In many ways the church is a counter-cultural institution. We gather on Sunday morning when many are sleeping in or watching sports on TV. We sing. We pray. We listen to a Book being read and preached. We eat a small piece of bread and drink a small cup of wine. Is this just a strange habit we have picked up, or is there more behind it? Is this something we just do as individuals, doing our own thing, or is God doing something to us and through us in the world? The session has asked me to preach a series of sermons looking what the Bible says about the church. Our focus this morning is Genesis 12:1–3, an important passage, even though the word “church” is not used in it.
See God working out his plan. God lays a foundation for his church. You can go back much earlier than Abram to see the beginning of the church. About a month ago, looking forward to what took place with the incarnation, we looked at Genesis 3 and 4. God created mankind to have fellowship with him. Eden was a wonderful place, not only as a wonderful garden, but God appeared to Adam and Eve. He had fellowship with them. He spoke with them. Even in Eden mankind needed God’s verbal revelation. You could say that God, as a special act of providence, entered into a covenant with mankind. That is sometimes call the covenant of life or the covenant of works. Eden was not designed to be a permanent place of testing. Adam had the Tree of Life held out for him—if he obeyed. But you know that he sinned. And as our covenant representative, that impacted you and me. You, like Adam and Eve, are made in God’s image. Thus sin, at its basic level, not just something to avoid because of bad (terrible) consequences. “The downside of sin is not only its consequences, but sin itself is an act of deprivation. For me to sin is to deprive myself of the enjoyment of God.” (from a lecture by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.). The genealogy of Shem is God preparing a line. Adam and Eve had sinned, but God promised a Redeemer. Sin continued to grow. The Flood condemned sin, while at the same time it brought deliverance for Noah and his family. Babel shows that the heart of mankind continues to be rebellious. The implication of the death of each member continues in the genealogy of Genesis 11, parallel to Genesis 5. The rest after the Flood does not mean the end of sin or its consequences. The situation is bleak and God, dealing with Abram, graciously renews the promise of the coming Messiah.
God narrows the promised line in order to grow his church. God is establishing a separate people. The coming Redeemer, though truly one of us (a descendant of Eve and of Abraham–born of a woman, born under law, Gal 4:4) would be unlike us, in that we are sinners and rebels, but he is perfect. Therefore God chose a separate people. Trust in the coming Redeemer would require a break with idolatry and immorality. What made Abraham different from the people around him? The difference is that Abraham is building altars and calling on the name of the Lord. Abraham is walking in fellowship with God and in obedience to him. Although there is separation from the world, God’s blessing involves the world. As God called Abram to leave his family, Ur, etc., his concern is not just “spiritual” things in the narrow sense. God’s saving work involves and affects your daily life. As those who are God’s chosen people Trust the promises God makes. God promises a redeemer. God made a series of promises to Abram. God promised to make Abram a nation (at 75 and childless). God promised to bless him. God promised him a great name. God promised to make him a blessing. There is the promise that the nations will be blessed in Abraham, a promise that could be fulfilled only in the Child who would come of Abraham’s line. At the heart of the covenant is the promise to be God to Abram and to his descendants forever, Genesis 17:7. Notice the focus on the nations who will be blessed. See that being fulfilled as the Spirit is poured out on Pentecost, equipping the church to go into all the world. Notice the growth of the church throughout Acts. Listen to the voice of a great multitude in Revelation, from every tribe and language. God’s covenant promises are fulfilled in Christ Jesus. In him the blessings of the covenant belong to you, as Jeremiah anticipated, Jeremiah 31:31. He kept the law of God. He faithfully fulfilled the requirements of the covenant. He bore the curse, the judgment of the covenant (don’t forget the graphic imagery of Genesis 15). Don’t lose sight of the cross as you rejoice in the incarnation. God’s promise to bless is made to you, in Christ, as certainly as it was to Abraham. No matter how uncertain your life seems, no matter how big the problems you face are, rejoice in the fellowship with God because of what he has done. Give thanks for his promised blessings. “Abram’s calling to leave his land and people did not contain the the slightest suggestion that grace as the ‘wholly other’ would continue to stand over against human life, as though life on earth was not to be sanctified. On the contrary, Abram was promised that he would become the father of a nation, that he would have a name on the earth, and that in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Grace entered life and sanctified it.” (S. G. De Graaf, Promise and Deliverance, Vol. 1, p. 75). As those who are God’s chosen people today, you are called to a similar separation, 1 Peter 2:9-12. God’s people expand to include the nations at Pentecost, but they still contrast with the world, particularly in the ethical sense.
Walk by faith in the Messiah God promised. The heart of your response to God is faith. Faith, now that the promised descendant (singular!) of Abraham has come, involves receiving and resting on him alone. We spoke earlier of the response of worship and obedience. God’s blessing didn’t come because Abraham or you was so faithful in worship, such an outstanding example of obedience. Just keep reading the story of Abraham, just look at your own life, and you are humbled. “The keynote is not what Abraham has to do for God, but what God will do for Abraham. Then, in response to this, the subjective frame of mind that changes the inner and outer life is cultivated. . . . The all-important thing is that God has acted in the past, is acting in the present, and promises to act in the future.” (Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments, pp. 93–94). There is no more important question you can ask yourself today than, “Am I trusting in the Lord Jesus? Am I turning from sin and depending on him alone?” As you trust in Christ, you receive God’s covenant blessing. You are sons and daughters of Abraham. You have been baptized into Christ. That covenant sign calls you to live as God’s child. It challenges you to profess your faith in Christ. It assures you of God’s grace as you trust Christ. Abraham knew that more was involved than real estate in Palestine. He looked for a city with foundations, Hebrews 11. The new heavens and earth are yours–as children of Abraham. God calls you to leave and follow. God called Abram step by step. He left Ur, left his father at Haran, and parted ways with Lot. Step by step God built the faith with which Abram responded. Step by step God shapes your life, sometimes using small challenges, seemingly unimportant decisions, to draw you to rest in him and to walk by faith. The covenantal structure through which he deals with Abraham becomes the structure through which God continues to work with all his people.
God calls you to covenantal faithfulness. It may not be a call to leave everything and everyone, but… God does call you to give up worry, even when you don’t have a good idea of what the future holds. God’s call is a call to total commitment to Jesus Christ. He calls you to surrender pride that keeps you aloof from family. In Christ, God has entered into a covenant relationship with you. Faith in Christ is not just something external, but is a faith, as Paul describes it in Galatians, that is working in love, encompassing your life to live to the glory of God.