When God wants to do something big, he starts with something very small. When God wants to do the miraculous, he starts with the impossible. After all, when he sent his Son to the world, he didn't send him to New York or London or even to Rome. He sent him to a little village called Bethlehem. God loves to start small because then he can show his power in a mighty way. He also is the only one who gets the credit because most of us don't want the credit for small beginnings. We'd rather start big and go from there.
No so with our Heavenly Father. He starts with the impossible and then turns it into reality. That of course is the whole story of Abraham's life. Here is a man whom God found in paganism in Ur of the Chaldees. He's 75 years old and has no children. God promised this old man that he would have so many descendants that they would be like the stars in the sky and the dust on the ground. No one would be able to count them all.
1. The Promise to Abraham v. 1 - 8
This was an incredible promise to make to an old man and we can hardly blame him if he had trouble believing it. So God repeated the promise many times across the years. Each time he added a bit more detail. First it was general-"I will make a great nation from your descendants." Then it became specific-"You will have a son." Then God added promises concerning the nation itself-"To your descendants will I give the land from the River of Egypt to the River Euphrates." Finally, God "cut a covenant" with Abraham in which he made an unconditional promise to fulfill everything he had promised.
But now 24 years have passed and Abraham is 99 years old. He has no child except the son born through Hagar, his wife's maidservant. Surely God has forgotten his promise or perhaps he has changed his mind.
Just at that moment of despair God comes again to Abraham with even more details: Your name will be called Abraham - "Father of Many People." Many kings and nations will come from you. I will make an everlasting covenant with your descendants. I will give the whole land of Canaan to your descendants.
How could Abraham believe such an amazing statement? The answer is the name by which God introduces himself: "I am the Lord Almighty." El Shaddai - "the God who moves mountains." It was God's way of saying, "Abraham, what are you worried about? I can make a mountain and I can move a mountain. If I want to, I can give you a son when you are 100 years old. This is no problem for me."
You think it's hard to have a baby when you're 100 and your wife is 90? His name is El Shaddai. He can do things you and I can't even imagine, much less attempt.
2. The Sign of the Covenant v. 9 - 14
Once God gave this incredible promise, he told Abraham and the other men to do something special. He ordered them to be circumcised. God calls it "the sign of the covenant." He goes on to specify several conditions regarding circumcision: All male descendants were to be circumcised. Circumcision should take place on the 8th day after birth. Both natural-born descendants and foreign slaves were to be circumcised. Anyone who refuses circumcision must be cut off from the people of God.
Why did God ask for this particular sign? Presumably he could have asked for any sign he wanted. Why pick something like circumcision? I think the answer goes something like this. Circumcision by its nature touches the very core of what it means to be a man. In his most intimate and personal moments each Jewish male would forever be reminded that he was a holy Son of the Covenant and that he belonged to God. No one else might know it but once he was circumcised, he could never forget it.
Why did God choose a sign that applied only to the men? I think the answer is that God was reminding Abraham that he was the head of his own household, and as such he had to answer to God for what happened in his own family. Circumcision meant accepting your place as God's appointed spiritual leader in your own family. It's like a father giving his daughter away at a wedding. He stands on behalf of the whole family. The circumcised man was saying to God, "I accept the covenant you have made." Joshua 24: 15 "As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."
3. The Promise to Sarah v. 15, 16
Lest Sarah should feel left out, God now gives several specific promises to her: Her name will now be Sarah-which means "Princess." She will soon give birth to a son. Through that son she will become the mother of many nations. Great rulers will descend from her.
This is a vast demonstration of God's amazing grace. The last time we saw Sarah she was urging Abraham to sleep with Hagar in order to help God out. Then she began mistreating Hagar when the girl became pregnant. It's not a very pretty story.
Yet God includes her in his promise to Abraham. Though she is far from perfect, and though her faith is very weak, she too will be included in God's plan. It's as if God said, "Don't worry Sarah. I'm going to bless you in spite of yourself." That's often what God does, isn't it?
God blesses us in spite of ourselves.
This is one of the great themes of Abraham's life story. Whatever God does, he does in spite of us, not because of us.
4. Two Sons, Two Promises v. 17 - 22
It's interesting and instructive to see how Abraham responded to these incredible promises. The Bible says he laughed. In fact, he fell down on the ground either in total shock or because he was laughing so hard. He didn't believe it! He said to himself, "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?" Good questions. Generally speaking the answer is no. I can tell you for an absolute fact that this has only happened once in human history-and that took place 4000 years ago. So Abraham is on good grounds to doubt God-at least from a statistical point of view.
