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- After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great."
- 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?"
- And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir."
- But the word of the Lord came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir."
- He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be."
- And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
A conversation at a school reunion. 'How's your brother Pete? He was in my class.' 'Pete? He moved to Amsterdam, and after that, I received neither word nor sign from him.' That's a Dutch expression, difficult to translate. Not a word, not a sign. Pete has broken all contacts. He seems to have disappeared. That's what we mean when we say that Pete hasn't given us any word or sign for years.
Do we have to say that from God as well? Doesn't He exist? At least, did He lose all contacts with us? Do we also receive neither word nor sign from Him? Some people assert it. They're very conscious atheists. But even when we believe that God exists, we sometimes have the feeling that He does not. He doesn't let himself be heard or seen. Neither words nor signs from Him.
But fortunately this is not the case. Today is 'Israël Sunday'. (Every first Sunday in October in the services of the Protestant Church of the Netherlands the congregation pays special attention to the close connection between God's people Israël and Christianity, and I preached this on that Sunday). We remember now in the churches that through Israël, the Lord made his voice heard and through Israël He gave His signs of life. And that first of all to the father of Israël, Abraham. He heard the voice of God: get out of your country, your tribe, your family, to the country I will show you.
And in the verses we think about, the Lord again gives words and signs. At first, words, then signs. For this is how our story begins: 'After these things, the Word of the Lord came to Abraham.' Does also that Word come to you? A strange question, isn't it? It now comes to us in this sermon. It came to us during the lecture from the Bible. And so God's word often comes to us in different ways. By radio and television. By a diary with Christian meditations. Yes, that's where it starts. But I mean more after all. One reads literally in Hebrew: 'After this, the Word of the Lord happened to Abraham. That Word made history in his life, became a great factor in his life, even determined his whole life. That raises the question: Does the Word of the Lord make history in our lives? Has it a real impact and a great influence on us? Does it determine our daily acts? Would our life look very different if that Word had not come to us, or would it be the same? Is the word of the Lord not more than a peripheral phenomenon, or is it a very happening in our lives? The Hebrew word 'dabar' means both 'word' and 'act'. God's Word is an act. It does something to us. Otherwise, it's not God's Word. Like the Lord worked at Abraham by His Word, so He still does it at us.
'After these things, the word of the Lord came to Abraham.' After which? After what Genesis 14 told us. And there it seemed as if only the kings of the earth make history and have a significant impact. They make alliances with each other, suppress each other, revolt against each other, make war with each other. And the result: murder and manslaughter, imprisonment and robbery, in short, doom and gloom. Abraham was right in the middle of it, got involved because he had to save his nephew Lot. There's nothing new under the sun (Eccl.1:9). War and the threat of war over and over again. Nowadays in the Ivory Coast and Iraq. Between Israël and the Palestinians.
Is this the only history that's written on earth? No! 'After these things, the Word of the Lord came.' And the Lord is the King of kings. He leads and directs everything. Although He doesn't exert His strength and influence by weapons, but by his Word. Is that also your experience? That's marvellous. When we're overpowered, changed, converted, led by that Word. When God's Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps. 119:105). When that Word scares us when we've sinned and keeps us from sinning when we're tempted. When that Word comforts us with God's forgiveness in Jesus Christ. When that Word shows us the way and tells us what to do and not to do. When that Word happens to us like that. Also, in the darkness, the conflicts and needs of our lives. 'You almost succumbed under heavy burdens. The danger was great. I did not forget you, in the dead zone, I gave words and signs (Duch hymn).
And it happened to Abraham in a vision. You may think: why God does no longer do that now? If only I had a dream like that. Then I could believe much more easily. Then I've certainty. Yes, It seems like that. But a dream can still be a fraud, not coming true. And we're far off than Abraham. God does not speak to us now in a dream, but in reality, the reality of Jesus Christ. 'You who became our word and sign in the time', so a line in a dutch Christmas song. God may have revealed Himself in the past in dreams and visions, but now He does in his Son. And that's in a much more wonderful, clear, and firm form. A vision such as Abraham received, cannot be compared to the face of Jesus Christ, who looks at us in the gospel. It's not right, if we expect special things, dreams or visions or whatever events, and we don't appreciate the full revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
'And God said, Fear not, Abraham.' These often are God's first words when He appears to people. Also, his angels say so. When the Lord, the holy and righteous, draws near to us, it causes, to begin with, fear, because we're sinners. In the old covenant, people believed that whoever has seen God must die. Do we get frightened when we realize God's holiness and our sinfulness? To begin with, a vision in which the Lord appears to us is not a sweet dream but a nightmare; terrifying. But how wonderful that the Lord will not condemn Abraham, nor us, but will give his love and faithfulness: 'Fear not, Abraham.' The Word of the Lord still sounds like that and even more in the name of Jesus. And then we may fill in our name, our baptismal name, in place of Abraham's name, whether we've been baptized 5 or 15, 45, 75 years ago. John or Mary, or what your name is, fear not.
