Bible Reading Isaiah 1:1a, 12-13a,c; 15-19a
The prophet reminds us that covenant living with God includes a lifestyle of faith and obedience that is demonstrated in compassionate justice and goodness. Its absence, in God’s eyes, will render invalid, useless, and distasteful -- even your most meaningful worship.
These are the visions that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. When you come to worship me, who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony? Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts… they are all sinful and false. I want no more of your pious meetings. When you lift up your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you offer many prayers, I will not listen, for your hands are covered with the blood of innocent victims. Wash yourselves and be clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways. Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows. “Come now, let’s settle this,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool. If you will only obey me, (NLT)
Message Covenant Reminders Genesis 15
Isaiah says worship is only valid when it is accompanied by a heart and life devoted to living a positive, obedient response to God’s will. When we turn from our evil ways and learn to live a good life, our failures will be wiped out like fresh snow blanketing the dirt. Then our prayers and ceremonies will mean something to God. But if we think rituals and prayers are an adequate substitute or can help tip the right-wrong balances for an errant way of living, then we are sadly mistaken. That isn’t how it works. God isn’t keeping score. He isn’t looking to condemn us for any isolated doubt or error. But he is lovingly watching our pattern of living and if it is less than our potential best, he is eager to encourage our transformation and growth. Genesis beautifully illustrates the connection of worship and a heart striving to be devoted.
God initiates the promise, the enabling, and the call
Abram didn’t go to God and say, “I want to be a great nation -- so bless me.” No, before 75-year-old Abram did anything, God told him to leave his homeland and go to a land he would show him, for he would make him a great nation through which all the nations would be blessed. God initiates a promise before we do anything. (By the way, promise comes from a Latin word that means “to send forth” -- so a promise is declaring, “You can count on it so much it is as if it were already done”. Prophets sometimes expressed God’s future actions in the past tense.
God promises what he wants to do for us -- (in Abram’s case - to become a great nation), and then provision is given (Abram’s wealth and an heir) in order for us to be able to do what God wants us to do (to live in such a way that all the earth is blessed).
Abram began with positive obedience. He left home and when they set up camp, he built an altar of worship, reminding him of God’s call on his life. But as he enters Egypt, he forgets about God’s protection and errantly decides that deception was the way to play it safe. He got into deep trouble and was lucky to only be exiled. (Genesis 12:1 ff). Then he became wealthy, and moved to Canaan, where God promised him the land as far as he could see, and descendants as plentiful as the dust of the earth. As Abram moved from place to place, he continued to build altars of worship, reminding him of this covenant relationship with his God. (Genesis 13:14 ff)
God encourages our growth and transformation
But as we come to Genesis 15, God comes to Abram in a vision because apparently, circumstances had caused doubts had set in. God begins with assurance,
“Do not be afraid, Abram, for I will protect you, and your reward will be great.” (Genesis 15:1b(NLT))
This gives Abram the opportunity to express his doubts, “All these blessings of wealth to become a great nation, but no child to leave my legacy -- it will all go to a servant”. The Lord reassures him that it would not be a servant, that he would yet have a son who would fulfill the promise. Then he took him out to look at the starry night sky and reminded him how many descendants he would have. (See Genesis 15:2-5)
Circumstantial predictors or trust in God?
God confronts us with the incredible rather than the expected. Do we make current circumstances determinative of our life? Or dare we step out in trust?
Abram believed this powerful visual (See Genesis 15:6a) and
“The Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith.” (Genesis 15:6b (NLT))
Are we continuing to pursue our relationship with God?
Righteous is not so much a personal quality of how good we do good things as it is a relational reaching out, a following after, a chasing after a relationship with God -- loving him with all our heart and with all our being, giving the best we have to offer, lifting our lives to him, knowing that even when we fail, he continues to covenant with us. He keeps his promises to us, rescues us, adopts us as his children. And we respond in light of what God has done, and is doing, for us.
Then, I’m guessing this was the next day, the Lord reminded him that he brought him out of his homeland to give him a new land. Apparently, Abram was no longer convinced of this either, “How can I know it is true?” (Genesis 15:7-8) The Lord uses another powerful visual to increase his faith. For us, it is quite graphic and messy and perhaps even offensive. Just remember they lived in a very different time and place and culture. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from the underlying message.
God has Abram play out an ancient traditional method of covenant making. Participating parties didn't just exchange handshakes and business pens and go home satisfied. A binding covenant had to be "cut in blood" to seal the sanctity of the promise and symbolize the life and death seriousness of the commitment. They would take animals (in this case, a heifer, goat, ram; and they would cut them in half and arrange the halves opposite each other, then added a dove and pigeon. Abram protected the carcasses from birds of prey. Now what is supposed to happen is that the superior party would proclaim the conditions of the contract as the inferior party walked among the pieces of animals, in essence stating, “May I become like these animals if I don’t uphold my part of the covenant.” Pretty vivid reminder of our obligations. And scary, since it is this great bible hero who had some very difficult doubting (and miss-acting) periods in his life. If he had those kinds of stumbles and struggles, then how could we even begin?
