How Far Will God Go?
by Jack Wald | September 4th, 2016

Genesis 15:1-21

It was Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (1788–1865), a Danish archaeologist, who came up with a scientific basis for defining the ages of mankind by a study of tools and other artifacts used. The three ages were the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. Each age was considered an advancement because of the advantages of the new technology. Bronze was more powerful than stone and iron more powerful than bronze.

When we read in the Bible the story of the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, and the rule of Saul, David, and Samuel, we see the importance of iron. In the conquest of Canaan, we read in Judges 1:19
The Lord was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with iron.

In 1 Samuel 13 we read (1 Samuel 13:19–22)
Not a blacksmith could be found in the whole land of Israel, because the Philistines had said, “Otherwise the Hebrews will make swords or spears!” 20 So all Israel went down to the Philistines to have their plow points, mattocks, axes and sickles sharpened.
22 So on the day of the battle not a soldier with Saul and Jonathan had a sword or spear in his hand; only Saul and his son Jonathan had them.

The Philistines controlled the technology which left the Israelites at a disadvantage.

In this time scheme: Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Abraham was born in the middle bronze age which is dated from 1950-1550 BC.

The first we hear of Abraham (he is named Abram and his wife is named Sarai until God later changes their names to Abraham and Sarah. I will use these new names in telling their story.) is in Genesis 11 when (Genesis 11:31)
Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Harran, they settled there.

Ur was located in present day Iraq, just north of Kuwait. Haran was on the southern border of present day Turkey, just north of Syria. It would be a much more dangerous journey today than it was for Terah and his family 4,000 years ago.

It seems, from the map, that it would have been much faster to head straight west from Ur to get to Canaan. Why did Terah take his family northwest to Haran?

When Terah set out he headed northwest, traveling through the fertile crescent: the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. It was better to travel through a more fertile land than across the desert. This took them to Haran and then, for some reason, Terah decided they would stay there and not continue on to Canaan.

Abraham left Ur with his father sometime after he was married and it became clear Sarah would not bear children. Maybe he was thirty or thirty-five, we don’t know. But then he stayed in Haran until he was seventy-five years old. He lived in Haran for thirty or forty years and it was in Haran that Abraham picked up the cultural values that influenced him when he traveled to Canaan.

Haran was part of the Hurrian culture that controlled this part of the world in the Middle Bronze Age. The reason I mention this is because when we read about Abraham, it is important to understand his cultural background. Abraham lived before God gave the law to Moses. When God appeared to Abraham, he appeared to a man who had little understanding of who God is and how God wants us to live. So when Abraham acted, he acted out of his cultural understanding of what to do.

In Hurrian culture adoption was a means of transferring property. A man could take the son of one of his servants and adopt him as his heir. The adopted son had responsibilities to his adopted father, but if a natural son was born, the adopted son gave up his right as heir.

The primary purpose of marriage was the procreation of children and if the wife was found to be sterile, she was obliged to provide her husband with a concubine through whom an heir could be obtained.

The relationship of Abraham and Sarah is intriguing because up to the age of seventy-five, Abraham did not take this culturally accepted option. He did not discard Sarah because of her infertility. He was childless, without an heir for decades. The other men he knew had sons and heirs, he had none. There must have been pressure for him to conform and have a son, but he did not. There must have been pressure on him to get another wife, but he did not. It seems obvious that Abraham had a deep love for Sarah. We enjoy love stories; this is one of the great ones and it is a shame we do not have more details.

What changed after all these years that made Sarah give her concubine to Abraham so he could have an heir?

Terah had left Ur with the intention of going to Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they stayed. It was in Haran that God appeared to Abraham. (Genesis 12:1–9)
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
2 “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.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”

Who do you think Abraham told about this vision? He told Sarah and I would imagine they were both excited and tried with renewed hope to have the child God had promised to them. But then months and years went by without Sarah getting pregnant and their hopes faded. Perhaps Abraham had been mistaken and had misheard what God told him. Maybe this vision Abraham had was all in his imagination.

