3. Abram – a work in progress

Glory Out of Failure Meditations: 3. Abram – a work in progress

Gen 12:6 Abram travelled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem

Where we are: So here we are, just in the early stages of pondering on this fundamental idea of our lives being taken from a place of failure and changed to a place of glory. In the previous study we noted the fact that with Abram – and with us – it was a case of God initiating this activity. There didn’t seem to be anything great about Abram; he wasn’t royalty, he wasn’t a hero, there is nothing said about him that elevated him above others. If anything he is a man to be pitied. He has a wife who is barren and in a culture where children and carrying on the family name were important, that must have been a constant anguish for both he and Sarai.

So Why? So why did God choose him? Why did He choose you and me? Before the foundation of the world, Ephesians 1 suggests God ‘predestined’ you, i.e. He looked into the future of His plan of salvation and saw you, saw your response to His word coming to you and the drawing of His Spirit, and knew at that point that you would be a responder. Why did He choose Abram? Because He knew he would be a responder, He knew what He wanted to achieve and He knew He could do it with Abram without overruling the free will He had given him.

This teaching is epitomized in Paul’s teaching about Jesus: “This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” (Acts 2:23) God had a plan and He knew how the authorities would respond to Jesus – exercising their free will – and bring about the sacrificial death of His Son. God knew what He wanted to achieve and knew how He would achieve it – using the self-centred, wilful acts of sinful men. He didn’t make them act like that but He knew that’s how they would respond.

Similarly with Abram – and with you and me – He knew how we would respond; He knew what we could achieve – despite our failures.

Failure: Our starter verse shows us Abram entering the land along the route from the north and arrives at Shechem, roughly in the centre of Israel. There the Lord meets with him and declares that THIS is the land He is giving him and his descendants (v.7) and Abram responds by building an altar. But he doesn’t stay there, he meanders on south to near Bethel (v.8) and builds another altar. An altar is a place of sacrifice to a deity. Abram has that sense, the awareness that he is being led by deity. There is that level of spiritual reality. He is being led by God and every time he builds an altar it is a recognition of that.

Then he moves further south (v.9). But then trouble occurs; his first test arrives – a famine, a severe famine (v.10). He hasn’t yet realised the big teaching that will come through his life – that God is a provider. This is the land that God has promised him, but it doesn’t seem to be providing him with what he needs – so he continues south to Egypt where there is no famine. Egypt is often considered a type of ‘the world’. He turns to the world for his provision; he knows no better. Is ‘the world’ God’s means of provision for him? Indeed it is, in the sense that ‘the world’ is all of creation, not the sense that we usually attribute to it in scripture, of godless, unbelieving, self-serving humanity. But no, He does use the world to provide for us.

Does this ring bells? Don’t we sometimes, when the way seems to be getting hard, resort to the ways of ‘the world’, the same thinking that our unbelieving neighbours have – I must do something to work my way out of this – an absence of turning to the Lord to seek His help.

When he gets to Egypt it gets worse, he tells a half-truth that Sarai was his sister (see 20:12) and his actions in respect of her fall short of a godly man of faith. But then he’s not that – yet! We won’t go into the detail but he doesn’t do very well in his first test.

Us? Yes, here is the truth. When we turn to Christ we may be put right in God’s sight as far as our eternal salvation is concerned, we are justified by the blood of Christ, but unfortunately as far as everyday living is concerned we’ve still got a lot of stuff to learn and that means we are going to get it wrong more than a few times. If you’ve never seen this it either means you have never been taught properly or you are living in deception.  Yes, our failures still will need repentance and the wonder is that God still accepts us (see 1 Jn 2:1,2) but He doesn’t want us to fail but will forgive us when we repent – however many times it happens. The path towards glory is a slow one, often a long one and in that sense every one of us is a work in progress. Sanctification (setting us apart and changing us) is something that happens at the moment of conversion but it is also something that is a process that goes on throughout our lives. We thus need to remain alert to catch the things the Lord is pointing out in our lives that He wants to change. He does this not because He doesn’t love us but because He does! He wants something better for us. Hallelujah!  

2. It starts with Abram

Glory Out of Failure Meditations: 2. It starts with Abram

Gen 12:2,3,10 (ERV) I will build a great nation from you. I will bless you and make your name famous….. I will use you to bless all the people on earth…. During this time there was not enough food in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt to live.

Where we are: We are looking at the basics, the fundamentals, the realities of the Christian life, things that should be familiar, things that should be foundational in our lives but which sometimes get forgotten, the basics that remind us that each of us who calls our self a Christian, a child of God, comes from a place of anonymity, a place of failure and are taken by God and made someone with a significant identity and full of His glory. That is what these studies are about.

Abram: Prior to Abram, prior to chapter 12 of Genesis the picture is not very personal and these lessons aren’t very clear, but when we come to Abram (which means ‘exalted father’) whose name was later changed to Abraham (which means ‘father of many’) when he was ninety-nine years old (Gen 17:4-6), this all changes. This is a very personal and detailed story. I hesitate to use the word ‘story’ because that can imply something made up and so perhaps the word ‘account’ would be better in that that simply describes what happened in history, and history this surely is. Everything about this account of this man is significant. Let’s start noting some of these things.

A Family Man: His father, Terah, is named as are his two younger brothers Nahor and Haran and his nephew, Lot, son of Haran. (Gen 11:17) They live in Ur, a city of Mesopotamia, that we refer to as ‘the cradle of civilisation’, and the location of the Garden of Eden (see Gen 2:14). Like many families it has its tragedies. Haran, the youngest son, dies. Sarai, Abram’s wife, is barren (Gen 11:30). There must be, as there always is in such situation, heartache. And yet, somehow there is hope. Somehow God has communicated with this pagan and given him the hope that He will make him into a great nation, (Gen 12:1) and a nation starts with one child. Somehow this hope is linked with making a fresh start in another land that God says He will show him, (Gen 12:1) and so he goes.

And So?  There is the essence of the story, the foundation from which all else follows. The story is about family and land, the former being the thing that must be driving Abram, the latter appearing the environment on which the former relies. So he goes, there is a land to be found and presumably to be taken. It is all very unknown but he goes. This, we think initially, is what makes him the notable man of faith that he is, heralded in the gallery of faith in Heb 11:8 that we so often turn to.

God Revealed: But this isn’t only Abram’s story, this is God’s. This story reveals God. He is first of all there – something we can take for granted. Second, He is a communicator and, third, He has a plan and that plan is worked out through a childless couple, and so eventually we will see that He is a God who changes the course of nature so a childless woman and a childless couple, both way beyond child-conceiving age, have a child. Later on Abraham will know that this God can be called ‘The Lord Will Provide’ (Gen 21:14). Now so often we anchor our thoughts about the God who will provide in the account about Abraham going to sacrifice Isaac, but actually everything about the story about Abram-Abraham is about God providing. God provides hope and a vision and then much, much more which we will see in the next study.

You and Me: But these fundamentals that we have just been observing are equally true of us. I will assume you are a believer. Recollect how that happened. Somewhere in your history, you either started having questions or believers started imposing themselves in your awareness, maybe even sharing the good news about Jesus with you. This was God reaching out to you by His Spirit. Eventually came conviction: you were to ‘leave the land’ of your old life which you came to see was desperately wanting. You bowed the knee, you prayed and handed the reins of your life over to God, believing in what He said about Jesus dying for you.  You ‘died’ to that old life, as Paul says in Rom 6 and were given a new ‘land’ to live in, He “rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son.” (Col 1:13)

Observe the Characteristics: Note the nature of all this. You lived in a land of darkness, of unbelief, of godless self-centredness. Nothing you had was really of any merit and yet God called you and, amazingly, you heard and responded. Note – He initiated it. When you eventually surrendered to Him, He provided forgiveness and atonement, and a place in His family – you were adopted. You came with just a sense of failure and inadequacy, recognizing your need. God provided everything. He is a provider. So why do we think we have to twist His arm to bless us? “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Mt 7:11) Have you ever seen your life like this? Have you ever realized it is all about God providing and you receiving? When we do, it brings a whole new sense of relaxation. We’ll see some more of this as we continue the story of Abram in the next study.

4. The Mysteries of God (2)

Christmas Threads Meditations: Thread 4: The Mysteries of God (2)

Gen 22:18  through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

(Additional Readings: Gen 12:1-3,22:12-18)

Recap:  We are tracking just a few of what I have referred to as the ‘breadcrumbs’ of the Old Testament that lead us to Advent and the events that follow. These are simply the clues God gives in that half of the book that reveal the plan on His heart for His Son.

Breadcrumb No.2 A Family Line: There is a breadcrumb, as small as it may be, in a prophecy that Noah gave, in the form of a curse and blessings, after the flood, after the incident of him getting drunk, lying naked and being mocked by his youngest son, Ham (who was father of Canaan), but covered and respected by his other two sons, Shem and Japheth. He curses Ham and brings his blessing on the other two, as he refers to, “the Lord, the God of Shem,”  and Shem is clearly to be the lead family. (see Gen 9:18, 25-27). Following Shem’s family tree (see Gen 11:10-27) we eventually come to a son named Abram, later Abraham. The next big breadcrumb (and remember, that clues in a good mystery novel are rarely obvious) comes in a record of a prophecy in Gen 12:1-3 where God promises Abram, “I will make you into a great nation … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 

Reasons for this family line: Abraham is traditionally seen as the father of Israel, the first of the Patriarchs, followed by Isaac and then Jacob who is renamed Israel and whose family grows into a nation we know by that name. Much of the time we take these verses in Gen 12 to refer to the father of faith, who showed that a relationship with God is possible, but I suggest there are three other highly significant reasons for the purpose behind the existence of Israel. First, Israel are to reveal God to the rest of the world. Second, as we look at their history throughout the Old Testament, we see they reveal the sinfulness of mankind, so that even those who purport to have a relationship with God by following the rules (the Law) need something more, need some other form of salvation.

