Is anything too hard for the Lord?

In one of Gary Larson’s classic cartoons, there is a picture of two spiders perched on top of a guard rail at the bottom of a slide in a children’s playground.  They have just finished their greatest project ever by weaving a giant web across the bottom of the slide.  One spider says to the other, “If we pull this off, we’ll eat like kings.” 

But we all know that’s an impossibility, don’t we?  As any rational, thinking person knows, the force of even the smallest object coming down that slide is no match for a flimsy little web and the best that the spiders are likely to get is a child’s shriek seconds before they are catapulted to the other side of the playground.

But what happens when that thinking finds its way into the realm of faith?  Karl Barth, an influential theologian in the 20th century once made an interesting observation.  He said we often reduce “reality” to that which fits our idea of the “possible” which, according to the requirements of modern reason, is defined by our best scientific learning, our most trusted experience, our best logic, and our most advanced technological capacity.  By that reckoning most of what takes place in the bible and throughout church history is impossible.  It simply could not happen. 

An impossible birth

That brings us to our story of Abraham and Sarah.  As we open Genesis chapter 18, we find Abraham setting in the shade of his tent.  He looks up and sees three visitors standing in front of him.  As the passage unfolds, we learn these are not ordinary men but heavenly visitors – one of which is the Lord himself.

Abrahams moves immediately into action.  The sleepy community is suddenly awakened as Abraham move everyone into high gear, going from tent to tent giving orders, preparing a good spread for his guests. During the course of this meal, the conversation turns and they ask him, “Where is your wife Sarah?”  

He replies, “There, in the tent”.

And then like a bolt from the blue that immediately identifies this visitor to Abraham, the Lord says, “I will certainly come back to you in about a year’s time, and your wife Sarah will have a son!” (Gen 18:10)

That voice that Abraham heard in the past that the Lord would bless him and make his name great; that voice that told him to look up into the sky and count the stars – so shall your descendants be, that voice that declared “your name will no longer be Abram, but Abraham for I will make you a father of many nations,” he was now hearing again.  And Abraham realized it was from the same source.  This was– the great El Shaddai – the Almighty God speaking to him again.  And he was assuring Abraham that he would keep his covenant promise and that it would be by his supernatural power he would give Sarah the child that for so many years she had longed for.

Meanwhile, Sarah is in her tent listening.  She hears this statement from the Lord, and she laughs.  Now there is nothing wrong with laughter.  Laughter is a gift from God.  And there would be nothing wrong with Sarah laughing – if that laughter was prompted by the thought of, “Oh my, the God of heaven is able to do with a simple word what has been impossible for us to do over all these years.  Isn’t that marvellous; isn’t he great?” 

But it becomes very evident as we read on, that it is a very different kind of laughter coming from Sarah.  It was not joy and wonder at what God can do, but as the Lord reveals, it is the laughter of unbelief.  “A 90-year-old post-menopausal woman is going to give birth, is she?  Now I’ve heard it all.”

And perhaps it is all the more significant that no one heard her laugh except the Lord.  She laughed – note what verse 12 tells us, to herself.  This was a silent laugh, in her heart.  She does not know that on the other side of the tent is one who knows her very thoughts.

You cannot hide anything from the Lord my friends.  He reveals the secrets of our hearts. His Word is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword – able to penetrate into the deepest part of our being and judge the thoughts and intentions of our hearts (Hebrews 4:12).  And this same living Word speaks to Abraham in Sarah’s hearing and says, “Why did Sarah laugh?”  Can you imagine her shame and guilt as the thoughts of her heart is exposed and her unbelief is uncovered?  And then following this comes those wonderful words, “Is anything impossible for the Lord?” 

It is the question before each and every one of us, isn’t it?  God is urging Sarah to believe that nothing is impossible for him, and he is urging us to believe the same.  Perhaps you are in a difficult situation right now.  You can’t see a resolution.  From a human perspective, there is no hope.  Do you think that is too difficult for God to solve?  Perhaps you are in a marriage, where there is tension and conflict.  You have experienced over the years an accumulation of hurt and unforgiveness to the point there appears to be no hope of a resolution.  My friend, the Lord says to you today, “You don’t think I am big enough for this?  Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” 

The bible tells us that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  He created the atom in its microscopic form, with electrons flying around a nucleus in perfect harmony.  He created the human body with all of its various systems: the circulatory system, the nervous system, the skeletal system, the digestive system, the muscular system, the respiratory system, and somehow all of these systems work in harmony to make up a physical living human being.  And He did it using nothing but dirt.  He created the UY Scuti, the largest star in the known universe.  It has a circumference of 7.5 billion km.  To put that in perspective, it would take you 950 years to fly around it in a commercial airliner. 

And you imagine that you have some little problem in your life that God can’t deal with, some impossible situation that is too big for him to handle?  How easily we can allow our understanding to place restrictions on what we think God can do! How often we limit Him by assuming that some things are too hard or simply “impossible.” We easily can forget that God has no limitations.

Ben Patterson speaks powerfully to our current day when he says,

“Is anything too hard for God?” That is an overwhelming and shattering question. It demands an answer. Answer yes and the world is shut down, the universe is closed, and God is no longer God: benevolent, maybe; kindly and concerned, perhaps; but as powerless as we are in the face of our cosmic incongruity. Answer “No, there is nothing that is too hard for God,” and you and the world are in his hands and the possibilities are endless. He is radically free to keep his promises, despite the odds against it.”

Conclusion

There is a happy ending to this story. The Lord’s rebuke worked.  It brought Sarah to faith.  We read in chapter 11 of Hebrews:

“By faith even Sarah herself, when she was unable to have children, received power to conceive offspring, even though she was past the age, since she considered that the one who had promised was faithful.” (Hebrews 11:11)

Sarah came face to face with her sin of unbelief.  She heard God’s Word and took it to heart.  A short time later, the impossible happened: a child was conceived in her womb.  Her laughter of cynicism and doubt was replaced with the laugher of joy when Isaac was born.  In fact, Isaac’s very name means “he laughs.” God has a way of turning our sin and unbelief into something good – that which brings praise to him and joy to us.  He is the one who has the last laugh, so to speak, and we get to laugh with joy with him. 

When you are struggling in life, when your faith is failing and, in your heart, you think all is lost and there is no hope, remember God’s question, “Is anything too difficult for Me?” and trust Him to do what is humanly impossible.  He is able to far beyond what we ask or think, according to the power that works in us (Ephesians 3:20). 

This post is based on a message from a series on the life of Abraham. You can listen to that message here

Oranges, Diamonds, and a Funeral for a Friend

A couple of weeks ago I took a funeral for a wonderful woman of God who attended our church.  Her husband requested that I share the hope of the gospel for those who would be attending.  I knew that they both became Christians later in life, so I suggested that I weave in their personal story of how they came to faith.  God used it in a mighty way, and many were touched by it. 

Taking funerals is never easy at the best of times, and people can often be put off by a good message given with the wrong tone.  I am thankful to God that did not happen in this case.  Here is the script of that message:

Funeral Message for Anne Marshall

Saturday May 29, 2021

Solomon, the man to whom God gave supernatural wisdom, said something very significant for times like this. He said,

“It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, since that is the end of all mankind, and the living should take it to heart. Grief is better than laughter, for when a face is sad, a heart may be glad. The heart of the wise is in a house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in a house of pleasure.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2–4)

We could paraphrase those words this way: “Attending a funeral is better than feasting with friends,” or “A 30-minute visit to a cemetery is better than a night out on the town.”  The lessons we learn from pleasure tend to be shallow and easily forgotten. The lessons we learn from death, sorrow and loss go deep, into the very meaning of our lives.

