A cloud of witnesses, part 2: Abraham and Sarah
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on .
The total length of the recording is .
This talk is on Hebrews 11 verses 8 to 13, Abraham and Sarah.
Before the recording began, the first part of Hebrews 12 verse 1 was read:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.
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Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.
Hebrews 12:1 (NIVUK)
The preface to this, the cloud of witnesses to which is being referred, is the heroes of faith of the Old Testament. Spoken in Hebrews chapter 11. Last week, we looked at how Abel and Enoch and Noah were all heroes because in their own ways, they lived by faith. Abel lived by faith even though he was killed by his brother Cain because of an offering he brought to God. Enoch walked faithfully with God and his reward was that he never saw death. Noah was a man who was with God.
God saw him as living differently to those around him and almost as a reward, saved him and his family whilst the rest of the world was consumed by the great flood. These three righteous men were somehow faithful to God. Today, we continue our walk through Hebrews chapter 11 looking at a couple of people that you probably know. Not personally. Characters through the Old Testament mentioned in the New Testament and in the Quran. Abraham and Sarah. I have a particular penchant for how Abraham was called because, without him, I wouldn’t be here today. Without responding to him, I guess neither would we.
Hebrews 11, verses 8–13
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.
Just two verses from Genesis chapter 12, three verses.
Genesis 12 verses 1–3.
The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
‘I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.’
Abraham took a leap of faith because he was awesome. We’re just going to look at the three-minute video clip about people who are awesome.
[YouTube clip from the Awesome People channel was shown. It is replaced here with a few seconds of silence.]
Madness, I’m sure you’ll agree.
[Audience:] … don’t try this at home!
I shan’t try it at home. I don’t think that I would trust my own body to do most if not all of those activities that we’ve just seen. I could see and I could sense the squirming of some of us when we saw people jumping off of cliffs, jumping around. Yet people practice and train and learn to do amazing things. I don’t know what your biggest fear is or whether you’ve conquered it. I know that for the whole of their life-- Somebody that I know was petrified of flying. They were scared of heights. Were scared stiff of sitting in a plane taking off and landing which was a shame because they’d love to see the world.
They just wouldn’t fly in a plane because they were scared of heights until a cousin invited them on a short journey from London to Malta and so they did, and it was okay. They didn’t fall out of the sky. Another slightly longer flight took them to another destination until a few years later that very same person said that they’d like to visit family in Australia. They flew all the way across the world and all because that person stepped out. They left their comfort zone. They became even more awesome than they already were because they overcame their fear of flying.
In the next few weeks, Dick and Moira’s son and daughter-in-law are emigrating. It’s going to be a massive step. New job, new home, new lifestyle, new culture, new friendships. Moving to a different country, particularly where English is one of hundreds of languages and dialects spoken, is a huge undertaking and one that would paralyse some people with fear and other people would be so excited that they couldn’t wait to unpack on their new journey. That’s what I guess it was like for Abraham. I knew that he was Abram back then but for continuity’s sake and because Hebrews calls him Abraham, I think we’ll call him Abraham.
God called Abraham out from Ur. I imagine that most people in a town or a city would have stayed in that vicinity for the whole of their lives. Family ties would have been strong and the family business would probably have relied on the next generation doing their father’s work. Life would always be what’s it has always been. It seems that it might have been for Abraham until one day God said, “Leave your country and your father’s household and go to the land that I’ll show you.”
Now, it may have been many people would have been wandering around at the time. Bedouin tribes, people with livestock that needed to eat grass, would all have needed to stay somewhere a while and then move on out of necessity. Today in the West, we can move on whenever we choose to, or stay. Depending on our circumstances, we might choose to upsize or downsize, buy a motor home, sleep in a tent or a hundred other opportunities or options but 3,000 years ago, in the time of Abraham, we notice from Genesis chapter 11 that Abraham’s father lived in Haran and settled there until one day, God instructs Abraham to move out.
