The Wonder of Laughter (Gen 18:1-15; 21:1-7)

"Sarah says, 'God has brought me laughter...'" (Gen 21:6)

Ty Cobb (1886-1961) was one of the greatest players to ever play the game of baseball. He is the 1st player inducted into the baseball hall of fame. At the close of his life, he reportedly said, "Life sucks!" Also, pictures of him in his old age is that of a very dark, angry, irritable, unapproachable, misanthropic (dislike of the human species) and a very unhappy old man with no trace of joy or laughter on his face. All of his fame, popularity, success and wealth did not generate any laughter whatsoever in his soul. In his old age, perhaps progressively through out his life, he lost his ability to laugh. Can any man live without laughter?

Theme: Laughter. When God fulfilled his purpose for Sarah, God brought laughter to her. God transformed her previous laughter of skepticism/cynicism to "real" laughter from the depths of her being.

Goal: To know that when God fulfills his purpose, God brings laughter to our soul.

Application: Do you experience the deep wonder of laughter?

The point and climax of this text is that when God comes to Sarah, God brought laughter into her heart. In Gen 21:6, "Sarah says, 'God has brought me laughter...'" In fact, God had transformed her bitter cynical laughter (Gen 18:12) into real joy. How did this happen? How can God give us this kind of deep permanent joy that everyone wants and needs? The answer to this can be seen in this text when God comes to Sarah. Let's notice 4 things about God:
  1. That He comes (God comes to Sarah)
  2. How He Comes to Sarah
  3. Why He Comes to Sarah
  4. How God can Come to Us
I. God Comes to Sarah

God promised Abraham to raise a great nation of people through his descendants, and that through his seed (one of his descendants), God would bless all peoples on earth (Gen 12:2-3). For this to happen, God promised to give his wife Sarah a son (Gen 15:3; 18:10). 25 years had gone by. Abraham is 100. Sarah is 90 and past the age of childbearing (Gen 18:11). When 3 guests came to Abraham, he served them wholeheartedly (Gen 18:1-8). When they find out where Sarah is, the Lord reveals himself and promises her a son next year (Gen 18:9-10).

Why has the Lord come? He came for Sarah's sake primarily, since God had appeared to Abraham in the past. What do we learn here? It is not good enough to just know about God or to know God through somebody else. Sarah knows about God, but she did not know God personally and experientially. What does this mean? On his 80th birthday, John Stott, an English Anglican minister, gave an account of how he found Christ at age 17 when his pastor gave him a verse, Rev 3:20. Though Stott went to church all of his young life, read the Bible regularly, prayed regularly, and believed Jesus all his life, yet until that moment, he felt distant from God, as though he was only knowing God through a key hole, so to speak. But at that moment, the door was opened, and he came to know God personally, intimately and experientially. He realized that though he knew about God, he had not had a personal encounter, and that the door was not yet opened, and that Jesus was still on the outside of the door. What does this mean? It is mysterious. It is not just about intensity or degree. It is whether or not the door is opened. It is whether or not Jesus is outside the door, or inside, and therefore central to our hearts and lives.

Sarah had to open the door, not to have more information about God, since she already knew about God. But she needed to open the door and meet and know God personally, to have a personal encounter with God himself. Each person needs to have a personal encounter with God. Nothing else is sufficient.

II. How God Comes to Sarah

The manner in which the Lord comes is interesting. In Gen 15 God comes to Abram in darkness and as an awesome fiery torch (Gen 15:9-18). But here God comes in daylight, with sore feet, and very gently. Sarah laughs to herself (Gen 18:12). The word "worn out" means useless, good for nothing. It is self hating and full of loathing, despair and despondency. The word for "pleasure" seems to mean that now that she is old would she have the pleasure of having a child? But the Hebrew word means sexual pleasure. She is crudely saying that not only is she old, but that she and her husband are no longer having sex, and that her husband has not touched her in years. It is self-disdaining, as well as disdaining the promise of God.

How does God react? Quite differently from God's fiery awesome previous appearance to Abraham. God is so gentle. What did God do when Sarah laughed at God (Gen 18:12)? Did God say/suggest/imply/insinuate, "How dare you laugh at me? Do you know who I am? And do you realize who you are?"

When God restates her objection, he removes all of her self-hating terminology that Sarah says about herself (Gen 18:13), and simply reassures her that he will do what he said (Gen 18:14). When Sarah lies, saying, "I did not laugh," God again does not explode at her, but says, "Yes, you did laugh" (Gen 18:15). It is as though God was chuckling, smiling at her. We should not be afraid to tell God our weakness, fears, doubts. God is a gentle Wonderful Counselor (Isa 9:6). He will not blow up at us like an angry drill sergeant.

Why was God so different with Abram as with Sarah? A short answer is that we can't put God in a box. God also does not put us in a box. We humans default to putting God and others in a box, but God does not do that. God does not work off a template: Read 10 chapters of the Bible daily, pray for 30 minutes, evangelize others 2 times a week, tithe 15% of your income, etc. God has an infinite variety of ways that he comes into people's lives.

Sometimes God works dramatically, suddenly; sometimes God works extremely gradually, through a process. But everyone who meets God personally has to meet God in their own experience of need and weakness, and experience his love and provision. But which comes 1st? Some come through the conviction of sin/guilt, that later leads to the realization of God's love/grace. Others come through the gentle door where they were assured by the love, grace, gentleness, mercy, goodness of God. Only later do they realize the depth of how flawed, broken, sinful they are. No one needs to worry that their Christian experience needs to imitate another. Also, do not project your own Christian experience on someone else. God can show up in countless different and diverse ways.

What about when others lie and deceive us? We do not need to feel insulted, or to react or retaliate at them. Why not? If the God of the universe was not insulted by Sarah lying, why should we think that we have a right to be?

III. Why God Comes to Sarah

This is the heart of the narrative. Why did God come to Sarah? God came to transform her laughter. God asked, "Why did Sarah laugh?" (Gen 18:13) "Why did she disdain herself and me? Why is her laughter so bitter and cynical and skeptical?" God gives the answer in the form of a question. It is the explanation of why Sarah is the way she is. God says, "
Is anything too hard for the LORD?" (Gen 18:14). The Hebrew word for "hard" is "wonderful" (1 Chron 16:9; Ps 105:2). God is saying that Sarah's laughter is filled with disdain and bitterness, because her laughter is devoid of wonder.

What is wonder? G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), an English writer, explains wonder or enchantment or astonishment in his essay
The Ethics of Elfland. He explained why children's lives are better than adults. Children never say, "Life stinks." Or, "What is meaning of my life?" Why? It is because their life is filled with wonder. The more our life is filled with wonder, the more meaningful it is. It takes hardly anything to fill a kid with wonder. Any little nonsensical thing that I say or do fills my grandson with wonder. But as Chesterton notes, their sense of wonder wears off. The older one gets the harder it is to fill the heart with wonder. What is the difference in response between taking a 4 y/o and a 14 y/o to the zoo? It takes more and more to fill the heart with wonder. Things have to get bigger and bigger. This is bad because without wonder, we lose the meaning of life.

