about being a mighty nation and then instigates the covenant of circumcision with him (Gen 17:9-14) and then reassures them both about the child again (Gen 17:15-22). All this happened while Abram was 99 and the Lord changed his name to Abraham and tells him his son is to be called Isaac. Subsequently the Lord appeared to them in the form of three men and yet again reassured them about the child who will be born in a year’s time (Gen 18:1-15). By my counting that is seven times (the perfect number in scripture) that the Lord came and reassured Abram.

There are three points to make here. First, the time between a promise and a fulfillment may be lengthy and in that time the Lord simply looks for your faithfulness – “full-of-faith-ness”. You go on believing and you go on acting in the belief that it will come. The second thing is that the Lord will bring reassurance and encouragement along the way. Very often, I have found, the same prophetic word may come to a person three times, if not more. The Lord knows we need the encouragement. The third thing is that in the waiting period it will be a time in which the Lord will go on teaching you and changing you. They will not be wasted years. You will be a different person by the time the word is fulfilled. Sometimes the word cannot be fulfilled unless we are changed. At other times our being changed is just part of God’s general plan for us and the fulfilment is not dependant on it.

There are two verses that may help you if you are in a waiting phase. First, “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 3:10) The heavenly powers look on with wonder as they see God’s grace being worked out in you and they praise Him for it. Your faithfulness brings praise to God in the heavenly realms. Second, “Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:2) Jesus coped with the Cross by looking beyond it. You and I can cope with waiting by looking to and beyond the fulfillment. See it and praise the Lord for what will come. That is faith.

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