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Possessions or the Promise?

Published: 7 months ago- 17 September 2023
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SERMON MANUSCRIPT

● INTRODUCTION

What do you think it would take for Christianity in our city to take a big hit? What do you think would pose a big challenge to the faith of the members of our church, a challenge that might make it even easier than it already is to turn away from Jesus?

A lot of Christians were engrossed by the census results that came out two years ago. Everybody was pretty exercised by the report that Australians who identify as Christian decreased from 61% to 44% over the last ten years.

This was the first time it had dropped below 50% and everybody had their own pet theory as to what has caused this decrease. But what do you think it would take to bring this down to, say, 25%? What kind of challenge do you think would bring Australians to turn away from Jesus en masse?

I guess it might be a lot of things. We all have our personal challenges, and religious discrimination or even persecution might be just around the corner. But if we pay attention to the passage we just heard, it reminds us that it is more likely to be something else, something that you might not have otherwise thought of.

The Abraham story is all about faith and how God tested Abraham’s faith over a very long time. There are, of course, episodes where he fails miserably, but in this episode, we see him pass with flying colours. It’s a victory moment. But I find fascinating in this episode is how easy it is to miss which of the two events it relates was actually the test.

It’s easy to miss in the story and I’d like to suggest that it’s even easier to miss in our own lives. This test is something we might not even think of as a test of faith. And this is why we need this reminder. So, let’s give it our best attention.

● EXPOSITION

At this point in the story Abraham still has his old name-he is still Abram-and he is about to sit the second big test in his spiritual ATAR. He has picked up a few QCE points already. He’s already been tested by famine but now he faces war.

We read in verses 1 to 9 how the ancient version of World War III breaks out around his tents. 5 kings are battling it out with 4 other kings and Abram’s nephew Lot gets swept up in it. Lot, you may remember, has gone to live near Sodom and Gomorrah and after the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah get a whopping, their cities are plundered.

Abram gets wind of this and he hears that Lot has been taken captive along with everybody else. So, there is nothing for it. Abram phones a friend, saddles his camels, and embarks on a rescue mission worthy of Indiana Jones. And truly, I think this mission would make the perfect script for a Hollywood epic.

It’s the middle of the night and the women and children are bound and gagged. They’re guarded by these huge, ripped baddies. An arrow whistles through the air and the guards slump to the ground. Abram’s men slip over the perimeter and free the captives. They creep on a bit further, and then they spring the ambush.

The sabres are rattling, the heads are rolling, and that action music is going “dump-dump da-da dump-dump da-da dump-dump”. The baddies are all killed off by Abram’s men and they chase the five kings off the map. But did you notice that our story leaves all this out?

All these exciting bits fall to the cutting room floor. The screenwriter says, we don’t need that. And so, the climactic battle is summed up in the space of one measly verse. Verse 14 tells us that Abram “divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and defeated them”.

That’s it. Opportunity lost. The director should be sacked. He left out all the action. It’s like when you were watching an action movie and your parents fast forward all the gory bits. This safe-media policy should, however, give us pause to think.

Doesn’t God actually like a good action scene? If the Old Testament is anything to go by, I think he does. One of my all-time favourites is David and Goliath. You get excellent coverage of every detail up to and including David cutting off Goliath’s head and carrying it around with him as his trophy.

But you don’t get that here. All of that is left out. Why? All of this is left out on purpose because the screenwriter doesn’t want you to miss the real action. He doesn’t want you to miss Abram’s test. And this is the great twist in the story: Abram’s valiant and heroic rescue of Lot is not his second great test of faith.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Taking on all those kings would have taken some faith. Imagine heading out on a mission to recapture prisoners taken by ISIS. That’s effectively what Abram was doing. Many prayers would have been said before Abram locked and loaded. But this rescue mission is not Abram’s second test. The test actually comes next.

The test comes when Abram is nearly home. He is an international celebrity. Neighbouring countries have heard that he succeeded where the armies of 5 kings had failed. He’s quite old now, but he just took them out. Abram is like a geriatric Rambo. And he is now insanely rich.

He was wealthy before. He had a Penthouse on the river at Teneriffe, and he had a six-cylinder camel and a yacht. But now he is richer but a factor of 70. The entire belongings of Sodom and Gomorrah belong to him. He is literally shaking his booty all the way to the bank. And this is when the test comes.