I’m guessing there’s a number of you who would be happy to take a pass on those lessons today.  If you had your choice, you’d be anywhere else but here right now.  I understand that.  Believe me, I know how you feel.  I was there once.  But it’s precisely here and only here where we have the opportunity to take to heart the real issues of life.   And one of the very real issues of life we all must contend with is death – our own death and the death of ones we love.

There is a true story that comes from the sinking of the Titanic.  A frightened woman found her place in a lifeboat that was about to be lowered into the freezing North Atlantic.  She suddenly thought of something she needed so she asked permission to return to her room before they cast off.  She was granted three minutes, or they would leave without her.

She ran across the deck that was already slanted at a dangerous angle and raced through the gambling room with all the money that had rolled to one side, ankle-deep.  She came to her stateroom and quickly pushed aside her diamond rings and expensive bracelets and reached to the shelf above her bed and grabbed three small oranges.  Quickly she found her way back to the lifeboat and got in.

The amazing thing about that story is that 30 minutes earlier she would not have chosen a crate of oranges over the smallest diamond.  But death had boarded the Titanic.  Instantly, priceless things became worthless and worthless things priceless.  Oranges became more valuable than diamonds.

As we mourn Anne’s death today and consider our own mortality, I want to offer you something more valuable than diamonds.  But it’s not oranges.  I’m going to let Anne (and Gavin) tell you what it is – through their own story, which I have right here in front of me.  It was the wish for both of them, at whichever funeral came first, to have this story shared publicly so that you might know how their faith in Christ, shaped their entire lives and gave hope in facing death. 

So here it is:

Gavin only 17 when he met Anne.  He knew as soon as he set eyes on her that she was the one for him. But it wasn’t until they both went to Sydney soon after being married, that they began to question the meaning of life. They joined with another couple to go to a restaurant where Gavin pretended to himself, that he and Anne were wealthy and famous people, and that at the pinnacle of their success, they would enjoy themselves to the maximum of enjoyment – beautiful food, wine and be entertained by the current visiting famous American singer – as a famous and wealthy person would!

As the night progressed, Gavin thought, “If this is the best that anyone could enjoy themselves – how great was it truly?” and he realized that it was not all that great after all.  He thought to himself, “could there be more to life than this; could there be a God?”

His search began and when they moved to Nelson and began bringing up their two children, whilst working hard, he was dogged with the thought, that it all seemed so pointless. He was working so that his children would then continue working, getting married, having children, in an endless and seemingly pointless cycle.  Could there be more to life?  Was there life after death?

Meantime, a Christian had given Gavin a New Testament Bible, which he tried to read but seemed to make no sense. Anne, meanwhile, as a hairdresser, was doing the hair of the wife of an American Minister, and Anne shared that Jehovah Witnesses were visiting – at which point the woman threw up her hands and asked for her and her husband to visit, which they duly did and then explained the good news of Jesus and invited them to church the following weekend.

They went and as was explained by the minister, they came to understand they were in fact far from God because of their sin (as are all people on this earth), and that no single person – even if they were classed as a good person, could enter God’s presence.  And were therefore destined to a God-less eternity.

But then they were told the good news – that God, in His grace and mercy, made a way for man to be made fit for heaven and He did that by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, who came as a sin-bearer for man, so that whoever accepted what He had done for us, by taking upon Himself our sins, on the cross – that person would then no longer have to pay the penalty for sin and would be set free forever.

Gavin and Anne made their decision to trust in Christ – a decision that would change their lives forever, and that not only give full meaning to life but a hope that goes beyond the grave – a hope for an eternal future.

So there it is.  This was the turning point in their lives.  From this point on life took on a whole new meaning.  But so also did death.  Death was no longer something to be feared because Jesus overcame death and went right through the other side.  For the Christian, death has been defeated.  They know they will be with Jesus forever. 

So Anne could now say along with the Apostle Paul,

Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, death, is your victory? Where, death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!  (1 Corinthians 15:54–57)

We all must face death one day my friends.  The mortality rate in this room is 100%.  No one escapes.  The time to prepare for that day is now – not later.  For later may be too late.

Would you like to be free from the fear of death?  Would you like a hope that goes beyond the grave?  Would you like to say with all confidence, “I know where I’m going; I belong to Jesus.  My sin is forgiven.  I’ve been set free.  I’m going home”?

Anne could say that.  Gavin can say that.  How about you?

I’m not talking about mere religion here.  Religion can’t help you.  I’m talking about a relationship with the God who created you and loves you – more than you could ever know.  He sent his Son to die for you so that you could be with him forever.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16–17)

In a few moments, we will leave this house of mourning.  Diamonds will again take on their temporarily inflated value. Oranges will again become common.  Our focus on the issue of life’s brevity will fade back into the background. Will the lessons you have learned fade away as well?  Only you can make that determination and only for yourself.  

I earnestly encourage you to do so.

Note:  My opening words and the story of the Titanic come from “Lessons Learned in the House of Mourning,” A Funeral Message by Dave Redick.

The Covenant

Today we come to a very important chapter in the story of Abraham: Genesis 17.  God had promised to Abraham a son.  The problem was that no son was forthcoming.  Sarah was barren and beyond the age of childbearing.  In the last chapter, she tried helping God out by providing a son through her maid, Hagar.  But that plan goes south.  Abram and Sarai didn’t follow God’s plan; they take matters into their own hands and the result was trouble upon trouble.

Abram doesn’t hear from God for 13 years.  Then, when all seems lost, God appears to him again and says,

“I am God Almighty. Live in my presence and be blameless.” (Genesis 17:1)

 This is the first time in Scripture we find the name of God – El Shaddai.  It carries the idea of strength and power.  But the name also carries the idea of sufficiency.  God is saying, “I am sufficient for you Abram; I am all that you need.” God then changes his name, from Abram (which means ‘exalted father’) to A-bra-ham, father of a multitude.  He’s not the only one to receive a name change.  So is Sarai.  Her name is changed to Sarah – which means “princess.” 

That’s a quick overview of the chapter.   Now I want to focus on one word that is repeated 13 times in 9 verses.  It is the word covenant.  We don’t talk a lot about covenants today – even in the church.  But we should.  Covenants are one of the most important themes in the Bible because they act as the skeletons upon which the entire redemptive story is built. They’re like the backbone of the Bible. We know how important our backbone is.  The backbone or spine gives our body support, allows us to walk upright, and carries all the necessary information to and from the brain.  Without a backbone, we would not survive.  So it is with biblical covenants.  The question is, why are they so important?  And how are they relevant in the life of the Christian today? 

Understanding the Covenants

A covenant is an agreement in which two parties make binding promises to each other and are often accompanied by oaths, signs, and ceremonies.  A covenant differs from a contract in that it is relational and personal.  The best example would be marriage.  A husband and wife choose to enter into a formal relationship binding themselves to one another in lifelong faithfulness and devotion.  That’s a covenant.  In the bible, God’s relationship with mankind rests entirely on covenants.  No covenant = no relationship with God.  We are dead in the water.  So you can see how important this is. 

