|DANCES WITH GOATS
Series: Abraham - Part Four
Pastor Stephen Muncherian
February 26, 2017
In the Gospel of Mark - the ninth chapter (Mark 9:14-29) - Mark records an argument that was going on between Jesus’ disciples and some of the scribes educated in Judaism. Scribes who’s role it was to determine what was the right way to live according to God’s law.
The argument focuses on a father and his son. The son has been possessed from childhood by this demon that does all kinds of horrible things to the child - trying to kill this boy.
Apparently the father had originally come with the son hoping to have Jesus cast out the demon. But Jesus wasn’t there. So the disciples take it upon themselves to step in as Jesus’ disciples and cast out the demon. But, the disciples - trying with everything they got - they can’t cast out this demon.
So there’s this intense argument going on as to why the disciples can’t cast out the demon.
It’s not hard to imagine - based on what comes later in the account - it’s not hard to imagine that the disciples - embarrassed by their failure - shamed - were focused on defending themselves against the scribes as having every right to do what they were doing.
While the disciples and scribes are arguing and defending their egos the father and son are no longer the focus. At some point they end up on the fringe of the crowd. So, when Jesus and John, Peter, and James arrive on the scene as the crowd turns to meet Jesus this father and son are apparently between Jesus and the crowd.
Jesus asks, “What are you arguing about?”
The father explains, “I brought my son to you. He’s possessed with a demon that makes him mute - slams him to the ground - he foams at the mouth - grinds his teeth - goes stiff - the demon throws him into fire - throws him into water. Your disciples couldn’t cast it out.”
Then Jesus gives this stinging rebuke to the disciples, the scribes, and the crowd - even this father - about their lack of faith. “You faithless people! How long must I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”
When they bring the boy the demon throws the boy into a fit of convulsions - foaming at the mouth - rolling on the ground.
The father cries out, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”
Jesus says, “If You can?” What do you mean “if”? “Dude where’s you faith in God? All things are possible to one who believes.”
Immediately the father cries out, “I believe. Help my unbelief.”
That plea by the father resonates. Doesn’t it?
Or here? Believing but struggling to hang on. Being pulled apart - praying - wondering why doesn’t God do something.
The disciples believed. The scribes believed. The crowd believed. The father believed. We believe. But our faith gets distracted by our pride - by our understanding - by our circumstances - by our expectations of God. We believe. How many times - in the real time drama of life - how many times have we struggled with trusting God?
The plea of the father resonates. I believe. But I’m struggling. Help my unbelief to become belief.
Over the past few Sunday’s we’ve been looking at... Abraham. Seeing that Abraham struggled with faith just like we struggle in our faith. In seeking to follow after God his faith wavered. He messed up. He had lessons to learn. But, with whatever Abraham went through - every time he turned to God - God was there - ready to take him to next level - in his faith - in their relationship. Through all those struggles Abraham grew in his relationship - his faith in God.
God holds Abraham up as an example to us. This is what it looks like to live life trusting in God.
Last Sunday when we looked at Genesis 14 we saw Abram charging up north towards Damascus to defeat four powerful kings and to rescue his nephew Lot. A huge victory with lots of people - great recognition - fanfare - ticker tape parades - banquets - speeches. Very dramatic. Very public.
This morning we’re coming to chapter 15 and what is a whole lot different than all that drama we’ve been seeing. What’s here in chapter 15 is a very personal - one-on-one conversation - between God and Abram that takes place over two days. A conversation that God purposefully uses to help strengthen Abram’s faith in God. We’re going to see things in this conversation that can be helpful for us as well - for those times when we need our faith strengthened.
Day one - God Speaks. Let’s read verse 1: After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
“After these things” is after what things? In general everything we’ve been seeing over the last few Sundays about God making promises to Abram - the debacle in Egypt - the whole rescuing Lot thing - Abram taking out the 4 kings.
Specifically “these things” is how chapter 14 ends up. Meaning Abram giving God all the glory for the victory over the 4 kings and Abram trusting God alone to provide for his needs. A huge act of faith in God.
