‘God’s Promise to Abraham has Now become a Promise to Everybody of Faith’

Preacher: Dr Baden Teague, Lay Reader

A few months ago Kathy and I visited Jordan and Israel. Just the two of us in our hire car wandered for two weeks on the East side of the River Jordan and then two more weeks on the West side. The River Jordan itself is a hugely deep and wide “rift valley” like a North-to-South ribbon of green grass and crops and trees. It runs as an enormous gash across the earth from the Sea of Galilee down to the Dead Sea. Most of the adjacent region is bare, brown desert except that, well away from the river, at the tops of the hills on both sides, there are two more North-to-South ribbons of green, agricultural land. If you had a birds-eye view of it all, you would look down on five parallel ribbons three of green but between them two of desert brown: the green Jordanian hills in the East, then a strip of desert foothills, then way down in the deep valley the green Jordan plain; next, another strip of desert brown foothills; and finally more good green country on the tops of the Western hills.

Our Scripture reading tonight from Genesis has exactly this setting of the three-strips-of-green. Abram and his nephew, Lot, had come to this land with large herds of sheep and cattle. They then decided to separate. Lot, the nephew, chose the green ribbon of well-watered land that is the plains along the Jordan River. Abram stayed where he was, that is in the green Canaanite hills. Later on, Lot’s descendants moved from this Jordan plain up to the Eastern-hills ribbon of good land and they became the peoples we know there as the Ammonites and the Moabites. In fact, no cities were ever established down in the plains of the rift valley (except, very early on, the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah by the Dead Sea and, possibly, Jericho but that ancient city is more in the desert foothills of the West Bank than on the green Jordan plain). It appears that the river plains were hard to defend from attack, so all the major towns ended up in the two ribbons of green, along the tops of the Eastern hills or along the tops of the Western hills.

It was along these Western hill tops that Abram had first arrived when he was called to travel South from the upper Euphrates region via Damascus, Galilee and Gilboa to build his first altar in Shechem, later his second at Bethel, then, still further south along these hill tops, he arrived near Hebron in the south where he established his tents. And it was at Bethel in the very middle of this string of hills that Abram had his second great vision from God. This place “Bethel” literally means a house of God, an experience of God’s presence.

Abram’s first vision had been back home at Harran when God, he believed, called him to get up and go South. Abram’s second vision was when he had arrived in the centre of this promised land, at Bethel.

In Genesis 13 we read:

“After Lot and Abram had parted, the Lord said to Abram, ‘Raise your eyes and look into the distance.’ (Remember, he was standing on the top of the Western hills and his nephew, Lot, with his herds and flocks had gone off to the Eastern ribbons of good green land.) The Lord said to Abram, ‘Look from where you are: north to Shechem and Galilee, south to Jerusalem and Hebron, east to the Jordan plains, and west to the seacoast. ‘All the land you can see I will give to you and to your descendants for ever.”

God’s promise was to bless Abram and his descendants. God’s promise was to be close by, to strengthen, to give life, to give his own Spirit, to be present. This promise was unilateral and unconditional; it was also free and enduring. It wasn’t because Abram deserved this blessing or had earned it. On the contrary, our Biblical teaching about “the grace of God” in God’s blessing is already here, way back in Genesis, in the earliest era of the Bible’s message. And ‘faith’ is the key here too, in the earliest book, Genesis. Abram received this promise of God, and believed it, acted on it, moved forward in faith, trusting that the grace of God can be relied upon.

Now, it is important that we understand that this “promise of blessing” to Abram was about the “presence of God” much more than it was about food and shelter: firstly, it is about being able to come into the presence of God and, secondly, it is about growing in fellowship with God. This Godly relationship also involves separation, that is holiness.

