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Lord, we have been praying and we say to you once again, and ask that You would speak, O Lord, until Your Church is built, until Your glory covers the earth as the water covers the seas. Would You give to us just what we need to hear. May we not neglect so great a salvation as You have given to us in Your Word. So help us now we pray. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
I don’t think I need to remind any of you that the last 12 to 13 months have been probably unlike any that we’ve experienced in any of our lifetimes. The year 2020 began with the Australian bush fires. Remember that, way back when? That was going to be the big story of 2020. A blaze that destroyed a record 47 million acres, displaced thousands of people. On January 8, 2020 Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced they were quitting the royal family. I didn’t even know you could do that. On January 26, Kobe Bryant and his daughter were killed in a helicopter crash. By the end of January, Donald Trump became just the third president to be impeached. He would be acquitted by the Senate on February 5. And I think it was this weekend a year ago that we had the tornado come through Matthews, doing damage to our church, and we had the service in Carmel’s auditorium.
Earlier in January of 2020 the World Health Organization announced a dangerous new coronavirus detected in Wuhan, China. Probably not gonna be a big deal.
On March 9, the stock market suffered its worst single point drop ever as the pandemic triggered a global recession and then just a week later everything shut down. And less than a year later 30 million people in the United States have tested positive for COVID-19, over 400,000 COVID-related deaths, over 2.3 million around the globe.
And if that weren’t enough, over the spring and the summer you remember protests, sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent, erupting around the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, also the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor.
On August 4 a massive explosion rocked Beirut, Lebanon, killing at least 190 people. By late summer wildfires spreading out of control in California, up the coast to Washington State.
On September 18, on a Friday, we all saw the headline come across the TV or our phones, Ruth Bader Ginsburg died, setting in motion a process that would result in May Coney Barrett being confirmed as the newest Supreme Court justice.
Then on October 2 President Trump announced that he had COVID-19 and he would spend three days in the hospital at Walter Reed. Of course, a month later national elections. Republicans gained some in the House, Democrats gained the White House, and the Senate is so close it comes down to a runoff election in Georgia.
In January there’s a riot at the Capitol. There’s another impeachment. Joe Biden takes the oath of office as President, Kamala Harris as vice president. COVID numbers reach an all-time high. Vaccines are slowly being distributed.
And earlier this week Punxsutawney Phil saw his own shadow. Meaning we have six more weeks of winter.
By any measure, 2020, and now the first month of 2021, has been perhaps the most consequential in recent memory.
Now we often talk about oh, we’re living in such amazing times, and most important this and that, and usually it’s an exaggeration. But with the last year, it’s not. There will be articles and movies and books and books and books produced about these things, you will tell your kids and grandkids about the experience. Those yet unborn will read in their textbooks about the things that we have lived through in the last year. They have been truly historic.
And yet… All of these events, even taken together and added up in their significance, do not begin to approach, let alone equal or surpass, the world-altering, future-determining, cosmic-shaping significance, of God some 4000 years ago calling one man and his family to move to a new land, sight unseen. It is no exaggeration at all to say that what we read in the first verses of Genesis chapter 12 make everything else we have experienced in the last year utterly pale in significance.
Of course, we should not be unconcerned about the world. We don’t want to be completely ignorant about the events of our day. But one of my responsibilities as your pastor is to remind you, as I remind myself, that the most important things in life are found in this book. They are not found on the scrawl across your cable news channel or on the scrawl on your phone.
Four thousand years ago God called a man and his family to leave their home. In the course of this call, God made promises. And there is nothing that has happened in the last year, or the last decade, or even in the last 2000 years, more cosmically-significant than these promises. And save for the Lord’ return, and the unfolding of these promises in our day, you will not have anything more important in this year.
Do not be an expert in the news at the expense of being an expert in the Good News. Being an expert in the promises of God.
We come to Genesis chapter 12, returning to this first book of the Bible, for our studies which we began many months ago and now to one of these great climatic moments in redemptive history. Follow along as I read the first nine verses.
“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb.”
The very first thing we notice in this remarkable passage is the principle of election at work. Why Abram? We can come to no reason other than God. God decided that He would pluck Abram and his family out of the Ur of the Chaldees and make promises and send them to Canaan.
