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Trusting a Trustworthy God

Date: 28 April 2024, 9.30 am

Speaker: Ps Luwin Wong  Sermon Text: Genesis 15:1–17:27 CLICK HERE to join in our Livestream service on Youtube

28Apr24 Herald
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Trust. A fundamental ingredient to a functional way of life . But as Kianna told me earlier this week, “you can’t live life trusting anybody”. She’s only 10. Already sounding jaded and world-weary. So cynical. Being cynical isn’t good, but it’s better cynical than being naïve.

Trust remains in high demand today, but its in such short supply, not least because people, in general, haven’t proven themselves very trustworthy.

That’s why society have come up with such things as business contracts and tenancy agreements and promissory notes. Basically saying, put it down in writing, let’s not leave to “sompah”, Boy Scout’s Honor. No no, let’s not leave things to trust, shall we? That’s too risky a way to live.

Not only do we have to put ink to paper, it seems that the paper itself has to be legally binding for it to be effective, it needs the weight of the court behind it for to work, otherwise, even words on written instruments – such as MOUs, for example, doesn’t appear to carry very much water.

Traditionally trustworthy institutions, such as religion, have been so rocked by high-profile scandals of sexual misconduct and financial mismanagement, that in 2018, a global study comprising 20,000 people across 23 countries found that the profession of “clergy”, my profession, ranks behind bankers in terms of trustworthiness. Behind bankers!

41% of people felt that bankers cannot be trusted, while 42% felt that way about pastors and priests.

Trust remains in high demand today, but it is in such short supply.

But trust we must. Without it, we can’t function.

Trust is the basis for the way we vote at the General elections.

Trust is at the centre of the debate surrounding the guidelines for the new flexi-work arrangement recently announced by the government. Employers who trust their staff are going to be more amendable to the changes than employers who are distrustful of their workers.

Trust, of course, is at the heart of any relationship, the higher the commitment, greater the need for trust, which is why we make marriage vows, and we wear wedding rings, and we sign wedding certificates.

We want them to vocalise their promises to each other with a vow, remember their promises to each other with a ring, and then sign their names to it on a legally recognised paper. And yet, how often are those promises broken.

Trust and trustworthiness, it seems, are as important to a relationship, as they are hard to come by.

Christians often say that the difference between religion and Christianity is that Christian is ultimately not about performing a set of rituals for God, but about pursuing a relationship with God.

So the question really becomes, can we trust God, and can God be trusted to keep his word to us?

Our text this morning from Gen 15-17, raises this very question: Can we trust God to keep to his promises? And it answers with a resounding “Yes!”

We can Trust that God –

Will keep his promises.

Can keep his promises.

Up keeps his promises.

And we can do all of that because God has kept his promises.

And with that in mind, let us turn to our text.

GENESIS 15:1-3 1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 

Fear not, God says, because if we recall last week’s sermon, Abram had just been at war with a coalition of 5 kings, who had taken Lot captive.

God promises to be his shield in times of war, so he does not have to fear. And not just that, but also tells Abraham that his reward shall be very great, and that, refers to the promises he previously made to Abram, there are three: (1) that Abraham will be a great nation, and (2) he will possess the promised land, and (3) he will be blessed to be a blessing to the nations.

But Abram raises the obstacle that prevents these rewards from being realised.

2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”

Abram replies God: How am I going to become a nation if I don’t have a family of my own. How are my offsprings going to inherit the promised land if I don’t even have a child? Which is a valid point.

GENESIS 15:4-6 4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

God says, you will be made into a great nation, your offspring will be innumerable.

6 And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

In other words, Abraham’s response of faith, of belief, of trust, made him right in God’s sight. Because trusting in God was the right response.

GENESIS 15:7-8 7 And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”

And then from the promise of nation, God continues to affirm his promise of land.

Interestingly, Abram asks for some sort of sign or assurance. Abram believes God, generally speaking, but he would like some additional assurance. “How will I know that I possess the land?”

And God says, “Sorry, did I stutter? How will you know? Because I said so!”

No, God replied this way:

GENESIS 15:9-11 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

What’s this all about? Well, we have to read on to find out.

GENESIS 15:17-21 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

What is happening here is God formalising his promises to Abraham in a covenant ratification ceremony.

The Covenant Ceremony in Gen 15:12-17.

In the Ancient Near East, two parties formally seal agreement (e.g. contract, covenant) between them with a ceremony which visually impresses upon the parties of their obligations to remain faithful to their promises and the consequences that would befall the party who would stray from his word.

