From the very first time God spoke to Abram, he promised him a land, the land of Canaan. Abram stepped out in faith, and last week his faith was rewarded beyond his wildest dreams: he actually conquered the land of Canaan. He held all the power, all the wealth, and all the people. God’s promise had been fulfilled!
And then, totally unexpectedly, Abram gave it all back. He symbolically gave it all back to God by giving 10% of everything to God’s priest, who was also king of Jerusalem at that time. He physically gave it all back by returning everything else to the king of Sodom and to his three friends who fought at his side.
Moses does not tell us, exactly. Maybe Abram knew that, even though he had conquered the land, he lacked the manpower to actually rule over it. Maybe he knew that military conquest is not what God had in mind for him. Maybe he was overwhelmed by the revelation that his god is actually the Creator God Most High who already owns everything in the universe, so he figured he might as well give the land back to him as well.
Whatever the reason, last week we saw Abram give everything back to God. Which was a tremendous act of faith!
Well, this week we find out that Abram’s faith is still shaky a bit. He wins the land, he gives back the land, and then,  after this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram.”
Now, why would the Lord start by saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram”? What is Abram afraid of?
Well, for one thing, this is the first time in scripture that the word of the Lord comes to someone in a vision. And later on in the bible we find out that almost every time the Lord comes to someone in a vision, he has to start by saying, “Do not be afraid!”
Apparently having the word of the Lord come to you in a vision is a terrifying event.
So what is Abram afraid of? He is afraid of God.
But that is not all Abram is afraid of. We know this because of how the Lord tries to comfort him next. He says this:
“I am your shield, your very great reward.”
Now, this is basically what Melchizedek, the priest of God, already told Abram last week: “God Most High is your God. With God Most High on your side, you are unbeatable!” So Abram already knows this.
But, apparently, God thinks it is important to say this again…because Abram is afraid.
So, what is Abram afraid of?
 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord…so what?” He says, “what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?”  And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
Abram is afraid because he is experiencing a crisis of faith.
Which is strange, isn’t it? Just last week Abram became the Saviour of all Canaan, learned who his God really is, and gave everything back to him in this huge extravagant act of faith — ! God has basically proven that he has the power and the will to keep all of his promises. And so we would expect to find Abram living in a state of blissful contentment, basking in his great achievements, wouldn’t we?
Except that most of us have already discovered in our own lives that great triumph and success do not automatically translate to blissful contentment. In fact, actually achieving your goals in life can sometimes produce the most profound kind of depression, especially if those goals were something you were working toward for many years. It’s like climbing a mountain: after a long, hard trek you finally get to the top, you’re like, “Yes, I am king of world!…now what?” It is often in the moments after our greatest successes that we discover just how meaningless and empty our lives really are.
And that is what has just happened to Abram. He is now the Saviour of Canaan. He has just passed the most profound test a person can experience: he was given all the power in the land, but instead of using it for himself, he gave it all back. He is on top of the world! — and he has just discovered that it is all meaningless if he is not also a father.
See, there is a painful irony in Abram’s victory here: in his efforts to save his adopted son Lot, Abram ended up saving the whole country! — and yet he can’t even save himself. He just restored everyone’s hopes for the future! — everyone’s hopes except his own. He just gave Lot his freedom! — and apparently Lot has used that freedom to say, “Thanks, dad! That was great! See ya!”
So Abram is experiencing a crisis of faith. He knows by now that his God has the power to do what he wants when he wants. Which means that it was God who let Lot get away two weeks ago, and God who let Lot get away again last week.
And so at this point Abram is completely frustrated and confused. And that is why, when the Lord appears to him here and says, “Abram, don’t be afraid, I am all the reward you need!”…Abram bursts out with, “No, you’re not! What you’re saying makes no sense at all! I’ve done everything you asked me to. You tell me to let Lot go, so I let Lot go. You tell me to go rescue Lot, so I go rescue Lot. But here I am stuck having to adopt my servant Eliezer of Damascus as my heir, and don’t get me wrong: he’s a nice guy and all, but he is not exactly related to me!”
