Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 14 1-24 Meeting Mysterious Melchizedek

One of the challenges of venturing into the Old Testament comes in a passage like ours this morning. It’s the sort of reading that strikes fear in the heart and a twist in the tongue of whoever has been allocated it to read. A list of unheard of and unpronounceable names, people we might only hear about once in the whole Bible. Why would we want to bother reading about Chedorlaomer or Shemeber?

It might transport you back to your history classes at school, when you heard of kings from over a thousand years ago. At least those kings could be pronounced easier. What could Genesis 14 teach us?

We want to be a church family that takes Jesus’ words seriously. In Luke 24:44 Jesus says that ‘everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ The whole Old Testament is all about Jesus. So that means that Genesis 14 will, in some way, point us to Jesus as well. Yet it comes in a way you wouldn’t expect. It’s a blink and you might miss it type of signpost. And it comes in one of those hard to pronounce proper names, as we’ll see.

On Friday, Parliament was recalled to debate joining a Middle Eastern alliance to wage war on ISIS. As Genesis 12 opens, we find a royal rumble taking place. On the sermon outline, I’ve tried to summarise it. The kings of Shinar, Ellasar, Elam and Goiim are taking on the kings of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim and Bela. For so long, the second group had served Chedorlaomer, but now they rebelled. So he brought his mates to fight against them.

The Sodom group turned and ran away, so Chedorlaomer took all their goods and provisions and went away. They’ve taken the spoils of war, captured the tanks and tents and all the food and wine. But look at what else they took. Verse 12: ‘They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who lived in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.’ A fortnight ago, Lot pitched his tent near Sodom, now he’s living in the city. But he has been captured, kidnapped.

Someone escapes, and they run to tell Abram what has happened. Abram has his own private army and sets off with them and his friends to rescue Lot. Abram is a powerful man - he has 318 men of his household trained in war. He sends his forces by night, with military strategy. He wins the victory and brings back the goods and everything that had been taken. The rescuer returns. We see that in verse 17. As he returns, the King of Sodom goes out to meet Abram. His conversation is found in verses 21-24.

Abram refuses to take any reward - not even a thread, not even a sandal-thong (a shoe lace) - ‘so that you might not say, “I have made Abram rich”’ Abram is holding on to God’s promise of descendants and land and blessing. That’s all he needs. And so that the glory goes to God, he refuses to take anything from Sodom. You can imagine the king of Sodom in later years: ‘Ah yes, that Abram is all rich now. I remember when he had nothing. You know, I started him off. I gave him his first break. He would still be nothing if it wasn’t for me!” But the glory is God’s. The rescuer returns.

I wonder if you noticed something strange when we were reading earlier on. Look at verse 17. The king of Sodom went out to meet Abram. You expect him to speak, to say something, but before he does, this other mysterious king appears and speaks instead. When you look at it closer, we could probably do without verses 18-20. The king of Sodom comes out in verse 17, and he speaks in verse 21. You could seamlessly move from 17 to 21. But why are 18-20 there? Why do we need to deal with Melchizedek? Let’s see what we’re told first. He’s king of Salem. He brings out bread and wine. He is priest of God Most High. He blesses Abram, and Abram gives him a tenth, a tithe.

If this was the only reference to Melchizedek, we could lump him with the other kings from the royal rumble. Interesting, but not particularly helpful. Perhaps only useful for a Bible Trivia Quiz. Who was the King of Goiim? Tidal. It’s as if Melchizedek drifts in and out of the text in these three verses.

The next time he is mentioned comes in Psalm 110, a psalm written by King David. The LORD is speaking to David’s Lord - King Jesus. In verse 4, the king is given another role. ‘The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.”’

There’s something about this mysterious Melchizedek that shows us what the true King of God’s people will be like. But nothing more is said in the Old Testament. A couple of strange references. It’s only in the letter to the Hebrews that the light fully comes on. Here, the Spirit-inspired writer gives us the commentary on who Melchizedek is, and why he matters.

