You will need
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Pour a few handfuls of sand into the tray. We will use it to visualise God’s promises, reminding ourselves of God’s promise to Abram.
In Nov 1989, people climbed to the top of the Berlin Wall and started hacking at it with picks. I would never have believed it. Pick up some sand and watch it trickle through your fingers.
Abraham didn’t believe that he’d have a son. Neither did Sarah. Pick up some sand and watch it trickle through your fingers.
Take some time to consider an impossible situation. There are plenty in the world – hunger, injustice, poverty, war – how could they ever be ended? Pick up some sand and watch it trickle through your fingers.
Perhaps the impossible situation is closer to home. My friend, will he ever be well? I have to say, I can’t see it. Pick up some sand and watch it trickle through your fingers.
… as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore … with God all things are possible.
I’ve just started assembling an e-book, and the chapter I’m writing is all about our two homes – one here on earth, and one in heaven. Then, by one of those curious ‘coincidences’, I start writing this week’s Reflectionary and it’s all about Abraham’s two homes. Funny that.
Abraham (actually, he’s still called Abram in the first reading) had two homes: the one he left in Harran, and the one he was going to. Yes, we know that call, the famously helpful, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.’ It’s a good job sat navs don’t work like that. Can you imagine it? ‘In some yards, turn in the direction I will tell you.’ Useful. Not.
But somehow Abraham got there, and by our Genesis 15 reading he had settled in Canaan. Great! Job done! Well, no. He was still living in tents as a foreigner in someone else’s land, and we learn from the re-telling in Hebrews that Abraham had his eyes set on a larger goal: A city. A city built by God.
Cities were important in that culture. They weren’t the sprawling, anonymous, concrete deserts of today’s cities. A city then might not be big, but – and this is important – it had a wall. A wall meant safety. It meant permanence. No more camping out in this place and that. If you were living in a city, you had a safe home for life. Families lived together then much more than we do these days, so the chances were that most of your relatives lived in the city with you.
So not only would a city keep you safe, but all your loved ones too. We can see why the Bible often uses the picture of a city for our final home in heaven. Except that Abraham doesn’t have a family to keep safe.
God has been promising him offspring as uncountable as the stars ever since chapter 12. I’m guessing Abraham had a hard time believing because God kept repeating it – in verses 1-3, again in verse 7, then in chapters 13, 15, 17 and 18 as well. It’s easy enough for us to sit back and tell Abraham he should have trusted God’s promise, but it’s much harder when you’re in the situation.
You can really hear the frustration in Abraham’s voice as he points out to God the elephant in the room. ‘It’s all very well you telling me I’m going to have so many children that I’ll have to barcode them to keep track, but in case you hadn’t noticed, the total so far is zero. And you say you’ll give me a great reward? What’s the point? I’m already rich. I’ve just turned down a load of battle spoils and now you want to give me a great reward? I don’t want more stuff! I want a son!’
It’s good to talk to God like that sometimes. Don’t worry. He can handle it. And I think he’s happy to hear his children being honestly annoyed rather than piously polite.
In the end, Abraham didn’t do too badly. Besides Ishmael and Isaac, he had another six sons, and he lived to see Isaac’s children become teenagers. But it was 25 long years between the promise in 12:1 and the start of its fulfilment. If that’s all he was focussed on (which it was initially), then a quarter of a century was a very long time to wait.
Abraham never did see the countless offspring. But that’s OK, because by the end I think he’d got the hang of the fact that it is not all about the here-and-now. Here-and-now is important, of course – it’s where we live – but it’s not all. It took Abraham a very long time to work out that God had bigger plans than just providing a name to go on his will.
What is the important stuff that is going on in my here-and-now? Let us bring it to God (he knows anyway, but it’d be nice to hear it from you), then let us be still and remember that there is more than the here-and-now.
God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
God of promises, timeless and true
God of faithfulness, both seen and unseen
I trust you. I trust you. I trust you.
Genesis 15:1-6 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying,
“Do not fear, Abram,
I am a shield to you;
Your reward shall be very great.”
Abram said, “O Lord God, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.” Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval.
By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.
By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised. Therefore there was born even of one man, and him as good as dead at that, as many descendants as the stars of heaven in number, and innumerable as the sand which is by the seashore.
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country from which they went out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.
New American Standard Bible (NASB)
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