In our western society, we live in the most wonder killing culture in all of civilization. So-called "brilliant" professors in major universities may explain that love and beauty are just chemical reactions, that it's how we are wired, that it's evolutionary biology. Every claim of morality or truth or justice or right is socially constructed and just a power play. This kills the wonder of life. Then how do we live? S
ince our world view no longer has wonder, then we steal it through art, stories, literature, plays and movies. Then momentarily we have wonder, especially if the story has these 3 elements:
  1. The story must show that there are mysterious powers "out there" beyond ourselves.
  2. The story has a situation of doom and hopelessness.
  3. There is a heroic key, which unlocks the barrier between the impossible situation we are in, and brings forth a resolution, redemption, rescue, deliverance, and salvation. 
Think "Titanic." We go to the stupidest summer blockbuster movies that are poorly acted, with poor character development, but with spectacular special effects, so that the 3 elements may be experienced. We laugh at them afterward, yet in the midst of the movie excitement, our heart is racing. Why? We need that wonder, though it is fleeting. Why do millions love Harry Potter books? It's because our heart knows that this world is not all there is. Our inner heart is crying for some mysterious power out there to rescue us out of our sense of doom, hopelessness and impossible situation. If not, Leonardo de Caprio will do. Our heart knows that and desperately longs for that sense of wonder that is so lacking in our lives and in the world, even if our intellect denies and rejects it.

The Bible tells us this: I've got a story for you that is the ultimate story because it is true. If we believe it, then our whole life will be permeated with wonder. This is a wonder that lasts. This is not a fleeting wonder that fades away as it does when we leave a movie. This is a wonder that will fill every area of our life with meaning. If we believe that, wonder will come into our life.

What is that story? God goes to Sarah and transforms her story by putting wonder into it. In Gen 21:6, "Sarah says, 'God has brought me laughter...'" What does this mean? She was laughing before. She was laughing all her life. But this laughter is different. She said, "God has brought me laughter..." She is saying, "I have a laughter now that I never had before." It is no longer a bitter cynical laughter, but a laughter filled with wonder.

Where does this laughter come from? Gen 21:1 says, "Now the LORD was gracious to Sarah ..." The grace of God came into her life. The grace of God overcame the impossibility of her situation. She experienced a power outside of herself that overcame the impossibility of her situation which had made her bitter. This was the power and the wonder of the grace of God. Without the wonder of grace, there was only the bitter cynical laughter that tries to get rid of despondency. Or there is the nervous laughter that tries to get rid of anxiety. The cynical laughter says, "I'm in an impossible situation and there is no way out." It is rooted in bitterness and fatalism. The nervous laughter says, "I know my situation is bad, but I can do it." But the laughter is hiding the lack of confidence inside. But the laughter of grace says, "God has overcome the impossible situation with his power." Because of the grace of God, there is a wonder in her life that enables her to laugh in a way she was never able to before. She has joy. Her whole life is changed because the wonder is there.

IV. How God can Come to Us

There is a common error in applying this text. We think, "Sarah is 90. She could never have a child. But she believed and was blessed. So, if we really pray, trust God and dream big dreams, we can experience the great, the miraculous and the impossible." But this is not how to apply the text for 2 reasons: It is making a logical mistake, and an exegetical mistake.
  1. Logical mistake. The greatest person who ever lived had a far greater prayer life that ours ever will be. His faith in trusting God was perfect, and is greater than ours ever will be. Yet he had a horrible/terrible life. His life was filled with sorrow and suffering that got progressively worse. His prayer was turned down. He was rejected by all his friends.
  2. Exegetical mistake. Does this teach that if we believe like Sarah, God can do the impossible through our faith? The point here is that Sarah does not believe. She is laughing. After laughing she lies. The one time she meets God she laughs at his face.
The key that unlocked the power of God in her life was not her faith. She didn't have any. It was the son of promise born into her life through the grace of God.

What God offers in the Bible is the ultimate story--the story upon which all other stories are based. This includes the fictional stories and fairy tales that give us a wonder even for a brief moment. But no adult heart can hold onto that. But God gives us a story, an ultimate story, which is a true story, that if we believe it and take it into our heart and life, it will fill us with wonder and make us child-like once again, but not childish. So, is this the story? Is it the story of Abraham, Sarah and the miraculous birth of Isaac? No. This story points to the story that can do that.

Luke knows the story. Centuries later, an angel shows up to this woman and announces, "You will conceive and give birth to a son" (Luke 1:31). She said, "How can this be?" (Luke 1:34) She was as skeptical as Sarah was. If it was impossible for Sarah to have a child with an old husband, how could Mary have a child with no husband? When Mary asked how, the angel said, "For nothing is impossible with God" (Luke 1:37; NIV, 1984), or "For no word from God will ever fail" (NIV, 2011), which is essentially the same thing Sarah was told: "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" (Gen 18:14) Why does Luke interpose both Sarah and Mary's story with almost the exact same words that the angel says to both of them? Because Jesus is the true Isaac.

Jesus is the ultimate son of promise. Jesus is the ultimate One in whom we hear the laughter of God's grace, triumphing over the impossibilities of our situation. Sarah had to deal with the problem of infertility. But our problem is far graver. The ultimate Isaac came to deal with our ultimate problem of sin and death. What is truly impossible is that you are I should live forever. This is more impossible than having a baby at 90. What is truly impossible is that you and I, in spite of the way we had lived, would be adopted into the family of God. This is exactly what happens through Jesus, the ultimate Isaac, the ultimate Son of Laughter. How could Jesus do this?

Jesus lived in a heavenly world of laughter. Jesus was in the bosom of the Father (John 1:18), which meant that the Father and the Son rejoiced in each other with laughter through out eternity. But Jesus came to this world to become "a man of sorrow/suffering" (Isa 53:3; '84, '11). On the cross, he cried out, but he was forsaken. Why? Jesus lost the divine laughter, receiving all the sorrow and mourning and weeping and gnashing of teeth that we deserve, so that we can have laughter. He took our place. He took the condemnation for our sin, so that we could have forgiveness. He took our death so that we could have life. That is the story.

What is the story? C.S. Lewis says, "A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside." Jesus' death and resurrection has punched a hole in the impenetrable barrier between our impossible situation and God's glory. Jesus is the ultimate prince that kisses us sleeping beauties. Jesus is the ultimate St. George who slays the dragon. Jesus is the ultimate Hero who dies to save the universe, the world, the city. Jesus is the one who took God's frown so that we could have God's smile, who lost the laughter so that we could have it. Through Jesus, wonder will come into our lives and our laughter will be transformed from cynical nervous laughter into the laughter of grace. A laughter of grace is only possible when we know that it is not due to our performance. How do we know that this has happened?

