Why are we all here tonight for this Commissioning Service? Well, one answer is because of God's Commission to Abraham in 1800 BC (or thereabouts). So tonight I want us to consider Abraham and his call and commission all those years ago. For I want us to consider what lessons there are for us as we seek to follow Jesus' commission to follow him and to obey his Great Commission for making disciples world-wide. In the very last words of Matthew's Gospel Jesus said:
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28.18-20)
That commission of Jesus Christ, as we shall see, follows on from the divine Commission to Abraham – the Jesus Christ who was, "the son of David, the son of Abraham", the very first words of Matthew's Gospel (Matthew 1.1). And in turn that then leads on to our JPC Founder's Commission to us, to "maintain and promulgate sound, Scriptural and evangelical truth" and our own mission for 'Godly Living, Church Growth and Changing Britain'. So I want us to think this evening about our Old Testament Bible reading, Genesis 12.1-7, and the call and commission to Abraham himself; and I want to consider three questions:
Firstly, Why is there God's Commission, secondly, Who does God use for that Commission? and thirdly, What is Required for God's Commission?
1. Why is there God's Commission?
The grand purpose and plan behind God's commission is no less than the salvation of a fallen world; and the Bible is essentially a history of that plan of salvation. The Bible begins in Genesis by explaining that human beings are God's creatures and that man and God's world, as created, were very good.
But, as you read on in Genesis chapters 1-3, you read that the first man and woman wanted to live independently of God and ignore him. You then read in Genesis 4-11 of the dire consequences that followed that rebellion. You read of social decay, and God's judgment through the flood as sin increased, and through forced migration because of gross human pride at the Tower of Babel. And you read in these chapters and elsewhere in the Bible of monotheism degenerating into polytheism at this time with many gods or idols instead of one God; and of sexual degeneracy as monogamy degenerated into polygamy; and also of terrible violence. But then you come to the watershed chapter, chapter 12 and our Old Testament lesson for this evening.
Here you read of how God is starting to reverse all that decay and you read of God's blessings from his love and compassion for men and women. For God wants life and human flourishing and not death and human misery. But, of course, you then need to read the rest of the Bible to discover how God's purposes and plans for that reversal are achieved. However, chapter 12 is the great beginning. So let's now look at chapter 12 and the seminal words in verses 1-3:
"Now the Lord said to Abram, 'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And 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 him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.' "
That is so fundamental to understanding what God is like. It shows you that our God is first a God of 'blessing' not of 'cursing'. He wants to bless Abraham, and to enable Abraham to be a blessing and he wants that blessing to spread to "all the families of the earth". But what does 'blessing' mean? Well in the Old Testament God's 'blessing' is evidenced by human prosperity and well-being - especially in long life, wealth, peace, good harvests and children. Yes, as we read on in the Bible, God's blessings are much more than that, but not less! So we should never ignore these material blessings. Five things need to be said regarding them.
- Today, social studies have shown that where the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached and takes root, and people seek to be reconciled to God, and live as he directs, on average health outcomes improve, education outcomes improve and wealth increases.
- However, not every individual is promised such a blessing but every major group in the world. For the word 'family' in "all the families of the earth" refers to an intermediate group between a tribe and a household.
- Jesus himself taught there were material rewards in this life for his disciples. He was blunt in Mark 10.29
"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, house, and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life."
The rub, of course, is "with persecutions" and all that that means.
- The promise of a great nation through Abraham's offspring, is far more than a material blessing. It is a promise of the supreme blessing of Jesus Christ – his life, death, resurrection and present reign and so the forgiveness of sins and new life through the Holy Spirit for now and a wonderful eternity.
- And you shouldn't feel guilty, as some do, for trusting and obeying God for rewards. Some seem to think that only the good motive of thankfulness is pleasing to God. That is not true. The book of Hebrews when just about to talk of Abraham's faith and speaking of pleasing God, says this:
"Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." (Hebrews 11.6)
So why God's Commission? It was the start of his initiative of saving the world from the mess it had got into.
2. Who does God use for that Commission?
Answer – people like Abraham. So what do we learn from our passage about Abraham?
First, he listened to God. Verse 1 starts with the words, "the Lord said to Abram …" And because Abraham was listening, he heard the next words:
"Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you."
And then he heard God's word of promised blessing. We are not told how Abraham heard God's word, but somehow God's word became clear to him. How important is God's word for anyone he wants to use! Unlike Abraham, we are hugely privileged in having the words of God spoken to and by Old Testament prophets and other Old Testament writers. And also we have the words of Jesus and his New Testament apostles. They are all recorded and preserved for us in the Bible under the Holy Spirit's inspiration and guarding. Yes, God's commission then and Christ's commission now requires listening to God's word. That is why the Commission of those of us ordained as presbyters (or as priests [the same word, shortened form]) in the Church of England is first to read and teach God's word, the Bible. The fundamental question in the ancient service by which I was ordained and commissioned was this:
"Are you persuaded that the holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all doctrine required of necessity for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? And are you determined out of the said Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge, and to teach nothing (as required of necessity to eternal salvation) but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture?"
And I (happily) answered (and had to) many years ago, "I am so persuaded, and have so determined by God's grace." Now, we are not all called and commissioned to teach the Bible. But for any work we do for the Lord, we need to be nourished by God's Word. So we need to hear it preached on Sundays, studied in our smaller mid-week groups and read on our own. Paul said, "faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ" (Romans 10.17). And Jesus said, quoting the Old Testament in Matthew 4.4:
"It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"
Secondly, God commissions and uses, not only listeners, but people with disabilities or deficiencies. Let me explain. Abraham's wife, we are told in Genesis 11.29, was Sarah. But verse 30 tells us, presumably after some years of marriage, "Sarai was barren; she had no child." So how on earth can God promise to Abraham that he would be the first of a line that would develop into "a great nation"? Answer: Abraham had to trust God to sort things out.
