Once you turn 18, the law magically inducts you into adult life. From one day to the next, you are required to participate in the political process, and a whole range of restrictions previously placed upon you are revoked. You are required to cast your vote in elections and determine the future path of our country. And you’re legally permitted to purchase alcohol or cigarettes, if you so choose.
And once you turn 18, it seems you are also inducted into a range of adult experiences of the Christian life. I remember in my first year out of home chatting with a third-year student who had grown up in a fantastic church with a thriving youth ministry. I asked her something about her faith and I was surprised by what she said. She said that she had grown out of Christianity.
This was the first of many times that I would have this experience. Since then I’ve heard many more friends and colleagues tell me that they no longer believe. Some people, like my fellow student, make Jesus sound like an Octonaut. In the same way you grow out of watching kids TV, you grow out of the Gospel. Others are more cynical.
I remember hearing one of the professors at the university where I did my doctorate tell me with a slight sneer that she used to be an evangelical. Presumably, this meant that I might emerge into post-doctoral intellectual maturity like she did, if I put my childish evangelical ways behind me.
If you’re not yet 18, I’m sad to say that this experience becomes a recurring feature of the adult Christian life. People you have known as fellow believers no longer identify as Christians. The words might differ, but the basic idea remains the same. “I used to believe, but not anymore.”
Now, I know this up strikes a raw nerve with many of us. My stories won’t just call to mind your own experiences with acquaintances and colleagues. They will also remind you that your children no longer walk with the Lord. You remember when they used to attend MPC on a Sunday, used to play in the band, used to participate in the youth ministry, but they no longer do any of these things.
Even me bringing this up makes your heart sink. But this painful reality is something God does not want us to push to the back of our minds. Doubt and disbelief are some of the most frequently recurring memes in the Bible, and the next episode of the Abraham story is one of those places where it appears front and centre.
But let me warn you. We might not like what God wants to tell us in this episode. This next part of the Abraham story is hard teaching. But it is also some of the most important teaching we may ever hear because all of us at various points of our lives will encounter doubts which will tempt us to turn away from Christ.
And we also need to hear this reminder for the sake of those near to us who have turned away from Christ. We need to hear what God would have us learn about overcoming doubt and disbelief, so that we can offer real help to those who have stumbled. So, let’s give it our best attention.
As we pick up the story, we find Abram in distress. We know Abram is not doing well because of what God says to him. In verse 1, God appears to Abram in a vision and tells him, “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield.” Now, before we go any further, we need to note the supreme irony in this greeting.
Do you remember what was happening last week? It involved shields! Abram was our geriatric Rambo. He was vastly outnumbered and took on all those kings in battle on an insane rescue-mission. Facing danger, he was fearless. And here’s the irony. Now, when this threat has passed, Abram is afraid.
And this is where we see that Abram is more than a little like us. We very quickly forget God’s great interventions in our lives. We very quickly lose confidence in God in spite of the fact that we can easily recall moments in our lives when God has shown us his great faithfulness. And this seems to be what has happened to Abram.
The Abram of chapter 14 had a remarkable experience of God’s grace in his victory over the kings and then passed a second great test of faith with flying colours. But this is not even a distant memory for the Abram of chapter 15. The Abram of this chapter is in a dark space. But what is troubling him?
Well, there are a lot of ‘ifs’ ahead of Abram. By faith he received God’s amazing promise all those years ago, but the longer he waits, the less likely it seems it will ever come true. And as the months and years pass, the ‘ifs’ seem to get bigger and bigger.
Maybe some of us know this all too well. Perhaps it feels like your future stands under just as a big a question mark as Abram’s. God may not have given you a specific promise like he gave Abram, but there are just as many ‘ifs’ ahead of you. For some of us, these ‘ifs’ are just as big or bigger than Abram’s.