How do we know that we have moved from knowing about God to knowing God?
That we have moved from being religious to being a Christian? From seeing Jesus as just a great teacher to the true Isaac? Here are 4 signs that we are a real Christian from Sarah's life:
  1. (You laugh at yourself.) She is a source of wonder to herself. It is her counter-intuitive mixture of humility and certainty. She said, "Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age" (Gen 21:7). If a religious person is asked if they are a Christian, they say, "Of course." Sarah had no "of course" about her life. On the one hand it is a joke that I am a Christian: "Who would have thought..." There is an incredible sense of humility that makes it almost a joke. When you become a true Christian you see your life as a spiritual comedy with you as the star. But along with the humility, there is also a certainty. Radical grace means humility: Who would have thought that I am a Christian. But radical grace also means confidence and certainty: I know who I am, because it is not based on me. If one is a true Christian we don't have to go to the movies to be filled with wonder. We just have to look at our own life and be filled with wonder. Sarah is a never ending source of wonder to herself. The 1st sign that you are a Christian is that you laugh at yourself. You laugh over yourself. You wonder at yourself.
  2. (You laugh with others who laugh at you.) Nobody else's laughter bothers you anymore. Sarah said, "God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me" (Gen 21:6). The Hebrew preposition "with" is nebulous and could be translated "over" or "at." Robert Altar says that it is hard for the English translators to translate it as "at," so they soften it as "with." He asks what would a 90 y/o woman breast feeding a baby look like? It's ludicrous that she would be nursing. People would surely laugh at her. But she doesn't care. She laughs along with them laughing at her. If you are a recipient of grace, more people will laugh at you than laugh with you. The 2nd sign that you are a Christian is that you no longer need people's approval like you once used to. The touchiness is gone. People laughing at you no longer gets in the way of your own laughter. You can take criticism without becoming defensive and offensive.
  3. (You laugh at your past failures.) She is reconciled to her past. What was the greatest failure of her life? Very few people had God appear to them. Her greatest failure is that she laughed at God. Her son's name Laughter is a memorial to her own greatest failure, every time she calls him, sees him, takes care of him. This shows what the gospel does to our past. If we think that we are saved by our good works, then the memories of our failure are a never ending source of our discomfort and unease. To get a modicum of comfort, we suppress them, bury them, hide them, forget about them, lie about them. But the gospel is that we have been accepted, loved, saved despite our failures. Then the reminder of our failures shows and magnifies every more greatly how marvelous/wonderful is the grace of the gospel. In other words, the gospel turns our failures into gold, into wisdom, into humility, into compassion. It turns you into one who can embrace and understand and have compassion toward others who failed.
  4. (You laugh at the world's standards.) Why does God bring Isaac into the world through an old woman Sarah rather than a young woman Hagar? Why does God continue his chosen line through homely Leah, rather than lovely Rachel? Why does God over and over again choose the weak and foolish and despised things? So that he can shame the strong and the wise (1 Cor 1:27-28). Paul says that God always prefers to work with the losers, whom the world says are washed up, old, ugly, poor, outsiders, useless losers. Why? Because God is the God of grace. When we realize that God has worked through our weakness, failures and still extended grace to us, then we no longer value the things the world values. Then we begin to love the people on the outside. Isa 54:1 says, "Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband," says the LORD.
This is from a sermon by Tim Keller (Real Joy and the Laughing Woman).


Real Confidence in a Real World (Gen 15:1-21)


What LeBron James' said about the real world. In response to people’s delight in his failure to win the 2011 NBA finals, LeBron James said this after he lost (June 12, 2011):

““All the people that was rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day, they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today. They have the same personal problems they had today. They can get a few days or a few months or whatever the case may be on being happy about not only myself, but the Miami Heat not accomplishing their goal. But they have to get back to the real world at some point.”

He's not going to win any friends or fans by his careless defensive remarks as the loser. But what he says is true. Similarly, Henry Thoreau observed, "The masses of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

From Genesis 15, we will see how God helped Abram face life in the real world of personal problems and quiet desperation.

Theme: God gives real confidence to Abram when he had humanly irresolvable doubts about God and about himself.

Goal: To plant confidence in God’s people when they are filled with their own painful doubts, sorrows and fears.

Application: Only the bloody cross of Jesus taking our sins upon himself enables us to live with real confidence in the real world, despite all of our doubts that are inevitable.

There is a line in Macbeth: “Each new morn, new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face...” That is life. Every morning, the dawn breaks, and there are thousands of more ruined lives, of new sorrows, of despondency, of despair. Even if one's life seems to be uneventful, or going quite well, one new morning, some new sorrow will unexpectedly strike us on the face without warning, if it has not already. These new sorrows will come at each person.

Are you going to be mastered by the real world of sorrow, or are you going to master them?

3 world religions look to Abraham as a model for living. It is almost as though he had an anchor to his life (Heb 6:19), so that no matter how much he was beaten and buffeted by the sorrows of life, he held firm. He held to his principles. He stuck to his purposes.

The question is how can we have a life like that? How are we going to live a masterful life and master the real world where “new widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows strike heaven on the face”?

In this text, a particular obstacle to living a masterful life that Abram faced is doubt. How are we going to deal with doubt in the pain, misery, sorrows and desperation of life? How can you believe in God when life goes south and gets discouraging? Everyone struggles with doubt. She loves me? She loves me not? How can we trust God? How can we live by faith? How can we move forward in our relationship with God? Christian or non-Christian, countless people do not know how to deal with doubt. But this text tells us about:

  1. The Reality of Doubt (The nature of doubt).
  2. The Deconstruction of Doubt (How God deals with doubt; how God takes it apart).
  3. How can we apply it to our own situation?
I. The Reality/Inevitability of Doubt (Gen 15:1-8)

Gen 15:1 says, "After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: 'Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.'" Abram is scared after rescuing his nephew Lot and his family militarily from 4 marauding kings (Gen 14). What about retaliation? Who's going to attack me? The phrase The word of the Lord came...” is unique in the Pentateuch. It only shows up here, though it shows up often in the prophetic writings. It’s a revelation/vision/voice of tremendous clarity from God. How does Abraham respond? Was he relieved? Did he say, "Thanks, God. This really helps." No.

He spews up things that have bottled up in his heart. He asked about the son promised him (Gen 15:2-3). Abram's response to this incredible revelation is doubt. What does God do? The word of the Lord...” comes to him again (Gen 15:4). God takes himself outside so gently and tenderly and gives him tremendous encouragement of how much God would do through Abram (Gen 15:4-5). Momentarily, Abraham believes and was credited with righteousness (Gen 15:6). Then when God promised him the land (Gen 15:7), Abram still had doubts: How can I know that I will gain possession of it?” (Gen 15:8) How can I be certain?

