Wednesday, July 2, 2008



“Is anyone here seeking to Lord? Is anyone here pursuing righteousness? Then listen to me!” – these are the words of the prophet. In a minute, I’m going to tell you who that prophet was, and what it was that he said we should listen to. Now some of you might already know who the prophet is. For everyone else, I have a quiz.

The category is “men’s names” and the first question is this: Which man’s name occurs the most in the Bible? (Israel) Which is second? (David)

[Full Bible: God: 4787; Israel: 2601; David: 1064; Jesus: 985; Moses: 847; Joseph: 250]

OK, now that you’re in the mood, I have a second round of questions: Which man’s name occurs the most in the New Testament? (Jesus) Which is second? (Peter/Paul)

[NT: God: 1370; Jesus: 977; Peter: 164; Paul: 163; Moses: 80; Abraham: 74]

Now those questions were really just for fun: kind of trivial pursuit. Now comes the interesting part. As you know the New Testament can be divided into two parts. The first is the historical books: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts – mostly the stories of Jesus and his disciples. The second are the letters: written by Paul, and Peter, and John, for example. These letters are a record of what the earliest Christians thought about God, and themselves, and the world. There aren’t any stories in the second part of the New Testament. There is just explanation of the stories that came earlier. So here’s the final round of questions: In the *second part of the New Testament* which man’s name occurs the most? (Jesus) Which is second? (Abraham)

[Romans and after: God: 880; Jesus: 290; Abraham: 32; Paul: 30; Moses: 23]

Now I’m going to ask you to note two things before we go back to what the prophet said: first, Abraham is considered really, really, important by the writers of the New Testament; second, that fact was a surprise to most of you. ;-)

So let’s get back to the words of the prophet Isaiah: chapter 51: “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father.” Isaiah says that if we want to pursue righteousness, if we want to seek God, we do really well to pay attention to the life of Abraham. Clearly, the apostle Paul felt the same way: as we just discovered, Abraham was the single-most common object lesson in all of his writings.

Now if that isn’t enough to make you want to learn a little bit more about the life of Abraham, the Bible says that God blessed Abraham “in every way”. Could you use a little of God’s blessing this morning? Then Abraham can provide a model for you.

The life of Abraham covers twelve chapters in the Old Testament, starting with Genesis chapter twelve. In the pew Bibles, this amounts to thirteen pages. With the time we have left, we certainly cannot cover all of Abraham’s life, but I would like to give you the “Reader’s Digest” or “Cole’s Notes” version. If you want to follow along, the story of Abraham’s life starts in the twelfth chapter of the book of Genesis. I’m going to skip over some parts, and if you think that I’ve missed something important, please come and tell me afterwards. Now in order to get the point of Abraham’s life, I’ve put most of his experience into four categories, and I’ve given those categories labels. Some will be obvious, and some not so obvious. But I’ll explain them all when we are done.

  • B - was blessed; (command and blessing – 12:2)
  • O - did what he was told (went away from home “as the Lord told him” – 12:4);
  • T - “called on the name of the Lord” – 12:8, 13:4;
  • E - thoughtful to others (deal with Lot) – 13:8;
  • B - was blessed (you get both pieces) – 13:14;
  • E - thoughtful to others (rescued Lot) – 14:14;
  • B - was blessed – 14:19;
  • E - thoughtful to others (gave money to a priest) – 14:20;
  • B - was blessed (your shield and great reward) – 15:1;
  • T - asked God about his childless status; believed God’s answer – 15:2…;
  • B - had a son (Ishmael) – 16:15;
  • B - confirmation of covenant – 17:2;
  • O - did what he was told (had a small operation) – 17:11;
  • E - thoughtful to others (entertained angels) – 18;
  • T - talked to God – 18;
  • E - thoughtful to others (begged God to be merciful to Lot) – 18:16;
  • B - had a son (Isaac) – 21:1;
  • T - “called on the name of the Lord” – 21:33;
  • O - did what he was told (sacrifice of Isaac) -- 22;
  • B - was blessed – 22:17;
  • E - thoughtful to others (bought a field) -- 23;
  • -- buried his wife;
  • -- sent his servant to find a wife for his son; re-married; had more sons; died.

B blessing; x8; E ethics; x6; O obedience; x3; T talk; x4

So what did we learn from the life of Abraham? Well, how about a quick check to see is you were paying attention. Which of these three letters did I hold up the most? That’s right: B – and B is for blessing: God blessed Abraham right out of his socks. Now (this is a little trickier) which of the letters did I hold up second most? That’s right: E. I’ll explain what E stands for in a second. Which letter comes next? T – T stands for talk: Abraham talked to God. And, finally, what was the last letter? O – O stands for obedience, doesn’t it: Abraham did what God told him to do.