When we come to Genesis 15, Abraham and Sarah are living in Canaan. Abraham was growing in wealth and power. Everything was going well but he was still without a son. This brings us to our text this morning and the covenant God made with Abraham. (Genesis 15:1–21)
After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward. ”
2 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Once again, God promised Abraham a son and once again, Abraham told Sarah. Once again, I imagine, they had hope that this time Sarah would get pregnant, but she did not. It was clear that God had made this promise and so Abraham and Sarah resorted to their Hurrian culture. I imagine it was with great disappointment and dashed hopes that Sarah told Abraham to sleep with her maidservant so he could have an heir.

Eliazer had been the adopted son of Abraham but now when Hagar became the mother of Ishmael, Ishamael was the natural son of Abraham and took over as heir to Abraham. This is the story we will go into next Sunday. For this morning, we will talk about the covenant God made with Abraham.

After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward. ”

Reward? What reward? Abraham spoke up with what was most on his heart.
2 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

The pain that Abraham and Sarah had carried for most of their married life was still a sore and tender wound. God had promised Abraham when he was in Haran, “2 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great,” but how could God make Abraham into a great nation when he had no son?

So now God made his promise more specific.
4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

This is the promise that inspired Abraham and Sarah to once again have hope she would bear a son.

6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

We will come back to this, but this is why Abraham is called the father of our faith. Abraham believed what God told him, despite the lack of evidence that what God promised would come true.

But there was a second question Abraham had for God. When Abraham first arrived in Canaan, he came to Shechem where God appeared to him and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” (Genesis 12:7) Shechem is in the middle of Canaan, north of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea and south of Samaria and the Sea of Galilee. God made this promise to Abraham in the middle of Canaan and when Abraham looked around, all he saw was Canaanites. How was he supposed to take this land when all he had were a few servants? Years had passed, Abraham had grown in wealth, but he still did not have land.

God knew Abraham was struggling with this as well and so repeated his promise to Abraham.
7 He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”

Abraham asked God how he could know this promise would be fulfilled, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?” and God revealed his patience in his answer to Abraham’s question.
9 So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”
10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half.
17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.

This is a strange ceremony to us; we don’t have a modern way of understanding this. So it helps us to know that this covenant that God made with Abraham was part of the culture that made Abraham who he was.

Cutting animals in half and then walking between them was part of a ceremony for making a treaty between two parties. The act of walking between the two halves of the animals was how the treaty was enacted and it said, “May this happen to me if I violate this treaty.” “May I be cut in half like these animals if I do not keep this treaty.”

A smoking firepot or censer and a sacred torch were used to symbolize the presence of deities in rituals in the Mesopotamian rituals of Abraham’s time. So when Abraham saw the smoking firepot and blazing torch appear and pass through the severed halves of the animals, he recognized this as God passing between the pieces.

18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates—19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”

God repeated his promise to Abraham that he would have a son, would be the father of a great nation, and would inherit the land he now lived in. And Abraham believed what God told him.

Let me draw out three lessons and challenges for us from this appearance of God to Abraham.

1. God speaks to us from within our culture.

We do not have to learn a foreign language to communicate with God. We do not have to learn a foreign culture to hear God speak to us.

At Pentecost, God spoke through the disciples in tongues that everyone heard in their own native language, in their own mother tongue. (Acts 2:5–12)
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

When Saul heard Jesus speak to him on the road to Damascus, what language did Jesus speak? Saul was fluent in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Which of these was his mother tongue? He grew up in Tarsus where he spoke Greek. That would make Greek his mother tongue. But in Philippians 3:4–5 he writes:
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee;
So this might suggest Aramaic was his mother tongue. Perhaps he spoke Aramaic with his mother before he learned Greek from the culture of Tarsus.