We learn here the inevitability of doubt, even after Abraham had left everything--his country, his culture, his family--by simply trusting in the promises of God (Gen 12:1-4). Abraham is the father of 3 world religions and he just received a clear revelation from God twice (Gen 15:1,4), and he was filled with doubt. Will you have less doubts than our father of faith? How do you think you will do? It's likely that we will never get past our doubts entirely. There will always be some doubt at some level. Doubt is a problem that never goes away. It is inevitable. How does God deal with our doubt?

The Bible gives a balanced nuanced view of doubt. Does God say, “How dare you question me? Doubt me?” Never. Or does God say, “It’s OK. We all have doubts”? No. God does not condemn Abram for his doubts, yet he keeps challenging him. There is a remarkable balance. It is similar to Jesus challenging Thomas to believe after he expressed his doubts and demanded to put his hands where the nail marks were. If this was so evil, why did Jesus still gives in to his demand? Then after showing him his nail marks, Jesus gently rebukes him saying, "Stop doubting and believe" (John 20:24-29). There is a fascinating balance where doubt is never encouraged, yet doubters are completely welcomed.

Conservative sensibility thinks of doubt as a total failure and as a complete evil, where no one is  supposed to have doubt, or is allowed to have doubt, or to express doubt about intellectual or emotional struggles. It is viewed as bad, as a weakness. It is frowned upon, because “You must just believe and trust God.” If a church or a community is created like this, it is telling the world you can’t be an authentic Christian, intellectually and emotionally, and have doubt. Such an attitude toward doubt is so unattractive, and so many have been turned off by it. Not only that, many Christians are frightened by doubt, and are self-condemned by their doubts because they have no outlet to address their doubt(s).

What about Abram? What if Abram said, "OK. That's good. I have no doubts. I believe fully"? Then we would not have the 2nd part of this chapter which shows the grace of God and the gospel more explicitly than anywhere else in the whole Bible. There is no greater place in all of the Bible, not even in Romans, that goes beyond this amazing graphic display of grace.

In brief, when Abram expressed doubt, saying, "My faith is weak," God embraced him and his doubts, and reassured him. God would show him how to live a masterful life.

The conservative approach to doubt is, "Don't doubt!" But the liberal sensibility or approach to doubt thinks that it is intellectually sophisticated and emotionally mature to always have doubt about everything. Always be skeptical. Always be cynical about everything. Always deconstruct everything. Always have unresolved eternal doubt about everything. But you can’t be completely dubious about everything. You can only doubt/be skeptical of everything, if you refuse to doubt/be skeptical of yourself and doubt your own doubts. If one is going to be cynical about everything, then they also have to be cynical about their own cynicism. At least one should be open to the possibility that if you are cynical about everything, all you are is gutless--one who refuses to commit to anything out of fear. Under the veneer of their cynicism/skepticism is cowardice. Basically you can dish it out but you can't take it yourself.

God doesn’t respond like conservatives: "How dare you doubt?" Instead, God welcomes the doubters like Abram and Thomas. God also doesn't respond like the liberal: "It’s OK to doubt." God challenges them. God embraces and challenges both the conservative and the liberal approach to doubt. Therefore, the way to become like Abram is to admit and look at your doubt, your weakness, your inability, your thorn in the side.

How is doubt structured? How can I deal with doubt so that I can live a confident life? We can see it in the 2 occasions Abram asked "How?" There are 2 components of doubt:

  1. How can I know about God? I don’t trust God. What can YOU give me.. (Gen 15:2-3). We are afraid of giving up control to God, and of trusting God fully, thinking that God will demand too much of me, that I will loose too much, leading to miserable life.
  2. How can I know about me? I don't trust myself. How can I know... (Gen 15:8). Even if God is faithful, I don't know if I can keep it up, if I can make the cut, if I can keep my end of the deal. I can't see myself living like this. I'm scared.
They’re scared of trusting God because of God, and because of themselves. God would deal with Abram's doubts in an utterly stunning and amazing way in the 2nd half of Genesis 15. To understand just how stunning and amazing this is, some background is necessary.

II. The Deconstruction of Doubt (Gen 15:9-21)

When God instructed Abram to get some animals and birds (Gen 15:9), Abram knew exactly what to do by cutting the 3 animals in half (Gen 15:10). He knew that God wanted to make a covenant, a solemn binding contract. It is hard for us to understand this because we live in a written culture, not an oral culture. (We write out contracts for both parties to keep the terms of the contract, or face penalties/consequences.) Abram’s time was an oral culture, a story telling culture. They made contracts by acting out ritually and dramatizing the consequences of breaking the covenant. The contract ceremony was to make the one who promises accountable for breaking the promise/contract. Then the parties have confidence that they will keep the terms, or face the penalty.

What are the animals about? Jer 34:18-20, a cryptic verse, says, Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. ...all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, I will deliver into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals. This was how a covenant was made. When you cut an animal in half, and walk between the pieces, you are ritually identifying with the cut animals and acting out the consequences/penalty for breaking the covenant. You are saying, “If I do not keep my end of the contract, may I be cut off, may my flesh be cut up and strewn out on the land.” This was to make the one who promises accountable to pay the penalty for failure to fulfill the promise/breaking the contract. This was always done when a great king went into a relationship with small vessel kings. This was so prevalent that Gen 15:18 literally says in the Hebrew, “On that day the Lord CUT a covenant...” which involved blood shed. In this way, the one who promises took on a covenant curse, saying, "May this be true of me, if I fail to keep my contract." The ESV Study Bible explains: "The ritual described here is possibly a type of oath that involves a self-curse if not fulfilled; God will become like the dead animals if he does not keep his word."

God enters into this covenant that Abram understood. But God also transformed it. God did 2 stunning things in Gen 15:17-18. Then Abraham had no more doubts after this. He no longer needed to ask, "How?" after this. What are 2 stunning things that God did?

1) Who passes between the pieces? Gen 15:17 says, "When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces." What does this mean? Gen 15:12 says that a darkness of dread/horror/terror fell over him. It was not a normal kind of sleep. It was an overwhelming sense of dread/horror/darkness/terror, where he felt crushed to the ground. He felt an incredible heaviness. Gen 15:17 is the same 2 words that describe God when he came down on Mount Sinai, and when God went with the Israelites in the desert at night. "A smoking fire pot and a flaming torch" are taken to be symbolic of God's presence, which is often associated with fire (Exo 13:21-22). What appeared was the semblance of God’s glory. It was like a searing streak of lightning.  Abraham would be utterly dumbfounded, because this meant only 1 thing: God was saying, "Abram, if I do not bless you, may my immortality suffer mortality, may my immutability suffer mutability, may my infinitude suffer finitude, may the impossible become possible. May I be cut up, may I be cut off, may I die, if I do not bless you." That's not all God does. There's another part of the doubt.

2) Who doesn't pass between the pieces? Though God would keep his part as God, what if I can't keep my part as God's person? So, another part of the doubt is that I’m scared I may not be able to keep my end of the contract, though I know that God will keep his end of the covenant. I’m going to fail. I'm not going to be able to get to the finish line. I'm full of weaknesses and sins and evil. I’m surely going to let God down. I’m surely going to let myself down. In Gen 15:18 the covenant is cut. But Abraham doesn’t go through the pieces.

Historically, when a great king makes a covenant with their vessel king, if the king is nice, he may go through the pieces with the vessel king. But most great kings did not bother to go between the pieces, since he held all the cards. The great king knows that he doesn't need the small vessel king, but that the vessel king needed the great king. So, often just the small vessel king walked through the pieces alone.

Here God, one greater than any great king, alone goes through the pieces and says, "The covenant is cut" (Gen 15:18). What does this mean? God is saying, “I will bless you, no matter if I fail, or no matter if you fail. Either way, I will be cut up. I will pay the penalty, I will be accountable, I will take the consequences, regardless if I fail, or if you fail.” God will assume/absorb the cost regardless of who fails. This is an unbelievable one-sided covenant.

Abram had no idea about the cost of this oath of grace. But centuries later a darkness came down again. It was so dark that it put out the sun at noon. Mark 15:33-34 say, At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’).” What happened to Jesus when he was crying out. Jesus was "cut off from the land of the living" (Isa 53:8). Why? So that God can say to us, “If you believe in me, I will bless you unconditionally,” regardless if God fails, or if Abraham/man fails.

Paul understood this and had the audacity to say in Gal 3:13-14: Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.' He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit."

III. Application in our own situation

How can we apply this? There are 2 kinds of people (and a 3rd group don’t know which group they belong to).

1) Those who have never made a commitment to Christ. Why not? They have all these questions and doubts that they're afraid to give themselves to God. But you are giving yourself to something else that you’re afraid to loose. All other religions make you go through the pieces. All other approaches to living confidently says, "This will be my shield. This will be my reward. I will do this, I will do that. Then I know that I can face life." But you will fail, because if you search deeply, you know that you will never come through as you should. You have a limitation. You can save yourself, nor reward yourself.

Abram was like a man with an anchor. Heb 6:13-14,17-19 says, "When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself, saying, 'I will surely bless you and give you many descendants.' 17 Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to the heirs of what was promised, he confirmed it with an oath. 18 God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope set before us may be greatly encouraged. 19 We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” An anchor is useless unless it is in the rock. If the anchor is still in the water, it is useless. Whatever we put our anchor in, it will go (health, friendship, relationships, family, talents, looks, memory). I am your shield. There is no other anchor, no other shield/security/stability other than God that will last. Your looks will certainly go. Your memory will too. Every other religion puts your anchor down into your performance, and your good works.

When God says, "I am your shield, I am your reward," God is saying that "Unless I am your shield, you do not have a shield. Unless I am your reward, you do not have a reward. Unless I am your security, you have no security."

2) Those who have made a commitment to Christ, and yet their anchor is still not deeply and permanently in the rocks. They say, "I believe in Jesus. I believe in the Bible." But practically, they do not. Their problems/sorrows/doubts/bitterness still rule them. All your problems are because you don’t have your anchor deep enough.

Why are you worried today? I’m afraid God is not going to come through for me. Though you know intellectually what Jesus did for you on the cross and that Jesus loves you, yet you don't emotionally know it, because you're still worried. If you’re bitter because someone insulted you, and you can't get past it, and can't forgive, it's because your anchor is not deep enough. Who cares what people think of me, when God accepts me fully. No one can overcome worry or bitterness by trying harder not to worry, or by trying harder to not be bitter.

When Jesus went down under the wrath of God and divine justice, when Jesus went into the worst storm, the worst darkness, and held on for me. When I think of Jesus doing this for me, am I moved? Am I sorry that I don't dwell deeper in this realization and am still concerned about the nagging irritations of my own life? If I am, then the anchor is getting deeper. The Lord’s supper shows us that Jesus was broken to pieces, cut to pieces, for me.

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The God Who Sees and Hears Everything (Gen 16:1-16)

Gen16sarah_presenting_hagar_toWhat is a major theme of Genesis and of the entire Bible? Is it that good people do good things so that God blesses and rewards them? Or is it something else altogether?

Theme: Grace comes to those who do not deserve it, who do not seek it, who continually resist it, and who do not appreciate it even after they receive it.

Goal: Reflect upon our understanding of grace.

Application: Does the depth of sheer grace inform and touch and transform your heart and life?

3 major world religions look at Abraham as the model for courageous living, for authentic living, and for faithful living. Why did Abraham triumph? Gen 16:1-16, which is like a soap opera, shows us that it is not because he is made of better stuff than we are. This text shows Abraham to be a deeply flawed and very fallible human being, which is putting it mildly. The English translations do not show the rawness and the brutality that is conveyed in the Hebrew. It beautifies, sanitizes and makes it PG or G that which was conveyed in Hebrew as R or even X rated.


3 Paramount Biblical Themes from God's Covenant with Abraham (Gen 12:1-3)


These 3 doctrines--grace, election, faith--may be among the most misunderstood, misconstrued and even maligned teachings in the Bible. This is what Graeme Goldsworthy, a highly respected Australian Anglican theologian specializing in the Old Testament and Biblical Theology, says.

1st, GRACE. As with Noah there is nothing special about Abraham that deserves the goodness of God in calling him into these blessings. He lived among pagans and responds with faith and obedience to the call of God. There is no hint that God was responding to Abraham's goodness. In fact, he lied about his wife twice, in order, so he thought, to preserve his life (Gen 12:11-20; 20:1-18). He showed lack of faith in God's promises and worked to undermine the promise that Sarah would be the mother of the promised descendants. It is clear from the biblical narrative that we cannot see God's goodness to Abraham as deserved. Rather, the biblical picture of God's free and sovereign grace is developed in God's call to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3).

2nd, ELECTION. Whenever God acts for the good of the people he is acting against what they deserve as rebellious sinners, and that action is grace. Election means that God chooses some and not others as objects of his grace. Rom 9:19-24 tells us that election works for God's glory, for it demonstrates divine sovereignty.

What we shouldn't do with the "hard" doctrine/teaching of election: It is no use asking why Abraham and not some other person is chosen as the father of a  blessed race. Election is a principle that is developed throughout the biblical history, and we should be careful not to misunderstand it or reshape it by human logic into a more acceptable doctrine. We cannot solve this mystery by resorting to easy solutions such as suggesting that God foresees the faith of those whom he subsequently, and on that basis, elects. Nor may we erect false, if apparently logical, objections to the doctrine such as saying that election based on God's free grace reduces us to robots or puppets on a string with no wills or power to make choices.

3rd, FAITH as the means of restoration to God. Abraham's faith is certainly not perfect, not perfect, not always strong, and sometimes borders on disbelief (Gen 15:2-3). Yet at critical times he takes God at his Word and believes his promises. The key is not the strength or perfection of Abraham's faith, but the strength and perfection of the God he trusts. Abraham learns that God is utterly reliable and faithful to his word. And since Abraham deserves nothing of what he is promised, it must be seen as a pure and unmerited gift. That is why he is accounted as righteous before God by simply believing (Gen 15:6).

Application: As biblical history unfolds, the meaning of grace, election and faith also unfolds. Progressive revelation requires that we must always allow God's latter and fuller words to interpret the meaning of the earlier and less explicit words. All the key themes in the theological history of Genesis will be developed through the OT and find fulfillment in the gospel event. Thus, it is the latter fulfillment which must interpret the real significance of the earlier expressions. This means that the earlier expressions point to things beyond themselves that are greater than the meaning that would have been perceived by those receiving these earlier expressions.

In brief: God's covenant expresses the grace of God in election, and its blessings are received by faith.

Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan; The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible, 1991, 120-129

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Man's Heart and Center (Gen 13:1-17)


Link to previous Genesis passages: The God Who Made Everything (Gen 1-2)  The Fall (Gen 3:1-24)  Why Cain Killed Abel (Gen 4:1-16)  Divine Judgment (Gen 6:5-13)  The Call of God (Gen 12:1-9)

My Story: I thought that graduating from medical school in Malaysia at age 22 in 1978 would validate my young life, and give me the happiness I desperately wanted for the rest of my life. But when I woke up on the 3rd day after graduation, expecting to still feel happy, the euphoria was gone. It really baffled me that my happiness lasted only 2 days! In light of Lot desiring the well-watered plain of the Jordan in this text, I was expecting that becoming a doctor would be my "garden of Eden," my "paradise," like "the garden of the Lord" to Lot (Gen 13:10). But I did not know that. So I thought I needed to be a physician in the U.S., the Mecca of Medicine. After 2 years of bone crushing effort, I made it to Chicago in 1980 with a sense of accomplishment and success. But again my joy was short lived. Painfully, I learned that becoming a doctor and coming to the U.S. could not fulfill my deepest inner longing beyond a few days. Next, I thought, "I need a woman!" All of this were my ever feeble attempts at getting back to "the garden of the Lord" without the Lord.

What does the account of Abram and Lot in Gen 13:1-17 teach about what can and cannot fulfill us human beings?

: Contrast the heart and center of Abram and Lot.

Goal: Examine the heart and center of our own hearts.

Application: Only God can center our hearts right.

Abram is the model of a Christian. Why? Because he lived on the basis of a call (Gen 12:1-3).

Contrasting conservatism and liberalism, a conservative is defined by his role, his duty and his family, while a liberal defines himself, defines who he is, and what his role is. Where is Christianity in this spectrum? Where is the Christian in here? Liberals think that Christians are those who are defined by their duty, and by "rules." But when traditional conservatives run into Christians, they often think that Christians are too liberal. To capitalistic individuals, Christianity calls people not to live selfishly for themselves. But to traditional conservatives under a totalitarian authoritarian rule, Christianity calls a stop to those in authority from trampling on people's individual freedom. Where is Christianity? Those on one end think it's on the other end, and vice versa. Christianity is not on the spectrum. The Bible tells us that Christianity is defined by those who have received the call of God.

A Christian does not belong on the conservative traditional end, because Christianity calls you to leave your family (Gen 12:1), and to think outside the box of your culture. To the liberal, Christianity says that you are not your own, and you do not construct your own identity. That's why Christianity is seen as dangerous, troubling and disturbing in every culture. It is weird. It is odd. It doesn't fit in nicely/neatly/predictably. The call of God in Abram's life changed his life drastically. The call of God appeared 12 times in the life of Abram from Gen 12-25. The call is basically the same, but there are some emphasis or detail that are different. The call of God is multifaceted.

In this text, Abram and his nephew Lot faced a conflict when they both became rich, as their flocks increased and the land could not support them both. How would they deal with this conflict? How would the call of God define Abram in this conflict? We can learn 3 things:

  1. The Heart of Lot (Looking for love in all the wrong places.)
  2. The Heart of Abram (Valuing God and people more than money.)
  3. The Heart of Someone Else (The One who values us seemingly more than God.)
I. The Heart of Lot

Gen 13:5-7 say, "Now Lot, who was moving about with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. 6 But the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together. 7 And quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s. The Canaanites and Perizzites were also living in the land at that time." Basically, they became wealthier, and as a result problems arose. But they could not become richer because of the limitation of the land. As a result, Abram gave Lot a choice as to where he would go (Gen 13:8-9). How did Lot respond?

Gen 13:10 says, "Lot looked around and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well watered, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt. (This was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.)" Lot then chose by sight, seeing that this would be the best way for him to get even richer.

What does this show about Lot? Money and financial success were more important to him than 2 other things: the promise of God and his uncle Abram. Likely, God's promise seemed too abstract and hard to believe, so he bailed out, and eventually moved out of the promised land, and lived in Sodom (Gen 14:12). Likely, he loved his uncle Abram, but to Lot, "business is business." By his decision he put financial growth as more important than the promise of God. He and his people were irritable, and quarrels arose. In itself, is there anything wrong with making more money? No.

Is there something else going on here?

Robert Alter (born 1935), an expert in ancient Hebrew narrative and Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Berkeley, and author of The Art of Biblical Narrative, 1981, explains that Gen 13:10 is the interpretation of Lot's uplifted heart on the basis of what he saw. His heart sees that the plain of the Jordan is "like the garden of the Lord." What does this mean? Alter says that when Lot saw the well-watered plain of the Jordon, Lot did not just see a way to get rich. But he also saw it spiritually, being "like the garden of" Eden. What does this mean?

In the movie, the Chariots of Fire, Harold Abrahams, the Jewish 100 meter Olympic runner trained so hard not just to win the gold medal, which he did. But he said, "I feel that when the gun goes off, I have 10 seconds to justify my existence." What is he saying here? On the most obvious level, he is saying, "The main thing I want is to win the gold medal." Others may say, "The main thing I want is to get married." Or "To get my dream job." Or "To do well financially in my career." Or in Lot's case, "To get riches in the well-watered plain of the Jordon."

But is this true, that what they want is the MAIN THING they want? The truth is that there is something deeper that they are seeking. What is it?

We human beings do not know who we are. We do not know what we are worth. We do not know what we are made for. We have deep spiritual insecurity. So, in the pursuit of "the MAIN THING I want," we are trying to attain these things.

