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As Christians (and Americans) we have been taught since birth that there is a direct cause and effect that governs our lives. You know, if we “do” this then we will “get” that. It is kind of quid pro quo formula. For example, if I work hard, I will get ahead at my job. Or, if I lead a healthy lifestyle I will enjoy good health and a long life. Although I believe in the theory of cause and effect as a principle in the physical realm, I’m not convinced it works in the spiritual realm. I’m not even sure it works in life. This thinking was the basis for the Old Covenant but is not the basis of the New Covenant that Jesus has ushered in.

This A + B = C sequence is clearly defined in Deuteronomy 29:9: “Therefore keep the words of this covenant and do them, that you may [be prospered] in all that you do.” There we see that our efforts (A) plus the working of God (B) equals His blessing in this life (C). And, whether consciously or not, we believe this because we have subtly (and not so subtly, I’m afraid) been told this is true. This message has been echoed from church pulpits, Christian counselors, and the shelves of Christian books stores. But it is wrong. It is a system intended to make this life better but it doesn’t work. It didn’t work for the Israelites and it doesn’t work for us. Leviticus 26:14 and following tells us what happens when the covenant (or equation) is broken . This system worked only if they kept all the law perfectly and there was a dangerous downside if they didn’t. They didn’t and they couldn’t. We don’t and we can’t.

But we still try. It’s engrained in us (it’s called pride) and we are indoctrinated in this linear equation. We often continue to pursue the blessing of a better life by trying hard, asking God to give us what we want, and expecting to see the blessings unfold. We are a slave to this law that often doesn’t work, which leaves us exhausted and filled with doubt about ourselves, God, or both. So our worldview goes down the tubes when we try really hard, tust God, and crisis comes. We did our best to do “A” and we trusted God to do “B” but we don’t see the evidence of the “C” that is the blessing of a better life. We have but two options here; we didn’t try hard enough and do all the right things or God is not good and faithful to His promises. Neither one is a good conclusion.

And, if this system does seem to work, it inevitably leaves us empty because we have this “better life” but have missed the point. That’s because the formula is wrong. It is based upon the Old Covenant, not the New Covenant. It is the way of the law, a law of cause and effect that Jesus came to do away with. For Christ has introduced a radical shift from the pursuing the blessing of a better life to one where our passion is the beauty of His presence. Because relationship and intimacy with Him is the point. It is that, and that only, which truly fulfills us and is our great blessing. Everything else is a weak, useless idol without any substance or value (see Psalm 115). And this Old Covenant formula is often the very thing that keeps us from fully experiencing Him as we seek His hand and not His face, His “presents” instead of His presence.

The writer of Hebrews explains: “For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God” (7:18-19). Notice in particular that last phrase, “a better hope [of] nearness to God.” Actually, the writer of Hebrews said much about those who looked to God in faith not for His earthly blessing but for the hope found only in His presence (see Hebrews 11:1-12:3). For we, in the end, do not find real satisfaction in “success” but in our Savior. For it is He who had crucified this old law so that we might live in Him, He might fill us, and allow us to enter into the life of liberty He so gloriously purchased:

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:9-14).

*I’m deeply indebted to Dr. Larry Crabb and his book The Pressure’s Off for a significant part of these ideas and content. I highly recommend this book!

*Due to popular demand, this week I will repost this 2-part series. I pray that you are blessed by these thoughts.

After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me…” (Genesis 15:1-2, NIV).

Although one of the heroes of the Christian faith, Abraham was by no means perfect. But God came to him (not the other way around), chose him (not the other way around), and, in a unique demonstration of His sovereign grace, promised to make him the father of a great nation. Since Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless, the pivotal blessing would be the giving of a son. Without a son there would be no one to carry on Abraham’s lineage and, therefore, no “nation.” But Abraham had to wait on God’s timing and, much like us, he failed “God’s waiting room” test abysmally.

