The following sermon , “Emerging Faith for a Church” from Genesis 15.1-21, I preached at the Ithaca Church of Christ, Ithaca, NY on Sunday, January 20, 2008. It is a sermon that I believe many small churches need to hear.
My sermon today is titled Emerging Faith for a Church. That is the type of faith you just heard about as the scripture was read to us. Emerging faith is the type of faith that all of God’s people should have because it is a faith that keeps emerging to a higher level. So today I will preach on this passage in Genesis 15.1-21 and I want this sermon to relate to how we understand the mission of the church. If you thing about an automobile, today’s car is very different from the first car ever made yet at the same time the general concept of how a car works remains the same. Likewise the church will always have the same concept regardless of the differences in time and culture. However, different cultures do require certain changes in our approach to church in order for the church to continue to serve as God intends it to do. Many congregations today have formed in such a way as to reach a culture more likened to the fictional town of Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show and since our culture is very different than that of Mayberry, we might need to think a little different as well.
Trusting: Wrestling with the Call
Whatever you understand the doctrine of the church to be, the Redemptive Mission of God must be threaded throughout that doctrine. As a church, you have been called to be salt and light, conduits of God’s redemptive grace. Through word and deed, you proclaim that Jesus Christ has died and has risen and that changes everything.
This is the call we have received. Abraham was a called man too and you can read about that call in chapter 12 where Abraham began to answer that call. Our passage this morning, chapter 15, picks up after Abraham, who was still then called Abram, has rescued his nephew Lot from four kings holding him captive. Abram also freed the king of Sodom who then wanted to give him all of the goods. But Abram had sworn an oath to God to not except anything from the king of Sodom. So chapter 15 begins with in v. 1 with God promising to be Abram’s “shield.” This makes Abram aware again of the God’s call to blessing he has received. But Abram wonders how God can fulfill this calling without any children. Thus Abram says to God in v. 2-3, “‘Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.’” 
Abram does not understand how God is going to fulfill his promise if Abram is without children. He has been given a call to go to a land where God will bless him and make him into a great nation. But he cannot see at the present how this is going to work. So he suggests a servant. In Ancient Near Eastern cultures when a man had no child to become his heir, a slave would be adopted into the family to become the heir. However, to settle for a slave essentially boils down to this: Abram has received this call into the blessing of God but since he cannot see at the present time how God is going to fulfill his promise, he will instead trust himself and adopting a slave. It is a wrestling match, can Abram trust God to fulfill his promise or will he take matters into his own hands?
There are many churches that hear a call from God to an elaborate vision but since they cannot see how God is will fulfill that promise beyond the limitations of the unwritten expectations of how church is done, they trust only in that default mode that says adopt a slave. We like this default mode because we know how to do it and there is certainly less risk in the default mode than there is opening ourselves up to something completely outside the invisible box called the human mind.
Envisioning: Accepting the Call
When people of faith find themselves in this type of match, the real question is whether they can accept God’s vision or will they settle for their own mediocre visions. Those who learn to trust God accept God’s vision. The rest simply settle for what is conceivable and digestible to the human mind, which always becomes a mediocre vision. Can Abram accept God’s vision? Can God’s people accept God’s vision?
In our passage, Abram has suggested the adoption of a servant to inherit the blessing God has called Abram too. But God will not accept such mediocrity. Listen to conversation that takes place between Abram and God, beginning in v. 4:
Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man [Abram’s servant] will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
God gave Abram a vision that he cannot possibly understand. It is something that just seems too good to be true. In fact it is a vision that will not even reach its fulfillment in Abram’s lifetime. It is a God-size vision, not some mediocre goal that can be accomplished on Abram’s own human ingenuity. Such a vision required Abram to think in completely new ways. Such a vision required Abram to accept a new means for fulfilling such a vision. God-size visions require God’s people to think in new ways and accept a new way for the blessing of fulfillment.
We are told in v. 6 of this passage that Abram believed God. That word ‘believed’ can be sort of misleading. For Abram to believe did not mean he understood. The word in Hebrew translated as ‘believed’ is the word from which our English word ‘Amen’ comes from. Abram is essentially saying to God ‘so be it! I accept your vision on your terms.’ In the conversation, after Abram is credited with accepting God’s vision he asks God how he can know that this vision will be fulfilled. So God takes Abram through this covenant ritual with these animals that probably will only make sense to someone who has lived in Abram’s cultural context. This is followed by God coming to Abram in a dream and telling him how this vision will be fulfilled.