Perhaps there's more behind these words. The Lord knows us through and through. He also knows the circumstances of our lives and how we experience them. And He concretely addresses this with His Word. For example, Abraham may be going through a difficult period. He was engaged in the battle of earthly powers. The Lord gave him the victory and also had him surprisingly encouraged and blessed by that wonderful king and priest Melchizedek. But afterwards, Abraham must have realized that he got through the eye of a needle. And what if the defeated kings come to take revenge? Abraham may not feel safe at all. He fears. Even a child of God sometimes fears, sometimes lacks confidence. Sometimes he says: and by my God, I can leap over a wall (Ps.18:29). The other time he sees a lot of stonewalling. We remain human. Abraham, the father of the faithful, remains so too. How shaky and scared our hearts can be. Maybe yours too at the moment. Things are not going so well at work, in your family, with your health. Well, little needs to be done or we are in shock. How wonderful it's then when the voice of the heavenly Father sounds: 'Fear not.' Don't be afraid. Keep courage and trust. Wonderful words.
'For I am your shield.' A shield protects against the enemy. It catches all dangerous projectiles for you. They bounce off that shield, and you don't get hit. The police cannot act without shields against football fans who are going crazy. And now the Lord says to Abraham and through him to us; 'I am your shield.' That's a great metaphor. No wonder it's so exuberantly sung about in the psalms. 'But you,o Lord, are a shield around me' (Ps. 3:3). We also find it in the dutch national anthem: 'You are my shield and trust, o God, my Lord.' And the Lord does not say: I have a shield for you. But: I am your shield. He is it himself. He himself stands in front of us as a protective shield against all projectiles. And He especially did it in Jesus Christ, who on the cross allows all arrows of the sins, the devil and the death to penetrate him so that they should not reach us. He allows himself to be hit by all destructive powers so that we should not be hit. The cross is God's shield that protects us. 'Fear not', the Lord said, 'I am your shield.' Are you behind that shield or not yet? If that's the case, you are in grave danger. Then you surely have to fear. Do no longer think that you can protect yourself in this life, in which so many evil forces rage. But hide behind the Lord. For He alone really puts a shield around His children, completely covering and protecting them. 'I am your shield.'
'Your reward will be very great.' Twice Abraham is harmed because he obeys God. In any case, he lets pass the chance to get rich quickly. When Abraham and Lot separate, Lot chooses the fertile plains near Sodom, leaving Abraham only the desert region to the south. And after the battle, in which Abraham delivered Lot from the enemies, the king of Sodom offers Abraham all the loot they had obtained. But he declined it. No one should be allowed to say later: I made Abraham rich. It would be a disservice to the Lord and his liberating actions. Abraham would rather be poor with God than rich without God. In this context, it becomes clearer what the Lord is saying here. 'Your reward will be great.' The Lord will ensure that Abraham does not repent of the choices he makes. They seem to be at the expense of himself, but God will give a rich blessing. All of God's treasures will be available to Abraham. And again: He doesn't say: I will reward you. But: I myself am your reward. Anyone who found Me, says the Lord, found everything. He is richer than royalty. 'We will not regret the choice of the narrow path' (Dutch hymne). It's not a disaster to say no to profitable, but suspect businesses. It's okay not to participate in everything, not to be completely absorbed in this world, but to set boundaries, even if it costs sacrifices. We don't necessarily have to take advantage of everything, at the expense of a purely Christian life. For on the way after the Lord we will lack nothing, but He will richly reward us with His blessings by grace. Your reward will be very great. How beautiful this prospect is. He who trusts in God, keeps his laws, finds great reward in it (Dutch hymne).
But how does Abraham respond to this? With exuberant praise? Thank you, Lord, for being my shield! Praise you, Lord, for your great reward! Does his heart break out in jubilation and cheers? The dikes of Abraham's heart indeed do break through, but not a tidal wave of praise and thanks flows through, but one of pent-up questions and complaints. 'Lord God, what do you want to give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus? To me you didn't give offspring. And so a slave born in my house is to be my heir. Look at me, Lord. What good is in all your beautiful words? Will you make me a great nation, and will all generations of the earth be blessed through me? You have not even met the very first condition. I don't even have one son. Soon everything will be for my caretaker, a stranger, a slave. At once all Abraham's emotions of doubt, worry, unrest, uncertainty are released. What causes that? It's the great contrast between God's promise and Abraham's reality. Yes, it sounds so beautiful: I am your shield; your reward will be very great. But reality conflicts with it. Be honest, did we never loose our temper against the Lord? Fine words, beautiful promises sound there in the church, but what's in it for me? 'Have no fear.' But if you have a heart condition, if anxiety keeps coming up, and you know you suddenly can die? 'I am your shield.' But if you get one bow after another? 'Your reward will be great.' But if you've no money to spend and see how your neighbour's wealth is growing thanks to some suspicious trade? You sometimes start to question God's beautiful promises, when you see how reality contrasts so sharply with them and you don't see how they ever can be fulfilled. It disappoints you. It makes you sceptical, cynical, rebellious. Abraham's words sound like that too. On the verge of blasphemy. Lord, what were you going to give me? I don't even have a child yet! Are you allowed to be so free with God? Yes! Why should you not pour out your heart to God with all the struggles, questions, doubts, discouragement? Job also storms heaven when he doesn't understand God's purposes in his suffering. Asaph also pounded on the heavenly door in Psalm 73, when he sees the prosperity of the godless people, while he has to suffer setback after setback. And Paul also prayed three times fervently that 'the thorn in his flesh might be taken away'(2 Cor. 12:7,8). We piously can say: You just have to resign yourself to it. They are not human beings who do it to you. But the bible saints don't have any weak resignation. They don't give up quickly. They are so intimate with the Lord that they also dare to fight with Him. Do you also know these struggles in your prayers? Are you presenting to the Lord the tension between His promises and your reality? Are you uttering your difficulty with that? That's a thousand times better than resignation or indifference.