Perhaps God should have said, “Abram, be a little bit afraid…” Because this a pretty disrespectful and challenging way to address God Most High!
And there is a bit of a literary irony going on here also. Three weeks ago, the first words we ever heard Abram speak were words telling his wife to lie, which was Moses’ way of reminding us that Abram did not start out as a great man of faith.
Today, these are the first words we ever hear Abram speak to God. This is Abram’s first recorded prayer. Which, again, is Moses’ way of letting us know that Abram is not yet a great man of faith. He is still learning.
Fortunately, the Lord is not easily offended.
So  then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.”
Now this is a significant development in the promise.
Until now, God has just promised that Abram will have “offspring”, which includes the possibility of adopted offspring. In fact, until this point, Abram has assumed that God must mean adopted offspring, since Abram and Sarai have not yet managed to produce any children biologically. And up until this point, Abram did not know for sure if the fertility problem was with him or with his wife.
Well, now he knows. God has just told Abram that he will produce a biological son.
We should notice, however, that God does not specify who the mother is going to be. And there is a simple reason for this: Abram only has one wife. Who else could it be but Sarai?
Hmmmm. Yes. We’ll see how that works out in a chapter or two…
But in the meantime the vision continues:  the Lord took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
Now, God has already told Abram two times that he will produce many decendants. And each time, Abram responded to God’s promise by stepping out in faith and obedience.
The first time, God said, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will give them a land of their own.” And Abram responded by leaving his home in the east, travelling to Canaan, and claiming the land for God — and for his offspring.
The second time, God said, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, and everything you can see will belong to them.” And Abram responded by travelling throughout the whole land, seeing everything he could possibly see, claiming as much land as he could for his God — and for his offspring.
And there is a sense in which — so far — Abram’s acts of faith in claiming the land were him working alongside God to help bring these promises to reality. We could call it a nesting instinct: God has promised Abram a huge nation, so Abram needs to claim a huge land for them. And that is good! That was Abram being obedient to God. He was doing what God told him to do.
But…I think we all know how quickly our godly obedience can turn into pride. It does not take long before we begin to count up our good deeds for God, and then start thinking that God actually owes us something.
So Abram was obedient: he moved to Canaan and claimed the land for God…and then he waited for God to keep his half of the deal. Instead, God took away Lot — Abram’s hope for the future — and then told Abram to claim even more land.
So Abram was obedient sommore: he walked throughout Canaan and claimed even more land for God…and then he waited for God to keep his half of the deal. Instead, God took Lot even further away, and in the process of rescuing him, Abram ended up owning the whole land! — but still, without a son.
And then God revealed to Abram that, actually, he doesn’t really need Abram to claim any land for him, because he is God Most High who created it all anyway: the whole earth already belongs to God. Which means that all of Abram’s success in taking the land was actually a gift from God to Abram, not Abram’s gift to God.
In other words, Abram has discovered that all his obedience in claiming the land did not earn him any points with God. God does not owe Abram a son just because Abram won a land for God. In fact, Abram has discovered that there is nothing he can do to “make” God owe him a son. Because…what gift can you give the God who already has everything?
And that is why, this third time, when God promises that he is going to make Abram into a great nation…Abram does nothing. He does not set out on a journey. He does not build an altar. He does not go to war. Because the truth is, there is nothing left for Abram to do. There is no action Abram can take to “persuade” God to keep his promise.
And that is the way it is supposed to be. That is the very definition of righteousness and justice. That is the very definition of what a Good God is.
See, other gods make deals with people. They say, “You do things for us, you make sacrifices to us, and maybe we will bless you in return.” Now, in Malaysia we call that “corrupsi”, don’t we?