Abraham showed flashes of faith by moving to Canaan. But, in just one example of his impatience and doubt, he fled to Egypt to seek provision in the midst of a famine (Genesis 12:10-20). I’m confident he didn’t fully believe God would provide and bless because he took matters into his own hands (sound familiar?) and moved to a land that God had not led him to (Egypt – which, providentially, God would lead Abraham’s descendants out of many years later). There he lied – and had Sarah lie as well – about the nature of their relationship in order to protect his own skin (as if God was not willing or capable of protecting him). Once Abraham did return to the place God had told him to go and stay, Canaan, he was wondering when all of these promises were going to happen. Especially the promise of Isaac, the son.

That’s where we pick up in Genesis 15. God now explains to Him the greatest blessing and gift that He had for Abraham. That blessing and gift was Himself. God was the ultimate provision, promise, and reward He had for Abraham. Even though Abraham’s reponse to the Lord (Genesis 15:2-3) indicates the significance of God’s statement hadn’t sunk in, I believe we see evidence later in his life that he finally understood what God was really saying. It is 7 chapters later that we see the person of God being more important to Abraham than God as provider and promise-keeper (even though God truly is both of these things). My point is that Abraham learned to treasure God more than His blessings and provision.

It is in Hebrews 11:17-18 that we get the best snapshot of the faith and priority of a more mature Abraham:

“By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”

Wow – what an amazing transformation! Earlier Abraham had doubted God and pestered Him with, “where is my land and where is my promised son?” Now, when God commands him to take His provision and promise (Isaac) and put him to death, Abraham goes without any hint of denial, doubt, or disobedience (Genesis 22:1-10).

Why the radical shift? I believe it is because Abraham finally and fully realized God’s greatest promise and provision is Himself (Genesis 15:2). And when he had come that point, God’s other promises and provisions (like Isaac and land) had become secondary. Abraham eventually began to love, worship, and follow the Giver instead of the gift! He was seeking God’s face and not just His hand. So he was willing, because he had God, life’s greatest treasure, to sacrifice all the rest.

Oh yes, there was a happy ending. God thwarted Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice his son. Isaac lived, the nation began, and the land was eventually inhabited by his descendants. But these promises did not begin to see their original fulfillment until Abraham knew and lived as if God was his all, his highest treasure, and his great reward. And that, as Abraham’s spiritual descendants (Romans 9:8; Galatians 3:7), is where God expects us to be as well – His people seeing, knowing, and living with God as our ultimate pursuit and great reward.

But, for us, how does Jesus fit into all of this? Abraham’s story does not end with the cessation of Isaac’s sacrifice. There was another offering, another sacrifice, which God provided to make His promises real – literally for Abraham and spiritually for us. Tune in next time and see how Abraham’s story foreshadows the sacrifice of Jesus and shows us that treasuring Christ above all things allows us to have God as our great reward.

“Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the LORD had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran” (Genesis 12:1-4).

Most of us want to know where we are going. Although, from what I see of Tennessee drivers, many don’t. Nonetheless, we have MapQuest, GPS, and various navigation systems. Every time I play golf I’m amazed at the number of folks pulling out electronic devices just to gather data about the hole so that they can better determine where they want their ball to go when they hit it (Of course, this is mere foolishness – the ball never goes where you want it to, even if you
have exact yardage and direction in mind).

And the older we get the more we tend to want to know where we are headed. We think about careers, retirement, vacations, and a variety of other life issues and want a map. Or, at least, our course marked. But here is Abram at 75 years of age. And God says, “Get up and go.” “Where” would be the natural response but there is no hint of that from him. God said go and I’m going was his attitude. Unlike Abram, we probably couldn’t keep ourselves from inquiring “Where though?” God’s potential response: “To a land that I will show you.” Now how do like them apples? Not my cup of tea at all. I’m thinking, Lord, I want to know where you are sending me or at least a map or markers. Tell me something. Don’t just say go and expect me to wander off into the desert with my family having no more information than that. Where’s my GPS?!

But Abram went without all the details. And aren’t we glad he did. For through his obedience a nation was born: he was blessed, his family was blessed, the world was blessed, and Christ-followers, as the spiritual Israel, are particularly blessed. By trusting in God, Abraham, as he was later called, believed in things unknown and was motivated by things unseen. He left his house and found a home, fled his country and found an eternal city, abandoned his land and
found his Lord. This is faith and this is what it does. It doesn’t have a map; it has a merciful Master. No well-marked course; but a compassionate Christ.