At that time it was also literally true that the promise was physical. It meant occupying the land of Canaan, receiving the milk and the honey, and knowing grandchildren and great grandchildren. This physical fulfilment of God’s promise would teach the literal descendants of Abram, about the promises of God. But this literal and temporary meaning did not exhaust the ultimate promise of spiritual blessing which was for all peoples everywhere. After all, God had originally promised that “in Abraham’s seed all the families of the earth would be blessed”. How can the whole world be blessed merely through the Jews physically living in the land of Canaan? The ‘land’ and the ‘seed’ which are promised here are ultimately spiritual in meaning. God’s promise is to give “the presence of God’s grace” to absolutely everybody who has the faith to believe and receive. This is a spiritual promise for all of us.

It is relevant here to add that the political movement called ‘Zionism’ is not supported by any sound theology. Both Jewish Zionism and Christian Zionism are emotional assertions and both are no longer valid. May I urge you not to be led astray by literalism and fundamentalism. Unfortunately there is a plethora of false eschatologies, these weird beliefs somewhere or other in the world today. Especially in the USA, as is evident in the Republican Primaries this week, this so-called Christian Zionism is leading many good people astray. But the antidote to such heresy is still St Paul’s letter to the Galatians. St Paul’s message is to discern the freedom of the Holy Spirit which puts aside the temporary and the physical in favour of the spiritual.

St Paul’s message is abundantly clear in our reading tonight from his letter to the Galatians at Chapter 3 verse 13:

“Christ bought us freedom (on the Cross). And the purpose of it all was that the blessing of Abraham should in Jesus Christ be extended to the Gentiles (to all peoples), so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”

Christian teaching is very dramatic at this point. It is why the Christians called this message the “good news” for both Jews and Gentiles. St Paul’s declaration is radical: in Galatians 3:16 he wrote this:

“Now the promises were pronounced to Abraham and his ‘issue’ (singular). It does not say ‘issues’ (in the plural). It is in the singular, and the ‘issue’ intended here is Christ.”

This good news means that the promise to Abraham is ultimately that the presence of God can be received by all peoples. This is a spiritual promise. All people alike (learning from the literal example of Abraham and the literal example of his descendants) can spiritually know the presence of God, received through grace by faith.

We live today in a spiritual world which has replaced the temporary world that was physical and literal. God’s temporary covenant with Israel has been replaced and extended by a new and spiritual covenant with all people. The Tabernacle and the Temple have both gone now and they are replaced with the spiritual truth of God’s presence, accessible everywhere and to everyone.

Jesus himself said to the Samaritan woman at the well, “God is spirit and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”(John 4:24)     Jesus rejected the former physical importance of both the Temple in Jerusalem and the Samaritan’s alternative Temple on Mount Gerazim. Jesus said that neither of these physical Temples ultimately matter anymore. They were temporary models. They have served their purpose. And they had become corrupted in the end anyway. Today they no longer exist. In fact, the Christian teaching is for each individual Christian to be holy because your own body is spiritually the ‘Temple’ of the Holy Spirit.

Sacrifices too were temporary and they also have gone. Circumcision has gone. Even the Monarchy has gone. Moses’ Law has not so much gone as been fulfilled in the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament has been fulfilled and extended in the New Testament. The people of God are no longer only Israel but have become the Church in all nations. We live no longer in a temporary and physical world. We live in a spiritual world. God is Spirit and we approach God and know God spiritually. Now, God’s nature and God’s supreme gift to us is love. God is love. Love is a spiritual gift. You can ask God for this gift. Then believe God’s promise and, by faith, receive this love.

We conclude with Paul’s own summary:

“Before this faith came, we were prisoners in the custody of law, pending the revelation of faith. Thus the law was a kind of tutor in charge of us until Christ should come, when we should be justified through faith; and now that faith has come, the tutor’s charge is at an end. For through faith you are all sons of God in union with Christ Jesus. Baptised into union with him, you have all put on Christ as a garment. There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus, you are the ‘issue’ of Abraham, and so heirs by promise.” (Galatians 3: 23-29)