But Abram’s God is not corrupt. He is not like all the other gods: he does not take bribes, he does not make deals…he makes promises.
And in the end, it always comes down to a simple choice for those who want to worship him: either believe him…or don’t.
And Abram has finally reached that end. He has finally realized that he is out of options. He has realized that, really, he never had any options. He has come to the end of himself.
So Abram puts down all his plans to give God obedience in exchange for God giving him a son. He looks up at the night sky, he listens to the voice of his God, and:  Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
And so, in the very moment Abram admitted that his obedience actually counted for nothing…in that moment God declared that it actually counted for everything.
Because, in this moment, Moses has finally revealed a truth that he has been hinting at since the very beginning of Genesis: the obedience God actually wants from his people is the obedience of faith, the obedience that comes from trust in who God is. Or, to put it another way: Abram’s God is not simply offering Abram a system of worship, he is offering him a relationship. A relationship based on trust, not on negotiation. A relationship based on love freely given, not on bribery and fear.
Abram has just stepped into that relationship. For the first time, with his hands empty, he has stepped forward in faith that his god is the God who keeps his promises for free.
Now, is Abram’s faith in God perfect? Not at all! But God’s faith in God is perfect. God is completely confident of his ability to keep his promises — and God’s perfection of faith is actually what sets Abram free from needing to possess perfection of faith himself. That is why the Lord is able to count Abram’s imperfect faith as if it were a lifetime of perfect obedience.
Does that make sense?
Let’s try this: imagine that God is a father standing on the ground outside of a burning house, and Abram is a little boy in his first floor bedroom. The father says, “Jump, I promise I will catch you!”
But the little boy is afraid. He is caught between the flames and this leap of faith. So he keeps trying to arrange his own way down. He tries to make a rope out of his bedsheets, but they’re too short. He tries to turn the sheets into a parachute. He has a glass of water by his bed, so he throws that on the fire, but nothing works. And the father is outside saying, “Son, trust me! Jump!”
So the little boy finally obeys.
Now, in the milliseconds after jumping, he regrets it. He experiences terror. He wishes he had never left the room. His faith in his father’s ability to catch him is not perfect at all! But that does not matter, does it? Because it is too late: he is already falling into his father’s arms. And by falling, he is obeying. In fact, he can’t help but obey!
So all that really matters is that the little boy had just enough faith for that first moment of obedience. Gravity, and his father’s strength, is going to take care of the rest.
Abram does not have a perfect relationship with God. He does not have perfect faith. He does not practice perfect obedience. But he does not need to, because in this one critical moment Abram believed — and that moment of imperfect faith now counts as a lifetime of perfect obedience.
And it was important for Moses to write this down and point this out to his people, the ancient people of Israel. Because, just like Abram, the people of Israel had a tendency to believe that God owed them something in return for their obedience.
We see this tendency show up several times in the Book of Exodus: they follow Moses through the Red Sea into the wilderness, and then they start to complain when the journey gets rough. Instead of trusting in God’s promises to feed them and lead them to a new homeland, they point to how obedient they have been by following Moses into the desert in the first place…and then they start to make demands.
So this sort of thing definitely happens when times are bad.
But Moses knows that this sort of thing happens even more when times are good. He knows that the real danger to God’s people will come after they have conquered the land.
See, the people of Israel were destined to complete the work that Abram began. Abram travelled throughout the land, building altars and claiming it for God; he even held the land for a moment before symbolically handing it back over to God at the city of Jerusalem. The people of Israel will simply follow in Abram’s footsteps. They will conquer the entire country, and in the end build an altar in the city of Jerusalem, symbolically claiming the whole land and giving it back to God.
Abram laid the foundation for the new garden of Eden; the people of Israel will put the finishing touches on it, complete with God’s true order, God’s true law, God’s true worship: God’s kingdom on earth.