Unlike everyone else in Genesis, there is no genealogy for Melchizedek. We’re not told of his parents; we’re not told that he died. It appears that he lives for ever. ‘But resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest for ever.’

Melchizedek, the king and priest, points us to Jesus, the Priest King. We think regularly of how Jesus is King Jesus, the one who reigns. But Jesus is also the Priest King. The King is our priest, the one who makes sacrifice for us, the one who prays for us, the one who has already entered into heaven on our behalf.

After Abram’s victory, Melchizedek brings bread and wine. Some reckon that this is what a returning soldier needs - some food and drink to keep him going. But others see in these gifts a pointer to the Lord’s Supper.

Melchizedek the priest king speaks out God’s blessing on Abram: ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ Abram, you’re blessed, not because of what you have achieved, but simply because God has given you the victory. God has been gracious to you, given you what you didn’t deserve. It’s then that Abram responds by giving the tenth - recognising that everything he has comes from God’s hand. It all belongs to God.

Among the bitumen pits and in the King’s Valley, we meet with mysterious Melchizedek. As we look at this blink and you miss him old testament character, we find that he show us what Jesus is like. Jesus the priest king, who sustains us for the journey. Jesus the priest king, who declares God’s blessing. Jesus the priest king, who receives our response.

Is this the great high priest you need to know about today? You have a great high priest who has entered the most holy place, who constantly lives to intercede for you. Your burdens are his burdens. Your concerns are his concerns. He lives to pray for you right now. Every moment of every day. When you sleep, or when you toss and turn. Know that Jesus is praying for you.

And know that where Jesus is, is where we will be. He is already in God’s holy place. His presence there, sacrifice completed, is our hope - hope like an anchor which is grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love. We can hold firm to God’s promise, because he is holding us firm.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 28th September 2014.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sermon: Philippians 3:15 - 4:1 Citizens of Heaven

I wonder if you’ve ever heard the funny little poem, in which nothing quite makes sense:

One fine day in the middle of the night,
two dead men got up to fight.
Back to back, they faced each other,
drew their swords and shot the other!

It’s a bit like the minister who told the congregation to get down on your knees and thank the Lord you’re still standing! It sounds as if the two things don’t fit together. We get another example of it in tonight’s reading from Philippians. In verse 17, Paul urges the Philippian Christians to ‘keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.’ If they do this, then in 4:1, they will be standing firm. Walking, but standing firm!

While it sounds like something contradictory, we’ll see tonight that by the way we walk we can stand firm - as we live out who we are as Christians.

At the start of verse 17, Paul says a most remarkable thing. ‘Brothers, join in imitating me.’ He says, do what I do. Now I would suspect that there aren’t many of us, or even any of us who would be so bold as to write to a whole church and say, what you see me do, you do as well. We’re more likely to say, look at Jesus and copy him. But for Paul to say, imitate me - who does he think he is?

But we need to remember that this is one big letter he is writing. We tend to take the next little chunk without seeing how it fits into the flow of the letter as a whole. He didn’t just write this in a text message. This wasn’t an isolated phrase. Rather, it’s like one part of the road network that brings you from home to church - you need to take that corner, but it comes immediately after the hill, or whatever.

Last time, if you can remember back before the summer, we saw how Paul had compiled his religious CV, all the very impressive things he thought he could achieve; and how, in the light of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus, all Paul’s achievements were counted as rubbish, dung. Instead, all that counts now is knowing Christ - the power of his resurrection and sharing in his sufferings.

This is what Paul is urging the Philippians (and us) to do as well. This is how we should imitate him. Forget about any achievements or religious performance, and instead focus only on knowing Christ in his death and resurrection. But the Philippians might have been thinking to themselves, well, that’s ok for you to say, Paul, but you’re far away. How can we actually see what it looks like in practice, lived out?

That’s why he gives them a worked out example. ‘Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.’ Here’s a visual aid for you to watch and follow. Here are people in your church who walk this way. In those days, of course, there were no fancy cars, nothing but a donkey/horse, or else your own two feet. To walk became a picture of how you lived your life.

