Pilgrim through a barren land
(audio file will be posted here)
- Acts 7:1-8
- Genesis 12:1-9
My dear brother and sister in the Lord,
Someone said in a writer’s conference. “If you want to write, put glue on the seat of your pants and sit in a chair!” He said no amount of talent or conducive atmosphere can make up for hard work—stick-to-it-ive-ness!
As Thomas Carlyle neared completion of his masterpiece, The French Revolution, a thoughtless cleaner gathered up the his written pages and tossed them into the fire. Disappointed and heartsick Carlyle did not pamper himself with self-pity nor did he harm the cleaner—he sat down and rewrote it from memory.
Noah Webster thought he could complete his dictionary in “three to five years.” It required twenty-one! What persistence!
It was faith and faithful obedience that kept Abraham going in a barren land with nothing to drive him, other than God Himself, and the promise of the God of glory who called him out of idolatry to freedom.
The God of glory
As we saw last week, Abraham was no better than all the people living around him before God called him. In fact, the Bible tells us that he worshipped idols at the time of his calling. God did not look from heaven for a good bloke to start a nation whom He would make a covenant with. There was none. All people after Adam were born professional sinners, by nature inclined to worship anyone else but God. And that includes us. It calls for a divinely appointed work of grace to make us see who God is, and then become aware of our sin. Once again it is only more grace that helps us turn away from the folly of our sinful existence to follow God.
Our reading of Acts 7 made mention of this in the life of Abraham. Stephen was about to be stoned to death for his witness of Jesus Christ when he said:
“Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran.” (Acts 7:2, NIV)
The God of glory appeared to him. That made the difference. This expression is used of moments in the life of God’s people when He appeared in majesty to them to assure them of his holy presence. It was usually in the form of a cloud or fire, or both. When the Israelites left Egypt because God made redemption possible for them, we read, while they were still a short distance out of Egypt:
He spread out a cloud as a covering, and a fire to give light at night. (Psalm 105:39, NIV)
When they faced the Red Sea ahead of them and the armies of the pharaoh behind them:
Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel. Throughout the night the cloud brought darkness to the one side and light to the other side; so neither went near the other all night long. (Exodus 14:19–20, NIV)
This is the God of glory who revealed Himself as the Deliverer of his people. When the people groaned before Moses about their food, Moses said:
In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him.” (Exodus 16:6–7, NIV)
When the people were grumbling because of the lack of water, this is how the Lord answered:
… and the glory of the Lord appeared to them [Moses and Aaron]. The Lord said to Moses, “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together. Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water. You will bring water out of the rock for the community so they and their livestock can drink.” (Numbers 20:6–8, NIV)
When the Tabernacle was completed, and later the Temple, on both occasions we read:
When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple. (1 Kings 8:10–11, NIV)
This was the sure sign to the people of God that He was in their midst to guide them, protect them and to have communion with them.
It was this God of glory who appeared to Abraham while he was still worshipping other gods in Mesopotamia. This appearance is life changing. This is, I believe, the same thing that happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. It changed his life around from being a persecutor of the church to a missionary of the church of Christ.
“The God of glory appeared to Abraham while his was still in Mesopotamia” – while he was worshipping other gods. Joshua 24:2 shines a light on another aspect of Abraham’s salvation. This is an act of God:
But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the Euphrates and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants. (Joshua 24:3, NIV)
It is by an act of mercy from God that we are saved. It is his work, revealing Him in his glory in Jesus Christ. Have you read this next verse carefully? Listen:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. (Luke 2:8–9, NIV)
Jesus Christ is the glory of the Lord personified. John puts this way:
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, NIV)
Let us not be amazed by the calling of Abraham, as if he was a special human being, having done special things before God in order to be called to be the father of believers. They way in which he was saved – by grace, called away from the idols of this world to a new obedience – is exactly why he is the father of all believers: we are saved the same way. We don’t deserve grace, but we are given grace. This grace is life-changing. It surely changed Abraham’s life from an idol-worshipper to a worshipper of the only God.
God’s claim on Abraham’s life
What is conversion? What defines one’s life as a converted sinner?
The Lord, calling Abraham, said:
‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’ (Acts 7:3, NIV)
This is stated in more detail in Genesis 12:
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, NIV)
It is important that we understand God’s call to Abraham, and as such, to us: In Abraham’s case it involved a definitive separation from his past. Although Abraham had no good in him that could possibly commend him to God, but this does not mean that there was nothing for Abraham to do once God called him into a relationship with Him. An essential part of God’s call was for Abraham to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household.