Now, theologians differ on the exact number but basically you have five key covenants in the bible. 

  1. The first explicit covenant in Scripture is between God and Noah after the flood (Genesis 9).  God then established a sign of the covenant, which was an upturned bow in the sky, signifying his judgment was turned away.  His “warrior’s bow” would be put to rest until the final judgment day. 
  2. Following that, we have God’s covenant with Abraham which we see in Genesis 12, 15 and here in chapter 17.  This covenant lays the groundwork for the nation of Israel and the coming Messiah, through whom God would bless all the nations of the world.  It is hugely important.
  3. Then we have the Mosaic covenant (Exodus 19) where God rescues Israel from Egypt and promises to make them his own treasured possession, a holy nation, set apart to God. God promises to dwell among them – a new concept.   
  4. Then comes the Davidic covenant (2 Kings 7) where God established David as king over Israel and promises to make his name great.  God promises to raise up a descendent after David whose throne and kingdom will last forever.
  5. Then lastly, we have the all-important New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34.  God promises to write his law on our hearts, forgive our sin completely and put his Spirit in us to empower us to love and obey his commands.  This covenant was enacted by the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

OK – so that’s the basic framework, the skeletal structure of the bible and how the covenants unfold.  Now let’s turn our attention to Genesis 17 and see how this covenant God makes with Abraham fits within that. 

The Covenant that will not Fail

There are 5 key truths about the covenant God makes with Abraham in Genesis 17. 

First, this covenant is an expansion of the covenant in chapter 12 and 15. 

God’s not making another covenant with Abraham.  It’s essentially the same one, except now it is enlarged and expanded.  Back in Genesis 12, God said to Abram,   

“Go from your land, your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1–3)

Here in chapter 17, all 3 of those elements are extended.  The land now includes “all the land of Canaan” (verse 8).  His seed now includes not just one nation but “many nations” (verse 5).  Furthermore, Abraham is told that “kings shall come forth from you.”  There will be a dynasty – a royal dynasty that will be part of his family.

Second, there is a requirement to this covenant: walking with God. 

God says to Abraham, “Walk before me and be blameless.”  We hear the word “blameless” and we think God is telling Abraham to be sinlessly perfect.  But that’s not what it means.  Job was a man who “was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (Job 1:1) That doesn’t mean he never sinned.  It means he lived a life of integrity.  What God is saying in essence to Abraham is this: Follow Me and My ways. I’ve made promises, I’m going to reiterate those promises, but as we enter into this covenant together, follow Me and follow My ways.

It’s a call to obedience.  That’s what walking with God entails.  As it was for Abraham, so it is for us.  I think as Christians, we are big on this grace thing, which we interpret as meaning you live how you like and still be part of God’s kingdom.  But that would not resonate with Jesus.  There’s a cost to following Jesus.  There is a cross to carry and flesh to deny.  There is self-sacrifice, there is selfless service, and there is a measure of pain.  And if you think God is calling you to something that is hard, imagine what it was like for Abraham to go off and get circumcised – at age 99 – without a hospital and without anesthesia.  I’ll leave you to have a think about that one.

Third, there is a sign accompanying the covenant: circumcision.

The Lord says to Abraham in verses 11-12:

“You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring.” 

So what’s this all about?  Like many things in Scripture, it is symbolic of something deeper. As we read further down the pages of Scripture it becomes clear that what God is interested in is not the physical surgery, but what that surgery symbolizes: the cleansing of the heart.  In other words, this has spiritual significance.  The cutting away of the foreskin of the male was meant to be a spiritual sign of the cutting away of the flesh of the heart.  It pointed to rebirth, regeneration.  This becomes clearer in the New Testament.  This was not just a weird Old Testament rite. 

Fourth, the covenant is not restricted to the Jewish nation.

We see in verse 12, verse 13, verse 27 that slaves, servants, and foreigners must also receive this sign.  From the very beginning, God was making provision for those outside Abraham’s blood family to come in and enter and enjoy the covenant blessings.  It was never meant to be badge of national pride (which is what it eventually became). 

Fifth and most importantly, it is an everlasting covenant.

Twice in this chapter, God refers to this covenant as a “permanent covenant” or an “everlasting covenant.”  So how does that work with the transition from the Old Testament into the new, from the Mosaic law to Jesus, and Israel to the church?  Paul says in Galatians 3 verses 16 and 17:

“Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say “and to seeds,” as though referring to many, but referring to one, and to your seed, who is Christ. My point is this: The law, which came 430 years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously established by God and thus cancel the promise.” (Galatians 3:16–17)

Paul is saying the covenant God made with Moses on Mount Sinai (the Law), did not cancel out the covenant God made with Abraham 430 earlier.  It is still in place.  How so?  Because the Abrahamic Covenant acts as an umbrella covenant under which all other covenants fit.

So when you think of the new covenant, the new covenant replaced the old covenant, which is the Mosaic covenant. The new covenant did not abolish the Abrahamic covenant, it is the fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant.  So there is still a principle of the Abrahamic covenant that is surely operative in our day.

Conclusion

God promised that Abraham would become the father of many nations – not a single, ethnic nation, but a whole multitude.   This multitude, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, Revelation tells us, is too large to number (Rev 7:9).  Through Abraham then, all the nations of the world are indeed blessed.

But this blessing could not be possible if it were not for the one who came from Abraham’s line who would be the blessed one — the Messiah, Jesus.  Through this One, God’s blessing to Abraham comes to the world.  All the promises of God are yes in Him (2 Cor 1:20).  In Him, the multitude from every tribe, nation and tongue is made into one big, beautiful family.  All those who believe in him and confess with their mouths that he is Lord will be forgiven and adopted into God’s family (John 1:12). 

So here’s the application: are you one of that number?  Can you call Abraham your spiritual father?  Are you a son or daughter of the living God?   If not, you can be, by confessing before God that you are a sinner in need of his grace and mercy and forgiveness and trusting in the promised One – Jesus our Lord and Saviour. 

The second application is this: if you are of that number, if you have trusted in Jesus, are you walking in obedience to him?  Abraham’s salvation cost him nothing, but his faith cost him everything.  Abraham was saved by grace – just like us today.  But he also lived in obedience to his Word.  Are you doing the same?  God is calling his people to covenant faithfulness, which is going to require daily repentance and fresh steps of faith.  

As it was for Abraham, so it was for Jesus and so it is for us.

This post is based on a message from a series on the life of Abraham. You can listen to that message here.

Praying for the Lost

Praying for lost people is both a privilege and a responsibility.  It is a privilege because our prayers can make a difference in people’s lives for all of eternity.  It is a responsibility because our Saviour calls us to this very task. 

I wasn’t raised in a Christian home and I had no taste for God or religion.  From the outside, our family had all the appearances of having things together.  On the inside, we were pretty messed up.  At age 16 I was having a hard time coping with life which led to heavy drinking, partying and other forms of escapism.  About the same time, a few of my sisters started going off the rails.  Life for us all was spiralling out of control. 