Pastorally, I don’t think it’s helpful to minimize the size of ‘ifs’. Minimizing the size of someone’s challenges only trivializes their feelings of doubt. And I don’t think we should minimize the ‘ifs’ are that stand ahead of Abram. Has anyone been keeping track of just how old he is?
If you have, you will remember that Abram was 75 when God gave him his promise. We don’t know exactly how much time has elapsed, but five years fits well with the timeline of the following chapters. That means Abram 80 and Sarai his wife has just turned 70. So, let’s get real about what walking by faith meant for them.
How many of our ladies have already celebrated their 70th birthday? Let me ask you a couple of questions. Any of you suffering from a bit of morning sickness? Did anyone experience a few Braxton-Hicks contractions during the first song? No? If you were Sarai, walking by faith would have involved expecting these things. Just imagine that for a moment.
We always focus on how great Abram’s faith was, but think about the demand God’s promise placed on Sarai. Walking by faith meant trying for a baby as a senior citizen over a period of years. More than that, it meant trying for a baby with the expectation of a pregnancy.
If you let that sink in, you’ll see the enormity of their faith to this point. And you will also see something else. You’ll see the reasonableness of their doubts. Actively trusting God to fulfil his promise would seem foolish. It might even seem like the promise itself is a form of mockery.
Abram’s faith is worn down to the bone. He cries out to God in verse 2, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless”. Can you hear the edge in his voice? He cries out again in verse 3 and this time it’s even bitterer: “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”
Abram believed in the past but now, he’s beginning to lose his grip on the promise. Like most of us, Abram seems to come good briefly. In verse 6, he snaps out of his fears and once again he believes. We read that “Abram believed the LORD.”
But those familiar with anxiety will know that it doesn’t take much to fall in a heap again. And so, it’s unsurprising that we hear Abram cry out for a third time in verse 8. And this time, he’s not far from giving up on God.
Abram’s at rock bottom. Look carefully at verse 8. Abram cries out, “O Lord God, how am I to know?” Did you notice that little word ‘know’? Abram’s tired of believing. He wants to know. He’s done with walking by faith. He wants to walk by sight.
What do you say to someone who is in this space? How do you help someone who is completely worn down, who has fallen under the weight of their cross and can no longer get up? How do you help yourself?
We need to pay careful attention to what God does. We need to pay attention not only because it worked-as God’s solutions tend to do-but also because what God did is probably the opposite of what we would have done.
You see, if I were God, I would have somehow made it easier for Abram to believe. A little bit of walking by sight makes it easier to walk by faith. It’s like those electric bikes that the Dominos guys use to deliver pizzas in The Gap. As soon as they hit Payne road, they turn on the juice and they don’t have to peddle so hard to make it up the hill.
If I were writing the Bible, that’s what I would have God do. Plainly, Abram needs extra juice to get up the hill. But thankfully I am neither God nor one of the biblical authors nor delivering pizzas on one of those terrifying bikes.
So, what does God do? Contrary to what we would expect, God doesn’t make it any easier for Abram to believe. God simply repeats the promise. And this time, it seems like God makes it even harder. God now gives Abram details he had previously withheld.
Previously, God had simply promised him that his descendants would become a great nation and that they would possess the entirety of the land of Canaan. But look at what God says in verse 13. God tells Abram that it will actually be another 400 years before his people occupy the promised land, and by the way, in the meantime they will become slaves in Egypt.
God hasn’t lightened his load one bit. If anything God has made it even harder to believe. How is this helping Abram? This is the hard teaching of this chapter. God is giving Abram the one thing that will fortify his ailing faith. God repeats his promise.
But that’s not what we would have God do. We think we need some kind of divine intervention that will make it easier to trust God. But this doesn’t fortify faith. Proofs of this kind often move us further away from believing. They bring our certainty to rest not in the promise but in the proofs.
What we need is to hear the promise again. This is the hard yet profound teaching of this passage. When we are in the vice of doubt, we don’t need a new word. We simply need to hear the old word again.
