Background Scripture: Genesis 15:1-6; 16; 17:1-14; 18:20-27; 21:9-21; 26:1-25. Devotional Reading: Hebrews 11:17-22.
My father was the oldest of 10 children born to Edwin B. and Sallie K. Althouse. I am an only child and my two sons, although both married, had no offspring. So, every so often, it occurs to me that my two sons will be the last offspring from my father, mother, and myself.
This is hardly a momentous concern, but there are times when I wish it were not so, when I would like to think that what my parents passed on to me and what I passed on to my sons would continue the line. In today’s world, where overpopulation is a menace, our situation is exactly the opposite of the world of Sarah and Abraham. Having children who would survive childhood and become heirs was a major preoccupation. That is why “barren” women were thought to be in disfavor with God. Childlessness was usually regarded as punishment from God.
So we can better understand the situation in Genesis 15:1 when the Lord assures Abram: “Do not be afraid Abram, I am your shield; your reward will be very great.” There was really only one award that both Abram and Sarai cared about: “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus…You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir” (15:3). The “slave” is “Ishmael,” born to Abram from Sarai’s slave, Hagar. How will I know?
God’s promise is dazzling: “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them …So shall your descendants be” (15:5). Abram wants to know why he should believe this promise that seems too incredible to be believed. It was a fair question to ask, but God answered by reminding Abram what he, God, had already done: “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” But Abram wanted certainty: “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (15:8). That seems like an audacious reply, but it is a common response to God’s promises, though rarely said aloud or put into so many words.
Three words by Sir William Gurney Benham, despite their brevity and simplicity, can assure us: “Trust begets truth.” We want to know if the promises are true and it is our trust that helps to make them true. Trusting God entails two key elements: the promise and our trust in that promise. If we withhold our trust, we delay or derail the promise. I have purposely used the verb “trust” and not “believe.” While it is true that we need to believe in order to trust, it is not enough. Lots of people (including me) every Sunday recite their creeds in worship services, “I believe…” That’s the first step, but lots of us never take it any further or farther. As James says so clearly in his epistle: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe” ( James. 2:19). It is acting on our belief that is the beginning of faith and trust. I can remember as a boy being challenged to swing on a vine out over a swamp. My chums hollered as I stood frozen still on the limb of a giant tree: “You’ve got to believe you can do it!” “I do believe I can do it – but I’m not going to!” I believed, but I did not trust my belief.
In my Bible, Matthew, Mark, and Luke each use the word “believe” eight times. The Book of Acts uses it nine times. But the Gospel of John uses it 55 times. What we need to understand is that the verb “believe” can mean different things. It can mean that we think something is true. Or we can be so confident in our belief that we are motivated to act or live by it. That is what “believe” means every time it appears in the New Testament. Faith, then, is not a matter of agreeing with a proposition, but making a proposition the source of why and how we live. Right beliefs
One of the most destructive forces in the history of Christianity is the strife and even violence that have been based upon the conviction that only some possess “true beliefs.” People have been beaten, tossed in jail, strangled, beheaded, burned at the stake, chopped into little pieces, etc. Why? Because their beliefs were thought different from those who held the power. Some, I believe, were true followers of Jesus Christ, but they were judged “wrong” in the way they understood and spoke of their faith. Yet Jesus never said accept my beliefs; he said: “Follow me.” One of the earliest terms used for the new Christian faith was “The Way.” The trust of the disciples was in a person, not in a catalogue of propositions about God and life. When people accused him of breaking the laws, he said, “But I say to you…” (Matt. 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44).
When I first realized that our background scripture this week calls for five different selections from Genesis 15 through 26, I feared it would be difficult to put these bits and pieces together in a meaningful manner. But there is one overriding impression I gained: Abraham’s faith/trust was based upon not a set of doctrines, per se, but a growing life of trust in relationship with God. So a covenant is more than a legal contract; it is the expression of a human/Divine relationship. We come to trust in the promises because, like Abraham, we come to trust the One who makes those promises. I like John Wesley’s response: “A string of opinions is no more Christian faith, than a string of beads is Christian practice.”
I wrote down these words a long time ago and I don’t know if I ever knew who said them, but they are words to live by: “Christianity is not a puzzle to be solved, but a way of life to be adopted. It is not a creed to be memorized, but a Person to follow.”