But we did have one thing going for us: a praying grandmother.  Grandma came under the hearing of the gospel later in life, was born again and immediately began praying for her family.  As the years went by grandchildren appeared and she started praying for them each by name.  I was one of them.  The first to come to Christ was my oldest sister Jenny, then Catherine, then Jane.  Then the three of them started praying for me.  I didn’t stand a chance.  In the year 1986, at the age of 20, I kneeled beside my bed and surrendered my life to Christ.  My sister Catherine said, “You need to go and tell Grandma before she dies.”  So I did.  Grandma was in hospital in Napier on a breathing tube.  She only had weeks to live.  When I walked into the ward, she looked at me with a twinkle in her eye.  I said, “Grandma, I’ve given my life to Jesus.”  A huge smile broke out on her face and a tear came down the side of her eye.  “I knew you would,” she said. 

I worked it out: Grandma became a Christian around 1940.  I was saved in 1986.  She had prayed for our family for 46 years.  She never gave up.  She never stopped praying for us – even when there were no visible results.  Dick Eastman calls praying for others love on its knees.  That’s a beautiful way to put it, isn’t it?  My grandmother demonstrated love to our family by praying for us and I want to help you to love lost people in your lives by praying for them.

I. Why pray for the lost?

There are a number of good, biblical reasons why we should do this.

First, we should pray for the lost because of God’s heart.

God’s heart is for lost people.  The bible says God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:3).  It also says God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11).  It grieves him when people die without Christ.  He is not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).  If God longs for people to come to repentance, then we should too.  Therefore we should pray for them.

Secondly, we should pray for the lost because of Christ’s death. 

Jesus to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).  He died on a cross to provide a way of salvation for all men.  He suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring people to God (1 Peter 3:18).  When people hear and believe this message, they are born again in God’s family and become children of God.  Therefore we ought to pray earnestly that they do this. 

Thirdly, we should pray for the lost because of their condition. 

According to the bible, lost people are spiritually blind, captive to Satan, condemned, bound for hell, helpless, hopeless and without understanding.  They are in a desperate state. What is the answer?  God must open their eyes.  God must soften their hearts.  God must give them understanding.  God must quicken their spirits and make them alive so that they can see and believe. 

So we plead to God on behalf of lost people.  We petition their cause.  We take their names before the throne of grace, just like my grandmother did, and we beg God to save them.  As one writer put it, “Our prayers should be thrown across their pathway as they rush in their downward course to a lost eternity.”

II. How do we pray for the lost?

Ray Fowler give four simple prayers from the bible that are easy to remember that I would like to offer to you (all the credit to Ray, not myself for this).

1. Pray for Open Eyes

Praying for open eyes has to do with awareness of need.  When you pray for open eyes, you’re actually praying for two things.  You are praying for your own eyes to be open to the need of the lost.  And you are praying for the eyes of the lost to be open to their own need.

So first, pray that your own eyes would be opened.

There’s a wonderful passage of scripture in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 9 when Jesus was making his way through towns and villages.

“When he saw the crowds, he felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:36–38)

We get a precious glimpse here into the heart of God. When Jesus saw the masses, he didn’t just see faces, he saw people in deep need.  He saw people without God and without hope.  And he felt compassion for them.  And he told his disciples to pray.     

But also, we need to pray for the eyes of the lost to be opened.  

The bible says in 2 Corinthians 4:4, the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.”   

We all know how important traffic lights are for the control of the flow of traffic.  When traffic lights go cars come to a complete stop because no one wants to hit anyone else.  I used to live in Hamilton and Hamilton is known for its fog.  One night I was driving, and the fog was so thick I couldn’t even see the road.  I was sure I was approaching an intersection, so I got out of the car, walked about 3 metres and sure enough, right in front of me was the traffic light, dimly glowing in the fog.  I just couldn’t see it.

When you talk to lost people about Jesus, you are that light glowing brightly.  But they can’t see it because they are in the fog.  Satan has blinded their eyes.  They can’t see how precious Jesus is.  They can’t comprehend his saving power.  All they hear is words.  And they mean nothing to them.  So what do you do?  You pray for them.  You pray God might remove the blinds from their eyes so that they can see and believe.

2.  Pray for Open Doors

When you pray for open doors, you are asking God for opportunities to share the gospel.  Sometimes the door is wide open to talk to someone about Jesus and you can walk right through.  

I was sitting next to a young man on a plane recently and I started up a conversation with him (as you do).  I asked him why he was travelling, and he asked the same and all the time I was trying to steer the conversation toward things about God.  But I was getting nowhere.  He took none of my bait.  So prayed silently, “Lord – maybe you don’t want me to talk to this person today.”  And then right out of the blue he turns to me and says, “Can I ask you a question?  It really bothers me that God sends people to hell….”  And away we went. 

Well, if that’s not a wide-open door I don’t know what is.  I didn’t have to knock very hard on that one.  God was already working on this guy’s heart.  He just needed someone to talk to and I just happen to be a willing participant. 

Some doors are wide open for the gospel, but you’ll probably find most are shut.  So you need to pray for God to do some opening.  In Colossians chapter 4 Paul says this: “Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us that God may open a door to us for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ.” (Colossians 4:2–4)

Do you see how specific he is in his request?  Pray, he says, that God might open a door for the word.  Pray for an opportunity for us to speak about Christ.  That’s what you want to pray for.

3.  Pray for an Open Mouth

When you pray for an open mouth, you are asking God to help you speak up and actually share the gospel when God answers the prayer you prayed earlier for an open door. You are asking God to give you the faith and the boldness to share the gospel when you are given the opportunity.

You say, “What if I don’t know what to say?  What if they ask a question or raise an objection that I’m not able to answer?”  That happens to me all the time.  This is where you need to rely on the power of the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus sent his disciples out to preach the good news, he said this:

“But when they hand you over, don’t worry about how or what you are to speak. For you will be given what to say at that hour, because it isn’t you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father is speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:19–20)

The context here is Jesus commissioning the 12. But this has application to every believer today.  The same Holy Spirit who spoke through those 12 disciples can speak through us when we are walking by faith.  Sometimes, in these situations, you just need to take a deep breath and pray silently – “Lord, here I am.  Please help me and speak through me,” and then start talking.  You’ll be surprised at what happens.  

 4.  Pray for Open Hearts

When you pray for open hearts, you are asking God to do a work in people’s hearts so that they will respond in faith.  This is where you need to understand the difference between our job and God’s job when it comes to sharing the gospel.  Our job is to simply sow the seed.  That’s all.  We have no responsibility for that seed taking root or making it grow.  That’s God’s job. 

A good example of this was when Paul, on one of his missionary trips, was sharing the gospel in the city of Philippi.  Luke gives us the account in Acts 16:13-14:

“On the Sabbath day we went outside the city gate by the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and spoke to the women gathered there. A God-fearing woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, was listening. The Lord opened her heart to respond to what Paul was saying.” (Acts 16:13–14)

Unless God opened Lydia’s heart, Paul’s words would have fallen on deaf ears.  We cannot make people believe.  All we can do is sow the seed. 

Conclusion

George Muller (1805-1898) of Bristol, England was known as a man of prayer.  He established five orphanages in Bristol that provided care for 10,000 orphans over a 60-year period – without ever asking for funds and trusting entirely in God.  He recorded in his journals answers to thousands of his prayers.  Toward the end of his life, he remarked that he had prayed for two men to be saved for over 55 years. “Don’t you feel like giving up?” someone asked.  “Oh no,” he replied, “Why would God give me such a burden for these men if he did not intend to save them?”  Before his death, one of the men came to Christ.  The other was saved after Muller died.  

