Thursday, 26 September 2013

Sermon on Genesis 12:1-9


During my sabbatical over the last three months I’ve been able to do a lot of travelling.  First to Wales on retreat, then to Suffolk to spend time with the Mission to Seafarers.  Then I flew to Malaysia where I spent time with two churches, one in Klang near Kuala Lumpa, and then in Ipoh in the north of the country.  Then during August I drove with the family to Poland, and then to Italy, before returning to the UK and finishing my sabbatical with another retreat this time in Northumberland. 

I love travelling, visiting new places, meeting new people and experiencing new cultures.  But at the time of booking my flight to Malaysia I had no idea where I would be staying, what churches I would be visiting, or even if anyone would be meeting me at the airport.  I found this rather stressful, and had visions of stepping off the plane in an unfamiliar country, with no idea where to go or where to stay.  I had to trust that the Bishop of West Malaysia who was organising my placements would have everything arranged before I was due to fly out, which much to my relief it was!

Imagine then how Abram must have felt when he was called by God to leave everything behind and travel to a far off country.  Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show yousays the Lord.  Abram was stepping into the unknown.  He was leaving everything that was safe and familiar, his home, his friends, his country, his people, to journey to an unknown land.  At 75 years old, Abram could be forgiven for looking forward to a quiet retirement in his home city of Harran, not setting out of this great adventure. 
Put yourself in Abram’s position for a moment.  How do you think you would feel if to uproot yourself and leave everything behind, and travel into the unknown? 

Sadly we live in a world where there are many people who don’t have to imagine what this is like.  The United Nations High Commission For Refugees said that at the end of 2012 there were 15.4 million refugees around the world.  Conflict and persecution forced an average of 23,000 people per day to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere, either within the borders of their own country or in other countries.  There are around 6.5 million internally displaced people in the world –people who have been uprooted and displaced within their own country.  Much attention is of course focused on the crisis in Syria, but refugees can be found all around the world. 

For Abram however, it was not war or conflict that prompted to leave his home, but a call from God.  

Listening To God

It’s not clear how Abram received his call, whether God spoke clearly to him one day, or whether he had a growing sense that this was what God wanted him to do.  But what is clear, is that Abram had cultivated the habit of listening for God’s voice and obeying it.
Listening to God, and discerning what God is calling us to do can be challenging.  The reason many of us feel God doesn’t speak to us, is because we have not developed the habit of listening to him. 

When I am waiting to hear the voice of God, I want God to speak clearly and powerfully, so I am not left in any doubt that it is God that I am hearing.  But God rarely shouts to us, instead he whispers softly.

This is the lesson Elijah learnt when he was on the mountaintop (1 Kings 19:11-18) waiting to hear God’s voice.  As he waited he experienced a great wind, an earthquake and a mighty fire, but God wasn’t in any of those, instead God spoke to him in the stillness and silence.
If we want to hear God’s voice, rather than expecting God to shout to us from across our busy lives we should hunger for the Holy Spirit’s quiet whisper in our ear.  You can only hear a whisper when you’re standing next to the person you’re talking to, so that your ears and their mouth are intimately close, and I think that is why God whispers to us today. He wants us to make time in our busy lives to draw close to Him, He wants us to approach Him daily so that we can hear and recognise that intimate whisper as God’s voice, and then respond in obedience.
Trusting God

Abram hearing God’s call, responds in faithful obedience.  It was a response that was based on love and trust.  Although Abram was venturing into the unknown, he trusted that God would not fail him.  He knew that whatever challenges or obstacles, dangers or threats he would face, God would be there for him, and help him to overcome them. 

Trust is essential for any healthy relationship to flourish and grow, and the same is true for our relationship with God.  When God calls us to something new, we need to know we can trust him. 

When Peter got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus on the water, he was fine as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus.  It was only when he took his eyes off Jesus, that he began to sink.  We need to look to Jesus, and place our faith in him.  The theologian Karl Barth said “To hold to God is to rely on the fact that God is there for me, and to live in this certainty.” 

Despite Abram’s age, and the fact that his wife Sarai could not have children, Abram trusted that God would fulfil his promise to make him into a great nation, to bless him with land and descendants, for he knew that what with man is impossible, with God is possible.  That is why Paul in Romans writes that Abram “did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness. (Romans 4:20-22)

God’s Plan

When Abram received God’s call, he also received the promise that God would bless him.  But this was not just a blessing for Abram and his family alone.  The blessing was for the whole world.  God said “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3).  This promise was fulfilled with the coming of Jesus, who was a direct descendant of Abraham. 
When God calls us, and blesses us, it isn’t for our own sake, so that we feel good, happy or comfortable, God blesses us in order that we may bless others. 
There is an old hymn which has as its chorus these words:

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God hath done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

The blessings that we enjoy from God, of life, love, the Holy Spirit, the right to be called children of God, forgiveness, mercy, grace, eternal life, are given to us so that we may in turn bless others.  No wonder Paul declared "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ"  (Ephesians 1:3). 

The more we share the blessings we have received from God, the more God blesses us.  Jesus said “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:38)


Just as God called Abram to journey with him to a new land, so God still looks for people who will get to know His voice and do what He says.  Just like Abram, God’s desire is that YOU have a personal relationship with Him, and know Him in such a way that YOU will want to obey Him in everything!

Through faithful obedience to God’s call Abram discovered, and you can discover too that truth and obedience releases the heart and hand of God to use YOU, to bless YOU, your family, loved ones, community, nation and every nation on the earth!  As we walk in faithful obedience to God, we see the power of the Gospel released in and through our lives and the Church to impact every nation on earth. 

Haggai 1:1-8 Priorities

Pressures, demands, expectations, and tasks push in from all sides and assault our scheuldes.  Do this!  Be there!  Finish that!  Call them!  It seems as though everyone wants something from us – family, employer, school, church, clubs.  Soon there is little left to give, as we run out of energy and time.  We find ourselves rushing through life, attending to the necessary, the immediate, and the urgent.  Too often, the important is left in the dust.  Our problem is not the volume of demands or lack of scheduling skills, but values – what is truly important to us.

Our values and priorities are reflected in how we use our resources – time, money, strength and talent.  Often our actions belie our words.  We say God is number one, but then we relegate him to a lesser number on our ‘to do’ lists.

Twenty five centuries ago, a voice was heard, calling men and women to the right priorities.  Haggai knew what was important and what had to be done, and he challenged God’s people to respond.

In 586 BC the armies of Babylon had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem – God’s house, the symbol of the his presence with them.  In 538BC King Cyrus decreed that Jews could return to their beloved city and rebuild the Temple.  SO they travelled to Jerusalem and began the work.  But then they forgot their purpose and lost their priorities, as opposition and apathy brought the work to a standstill.

It was into this situation that Haggai speaks, calling them back to God’s values.  “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” (1:4) 

The people were more concerned with their own needs than with doing God’s will and, as a result, they suffered.  Then Haggai calls them to action, “Give careful thought to your ways. Go up into the mountains and bring down timber and build my house, so that I may take pleasure in it and be honored,” says the Lord

And God’s message through his servant Haggai became the catalyst for finishing the work.

Haggai is a small book, only two chapters long.  But it is filled with challenge and promise, reminding us of God’s claim on our lives and our priorities.  Just as Haggai urged people to get back to doing God’s work, so he speaks to us today, urging us to reorder our priorities in accordance with God’s will.  What is God calling you to do?  Have you neglected that calling?  Haggai challenges us to put aside all else, and obey God. To do our part in building the house of the Lord, not a temple like in Jerusalem, but to build up God’s kingdom, his reign of justice and peace here on earth.

Abraham & Isaac: Genesis 22:1-18


Although S and J were very happily married, there was one thing they desired more than anything else, to have children.  But despite lots of attempts, including IVF, they were unable to conceive.  Over several years I and many others prayed that God would bless S and J with children.    

It was therefore with immense joy, when one day S took out his phone and said “I have something to show you.”  On the phone was a photo of an ultra sound scan, taken that same morning of not one, but two babies that his wife J was expecting.  The birth of their twins brought immense joy. 

Abraham and Sarah

For Abraham and Sarah the wait to have a child of their own took even longer.  Abraham was 75 when he first received God’s call, and the promise that God would bless him and make him into a great nation (Genesis 12:2).  But Abraham and his wife Sarah had to wait another 25 years, before their son Isaac was born, by which time Abraham was 100 years old. 

When Isaac was born, there was much joy and celebrating. 

Why therefore would God some years later say to Abraham Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Genesis 22:2) 

This passage of scripture has been wrestled over, and debated for centuries by Jewish and Christian theologians.  Few Scriptures have provoked more anguish, more controversy and commentary, than this passage.  Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen have even composed songs about it!    

Child Sacrifice and The Bible

The Bible is clear in its denunciation of child sacrifice, which was common practice amongst the Canaanite religions.  For example it states in Deuteronomy 12:31 You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.” (see also Leviticus 20:1-5)

Why then would God test Abraham by telling him to do something which is so detestable?  And why doesn’t Abraham question this instruction.  In Genesis 18, Abraham pleads with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah, why therefore does he not plead for the life of his son?  As a parent I would do everything in my power to protect my children from harm, why doesn’t Abraham turn round to God and say “No – this is something I will not do.”  This passage raises lots of difficult and uncomfortable questions, which cannot be easily answered.

But because we find this story disturbing doesn’t mean we can simply dismiss it.  In fact the more we look into it, the more it has to teach us, even if it does leave some unanswered questions.

Being Put To the Test

God was putting Abraham’s faithfulness and loyalty to the test.  It is one thing to say you love God above all else, but do you really?  But this was a test that was contrary both to human reason – there is nothing more abhorrent than the thought of a parent murdering their child – and divine promise, it was through Isaac that God had promised to bless Abraham.

Why did Abraham not simply refuse to go through with this test?  Why did he not say to God, I’m not prepared to do this? 


The answer I think lies in the fact that over the years Abraham had learned many tough lessons about the importance of obeying God.  And he had also learnt that even if what God was calling him to do made no sense, GOD COULD BE TRUSTED.  It was because he trusted God, that he was able to obey Him (see Hebrews 11:17-19). 

But this story illustrates that obedience to God can be a struggle.  Putting aside our will and submitting to God’s will is one of the hardest lessons we need to learn in the Christian faith.  Obedience can only come once we’ve learnt to trust God.

The clue that Abraham trusted that God would somehow intervene, can be seen in the fact that he says to his servants “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.” (22:5)  And when Isaac asks about the lack of sacrifice, Abraham responds “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.” (22:8)

As Abraham journeyed to Mount Moriah, he would surely have remembered the promises God had given him to bless him (see Genesis 17:15-16), and the times when God had seen him through difficulties. 

When times are tough, when God feels distant, or we are being called to do something that scares us, something that takes us out of our comfort zone, it’s good to remember the promises God has given us in the past, both in Scripture and personally.  It helps to remind us that God is faithful, and will not fail us.  As it says in Proverbs, ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart.’ (Proverbs 3:5)

The test for Abraham was, is he willing to put God first, even above the love for his son?  Jesus issued a similar challenge when he said "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters--yes, even their own life--such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26).  God wants our total love, service and devotion.  One of the questions this story asks us to consider is, how much would I be prepared to sacrifice for the sake of God?  Where does God come in my life? 

Isaac and Jesus

We’ve considered Abraham’s response, but what about Isaac?  Isaac has a rather passive role in the story.  I’m left wondering, why when it became apparent that he was to be the intended sacrifice, did he not struggle against his father, or call for help.  Abraham was an old man, surely it wouldn’t have taken much for Isaac to escape his father’s grasp and flee.  Could it be that Isaac submitted to all that was taking place?  And if so why?

To understand the answer to this question, we need to look to the New Testament.  Because the New Testament tells a very similar story to the one we are looking at today.  That story is of course about Jesus.

There are striking similarities between the story of Abraham and Isaac and the story of Jesus.

Isaac is called ‘your son, your only son whom you love.’  At Jesus’ baptism, a voice from heaven declares “This is my beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17).  Jesus is God’s only beloved son.

As Isaac carried the wood for the burnt offering.  So Jesus’ carried his cross to the place of execution.

Abraham and Isaac travelled Mount Moriah, where the Jerusalem Temple would one day be built, and near to where Jesus would be crucified. 

The journey to Mount Moriah took Abraham and Isaac three days.  Jesus would spend three days in the tomb.

With the provision of a ram, as a substitute for Isaac, Abraham renames Mount Moriah Jehovah Jireh, ‘The Lord will provide’ (Genesis 22:14).  It was in this same place two thousand years later that Jesus, sent by the Father, became our substitute by laying down his life for us on the cross.


It is Jesus’ death on the cross that ultimately enables me to make sense of the story of Abraham and Isaac.  It was out of love for us, that God the Father sent his son Jesus into the world, and why Jesus was willing to submit to death on the cross.

Although the story of Abraham and Isaac still leaves many questions to be answered, it is a fundamentally a story about faithfulness, obedience and love, as shown by Abraham to God, and most importantly that God shows to us.  Because ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)  As God provided us with a saviour in Jesus, so he continues to provide for us.  As Paul writes, He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)

Let us pray.