Crucial for Advent: Third, and most significantly I believe for this season of the year, the existence of Israel meant the existence of what I call a ‘God environment’ into which the Son of God would be born. How we take this for granted!  When Jesus arrived, he came to a God-orientated nation, a nation with history with God – lots of it – a nation with a temple and a priesthood and the Law of Moses, and synagogues in which it was taught on a weekly basis. Imagine Jesus stepping into some other country in the world where all that was absent. Imagine the work he would have to do simply to prepare the ground to be understood for who he was. But instead, he steps into an environment that is expecting a Messiah, a people who have been following the breadcrumbs for centuries, trying to work out what it all meant, a people whose minds were full of it. It was into this that Jesus spoke and acted.

Advent is the season observed as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus, the birth of Jesus, at what we call Christmas. It all takes place in this prepared environment that is so crucial to all that follows, an environment that started to be created back with Seth, then down the tree to Abram, and then on until Israel became a nation. This is the context these breadcrumbs create for us into which the Son of God will be born as a baby.

And so the prayer: “Father, how incredible this story is, that having the plan to send your Son to redeem us, you started paving the way by creating this family tree that formed a nation into which he could be born. Thank you for the long-term wonder of all this, thank you that you did it to redeem us – me! Lord, please open my eyes that I may understand more fully that even today I am a player in this plan that originated before Creation, was revealed through the coming of your Son, and is still being worked out – even today! Thank you so much, Lord. Amen.”

2. Barren Women

Studies in Isaiah 54: 2. Barren Women

Isa 54:1 “Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the Lord.”

Ohhhhhh!: How easy it is to pass over words of Scripture and not let them impact you. The analogy here, of Israel (or perhaps Jerusalem), is one of a disheartened, broken woman. Few of us can understand the heartache of being childless, of the yearning to have that sense of fulfillment as a child-bearing woman but who has never yet conceived. But the Bible seems full of such women, key women in the plans and purposes of God, and so perhaps we need to note them to take in the awfulness of the picture that Isaiah now presents to us.

The Women of Anguish: The first of these is Sarai: “Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive.” (Gen 11:30) When she seems unable to conceive, despite the number of times the Lord had promised a family that would grow into a multitude, she gave her servant girl to Abram, who promptly conceives; it is obvious the problem lies with her and not with Abram. (Gen 16:3,4) When God turned up and reiterated the promise that Sarah (as she now was) would conceive, she laughed, but it was laughter of unbelief, of derision, and the Lord pulled her up on it (Gen 18:10-15). When she does eventually conceive she laughs again but now it is of joy (Gen 21:6)

It almost seemed to run in the family. Isaac, Abraham’s promised son, marries Rebekah but she too remains childless for twenty years (Gen 25:21). We aren’t told what Rebekah felt but in the next generation the same thing happens to Jacob’s favourite wife, Rachel: “When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”  (Gen 30:1) Perhaps this is seen most clearly in Hannah who became the mother of Samuel the judge-cum-first prophet: “In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son.” (1 Sam 1:10,11)

Assessment: Children in the Hebrew culture (and in many others) were seen as a sign of God’s blessing: “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” (Psa 127:3-5) Thus the absence of children would have acted as a question mark over the spirituality of the wife if not the couple. The declaration of this barrenness that hung prophetically over Israel, as now declared by Isaiah, says six things: First it proclaims that bearing offspring was considered what was natural, what the Lord intended. Second, the absence of offspring was something to anguish over. Third, there must have been a reason for it.  Fourth, transformation was seen as only possible by the blessing of God, and that comes again later in Isa 66:7-11. Fifth, there is given an interesting comparison with others who are not barren but not blessed, which we will see shortly and, sixth, the end of their barrenness is expanded to reveal a much wider blessing on them.