We need to pray for the lost people God has placed in our lives.  Your friends and loved ones are caught in a spiritual battle for their souls, and your prayers make a difference.  It is possible that no one ever came to Jesus without someone praying for them first.  You probably came to Christ because someone prayed for you.  And now you need to do the same for the people in your life.  

Let us pray for them then.  Like my grandmother who prayed for my family for 46 years, let us never give up.  Let us keep on praying as long as God gives us breath.  When we get to heaven, we will discover how God used those prayers in ways we never expected. 

May God give us the faith to keep on praying until the day comes. 

This post is based on a message entitled “How to Pray for the Lost.” You can listen to that message here

Lost and Found 2: The Elder Brother

We’re all familiar with the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15.  Even those who have never picked up a bible have at least heard something about it.  Perhaps those who identify with this story the most are parents of a wayward child.  If you don’t have one you likely know someone who does.   It’s the kid who goes off the deep end in some way or another: it might be reckless living; it might be drugs or simply getting mixed up in the wrong crowd. 

Well in this story that kid comes home. He comes home because he’s hit rock bottom and there’s nowhere else to go.  Upon his return, his father runs out to embrace him.  The younger son knows he’s wrong; he’s dishonoured his father and he’s devastated about that.  He starts blubbering out his confession.  But his father cuts him off midstream and says to his servants:

“‘Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then bring the fattened calf and slaughter it, and let’s celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:22–24)

The fattened calf was saved for special occasions and this was such an occassion. Let the party begin. 

This parable, along with the other two that precede it (see my earlier post) carries a powerful message about God’s heart for the lost.  But that’s not where it ends. In verse 25 the scene changes. While the party is getting underway, the older son is still out in the fields.  As he nears home, he hears music and dancing.  He calls one of the servants and asks what is going on.  The servant tells him that his long-lost brother has come home, and his father has killed the fattened calf for him.  He’s infuriated and refuses to go in. 

How does his father respond?  He goes out and pleads with him (verse 28).  That’s remarkable.  You’d expect him to grab him by the scruff of the neck and give him a good word or two.  But he doesn’t.  He lovingly entreats him.

The elder son will hear none of it.  He says to his father:

“Look, I have been slaving many years for you, and I have never disobeyed your orders, yet you never gave me a goat so that I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’” (Luke 15:29–30)

Notice how he viewed his relationship with the Father: slaving.  That’s exactly how many of the Pharisees viewed their relationship with God.  They did not serve him out of delight.  They served him for payment.  They had no understanding of grace.  Therefore when God blesses the undeserving, they resent it.  They become bitter and filled with contempt. 

This parable has traditionally been entitled, “The Parable of the Lost Son,” but it should probably be called the “The Parable of the Lost Sons.” Notice the similarities between the two sons:

  • Both want the father’s stuff, but they don’t want a relationship with the father.
  • Both long to be free from his authority.
  • Both are loved by the father.

But notice also the differences between them:

  • The younger brother’s rejection of the father is bold and public.  He demands his inheritance, liquidates his assets, and skips town.
  • The elder brother’s rejection of the father is more subtle.  He stays home and obeys, but his heart is hard.
  • The younger brother leaves home.
  • The elder brother’s heart was never at home.
  • The younger brother thinks he must become a slave in order to make things right.
  • The older brother has always thought of himself as a slave.

When the father demonstrates his love to the younger brother, it completely shatters him. When the father demonstrates his love for the older brother, it falls on deaf ears.  The older brother refuses to rejoice over his brother’s homecoming, and in so doing, he rejects his father.  Note the great reversal in this story: the wayward son is restored to the father, while the righteous son is left outside the feast.

If you are anything like me, you don’t want the parable to end this way.  You want the hammer to fall on the older brother because he’s acting like a Pharisee and Pharisees are self-righteous punks. 

That was until I realised the older brother is also me. 

I work hard for God.  I give up a lot of things so I can do Christian work. I slave away here at church day in and day out.  I should be rewarded. I deserve better.  I should be paid more – and on and on it goes.

John Piper has some helpful words to say on this:

Jesus is entreating the Pharisees. He is entreating all of us. Sinners of the worldly kind and sinners of the religious kind. Come in from the foreign country of misery, and come in from the porch of hard-earned merit. Both are deadly. But inside is the banquet of grace, and forgiveness, and fellowship with an all-satisfying Father, and an inheritance unfading, undefiled, incorruptible, kept in heaven for all who live by faith in grace and not by earning merit.

Jesus is giving all older brothers an invitation.  He is inviting them to join his ministry.  He is inviting them to stop opposing God’s agenda and to come into the feast.  But he’s inviting them to something more.  He’s also inviting them to accept God’s grace.  He’s inviting them to experience a close relationship with the Father.  If the Pharisees truly knew the Father, they would have longed for the lost to come home and experience what they experienced.  They would be the ones running out to the edge of town, bringing the prodigals home.  But they are not.  They don’t care about the lost; they only care about themselves and their own reputation.

Notice how the story ends – with a question.  Will the older brother have a change of heart and come into the feast?  Will he repent of his hard-heartedness?  Will he rejoice with the Father in the salvation of the lost?” 

Conclusion

So how does this parable speak to us today?  I think it’s the same message Jesus intended for the Pharisees.  Jesus is inviting us to the Father’s feast.  He is inviting us to share in his mission to seek and to save the lost. This parable is not meant to make us feel warm and cuddly.  It’s calling us to examine our own hearts. 

We need to ask ourselves:

  • Do we view God as an end or a means to an end?  What is more important: God himself or what God gives? 
  • Do we have a sense of entitlement?  Do we think we deserve God’s blessings?  If you feel God is indebted to you, you will never love lost people and you will oppose God’s mission of seeking and saving the lost. 
  • Do we have the Father’s heart for the lost?  The Shepherd left the 99 for the one lost sheep.  The woman turned her house upside-down for that one lost silver coin.  And the father longed for the day when he could welcome his lost son home.     

Let us join Jesus in the great mission.  Let us not be like the older brother.  Let us join in the celebration of the Father in welcoming sinners home. 

This post is based on a message from the book of Luke. You can listen to that message here

NZ Police Chaplaincy

Police work can be very demanding.  It can be the cause of many tensions and frustrations for those involved in the work – at multiple levels.  To help deal with this, the New Zealand Police provides chaplains in various regions around our country.  The chaplain’s role is only one of many services to police officers in NZ.  There are trained counsellors and wellness advisors who are specialized in their various fields.  The advantage with the chaplains is that anything shared with a chaplain stays with the chaplain.  Nothing said is reported or goes on record (unless it’s an issue of safety).  They act as a safety valve for the organization.   

Last October I was installed as police chaplain for the Nelson-Tasman district – a very daunting task!  Part of my reason for doing this is I was desperate to get out of the four walls of our church and into the community.  Pastoral ministry is a great joy, but it can completely swallow you if you are not careful.  Caring for God’s people is not my only priority; I also have an obligation to care for those outside of the church.  I’ve found getting amongst frontline police officers a great way to do that.

My eyes have been opened to the work of NZ Police in a way they never have before.  I’m convinced the general public don’t know half of what they have to deal with.  It’s not just the occasional verbal abuse or threats, it’s the domestic violence, dealing with repeat offenders, trying to help at-risk youth, watching offenders get off on legal technicalities, and a myriad of other things.  Yet day after day they endure it all and press on.