Joshua 24 tells us that they were on the other side of the river, worshiping pagan gods. It’s not that there was some great latent possibility in Abram or he alone of all the great men of the East was spiritually fervent. Some scholars speculate that at the same time that Abram was alive, Melchizedek, now we know that he was alive, we’ll meet him in a few chapters, he’s this great, mysterious king of Salem, why not choose someone like Melchizedek to receive the promises of God?
Or Job is one of the earliest books in the Bible. Job may have been alive at the same time. Why not go for Job? He’s a righteous man.
But God chooses Abram, when he had done nothing to deserve it. Simply God’s sovereign pleasure and purpose.
As we come to chapter 12, we see that the action in Genesis is focusing in and slowing down. For 11 chapters we’ve been ranging across the globe and we have creation and fall and we have Cain and Abel and we have a global flood, and then we have tower of Babel, nations spreading out across the earth, we are spanning the globe and we have centuries, if not millennia, and now we focus for the remaining 4/5 of the book on four generations of one family: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s offspring.
When God first speaks to Abram, He gives him, in verse 1, a command: Go. It’s the first word He speaks to Abram: I want you to leave, leave your country, you kindred, and your father’s house.
You see that, verse 1? These are concentric circles moving into the most intimate connection: I want you to leave your homeland, your country; and then your relatives, your kindred, like as you know it; and then even leave your own father’s household.
Now he will bring many with him, but he is leaving his immediate family behind. And to think that Abram did not even get to see where he was going. God simply said, “Go to a land and I will show you.”
If ever we could have used Zillow: “God, can I at least look at some pictures before I go?”
Okay, it’s one thing to zoom in and buy a house that way, without visiting, but I don’t even know where I’m going, I don’t know what it looks like. God says nothing about a land flowing with milk and honey. Don’t know where he’s going, doesn’t have pictures, doesn’t know the tax base, doesn’t know what the neighbors are like, just says, “I want you to go. I’ll show you later.” No detailed description, just pointed in the right direction.
I love this line from Calvin: “For it is better with closed eyes to follow God as our guide than by relying on our own providence to wander through those circuitous paths which it devises for us.”
In other words, better to go with your eyes closed, holding the Lord’s hand, than to go with your eyes open in your own strength.
So go, and he does.
As impressive as Abram’s faith is, and we will have occasion over the weeks ahead to focus in on what it means that Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness, what we want to see here is that the main emphasis is not at this point on Abram’s faith, it’s not on Abraham’s faithfulness, but upon God’s promises.
Notice verses 2 and 3. God makes how many promises? Seven promises, which encompass three expanding circles of blessing. Remember we saw that he had to leave these shrinking concentric circles, nation, kindred, household; now expanding circles of blessing, you, your family, to the ends of the earth.
Look at the seven promises He makes.
Verse 2: “I will make of you a great nation.” Not just will you be plentiful, but an actual nation from you. A political unit with common land, language, some rudimentary government. Not just that you’re going to have a big family reunion one day, but you will be a nation. A great nation.
Second promise: “I will bless you.” Blessing envisions both spiritual and physical enrichment. Now this is not an exact blessing, promise to every individual, whoever follows God, that you can expect all of these things, but it was the promise made to Abram.
Blessing in the Old Testament sense meant three things: Prosperity, fertility, victory. That’s what God unilaterally promised to Abram.
Now we can see that among their people it isn’t that every single one of them had all of these things, but for Abram, as the recipient of this great promise, he will have prosperity, physical abundance; he will have fertility, many progeny; and he will have victory.
And then the third promise: “I will make your name great.” So you will be great in numbers, you will be great in significance.
Fourth promise, end of verse 2: “So that,” it’s a purpose clause there, it is in part an exhortation but it’s also a promise, “you will be a blessing.” Abram’s name would become synonymous with blessing.
We get an idea of that this meant at the end of the Old Testament, Zechariah 8:13 as there’s echoes of this original promise. Zechariah says, “And as you have been a byword of cursing among the nations, O House of Judah and House of Israel, so will I save you, the Lord says, and you shall be a blessing,” harkening back to this promise, “You will be a blessing.”
When people think Abraham, they think, “Ah, by that name, associated with that name, there is blessing.”
He continues with the fifth promise: “I will bless those who bless you.” So how people treat you is how I will treat them.
A sixth promise: “Him who dishonors you I will curse.” So that’s the flip side. Those who treat you poorly, they will be subject to curse.
Remember in Genesis we have seen since chapter 3 the outworking of the blessing and the curse. And now this line of blessing is hunkering down here on Abram, but it’s not only on him and his family in this chosen line, but everyone who comes in contact with him. That’s what we’ll see throughout the rest of Genesis. When you do right by Abraham, even if you’re some foreign king, you get blessed. When you do bad by Abraham, even if unawares, then the Lord shuts up the wombs in your household and you are cursed.
A final promise, the seventh: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So there is a progression of blessing. First that Abram would be blessed, then that his name would be used as a blessing, then that those who bless him will be blessed, and finally, most expansively, all the families of the earth shall be blessed in him.
I mean, this is just a snowball that is picking up more and more. It’s just getting bigger and bigger.
Are we going to see a snowball at some point in the next week? I have my doubts.
We were downstairs in the CLC on Tuesday, having a pastors’ lunch. Had my back to the window and I was talking and all of a sudden I was interrupted, “There’s a snowflake! It’s amazing.” Got our sleds and our shovels and bundled up and that was about it.
Or, if I can use another analogy of ever expansive blessing, wonderment, I’m sure you’ve watched some of the home repair shows on TV. There’s like 20 versions of the same thing: You want to buy that house? Okay. You want to fix up that house? Okay. We’ll fix it up. And I’m sure when they decide who gets to be on the show that they have to have some emotional bandwidth because you can’t have the person go on when they reveal it say, “Oh, cool. That was good.” You have to be explosive in your joy.
And so first they see the remodeled front door: “Amazing!” And they open, “I can’t believe what you did to the staircase!” The kitchen, “The kitchen is stupendous!” And then they always, “We have one last surprise for you, we redid the bathroom!” Wow, there’s a bear claw but that looks cool; you’ll never use it but there it is. It’s so awesome. And everything is just better than the next room and the next room.
That’s like this sevenfold blessing. God coming and saying, “I have promises for you. You are not going to believe it.”
Well, actually Abraham does, amazingly enough.
But think about it. We’re so familiar with this story. You put yourself… God says to you, says to me, “Kevin, follow me. Your family is going to have one day a seat at the UN Security Council. You’ll be a great nation and I will give you material, wealth, military, success. Your name will be known throughout the whole earth and this good news is not just for you. You will be an instrument of good times for others. I’ll give prosperity and favor to whoever does right by you. I will punish whoever treats you poorly. And in the end, Kevin, people across this whole planet will rejoice because of you.”
Wow. Really? Really God is opening the next room and the next door, more blessing, more promises.
Abraham’s response is to go. So, verse 4, Abram went as the Lord had told him. Of course, he doesn’t know where he’s going, but he knows that the Lord promises to bless him.
It’s a little difficult to know precisely the order of events here because you look up at chapter 11, look at verse 31: “Terah gook Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there.”
So there we have Terah leading his family out of Ur and they settle in Haran. And then in verses 1 through 3, we have the Lord appearing, and then verse 4, Abram, 75 years old, he departs Haran. So clearly there’s a departure in two stages. You go from Ur and then by a very strange route, you go five or six hundred miles to the northwest on the border of what today would be Iraq and Turkey, and you go up to Haran before you come back down south through the northern part of the Promised Land.
So did he come from Ur or did he come from Haran?
Elsewhere in Scripture we see often that it’s a reference that he comes from Ur of the Chaldeans. Look over at chapter 15, verse 7: “He said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.'”
We see the same thing in Nehemiah 9, verse 7. Or you may recall in Stephen’s sermon in Acts chapter 7, he says “The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia before he lived in Haran and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you,’ then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran and after his father died, God removed him there into this land in which you are now living.”
So there’s a two-stage departure, and it’s a little unclear where the message of verses 1 through 3 came in. Some scholars say, well, maybe Abram received the calling twice. Maybe settling in Haran was a sign of some disobedience: “Hey, you didn’t make it all the way to the Promised Land and you need to be dislodged from there again.”
Or maybe it’s called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldeans because there was some message there and then later there was a subsequent message we’re not told of that removed him from Haran.
So it may be that chapter 11, Terah taking the family and going to Haran, is the human, earthly perspective, what it looked like to those around them, “Hey, they just decided to move,” where chapter 12 verses 1 through 3 is the heavenly perspective, this is what was really happening, God had called Abram, and then verse 4 picks up with them leaving not Ur but the second stage of leaving Haran.
Notice that Abram his not actually given a promise of the land until he gets there. Initially he was just told “go, and I will show you the land.” Then in verse 7 the Lord appears to him and now he receives the promise, “To your offspring I will give this land.”
We don’t know what the appearing of the Lord was like. Was it an angelic messenger? Was it by a human messenger? Was it an audible voice? Was it some theophany? Was it in a dream? We don’t know what it was like when Abraham got the message in chapter 12.
We know that Hebrews tells us in these last days God has spoken to us by His Son and the way in which He speaks to us by His Son is in the fullness of the Son’s revelation, which we find in Scripture. So these are not the divine messages that we are expecting from the Lord.
Lest it happen to you I heard in another church I was in that a child was getting this story in his Sunday School class and was sort of terrified that he was going to get a message at night that God would tell him to go leave his family.
So this is a special moment in redemptive history, we don’t expect that God speaks to us in this way. He speaks to us now through His Word.
But when he comes to the land, then God promises, “I will give it to you.” There is surely a recapitulation of God’s work in Noah now working in Abram. Remember Noah was a second kind of Adam. Well, now we see that Abraham is a second kind of Noah. They’re running on parallel tracks. God spoke to Noah in the ark, chapter 8:15. He tells him come out of the ark, Noah obeys and leaves the ark. Then once out of the ark he builds an altar. Then God blesses Noah, then He tells him to be fruitful and multiply and then He establishes a covenant with Noah and his offspring. You have those same seven steps with Noah.
Think about Abram. God spoke to Abram, He said come out of there, your country, he obeyed and he came out, he later builds an altar. Meanwhile God blessed Abram, He told him he would increase and become a great nation, and He promised the land to Abram and to his offspring with a covenant to follow.
The land will be significant throughout the rest of Genesis and throughout the Pentateuch. Always in the background, often in the foreground: When will we get the land?
You can mark out the end of each book in the Pentateuch by its geography. Very intentionally, each book ends with some geographical marker about where they are or where they’re going, because they’re focused on the land.
So Genesis ends, remember in chapter 50, with Joseph promising to his brothers, “When I die in Egypt, someday later, take my bones and bring them to Canaan.”
Exodus 40 ends with the glory cloud filling the tabernacle, ready to lead the people on their journey, out of the wilderness, to Canaan.
The last verse in Leviticus says, “These are the commandments given to Moses for Israel on Mount Sinai,” that’s where they are.
The last verse in Numbers, “These are the commandments the Lord gave to Moses for Israel on the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.” They’re close. They’re almost there.
Deuteronomy 34 ends with Moses going up on the planes of Moab to Mount Nebo to the top of Pisgah, he looks at the Promised Land, which he will not see, and it will be left to Joshua to lead them in.
Each of these five books end with some geographical marker. Here we are, here we’re going, we are going to inherit the land God promised.
Now you notice, as great as these promises are, immediately there are two massive obstacles. You see in verse 6, “at that time the Canaanites were in the land.” Okay, God, you promised us this land to me and my family, but it’s not there for the taking. There are Canaanites here, so that’s one obstacle.
The other obstacle was given in chapter 11, verse 30: “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.”
Okay, God, is this really a good idea? You’re making these amazing promises, which have to do mainly with land and children, and both of these things seem to be in a very precarious predicament. There’s people in the land, and there’s no people in Sarai.
The Lord chose to work through a couple who had no earthly potential to accomplish the very thing He most wanted to accomplish. Think about that: “A central thing I’m going to do for you is you’ll have children, and I order to accomplish that end, I will pick this couple in their older years who have not been able to have children.”
That’s the way God likes to do things.
What follows from verse 9 is the interplay between the God of promise and Abram the man of faith. Over and over we encounter this question: Can God be trusted? Will Abram trust Him? Will Abram’s descendants really inherit the land? Will there really be any descendants? Will God’s promises be rendered null and void?
What we’ll see in chapters 12, 13, and 14 are three scenes in which the promise of the land seems threatened. The promise will be threatened by famine, the promise will be threatened by the conflict with Lot, and then the promise will be threatened by the rise of the Eastern warring kings.