The test comes when the kings of Sodom and Salem go out to meet him. What is this test? Did you miss it? It’s all about possessions. The author has actually been drawing our attention to this along the way. Look how many times the word possessions is repeated.

Verses 11 and 12: “the enemy took all the possessions of Sodom and Gomorrah … They also took Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who was dwelling in Sodom, and his possessions”.

And in verse 16 this word possessions is repeated twice again: “then he [that is, Abram] brought back all the possessions, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his possessions”. Possessions, possessions, possessions.

Abram’s got all the bling he could have ever wished for. He couldn’t have more stuff if he drove a truck up to the back door of Myer and filled it up. The possessions of an entire city are on the backs of his camels. There is nothing that Abram could want that he doesn’t now have. And it’s all a clinking and a clanking as the kings of Sodom and Salem draw near to greet him.

But what makes this a test is that all this stuff isn’t Abram’s to keep. It’s not that he didn’t win it fair and square. He did. But it’s not Abram’s to keep. It’s not his to keep because keeping it would mean turning his back on the promise God had given him. And you can tell that Abram knows this from what he says to the two kings.

Meet king number one: king Melchizedek. He is described as a priest of God Most High. The narrator wants us to understand that Abram recognizes Melchizedek’s God to be the same God that he worships. The only difference is that Abram uses the special name that God revealed to him-the LORD-when he speaks about God Most High.

King number one blesses Abram and in so doing reminds him of two important things. You know that victory you just won? You won because God gave you the victory. And you see all the stuff you’ve got? You’ve got that because God owns the entire world.

Look at verse 18: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”

And when Abram hears what king number one says, he nods his head. God did give me the victory. All of this stuff indeed is God’s to give. So, I’m handing back God’s share to his priest. He numbers off camels 1 through 10 and instructs his servants to hand over the loot to Melchizedek as an offering to God.

I think it’s important to see that this isn’t that different to when the plate goes around at church. We give to God because we acknowledge that everything we have is his in the first place. And we want to honour him for giving it to us. And so does Abram.

But then king number two pipes up. King number two, the king of Sodom, says to Abram, “You keep the rest. You keep all the stuff; it’s yours. I’d just like the people back.” And it is at this moment that Abram recognizes that this is the test of faith. You can tell by what he says next.

Abram replies, “No way. It’s not yours to give. All this stuff belongs to God. If I keep it, I will make God look bad and you’ll pretend you’re my sugar-daddy.” That’s paraphrasing, but look at what Abram says in verse 22.

Abram says, “I have lifted my hand to the LORD, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal strap or anything that is yours, lest you should say, I have made Abram rich.”

Why does he say this? Abram knows all this stuff didn’t belong to the king of Sodom in the first place. It belonged to God. And he also knows that God has promised him the entire land. One day, not just Sodom but the entirety of Canaan will belong to Abram’s descendants.

At this moment, Abram realizes he is faced with a choice. He can keep the possessions and walk away from God’s promise, or he can keep God’s promise and walk away from the possessions. It’s a choice between a bird in the hand, or hundreds in the bush. Which will he choose?

Abram doesn’t need time to think. He numbers off camels 11 through 100 and hands over the rest of the loot to the king of Sodom. Why did he do that? Abram knew that the promise was worth more in the long run, but it’s really important to see that this isn’t the only or even the main reason that Abram chooses the promise.

There is a deeper reason that Abram chooses the promise. He knows that choosing possessions over the promise would dishonour God. The king of Sodom would be able to boast that he had made Abram rich. And God’s honour is worth more to Abram than any amount of possessions any king could offer him. Abram passes test number two in flying colours.

This story is a great reminder of how easy it is to rationalize temptation. Think of how easy it would have been for Abram to tell himself, “perhaps this is God’s way of blessing me.” He could have convinced himself that God’s hand was in the words of the king of Sodom!

But that’s only one way Abram might have rationalized his temptation. Think of the pressure that would have been brought to bear on Abram by his relatives. Can you imagine the looks on the faces of his family when he’s handing over the loot? They can’t believe it, and they’re angry. They risked their lives for him!

How easy would it have been for Abram to tell himself, “I have to take the money for my family and relatives.” Abram could so easily have convinced himself that he needed to turn his back on God’s promise for their sake.