They call the role of the chaplain the ministry of presence.  Being present, being available, showing up regularly, week after week is what matters.  Sometimes I have a significant conversation with someone; sometimes I don’t.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is everyone knows there is a friendly face who pops his head in the door from time to time and if you need to talk to someone about something, he’s there.

A few weeks back, I joined with 46 other chaplains in our country for the national conference in Wellington.  It was a great opportunity to sit down and chat with a few “old hands” who have been in the game for 10, 15 and some up to 25 years.  There were some good tips, like leaving your card around the station, joining an officer in a ride-a-long (passenger in a police car), turning up at one of the police training days, joining police on Anzac Day and many other things.  I also got to meet the NZ Police Commissioner, Andrew Coster (see picture below) who was the speaker at our formal dinner.  As a committed Christian, he’s right behind chaplaincy work.  He understands what we are about.  

Andrew Coster (centre) and chaplain Lui Ponifasio (right). I'm on the left.

In a couple of weeks I’ll be joining with one of our community police offers at a local high school.  He’ll be talking about staying safe in the cyber world.  That’s another side of the police I didn’t know much about: prevention work.  The aim is to educate people when they are young, and in doing so, they can prevent a lot of damage in their lives later on.  I’m looking forward that.

Someone asked me recently, “How on earth do you have time to this on top of everything else you do?”  My answer to that is easy.  After getting to know this amazing bunch of people, listening to them talk about their work and having the opportunity to pray for them, how could I afford not to? 

It’s a no-brainer. 

Going after the Lost

In preparing for a message on praying for unbelievers this Sunday, I came across some powerful quotes on going after the lost.

“The gospel is only good news if it gets there in time.” ~ Carl F. H. Henry

“If there existed only one man or woman who did not love the Saviour, and if that person lived among the wilds of Siberia, and if it were necessary that all the millions of believers on the face of the earth should journey there, and every one of them plead with him to come to Jesus before he could be converted, it would be well worth all the zeal, labour, and expense. If we had to preach to thousands year after year, and never rescued but one soul, that one soul would be full reward for all our labour, for a soul is of countless price.” ~ Charles Spurgeon

“We must be global Christians with a global vision because our God is a global God.” ~ John Stott

“Don’t wait for a feeling or love in order to share Christ with a stranger. You already love your heavenly Father, and you know that this stranger is created by Him, but separated from Him… so take those first steps in evangelism because you love God. It is not primarily out of compassion for humanity that we share our faith or pray for the lost; it is first of all, love for God.” ~ John Piper

“Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find the bread.” ~ Daniel Thambyrajah Niles

“It is clear you don’t like my way of doing evangelism. You raise some good points. Frankly, I sometimes do not like my way of doing evangelism. But I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.” ~ Dwight L. Moody

“Any method of evangelism will work—if God is in it.” ~ Leonard Ravenhill

“While there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I’ll fight – I’ll fight to the very end!” ~ William Booth

Lost and Found

You’ve often heard it said, “A picture is worth a thousand words”.  Pictures, paintings, portraits, and even well-timed photographs can convey more about a certain scene or a group of people than what could be written in an entire book.  Stories can have a similar effect.  That’s why Jesus taught in parables.   A parable is a short, simple story taken from everyday life that contains a deeper meaning.  They communicate God’s truth in a way we wouldn’t otherwise be able to grasp. 

In Luke chapter 15 we find 3 of them:

  1. The Parable of the Lost Sheep
  2. The Parable of the Lost Coin
  3. The Parable of the Lost Son

All three parables have one central theme.  It is very hard to miss it.  Something is lost and then found.

  • A shepherd seeks the one lost sheep until he finds it.
  • A woman loses a coin and turns her house upside-down until she finds it.
  • A son goes astray and returns home.

But along with this theme, another runs parallel with it:

  • Verse 6: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep!”
  • Verse 9: “Rejoice with me, for I have found the silver coin I lost”
  • Verse 24: “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!  So they began to celebrate

What is the purpose of these stories?  What brought them on?  And who are they directed at?  The answer lies at the very beginning of the chapter. 

“All the tax collectors and sinners were approaching to listen to him. And the Pharisees and scribes were complaining, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable…” (Luke 15:1-3)

These parables were intended for the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were the religious elite.  They were experts in the law and were considered the closest to God.  Tax collectors were a despised group. They were Israelites who raised money to subsidize the Roman army that was currently oppressing the nation of Israel.  Sinners were equally despised. They were the lowlife of society; the diseased, the lame, the blind, and the sexually immoral.

These were the very people Jesus spent time with.  He ate with them and mingled with them and laughed with them.  You can see why the Pharisees hated Jesus.  He was mixing with the ungodly.  He was actually enjoying himself with them!  They couldn’t imagine how God would approve of that.  So they grumbled.  In response to their grumbling, Jesus gives them these three parables.

Parable #1 – The Lost Sheep

Picture the Middle-Eastern shepherd, out grazing his flock.  At regular intervals – as any good shepherd would, He counts all the sheep to ensure all were accounted for.  On this occasion, however, one of his sheep is missing.  It’s just one, you’ve got plenty more. Get over it.  No – shepherds care for their sheep.  Each and every sheep matters.  For those who were listening, they knew the answer:  Go after the one.  He searches and searches and when at last he finds it, he places it over his shoulders, he returns home, rejoicing. 

Parable #2 – The Lost Coin

And then, without skipping a beat, he’s into the second story.

“What woman who has ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?” (Luke 15:8)

The coin she lost is a drachma – it’s about a day’s wages.  So it’s a fair amount of money.  She “lights a lamp” – because in those days the houses were small and dark with few windows and electric lights were yet to be invented.  She sweeps the house, pulls out the couches, turns over the cushions, pulls out all the dresser and then, when she finds the coin, she gathers all her friends together and throws a party.    

Parable #3 – The Lost Son

The third parable however is the most important. It’s the one that really matters. Let’s have a look at it.

“A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate I have coming to me.” (Luke 15:11–12)

Now you need to understand, when Jesus’ listeners heard this, they would have been utterly shocked.  Because they lived in a culture where fathers were deeply respected.  For a son to ask this from his father would be deeply offensive.

Kenneth Bailey is a biblical scholar who has lived in rural villages throughout the Middle East. In many of these places, the cultural customs haven’t changed for 2000 years. Bailey spent a few decades interviewing people in these villages. He asked hundreds of people what it meant for a son to ask for his inheritance while his father was still alive. Almost always the conversation went something like this;

“Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?”

“Never!”

“Could anyone ever make such a request?”

“Impossible!”

“If anyone ever did, what would happen?”

“His father would beat him, of course?”

“Why” “This request means – he wants his father to die!”[1]

Amazingly, his Father grants his request.  And so he’s off on his big OE with cash in his pocket and he’s ready to blow all his inheritance and wealth in wild living.  All that’s been earned, cherished, and preserved for generations is wasted quickly and recklessly.  This is how sin works.  It says, “all that matters right now is that I have a good time.” It doesn’t consider anyone else – especially family and responsibility.  It does not think about consequences. 

But then things start turning to custard.  When the money runs out so does the fun and the friends.  It’s easy to make friends.  Just buy them drinks and throw parties.  They’ll love you for it.  You’ll get plenty of attention.  And when the money runs out?  They won’t want to know you.