Ur in Abraham’s time was apparently where the deep and rich soil, washed down by the Tigris and the Euphrates to the Persian Gulf, gathered in a delta. It was a pleasant part of the world. There were apples, grapes, pomegranates, and tamarisks growing wild. It called for a certain resolution to leave a country like that and trek across the Arabian desert to an unknown and less desirable land. But this is what God told Abram to do. He said, “Leave your country.…”
But there was another part to God’s command to Abraham: he had to leave his people. In those days being among one’s own people meant acceptance, prosperity, and security. Abraham had to go out nearly alone into a world filled potential enemies. As a matter of fact the Bible states:
At that time the Canaanites were in the land. (Genesis 12:6, NIV)
Applied to us, it does not demand of us to all pack our bags and go live somewhere else. One commentator says, in demanding these from Abraham meant that he had to
… disentangle himself from the idolatries of his native land, and even sever his connection with the nearest and the dearest, rather than imperil his salvation by remaining in Chaldæa; and in a like spirit does the voice of Jesus in the gospel direct men to forsake the world … to renounce its possessions, occupations, amusements; yea, to dissolve its friendships and endearing relationships, if they would now be numbered among his disciples, and eventually enter into life.
That is conversion.
Added to the other things, Abraham had to leave his immediate relations behind. It would not have been so bad perhaps if they could all have migrated as a clan, which would mean support and protection. It was necessary for his spiritual growth to leave them behind. His environment was not conducive to that growth. His family would not help him in the pilgrimage.
The demands are still the same. Jesus Said:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? (Luke 9:23–25, NIV)
It is to ask for too much? If not, we could gain the world and forfeit our very self.
Ahraham met the God of glory, he encountered this glory and the his world did not stack up. Consequently the Bible tells: “So he left the land of the Chaldeans.” He left, and God sent him. That’s what Stephen says in Acts 7. God enabled him to answer the call, and He enabled him to go.
We should not embellish on what the Bible does not clearly state, but to go and settle in Canaan the living God called and sent him there would not be easy.
It was a land where Baal and Astarte were the main gods in a pantheon of gods, most prominent were the gods of fertility and war. Temple prostitution was common, and worshippers sacrificed their children. The religion appealed to immoral and in-born sinfulness of the natural man. It was almost like one does not believe in something; you just do what comes naturally, give yourself over to the sin that controls your life – what you then indulge in is your religion. You only need to look at some programs on TV to understand that the world of Abraham was not much different – and it has become a religion in our day too.
Abraham journeyed into the land and found himself at the great tree of Moreh. It seems as if this tree, or clump of trees, was the place where the Canaanites worshipped and where they got there oracles from. It was at this place that the Canaanites gathered to indulge in their primitive religion of human sacrifice and prostitution. What a place to come too after the holy God of glory called you into his service! But what did Abraham do? He built an altar to the Lord. He distinguishes his God from the gods of the place and its tree by building an altar to Yahweh who has appeared to him.
What made the difference in Abraham’s life? The God of glory who appeared to him in Ur is the God who sent him there, and He is the God who once again appeared to him – none less glorious than before.
There, at the altar and tree where the godless worshipped, there God appeared to him and promised him, “To your offspring I will give this land.”
A commentator remarks:
God’s [Yahweh’s] word to Abram and his response in setting up the altar together tear the seamless web connecting gods and people and land in Canaan.
Abraham’s altar may have looked the same as those already there, but God’s promise to give this land to his descendants, becomes to Abraham a sign of eventual possession of that land. Factually the Canaanites occupied the land as their sacred symbol showed, but Abraham occupied it in symbol only. Abraham’s altar speaks of a future rooted in the past – God’s call and promise: he claimed his future, not by building a rival city, but by building an altar. His altar remained as witness to the fact that in this place a child of God once knelt and prayed, proclaimed the gospel of grace, and claimed that spot for God’s glory.
This is something the church of Jesus Christ must learn to understand. We do not build rival cities by gathering earthly signs of power. We spend our time on earth as pilgrims with no permanent address. Abraham is an example of how we are to be in the world and yet not of it, of what it means to be a pilgrim. Canaan was never exactly the same after he had passed through. He built altars to the living God. His business was God’s Kingdom. What is our business?
A pilgrim is one who has left home but is also traveling to another home. A pilgrim has had a vision of a goal, a destination, and is determined to only have a tent until he can move in to the house. When the Lord appeared to him at the trees of Moreh, he understood that God is in Canaan too, and that one day, in God’s own timing, the whole place will belong to his people; till then, he was just a pilgrim through the barren, trusting God only – although he sometimes misunderstood God’s guidance.
My dear friend, Abraham is in more than one instance an example to follow. His faith in God was accredited to him as righteousness. His obedience to trust God when all looked bleak should help us to trust God, even when we have to, as Hebrews puts it, have confidence in only what we hope for, and have assurance in the things we don’t yet see .
But more so was our Lord Jesus Christ. He is far more than just an example. He left his Father’s glory to establish the kingdom of God on earth. Not a kingdom in political sense. Pilate heard it from Him, “My kingdom is not from this world, it is from another place.” (John 18:36) Yes, He is King. Pilate was correct when he had the inscription made, “The King of the Jews.” (John 19:19) But that inscription was nailed with Jesus to the cross where He died, only to rise again, to open the door to the city Abraham saw by faith, built by God. There was no other pilgrim like our Lord Jesus Christ. There was no barren land like the one He came to die in and for.
He now calls us to leave everything behind to follow Him, and to like Abraham erect spiritual altars in this godless Canaan to the God of glory. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on sunday 20 July 2014