What settles the question for me is Paul’s description of what happened to him on the road to Damascus when he was speaking with King Agrippa. (Acts 26:14)
We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’

God spoke to Saul in Aramaic. God speaks to us from within our culture and in our mother tongue.

This is why I believe that God has inspired the translation of the Bible into the languages of the world. Bible translators have learned that it is not enough to translate the words into another language, they have to translate the cultural meaning in the Bible into the cultures of the world. For example, we talk about knowing Jesus in our heart. This is because we view the heart as the center of our being. The King James talks about knowing Jesus in our bowels because the bowels were viewed as the center of our being. In another culture we need to know Jesus in our throat because that is viewed as the center of our being.

Jesus is the bread of life, the rice of life, the potato of life – whatever is the staple of diet in a culture. A good Bible translation translates not just the words but the meaning of the words as they are understood in one culture to the meaning of the words as they are understood in another culture.

There is the well known story of Don Richardson working with tribes in Western New Guinea, Indonesia. The missionary historian Ruth Tucker writes:
As he learned the language and lived with the people, he became more aware of the gulf that separated his Christian worldview from the worldview of the Sawi: “In their eyes, Judas, not Jesus, was the hero of the Gospels, Jesus was just the dupe to be laughed at.” Eventually Richardson discovered what he referred to as a Redemptive Analogy that pointed to the Incarnate Christ far more clearly than any biblical passage alone could have done. What he discovered was the Sawi concept of the Peace Child.

Three tribal villages were in constant battle at this time. The Richardsons were considering leaving the area, so to keep them there, the Sawi people in the embattled villages came together and decided that they would make peace with their hated enemies. Ceremonies commenced in which young children were exchanged between opposing villages. One man in particular ran toward his enemy’s camp and literally gave his son to his hated foe. Observing this, Richardson wrote: “if a man would actually give his own son to his enemies, that man could be trusted!”

Jesus was preached as the “Peace Child” and then the Sawi people came to see Jesus as the one who came to give them life.

Because God so loved the world, (John 3:16) there are cultural understandings in every culture of the world that can serve as a bridge to learn of the love of Jesus. Missionaries search for these cultural bridges to the gospel so it can be communicated to the heart, the bowels, the throat, or to whatever is viewed in that culture as the center of our being. God wants all cultures of the world to learn of his love and come into his kingdom.

God uses the cultural symbols and language we have grown up in to reach out to us. When we share our faith with others, we need to know who we are speaking to and speak to them in cultural terms they will understand.

If you ask someone, “Are you washed in the blood?” they will probably run away from you. If you ask someone, “Are you justified by faith in Jesus and being sanctified by the Holy Spirit?” they will probably scratch their head and move on. These are terms from within Christian culture and do not have meaning to those outside of Christian culture.

Let me say a few quick words about world views. We in the West have grown up with a guilt/innocence world view. We see salvation as a judicial system where there the devil is a prosecuting attorney, Jesus is our defense attorney, and God is the judge. But this does not communicate well to those from sub-Saharan Africa and many of the islands of the world that have the fear/power world view. Here salvation is a battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Spiritual warfare is understood and practiced in a way the West does not understand. Here in Morocco and the rest of North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, the world view is an honor/shame world view. Here salvation is the restoration of honor to those who have been shamed. This was the world view of Palestine at the time of Jesus and when we read the parables of Jesus without understanding this honor/shame world view, we miss the meaning and impact of the parables Jesus told.

We need to hear the gospel in our own language, our own culture. And we need to communicate what we have learned in terms other cultures will understand.

2. God speaks to us in our mother tongue, in cultural terms we can understand. What is our response? We are to obey.

Abraham did not have a developed sense of Biblical theology. Abraham was a monotheist in a polytheistic world; that made him unique. But he did not understand who God was. He did not have a history to look back on to learn about who God was. He did not have the Exodus to look back on to see how God rescues his people. He did not have a Bible to read. All Abraham had was a belief that God was speaking to him and when God spoke to him, Abraham obeyed. Abraham believed, he obeyed, and he acted on his belief. Abraham believed that what God said would happen, would happen.