He’s saying to watch the people who live out the example of Paul, those who don’t put any store in their performance, who live to know Jesus. Cast your eye around the church family. Are there those you can think of who fit in this category? Paul says to watch them, and to walk this way.

In verse 18 he tells us why it’s important to do this. ‘For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.’

On first sight, you would think that these enemies of the cross of Christ are those outside the church. It’s obvious that they don’t live according to the way of Christ. But that’s not who Paul is thinking of. The Philippians wouldn’t be tempted to follow them - they wouldn’t need to be warned of them.

Rather, these are people inside the church, who are enemies of the cross of Christ. They appear to be Christians, they might talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk. Paul warns the Christians not to follow them. Verse 19 tells us why.

‘Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.’ They’re walking towards destruction. It’s almost as if Paul is showing us things in reverse - here’s where their path leads to, but take a step back to see how they live - their god is their belly - that’s what they worship, comfort, ease, pleasure. Take a step back, and you see that they glory in their shame, what it shameful, they actually take delight in, they think is great; and take a step back, where does it all start from? ‘With minds set on earthly things.’

It was CS Lewis who said that if you aim for heaven, you get earth thrown in as well, but those who aim only for earth get neither. This is the path that some in the church are taking - don’t follow them!

Paul doesn’t just stop with the negative, though. He doesn’t just give us what we’re not to do, not to follow. He also shows us the way to go, and it seems to me, it’s the complete opposite of what he has warned us of. Each point in the pathway to destruction is matched by a positive in verses 20-21.

Their minds may be set on earthly things, but our citizenship is in heaven. Our news has been filled with debates about citizenship recently. People in Scotland were deciding if they were only Scottish, or also still British. Citizenship is all to do with identity, where you belong. Our citizenship, our identity, our belonging is in heaven. And what is it we glory in? ‘And from it we await a Saviour.’ Jesus the Saviour is our glory - the one we look to and depend on. Jesus the Saviour, who died on the cross and was raised to new life. He is our God, the one we worship. And while their end is destruction, our end is gloriously seen in verse 21: ‘who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.’

The path of the cross leads to the exaltation of the resurrection. It’s the path that Paul had found in his own life, and it’s the path that he commends to us as well. So watch how others walk - and follow those who follow Christ.

It is in this way that as we walk, we stand firm.

This sermon was preached at the evening service in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 21st September 2014.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 13: 1-18 Walk by faith, not by sight

Finding your way can sometimes be a tricky business. Trying to follow someone else’s directions is an adventure - especially when they don’t seem to make any sense. Watching out for the second lane or the third bungalow, or the horse that’s standing out in the field. And it’s even worse at night. Sometimes, you just have to go with what you’ve been told - trust me, you’ll get there. No matter how strange this sounds, you’re on the right track.

It’s bad enough when you’re trying to go somewhere in the car. But following directions for life can be even harder. Taking God at his word can sometimes bring us to the strangest of situations as he hold on to God’s promise. We want to walk by faith, fully trusting God, but it doesn’t seem to make any sense. Instead we try to go our own way. We walk by sight, how things look to us; rather than walking by faith.

In 2 Corinthians 5:7, Paul says that the Christian life can be summarised like this: ‘We walk by faith, not by sight.’ As I was studying our passage, I realised that’s a good summary of Abram in Genesis 13, so let’s turn there now. Last week, we saw how God had called Abram to go to a place he would show him, and Abram went. He heard the promise of God and held it. But then things went a bit pear shaped. There was famine in the place of blessing. He went to Egypt and tried to rely on his own wits. He sold off his wife as his sister to Pharaoh, bringing trouble all round.

As chapter 13 opens, he comes out of Egypt, and where does he go? He goes back to square one, back to the place it all began. Bethel, the place where his tent had been at the beginning; the place he had made an altar at the first. There he calls on the name of the LORD.