God didn’t say where and we don’t know how long it took him to pack up his stuff but in obedience and by faith, Abraham went. He wasn’t particularly young, only a man of 75 years old. He went knowing that God had chosen him and would make him into that great nation. There lies another odd thing because back in Genesis 11:30, we find that his wife Sarai, to be renamed Sarah, was unable to have children.
Let’s summarize here. 75-year-old Abraham has heard from God. We don’t know how. We don’t know what relationship Abraham has with God, if at all. This God makes a promise to him that he will be a great nation. To put a finer point on it, in Genesis 15, God invites him outside to try to count the number of stars that there are in the sky. Seems a bit of a silly thing to do but God promises Abraham descendants that would be more than the stars in the sky or sand on the seashore. More curiously, we have this verse in Genesis 6:15, Abraham believed God and He credited it to him as righteousness.
How odd it was that God chose Abraham to move out of a city, to live in a tent with a plan to move him into a land, Canaan, which would eventually have a holy city, Jerusalem, which would house a temple where the people of the world could worship. It was started by a childless couple who were past childbearing age to move into tents and move around in foreign areas. It made not an iota of sense. That is until we look at the bigger picture.
Abraham and Sarah both have promises made and in Hebrews 11 are credited as having faith. Which is also an old thing because when Sarah heard that she would be having a baby, she was also 75 and she laughed at the absurdity of it all.
Before this, in Genesis chapter 17, we also have God promising Abraham the same thing where he also laughs and then bows down. For both Abraham and Sarah, there seems to be doubt. The overall picture is that God somehow credits them as faithful followers. The doubt gets piled on as they both go to Egypt, hundreds and hundreds of miles away from where they began their journey, and hundreds of miles from Canaan, the promised land. Had God forgotten these promises that Abraham would have land and that they would have children?
Yet Genesis doesn’t report the doubt. It certainly doesn’t scold them for their lack of faith, it just tells the story. In time, we learn that the child is born to them both but not until after Abraham has slept with their maid Hagar and Ishmael arrives, who turns out not to be the child who will be a great nation, but Isaac, which ironically, after Abraham and Sarah both laughing means ‘he laughs’.
God has a sense of humour, doesn’t He? But even then, the whole promise is not fulfilled. Canaan, the promised land, with the holy city and the temple which Hebrews 11 talks about is not fulfilled in Abraham and Sarah’s time. As Hebrews Chapter 11, and verse three notes, “Those people”, these people were still living by faith when they died. They saw with their spiritual eyes what was not yet there in reality. They clung on to God, they clung on to what He had promised, even when it didn’t seem that God was remotely close to fulfilling His promise.
I said earlier, that I have a particular penchant for the story of the calling of Abraham because I believe that God used Genesis 12:1 to get hold of me when and where he wanted. On the fourth of December 1997, I read those words in my Bible. It hit me so hard that even today, I can’t deny that they were for me. At the time I was writing in a prayer diary and this is what I wrote.
“I prayed that God would direct me and show me what He wanted me to do. I asked Him to show me something of His plan for me, so I looked at my Bible notes, ‘Believing God’ by RT Kendall, study eight, and read, ‘The Lord said to Abraham, “Leave your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you. I will make your name great and I will bless you.” See also Hebrews 11:8.’ Scary. Where does God want me? When will I know? How will I know? The Bible study goes on and said, ‘God’s calling always demands separation’, said RT Kendall.”
That was 22 years ago. For years and years and years, I was searching about where this country would be. I went on holiday twice to Australia perhaps hoping, perhaps partly wondering, whether the hot sunny beaches of Australia was my place of calling. Then some years after visiting the Northwest of England and praying with friends and having visited this beautiful county of Cheshire numerous times, it began to feel like home. I was always sad to be leaving and drive the 250 miles back south, wondering whether God would be good enough to allow me to consider, in even the teeniest part, that this could be the place that He was calling me to.
For a while, I think I almost became obsessive with moving. I couldn’t just up stakes and leave because unlike those awesome people in the video, I needed to keep my feet firmly on the floor, coming from a family where they had good jobs and pensions and things like that. Could I just sell up and move on? That just didn’t fit right with me. Yet my closest friends were urging me, “If you think that up North is for you, then you just have to do it, what’s the worst that could happen? You could always move back.”