Notice “after these things” - Who initiates this conversation? The Lord.
God comes to Abram and makes this statement. “Abram, don’t be afraid of what’s coming. I’ll be your shield. I’ll protect you. I’ve got your back. Your reward is going to be great.”
Who said anything about Abram being afraid? He just took out 4 very powerful kings. Abram believes. He just came through time a huge time of trusting God.
But God knows Abram’s heart. There are things Abram is wondering about - even fearful about. Looking forward there are questions that Abram is wrestling with. Sometimes what we wrestle with is deep and unspoken.
God lovingly initiates this conversation - promising not only to protect Abram but to reward him.
The word in Hebrew for “reward” is “sakar” which has the idea of compensation - wages paid for work done. But the wording in Hebrew has the idea that what God is going to give Abram - bless him with - is so outrageously beyond anything that Abram could possibly expect from God. The reward isn’t based on Abram’s ability to earn it but on God’s extravagance in the way He chooses to bless His people.
Imagine if - the next time you’re pondering what come’s next - imagine God showing up and saying I’ve got your back and I’m going to bless your socks off. Huge. Yes?
Verses 2 and 3 - Abram Questions: 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, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”
Back in chapter 12 we looked at the Abrahamic Covenant. Remember this? God appears to Abram - way back up north in Haran - God comes to Abram and offers Abram to give him and his descendants a land - a place to dwell with God in security. God offers to make Abram into a great nation of great influence - to bless Abram - to satisfy the deepest longings of Abram’s heart - and through Abram and his descendants to bless all the nations of the world - the greatest blessing being Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord.
The key that opens the door to all those descendants and blessings is what? Children. Or at least a child.
In Romans - when Paul writes about this conversation - Paul writes that Abram “...did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” (Romans 4:19)
Strange things happen to our bodies as we get older. If you haven’t noticed that… wait. Gravity is cruel. Things that used to work… don’t.
The Greek here literally says that Abram considered the dying of his own body and the death of Sarah’s womb. Her days of bearing children are long over with.
Abram is taking all that it in. About 25 years have gone by since God first made His offer to Abram. Back in Haran. Now Abram is pushing 100. Abram is contemplated his body. Abram is thinking about Sarah - his wife - she’s pushing 90. Abram’s thinking about God’s promise of descendants and blessing. God talking about blessing brings all that up for discussion.
Abram asks, “How? How will this happen?”
Notice that Abram never doubts that God will make it happen. That God will fulfill His promise. He believes. Abram’s question is “How will it happen?” He’s struggling with his faith not because he is without faith.
Same question Mary asks the angel. Gabriel tells Mary, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a Son, and you shall name Him Jesus...” Mary asks, “How can this be, since I’m a virgin?” (Luke 1:30-34)
It’s not a question of doubting - but of process. How will God personally work all this out in my life? I’m not seeing it.
“I believe. I’ve brought my son to you. But help my unbelief. Help me with the part of this I’m struggling with.”
As Abram struggles he comes up with an option. Eliezer.
The custom of the day said that a man could adopt one of his male servants to be his heir. Abram and Sarai are biologically childless. So Abram’s proposal - his answer to the “How will this happen?” question - is to propose Eliezer. Maybe that’s how God will make this happen.
Which we do. We know God is there… but we’re thinking: God, I know that I’m suppose to trust you with what’s going on a work - or what’s going on with my parents - or my wife or husband or kids - or whatever. But, I’m not seeing how there can be any solution to any of this.
When we struggle with God’s ways and timing of doing things. We start ruminating on solutions and ideas about how God can work in our lives. Like God is clueless and waiting for us to help Him out.
Going on in the conversation. God Answers.
Verse 4: And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then He said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.
This is comforting. Isn’t it?
God doesn’t blow Abram away. “How dare you question me!” POOF - no more Abram.
It’s comforting to know that it’s okay to ask questions. To admit - even to God who already knows that we struggle - who initiates this conversation with Abram - it’s okay to admit that we struggle with how God does things.