And it will be during those years of great triumph and success that Israel’s godly obedience will turn to pride. They will begin to count up all the good things they have done for God: conquering the land, building a temple for sacrifices, obeying all the laws. And then they will start thinking that God actually owes them something.
Moses understood this temptation very well. He knew this would happen. So, guided by the Spirit of God, he wrote this down as a corrective for God’s people, as a way to bring them back to true faith after they have fallen away. He wants his readers to remember that Abram’s God does not actually need the land they will conquer for him, he doesn’t need the sacrifices they give him, he doesn’t even need their obedience — all these things are actually gifts from God to his people. The people of Israel do not earn any “bonus points” with God for simply doing what he told them to do in the first place!
In fact, the people of Israel will actually lose points with God if they do all these obedient things out of a selfish motivation, thinking that they are earning points with God. Because thinking that God wants his people to earn points is another way of saying that God makes deals, God accepts bribes, God practices cronyism and corrupsi just like all the other gods.
And that, friends, is blasphemy. Blasphemy means lying about who God really is, lying about God’s true character. God is the loving Father over all creation. If his people start treating him as if he is a corrupt politician who needs to be paid-off…! Well: that is actually the worst sin a person can commit.
And that is why Moses wrote this verse: Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. This is the moment that Abram realized that God really really is not a politician, he really does want to be a loving Father to Abram. This is the moment when Abram let go of all his efforts to earn God’s favour…and jumped.
Moses wants his people, the ancient people of Israel, to remember this moment in the years to come. He wants them to remember that they are God’s children because they are Abram’s children — not because they are good, religious people. He wants them to remember that they are Abram’s children because they share Abram’s faith — not because they have Abram’s DNA. He wants them to know that they need to be a people of faith first before they can truly be a people of obedience; and that they need to continue to be a people of faith first — or they will end up turning aside to the false god of “earning points through obedience” and fall under the judgement that comes to all who blaspheme the gentle, merciful Father over all.
Now, Moses wrote this a long time ago to a particular people in a particular situation. Does it apply to us, today?
Because Moses was addressing a universal human problem. See, religious, devout people — good people! — always run into the same temptation: after being obedient to God for a while, they always begin to believe that their identity is defined by their sacrificial obedience to God instead of by their childlike faith in God. And when that happens, they turn into self-righteous jerks. But even worse than that, in their zeal for obedience, they begin to use every tool they’ve got to…”persuade”…everyone else into proper obedience. And God help you if they end up in charge of your country, your state, your town, your religious institution, your family!
Of course, at this point, many of us in this modern world are going to say, “Ummmm, actually this is not a universal human problem. Because I’m not religious. My culture is not religious. We are rational, not religious. I’m spiritual, not religious.”
If that’s what you’re thinking, I’m sorry, but I have to tell you that we are all religious and devout when it comes to defining who we are by what we do, and defining what we do as “good”. There is actually no psychological difference between a Muslim who prides himself on praying five times a day and a vegan who prides herself on never deliberately harming any living thing. There is actually no difference between an eastern Buddhist regime trying to cleanse its nation of non-Buddhist elements and a western liberal democracy trying to cleanse its nation of conservative religious elements.
We are all religious. We all tend to think that what we believe and what we do is good — or, at least, better than the people next door. We all tend to believe that we know how to please our gods, how to do “the right thing” and then be rewarded for it.
The problem with this universal religious system is that any god who demands payoffs in exchange for blessings is, by definition, a corrupt, unreliable god. Politicians who accept payoffs, tend not to stay paid-off, right? They are only on your side until someone else comes along with a bigger payoff. It works the same way with gods.
And so our very frequent human experience is that we do all this work earning points, we spend all this time defining ourselves as Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Atheist, LGBT, Liberal, Conservative, Vegetarian, Athlete, Gamer, Top Student…and then we do not get the recognition and the reward we think we are owed. Our great triumphs and successes do not translate to blissful contentment. The gods we spend so much time trying to please end up disappointing us! — and often we don’t even know why. Was I not good enough? Did I not work hard enough? Did someone else come along who is better than me?
