A Sure Sign
March 17, 2010
Updated August 30, 2021
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This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Genesis 15:1-21
Sermon prepared by Rev. Paul VandenBrink, Dundas, ON
A man and his wife went to a marriage counsellor. When the counsellor asked what the problem was, the woman sobbed, “My husband never tells me that he loves me.” When the counsellor looked over at the husband, he snarled, “I told her that 20 years ago, and I haven’t changed my mind!”
The truth is that we all need to be reminded and assured that we are loved. Human beings are pretty fragile people. We’re insecure. It’s in our nature to desire love and to be reminded that we are loved. Kids need it from parents. Spouses need it from each other. And we need it from God too. In fact, the love we need more than any other is that love that only God can give. Augustine, a theologian that lived centuries ago, once said that the human heart is forever restless until it finds rest in God.
In our heads, we understand that God loves us. His Word tells us. “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” right? We read in Romans that nothing can separate us from the love that is ours in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:39). Intellectually, we understand that. But intellectual understanding does not always translate easily into assurance in our hearts. Even though we may “get it” with our brains, we often need reminders – demonstrations – of God’s constant love for us. This is not because of any deficiency on God’s part, but because of our own weakness.
This was precisely what happened to Abram in our text (later known as “Abraham”). He had entered into a relationship with God, but he found himself in need of reassurance that God was with him, that He loved him. Here he was, in this new and strange land that God had promised him, but he still didn’t own one square inch of it. He had packed up his family in Babylon and travelled hundreds of kilometres to a new place he knew nothing about – all because God had told him to do it.
Remember, God promised that that this land would be his. He would own it. But when he finally got there, he found it chock full of inhabitants. There were all kinds of tribes living in this land. To make matters worse, he had just made some pretty serious enemies with some of those tribes! In chapter 14, we learn that Abram’s nephew Lot was captured during a dispute between warring tribes in Canaan. Abram rescued Lot, defeating a number of these tribes and had made himself quite unpopular with some of his neighbours. It looked as though the promise of land was more a pipe-dream now than a reality. He also had no children. God had promised him many descendants, but it looked now like one of his servants was going to inherit his estate.
However, God graciously assured Abram that day, during a vision. Abram was concerned about his descendants – specifically that he didn’t have any! So, we read in verse 2 that he asks God, “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” This is not a question of doubt, but of faith. Abram remembered God’s promises to him and he remembered who he was talking to. So he asked his question, in a similar fashion as the man who said to Jesus, “Lord I believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” You see, faith takes God seriously; that’s what Abram did in his question. We see this in the title he used for God: “Sovereign Lord” (Adoni Yahweh). Abram was humble in his questioning.
To question God as Abram did actually implies faith. Sometimes we feel we cannot question God. When we’re faced with perplexing situations that we don’t understand – something like Abram faced in our text – we may feel that we may not question God. We don’t want to look like we don’t believe. But to the Sovereign Lord of creation, humbly questioning God as Abram did is an act of faith. It declares that we know who God is, what He is like, what He’s promised, and we’re asking Him to make good on what He has promised precisely because we know He can do it! Why question a God who is incapable of keeping His promises? Why question a God who is not sovereign, who’s only response would be, “I’ll see what I can do?” No. When we come to God with our fears, our worries, our concerns, we demonstrate faith in an almighty God who can actually act upon our requests.
Now, how did God respond to Abram? Notice what He did not do. He didn’t say, “Go to Sarai. She’s pregnant right now.” I suppose He could have done that quite easily. He doesn’t respond by performing some miraculous feat, either. He didn’t make a mountain get up and walk into the sea. Instead, He reminds Abram of who He is; in fact, He shows Abram who He is. In verse 5, we read that God took Abram outside his tent and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” God is not just saying, “That’s how many descendents you’re going to have,” although that’s certainly part of it. No. He’s showing Abram who He is – the one who made the majestic starry sky that Abram is looking at. It’s as though God says, “Look! I did this. See all those stars? I made them. I put them right where they are. If I can do that, I can give you son. Don’t forget who I am!”
It’s hard for us to see it today, what with light pollution and all that, but if you go camping in the bush, say in Algonquin Park, for example, it’s hard not to get a sense of the awesome power of God when you look at the night sky. They say we can see about 2500 stars with the naked eye. In the Milky Way alone, it is estimated that there are 400 billion stars! And God made each and every one of them.
When Abram needed assurance, God reminded him of Himself. You see, assurance comes from God, not from anywhere else. When we wonder if God loves us, if we’ve been shaken by a life-rattling experience, we can find ourselves wondering about God’s promises. When that happens, God drives us to Himself in Christ. He points us to His grace, His love, His power, His righteousness – all of it! – that is revealed in Jesus. This is especially demonstrated in the work of Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection. The apostle John wrote, “This is love: not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10).
Now what was Abram’s response? To trust God. God pointed to Himself as the guarantee of all His promises, and Abram believed it. In verse 6 we read, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited to him as righteousness”. Notice that nothing about Abram’s situation has changed. Everything that worried him is still there – he still has no child, no heir. He was still getting old, well beyond child-bearing age. In the face of those odds, though, he still believed God. God was his focus, not his problems. And next to God, when God graciously reminds us of who He is, our problems seem to pale in comparison. They are still there. They are still important. But we begin to see them in a new light, from a new perspective.
Then the Lord turned to the other of Abram’s big problems: the land. It was not yet Abram’s, and Abram was worried that in the face of all these pagans living there his taking possession of it was pretty unlikely. Again, he asks God a question in faith: “How will I gain possession of it” (v. 8)? God’s response, this time, is to show Abram not only who He is and what He is capable of doing; this time God binds Himself to Abram in an unbreakable relationship – a covenant.
