The Wild Coast is dubbed the “graveyard of ships”. This section of eastern Cape coastline is known for its pounding breakers, cauldron currents and treacherous rocks which have smashed and swallowed thousands of ships. One was an East-India vessel called the Grosvenor on its voyage from India to England in 1782. It carried 150 people and large stashes of gold, cash and diamonds. Stephen Taylor’s intriguing book titled Caliban’s Shore– The Wreck of the Grosvenor and the Strange Fate of Her Survivors, pieces together the true story of the 91 crew and 18 wealthy British passengers who made it to shore and their fate thereafter: Of the 123 initial survivors, only six eventually reached the safety of a frontier farm and a further twelve were later rescued. All 18 survivors were the strongest and fittest young men on the ship, under the age of 29. The remaining 105 wandered aimlessly up and down and eventually starved to death on the dunes, drowned in rivers, disappeared in dense forests, and fell victim to animals, local tribesmen, dysentery, sunstroke, scurvy and exhaustion. Two men and four women and children were permanently assimilated into local Pondo and Xhosa tribes. The latter became wives and mothers in these villages. What struck me most was that the fate of the passengers was sealed by their weak Captain, John Coxton. Owing to flawed judgment, leadership and character, Coxton caused the group to splinter in different directions. Worst of all, he abandoned the women and children under his care in an attempt to save his own skin (and bag of diamonds). In the end, he saved neither. Captain Coxton is not remembered today for his heroism.
The Wreck of the Grosvenor made me think of the ancient heroes of Hebrews 11 who were commended by God because of their faith while they lived as strangers in an inhospitable land (Heb 11:2; 13; 39). Unlike Captain Coxton, these heroes of the faith are like a line of footprints in the sand for Christians to follow. They teach us not to give up or wander about aimlessly on our journey home (Heb 12:1-3) and to be bold and intrepid in the face of uncertainty. They illustrate what “Perseverance of the Saints” looks like in the messiness of life. However, the Bible makes no attempt to airbrush or photo shop their stories. The Scripture records frankly how they fared in various tests, revealing that the heroes of the faith were not very different from ourselves. Sometimes their faith was steadfast, but often it buckled to fear, pressure, unbelief and impatience.
The flawed ‘heroes’ of Hebrews 11 show us that God is the true hero of every journey of faith.
We have already looked at Abel, Enoch and Noah’s faith. For the next few weeks on The God Walk, we will probe the lives of Abraham and Sarah. Our texts are from Hebrews 11 and Genesis 12:
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.
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. 2 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. 3 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.”
4 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. 5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.8 From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord. 9 And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb.
Believe and obey—the heartbeat of Abram’s faith
These nine verses in Genesis mark a pivotal point in God’s plan of salvation. God took the initiative and called an ordinary man and his wife out of idolatry. Abram and Sarai were no more holy than everyone else in Ur. God chose a liar and a future polygamist to be the father of all who believe (Gen 12; 20; Gen 16:3; Gen 25:1).
God called Abram to believe his word and leave everything that was comfortable and secure–To go towards an uncertain, uncomfortable future that God would show him. Abram believed God’s promises and obeyed his call. His faith wobbled many times along the pilgrimage, but this intrepid response to God’s call is the heartbeat of his faith. Volumes could be written about the call of Abram and God’s promises to him, but I will focus on just a few thoughts regarding Abram’s faithful obedience to God’s call.
Abram’s call demanded his all.
Abram’s unequivocal obedience to leave and go was uncomfortable and costly. There was no halfway house or return ticket to Ur. God’s call took Abram right outside of his comfort zone.
“So Abram went, as the Lord told him” is a stark, simple record of obedience. God had revealed his explicit instructions to Abram while living in Ur, and Abram had taken God at his word and set out for Canaan with his wife (Sarai), father (Terah) and nephew (Lot), leaving his clan behind in Ur. Terah only got as far as the town called Harran, where he died aged 205 (Gen 11:10-32).