Hannah’s Blessing:  When Hannah conceived, prayed and sang, she declared, “She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away.” (1 Sam 2:5) Whether she waited until years later to pray and sing, or whether she was declaring her anticipation of what would come, is unclear, but what is clear is the extent of her blessing, seven children, joy, and a sense of being loved (implied by the way her adversary now pined away). The releasing from barrenness in the present passage is similarly indicated in the same way that Hannah had prayed: “because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the Lord.”  (Isa 54:1)

Now Get Ready to Expand: She, Israel, now has (or is about to have) more children than other nations (whose husbands were idols, we might suggest), and is thus told to get ready to expand. (v. 1-3) Expansion in abundance and enlargement is what is coming. Previously, “you were ruined and made desolate and your land laid waste,” (49:19a) but now the land, with the Lord’s blessing, “will be too small for your people, and those who devoured you will be far away.” (Isa 49:19)

Forgetting the Past: As He now says in the present prophecy, You will forget the shame of your youth.”  (54:4) The history of Israel, right from the start of the Exodus, was never glorious, filled with grumblings and disobedience and as the years unfolded in the Land, in the period of the Judges, it never improved.  But the good news is that although the Lord requires us to confront the present, He does not hold the failures of the past over us; He is more concerned that we repent (Ezek 18:23,32, 2 Pet 3:9). Now the past will be forgotten in the light of the present blessings and, as we saw yesterday, those blessings can come to us because of the work of Christ on the Cross.

New Application: Under the New Covenant the apostle Paul took this present passage and applied it to the present reality.  (See Gal 4:24-27) So, Sarah was the barren woman who, though technically was Abraham’s wife, never had been previously able to fulfil the full outworking of marriage – bear children – and was replaced by Hagar. Yet we know that the desolate woman, Sarah, was enabled by God to bear Isaac, the child of promise. Paul applies all this to the Law and to slavery because although Hagar (representing the Law) had children naturally with Abraham, she was still a slave.

As the message version puts those first verses: “The two births represent two ways of being in relationship with God. One is ….a slave life, producing slaves as offspring. This is the way of Hagar. In contrast to that, there is an invisible Jerusalem, a free Jerusalem, and she is our mother—this is the way of Sarah.”  Through new birth, from heaven, from the city of God in heaven, the ‘invisible Jerusalem’, which acts as our mother, we are children of promise born to be free. The ‘mother’ of the old covenant was the Law but all those who sought to follow it found themselves slaves to failure and guilt. Born from above, we are now free, children born by the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit, who will one day return to our home – heaven. Hallelujah!

Snapshots of the Bible: Day 21

Snapshots: Day 21

The Snapshot: “Abram believed the LORD.”  Does it all boil down to believing? Is it all just about accepting what God says is true? About His love for me? About His hopes for me? About the potential I have in His hands? Won’t He do all this stuff if I don’t believe? What’s that? Believing is like opening a door that He knocks on, asking to enter, refusing to barge into my life without invitation, refusing to come without my permission. But He’s all-powerful isn’t He? This all speaks of a God who made us in His image, told us to reign and now He refuses to snatch that rule back?  When He says go, dare I go? When He says step out of the boat, dare I do it? If I don’t I will always regret it, always wonder what I missed, always wonder what could have been. Lord, help me step out.

Further Consideration: As I return to this snapshot I marvel at the truths here that flow out of God’s word. He took a pagan from Mesopotamia and introduced him to a life of faith, of hearing God and responding. How did he hear? I don’t know, possibly in his mind an ongoing nagging impression that would not go away. But he ‘hears’ it and responds to it. We’ve already considered their childlessness but when God says, “You will have a son,” eventually – and as we saw in the previous study, it is an ‘eventually’ – he believes God.

I said in the previous consideration that the path to belief is rarely an easy one, and we noted the difficulties Abram had encountered since coming to the Promised Land. But now the Lord has spoken yet again that Abram will have many children (Gen 15:4,5) and now Abram believes.

Previously I asked the question, “Does it all boil down to believing?” and the answer has to be yes, and for very practical reasons. If Abram hadn’t believed what he heard at the beginning he would never have left Ur, never have travelled to the Promised Land, and probably therefore, never heard the Lord’s ongoing encouragement.

If you hadn’t believed originally, you would not have become a Christian. If Peter hadn’t believed in Jesus, he would never have stepped out of the boat (Mt 14:29). If you didn’t believe and pray you wouldn’t have answers to prayer. And yet He doesn’t make us believe, He doesn’t make us step out of the boat, He doesn’t make us pray; these are all voluntary things, expressions of our relationship together, His and mine.

It never gets easier, this believing-faith thing. Every single time we step out in faith, our blood pressure goes up. It needs another distinct declaration of belief, another distinct choice to act. He’s spoken; dare I believe.  Silly not to really!

Snapshots: Day 20

Snapshots: Day 20

The Snapshot: “Abram, I am your shield.” That’s great, Lord, but what about the fact that I am still childless. It seems that sometimes God’s encouraging words (often through a preacher) just don’t seem to hit where I am itching. Lord, there are bigger issues than you protecting me. I am lacking – still! And there I have choices, either to become jaded and critical or let the Lord build trust, patience and perseverance in me. It seems all the way along this Christian path there are these vital choices. I am sure they won’t affect my ultimate destination but they will determine the type of person I will be when I leave here. Abram learned it and became known as ‘God’s friend’.  What will I learn and by what will I be remembered?