Back to the letter “E”. This one was a bit tricky – it is difficult to choose an appropriate letter. For the philosophers in the room, the letter “E” could stand for “Ethics” – that is, being kind and thoughtful to others. Remember the events of Abraham’s life that I talked about when the “E” was up? He was honest, and generous, and unselfish. That’s sometimes what we mean when we talk about ethics. But I wanted a label that meant a little more than that. You see, when Abraham is kind and thoughtful, the Bible suggests that his doing so is a way that God blessed those around him. So Abraham’s kindness comes directly from God. I picture it as being an extension of the blessing. So you can say that “E” is for “Ethics” or that “E” is for an “Extension” of God’s blessing.

In fact, God makes this explicit in some of the blessings that he gives Abraham. Here’s the first one (chapter 12):

“…I will bless you…and you will be a blessing…. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

And here is the last one (chapter 22):

“…I will surely bless you…and through you…all nations on earth will be blessed.”

It is almost as if the purpose of God’s blessing to Abraham is to bless the world. And I bet the world would be a better place if we had the same attitude: we are called to extend the blessings that we have received to others.

So as we seek the Lord and pursue righteousness, we need to pay attention to the life of Abraham. And having just heard the summary of that life, I think that we need to ask ourselves a very basic question: “Be to or not be to – that is the question!” You see, there are two different ways of looking at life. There are two different ways to approach God. And they can be illustrated by the order in which you put these four letters. Most of the world thinks that they need to come to God like this: “OTEB.” That is, they think that God couldn’t possibly bless you unless first you obey him, then you talk to him, and then you are the best person you can be.

But the life of Abraham demonstrates that this is exactly the wrong way to approach God. In the life of Abraham, the blessing came first. It’s true! God didn’t wait for Abraham to obey; God didn’t wait for Abraham to pray; God didn’t wait for Abraham to be kind to others. No! God blessed Abraham right up front. Remember the order in Abraham’s life? First the blessing; then the extension of that blessing, then prayer, and then obedience. God blessed Abraham right up front. And God blesses us right up front, too.

Remember what it says in Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his love to us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And verse 10: “when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son.” Or how about in Ephesians: (2:4,5) “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in sin – it is by grace you have been saved.”

God blesses us up front: before, not after we are his friends. When we realize this, then we can become the true children of Abraham. “What difference?” you may ask. Well let me tell you.

If we think that we deserve the blessing we receive from God, then we can make the mistake of thinking that if folks fall upon hard times then they deserve it, too – that it is God’s judgment. If it is us who suffer, we can be paralyzed by guilt, and if we see others suffer, we can look down on them. This just isn’t right. Remember the disciples asking Jesus about the man born blind…? and the folks killed when the tower collapsed…?

If we think that the blessing we have received is due to our goodness, we can also make the mistake of insisting that the rest of the world must approach God exactly as we have. We become gate-keepers of the Kingdom, ensuring that those who come must use our words, jump through our hoops, and align themselves with us before they can approach God. Jesus condemns this kind of attitude in the Pharisees when he says “Woe to you, you hypocrites, you shut the kingdom of God in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” Let me tell you, there is a world out there in desperate need of God, and the last thing that they need is a bunch of smug gatekeepers to block their way.

Instead, when we realize that the blessing that we have received is through no fault of our own, then we can be truly generous with it. We didn’t deserve it any more than the people that we’ve been called to share it with. We are all the same before the judge and ruler of the world.

God’s blessing comes before prayer. Without the grace of God, there is not a soul who would be able to pray. God’s blessing comes before obedience. Without the grace of God, we would be unable to do anything right at all. And God’s blessing absolutely comes before any kindness we could ever show to others. In fact, our small kindnesses are simply extensions of God’s blessing. As John says in his first letter, “We love because he first loved us.” Without God’s love, we are incapable of love. Without God’s blessing, we are incapable of blessing others.

But what if you’re feeling blessing-deprived this morning? Well, this might not help a lot, but I’ve got to tell you. God can come in and fill any gap you might be feeling in your life. God says that he is Abraham’s reward, and he can be our reward, too. If life has handed you a short stick, remember Abraham: he let Lot choose the big piece of the pie, only to have God remind him that the future was his. The Bible says God is father to the fatherless and a defender of widows. Remember how Jesus called his disciples attention to the widow at the temple? After guys came with trumpets and front-end-loaded money into the offering, a poor window came and put in two pennies. Jesus said that that widow put in more that the rich man. God will judge us on what we’ve received; not for what we lack.

On the other hand, Jesus says that from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. God requires us to take our blessings seriously.

Do you want to seek God? Do you want to pursue righteousness? Then pay attention to Abraham. Let us, too, be willing to accept God’s blessings and freely extend it to those we meet this week.