Yahweh called Abram to give up all he had ever known to follow wherever God led.
It must have been a mighty convincing revelation! Abram’s call meant leaving the comfort and protection of his clan, job and contacts in Ur– no small sacrifice in a world ruled by raiders and wars. Abram and Sarai uprooted themselves on the basis of God’s naked word.
They sacrificed a known, sure future– for a dangerous, uncertain one. Uncertainty did not paralyse them.
They gave up the sophisticated community of Ur and its culture of libraries and learning– to pitch their tent as strangers. There would be no welcoming committee from the Canaanites who practiced child-sacrifice and public prostitution to coax blessing from their fertility gods– Baal and Asherah. Abram and Sarai left the wealth and privilege of their extended family– to trust in God’s provision alone. They obeyed, trusting God with the outcome. Their faith was bold.
Abram’s faith held tightly to what he could not see, rather than what his culture deemed important. By faith, he pitched temporary tents while building permanent altars to the Lord (Gen 12:7-8; Heb 11:9).
Abram built altars wherever he went.
Abram traded the familiar lunar gods of Mesopotamia to worship Yahweh, whom he could not see. He swapped the great Ziggurat (temple) of Ur for altars he built out of stone, first in Schechem and then among the hills between Ai and Bethel (v 7 and 8).
God promised to make Abram’s name great, but instead Abram built altars to the Lord and “called” (qârâ) on the name of the Lord. Qârâ means to ‘proclaim’, ‘call out to’, ‘preach’ or ‘accost.’ It is poignant that he built altars on the southern and northern borders of the promised land of Canaan—symbolically taking possession of the land before it was given to his descendants. He boldly built an altar under the oaks of Moreh where soothsayers practiced divinations and sorcery, bringing Yahweh’s light to his dark pagan world (Gen 12:6;7).
In the previous chapter of Genesis, people had built the Tower of Babel to make a name for themselves, but Abram built altars to proclaim God’s name instead of his own (Gen 11:4).
In building altars, Abram consecrated himself and his family for God’s glory. Abram lived not for his own greatness, but for the fame of God.
Abram believed against all hope.
Let’s be frank- God’s promises were far-fetched and impossible!
Sarai was barren and getting old—but God promised that through a family of his own, Abram would become a great nation that would enjoy God’s blessing (Gen 12:2-3).
Abram was unknown – but God promised that his name would be great (Gen 12:2).
Abram and Serai were childless—but God promised that Abram would be a conduit of blessing to all families (nations) on earth (Gen 12:3).
Abram was a nomad in a land inhabited by formidable pagans—but God promised to give his descendants the land (Gen 12:7).
Abram did not waver or weaken in believing that God would fulfill his promises.
Romans 4:18-20 is a commentary of how Abram walked by faith and not by sight:
“18 Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead.20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.
By faith, Abram was fully convinced that God would do what was humanly impossible. Likewise, God calls all believers to believe God’s promises to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Abram’s call announced the gospel.
God’s ‘impossible’ promise to Abram was, “In you all families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:3). Later God confirms this promise in a covenant, “Behold my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen 17:4).
Our God is astounding! Four thousand years ago, when God called Abram, He knew his promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, would come to earth and ‘pitch his tent’ among us as Abram did in the land of Canaan (John 1:14). He made sure Jesus was a direct descendant of Abram (Matt 1:1). God knew that his Son would be the ultimate fulfillment of these promises to Abram, opening the way for any person, from any nation, to become a child of Abraham through faith in Jesus. He knew every man, woman and child who would become future ‘heirs’ of His promises. Paul makes the momentous claim that the call of Abram was the first gospel announcement! By faith, we are the blessed ones of Gen 12:3:
“Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. 8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and ANNOUNCED THE GOSPEL IN ADVANCE TO ABRAHAM: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal 3:7-8)
God’s call to go the nations
Jesus’s call to every believer is to go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation, making disciples of all nations and teaching them to obey Jesus’ commands. His promise is that He will be with us always, to the very end of the age (Mark 16:15; Matt 28:18-20). It is amazing to think that God fulfills his promises to Abram through the obedience of ordinary believers like us!