Further Consideration: The path to believe – which we’ll consider tomorrow – is rarely an easy one. When we come to Christ it seems so wonderful that we go through what is often called ‘the honeymoon period’ where everything seem just perfect, and then we start to learn the realities of this world, this life, perhaps the realities that sometimes demand patience or perseverance from us, realities that it is sometimes a battle, and we start to grow up!

Gen 15 starts with an ‘after this’. It prompts us to look back – Abram has arrived in the promised land, a famine strikes so he flees to Egypt where he has problems, he comes back to the land and there is quarreling between his herders and Lot’s, and so they separate, Lot gets embroiled in a local war and Abram has to go an rescue him. It has not been an easy time.

So when the Lord says to Abram, “I will be your shield” He is bringing him reassurance that even if this fallen world is unpredictable and often hostile, He will look after him and protect him.

But then Abram complains about having no child. It’s a natural anxiety but it is a bit like saying, “Yes, well, that’s all very well, but what about my reputation and my future,” and in so doing he demonstrates what we do so often. The Lord speaks into our circumstances and because we have some other particular worry on our mind, we tend to dismiss this latest promise that was intended to encourage. It’s a sign we need to grow up and learn to realize that God has got ALL my issues in hand. He’s already told Abram that he will have children and so now He is giving him an additional reassurance – but Abram hasn’t yet let the previous promise settle in his heart and so hasn’t fully taken on board that whatever the outward appearances may be, God is still working on his case and so will bring a child at the right time.  Can we learn to take on board all that God has said to us and let it transform us into a trusting child of God?

Snapshots: Day 19

Snapshots: Day 19

The Snapshot: “Abram’s wife was Sarai.”  Heartache & Hope are often at the centre of the redeeming plans of God in the midst of this fallen dysfunctional world. Otherwise why choose a childless couple, why promise them a great family, a nation, a new land? Pre-Christ we are all ‘childless’, failing to reach our ‘possibility’, falling short of God’s glory, God’s potential for us.  Heartache and potential. Do we tolerate missing the mark, failing to rise to our potential, because we look back at failure? Do we let past hurts subjugate faith, letting unbelief deny we have potential, deny God’s yearnings for us, refusing to receive what He longs to give us? Abram speaks of hope.  Christ speaks of a mountain of hope. Lord, open my eyes to catch the enormity of this vision.

Further Consideration: The story of Abram and Sarai, like several other stories with similar ingredients in the Bible, shouts out some very basic and fundamental truths about our existence on this earth.

The first truth is that we live on a fallen world where, because of the sin of mankind, ‘things go wrong’, things ‘don’t work’ as they should. It’s not necessarily the sin of the individual (though it can be) but may just be one of those things that happen in this broken and often dysfunctional world. So we find sickness and illness and infirmities – things that did not exist when God first made the world but which have arisen as we wrongly use the world or wrongly use one another. Today we may talk about genetic breakdowns but whatever it is, the result is that we don’t work as well as we were designed to. So we suffer childlessness, deformed babies, infant deaths, premature deaths of all sorts. A fallen world.

The second truth is that this does not have to be the end of the story. It may be for some but the door to God’s office (prayer) is always open and He always listens and He is always there for us and will never reject us as we come to Him like little children. His bigger concern is that our relationship with Him is restored. That is first and foremost His goal because He knows that that will open up doors of possibilities that otherwise will not be there. Yes, healing is one of the options, becoming fertile and being able to carry a baby is one of the options, and so on. Testimonies within the Christian world say this is true, many, many times (but not always). Sometimes He does step in and bring the change we cry for. At other times we will have to trust His love and wait for an answer when we come face to face with Him eventually. Rest in His love. Remember, living in a fallen world means that learning to trust God is top of the agenda because we won’t see it all as clearly as we want until we meet Him face to face.

4. Young Believer Abram

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 4. Young Believer Abram

Gen 12:10-13   Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated

 Our goals: We are, may I repeat, considering the lives of a variety of people in the Bible as we explore God’s intentions to ‘redeem’ us. Inevitably, but I hope not surprisingly, they are episodes that reveal the poor side of humanity but also the grace and mercy of God.  Redemption, we have said, is all about God working to bring us back from a bad place into a good place, and when we see this in operation and consider how it might work today, I believe it will possibly change how we think about one another in the church, especially those who don’t live up to our high expectations.

Abram: We move on to consider something of the life of this man who the Jews consider the father of their nation, a man we consider as the father of faith. In many ways he is a most remarkable man, somehow hearing God back in his home, Ur, leaving there and travelling roughly a thousand miles to Canaan, purely on God’s say-so. Yet there are three episodes in his life that might leave an intelligent person to cry out, “God, how could you let him do that,” or “I thought he was supposed to be the chief example of faith. Where is it here?” Now we are not out to do character assassination, but it is important that we face these things in our heroes.

