Exploring God's word : Old Testament

Living with a sense of promise

We know very little about Abraham when we meet him in Genesis 12. We can work out that he was a Semite, and that his father’s name was Terah, but not much else. It was Terah who took Abram and his family and left Ur in ancient Babylonia, eventually arriving at Harran – Harran was a town that today would be found in modern Turkey, just north of the Syrian border. God commands Abram to complete the journey Terah had started; ‘The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”’ (Genesis 12:1). The command, however, also comes with a promise, it is a promise of blessing, and more than that, a promise that ‘all peoples on earth will be blessed’ through him (Genesis 12:3). 

In the New Testament, especially in the letters of Paul, Abraham is identified as an important figure in how we understand what it means to walk with God – indeed, his life embodies something of an experience which, the longer we walk with Christ, the more we can identify with. Although normally labelled as a “man of faith” or a “man that obeyed the call of God”, there is in my opinion something else that sets Abraham apart from those around him – he was a man living with a sense of promise! From the moment God spoke his promise of blessing to Abram it becomes the guiding principle of his life. It is that same sense of promise that should set us apart as God’s people and, in truth, we soon realise that to live without it, is to live without hope – in short, we have nothing to live for, nothing to aim for, nothing to reach for. 

What God does with Abraham (and what he desires to do with each of us) is put something in him that was bigger than his frame of reference could contain, something beyond him, something that could not naturally happen, something impossible. However, despite its impossibility God declares this new future to be Abraham’s destination; “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.” (Genesis 15:5) The surprising twist to the story is that despite the fact that the promise of God to Abraham was so big, so incomprehensible, and seemingly so impossible, ‘Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness’ (Genesis 15:6). And so, in the moment Abram believed, for the wandering traveller a different landscape came into view, a promised land in which a new future became a possibility. Indeed, it is through the acceptance of God’s promises that a divine seed is planted in the human heart, and everything changes, nothing is ever the same again. It is that seed which grows and grows, until one day it comes to fruition, the promise is fulfilled and you take your first step on a whole new terrain.

Abraham’s purpose was ultimately intertwined with the promises God spoke over his life. However, it should encourage us that it took seventy-five years for Abraham to get some sense of an understanding of what his purpose was. This fact should teach us that God’s purposes and plans for our lives are not necessarily revealed easily or lightly. Sometimes we have to travel through hardship and trial, loss and pain - Abraham had to leave his home, leave his place of comfort, he had to detach himself from the familiar and the safe, only then did he get a glimpse of what his future would involve. This is our reality - we cannot grow in a sense of our purpose, without yearning for, reaching for the promises of God for our lives. 

The story of Abraham also reminds us that in-between the promise and its ultimate fulfilment there is often an uncomfortable and sometimes agonising gulf. God first gives his promise to Abram in Genesis 12, but the promise doesn’t find some fulfilment until a full nine chapters later – a period of twenty-five years! In truth, we cannot have it both ways, if we are going to be a people of promise, a people of hope and purpose, we have to navigate this reality – the two, promise and pain, are interdependent as the very nature of a promise is that it is pointing out the future, and there is going to be some distance to travel in order to get there. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when things don’t appear to be going to plan, or surprised, and let our faith go out of kilter, when things seem tough and unchanging, moreover, we shouldn’t be shocked if some of those deep longings, those things we’ve dreamed of, and felt God affirm, just don’t seem to be happening. The brute fact is, as followers of Christ, we must handle the reality of the “in-between”, we’ve got to humble ourselves in the midst of it, embrace it, sit with it, pray impatiently perhaps, but learn to wait patiently. This is, at its heart what the whole story of Abraham is about, indeed, the whole story of Israel and its wanderings in the wilderness concerns the same - both are figurative examples of heading to a land of promise and purpose, and the difficulties involved in getting there. 

Many of us have experienced this reality to our faith - time and time again we have walked through the fire, gone down into the valley of the shadow of death, we have come face to face with our weaknesses and failings, we’ve experienced loss, travelled many uncomfortable miles and racked up the experiences only life can deliver – but we have continued to journey, we have not given up and such behaviour, I suggest, declares us to be a people of promise. The words of Paul, as he speaks of Abraham in the book of Romans, states it so clearly;

‘Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.”’ (Romans 4:18-22)

God has given us an extreme example of a man and a woman, stepping into an extraordinary promise against all odds, so that we too do not waver through unbelief, and press into all God has for us. 

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