As the sun was setting; Abram fell into a sleep, in which the Lord told him about the struggles his descendants would endure, but that in the end, he would restore them. (See Genesis 15:12-16)
Abram saw a smoking firepot and a flaming torch pass between the halves of the carcasses. So the Lord made a covenant with Abram that day and said, “I have given… (Genesis 15:17b-18a (NLT))
Then as the night deepened, a smoking pot and blazing torch (representing God’s presence) moved among the animal pieces. It should have been Abram, but this is the wonderful grace of God -- knowing that we cannot keep our side of the covenant, he takes our place and declares he will keep his promise – (in Abram’s current case, the promised land...)
This is the wonderful essence of God’s interaction with those who answer his call. The all-powerful, the one who is clothed in majesty, the one who reigns above all, who demands and accepts praise from all the nations, the one who is our shield, our strength, our provider, our deliverer, our shelter, our strong tower, our very present help in times of need -- the one who is rich in love and slow to anger -- he comes and does for us what we are not able to do for ourselves. What we cannot earn, what we cannot fulfill, God, in his grace, takes our place, first among the pieces -- and then upon the cross -- to move among the pieces of our lives, bringing healing and hope and increasing our faith equipping us to better fulfill our calling -- to be a people through whom others are blessed. He does it all!
Our part of the covenant? To believe in God and the promise that he makes and to do our best to cooperate with his direction for our life.
Understand, Abram was certainly not perfectly faithful or obedient. Even after this event; he cycled in and out of doubts, became impatient; took things into his own hands, and fell short of the covenant. I’m not criticizing -- don’t we all fall short? How’d we like the worst moments of our life to be recorded for everyone’s perusal and study for centuries to come? But over the long haul of his life, God and Abram remained connected and true to each other…
I’d be remiss if I didn’t do at least a very brief comparison between the old covenant and the new covenant. In the Old Testament, God went to great lengths to fulfill his covenant promises -- to create a nation, a legacy of heirs, and the promised land -- Abram’s role was to receive these blessings and act on his trust in God’s covenant relationship by being a blessing to others. It was the for the fulfillment of this covenant that God brought the people out of the slavery of Egypt…
In the New Testament, God went to great lengths to fulfill his new covenant promises -- to create a heavenly-valued kingdom on earth, adopting us as his children (a new legacy of heirs), and the promise of heaven some day. Our role was to receive these blessings and act on our trust in God’s covenant relationship to by being a blessing to others. It was for the fulfillment of this covenant that Jesus came to die on the cross, that we could be bought out of the slavery of sin.
Are we ready to move forward with God?
Ultimately, Abram continued to move forward, striving to be what he was called to be. God demonstrates over and over again that he takes full responsibility for the relationship, for the promise he gives -- and then enabling us to be what we ought, and gracing us when we fail. He assures us that we will yet fulfill our destiny for he will fulfill his promise to us. With that kind of a commitment from our God, how can we not keep striving to move forward with him and in his ways?
Striving means moving our lives forward under God’s guidance. It reminds me of the joke where a new downhill snow skier is speeding down the slope on direct trajectory toward another person. This person was primarily a golfer, so he shouts his warning: “Fore!, Fore!, Fore!” But the person never moved and they crashed and rolled, ending up in a heap. The first one apologizes, saying, “I’m just learning how to do this, I guess I haven’t really figured out how to turn or to stop.” The other replies, “That’s OK, I’m just learning too, and I haven’t figure out how to start moving yet.” Moving forward in our journey with God may mean learning to start some things in our life and to stop other things in our life so we don’t end up in a heap.
Are we able to adjust?
Change may be necessary because, just like Abram, we’re going to get it wrong from time to time. Surrounded by a plethora of leaders and their diverse political systems, economic systems, value systems and religious systems, it is easy to get mixed signals and become confused over the right path. Or, knowing the right path, we may be tempted and fail and fall from the path. But also, like Abram, we need to voice our concerns in prayer, find and/or return to living the right path, and discern how to best live out our covenant relationship with God. Sometimes Abram was successful and exemplary, other times he was a miserable failure. Over the course of our lives, aren’t we all?
He helps us overcome!
But ultimately, despite setbacks, Abram’s faith climbed past circumstances, circum-vented surrounding views, and he kept adjusting and realigning priorities in order to move toward his covenant God. He was able to do this only because God’s consistent love, patient grace, and covenant promise overcame Abram’s faltering trust and errant actions and he became the obedient “father of faith”.
And it is only because of God’s consistent love, patient grace, and covenant promise that he overcomes our faltering trust and errant actions and we can become the obedient “children of faith”.
Closing Prayer Lord, when we consider our destiny, our spiritual paths; we sometimes wonder who we are -- lost in the midst of our circum-stances, surrounded by pious sounding but conflicting points of view. Yet we are here because we desire to follow you. Once we were secure in familiar territory, in our sense of belonging, not questioning the norms of our culture, the values shared by our society. But you have called us out and away from home, and we do not always know where you are leading us, what our future holds -- but we trust you to hold on to us.
Journey with us, so that we may not become deterred by hardship, unfamiliarity, or doubts, but remain steady in you as our hope. You have been what we need from the beginning of our lives, and we live to tell the next generations of your promise, your strength, and your power. We give you our lives in trust, and strive to obey where you lead, that we may find happiness in Jesus name. Amen.
* Closing Hymn # 467 Trust and Obey
* Closing Blessing And now as we go, remember that we are not our own, but we belong to Christ. So freely and wholeheartedly yield your lives for his use and pleasure. Amen.