Abram is repenting. Turning back to the LORD, the promise making God. Coming again, wanting to start over afresh. Perhaps there are situations in your life over the past week where you’ve tried to sort it out yourself. You’ve gone your own way. It’s why our service normally begins with some form of confession. Saying sorry to God, coming back to him, calling on him for forgiveness and restoration. In Jesus, we have this forgiveness. The cross is the altar, the place of sacrifice we turn to and return to. Maybe even now, there are things troubling you. Why not resolve to come back to God. To confess your sin and your need. Turn to him.

As Abram returns to Bethel, and Lot his nephew with him, there are already signs of the LORD’s blessing on his life. Verse 2 had told us Abram was very rich. Lot also had flocks and herds and tents. The two couldn’t continue together. There wasn’t enough pasture for all of their livestock.

It reminds me of something we did at a BB Display years ago. I was the very smallest of all the Anchor Boys. We all came out in our pyjamas and lay down on the gym mat. And the song went: There were ten in the bed and the little one said: ‘Roll over! Roll over!’ Abram and Lot need to move over, to create a bit of space between them. The strife had started between their herders. The pressure is on, because the land is full - there are the Canaanites and the Perizzites.

Abram is the older of the two. He has the right to decide what to do, to tell Lot where to go. But look at verse 8. He takes the initiative. He offers the choice to Lot. ‘Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. I you take the left hand, then I will go to the right.’ Verse 10 shows us what Lot did with those words. It’s as if his eyes are out on stalks, like a cartoon character. ‘Lot looked about him, and that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere...’ Lot looks, he goes on what he sees. He takes the prime land for himself, the bit that you would have thought Abram would want for himself.

This is the best land. Well watered, like Eden was back in the beginning; like Egypt (where they had just been) was. So he chooses that. He goes east. He follows his eyes to take the best land. He’s walking by sight.

But even now, there are warning signs in the text. He’s headed for Sodom, taking his tent that direction. This was before Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. Like a flashing light or a neon sign, verse 13 tells us that ‘the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord.’

Lot walked by sight. He went for the easy life. The best he could manage, despite the company he would be keeping. Sometimes we settle for walking by sight as well. Going the way that seems best to us. Going for high fun content. But there may be trouble ahead.

Lot walked by sight. His uncle Abram, though, he walked by faith. He had received the LORD’s promise of the land twice in chapter 12. So he reckons that it’s his, no matter where Lot chooses to go; no matter who else might be living in the land. He takes God at his word, and moves into the land of Canaan. Lot was down by the riverside; Abram is in the hill country.

But it’s there that the LORD speaks again to Abram. ‘Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are.’ Lot looked, and chose his future by what he saw. Abram is to look, but this is with the eyes of faith - northwards, southwards, eastwards and westwards. ‘For all the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring for ever.’

Abram looks all around, even on the bit that Lot has chosen. It’s all his, by God’s promise. His offspring will receive it. It will all be theirs. He can see the land, but he can’t see the fulfilment with his own eyes. He needs the eyes of faith, to trust in what God says.

The promise is expanded, so that his offspring will be like the dust of the earth. The next time you’re hoovering, take a look inside the bag (or the cylinder if you’ve got a Dyson). Where does all the dust come from? How does it gather so quickly? But look closer. Could you number it? Could you count the little specks of dust? Impossible, unless you’ve got a super powered microscope at home. Childless Abram is promised that his offspring will be so many that they’re like the dust of the earth.

You could laugh it off. It seems ridiculous, that 75 year old Abram could produce so big a family. But Abram takes God at his word. He walks, not by sight, but by faith in the God who speaks creation into being by his word; who by his mighty power gives us a Saviour who dies in weakness; who includes us in Abram’s children as we trust his word.

Abram really does walk by faith, in obedience to God’s call in verse 17 to walk through the whole land, as a symbolic sign of possession. He moves his tent to Mamre, Hebron, where he builds another altar to the LORD.