Hudson Taylor believed God had called him to China to do exactly this. In 1865 on Brighton beach he told God that he would go anywhere, do anything, suffer anything. He asked God to give him the guidance and provision He would need. He knew it was a call to a rugged life that would be hard on his body and would require complete dependence on God and not on any man. He began preparing by exercising his body, sharing the gospel and serving medically in the poorest slums of his hometown. He moved out of his comfortable home and lived among the poor, renting a cold, unfurnished apartment and existing on a sparse diet. He embraced every opportunity to trust God for physical needs. Eventually, Hudson and his wife Maria, led the way for thousands of missionaries to proclaim the gospel in all the provinces of China through ‘China Inland Missions’. Through the Boxer Rebellion, serious illnesses, deaths of his wife and four of his eight children, Hudson continued to yield himself to God’s call on his life. In 1900 there were 100 000 Christians in China. Today there are probably around 150 million. Hudson’s statement of faith was simple:
“Depend upon it, GOD’S work done in GOD’S way will never lack GOD’S supplies.”
I ask myself today whether I am prepared to experience even slight discomfort and uncertainty to channel the blessings of the gospel to strangers, friends and family on my doorstep?
Live it out!
It is important not to read ourselves into Abram’s story, but it is also impossible to miss the features of faith that should be visible in every believer:
- Do you obey God’s word and trust Him with the outcome? Jesus told the Jews of his day that obedience is the external proof that they were truly Abraham’s children: “You have no room for my word”…”Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,… then you would do what Abraham did” (John 8:37;39). Faith has nothing to do with ethnicity, heritage, church membership or being better than others. True children of Abraham trust in God’s promised Saviour and then follow his word.
- Have you experienced a “leaving” and “going” in your life? It may not be geographical, but God’s call never leaves us where He finds us spiritually. Jesus did not invite us to a safe, private faith, but to a lifetime of denying ourselves, taking up our cross and following him (Luke 9:23-25). We are called to let go of cultural practices and thinking which do not conform to Christ.
Like Abram, we are called to do what is right and trust God with the outcome.
- Do you rely on God’s promises today and look to the future with hope? Faith is childlike dependence on God, one day at a time (Matt 18:1-4). His work in us in never finished until the day He takes us home.
- Does your faith shine with joy and life to those in your culture? God calls us out of this world to declare his praises (1 Peter 2:9); to worship wherever we go (1 Cor 10:31) and let our light shine in our pagan world (Matt 5:16), just as Abram did in his.
Father, thank you that you loved the world so much that you gave your only beloved Son, so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. I hold tightly to this firm promise. I believe you when you say that we are saved by faith– in Jesus alone. Thank you for your provision and for the many wonderful blessings you have given me to enjoy, but I ask that you would loosen my grip on the comforts of this world so that they would not become my idols. I believe you when you say that I am a child of Abraham– your own beloved child. Today I offer you every encounter, every unique moment of my short life, and lay it down– like bread cast on the waters– to be used for your glory. I pray that when I face uncertainty for myself and my family, I will boldly obey and trust you to provide for every need. I trust you to equip me for every good work you have planned in advance for me to do. I trust that I will be in the presence of the Lord Jesus the moment I die. I believe you will return to restore the new heavens and new earth to beyond my wildest imaginings. I pray for grace not to hold anything back from you in the days you give me on earth. I ask for an intrepid faith to do what is right and then trust you with the results.
In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Worship as you sing this magnificent hymn written by Frances Ridley Havergal -, Take my Life and Let it be, Consecrated Lord to Thee. This rendition by Chris Tomlin does it great justice.