Obeying: Living Out the Call
Once Abram learns to trust God and accept this blessing and vision that God has called him too, the only question remaining is whether Abram will be faithfully obedient to that call. If you read on in the book of Genesis you will read just how obedient Abraham was. And if you read the entire Bible you will read just how faithful God was to his promise. In this passage however, Abram’s act of obedience – the test of trust and acceptance of God’s call – came not in what he did but in what he did not do. Abram was ready to adopt a servant to become his heir but God told him no. For Abram to truly trust God to fulfill something bigger than his mind could conceive and something beyond what Abram would see completed in his lifetime, he had to refuse the temptation to settle for the conventional method. And this is what he did.
I believe that God has called his people to a vision that is bigger than our wildest imaginations can conceive. Just as with Abram, the calling is so big that it can only be fulfilled by God which requires our unyielding trust and obedience to God. God is calling us to refuse our reliance on the conventional means of fulfilling our mission as his church (which requires very little help, if any, from God). In turn, God is calling us to trust him and be obedient to him by opening ourselves up to ways that will test the boundaries of our imaginative ability to dream and comprehensive ability to understand.
God called Abram to a vision that was beyond his ability to fulfill on his own. That vision blew out the rule book. All of my life I have seen churches allow God’s vision to be hijacked by all these unwritten rules that dictate what church should be…rules that keep us centered around a building, rules that emphasize the necessity of programs and organized classes, rules that dictate worship in an auditorium like setting which necessitates certain people for certain service, rules that relegated evangelism to a craftily-worded four-track Bible study. How did the first-century church ever manage to be a grass-roots revolutionary force without all of these rules? Are any of these rules necessarily wrong? Probably not! But at some point these rules became our master. Countless energy is spent to get people to the building and maintain that building; countless energy is spent to organize, staff, and efficiently operate programs and classes; countless energy is spent trying to plan worship and find the right people to serve and facilitate that worship; countless energy is spent trying to evangelize our community…wait a minute…the energy ran out and our primary calling to be witnesses of Jesus who proclaim the good news of the kingdom through word and deed became lost in all the other operational tasks we are occupied with.
This model of doing church requires a large membership, a large budget, often a multi-pastoral staff, and definitely an adequate size physical plant as the operation base. I have witnessed many small churches struggle mightily to do church under this model. Though such a model may work for congregations, in my estimation this model not only cripples a small church from living out the mission of God, it also is suited best for a culture and era that is quickly fading in North America. For the church to accept God’s vision it must learn to shed these rules that tell us to adopt a slave when God wants to give us a much better means at living out his vision. The biblical church is a distinct community of relationships, relationships with God and each other. Such relationships call us into worship and fellowship with God and each other. We thereby exist as people sanctified by God and sent into the world to transform it through holy living, prayer, building relationship in the community, and proclaiming Jesus through word and deed. What if we could learn see past these unwritten rules that seem to have more in common with an adopted slave? What if we instead entrusted ourselves to God to fulfill his calling to vision?
Tomorrow, January 21st is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It is a day in which we remember a man who refused to accept the expectations of society. Though we know the fight against discrimination is not over, there was a time when hate-filled people could adorn themselves in a white hood and gown and use a hang-man’s noose to intimidate, segregate, and violate the African American community – and do so with the blessing of the local governments. The Klu-Klux-Klan became a symbol of power that told the African-American community how it should be. But Dr. King refused to accept such mediocre expectations. Not because he had the power to change society himself but because believed in God and believed God had a much bigger vision for humanity, a vision of equality. It was a vision that Dr. King could only describe, in his now famous speech, I Have a Dream. It was a vision bigger than him and one that could only be fulfilled by God who called him forth to embrace such a vision.
God is calling us to a vision bigger than we can ever completely conceive. May we be like Abram, like Dr. King, and all those before us who were brave enough to hear the call and trust God by obediently answering that call!
 For a more detailed discussion about this concept of church see Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers and Erina, Australia: Strand Publishing, 2003), 53-59.