Harold Abrahams did not just need to win the gold medal. But he needed more to feel that he is important, and that his life is significant and means something. Or if someone says that the most important thing is to be loved, what are they really saying? They are not just after love. They are after the assurance that they are lovable. If you desperately want the honor and respect of someone else, what are you truly seeking? It is not just after honor and respect, but that you are indeed worthy of honor and respect. This is what Robert Altar says is implied in Gen 13:10.

The Bible tells us that there is a deep inner desperation in every man. Everyone is desperate for certain things. If a woman says, "I don't need men. I have a great career." Then she is desperate for a career to replace her desperation for a man. Why is every man so desperate for something? If it's not one thing, it is something else.

In the Garden of Eden, in "the garden of the Lord," we knew who we were. We knew we had value. We knew what we were worth. Why? It is because in the garden of the Lord, we were walking with God (Gen 3:8). But after the Fall, we lost our confident inner assurance. We always need to prove ourselves to others. Our present human condition is that we do not know who we are; we do not know what we are worth. So, we are trying to get it back. We are trying to get back into "the garden of the Lord."

We say, consciously or not, "If I had that..." "If I were married to him or to her..." "If I had this career, this kind of money and financial security..." "If I had a nice house, then it would validate me..." "I have 10 seconds to validate my existence." We think that if we had this or that, then our inner desert or our inner emptiness would be gone. But there is more going on than money, or our career, or being in love, or having children, or the Olympic gold medal. Lot is doing what we are all doing. He doesn't want to just get rich. But he has set his heart/hope on riches in such a way that he has turned this spiritually to be something that will finally complete him. But it won't. The rest of Lot's life clearly shows that it doesn't (Gen 14,18,19). Isn't this what all people do?

If one gets married and says, "Finally, "the garden of the Lord." Now I know that my life is complete and fulfilled. Now I know who I am. Now I know I am lovable." If we go into marriage this way, or parenting this way, or career this way, something will give eventually, as it did with Lot. It's like putting a 3 ton truck on a 1 ton bridge. It will break. It's putting 3 tons of spiritual expectations on a finite thing. It is going to crack. It will crack. Even in this text, there is anger, quarreling, grumpiness, irritation, because Lot set his heart on money and riches, which influenced his men. He is driven by it. He will trample even on uncle Abram. Lot has looked spiritually at success, money, riches, and said, "It's like 'the garden of the Lord.'" Robert Altar says that it is exaggeration; it is hyperbolic language. But it is spiritually significant.

This shows us what we all do. It also shows us why we do it.

It is because we are alienated from the garden. We are trying to get it back. We are trying to get back into the garden. But it is ridiculous. Why? Lot wants the garden of the Lord, without the Lord. How can this ever happen? How can we ever have this kind of satisfaction, contentment, meaning, success, and worth without God?

To Lot, seeking riches and success became to him like "the garden of the Lord," to give him what only God can give him.

II. The Heart of Abram

The heart and center of Abram is completely different from Lot. Gen 13:8-9 says, "So Abram said to Lot, 'Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives. 9 Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.'” Today we may not realize the weight of what Abram did. Abram lived in a patriarchal society where seniority and age was everything. Abram was the head of the clan, the uncle, the head honcho. Lot was his young nephew. For Abram to give Lot the advantage by giving him 1st choice was quite amazing. Abram could have dictated the terms for himself and Lot, where he and Lot would go. No one in that society would ever think that there was anything wrong with that.

Why did Abram do this? Abram had 3 things and he could not keep all 3:

  1. His relationship with God.
  2. His relationship with Lot.
  3. His relationship with money. (The best possibility for financial growth.)
Abram had 3 choices:
  1. Abram and Lot could have left Canaan together, and gone somewhere else spacious where both of them could continue to flourish and grow financially. Then he would have kept his relationship with Lot intact, and with his money intact. But he would not be trusting God, since God had called him to be in Canaan.
  2. If Abram said, "I am the leader. You're the younger," and he chose the fertile plain of the Jordan, he would have kept his relationship with God and with his money; he would be keeping the promise of God to remain in the land, and become wealthier. But Lot would have felt deeply alienated/embittered. His relationship with Lot would suffer, since Lot's heart was captivated by riches and material abundance.
  3. Do what he did in Gen 13:8-9. He gave Lot the choice, surely knowing what Lot would do. In this way, Abram kept his relationship with God, and with Lot. But he would put himself in financial jeopardy, and take a hit financially.
Abram made the painful choice based on this order:
  1. God.
  2. Family.
  3. Money.
In this way, Abram loved God with all his heart, and his neighbor Lot as himself (Matt 22:37-39). Though it was a painful costly choice, it was a wise and good decision for several reasons:
  1. Abram knew that if he and Lot were alienated from each other, their enemies, the hostile tribes among the Canaanites and Perizites in the land (Gen 13:7), would have the upper hand. Lot didn't care, for he was blinded by his love of money (1 Tim 6:10). But Abram knew that it was wise to keep a good relationship with Lot.
  2. Abram's decision was outside the box. It was culturally subversive. The older man giving the younger man the advantage and the upper hand was unheard of. It was creative and unusual and the opposite of cultural convention.
  3. Abram entrusted his life to God. He did the right thing by God. He did the right thing by man. How could Abram have this kind of wisdom? This kind of poise? It was from the call of God.
What can we learn here about the call of God upon Abram's life? What is the essence of being called by God? Does it mean that before I heard the Call I slept around, but now I am sexually controlled and pure? Does it mean that before I heard the Call I spent all my money on myself, but now I give my money for the poor and to charity? Though our new lives as Christians would move along those lines, that is by no means the essence of what it means to hear the call of God. Being a Christian is NOT primarily about keeping a book of rules. Heb 11:8-10 says, "By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God."

In light of this, what does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to live on the basis of the call of God?

1) Your foundations change. What does this mean?

In the first Rocky movie, Rocky explains to his girlfriend Adrian that all he wants is to go the distance in the boxing ring, and stay on his feet with the champion, Apollo Creed. Why? He said, "Then I will know that I am not a bum." What do we learn here? Every single human being has something that he feels he must do, or that he must achieve and accomplish, so that he will know that he is not a bum. Why? It is because we are alienated from the garden. So, we don't know who we are. We don't know what we are worth. We are not sure what our life means. We are not sure that we are lovable. So each of us has something that we feel we desperately need--a relationship, a status, a sense of our own significance, etc, (whether we are willing to admit it or not), so that if we did not have it, or if we lost it, we would be completely devastated. We would feel that we are just a bum without that something.

Your foundation is what makes you feel good about yourself, what makes you want to get up in the morning, what drives you and motivates you, etc. It could be our spouse, our family, our children, our career, our money, like in the case of Lot. It could be anything.