Jacob wrestled with God - all night long - struggled with God. Who would control the destiny of his life? God or Jacob? For a very self-reliant man - who believed in God - that was still a huge question of faith. What will it mean to trust God for what God will choose to lead me into.
In the end God blessed Jacob. Instead of blowing him away - God gave him a new name: Israel - meaning “he struggles with God.” (Genesis 32:24-32)
To live life with the living God - to live trusting God who’s ways are unfathomable to us - that’s not easy. We struggle to live by faith. And that’s okay. God gets it. God is gracious - merciful - loving. Invites us to speak with Him. To share our hearts with Him.
God lovingly gives Abram the answer: “Your heir is going to be your very own son. He’s going to come from your own body.”
In verse 5 God takes Abram outside. God tells Abram, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.”
Which of course you can’t. Which is the point.
Last week NASA announced they’d found 7 new exoplanets - about the size of the earth - planets orbiting a star about 40 lights years away. Since 1995, when they discovered the first exoplanet - they’ve found about 3,500 of them. We’re finding all kinds of things out there. Counting stars and galaxies. Peering farther out with increasing detail.
But with all our technology we still can’t accurately count the stars. But of course God can. Since God made them. God knows each one of them by name.
Then God said to Abram: “So shall your offspring be.” Meaning for you they’re too many to count. But God knows how many - even counting those yet to be born. He knows each one of us by name.
Which is what’s behind our theme graphic for this series. Abram pondering the stars. Abram pondering God and Abram’s place before God in God’s creation.
David writes in Psalm 8: “When I consider Your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained; what is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him?” (Psalm 8:3,4 NASB)
We see this little tiny bit of what God has created and somehow we think that God only sees this His creation from our little perspective. But God sees all of His creation - not just the physical - but all of it - seen and unseeable. He sees the scope of its history and His purposes in it. Every detail and how it all fits together. Even how we fit into all that.
How is God going to enable the body of a man pushing 100 and a women pushing 90 to produce a child? Who knows? Physically - from a human perspective - it’s impossible.
But Abram look up and grab some perspective here. The God who created the universe - who created us - even with the ability to reproduce - God Most High - possessor of heaven and earth - God can. And He will, according to His purposes and in His time. That’s all the connection between the dots that you need.
Verse 6 tells us that Abram - believed the Lord, and He [God] counted it to him [Abram] as righteousness.
Let’s be clear: To be righteous means being right in our relationship with God. Meaning we need to be holy - morally pure - without sin as God is holy. Point being: The only One who can count us - make us to be righteous - is God.
As a nation - we’ve moved from constitutional law to common law. Meaning the basis of law today rather than being based on what our constitution is based on - a time honored - God honoring - moral standard or what’s right and wrong - today that standard of law is by common popular consensus of what’s currently right or not.
Even as Christians - many things that were intolerable - clearly seen as contrary to how Scripture instructs us to live - what was intolerable a few years back are now acceptable Christian behavior. Our morals have slid. So self-deluding is our sin that we’ve come to accept it - or only express some token objection.
In Romans chapter 7 - Paul - writing about his own struggles with living rightly before God - Paul confessing his own failure and inadequacy - Paul writes, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)
Being made right before God must come as a gift of God’s grace. We can’t earn it. We can’t achieve it. We don’t even understand it. God gives it. We must receive it by faith. Meaning we simply have to take God at His word and welcome what God has done for us.
What Abram understood - looking at all those uncountable stars - is that God is the only answer to our inadequacy. Abram believes that God Most High will fulfill His promise - biologically - even through the inadequate body of a 99 year old man and a 89 year old woman. Even if Abram doesn’t see how all the dots are connected he chooses to trust God for all that God promises him.
That is Abram placing his life - all that he is and all that he will be - in God’s hands alone. It’s all God’s to do with whatever God has chosen to do with it.
Let’s be careful. Abram is not righteous because of His faith. Abram is made to be righteous by God - because he has faith in God - trusting God to do what God said God will do. God looks at the heart of Abram - his faith - and God declares Abram to be right with him.