Could it be that the LORD is calling us to walk by faith, not by sight? Is he wanting us to step out and do something that seems crazy to our eyes? To hold to God’s promise and give more to a mission agency rather than spending it on ourself? To invest more in God’s kingdom? To give ourselves to pray or study or serve when all we want to do is keep ourselves safe and secure? Let’s not trust just what we can see or reason for ourselves; Let’s step out and walk by faith, not by sight.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 14th Sseptember 2014.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Sermon: Psalm 87 Glorious things of you are spoken

A few years ago, Elton John caused some controversy by claiming that ‘songwriters today are pretty awful, which is why everything sounds the same. Contemporary pop isn’t very inspiring.’ And it could well be that you agree with him! Lots of singers and bands seem to produce endless versions of the same song. If you’ve heard 1 One Direction song, the rest sound just the same. Or to my ears it’s the same with Daniel O’Donnell!

As we finish off our summer series in the psalms, you might notice the common thread running through them all. The sons of Korah were the worship leaders in the temple in Jerusalem, and as they begin to sing, you might think, ‘here we go again.’ They’re singing about Jerusalem - Zion, the city of God. Surely we’ve heard it all before. But don’t tune out just yet. While the song starts in a familiar place, the message of the psalm takes a new direction. This is something that affects us directly. Even though we are so far away from Jerusalem, this song is really about us.

So even if all of Daniel O’Donnell’s songs sounded the same, your ears would prick up if you realised he was singing a song about you. Here, the sons of Korah are singing about you from the city of God. But they begin in the city. ‘On the holy mount stands the city he founded; the LORD loves the gates of Zion more than all the dwelling places of Jacob. Glorious things of you are spoken, O city of God.’ This is the city of God. He has founded it, it was his idea, and it stands on the holy mount. It’s not that the mountain is holy, or sacred by itself - rather, it is holy because God has set it apart. This is the place that God has chosen.

Back in Deuteronomy, Moses had told the people that God would choose the place for his dwelling when they made it into the promised land. It was King David who captured the city of Jerusalem, the city of the Jebusites, and made it into the city of God. He could have chosen anywhere in the land of Israel, but he chose Jerusalem, Zion, the city of God. He has set his love on it, the place he founded.

It’s no wonder, then, that glorious things are said of the city. You see, this is no ordinary place. This isn’t like any other capital city of any other nation. This is the city that God has chosen to set his love on. This is the place his presence is to be found. This is where you can come to meet with God. What a special place, what a special people.
And yet, the glorious things spoken of the city aren’t finished with when we get to the end of verse 3. The next verses are also glorious - in a quite unexpected way.

Most days when you pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV news, you’ll find some reference to immigration. Despite coming through Europe, many people are seeking to enter the United Kingdom - some even dying in the attempt. Even when they arrive, they face challenges and difficulties. The recent attacks on homes in Belfast and beyond bear witness to the way they are viewed by a minority in our community.

In verse 4, we’re given a list of various nations and people groups surrounding Israel at the time. ‘Rahab (which is Egypt) and Babylon; Philistia and Tyre, with Cush.’ Egypt and Babylon were Israel’s greatest enemies - from first to last. Egypt had enslaved Israel after a new Pharaoh forgot about Joseph’s legacy, up until the point that Moses brought the people to freedom, through God’s Passover rescue. Babylon was the nation to take Judah into slavery when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the city and took Daniel and his friends into exile. Philistia was a nearer neighbour, to the west, and a constant enemy. Goliath was one of those Philistines, and they kept attacking Israel. Tyre was Israel’s neighbour to the north, a prosperous independent trading town on the coast. And Cush? It’s modern day Ethopia, and represents the ends of the earth, a far away place.

But how are these enemies all mentioned? Look back to the start of verse 4. ‘Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon...’ In verse 4, it seems as if God is speaking. To know God is to be in relationship with him. It’s the description that Jesus uses in John 10 - my sheep know me. The enemies of Israel; indeed, the enemies of God are being brought to know him. All these non-Jews are being given the privileges of the Jews. So when you read Cush, for the ends of the earth, well, we’re even further from Israel, so this is about us as well.