So what does he do?  He has to hire himself out as a servant to a stranger and that stranger puts him to work fe eding pigs.  The Jewish people of Jesus’ day would have had the same attitude towards pigs as modern-day Muslims. That was not a good job for a good Jewish boy to do.  And this boy is not only feeding pigs, but he’s obviously so ill cared for by this master that he’s serving that he longs to eat the same food that the pigs are eating.

Now at this point the moralists – the Pharisees and legalists and all waiting to hear Jesus say, “This is why you should never disrespect your father. This is why you should never ever squander your wealth. This is why you should not associate yourself with the unclean. This is why you should not spend your money on prostitutes in riotous living. This is what happens when you do.”

But that’s not what happens.  The story instead takes a surprising turn.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food, and here I am dying of hunger!” (Luke 15:17)

What happening here?  It’s the beginning of repentance – acknowledging our error and taking ownership for what we have done.  I remember how this happened in my own life.  I had spent my entire youth recklessly and wastefully – spending everything I had chasing girls and partying it up. Looking back, I thought I was free.  But it was the kind of freedom skydivers have when they don’t have a parachute.  The ground is coming at you real fast, and it’s going to end badly. 

The younger son realizes what he’s become, and how he has offended and hurt his father.  His hearts longs to reconcile with his father.  On his way home he’s playing the conversation over in his heart – what he’s going to say – how he sinned against him and offended him and dishonoured him.  He’ll tell his father he is no longer worthy to be a son – he doesn’t deserve to be called a son. And he’s going to ask he can be his slave.  Then the story takes another startling turn:

“While the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)

This would have been shocking to the crowd because in that day it was never appropriate for an older man to run.  It was completely undignified.  But this father feels such compassion that he runs.  He lifts up his robes and runs through the village.  This pre-empts any of the villagers from hurling insults at the son.  This father shames himself before the villagers so that his son won’t have to endure shame.  At the outskirts of the village, he falls on his son and kisses him repeatedly.  This father is unlike any the audience has ever seen or heard of.  He doesn’t make his child grovel; he runs to him.  He doesn’t make his son bow to him and kiss his hand.  He literally “falls on his son’s neck,” kissing him.

The son begins to recite his apology, but his father doesn’t even let him finish.  He tells the servants to place the best robe on him – signifying to the whole village that the father had embraced and accepted him.  The servants put a ring on the son’s finger.  This was the signet ring; it was a symbol of authority within the household.  Finally, the servants place sandals on his feet.  The son is a free man; not a slave.

The younger son never thought he could be part of the family again; he figured his best bet was to work as a slave and pay off his debt.  He thinks he must be in a dream.  This can’t be real.  He must be in heaven.  And in a way, he was. 

Conclusion

And so we ask ourselves now, what is the main point of this story?  What is Jesus saying?  The point of this story is the same point Jesus was making in the other two stories and it is this:

God loves sinners.  God seeks sinners. 

God longs for sinners to come home to him.

And when one of these sinners – these individuals who have been created by him and are loved by him, comes to him in repentance and says, “Will you take me?  With all that I have done?  With all my sin and shame and folly?  Will you still take me?”  What can the Father do but rejoice?

I tell you, in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who don’t need repentance.” (15:7)

This is the Father’s heart. This is the Father’s love.  He longs for the repentance and return of the very ones we can be tempted to despise. 

The story hasn’t finished yet. It is about to take another twist. But I’ll leave that for my next post.

This post is based on a message from the book of Luke. You can listen to that message here.


[1] Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983); 161-162.

Impatient Faith

When it comes to heroes of faith, two stand out figures in the bible would be Abraham and Sarah.  Abraham is referred to by Paul as the father of those who believe (Romans 4).  Sarah is upheld as a model woman of God who put her trust in God.  Peter encourages Christian wives to follow her example in honouring and respecting their husbands, doing what is right (1 Peter 3).  As noble as they are, Abraham and Sarah are far from perfect.  Their faith – though admirable, is flawed.  They have their bad days.  Here in Genesis 16, we see them plummet to an all-time low. 

God promised to give them a child, but after years of waiting, they grow impatient and decide to go it alone.  Sarah comes up with a convenient plan: Abraham can sleep with her servant Hagar and they will have a child through her.  When Hagar becomes pregnant, however, she starts treating Sarah with contempt, inciting her jealousy and wrath.  Abraham absolves himself of all responsibility and tells Sarah to do with her as she pleases.  Hagar is tossed out, like an unwanted rag and left to fend for herself.  But God finds Hagar and meets her in the midst of her distress, and graciously restores her. 

This is not an easy chapter to read.  It’s one Christians find uncomfortable.  It is raw, it is crude, and it makes two great heroes of faith – Abram and Sarai – appear as cruel, uncaring, vindictive, and weak.  The bible does not always paint people in their prettiest colours.  Sometimes it uncovers their worst.  And it does that for a reason: so that we are not tempted to make heroes of them. 

Abram and Sarah are no different to you and me.  They fail, they sin, they get impatient and angry, and they make poor decisions.  And yet God still saves them by his grace.  The only person coming out looking good in this story is God.  He is the only one who remains faithful.  He is the one who forgives and restores and goes after the outcast. 

I. Human Failure

Back in chapter 12, God promised Abraham that from his loins would come a great nation.  In order for that promise to be fulfilled he would have to have at least one son.  Time passes and still no son. As each day passes Sarah’s hopes grow weaker and weaker.  So she says to him:

“The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said.” (Gen 16:2)

Now what we read here appears to be completely immoral and unacceptable to us was the legal custom in Abraham’s day.  If a woman was barren and unable to bear children, she would give her maid to her husband and the resulting child would be considered her child.  Everyone in the land of Canaan was doing this.  Everyone back in Ur and Haran was doing this, just as people continue to do it in parts of Africa and Islamic lands today. 

But it is at this point that we discover our first faith lesson, and it is this: just because something is culturally acceptable doesn’t make it right.  What is legal may not always be moral.  Today prostitution, abortion, and pornography are all legal.  And in some cases, culturally acceptable.  But that doesn’t make them right.  What does God say about the matter?  Sarah asked Abraham to commit adultery and he was happy to oblige.  We already know where there is going.  We know it’s a terrible idea.  We know the fruits of such action.  It is going to result in jealousy, bitterness, anger, and regret. 

There’s another lesson here: it’s never a good idea to try and accomplish God’s plan our way.  That’s exactly what Sarah attempted to do.  And it revealed her impatience.  “Patience,” says John Piper, “is the peaceful willingness to wait for God in the unplanned place of obedience, and to walk with God at the unplanned pace of obedience – to wait in his place and go at his pace.”  Think about a recent situation where you were faced with a problem or a delay.  How did you respond?  Did you put your trust in God?  Or did you rush ahead trying to solve it yourself?  Impatience is a sign of unbelief.  It gives evidence that we are not willing to trust God and wait for his timing. 

“So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife.” (Gen 16:3)

Do you see the echoes of the garden of Eden here?  Consider the parallels between Genesis 3 and 16:

Sarai spoke to her husband, Abram (16:2a)Eve spoke to her husband, Adam (3:2)
Abram listened to the voice of his wife (16:2b)Adam listened to the voice of his wife (3:17)
Sarai took Hagar to Abram (16:3a)Eve took the fruit (3:6a)
Sarai gave Hagar to her husband (16:3b)Eve gave the fruit to her husband (3:6b)

At first, it all seems to work out just fine. Everything went according to plan. Hagar conceived just as Sarai wanted.  At long last, they have their long-awaited child. But, as with all disobedience, there are unexpected, negative consequences.

