Everything is always upwards and onwards for the Christian, right?
We experience a new beginning with Jesus, a new life with God! So everything in life will always work out better, right? We have God’s presence to direct in every decision, so no more bad decisions. We have God’s power to help with every struggle, so no more struggles. We have God’s provision to provide for every need, so no more needs. So it is always onward and upward, right?
Well maybe not.
Today we will think through the life of Abraham who was arguably one of the most God-connected persons on the planet in his day. He had the privilege of a great new beginning when God called him with an incredible calling. So let us see how life worked out for Abraham and if it was always onwards and upwards. Here are a few things of note:
First, Abraham’s call to go was also a call to leave.
The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you.Genesis 12:1,2 (NLT emphasis added)
Abraham was called to live out a big, unsettling change. There would have been the experience of grief and loss. There was not even a clear vision of what is coming up.
God’s call to a new beginning with Him is often a call to experience change, loss, and upheaval.
We may be called to let go of some old habits, some old ways of thinking, including favourite “security blankets.” We will soon discover that these were better left behind anyway. However, it can mean upheaval for a season of one’s life. For some, that may be a long season.
We may be called to let go of relationships. I remember a fellow seminarian sharing how receiving Jesus meant leaving his family, or rather being disowned by his family. While that happened to him in another culture in another place, even here in Canada following Jesus might mean losing respect from peers.
The experience of change, including loss, can be part of walking with God, and that can get messy and be difficult. In fact if we are never experiencing any kind of change, maybe we are not walking with Jesus, but just sitting with religion.
For Abraham, responding to God’s call did not mean that life was always upwards and onwards, indeed it began with loss, grief, and upheaval. It may not always be onwards and upwards for us either.
Second, Abraham waffled his way through life, quite a lot.
Geographically, Abraham did a lot of wandering about between Genesis chapter 12, where we first meet him, and chapter 25 where we learn of his death. He went to the promised land, but then he also did a stint in Egypt and upon return seemed to live here, there, and everywhere. Life was anything but straightforward.
Abraham also waffled about in life decisions. Twice Abraham got his wife to say she was his sister. Perhaps not the best thing to do? Abraham and his wife Sarah also tried to ensure a descendant through Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar. While such arrangements were accepted within society in those days, that decision later led to great family dysfunction. Again, not the smartest idea, especially when God had a better plan.
If we feel like we are waffling about in life decisions, we are in good company. Abraham waffled about terribly also.
The Christian life is sometimes spoken of as if every day we can expect clear direction from the Lord in every decision. We are led to believe that there is always a clear path forward, a right path, and if you are a good Christian, you will see it, you will hear clearly from the Lord about it.
Reality is, life gets messy, even with God in it. We might need to adjust our expectations of ourselves and our ability to discern God’s will moment by moment. Abraham did not seem to have moment by moment direction from God. We might need to adjust our expectations of God.
If God made every decision for us, we would never learn to make a decision. We would never learn wisdom.
God, in his providence, worked it out for Abraham and his family despite the messiness of it all. God can work it out for us too. In the meantime it is not always onwards and upwards. Sometimes we waffle about.
Third, Abraham had questions for God.
So the LORD told Abraham, “I have heard a great outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah, because their sin is so flagrant. I am going down to see if their actions are as wicked as I have heard. If not, I want to know.”Genesis 18:20-25 (NLT)
The other men turned and headed toward Sodom, but the LORD remained with Abraham. Abraham approached him and said, “Will you sweep away both the righteous and the wicked? Suppose you find fifty righteous people living there in the city—will you still sweep it away and not spare it for their sakes? Surely you wouldn’t do such a thing, destroying the righteous along with the wicked. Why, you would be treating the righteous and the wicked exactly the same! Surely you wouldn’t do that! Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?”
Abraham was not afraid to question God when God’s ways seemed, well, . . . questionable. And it was entirely appropriate. A relationship with God is exactly that, a relationship, which can include conversation and questions.
So when life gets messy and God’s ways seem questionable to us, shouldn’t our prayers get messy and honest? With God, life is not always onwards and upwards, with God’s ways always appearing to be crystal clear. Sometimes we have questions.
Fourth, it was never really about Abraham.
The call of God disrupted Abrahams’s life. But Abraham was not the one who would receive the greatest blessing from his obedience:
The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”Genesis 12:1-3 (NLT emphasis added)
Are we aware that the call of God is not really about us? Christianity can become quite self-centred, especially as it often starts out centred on ourselves, beginning with “how do I get to heaven?” This is often the starting point, then the next question becomes “how can I get God’s power to work in my life, for my benefit?”
Ironically, Jesus calls us to deny ourselves!
Are we willing to respond to that call, to make our connection with God through Jesus and His Spirit, be for the benefit of others? Are we leaving space for the generosity of God toward others in how our call plays out?
When we grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, others are blessed. When I respond to God’s call to be a good husband, my wife is blessed. When I respond to the call of God to be a good father, our sons are blessed.
If it was all about us, might we expect the perfect life? Now if God handed us the perfect life on a silver platter, would we grow? Would we ever really learn empathy and compassion? Might we not instead become even more self-centred?
The Christian life is not always onwards and upwards with respect to our feeling blessed. Sometimes it is about others being blessed through us and the changes God is bringing to us. Sometimes those changes come about precisely because it is not always onwards and upwards.
Fifth, Abraham was not in the driver’s seat.
There are moments where Abraham shows initiative and living with purpose. He did get up and move, he did show his willingness to do what God asked of him. But as for building a great nation through whom all nations of the earth would be blessed, only God could accomplish that! And it could only be done in God’s timing. There is no way Abraham could make it happen, no amount of effort, passion, or talent on Abraham’s part could bring it about.
We are called to walk with Jesus, not just now, but forevermore. Only God can make that happen, through Jesus, his death for our reconciliation, and through His Spirit.
The question is not “are we bringing about the call of God in our lives?”, as if it is something we can accomplish, but “are we cooperating with God in His call on our lives?”.
The Christian life is not always onwards and upwards as we do this, that, or the other brilliant thing, but sometimes it is resting in God, in His brilliance.
As we read through Genesis chapters 12-25, it becomes clear that for Abraham, life was not always onwards and upwards. However, it was a life of being faithful, and of depending on God to be faithful. Abraham is lifted up in Hebrews chapter 11 as an example of faith and faithfulness. The Book of Hebrews was originally written for a group of Christians facing persecution. Despite their new beginning with Jesus, life was not always onwards and upwards for them either! But it was a life of learning faithfulness to the God Who is faithful.
Let us remain faithful to and hopeful in the call of God, even when the path is anything but straightforward, even when life feels far from always onwards and upwards.
(You can watch the preaching of this sermon here)