Now if you were stopped by the police on the way home from church and they asked for ID, you would show them your driving licence. Or you might show your passport. Both bits of ID contain a very important detail about you. It says your name, your date of birth, but it also says your place of birth. Your place of birth helps to identify you, it says where you are from, it normally gives a clue to your citizenship.

Well look what the rest of verse 4 (indeed, right through to verse 6) says. These non-Jews; these enemies; these foreigners; these strangers; ‘This one was born there.’ Born where? Born in Zion, ‘for the Most High himself will establish her.’ It’s as if the singer has moved from the earthly city of Jerusalem (which God founded on the holy mount), so that now he is talking about heavenly Zion which the Most High is establishing.

It’s made even more clear in verse 6. ‘The LORD records as he registers the peoples, ‘This one was born there.’ In the Lord’s register, he records those who have been born in Zion. This isn’t an earthly birth certificate, the way births have to be registered in the Town Hall in Enniskillen. This is the heavenly birth certificate, in the Lord’s book of life.

The sons of Korah are looking forward from their day to ours. They see that Gentiles, non-Jews, are being born again spiritually from above, being registered as citizens of heaven, and welcomed into the family of God. This was the reason that the Lord Jesus came, to die for his people and bring them to be born again.

In a moment or two we’re going to sing the song that comes from verse 3: ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken.’ Most of the hymn doesn’t come from the psalm. The writer imagines what God’s city is like, drawing on other passages. But the start of his last verse is the message of the psalm applied personally. You see, the hymn writer had been far from God. He was a slave trader, a cruel man. And yet, through a near death experience when his ship was almost destroyed, he found refuge in Derry Cathedral where he was converted, and later became a Church of England minister. ‘Saviour, since of Zion’s city I through grace a member am.’ John Newton discovered for himself that it is only by God’s grace that we can be citizens of God’s city. That grace is open for us today. If you have never been born again, come to God today, accept Jesus, and find the joy of being a member of Zion’s city. It’s the joy of the singers and dancers who find their needs supplied: ‘All my springs are in you.’ Why not come today, as we hear of glorious Zion; that can be your new destiny today.

Or perhaps you are a Christian. Take some time today to marvel at these Old Testament saints singing of you, describing how you have come in from the cold; how you have been joined to God’s people. It’s no wonder that glorious things are spoken of God’s city!

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 31st August 2014. Sadly it wasn't posted to the blog at the time, but here it is now!

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Sermon: Genesis 12: 1-20 Receiving God's Promise

This past week, we spent quite a bit of time with family. I don’t know about yours, but most families, when they get together, start sharing stories of times gone by. ‘Do you remember when...?’ Did you ever hear about that day...? Stories of old generations doing things that we would never have gotten away with! Common threads down through family lines.

As we launch into Genesis 12 we’re delving back into the family story. Abraham (as he becomes) is our father in the faith, our great, great grandfather. You might remember two years ago we started on page 1 of the Bible and traced the start of Genesis, from Adam to Abram through Eden, paradise lost, Cain’s murder of Abel, Noah and the flood and the tower of Babel. This term we’ll walk with Abram, discovering that his God is our God. This morning, we’ll see what it looks like to receive God’s promise, as Abram experienced it, and what that means for us, here today.

The promise comes in the very first verses of chapter 12. There’s no hint that it’s coming. We’re not told anything about Abram, expect he was born, he had a wife Sarai (who was barren), and that’s it. But suddenly unexpectedly, comes the voice and promise of God. The LORD speaks these words to him: ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’

It sounds like a mystery tour, doesn’t it? You’re going to leave everything that’s familiar, and go somewhere I’ll show you. At least on a mystery bus tour you know that you’ll end up home again the same night. But this is a mystery tour for life.

There’s a command, but there’s also a promise. God will show him the land, but God also promises that ‘I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ Do you hear the repeated phrase here? ‘I will...’

