(First Sunday in Lent)
GENESIS xvii. 1, 2. And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect.
I have told you that the Bible reveals, that is, unveils the Lord God, Jesus Christ our Lord, and through him God the Father Almighty. I have tried to show you how the Bible does so, step by step. I go on to show you another step which the Bible takes, and which explains much that has gone before.
From whom did Moses and the holy men of old whom Moses taught get their knowledge of God, the true God?
The answer seems to be -- from Abraham.
God taught Moses more, much more than he taught Abraham. It was Moses who bade men call God Jehovah, the I AM; but who, hundreds of years before, taught them to call him the Almighty God?
The answer seems to be, Abraham. God, we read, appeared to Abraham, and said to him, 'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I shall show thee, and I will make of thee a great nation.' And again the Lord said to him, 'I am the Almighty God, walk before me and be thou perfect, and thou shalt be a father of many nations.'
'And Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness. And he was called the friend of God.'
But from what did Abraham turn to worship the living God? From idols? We are not certain. There is little or no mention of idols in Abraham's time. He worshipped, more probably, the host of heaven, the sun and moon and stars. So say the old traditions of the Arabs, who are descended from Abraham through Ishmael, and so it is most likely to have been. That was the temptation in the East. You read again and again how his children, the Jews, turned back from God to worship the host of heaven; and that false worship seems to have crept in at some very early time. The sun, you must remember, and the moon are far more brilliant and powerful in the East than here; their power of doing harm or good to human beings and to the crops of the land is far greater; while the stars shine in the East with a brightness of which we here have no notion. We do not know, in this cloudy climate, what St. Paul calls the glory of the stars; nor see how much one star differs from another star in glory; and therefore here in the North we have never been tempted to worship them as the Easterns were. The sun, the moon, the stars, were the old gods of the East, the Elohim, the high and mighty ones, who ruled over men, over their good and bad fortunes, over the weather, the cattle, the crops, sending burning drought, pestilence, sun-strokes, and those moon-strokes which we never have here; but of which the Psalmist speaks when he says, 'The sun shall not smite thee by day, neither the moon by night.' And them the old Easterns worshipped in some wild confused way.
But to Abraham it was revealed that the sun, the moon, and the stars were not Elohim -- the high and mighty Ones. That there was but one Elohim, one high and mighty One, the Almighty maker of them all. He did not learn that, perhaps, at once. Indeed the Bible tells us how God taught him step by step, as he teaches all men, and revealed himself to him again and again, till he had taught Abraham all that he was to know. But he did teach him this; as a beautiful old story of the Arabs sets forth. They say how (whether before or after God called him, we cannot tell) Abraham at night saw a star: and he said, 'This is my Lord.' But when the star set, he said, 'I like not those who vanish away.' And when he saw the moon rising, he said, 'This is my Lord.' But when the moon too set, he said, 'Verily, if my Lord direct me not in the right way, I shall be as one who goeth astray.' But when he saw the sun rising, he said, 'This is my Lord: this is greater than star or moon.' But the sun went down likewise. Then said Abraham, 'O my people, I am clear of these things. I turn my face to him who hath made the heaven and the earth.'
And was this all that Abraham believed -- that the sun and moon and stars were not gods, but that there was a God besides, who had made them all? My friends, there have been thousands and tens of thousands since, I fear, who have believed as much as that, and yet who cannot call Abraham their spiritual father, who are not justified by faith with faithful Abraham.
For merely to believe that, is a dead faith, which will never be counted for righteousness, because it will never make man a righteous man doing righteous and good deeds as Abraham did.
Of Abraham it is written, that what he knew, he did. That his faith wrought with his works. And by his works his faith was made perfect. That when he gained faith in God, he went and acted on his faith. When God called him he went out, not knowing whither he went.
His faith is only shown by his works. Because he believed in God he went and did things which he would not have done if he had not believed in God. Of him it is written, that he obeyed the voice of the Lord, and kept his charge, his commandments, his statutes, and his laws.