And all this leads to intense disappointment, frustration, bitterness, rage. We don’t know who to hate more: our god? the person next to us? ourselves!
And friends, we can see this at work all over our world today. The Apostle James, in the New Testament, gives us a very clear and simple description of this phenomenon. He says it like this: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
In short: we are all born believing that obedience gives us the right to call ourselves the children of the gods. And then, when our gods do not treat us as beloved children…we are shocked and outraged, and we begin looking for someone to blame.
We desperately need a cure for this universal false religion.
And this is the cure that Moses is offering all of us: faith in Abram’s God. We throw away our belief that obedience gives us the right to call ourselves the children of God. And we pick up the belief that God alone gives us the right to call ourselves the children of God. He declares it. He makes the promise. He says, “Jump! I will catch you.” And all we have to do is believe, and let go, and fall into his arms.
That is the obedience that comes from faith. That is the faith that our Father counts as true obedience.
And do you see how this small change in our understanding of God would cure everything that ails us? Instead of being obedient because of fear or greed, we would be obedient because we are loved. And even when we fail to be obedient, even when we fail to define ourselves — through our actions — as God’s children…we would still be God’s righteous children. Not because we said so, but because he said so.
Doesn’t that sound like freedom to you?
So listen, if you’re here today, and you are still living in slavery to the gods of this world, if you are still trying to earn some god’s blessing by being good, being religious, being whatever…then here is what Abram’s God wants you to do today: give up. Let go. Put down all your plans to pay him to become your Father, and simply accept that he is your Father.
Now, as you are standing in that first floor window, trying to decide if you are going to jump or not, one of the ways you might try to argue yourself out of it is this: you might say, “Hang on, why do I have to accept Abram’s God? If faith in God as my Father is the important concept here, then why does it matter which god I call my Father? Surely all that really matters is that I change my understanding of who God is?”
Well, there are at least two reasons is why it needs to be Abram’s God.
First, very few other gods in this world are offering to be your father. So, check and make sure that your current god actually wants to be called “Father”. Because chances are, your god will actually be violently offended if you make that kind of unauthorized change to your religion. So be careful!
Second, of the very few gods in this world who do actually want you to call them father…make sure you check the terms and conditions before you sign. Because the truth is: those gods will only agree to be your father if you pay them off with religious obedience of various kinds.
So if you are wondering why you have to believe in Abram’s God in particular, this is why: because Abram’s God is the only god in the world who is offering to make you his child for free.
So if you are here today, and you are standing in that first floor window, and you have decided to jump, this is how you do that: believe the Lord’s promise that he will give Abram a son, just like Abram did.
Now, what does that mean? How does that work?
This is how it works: Abram believed God when God promised that one day Abram would have a son who would bless all the peoples on earth by allowing them to become the children of God. And God counted Abram’s moment of imperfect belief as if it were a lifetime of perfect obedience. Abram’s moment of belief is actually the moment God became his Father.
Now, our faith actually works the same way as Abram’s faith; the only difference is that we believe God’s promise from the other side of history. Abram believed God would keep his promise of a son; we are called to believe that God did keep his promise.
And we have very good reason to believe, because we have all the evidence written down for us right here in the Christian bible: the 2000 year-long history of how Abram’s family eventually became a nation that eventually became a kingdom that eventually produced one perfect king named Jesus of Nazareth. And this Jesus did not just claim to be king, he also claimed to be the Son of God. Which is crazy! Except that he went on to prove it by living a perfectly obedient life, conquering the land that once belonged to Abram, and redeeming God’s people from spiritual slavery. At the moment of his greatest triumph he held all the land, all the wealth, and all the people — and then he handed everything back over to his Father, God. He travelled to the city of Jerusalem, but instead of using force to crown himself king there, he laid down his life as a sacrifice. He laid down his life as an act of faith, because he believed his Father’s promise to raise him back to life on the third day.