For this reason, Abraham is one of the heros of faith in Hebrews 11. (Hebrews 11:8–12)
8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 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.

Abraham set the example for all of us who follow him in our faith in God. Jesus said in John 8:51
Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.”

And in Luke 11:27–28
“Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

And in John 14:23–24
“Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching.

James, the half-brother of Jesus wrote: (James 1:19)
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

We often do not understand all the reasons we are to do what God calls us to do. We may not understand why God is calling us to go somewhere or do something. But when we sense it is God who is leading, our responsibility is to obey. Understanding may come with time, but now is the time for our obedience.

The blessing and fellowship with God Abraham experienced came because of his obedience to what he could not see. The blessing and fellowship with God we experience comes because of our obedience to God. Abraham is our example.

3. How far will God go? To what length will God go to rescue us, to bring us into his kingdom?

God reached down into the culture of Abraham and began the long, slow process of making a people for himself. God is not a magician. He did not snap his fingers and make a saint. He began to reveal himself to Abraham. He was patient in dealing with Abraham, understanding his confusion and doubts. Time and time again God revealed himself to Abraham, promising him a son and land.

Abraham led to Isaac to Jacob to Moses to Joshua to Saul to David to Solomon to the prophets. The path would not be easy. There would be much pain for the people God was calling to himself and much pain for God himself. In the covenant of Genesis 15 God revealed to Abraham that his descendants would be in Egypt for four hundred years and then be rescued and brought to Canaan. But he did not tell Abraham that Joseph would be thrown by his brothers into a pit, sold into slavery, and taken to Egypt. He did not tell Abraham that the Israelites who were wonderfully delivered from Egypt would so soon resort to worshiping idols.

When Jesus told stories of the history of Israel, he talked about God sending his messengers, the prophets who were rejected and mistreated. Despite the obstinate rebellion of the people God chose to be his people, God continued to reach out to draw his people to himself. And all of this would culminate in God becoming flesh, being born to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, living in Palestine and dying on the cross.

Jesus rose from the dead and now the whole world was invited into God’s kingdom. Jesus called Paul to work with him and Paul took the gospel to the Gentiles. Over the centuries it has reached around the globe so that it came to us and we are the fortunate beneficiaries of the good news about Jesus. This good news has come at great cost.

How far will God go? In the covenant ceremony with Abraham, the smoking pot and burning torch passed between the severed animals, saying, “May this happen to me if I do not fulfill the terms of the covenant I am making with you.” And this is what did happen. God did not break the treaty but we did. We deserved to be severed like the animals. But God sacrificed himself for us. The body of Jesus was broken for us on the cross. The lifeblood of Jesus was poured out for us. This is how far God will go for us.

If this is how far God will go for us, is there anything he will not do to rescue us and bring us safely into his kingdom? Like his chosen people of the past, we sin. We rebel. We put our hope and trust in things that will fade away. We may not bow down to idols made of wood, but we succumb to temptation and walk away from Jesus. We become worried and anxious and don’t see how God can make things work out in our lives.

The good news is that God will not give up on us. When we walk away, God will work in the events, people, and circumstances of our lives to bring us back in repentance. And then he will give us yet another chance to follow him.

God worked slowly, patiently, in drawing Abraham out of his pagan culture to himself. God is working slowly, patiently, with us.

We are deeply loved. God wants us to know that we are his beloved daughters and beloved sons. How far will God go for us? We celebrate this morning holy communion and at this table we remember how far God went for us and take courage that he will not abandon us but will continue to love us, pursue us, heal us, bring us to wholeness in his eternal kingdom.

No matter how meaningfully you have experienced the love of God in the past, the love of God is still far wider, far longer, far higher, far deeper. An eternity of discovery and wonder awaits us as we learn more and more of the love of God for us.