In a word, he had not merely found out that there was one God, but that that one God was a good God, a God whom he must obey, and obey by being a good man. Therefore his faith was counted to him for righteousness, because it was righteousness, and made him do righteous deeds.
He believed that God was helping him; therefore he had no need to oppress or overreach any man. He believed that God's eye was on him; therefore he dared not oppress or overreach any man.
His faith in God made him brave. He went forth he knew not whither; but he had put his trust in God, and he did not fear. He and his three hundred slaves, born in his house, were not afraid to set out against the four Arab kings who had just conquered the five kings of the vale of Jordan, and plundered the whole land. Abraham and his little party of faithful slaves follow them for miles, and fall on them and defeat them utterly, setting the captives free, and bringing back all the plunder; and then, in return for all that he has done, Abraham will take nothing -- not even, he says, 'a thread or a shoe-latchet -- lest men should say, We have made Abraham rich.' And why?
Because his faith in God made him high-minded, generous, and courteous; as when he bids Lot go whither he will with his flocks and herds. 'Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between thee and me. If thou wilt take the left hand, I will go to the right.' He is then, as again with the king of Sodom, and with the three strangers at the tent door, and with the children of Heth, when he is buying the cave of Machpelah for a burying-place for Sarah -- always and everywhere the same courteous, self-restrained, high- bred, high-minded man.
It has been said that true religion will make a man a more thorough gentleman than all the courts in Europe. And it is true: you may see simple labouring men as thorough gentlemen as any duke, simply because they have learned to fear God; and fearing him, to restrain themselves, and to think of other people more than of themselves, which is the very root and essence of all good breeding. And such a man was Abraham of old -- a plain man, dwelling in tents, helping to tend his own cattle, fetching in the calf from the field himself, and dressing it for his guests with his own hand; but still, as the children of Heth said of him, a mighty prince -- not merely in wealth of flocks and herds, but a prince in manners and a prince in heart.
But faith in God did more for Abraham than this: it made him a truly pious man -- it made him the friend of God.
There were others in Abraham's days who had some knowledge of the one true God. Lot his nephew, Abimelech, Aner, Eshcol, Mamre, and others, seem to have known whom Abraham meant when he spoke of the Almighty God. But of Abraham alone it is said that he believed God; that he trusted in God, and rested on him; was built up on God; rested on God as a child in the mother's arms -- for this we are told, is the full meaning of the word in the Bible -- and looked to God as his shield and his exceeding great reward. He trusted in God utterly, and it was counted to him for righteousness.
And of Abraham alone it is said that he was the friend of God; that God spoke with him, and he with God. He first of all men of whom we read, at least since the time of Adam, knew what communion with God meant; knew that God spoke to him as a friend, a benefactor, a preserver, who was teaching and training him with a father's love and care; and felt that he in return could answer God, could open his heart to him, tell him not only of his wants, but of his doubts and fears.
Yes, we may almost say, on the strength of the Bible, that Abraham was the first human being, as far as we know, who prayed with his heart and soul; who knew what true prayer means -- the prayer of the heart, by which man draws near to God, and finds that God is near to him. This -- this communion with God, is the especial glory of Abraham's character. This it is which has given him his name through all generations, The friend of God. Or, as his descendants the Arabs call him to this day, simply, 'The Friend.'
This it is which gained him the name of the Father of the Faithful; the father of all who believe, whether they be descended from him, or whether they be, like us, of a different nation. This it is which has made a wise man say of Abraham, that if we will consider what he knew and did, and in what a dark age he lived, we shall see that Abraham may be (unless we except Moses) the greatest of mere human beings -- that the human race may owe more to him than to any mortal man.
But why need we learn from Abraham? we who, being Christians, know and believe the true faith so much more clearly than Abraham could do.
Ah, my friends, it is easier to know than to believe, and easier to know than to do. Easier to talk of Abraham's faith than to have Abraham's faith. Easier to preach learned and orthodox sermons about how Abraham was justified by his faith, than to be justified ourselves by our own faith.