And God kept his promise: Jesus did rise from the dead on the third day, proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that he is the only begotten Son of God, the only Son who can give us the right to call ourselves the children of God
So our faith is different from Abram’s faith, because he had no evidence at all, while we have all the evidence we need to form a reasonable belief. But our faith also works the same way as Abram’s faith because we are all believing in the promise of the same Son of God. It is Jesus who calls to us today, who says, “Jump! I will catch you!”
So if you are here today and you have decided to believe Jesus’ promise and jump, and you’re just wondering now how to do that…well, I have some good news for you: your decision to believe was your jump. God has already counted your moment of imperfect belief as if it were a lifetime of perfect obedience. That moment of belief was actually the moment God became your Father.
So if that has just happened to you, tell someone here. Because the next step for you is to let God make your adoption official, just as he did for Abram more than 4000 years ago. In Abram’s case, about two chapters from now, God officially declares that he has adopted Abram by commanding him to be circumcised, along with every other male in his household. Today, circumcision is no longer the official mark of our adoption into God’s family; baptism is now the official mark of adoption.
So if you have believed, let us know, and we will make your adoption official through baptism.
Now, if you are here today and you have already made that jump through the waters of baptism into Jesus’ arms…what is our application? What is Abram’s God — our God — calling us to do today because of all this?
Well, the first thing we are called to do today is continue to believe in our Saviour’s promise that he will catch us. Because the truth is, just because our moment of imperfect faith has been credited to us as a lifetime of perfect obedience…we know that we are not yet experiencing perfect obedience or perfect faith.
And this is because the Christian life is really a bit like an extremely slow-motion fall into Jesus’ arms. We have made the leap of faith: that part is over, there is no going back. Jesus is there below us with his arms open: so our ultimate safety is guaranteed. But in the meantime we are God’s little children falling through what feels like empty space. We are perfectly safe! — but we don’t feel safe. And so we do experience many crises of faith throughout the course of our lives. We experience regret, doubt, fear, frustration, bitterness. Sometimes we shout at God like Abram did. Sometimes we wish we had never left the room. Sometimes we wish we had brought our bedsheet parachute after all. Sometimes we wish we could fly
— and we try! We try! Oh, we flap our arms, don’t we? We look back fondly on the days when we used to define ourselves by our own efforts and successes, because at least back then we were still in control of the process, instead of this helpless fall into Jesus’ arms! We tend to forget just how fruitless our lives used to be. We forget that all those other gods we used to serve only loved us because we paid them to.
We share in all the same human weaknesses as the people of Israel. We are on the same journey of faith: we too have passed through the Red Sea into the wilderness; we too have complained when the journey got rough; we too have believed that we have given God something valuable through our obedience to him; we too have counted up our good deeds and started to make demands. And we too have panicked when our Father did not give us what we thought we had earned…
So this is our application for today: remember.
Remember that our obedience does not earn us bonus points with God, because our obedience at this point is a function of gravity! — and we don’t get credit for that.
Remember that we are God’s children because we are Abram’s children — and we are Abram’s children because we joined Abram in his moment of imperfect faith.
Remember that Abram’s moment of imperfect faith was in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only God who is willing to be our Father for free.
And finally: remember that all of our moments of imperfect faith have already been credited to us as an eternity of perfect obedience.
And praise God for that! Because this means that we Christians are the only people in the world who are free to live lives of imperfect obedience without fear of judgement.
Now, to be clear, as Christians we do love and trust our Father, so of course we are going to fall as obediently as we know how! But we are also shortsighted little children, so we are going to scream and shout and wet our pants on the way down. Some of us are going to do worse than just wet our pants. But you know what? That doesn’t change a thing. Most of us are going to land with a squishing sound and a terrible smell, but at least we are landing in our Father’s arms.
And in the end that is all that really counts.
So remember that!