Grabbing some perspective of our own. Contemplating the universe we live in - Who God is and who we are. Each of us is a collection of atoms that God created out of nothing and are held together by God. We’re given life and breath and a will and emotions by God. This time and place for us to exist - exists only by an act of God’s willing it all to exist and to keep on existing. Whatever we possess only exists because God wills it to exist.
Being loved by God is His choice. That we know God and have a relationship with Him is an act of God’s choice. Forgiveness and salvation and eternity with God is an act of God’s grace for His purposes alone. We exist solely for the glory of God. Period. Life is about… God. Not us.
Hopefully that’s beginning to sound repetitious. That’s been said before.
Repetition being the key to… learning. We need to continually marinate in that reality. Humbling as it should be. Faith is because of God’s grace not the depth of our spiritual insight or righteous worthiness.
Righteousness - a justified - right relationship with God - can only be a product of God’s grace - not something that we are adequate to achieve by our own ability. Even physically - to live life with the indwelling God - to live as He’s created us to live - by faith in Him - can only come by His indwelling power at work within us.
Which should be greatly reassuring to each one of us - especially when we struggle with the weakness of our faith. When we struggle with our inadequacy at overcoming our sin. When we struggle with our failure.
God is not put off by our inadequacies - spiritually - physically - mentally - emotionally. God can make something great out of people like us. The same majestic sovereign powerful God who created the heavens - who spoke to Abram on that night - that same God has the ability to work within us and through us - even in the circumstances of our lives.
Whether we understand how - is not the issue. The bottom line of faith is whether we will trust that God can. Who can? God can. Will we trust God with all that we are and all that we may yet be?
Going on in the conversation. Verse 7 brings us to Day Two - and God Speaks.
Verse 7: And He said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.”
Just like on Day One - God initiates. Again, God speaks to Abram’s heart.
God reminds Abram that it was God who called Abram to leave Ur and go to Canaan. A reminder of God’s sovereignty over the events of Abram’s life. A reminder that where they’re standing is the land that God has promised to Abram and his descendants. The place where God will dwell with His people. God’s sovereignty over future events.
God touching on questions in Abram’s mind even before Abram asks.
Verse 8 - just as he does on day one - Abram comes back with a question: But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
Great question. That part of the world had armies passing through all the time. Last Sunday we saw four kings come out of east and north and take out five kings plus in the south. That land is filled with nomads and different people groups - always in conflict. Constantly there were wars and upheavals.
4,000 years later and people are still fighting over the same small seemingly insignificant strip of rocky land. How is one family going to hold onto all of that?
Abram asks: “Since You mention it, in the midst of all the turmoil - the upheaval - the uncertainty I see around me - how? How can I know that it’s possible?”
I’m trusting you with my life. We got that squared away yesterday. But, looking at what’s happening in real time I’m struggling. I need some reassurance here that you really can control history and how future history unfolds.
God Speaks. Abram Questions. God Answers.
Verse 9: He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
God’s answer begins with a craft project. Bring me a three year old heifer, goat, and a ram - a turtledove and pigeon.
Which Abram does. Spends the day gathering animals and birds.
Then Abram cuts each animal in half - except for the birds. And then he makes a kind of pathway by placing one half of each animal on one side of the path and the other half of the animal on the opposite side of the path.
The whole time he’s doing this Abram is fending off vultures trying to get at the meat.
Let’s go on - verse 12: As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
By evening Abram - who’s pushing 100 - Abram is exhausted. He’s spent his whole day gathering and cutting and shooing. At sunset he falls into a deep sleep. That sleep comes with dread and great darkness.
The word “dread” in Hebrew - “ayom” has the idea of the kind of a awe inspiring fear like someone has before one’s god.
“Darkness” - in Hebrew - “chashak” has the idea of overwhelming dense darkness. Not just dark. But great darkness.
Meaning - while he’s sleeping - Abram is tossing and turning over the awesomeness of the sovereign of God and the unknowns of future history.
In the midst of this darkness - God reveals to Abram the future history of his descendants.