The ceremony typically involves dividing animal carcasses into halves, and laying the pieces in two rows, forming a path in the middle, on which the parties to the agreement will walk.

That is to say, “we are committed to staying on the path of faithfulness to our covenant agreement, and if we stray away from it, we will bear upon ourselves the fate of these animals between which we walk”.

Now, we see a smoking fire and a flaming torching, symbolising the divine presence passing between the animal pieces. But what where Abraham in this event? What was he doing?

GENESIS 15:12-16 12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him.

He was sleeping! He was uninvolved in the covenant ceremony.

What does this mean?

"God alone passes (symbolically) between the pieces, because He is committed to unilaterally fulfilling the covenant promises. God puts himself alone under obligation, under punishment of death, to fulfill the promises made to Abraham.

13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain…

Because God has done this, because God has walked the path between the pieces, Abraham can henceforth look back on this ceremony, on this night, on this event and say, “I can know for certain that God will keep his promises”. He means what he says, he has committed, on pain of death, to keep his word.

Abraham can trust that God will keep his promises. They are not just empty words, it’s not just cheap talk, it is as costly as it gets, they bear the weight of death upon them. God is deathly serious about keeping his promises.

Abraham can trust that God WILL keep his promises because of an event, in which he has sworn by himself, on pain of death, to fulfil them. That’s our first point.

This is our second point: Abraham can also trust that God can keep his promises. God will keep his promises, and he can keep his promises. He is both willing and able.

GENESIS 16:1-2 Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. 2 And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.”

And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.

Here’s the problem. Abraham’s wife, Sarai, is childless. And since the promises of God hinged on the offspring of Abraham, it meant that the fulfilment of God’s promises doesn’t appear, humanly speaking, to be going accordingly to plan. God said he will keep his promises, but Sarai would like to see more efficient evidence of that.

So, if the problem is childlessness, Sarai had a solution. According to the legal customs of the Ancient Near East, where they lived, a barren wife could give her maid to her husband as a wife and that a son born of that union could be the legitimate heir if the husband declares it to be so.

By hook or by crook, Sarai will give Abraham a son – she chose the way of the world.

Notice, however, that Sarai attributed her barrenness to an act of God.

“Behold now, she says, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children.”

Wouldn’t the logical recourse then, to be to turn to God, to pray, to seek his face, to ask him to give them a child? The text doesn’t record her doing any of that. Instead of placing it in God’s hands, Sarai elects to take matters into her own hand, thinking to do God a favour and help him out in keeping his promise of a child.

GENESIS 16:3-4 So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.

But rather than blessing and reward and joy, this child brought about contempt and conflict and pain.

The best laid plans of mice and men, you see. Unlike God, we aren’t in control, we can’t always see where our actions will take us. Unlike God, we cannot always guarantee success.

Things took sour turn, and what does Sarai do?

GENESIS 16:5-6 And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!”  6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.

Sarai has the cheek somehow, to invoke God to be judge over a mess that she had created. Abram, typical of men, says, “I don’t want any drama”, you deal with her as you see fit. Shirking his responsibilities as head of the household, and neglecting justice in the home.

Then Sarai dealt harshly with Hagar, and Hagar fled from her.

And then the story shifts to Hagar. Whereas God was absent in Sarai’s decision making horizon, God was present to Hagar, who acquired a personal knowledge of him.

And it is to this personal encounter we turn, and take mental note that henceforth in the story, names would play a significant role in our understanding of it.

GENESIS 16:11 11 And the angel of the Lord said to her,       “Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael,because the Lord has listened to your affliction.

Ishmael means “he hears”. The Lord has listened to your affliction.

And God isn’t just a God who hears.

13 So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” 14 Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; [the well of the Living One who sees me] it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

God is also a God who sees. Who looks, who looks after his people.

This is what the name of Hagar’s son and the well reveals to us about God.

He is a God who hears and sees his people in their time of need.

Which means what? It means that unlike other so-called gods, idols made from human hands, idols made of wood and stone, which cannot see, and cannot hear, and cannot move. God can.

God can hear, and he can see, and he can act to deliver his people and of course, also deliver on his promises.

Abraham can trust that God can keep his promises, for he is a God who sees and hears.

He has shown himself willing to keep his promises, and now he shows himself able to keep his promises.

Thirdly, he is a God who upkeeps his promises.

“Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.”

Thirteen years later, God speaks again to Abraham about the promise he made.

GENESIS 17:1-2 1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.”

Ishmael is now a teenager, and there is still not hint of a child by Sarai. But God reiterates his covenant, and emphatically at that.

GENESIS 17:3-6 ​3 Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.

God renames Abram (meaning, exalted father) to Abraham (meaning, father of a multitude). Father of a multitude. He is childless!

It’s like if you guys start calling me Schwarzenegger. Hey, looks who’s preaching today, Schwarzenegger. It can only be mockery. A joke made at my expense. Because it cannot be further from the truth.

Abraham now has to go out of his tent, gather his kinsmen and herdsman around him and say, “Hey guys, everything okay, all good? Good, good. Erm, just a quick announcement. God gave me a new name, so all of you, from now on, must start addressing me as, ahem, Abraham.”

And one of the guys at the back raises his hand and goes, “Sorry, I thought you I heard you say “Abraham”. Silly me, I must have misheard, what’s your new name again?”

No no, you heard it right, it’s Abraham – father of a multitude.

And call my wife Sarah, meaning princess or queen, because kings shall come from her.

Unless God intends to keep his promise, this is one big cruel joke on Abraham and Sarai. Because unless and until they have a child, these names are laughable.

Which explains Abraham’s reaction.

GENESIS 17:17-19a 17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” 19a God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac.

Isaac means “he laughs”. It keeps getting better doesn’t it? What is God doing here.

God is ensuring that Abraham and Sarai never forget the covenant promises of God, because God has not forgotten about them.

It is God’s way of maintaining, of upkeeping the consciousness of his covenant promises to Abraham, so that Abraham will orient his living and believing by them. And why is upkeeping God’s promises important? Because God is a God who maintains, who upkeeps his promises forever and forever.

Hear how God describes his covenant with Abraham.

GENESIS 17:7, 13b, 19b ​7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

13b So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant.

​19b Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.

Every time someone calls his name, Abraham is reminded of the covenant. Each time someone asks about Isaac, Abraham is reminded that he laughed at the promises of God.

God does not wish for his people to lose sight or forget about his promises to them, because he does not forget, and they have eternal, everlasting implications.

And so God gives them a sign to keep, a sign which upkeeps and reminds – a sign of the covenant.

GENESIS 17:9-11, 13 9 And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you…

13 So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. God keeps his promises, he upkeeps his everlasting promises, and calls for his covenant people to do the same.

Abraham can trust that God upkeeps his promises.

In summary,

Abraham can trust that God will keep his promises – For he alone walked through the animal carcasses on that eventful evening.

Abraham can trust that God can keep his promises – For he is a God who hears and sees.

Abraham can trust that God upkeeps his promises – For he has given us a sign to remember an everlasting covenant.

So far so good for Abraham. What about us?

Can we trust God today? Yes, even more certainly. Unlike Abraham, who had to wait for the fulfilment of the promises.

We can trust that God has kept his promises.

We too have an event, a name, and sign to assure and remind us that God is a trustworthy, promise-keeping God.

Jesus Christ also walked the road to calvary on his own. And though we were the ones who strayed from the narrow way, he bore our punishment in his flesh, he died in our place, his body was broken for us, that God’s promises to us might be fulfilled in him.

And so at the cross, Jesus says, “It is finished”, the promises has been fulfilled, the rewards have been secured for those who righteous by faith in him.

The cross, is the event we can point to today and say, “God will do it, he has done it, it is finished”.

And also have been given a name to assure us.

That name is the name above every name, the name at which every knee must bow, and tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

His name is Jesus – it means God saves. For he will save us from our sins, that we might not longer be punished but obtain the very great reward that belongs to all of Abraham’s offspring by faith.

And Jesus has given us two signs to remember his covenant with us – The Lord’s Supper and Baptism. The two sacraments of the church.

This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.

Every time we partake of the Holy Communion, we eat and we drink and we remember, that the promises of God has been obtained for us through the sacrifice of Christ.

And we have baptism. Just as circumcision in Abraham’s day identified his people as the covenant community of God, so baptism identifies us as God’s covenant community today.

It is a privilege and a duty and a reminder that we are made the children of God through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Taken together, The Cross of Christ, The Name of Jesus, and the Sacraments of the Church, we can trust that what God has promised, he will do, he can do, and in Christ, he has in fact, done.

2 COR 1:20 20 For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory.

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