And after those three threats, we’re brought to the culmination in chapter 15, where the Lord cuts the covenant with Abram.
In the midst of these obstacles, what can Abram do? Not much. Except he can trust and obey. He can believe. Hebrews 11: “By faith Abram obeyed when he was called to out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. and he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.”
How do you end a sermon on Genesis 12? Many of you have heard sermons, done studies, on Genesis 12. You can end the message by talking about faith: We must believe like Abraham. You can end the message by talking about our responsibility: You’re blessed to be a blessing to others. You can end the message by talking about obedience: We must follow God wherever He leads, even when we don’t know where He’s bringing us.
And all of that would be true, all of that would be appropriate.
But as I was studying the passage this week, I noticed a different emphasis. Yes, you certainly see Abram respond in faith and obedience. But this passage emphasizes something else in his response, and it is where our response must begin. Did you notice? He worships. Twice he builds an altar in response to God’s promises to him. That’s what you’re going to see.
When you build an altar, it’s an occasion to stop and to offer thanks and to worship God for His goodness to you.
Maybe the first thing we ought to go when God makes such stunning promises is to fall on our faces and say, “Thank you.”
Before we get to appropriately messages about faith and believing and obedience and going out and blessing others, before any of that, and in fact none of that will really have the proper fuel unless we stop to worship. To say, “That’s amazing. What good news.”
Galatians 3, “The Scriptures preached the Gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”
What good news we have here in chapter 12. It’s a message of salvation in a world of judgment, a world facing the judgment after the tower of Babel, the world that had been wiped away in the flood. Here comes a great call of deliverance. The climatic blessing of which is for all peoples. In the Old Testament, God showed a particular electing love for Israel, but He never took His eyes off the nations. From the beginning, His plan was for all peoples on earth to be blessed through Abram.
Matthew makes this abundantly clear. You know how Matthew’s gospel ends. You probably remember that, the Great Commission. Do you remember how Matthew’s gospel begins? “Biblos geneseos,” a book of the genealogy. A book of the genesis of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Here’s another bit of the story, of the good news, of the genesis of Jesus Christ, who is that seed, that offspring we have been looking for, from Abraham.
And so it’s no coincidence that Matthew ends his gospel with that word “Go,” go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them everything I command, baptizing them in the name of the Father and Son and the Holy Spirit, because this blessing is for all who will receive the promised child of Abraham, which isn’t ultimately Isaac, but Christ, and receive Him in faith. And when you do so, you show yourself to be a child of Abraham and to receive the blessings and the promises of Abraham.
Think about that. Some of you are at home, I know, and you can look around your home or wherever you are, here in the sanctuary, look around, and there’s several hundred of us here, not as many as we would like, but enough. Do you see what an amazing thing it is? If you belong to Christ, here in this room, you are a fulfillment of this promise, this 4000-year-old promise. This, this line that was a circuitous path, almost stamped out time and time again, that you, through no goodness of your own, through nothing in you that God should have chosen you or me, gave you the gift of faith. He put you in the hearing of the Gospel. He put you in a family or a city or a country where the Gospel was proclaimed. Or He gave you a Bible you could read and understand. Or He gave you a Christian book or He gave you a pastor or a parent or someone who told you about this message and so here you are, a child of Abraham, in fulfillment of this promise.
Yes, what God promised to Abram 4000 years ago is of much greater earthly significance than anything that happened in 2020. Don’t be deceived. Don’t be deceived into thinking that the real important things are the headlines that are the paper or on your cable news or that scream out on your phone, that those are the really important things.
And don’t be afraid, in the midst of so much that can seem dark and dreary. This is good news. That thousands of years later has not been overturned but is only growing and growing and growing ever more blessing for all those who will call upon the name of Christ.
And so our response is not to be afraid, but to give thanks, and to worship.
Let’s pray. Our gracious heavenly Father, we thank You we are here because of Your faithfulness to this promise. And so we receive this good news once again and trust that You would give us hearts to receive it with gratitude. And we ask, just as You have nourished us in the Word spoken so now You would nourish us with the Word seen. We have heard it in our ears, and now these same Gospel promises, now in much clearer form, help us to hold, to taste, to see, to touch, to swallow, and bless us once again, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.