Looking back on history we know the fulfillment of all this - down to the fine detail. 400 years of slavery in Egypt. God raising up Moses to lead them out. The parting gifts from the Egyptians - the wealth of Egypt that God’s people left Egypt with. Israel entering the promised land - Canaan - under the leadership of Joshua. The Amorites getting wiped out because they’d rejected God’s warnings. They’d gone on living and growing in sin - iniquity.
God’s doing exactly what God reveals to Abram that He - God - will do in the life of Abram’s descendants.
What is easy for us to believe in because we know all that as facts of history. Abram didn’t know that. So he’s struggling even though he believes God.
Faith is easy looking backwards seeing how God did what God said He would do. Where we struggle - where Abram struggled - was looking forward at the promises of God and having the same confidence in God looking forward as we do looking back.
What God is trying to help Abram with is to understand that what God says God will do is an unalterably ordained fact of future history. That we can have the same confidence looking forward as if we’re looking backwards on what God has already accomplished.
Which is what the craft project is all about. Visual aids that help us to understand the lesson that’s being taught.
Verse 17 - let me read and mispronounce the names for us: When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”
Looking at the map - everything God said He would do, He did. Israel taking over the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, and Samsonites. God even to extending the borders of Israel - under the rule of Solomon - all the way to the Euphrates River. What we know today as facts of history.
What’s being described for us with the craft project and the smoking fire pot and flaming torch - what is kind of bloody mess and really a strange vision. All that dividing of animals and walking between the halves was probably some form of ancient contractual ritual - a way people sealed their agreements.
The bottom line is in verse 18: On that day the Lord made a covenant - a contractual agreement - with Abram.
The smoking fire pot and flaming torch are symbolic of God’s presence. Symbolic of God who passing between the halves of the animals. God is the one who makes this agreement with Abram - promising its fulfillment.
Abram’s question was what? “How? How can I know that it’s possible?” Can God can control how future events will unfold? Or, we might ask, “Can I trust that God will take care of me? That God will work out the issues of my life? How in control of things is God anyway?”
The answers to the questions - Day One and Day Two are the same. Yes?
The answer for Abram lies in learning of the greatness of God. Perspective. Who God is. Who we are.
In the midst of the turmoil and uncertainty of where Abram was living - in the midst of the darkness - Abram witnesses the smoke and fire of His God. God establishing His covenant using a means that Abram would have understood - leaving no uncertainty in Abram’s mind. God explaining how He - the sovereign God - will work out - has already worked out and ordained the details of future history - for Abram’s descendants and the nations around them.
Processing that for ourselves…
It has been pointed out that each of the animals were three years old - perhaps symbolic of the public ministry of Jesus. The different types of animals and the birds have symbolism. The heifer or ox - God’s patience. The female goat - God’s nourishment and refreshment of our souls. The ram - God’s power. The birds picture God’s gentleness and grace - God’s Spirit at work. The sacrifice of the animals points to the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf. The birds of prey may be symbolic of Satan’s forces that seek to destroy God’s people.
All of which may be God’s intent. We don’t know for certain. But the possibility of what all this symbolizes - maybe relating to Jesus - is interesting to think about because all that reminds us that God is the one who establishes His covenant with us through Jesus Christ.
There is a great degree of uncertainty these days - with terrorism - violence - the decline of morality - the results of our last election. In reality those questions are nothing new. Life is always full of uncertainty. Even the uncertainty of what goes on right here with us - in our families - in our own lives.
In the midst of what goes on in our lives is the sovereign God who promises us life with Him today and forever. He is the God who makes us to be righteous - adequate - and who will accomplish what He has purposed to do in our lives. Can God deliver on His promise?
Whether we understand how - is not the issue. The bottom line of faith is whether we will trust that God can.
What is encouraging is the process God takes Abram through - takes us through. It’s very personal. God initiating conversation with us - hearing our doubts and concerns - then lovingly - graciously - mercifully - invests Himself in helping us to increase our faith. To move forward trusting Him.
Whatever the turmoil in your life - even if it’s hard to hang on - don’t stop talking with God. Don’t ever stop trusting Him. And when you struggle with faith - don’t ever hesitate to let Him know - to pour out your heart to Him and to ask Him to help you. Because He will. He already has.
Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.