Situation 1: He hasn’t been in Canaan very long when a famine hits the land and so hearing it is not in the south, he travels down to Egypt. Next, we read, “As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”  (Gen 12:11-13) What he is about to do is well thought out, but I like how the notes in one modern Bible describe what is about to happen as his “morally dubious actions”. The result is that he obviously goes too near the seat of power for Pharaoh’s officials see her and “she was taken into his palace,” (v.15) and you may guess what happened to her there. Now if such a similar thing happened today there would rightly be an uproar. This is sexual abuse of the worst kind. It took the Lord to intervene for the situation to be sorted. Not a good start for this ‘man of faith’, we might say!

Situation 2: A while later (ten years) we find, “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. (Gen 16:1-4) So here we have this man who has been told a number of times by God (Gen 12:2,7, 15:4,5,13-16) that He will make him into a nation, now listening to the wisdom of his wife which, in any other context, might have been wisdom but here was unbelief. The result was Ishmael and the Arab nations that have been a thorn in the side of Israel ever since. No so good, man of faith!

Situation 3: Time passes, a lot happens and then we find, “Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” Then Abimelek king of Gerar sent for Sarah and took her.” (Gen 20:21,2) What???? There is a sense of deja-vu about this. This is a repeat of the first situation. Now what makes this doubly difficult is that this is the third time a difficulty has arisen and you might have thought Abraham might have learnt by now that he could trust the Lord’s protection. Even more Abraham is a rich and therefore powerful man. The result of the first debacle was amazingly, by the hand of Pharaoh, “He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels,” (Gen 12:16) and we later read, “Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.” (Gen 13:2)

More blessing: The Lord intervenes yet again and so, “Abimelek brought sheep and cattle and male and female slaves and gave them to Abraham, and he returned Sarah his wife to him. And Abimelek said, “My land is before you; live wherever you like.” To Sarah he said, “I am giving your brother a thousand shekels of silver. This is to cover the offense against you before all who are with you; you are completely vindicated.” (Gen 20:14-16) Oh my goodness! Abraham can’t go wrong – even when he gets it wrong!!!!

Questions & Answers: No wonder that the modern Bible version I referred to before, in its notes at the beginning of the first situation, states “The events described in this section raise many questions that go unanswered.” Do these episodes teach us that we can get away with any misdemeanour and God will just smile on it and bless us? How does faith interact with unbelief in all this? Why does God let him get away with this? Some tentative answers.

Answer 1 – Long Term Plan: Hold in the back of your mind that God works on the long-term plan; He looks to what He can achieve with his man by the end of his life. This is about redeeming us from being messed up faithless pagans (Abram and us) and changing us into faith-filled, mature believers who are a light to the world. Very quickly let’s note, Abraham excelled in faith in the episode of apparently sacrificing Isaac (Gen 22), he becomes a man who treats with kings and army commanders (Gen 21:22-32, 23:3-20), and he appreciates his birth right and makes careful preparation to get the right wife for his son, not from among the local pagans (Gen 24). An amazing man.

Answer 2 – Faith in the midst of unbelief: You may not have been able to accept it yet, but we are ultimately, even after our faith commitment that saved us, so often people who struggle with unbelief (watch the disciples with Jesus) and faith breaks through as flashes of light, occasionally! God understands that spiritual growth takes time. He doesn’t want you and me to keep on tripping over our feet, but He doesn’t give up on us when we do. He is constantly working to change our feet of clay into feet of flesh and spirit.

And so? a) remember you are still “a work in progress”, and b) those around you are the same! Be there for one another, despite the stumbles, because God is!

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, I take this on board: I am indeed “a work in progress” and thank you that you love me like this and are working with me in the long-term to make me something more than I am at present. Help me to see those around me in the same light.

2. It’s too big

Expectations & Hopes Meditations: 2. It’s too big!

Gen 12:2,3   I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

An obvious starting place when thinking about ‘expectations’ has got to be the story of Abram and these first verses of Gen 12 in particular, and I believe they will say some very significant things to us.

The context of these verses is that Abram, later called a Hebrew, lived in Ur (Gen 11:28) in the area of Mesopotamia, the so-called ‘cradle of civilisation’, the location of the now-hidden Garden of Eden. We know his father’s name was Terah (v.27), that he had a wife named Sarai and that she could not have children (v.29). Terah had taken Abram and some of the family to travel to Canaan (v.31) but when they had arrived at a place with the same name as one of his sons who had previously died, they stopped there and settled there until Terah died there (v.31,32). After this Abram set out again for Canaan (12:4,5). It is into this context that we are told that The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (12:1) which implies that this word had come to Abram previously and had probably been the motivating force that started the family off for Canaan from Ur.