Of course, I was scared. I’d never moved before. I didn’t know what it entailed. I even turned down a job or two because of my fear of leaving the familiar territory of Kent. For me, end of 1997, I was consumed with finding out how Abraham knew what God was asking him to do. In many ways, it was simple to do what God asks because there was a promise that He would make Abraham a great nation. For me, the fear of not knowing outweighed the potential excitement of finding out where God was showing me. When I left jobs to move on to the next, they weren’t in the Northwest of England.
There was always that tinge of disappointment until I settled very happily, as you know, into my previous job, which you know about, I was the School Chaplain. After two years of working with the Church of England and a Christian movement that run schools up and down the country, doing enterprising projects and education, funding came to an end and I was looking for work again. As I applied for the position of a church leader in Cheshire, I think I wrote in my application that I was applying because I believed that God was calling me to Cheshire based on the conviction from the night of the 4th of December, 1997. There are some nods in the background there.
It must have been a great surprise for the leaders of that church to have had a direct yet weird application letter. God was calling a chap from Kent to Cheshire. How bizarre could that be? Anyway, I guess that the trustees and leaders thought that this calling was worth testing because I was invited to an interview, for a whole day of grilling, but it wasn’t all bad because lunch was provided. I remember a delicious, hot Coward’s pie-
-served by Andrew and Isabel. I remember in each one of the hour-long interviews, and there were three of them, that every interviewer was really intrigued and interested as to why I had felt a call to Cheshire and not sunnier countries where social or physical needs are greater. Three times during that interview, I regaled the story of how I believe God had called me to leave my father’s household and go to the country that He would show me. The very next day, I was delighted but somehow and somewhat shocked, surprised, and a little afraid to receive a phone call from Paul Horton, offering me the role here at Main Street.
Nearly two and a half years on from that interview, I still have to pinch myself. I can still hardly believe that I’ve moved only 250 miles from Kent, although this time next week I’ll be back there preaching. I can still hardly believe that I’ve moved this far. I can still hardly believe God’s goodness to me personally, that He gave me the desire to live in a beautiful Cheshire country town. I can still hardly believe that the family that God has given me in the church and in Frodsham fits me so much like a glove. I can still hardly believe that it only took 20 years for me to find that God never gives up on His promises even when I think He has forgotten me.
It is God’s delight to choose people who feel failures and who are fearful. It is God’s pleasure just to turn up and surprise His creation with His presence. The Kingdom of God, doing God’s work is nothing more than seeing what God is doing and us joining Him with it. That is what faith is, knowing that you know that God thinks you are awesome. Hoping and being assured, seeing what could be but is not yet in reality.
When I reflect upon those 20 years that it took me to get to this point, I find that actually, it’s not about me at all, it’s about Jesus and serving Him. That is an awesome thing. Wherever we are, faith calls us to serve Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. Serving might well include normal day-to-day activities, bringing up children well, being great neighbours, doing a great day’s work. Faith might also call us to give to charitable causes or to love creation or challenge how others are treating the world’s resources. Faith might, as Jesus says, call you to leave everything and follow Him. That’s being awesome. If you’re following Jesus and if you’ve stepped up and stepped out, thank you for being so awesome. Of course, the most amazing thing about all of this is that whether or not we feel called to do outrageous things, whether or not we feel that we are there, that’s not the point. God says you’re awesome anyway. The point of Abraham and Sarah’s journey wasn’t that they got to Canaan. The point wasn’t that they just laughed at God’s ridiculous plans. The point was always that God chose them to journey with Him, just as Enoch and Noah walked faithfully with God.
They saw things with faith from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners, strangers on earth. Of course, they did have a miraculous son but they never did possess for themselves that land which God promised them. The point is that they were living on God’s promise, the promises that will never fail and that we can trust in His time will be honoured.
Awesome people of God, please know that you are amazing. You are awesome because you’re on a journey with God, who promises to continue and to perfect your faith. We keep our eyes looking only to Jesus even when it looks really silly.
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