However, we must ask ourselves: do our complaints arise from our disbelief or from the test of our belief? Are we complaining about God or to God? I once visited a woman who has cancer. Before I went to the bedroom, I sat with the family in the kitchen for a while. There was also a neighbour who came to inquire about how things were going. 'Oh, you are the pastor!' Well, I don't believe in God anymore. Let He people die like that? But the sick person herself whispered in great mental and physical distress when I sat with her: my God, my God, why do you forsake me. They were both complaints against God. But there was a big difference between them. Have we left God, or do we still say: my God? Are we in complaining about God in our disbelief or to God in the temptations of our the belief?
And another thing. Are we struggling because of the contradiction between God's promises and our situation? Or is it the contradiction between our ideals and the reality of our life? We also can expect so much from God that He did not promise. What's Abraham's concern? Only his childlessness? It's quite a lot in itself. It can be a lifelong struggle. You're married for years. You've done everything you could. You witnessed baptismal services that cut you through the soul. Yet Abraham is concerned about more. Not about a child in itself, but a child as the bearer of God's promises. For the Lord had said: I will make you a great nation, and it will be a blessing to the whole earth. How that promise ever can be fulfilled without a child? Do we have trouble with God because He doesn't fulfil our wishes or because He doesn't keep His own promises? There is not always a contradiction between them. A son was something God had promised Abraham as well as Abraham's wish. When we're converted, it's also our dearest personal wish, that God will fulfil all his promises, that His Kingdom will come with peace, justice and happiness for everyone. And we've nothing else to wish. Our personal wishes come to the second plan. But we still have to learn to distinguish between them. Not the struggle with one's own unfulfilled wishes, often full of hidden egoism, is pleasing to the Lord, but the struggle with his still unfulfilled promises. Certain promises have still not been fulfilled. It's not yet the new heaven and the new earth on which righteousness dwells. But we're in one thing more privileged than Abraham. He had that one night before him, when the Lord Jesus was born, the bearer of God's promises, who will fulfil them gloriously. And we have that night behind us. That should give us more security, peace and confidence and less doubt, complaints and scepticism than Abraham had. Do we have that?
'Lord, what will you give me, I go childless.' Yet God gave a son to Abraham and Sara. Isaac. And after that God gave his own son. Jesus Christ. From the lineage of Abraham and Isaac. In Him, God's promises are 'yes' and 'amen' (2 Cor. 1:20). In Christ, God gave us words and signs. I am sure of his voice. The night melted away for the light. The causeless fate gets meaning through Him (Dutch hymn).
But the word of the Lord came to him, 'This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.' The Lord confirms His promises to Abraham. His yes is and remains yes. We think: too late. But for the Lord, it's never too late. We think: too wonderful. But for the Lord, it's never too wonderful. We think: impossible. But for God, all things are possible.
And the Lord helps Abraham even further in his doubts and questions. He takes him by the hand, brings him out and says: Abraham, count the stars in the night, so great will be your offspring. So Abraham may not only hear the confirmation but also see a sign of it, just as we may hear God's promises over and over again in the preaching and see the signs of it in baptism and communion. The Lord strengthens our faith with great comparisons: as sure as ... As sure as you can't count the stars, your progeny will be countless. As sure as the water washes us clean, Christ cleanses us from sin. As sure as one brakes the bread and pours the wine, Christ has given us his body and blood. What a huge impression it makes when you look at the starry sky. Those unimaginably many twinkling points of light, just as many big fireballs, suns, at an unimaginable distance, billions of light-years away. You're becoming dizzy regarding your nothingness and God's greatness, for He is numbering the host of the stars, He calls them by name from afar. Yes, He created them himself. Great is the Lord, great in power; there's no limit to his thoughts. Wouldn't He then be able to keep his promises?
Abraham was convinced anyway. And he believed the Lord. From the word 'believe' in Hebrew comes our word 'Amen'. It sure is. Abraham holds on God and His Word again. He relies on it. Does this glorious faith always come to the surface again? Through the work of the Holy Spirit? Also, after our doubts and struggles, our complaining and questioning? God loves that faith, and it creates a wonderful relationship with Him. 'And Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. A heavily loaded text. In the New Testament are these words the proof of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, by grace, because of the atoning suffering and death of Jesus Christ, and not out of merit on our part. A further explanation will be too much. Ultimately, we can all sum up with the happy exclamation: Blessed who trust in the Lord! Amen.