I think it’s also a reminder that faith isn’t always tested in crises. In crises, it is somehow clear that all we can do is place our lives in God’s hands. You don’t really have time to think. You can only act and trust. Tests of faith often come after a moment of crisis has passed. Tests come when everything goes back to normal, and this is when we are very vulnerable to temptation.

Once crises have passed, we often let down our guard. And the evil one knows this. We have time to think, time to rationalize temptation. And because of this, the right path of action can be less clear. Crises are tiring and we can easily be tempted to a course of least resistance.

These are both important reminders but I think there is also a simpler lesson about temptation in this story, a very basic yet profound reminder: tests often involve material possessions. Tests often involves the comfort, security, and status that comes with possessions.

And why is this such a temptation for us? It’s really simple. It’s because the Gospel doesn’t offer this kind of comfort, security, or status. Jesus doesn’t promise you a penthouse at Teneriffe or a yacht when you heed the call to follow him. In fact, he says that following him might mean that you have to reject these things.

There will be times in the Christian life when we will be called to choose the promise over possessions just like Abram. Jesus talked about this a lot. In the famous parable of the sower Jesus explains how some seed falls “among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word” (Mk 4:18-19).

In order to say “yes” to Jesus, we need to say “no” to riches and desires for other things. And Jesus urges us not to fail the test because the promise is worth far more than whatever possessions you might have to say “no” to. This is why he describes them as deceitful.

Later in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus explains, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mk 10:29-30).

So, do you get it? Following Jesus involves the same kind of tests Abram faced. Whenever saying “yes” to Jesus requires us to say “no” to possessions, we need to remember that the promise is more valuable than any possessions we might be tempted by. And when we face this choice, we need to remember that Jesus is not telling us to do something that he himself didn’t have to do.

Jesus himself was tempted in this very same way. In the wilderness, the evil one “showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (Mt 4:8-9). But Jesus rejected them all. Jesus chose the promise over the possessions.

And just like Abram, he was not actually saying “no” to these possessions. It was a matter of timing. Just as God had promised Abram Canaan, God the Father had promised his Son all the kingdoms of the world. Psalm 2:8: “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.”

Yet Jesus was to receive this inheritance by way of the cross. And this is the same for all who would follow him. The Gospel promises us a share in Jesus’ inheritance. But like Jesus, we will only receive our share in this promise by the way of the cross. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34).

And how does the evil one will tempt us to put down our cross? He might do this in any number of ways. He might do this through personal challenges or family crises. He might do this through and religious discrimination or even persecution. But the Abram story reminds us that he is far more likely to use material possessions.

● CONCLUSION

This episode of the Abraham story reminds us that our faith will be tested and the echoes it finds in Jesus’ teaching reminds us that we should expect tests in the area of material possessions. But both Abram and Jesus remind us possessions don’t have to choke the Word. We can choose the promise over possessions.

I’d invite you to reflect on your lives at this point. Are there thorns choking the Word in your life? Maybe God is calling you to repentance this morning. Perhaps there is some area of your life in which you are choosing possessions over the promise. That’s a dangerous place to be in.

Or perhaps God is fortifying your faith this morning. Perhaps you, like Abram, are passing this test with flying colours. Perhaps you have recently met with decisions that involve cold hard cash. If that’s you, God is encouraging you not to grow weary of saying “yes” to the promise.

Many of us, however, might feel that we fall somewhere in between these two alternatives. We are not immediately convicted of any particular sin yet neither are we aware of any particular acts of generosity that attest to the fact that we value the promise of the Gospel above our possessions.

If that is you, God is filling you afresh this morning with a love for his glory, a love that is both stronger than the cares of the world, stronger than the deceitfulness of riches and desires for other things, and stronger than the good things that he has given you. Let him fill you again with this love.

We will only part with possessions when we, like Abram and like Jesus, are controlled by a deep love for the glory of our heavenly Father. We will only turn our backs on their comforts, security, and status, and embrace hardship, uncertainty, and lowliness when we prize the glory of the giver higher than any of his gifts.

Let’s take a few moments for quiet prayer to think on these things. Let’s take a minute to confess our sins, to pray for his leading and strengthening, and to pray that we like Abram would say “no” to whatever stands in the way of our share in the promise of the Gospel.