So much for the facts of the story; what does it suggest? Think of the background again. Abram is married but his wife appears not able to conceive. Having children would be the desire of every man who, at the least, would want his family name continued through him. (You only have to look back at the earlier chapters of Genesis to see that family lists were already a big thing.) And then – somehow – he hears God. We don’t know how but it is in such a clear way that he is convinced he’s getting divine guidance. What he hears impinges directly on his greatest heartache: it promises him children in abundance if he will go to the foreign land. He goes with great expectation. This is at the heart of Abram’s story. At this point ‘the land’ is only secondary to and the environment for ‘a great family’. Again and again both of these things – the land and the family – are spoken about by God. Why? We will see.

Now, as I have pondered this story, there is something that Abram ‘could’ have thought which I see reflected in contemporary Christianity again and again. I say he could have thought it but clearly didn’t. It is the thought that might well come in response to God’s words of the future, “Oh, come on, that can’t be it’s too big, it’s too impossible!” Now I read that on people’s faces sometimes when they are brought a prophetic word for their lives today. “Who me? Surely not!”

The starting thing I believe we should focus on about expectations and hopes, is that they aren’t automatically received. When God speaks the future into our lives – and this is what expectations are all about – we can either say with Mary, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” (Lk 1:38) or negatively respond like Zechariah, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (Lk 1:18) We choose whether or not to hold a faith stance, a position of expectation, when God has spoken.

Tomorrow we’ll consider times when He hasn’t spoken personally but circumstances say that expectations are natural, but the point here is that expectations are natural because God has spoken. Zechariah looked at his natural circumstances (both he and his wife were well beyond child-bearing age) but Mary looked to God and not her circumstances. Abram would have every reason to think he would go to his grave childless. When the years have passed, and you have tried again and again and again and still nothing happens, it is natural to give up. Then some bright character turns up and prophesies, “You will have a baby within a year,” (and I’ve had the privilege of doing it twice) and you can either respond with cynicism and mutter under your breath, “Insensitive slob!” or you can receive God’s word for what it is, and rejoice. Abram received it and started out for Canaan.

Now there is something else here than could be missed. Without doubt, as history shows, the Lord wanted Canaan, or Israel as we know it today, to be the home for His people, a place where He could interact with them as a people in their own right with their own land. The Lord thus used the fact of Abram’s childlessness as a spur to get him into that land. There are times when I believe the Lord uses what I will call ‘additional reasons’ to bolster our expectations. He knows we often need the encouragement. Something I have watched time and again (and became aware of it in my own life again just a week ago) is that when a vision is proclaimed, it often takes time to be fulfilled and the natural temptation is to allow it to dim, and so the Lord often speaks again and again, to remind us of it, to remind us we have a part to play. I have at the present time a vision of something I am to work into and I know it will be a long-term thing, probably at least a couple of years, and I also was reminded just this last week, that I had been allowing it to dim because the ‘thwarting circumstances’ of the present almost squashed it.

This is the thing about a vision from the Lord, a prophetic word that speaks of your future, so much of the time such a word cuts across the present stagnation of life and speaks of newness, about creating something that isn’t there at the present, and that is the challenge. When we have lived with the non-activity for so long, it takes real faith to believe that, yes, it can be changed, yes, God will do it, yes, I have a part to play in it, and that part will result in change. It is only as we step out in small steps that we see the change slowly beginning to take place. In many ways Abram’s story is a story of small steps, little episodes of faith, until eventually the Lord says, “This is it! You’ll have your child within a year!” (Gen 18:10)

But there’s one final thing we need to add: the expectation is real, the word was from God, He IS going to do it, but the end result may not be as you think at this moment of receiving it. Apart from Ishmael, Isaac was the only child of the promise, Abram never saw a family like sand on the seashore as promised. That picture would take centuries, but it did happen. (He did have six children through his concubine who he married, Keturah – Gen 1:2, 1 Chron 1:32 but they were not what became the Hebrew people – Israel, God’s chosen people.) The vision may not be fulfilled in exactly the way you anticipated but it will be the way the Lord anticipated and as such you may hold to such a word and live in that expectation and that, we will see, is what the Christian life is all about.

1. Genesis (1)

Meditations of Old Testament Highlights:    1.  Genesis (1)

Gen 12:1,2  The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.

I need to be honest. I have come to another of those points in life where I need to feed on God and on His word. I have written studies or meditations for well over thirty years on a daily basis. It is how I feed, but with the awareness that others listen or watch (because I save the studies) the temptation is to become too aware of others. As I have prayed I have a picture of browsing in different fields and each field is a book of the Old Testament (we may do the New later). I don’t know the verses yet but my intent it to take one or two verses from one or (maximum) two places in each book of the Old Testament so it’s going to be a fairly long series. I don’t intend to be academic but just chew over God’s word and feed. Starting with Genesis two sets of verses stand out to me and so, taking the first of those two sets, our starting place is Abraham who stands out like a beacon.