“When [Hagar] knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.” (Gen 16:4)

Hagar starts given Sarah that look.  In her eyes, Sarah had just been demoted.  Proverbs 30:21-23 says this:

“Under three things the earth trembles,

under four it cannot bear up:

a servant who becomes king,

a fool who is full of food,

an unloved woman who is married,

and a maidservant who displaces her mistress.”      

The earth begins to quake – with a woman’s bitterness and anger.  Hagar struts about the place with her rounded profile.  Sarah becomes volcanic. 

Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for my suffering! I put my slave in your arms, and when she saw that she was pregnant, I became contemptible to her. May the Lord judge between me and you.” (Gen 16:5)

Even at this point, after their failure, Abraham should have taken responsibility, accepted blame, and assured Sarah of his love for her alone.  And he should have dealt kindly and fairly with Hagar.  Instead, he does neither.  He absolves himself of all responsibility.  He shrugs his shoulders as if to say, “Anything for a quiet life.  She’s your servant.  Do with her as you please.” 

Poor Hagar.  She was nothing more than a baby machine – a useful object for a couple’s convenience.  Now she is not convenient anymore.  She is unwanted and discarded like a piece of trash.  Once discarded from the household, her chances of being able to support herself and her child in any honourable way were nil.  It’s all pretty disappointing.  That’s why the next part of the chapter shines so brightly, as we turn from human failure to God’s faithfulness.  

II. God’s Faithfulness

“The angel of the Lord found her by a spring in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. He said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She replied, “I’m running away from my mistress Sarai.” (Gen 16:7–8)

God meets Hagar.  He knows everything about her – her name, her status as a servant, and her mistress Sarah.  Though everyone else has forgotten her, God has not forgotten her.  Though all else have deserted her and forsaken her, God has not forsaken her.

The Lord God comes to Hagar – the outcast and the despised one.  He reveals himself to her, blessed her, promises her protection and he points her eyes in the future and gives her hope.  He says, “Hagar, you have a son in your womb, and you will bear a child and he will become a great nation.”  Isn’t this remarkably similar to God’s words to Abraham in Genesis 12?  God has not committed himself exclusively to Abraham and Sarah.  God’s concern is not confined to the chosen line.  God has concern for all human beings – especially the despised outcast. 

Hagar is quite overwhelmed with all of this.  She is stunned.  The gods Hagar grew up with, the gods of Egypt would never notice a slave girl.  Hagar responds in a way that is completely unique in Scripture: she gives a name to God.  She names him, “El-Roi” – the God who sees me.  And seeing in the Old Testament is identical to caring.  The one who sees is also the one who cares. 

Every blow Sarah inflicted on her, every blind eye Abram turned, every injustice she suffered, the God of the universe – the God of Abram, saw.  God cares for those outside of his people.  He hears their cries and sees their tears.  We must never forget this.  In a world where people are quickly written off or overlooked or treated as a number or like discarded property or a means to an end, he sees, and he cares.

As we think upon this story, we can’t help thinking of another outcast woman, in John’s gospel, who had no real husband, who also met Someone at a well who really saw her. There at the well in Samaria, Jesus noticed a woman who was an outsider. He told her how He could give her water, but more than water, Living Water. The Samaritan woman returned, like Hagar, to the very people who wanted nothing to do with her. And we hear her confessing, “Come and see, come and see a man who knew everything about me,” yet He noticed me, talked to me, offered me drink (John 4:29-30).

This One would suffer a worse fate than Hagar’s son ever would.  Not only would everyone’s hand be against him, but his own Father would turn away his face from him as he was impaled there on the cross, bearing the punishment for all our sins.  All this so that we might become recipients of God’s marvellous grace.    

Conclusion

Our chapter closes with these words:

“So Hagar gave birth to Abram’s son, and Abram named his son (whom Hagar bore) Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to him.” (Gen 16:15–16)

These verses make it clear that Hagar did obey the Lord and return to Sarai. Upon her return, she no doubt told Abram how the Lord had met her in the wilderness by the spring. Abram then named the boy Ishmael at Hagar’s request.

There is no mention of Sarai in these closing verses.  Sarah’s scheming and Abram’s failure delayed the promise for some thirteen years. Shortcuts do not promote God’s purposes, do they?   Ishmael became the father of all the Arabic peoples who to this very day are hostile toward the natural-born son, Isaac, who would become the father of the nation of Israel.

Yet despite all this, God’s grace is being extended to the Muslims in great measure.  More Muslims have converted to the Christian faith in the past 40 years than during the entire 14 centuries since Islam’s advance from western Arabia.  While the church in the West is dying, the church in the Middle East is thriving.  And one day Hagar, whom I believe met Jesus by that well and came to true saving knowledge of God, will welcome her kinsmen and women into her Father’s home. 

The good news, that God saves us by grace through faith in his Son, which is offered to both Jews and Muslims alike, is also offered to you.  If we have any hope of being put right with God, of having our sins forgiven and finding eternal life, it’s not going to be by our own means.  It can only be by trusting in God’s means and his gracious deliverance through his Son. 

This post is based on a message from a series on the life of Abraham. You can listen to that message here.

Pray for India

Last night, in the comfort of my own home, I watched scenes of unimaginable horror unfold on my TV in front of me.  I saw people outside hospitals with loved ones dying in their laps and in the back of cars, desperate for medical help.  I saw vans and trucks, loaded with oxygen bottles, careening through the streets at breakneck speed.  I saw funeral pyres with bodies burning in great heaps.  These weren’t scenes from a futuristic Sci-Fi movie.  This is the country of India. 

The nation of 1.4 billion people is in the midst of a tsunami of coronavirus cases.  Monday recorded the worst single day since the pandemic began, with 350,000 new infections, and nearly 3000 deaths.  And there are no signs of it slowing down.  A doctor appeared on camera, pleading with countries from the West to send aid – especially oxygen.  Behind him, a nurse was on top of a young man, vigorously applying CPR to resuscitate him.  The camera quickly moved away.  He had died.

The danger is, in our nice little Covid-free land, to become numb to this.  We’ve seen it all before – in France, England, the USA, and Brazil.  And it’s so far away.  It’s not in our backyard. 

BUT IT COULD BE. 

And that’s what we have to remember.  These are fellow human beings.  They could be our fathers and mothers and sons and daughters who are dying.  How would we respond then? 

Can we do anything for the people of India?  Yes, we can.  We can PRAY.  Pray for the coronavirus to stop spreading.  Pray for medical professionals, caregivers, and researchers.  Pray for oxygen to reach India speedily.  Pray for leaders who are responsible for making decisions.  Pray for the many Christians in India to demonstrate the love of God and reach out to sufferers in tangible ways. 

We can also FEEL for the many thousands of Indians living in New Zealand who have relatives infected with Coronavirus.  They live on your street and work in your region.  Talk to them.  Feel their pain.  Show compassion and understanding.  Invite them into your home.   That’s what loving our neighbours is all about.  We might not be able to care for the dying on the streets of India, but we can care for the living on the streets around us. 

Jesus would ask of us no less.