With the call of God our foundations change. God told Abram, "leave" (Gen 12:1). It meant to stop finding his security/foundation in the things he clung to, and was afraid to lose. God says:

  • Make my righteousness your wealth.
  • Make my love your identity.
  • Make my approval your joy.
  • Make my will your mission and purpose in life.
  • Make my salvation your story.
If we hear the call of God and respond accordingly, God gives us true freedom (John 8:32, 36; Acts 13:39; Rom 6:18, 8:2; 2 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:1). We will experience exhilarating liberation. Then we no longer need to have this person, this success, this status, this achievement, that has only driven us, often to the ground. Now, by the grace of God, we can live on the basis of the call of God. This changes the foundation of our life from "things" to God himself.

When Abram's life foundation was changed, he had the power, the wisdom, the resolve, the strength to make the choices and decisions that he did. He had the creativity and the freedom from cultural convention to make his unusual counter-intuitive counter-cultural offer to Lot. It was possible because Abram's foundation has changed by responding to the call of God.

2) You are able to handle your failures. To change our foundation is so subtle that we think we have done so when we may not have. Read Gen 13:3-4. "From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier 4 and where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the LORD." This is the pilgrimage of repentance. Gen 12:10-20 tells about a huge failure of Abram: he rushed to Egypt during a famine, leaving the promised land, failing to trust God. In Egypt, he lied about his wife and lost her to the harem of Pharaoh. It was a complete disaster. But in Gen 13:1-4, Abram repented and went back to trusting in the Lord and building alters. He retraced his steps to the spot where he last had trusted and obeyed God. Why is this so important?

How will you know that you have really changed your foundations and are resting in the grace of God? The call is all about the grace of God. When you have received the call of God, you realize that it is all only the grace of God and not your own doing (Eph 2:8-9). The call of God leads to a change in foundation, which is based entirely on the grace of God.

The only way you know that your foundation is changed and resting entirely in the grace of God is by how you handle your own personal failures. This is an unpleasant/traumatic story that sadly illustrates this point: There was a professing Christian who went to a conservative church for many years. One tragic day, all 3 of his kids was killed in a car accident. But this man responded with great faith and poise, testifying to the goodness of God and the sovereignty and providence of God. The funeral was remarkable as he shared his testimony of how God has been helping him, supporting him. Some years later he confessed to his pastor that he felt attracted to a woman in church who was not his wife. He had not acted on this, but he felt guilty and condemned. The pastor commended him for his confession and encouraged him to repent. But he could not. He met numerous pastors and professional counselors, to no avail. Eventually he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where he committed suicide.

How do you account for a man who was strong enough to overcome the death of his 3 kids, but who could not handle a lustful feeling that he couldn't shake? What is going on here? To answer this, we have to ask: What was his foundation? What was he resting on, so that he would not feel like a bum? What was the basis of his sense of his own significance and worth?

This is very hard to answer. It is quite possible to say that my foundation is no longer being loved, no longer money or career or worldly aspirations or fame, but my foundation is Jesus. I believe in God. I study the Bible. I'm going to church. I'm tithing. I'm serving others. I am fully committed to Jesus. My foundation is Christ. My foundation is in God. But such a foundation may not be in God himself, but in the purity and the quality and the intensity of my faith, my commitment, my loyalty, my doctrine, my faithfulness, my service for the church. Such a foundation is still resting in our performance, and not in the grace of God.

Therefore, it is possible to think that you have heard the call when you haven't, because the call is not about being a better person, a more committed person, a more sacrificial, faithful, serving person. It is a call to rest in the grace of God. The way you know you are resting in the grace of God is not in the way you handle suffering, but in the way you handle your own failures.

This man was so confident to prove to others what a strong solid Christian he was in the time of unbearable suffering. But the real acid test of whether you have heard the call of God is how you handle your own personal failures. Can you receive God's forgiveness? Can you move on? Or do you just beat yourself up?

If someone cannot get past his own failures, he may be a good person, a moral person, a religious person, a sacrificial person, but he may not have made the foundational shift from resting in the foundation of the grace of God.

Abram experienced failure in Gen 12:10-20, and repented in Gen 13:1-4. Then he experienced a deeper, greater liberation than before. That's why he is able to act counter-intuitively and give the 1st choice to Lot. Why? He has given up his own foundation and is resting in a new foundation rooted solely in the grace of God. That's why he is able to live a big magnanimous life.

III. The Heart of Someone Else

Gen 13:14-15 say, "The LORD said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, 'Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. 15 All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.'”  The ESV says, "Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are..." This location is a high mountain with a spectacular look out. God took Abram up this mountain to look all around him, and promised to give it all to him. How could God promise to give Abram all of this? Abram had been a failure in Egypt (Gen 12:10-20). God knew he would continue to fail again in the future. Why would God promise him such an abundant blessing? Is something wrong with God? Does God have no standards? How could God do this?

There is a 3rd man who is pointed to in this text. Centuries later, the real son and seed of Abram was also taken up a high mountain, and someone offered him the whole world, if he would just bow down and worship him (Matt 4:9). This sounds parallel, but with a difference.

When Satan took Jesus up a high mountain and offered the world to Jesus, there is a great irony. Satan was offering Jesus what was already his by right. The temptation was that Satan was giving Jesus these things without renunciation, without suffering, without going to the cross, without following God's way. But Jesus refused. Jesus knew that he came to lose everything: his Father's face, his authority, his glory.

God takes Abram up the mountain and offers to give him that which was not his by right. But Satan takes Jesus up the mountain and offers him that which was already his. Yet Jesus refused them. Why?

The reason God is able to offer Abram and us an abundance of blessing that 1) doesn't belong to us, and 2) despite our failure, is because Jesus refused the blessing that was rightfully his, so that he can give it to us. God is able to give us abundant blessings only because Jesus lost it all.

Abram points to one who is far greater than him (John 8:56,58). No one can be like Abram just by trying. We can only be like Abram when we "lift up (our) eyes and look" and believe the One who Abram is pointing to. Jesus lost his ultimate wealth (2 Cor 8:9), so that we can receive the ultimate wealth, which is the restoration of "the garden of the Lord."

Do you have trouble dealing with your own personal failure, when you give in to the same besetting sins again and again? Are you upset with those around you, because they do not do what you expect them to do? When they do not respect you the way you think you deserve to be respected? Are you burnt out in despair and frustration, wondering what your own value and worth and significance is? The only way to deal with any issues and problems that we have is when our foundation is changed from ourselves to the grace of God.

Only when we "lift up (our) eyes and look" and see what Jesus gave up on the mountain for me, can we truly be generous toward others, as Abram was toward Lot.

We are stupid all like Lot. We are all trying to find "the garden of the Lord" without the Lord. But Jesus gave up the ultimate "the garden of the Lord" so that we may have it restored to us.

This is based on a sermon by Tim Keller, entitled "Real Riches and the Ambitious Man." The 3 parts of Keller's sermon are 1) The Ambition of Lot; 2) The Ambition of Abram; 3) The Ambition of Someone Else. I changed the word ambition to heart. I also changed the title to "Man's Heart and Center."

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