Some excerpts from the writer of Hebrews discourse on faith should shed some light on all of this:

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible… And without faith it is
impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him…. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God”
(Hebrews 11:1-10).

The passage goes on to repeat the key phrase “by faith” 22 times in Hebrews 11 alone. Do you think the writer was trying to tell us something? He’s telling us that the “righteous live by faith” (Romans 1:17; Habakkuk 2:4). Well then, how about them apples? God’s Word is a megaphone shouting that faith is not just part of the way we live but the only way we live – faith in Christ to save and faith in God to guide. When was the last time, trusting only in the compulsion of God’s Spirit and the truths of Scripture, did we journey to the land of promise and blessing, the land that, “[He] will show [us]?”

The typical retort is, “He hasn’t told me to. I haven’t even heard His voice?” But why hasn’t He told us and why haven’t we heard His voice? True, it could be that God doesn’t have some radical move planned for us (except a radical following of Jesus). But it could be that He does and we don’t hear because we aren’t open, we aren’t listening; we aren’t even open to listening. Or it could be (note to self) we have listened and heard but don’t have the faith to step out and totally trust God without all the details. In other words, living with saving faith – the kind of trust we placed in Christ when we asked Him to receive us as one of His own, even without all of the directions.

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:9-12). 

I’m strange. There you have it – I admit it. I’ve been told I was hatched and not born, quirky, different, and “don’t fit into the box.” It used to irk me that people looked at me like some kind of E.T. (who was, by the way, quite cute, witty, and warm). It took me a long time to understand that being misunderstood is not all bad. No, I don’t want to revel in my innate strangeness but, in a sense, we as Christ-followers are called be a little hard to understand and something of a supernatural mystery. Why? Because we are “strange-rs” here on this planet (see Hebrews 11:35-40). Terra Firma is not our real home and the ruler of this world is not our Master (John 12:31). We are aliens and, therefore, sometimes alienated from those who make this life their treasure. Sometime we should feel exiled due to a Holy Spirit produced discomfort with our current abode (sometimes called a “tent” – see 2 Corinthians 5:1). 

Here Peter is encouraging his readers to not live by the world’s rules, to not let ourselves get too comfortable in our culture. After all, we are the strange sojourners that abstain from our natural inclinations and flee from the enticements of joyless carnal urges. We are commanded to not compromise our calling for the sake of thinking, looking, talking, and acting like the very thing we are called to season and light (Matthew 5:13-16). We are to walk in a manner of worthy our God and His gospel (see Colossians 1:10; Philippians 1:27). We are to extol His infinitely superior virtues by a life that is radically different yet can’t be honestly condemned by our accusers. If that makes us an enigma to a lost world then so be it. In the end, this is how we glorify our God who is beyond human understanding and philosophical reasoning, a God who nothing in this life compares to. And this is how we demonstrate to the natural race the supernatural excellencies of our heavenly Father. 

So what is it that compels and empowers us to be this kind of stranger in the midst of the broad current of sin that we swim against? According to Peter this is because we have been abducted (“chosen” is the term he uses in verse 9) by God. Now I know that science fiction and hallucinations tell us about alien abductions, but I’m saying that we become strangers in this world because we have been we drawn to the light because of a seeking Savior. Convicting and capturing us. Snatching us out of the clutches of our sin and pursuing us so we can receive His mercy and His righteousness. We have become His possession. We are, due to His unmerited favor and no yearning of our own (see Romans 3:10-11), His royal priesthood and holy nation. In other words, He has rescued (abducted) us so that we would be the kind of aliens this world needs to see His greatness and glory. 

Isn’t it so sweet that our Savior has made us strangers to that which would destroy us? Don’t we adore Him for abducting us from the darkness and showing us the marvelous light of His beauty? Aren’t we awestruck that He has made us His aliens in this world to image forth His incomparable awesomeness? So, being strange or alien isn’t so bad after all. Actually, when it is caused and compelled by God, I can think of few greater things. For it means that we are His as sojourners in this land and heirs to an immeasurably greater reward and promise than anything this earth has to offer. So let’s rejoice that we have been abducted by His indescribable love to be aliens for His praise in this life, knowing that our eternal home and His presence await us.

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