And say not in your hearts, 'It was easy for Abraham to believe God. I should have believed of course in his place. If God spoke to me, of course I should obey him.' My friends, there is no greater and no easier mistake. God has spoken to many a man who has not believed him, neither obeyed him, and so he may to you. God spoke to Abraham, and he believed him and obeyed him. And why? Because there was in Abraham's heart something which there is not in all men's hearts -- something which ANSWERED to God's call, and made him certain that the call was from God -- even the Holy Spirit of God.
So God may call you, and you may obey him, if only the Spirit of God be in you; but not else. MAY call you, did I say? God DOES call you and me, does speak to us, does command us, far more clearly than he did Abraham. We know the mystery of Christ, which in other ages was NOT made known to the sons of men as it is now revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke to the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken to us by his SON, Jesus Christ our Lord, and told us our duty, and the reward which doing our duty will surely bring, far more clearly than ever he did to Abraham.
But do we listen to him? Do we say with Abraham, 'O my people, I am clear of all these things which rise and set, which are born and die, which begin and end in time, and turn my face to him that made heaven and earth!' If so, how is it that we see people everywhere worshipping not idols of wood and stone, but other things, all manner of things beside God, and saying, 'These are my Elohim. These are the high and mighty ones whom I must obey. These are the strong things on which depend my fortune and my happiness. I must obey THEM first, and let plain doing right and avoiding wrong come after as it can.'
One worships the laws of trade, and says, 'I know this and that is hardly right; but it is in the way of business, and therefore I must do it.'
One worships public opinion, and follows after the multitude to do evil, doing what he knows is wrong, simply because others do it, and it is the way of the world.
One worships the interest of his party, whether in religion or in politics; and does for their sake mean and false, cruel and unjust things, which he would not do for his own private interest.
Too many, even in a free country, worship great people, and put their trust in princes, saying, 'I am sorry to have to do this. I know it is rather mean; but I must, or I shall lose such and such a great man's interest and favour.' Or, 'I know I cannot afford this expense; but if I do not I shall not get into good society, and this person and that will not ask me to his house.'
All, meanwhile, except a few, rich or poor, worship money; and believe more or less, in spite of the Lord's solemn warning to the contrary, that a man's life does consist in the abundance of the things which he possesses.
These are the Elohim of this world, the high and mighty things to which men turn for help instead of to the living God, who was before all things, and will be after them; and behold they vanish away, and where then are those that have put their trust in them?
But blessed is he whose trust is in God the Almighty, and whose hope is in the Lord Jehovah, the eternal I Am. Blessed is he who, like faithful Abraham, says to his family, 'My people, I am clear of all these things. I turn my face from them to him who hath made earth and heaven. I go through this world like Abraham, not knowing whither I go; but like Abraham, I fear not, for I go whither God sends me. I rest on God; he is my defence, and my exceeding great reward. To have known him, loved him, obeyed him, is reward enough, even if I do not, as the world would say, succeed in life. Therefore I long not for power and honour, riches and pleasure. I am content to do my duty faithfully in that station of life to which God has called me, and to be forgiven for all my failings and shortcomings for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord, and that is enough for me; for I believe in my Father in heaven, and believe that he knows best for me and for my children. He has not promised me, as he promised Abraham, to make of me a great nation; but he has promised that the righteous man shall never be deserted, or his children beg their bread. He has promised to keep his covenant and mercy to a thousand generations with those who keep his commandments and do them; and that is enough for me. In God have I put my trust, and I will not fear what man, or earth, or heaven, or any created thing can do unto me.'
Blessed is that man, whether he inherit honourably great estates from his ancestors, or whether he make honourably great wealth and station for himself; whether he spend his life quietly and honestly in the country farm or in the village shop, or whether he simply earn his bread from week to week by plough and spade. Blessed is he, and blessed are his children after him. For he is a son of Abraham; and of him God hath said, as of Abraham, 'I know him that he will command his children and household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment, that the Lord may bring on him the blessing which he has spoken.'
Yes; blessed is that man. He has chosen his share of Abraham's faith; and he and his children after him shall have their share of Abraham's blessing.