That's why he brings up Ishmael. I think he's worried that maybe God is in over his head. After all, it's been 24 years and Ishmael is his only son. God responds with 4 statements:
1. I'm going to give you a son and you will call him Isaac.
2. He will be the son I have promised you.
3. I will bless Ishmael and make him into a great nation.
4. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac.
Then he adds 1 more important sentence, "Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year." Now that's a very specific promise. After 24 years of waiting, God has pinned it down to the next 12 months. Abraham will celebrate his 100th birthday by painting the nursery and changing nappies.
This whole story is tremendously comforting because it drives home the point that God is never early and never late. He's always right on time. Old TV programme - Candid Camera - "Somewhere, sometime, when you least expect it, someone will say, 'Smile, you're on Candid Camera.'" God often seems to work on Candid Camera principle. When you least expect it, and often when you've given up all hope, God comes through at the right time.
5. The Act of Obedience v. 19 - 21
One final detail. After God finished speaking and left him, Abraham was circumcised - "on that very day." This is instant obedience. He then had Ishmael and all the other men in his household circumcised. This is complete obedience. It was Abraham's way of saying, "Lord, I believe every word you say is true and I'm going to believe it even if I don't understand it." Here is proof of Abraham's faith: A few minutes ago he had been laughing in disbelief. Now he is circumcised to seal his dedication to God and his Word. Doubting is no sin, so long as your doubts don't keep you from obeying God.
The Word For Today
What does all this mean for us today -
1. Because his name is El Shaddai he is still able to move mountains for his people. That's why Jesus said to his disciples that through faith in God they could move mountains. You may be in the impossible stage this morning. If so, don't give up because his name is El Shaddai and nothing is impossible with him.
2. God's call to you will sometimes require acts of obedience that may seem strange to you at the time. I'm sure Abraham may have wondered about circumcision because God didn't explain himself at all. Let me give you a sentence to chew on: If God is in charge, we can do the difficult because he can do the impossible.
3. We all need the circumcision of the heart - Romans 2: 28, 29 "A man is not a Jew is he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God."
Circumcision-although it was a physical mark on the body-was never meant to be an end in itself. The physical mark was meant to be accompanied by a deep spiritual commitment to God. Where commitment was absent, circumcision soon degenerated into ritualism. That's roughly what had happened over the centuries. By the 1st century many rabbis spoke of circumcision as if it were an automatic ticket to heaven. Circumcision had become the supreme symbol of Jewish superiority!
Many of us regard our baptism in much the same way the Jews regarded circumcision. Millions of people are today putting their hope of heaven in the fact that a priest sprinkled some water on their forehead when they were a few days old. It tends to become a religious ritual that leads many people away from saving faith in Jesus Christ. All religious ritual is worthless unless something has already happened in the heart!
I can personally baptize you but unless you have Christ in your heart, your baptism will do you no good. In fact, I can hold you under water so long that you'll come up singing "Amazing Grace," but even that won't do you any good unless Christ is in your heart.
Circumcision originally was supposed to mean, "I am dedicated to God." Where a person was truly dedicated, it had legitimate meaning. Where they weren't, it became a ritual without reality. In the same way, baptism is supposed to mean, "I have given my heart to Jesus Christ and he is my Saviour." When that is true, baptism is a wonderfully appropriate step of faith. When that is not true, baptism has become meaningless-and even dangerous because it may lead you to think you are a Christian when you really aren't.
It's about your heart, not your actions. Millions of people have a religion based on superstition. They put their trust in some outward factor as their hope for heaven. Such people will someday be sadly disappointed. Others trust in inherited religion. They act as if salvation is inherited like you inherit the colour of your eyes. It doesn't work that way when it comes to salvation. No one else can believe for you. You have to believe for yourself if you want to go to heaven.
Five Simple Words
It all boils down to this: In what are you trusting for your eternal salvation? Or to put it more accurately: In whom are you trusting to take you to heaven? After all, salvation is not a what; it's a who. The issue is your relationship to Jesus Christ.
Let me give you 5 simple words that can take you all the way from earth to heaven. Here they are: Only Jesus and Jesus only. Only Jesus can save you so put your trust in Jesus only.