Look at these verses above. How bizarre they are! The book of Genesis has not been written and indeed it will be at least four centuries before it is written down by Moses. Any knowledge of God, the Creator of all things, has come down through hazy history, through word of mouth, and it is vague at the very least. It will only be brought into focus as Moses spends hours, days, weeks, months and years in the Lord’s presence, that the word of mouth history will be brought into sharp and distinctive history.

But for now there is this wanderer from the north from somewhere up in the area known in history as the ‘cradle of civilisation’, Mesopotamia. He is going to become known as a ‘Hebrew’ (Gen 14:13), thought by some to mean ‘one from across the Euphrates River’ who becomes a family who become a tribe who become a nation, so that nation watchers would eventually describe Hebrews as “any member of a group of Semitic peoples tracing their descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” who become Israelites or, in modern terms, Jews.” But for the moment it’s just one man and his family. His family?  Well he has a wife who is barren (Gen 11:30) which must have been a cause of anguish for him. When he had started his travels from the north and journeyed towards Canaan, he had been accompanied by his father, but he had died along the way (Gen 11:32), another cause of sorrow.

And why is he here in this foreign land full of random tribes of pagan worshippers? Because our verses above start, “The LORD had said to Abram….” Somehow, and we don’t know how, this man had ‘heard God’ and so clear was it that he stopped doing whatever it was that he did back there in his home country, and left to go to a land of promise. But it is so vague and he’s so unsure of himself that he only half obeys what he hears. He’s told to leave his father’s household but instead they come with him. So his father dies along the way and it’s just him. Not quite, his nephew Lot has come along and he’s going to be the source of problems in the days to come.

What was it that got him moving? Was it the fact that part of this ‘word’ was, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”  Now I am sure he didn’t have half an understanding of all that but it spoke of something better than he had at the moment. This is particularly so when at that moment his wife appeared barren and years had passed so that it seemed a ‘set-in-concrete’ type of situation. This word offered an answer to his anguish from childlessness. So having painted the scene (which was necessary, rather like setting a meal down in front of us) what does it say to us? What is there for us to chew on?  Some very obvious and maybe some not so obvious things.

First it brings God right into the arena of the world which is where mankind operate. This is God speaking to a particular man, a God who communicates and implies that He can operate in this man’s life to bring amazing changes. The impossible (childbearing) need not remain impossible. Second God puts this into a particular historical and geographical context. For reasons that will not become obvious for a little while, He wants Abram in this particular land. This is the place He has chosen to focus His attention in the millennia to follow; it’s going to be a demonstration place to answer the big questions of life, it will reveal Him and His ways to the world, and it will reveal to mankind what we are like. Abram knows nothing of this but that is what history eventually reveals. Third, God knowingly takes a man who is far from perfect through whom He will start to reveal to mankind so much about Himself. The nation of Israel that will eventually be formed will look back on Abram, or Abraham as he becomes, as their father (see Jn 8:39). That is why these verses stand out like a beacon in Genesis, if not in the whole Bible because they say, God has a plan and it involves a man!

But scripture must be grounded in my everyday life, otherwise it remains merely academic words, so what does it say to me?  First, it says to me that God is there but He doesn’t want to remain at a distance, that He is a communicator and wants to speak to me. But what about? He has a plan for my life. Nine tenths of the time I don’t understand most of it, but He has a plan and He reveals bits of it to me, bit by bit. I probably won’t understand most of it until I get to heaven but my life has a purpose – His plan.

Second, it also says to me, encouragingly, that He knows I am far from perfect but that won’t exclude me from it. As long as I seek to be as obedient as my faltering faith that is often unclear, allows me, that is sufficient. But there’s something more, if this story of Abram is to mean anything, and it is that, whatever God has for me, and maybe others through me, it is for my good, my blessing, probably far more than I can hope or believe.

Third, if I hold on to the story of Abram, I need to remind myself that with God nothing is impossible. Abraham was childless but the promise was of a great nation. I may feel weak and inadequate but I need to remind myself that the outcome is down to Him. All I can do is seek to be as available as possible, thereafter it is what HE will achieve, and there are not limits to that!

But fourth, when he died that ‘great nation’ comprised one son, Isaac, but that was enough for the plan to be fulfilled. Huh? That says I am not to worry about the outworking, God will do as much or as little as He wants with my availability; I am only a part of His plan, but an important part, big or small! Hallelujah!  Those four things are simple but profound and I need to hold on to them and live by them. Amen!