This is in fact what’s going on with the weird bit about the fire-pot and the dismembered animals. In verse 9 God tells Abram to get some animals, chop them up, and set them out in a straight line. Now, Abram is not preparing lunch. He is preparing an ancient promise-making ceremony. Except this time God’s kind of shouting.
It’s easy to miss this, but there is an important detail in verse 18. If you look at the previous times God has repeated the promise to Abram since chapter 12, God has said “I will give.” But here, God says “I give.” Some older translations even say “I have given.” That’s because the precise nuance of the Hebrew is difficult to capture in English, but the sense is emphatic.
God is no longer saying, “I will give you this land at some point in the future,” but “I GIVE YOU THIS LAND.” It’s like when you get a text-message in capital letters. I’m a bit goofy with my phone, so if you ever got one like that from me, I’m not getting shouty. My thumb has probably lingered too long on one of the keys. But God’s hasn’t.
The promise is in caps bold. And this is the answer to Abram’s doubt. There is no new word. God simply repeats the old word again. And the smoking fire-pot is making it even louder and clearer that this is God speaking. And this, friends, is the one thing that strengthens faith.
The one thing that strengthens faith in what God has promised is recognizing the voice of him who speaks. This is why there can be no new word. It is only when you hear the old word again that you will recognize the sound of God’s voice.
It’s like when the Mums come to the school gate to pick up their children and amidst all the hubbub of a million squeaks, a mother can somehow pick out the sound of their son or daughter. It’s the same when we hear the words of Scripture.
It’s like when you used to receive a letter from a friend or a relative. You see, there used to be these things made from paper called letters. You would pay for delivery by buying little stickers and someone would then deliver it to your house.
You would break open the paper cover, which is called an envelope and then you would pull out a handwritten message -handwritten- can you believe it? And the name of the sender was written on the back of the envelope. But you didn’t really this information to know who it was from.
If the sender was a friend or relative, you would recognize them immediately from the shape of the handwriting. And it’s like this when we hear the promise of the Gospel. When we hear the Gospel, we recognize the voice of God.
Jesus once said, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27). When we hear his Gospel, we recognize who it is that is speaking. When you recognize that it is God speaking, you will believe anything he says.
That is why we must repeatedly turn to the old word to hear its message when we are assailed by doubts. We don’t need to hear it again because we have forgotten its content. We don’t need to hear it again because we didn’t understand it first time around. We near to hear it because we need to recognize the voice of him who speaks.
This is why in repeating his promise to Abram, God gave him the only thing that would strengthen his faith. Anything else would be a faulty crutch. The only thing that would strengthen his faith was to recognize that it was God speaking.
We need to remember this when we see friends and family members walking away from God or when we feel our own grip loosening on God’s promises. There is no new word that can sustain the old faith. To continue in faith, we need to hear the old word over and over again.
To continue in faith we need to recognize the voice of Jesus in his Gospel. When we hear his voice, we, like Abram, will be strengthened to get up under the weight of whatever we are carrying and walk by faith once again.
So, I invite you to take a minute to recall those who used to sit in these chairs on Sundays but no longer do, or your friends who have grown out of Christianity, or the sneering professor that told you they used to believe. Will you give them the one thing that will help them?
You might despair that the old word is a word they know too well, that it is the word they have consciously rejected. You might despair that this is the very word that they can no longer believe. But I’d like to encourage you that if you let them hear this old word again, you will let them hear a distantly familiar voice.
They will hear the voice of the shepherd they have trained themselves to ignore. They will hear the voice of the Spirit who still speaks to the churches. They will hear the voice of their heavenly Father who patiently awaits their return.
When you speak the old word, you give them the one thing of which they have need. When you speak the old word, you let them hear a word that imparts life to the dead. When you speak the old word, you replenish the soil that allows faith to grow.
This was the need Abram experienced in his darkest moment. It’s the same need we experience in our darker moments and the same need in which our no-longer-believing friends, family, and colleagues stand. Will you meet this need? Let us pray.