So what is it that God is promising here? Graeme Goldsworthy has summarised God’s kingdom in a neat little phrase: ‘God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and blessing.’ Just think of Eden. You had Adam and Eve in Eden under God’s rule and blessing. But then they disobeyed God and were thrown out of the garden. The flood showed the depth of our depravity. Now God is beginning again. He calls Abram (God’s person!) who he will make into a great nation (God’s people) in the land he will show him (God’s place), under God’s rule and blessing.

Someone once said that the Bible breaks into two - not (as we might think) the old and new testaments, but rather between Genesis 1-11 and from Genesis 12 on. The rest of the Bible is the working out of this promise to Abram.

Abram received the promise by first of all hearing God’s promise. The LORD said, but Abram had to listen. Could it be that the LORD is speaking words of comfort and reassurance, or command and challenge, words of blessing, but we don’t receive the promise because we’re not listening to him? Perhaps you are being called to step out, to do something new, to offer yourself in some way. Are you taking time to hear God’s voice?

It’s important to hear God’s promise. But it’s not enough. We also need to hold on to it, by doing what he says. Abram’s response is found in verse 4. ‘So Abram went, as the LORD told him.’ This was a big deal. He was leaving all that was familiar. He was packing up and setting off with his wife and his nephew. That would be a big deal at any age, but especially for Abram. He was seventy-five years old when he left Haran. Sometimes our society looks down on those who are older. In the pursuit of youth, those who have been around longer are considered vintage. But not in God’s eyes. Not in the church. At 75, when even Church of Ireland rectors have to retire (so I’ve a bit to go yet), Abram was only getting started.

He holds onto the promise of God as he sets off to go to the land of Canaan. He has never been there. He doesn’t know the way, but he has the promise of God to guide him. Now if you were writing the story, your English teacher might look at verses 5-8 and say there’s too much repetition. There’s one word repeated over and over in every sentence. Land.

Abraham had heard the promise - the land God would show him. Now it’s as if Moses has one of those big maps you look at when you arrive in a new place which has a big red arrow which says ‘You Are Here!’ Abraham is holding the promise, he has arrived in the land, and God affirms the promise by saying ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ (7)

When you have heard God’s promise, are you holding on to it? You’ve heard God’s word to you; you’ve stepped out in faith to do what he is calling you to; but what happens when things don’t work out the way you had them planned? What if God’s blessing doesn’t come in the way you thought it would?

That’s where Abram finds himself in verse 10. He has heard God’s promise. He is holding God’s promise, but now the hard times have come. With all the emphasis on the land and God’s blessing, verse 10 comes as a bit of a shock. ‘Now there was a famine in the land.’ The boss calls you into the office to say that they can’t afford to keep you on. The doctor gives you bad news. What do you do with God’s promise in the hard times?

Abram tries to solve it himself. He leaves the land of promise and goes down to Egypt. On the way, he tells his wife Sarai to say she is his sister. Maybe he thinks he is on his own south of the border. Maybe he thinks he can look after himself. Maybe he is doubting God’s promise. He reckons that he would be killed if she’s his wife; but will receive a bride price if she’s his sister.

She’s beautiful, Pharaoh hears of her, and the negotiation begins. Abram gets sheep, oxen, donkeys, slaves and camels (16). He’s becoming wealthy by selling off his wife as his sister. Is this the way you would expect someone trusting in God would behave? But look - and how we need this reminder - Abram doesn’t get away with it. The LORD afflicted Pharaoh with plagues. He’s sent packing - but gets to keep all he had received, going back to the land.

Receiving the promise is all about hearing and holding God’s promise, even in the hard times. So are you hearing God’s promise? The Bible study is one way of tuning in to God’s word. Taking up your Bible to read each day is another way. How are you hearing?

Holding God’s promise comes next - when you hear it, are you holding to it? Are you taking God at his word, trusting his voice? One way you can do that is by coming to the table today, showing that you are trusting in the promise of forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of Jesus, looking forward to his return. And will you hold on to God’s promise, even when it hurts? Even in the hard times? You see, that’s when it really counts; that’s when we prove God’s faithfulness, and discover the reality of his promise, the unbreakable nature of his word. Let’s hear and hold.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 7th September 2014.