Covenants were Ancient Near Eastern ways of sealing a promise between two parties; it was an oath-bound promise between two parties. To show Abram that His promise of land is certain, guaranteed, God literally “cuts a covenant” with Abram. He tells him to go get some animals. Abram needs no further instructions – he knows what to do. He cuts the animals in half (other than the birds) and arranges the pieces opposite each other. The blood of these animals would have flowed out together, almost like a river between the halves on either side. Then God makes Abram wait. Abram has to fend off birds of prey that wanted to violate this sacred ritual. You can picture him running around chasing these birds, keeping them from stealing the carcasses, wondering what’s taking God so long. Finally, Abram falls into a deep sleep and another vision appeared. This time, the vision filled Abram with dread – holy fear, because God was present.
The symbolism of this whole episode is very rich. Normally, the parties would walk between the pieces together, symbolizing their union with one another. They would have gotten blood all over themselves: on their feet, on their cloaks, all over the place. It would have been, literally, a bloody mess. That was the idea. This was meant to symbolize the blood-bond between the parties. Just as the pieces of animals were meant to be together to form one body, the two parties in the covenant were united to each other – as though they were one!
Also, the act would symbolize what happens to the parties if they break their oath to one another. The idea was this: if one party breaks their oath, the curse was that they be severed, cut in two, torn in half, killed just like the animals that had been slaughtered. The act was meant as a sign and a seal of the covenant made between the two parties. If you break the covenant, you are cursed.
But there is something strikingly different about God’s covenant with Abram in Genesis 15. Normally, the parties walked together between the pieces of animals. But here, only God passes through the pieces. In verse 17 we read, “When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.” The smoking pot with a flaming torch coming out of it reminds us of the pillar of smoke and the pillar of fire that led Israel from Egypt during the Exodus. It is a symbol for the presence of God himself.
So God passes alone through these pieces of animal. He did this to symbolize that He is responsible for the promise; it depends on him alone. Abram did not pass through the pieces. He witnessed God’s passing, God’s saying to him: “If I do not keep this promise, may the same thing happen to me as to these animals. May I be cut up, torn apart for failing to keep the promise!” God spilled blood to guarantee His promise. God put Himself “on the line” to guarantee His promise. It did not depend on Abram at all. It did not depend on his faithfulness – it depended on God alone, on God’s faithfulness. God took responsibility for the whole thing! He made a covenant of grace with Abram, a covenant in which God took all the responsibility and Abram received all the benefits.
And God made good on His promise. He always does. We know that Abram did receive a son. We know that his descendants – the Israelites – inherited the Promised Land. But the events of Abram’s life and his relationship with God point forward to another covenant sealed in blood, the new covenant made in Christ. This time, though, the blood was not of animals, but of the Son of God. And the promise is eternal life. The promise is that the debt for our sin is fully paid by Christ’s blood spilled on the cross.
The promise is that no matter what our condition, if we embrace Christ by faith, we are guaranteed all these blessings. Why? Because it doesn’t depend on us! It doesn’t depend on our goodness, our faithfulness. Christ assumed responsibility for us no matter what; He sealed that in His shed blood on the cross. And like Abram, what is required of us is simply faith. Trust that God’s own Son died on the cross for our salvation and rose from the dead for our victory! As our text says, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (v. 6).
The cross is the constant reminder that God’s promises are guaranteed. Every time we come to worship, we remember the cross. We rehearse what happened that fateful day on Calvary. But we rehearse it as a celebration. We celebrate Christ’s work on the cross as an assurance that “though our sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Is. 1:18).
There is a story told of Martin Luther, that one day the devil approached him and tried to shake Luther’s assurance that he would be saved. He presented the Reformer with a long list of sins of which Luther was undoubtedly guilty. He piled them up; sin after sin after sin. The list was extremely long. When he was done, Luther said to him, “Think a little harder; you must have forgotten some.” So the devil kept thinking and he came up with another almost endless list of sins. This time finding out all those hidden sins of Luther that nobody knew about. At the conclusion of this Luther simply said, “That’s fine. Now write across that list in red ink, ‘The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanses us from all sin’.” The devil just looked at him. There was nothing the devil could say to that. Assurance depends on God’s sure promise, not on our shaky performance.
When you wonder whether God loves you, when you ask, as Charles Wesley did, “And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood,” look to the cross. Look to the death of Christ and as sign and a seal that God’s promises are sure, are guaranteed, even for you.
Order of Worship
GOD CALLS US TO WORSHIP
Gathering Hymns: #475 Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven
#557 My Jesus, I Love Thee
*Call to Worship: Jeremiah 31:33-34
*Silent Prayer – Choral Prayer: #633 He Is Lord
*God’s Greeting: May God grant us his grace through Jesus Christ our Lord, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
*Hymn of Praise: # 297 O Come, My Soul, Sing Praise to God (v. 1, 3, 5)
WE CONFESS TO OUR GOD
Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon: Isaiah 1:18
Responsive Guide to Holy Living: Psalter Hymnal p. 1015
Hymn of Dedication: #573 O Master, Let Me Walk With Thee
GOD COMES TO US IN THE WORD
*Prayer of Illumination
Scripture Lesson: Genesis 15
Sermon: A Sure Sign
*Hymn of Response: #267 And Can It Be
WE RESPOND WITH THANKSGIVING
Prayer of God’s People
Hymn of Thanksgiving: #471 All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name
WE DEPART TO SERVE
*God’s Benediction: And now, may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip us with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
*Doxology: #632 To God Be the Glory
*denotes congregation stands, if able
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