Last Sunday it was encouraging to hear on the Radio, Clarence Adoo, the North East trumpeter, talking about his disability. He was paralysed from the neck down after a car crash. But he saw how God was going to use him in spite of his disability. Do you feel quite inadequate for some of the tasks you are asked to undertake for Christ? Well, Abraham proves that God uses people who have such problems. Sometimes God uses them while the disability or deficiency remains. But sometimes, as with Abraham, he uses them through helping the disability or deficiency be made good. For later, we read in Genesis 21.2, Sarah miraculously had a child in her old age.
And, thirdly, God commissions people who are not perfect. Abraham certainly wasn't perfect. As you read on in Genesis you read, as we shall see, that Abraham on more than one occasion was not totally honest. This put his wife's chastity at risk. And he had little moral courage. For before Sarah conceived, he later gave in to his wife's suggestion to sleep with her maid, to get a child that way. And then when the maid got pregnant and Sarah got jealous, he let Sarah virtually drive the woman out of the house. True, Abraham learnt lessons from his sins, but he was by no means perfect.
But none of the people God uses are perfect – that includes us all. Christ alone was perfect. And it includes and was true of the 16th century Reformers, such as Luther and Calvin. It was true of the heroes of the 18th and 19th centuries' Evangelical revival. Of course, Christian leaders and workers have to be especially careful. And sins need to be confessed, repented of and forgiven by God. And even the greatest need to do that. Think of the Apostle Paul. He was a murderer, or assisting in the murder of Christians before he was converted. So he knew what he was writing in 2 Corinthians 4.7, when, speaking figuratively, he said:
"We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us."
For God uses people who are not perfect and are more like cheap and nasty crockery rather than fine bone china. So God, in the case of Abraham, used someone who listened to his word; had a deficiency in respect of his wife and was by no means perfect. And God still can and does use such people.
3. What is Required for God's Commission?
We learn from Abraham that four things are necessary. First and foremost, trust and then the obedience that proves your trust in God is real. Genesis 12.1-3, where the Lord tells Abraham to go from his country and kindred to the land he would show him, and the Lord promises to make of him a great nation, and he would bless him and others – those verses, obviously, are followed by the first words of verse 4:
"So Abram went, as the Lord had told him."
He trusted God's promise and obeyed. He was convinced of God's goodness and he wanted what was on offer. He may not have understood fully the enormity of the promise. But somehow, compared with all the idols and gods in Mesopotamia at both Ur and Haran which he was leaving, with their wicked child-sacrifices and degrading sexual rites, he knew the God known as 'Jehovah' (or better 'Yahweh') was altogether different and could be trusted. And, therefore, he obeyed to enjoy the promised blessing. But obedience was, and will often be, costly. No doubt it was costly for Abraham to leave the sophisticated world of Ur and Haran and leave family and friends and go not knowing where.
Secondly, God's commission did and will often mean times of testing and hopefully learning. As you read on in chapter 3 you read how Abraham eventually arrived in Canaan, the land of promise. He arrived at Shechem and the Lord confirmed his promise. So often, once you've stepped out in faith for the Lord, following his leading, he then confirms what you have done. This happened to Abraham. In verse 7 with Abraham in Shechem we read:
" … the Lord appeared to Abram and said, 'To your offspring I will give this land.' So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him."
But then he moved down to between Bethel and Ai, and verse 8:
"there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord."
Then verse 9:
"And Abram journeyed on, still going towards the Negeb. [But verse 10] Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land."
And that was disastrous. In Egypt Abraham lied about his wife being his sister. So she got taken into Pharaoh's harem. In consequence God made Pharaoh and his family seriously ill. Not unnaturally Abraham and Sarah were expelled from the country. So you then read in Genesis 13.1:
"Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb."
And Genesis 13.3:
"And he journeyed on from the Negeb as far as Bethel to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place where he had made an altar at the first. And there Abram called upon the name of the Lord."
The editor of this account seems to highlight the fact that Abraham, verse 4, "called upon the name of the Lord". For verse 10 of the previous chapter, as we saw, simply said: "Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt." You don't read that Abraham built an altar and called upon the name of the Lord. And, as we saw, things turned out disastrously.
Who tonight is in a testing situation as when Abraham found not blessing but a famine in Canaan. And things have not gone well. But when you had the problem, you did the first thing that came to mind without praying and thinking how God would want you to solve that problem. Well, copy Abraham if you can, who did just that in the face of famine. But he learnt his lesson. For Genesis 13.4 says he went back …
"… to the place where he had made an altar at the first. And there … called upon the name of the Lord."
He went back to where he went wrong and started again. This time he prayed. How important prayer is and especially when you are commissioned by God. Thirdly, what God's Commission requires is not only faith but also patience. Hebrews 6.12 says that we are to be …
"Imitators of those [believers] who through faith and patience inherit the promises."
Abraham had to wait 25 years for a son. Who tonight has been trusting God for something you know is right but for years and nothing has happened? Well, fourthly, and finally, for this and in other respects, remember Abraham, who as we heard in our Second Reading, from Romans 4.17-25, believed in the God…
"… who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, 'So shall your offspring be.' He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was 'counted to him as righteousness'. But the words 'it was counted to him' were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification."