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Sunday, 30 November 2014

Abraham the Backpacker

Abraham is one character I have always admired in the Old Testament. Maybe because he comes over as a very ordinary person, with fears, doubts and anxieties - and not with a heroism matching a faith superstar, nor as a "super-spiritual" who finds it easy to keep temptation out of his head and to abstain from every form of sinning. Abraham never had the opportunity to be "super-spiritual" - you may know of the kind - the one who shun the beach because of the presence of bikini-clad women, avoid the fairground for its worldly pleasures, and also staying away from the theatre as being the hub of sensuality, the one who keeps a record library of traditional hymns and spiritual songs as well as classical music, but with not a single rock, pop, or soul record to be found among his collection, and definitely no television in his house. The only secular books he would allow his children to read are educational. And glossy magazines? Don't even think about them! Such a person would find making and keeping friends very difficult indeed! Respect? Yes, to a certain extent. Intimacy would be a different matter altogether. Pie in the sky? I have met men who came close to such criteria. And one of them was kicked out of church eldership for committing adultery.

Nomadic Abraham had none of these modern conveniences, but he was a real person with real feelings. The Scripture tells us that he did throw a party to celebrate the weaning of his son Isaac (Genesis 21:8) and no doubt, there was music and entertainment. Yet we read that God, by sovereign grace, had chosen him, loved him, and most important of all, acquitted him from all sin and imputed his own righteousness - just for believing that he will be a birth father one day. Yet we read at least on two occasions his fears and apprehensions when it came to foreign travel. He believed that both the Egyptian king, and some time later the king of Gerah, were about to take his wife Sarah to add to their harem, so in fear of being killed, he lied to them, calling her his sister and practically disowning her, and that despite God's already revealed promises. To add to this, the 15th chapter of Genesis opens with God calming his fears. Reading about various points in is life, it doesn't seem too difficult to see that Abraham had a fear of the future, a lack of trust in other people, and the feeling of uncertainty in his heart, and he would have had to learn, bit by bit, how to trust in the Lord who initially called him from his comfy home in Shinar.
We read how he was encouraged by his father Terah's presence as he journeyed west to Canaan, and after the death of his father, he found security in the company of his nephew Lot by his side, along with his wife and his two daughters. So secure had he felt towards Lot and his family that God allowed a shortage of resources to occur between uncle and nephew, forcing them to dwell apart, with Lot choosing the lush valley surrounding Sodom. Abraham had to learn to lean on God rather than on family members.
In a sense, Abraham was well suited to his nomadic lifestyle. No doubt that way of living was free from the complexities that affect our way of life, such as fuel bills, getting into debt, taxes, mortgage payments, rent, the daily commute, holding down a job, threat of redundancy, the need for higher education, unemployment, and so forth. Abraham had none of all that, but neither did he have what we call the Bible today. Instead, his faith was entirely dependent on repeated revelations from God.

Although Abraham was generally fearful, I had wondered whether the simple nomadic life was more fulfilling than the complex lifestyles that exist at present, with all the mod-cons. Ever since I bought a laptop computer and had it connected to the Internet, it became a gadget I couldn't do without. Yet I was in my late fifties at the time I first bought it. How on earth did I manage all those years without the Internet? Yet I did. Activities such as participation in competitive sports like the Triathlon (Swim, Cycle, and Run) allowed me to get out of doors during the weekend, as well as being a paid-up member of a triathlon club, where we were just as committed to the Friday night social as the training programmes themselves. Other times, when there was nothing worth watching on TV, often I poured into reading books, both fiction and non-fiction, and this in itself became a prerequisite for future blogging, as well as grasping on general knowledge I missed out on at school.

Travel was something both Abraham and I had in common, along with the need for both of us depending on God's protection. I needed God's protection at the time I walked through East 7th Street of Los Angeles one evening in 1995, on my way to the Greyhound Bus Station from Santa Monica, carrying a rucksack, while gangs of Afro-Caribbeans lolled around the front doors of their homes. And divine protection I received, for although some characters looked shady, no-one batted an eyelid at me. In turn, on two occasions, Abraham feared being killed, and had his wife Sarah taken from him, he was weary of Canaanite inhabitants surrounding his camp, yet he was brave enough to rescue Lot from invading marauding forces and with God's help, defeated them and repopulated the captured city of Sodom.

Where travel is concerned, I can compare flying halfway round the world with long distance hiking.  I have found by experience that long distance hiking, cross-country cycling, and national and international train travel were no less fulfilling than air travel. As a matter of fact, I have found slow surface travel to be more exhilarating than sitting cocooned inside an airtight bottle several miles above ground. Little wonder that planning a holiday or vacation can be stressful, what with the need of having correct documents, tickets, long queues at airports, tight security including body search, flight delays and cancellations, industrial disputes, threat of illness, overbooked hotels, all eating into the joy of travel. All Abraham did was to un-pitch his tent, load it on a donkey, and move to fresh fertile ground. He must have done quite well. There are at least seven hundred miles 1,134 km between his home town of Ur of the Chaldeans and the Jebusite city of Jerusalem. That's the equivalent of hiking from London UK to Genova, well within the boundary of Italy. Not to mention various hikes up and down the land of Canaan, making his travels closer to a thousand miles.

Here is the irony. When Abraham and his fellow campers felt they had to move on for the want of fresh pasture, they simply packed everything away and moved on. None of the bureaucratic hassle which accompanies modern travel. But just a threat of an air strike, or a sneeze, or even the possibility of rain at the holiday destination, and we're prone to panic. A few years ago, thousands of foreign holidays were wiped out as a result of a volcanic eruption in Iceland. This being Britain, I hardly heard a murmur in the streets, but I wouldn't mind betting that behind closed doors there was much distress coming out of would-be travellers. Or going back to 1978, when the French Air Traffic Control strike crippled all flights across Europe. As I was at the departure gate waiting to board the unaffected flight to New York, there was a roaring, blood curdling scream echoing through the wide airport corridor. A young man, about my age, was told through the tannoy to return to the departure lounge, having spent the previous night walking back and forth to the gate from the lounge due to a series of false calls to board the 'plane for Spain. As I boarded my own flight, I watched a very sorry looking crowd of people saunter dismally once more back to the lounge. Just as well I paid more for a flight to New York. At least my airline took off right on time.

As he would have trekked across the wide hot desert on a train of camels, along with his family, servants, and all his livestock, I wonder how Abraham would have made of it all had he witnessed the ins and outs of modern travel? To add to all this, our dependence on TV, radio, the Internet, not to mention hospitals, along with mountains of highly sophisticated knowledge of science, mathematics, and other subjects. Then there is the matter of Holy Scripture. I cannot be dogmatic in saying that Abraham had no access to the Bible, as it was not yet written. He could have possessed the scroll, or a copy of a scroll detailing the lives of his ancestors, from Adam and Eve to Noah, the global deluge, and the ancestry of his family line and those of other nations. In other words, what we read as the early chapters of Genesis, most likely written by Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Genesis 10:1) in order to preserve the record of their ancestry for future generations. Therefore, I would say that the only way for Abraham's faith to grow would have been by direct revelation from God himself. A good example of this was the appearance of three men to announce to him that his wife Sarah will give birth to a son in about a year from their visit (Genesis 18.)

I guess we are the far more fortunate ones. We have the entire Bible, within containing the Three Powerful Witnesses (see my last blog) as well as the life and works of Jesus Christ told four times, the history of the beginnings and rise of the early church, and all the letters written by the apostles. Abraham had none of these. In Genesis 15:1, God had to reassure Abraham personally not to fear or be anxious, for God himself is his shield. Without the Bible, the only way God spoke to him was most likely audibly. Abraham never had the chance to read these precious words that were promised to us:

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, gracious give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those who God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died - more than that, who was raised to life - is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:31-39.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
2 Corinthians 5:18-19.

That is wonderful news. If only Abraham knew how much he was in Christ as we are, for he was equally acquitted. I'm so thankful to God that we have easy access to the entire Bible in one book, and not row upon row of separate scrolls, as was the time of Christ and the apostles. We have the best things God can offer, not only in the spiritual realm but also in the physical realm. I have always been thankful to the Lord for giving me the privilege of world travel, as far wide as California at one end, and Australia at the other. But even more fulfilling were the trips I made to the Holy Land. Imagine how it felt like staying at a backpacker's hostel in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, an area so familiar to Jesus Christ and the apostles. Imagine what it was like standing inside the Dome of the Rock and touching the very stone where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son Isaac, and then hearing God call out from Heaven. Imagine how Solomon's Temple might have looked on that very site, and the Second Temple at the time of Jesus.

God was with Abraham throughout his life. Even before he was born, God knew him. God knew him before the world itself was made and Adam was still dust on the ground. Yet despite all of the patriarch weaknesses, God had never forsaken him. Abraham was as much once saved always saved as we are.

If God took so much care of Abraham, even to the site of his burial, would he not be the same with us? That is grace, wonderful grace. Knowing that God loves us in Christ Jesus, he does not impute sin, but imputes the righteousness of Christ in us. That's why we can never ever be lost again. The righteousness of Christ, setting us free from the burden of trying to keep the Law. My own experience that if I perform to "stay saved" or to "remain in Christ by staying faithful" - then I am back under the Law. That is, I must perform to stay saved, there is something I must do, that is, to endure. Under such thinking I'm doomed to failure, simply because that even if I keep the Law, but stumble at just one point, then I have broken the entire Law, and doomed for judgement (James 2:10). Rather, in Christ I'm loved unconditionally, saved forever in my Father's arms.

Even if I don't act like it. Even if I get angry at someone. Even if I curse and swear. Even if I tell a dirty joke. Even if I watch porn on TV, on the Internet, or browse through glossy magazines. Even if I gaze at the bikini-clad female sunbathing on the beach. Even if I spend a day at the fun fair. Even when I prefer hard rock music to hearing spiritual songs. Even when feeling depressed. In Jesus Christ I'll be forever in my Father's arms, safe and secure.

But wait! Doesn't the New Testament exhort us to lead holy lives?

That is for the next blog.  


  1. Dear Frank,
    You did a marvelous job of fleshing out Abraham as portrayed in the Old Testament and bringing him off the page into our imaginations. It always amazes me how God chose Abraham from a pagan nation, asking him to step out on faith leaving a great deal behind, and that Abraham did so. It was a transformative journey, starting with his doubts that God could protect him, leading to him lying and subjecting his wife to the likelihood of sexual advances by others because he was afraid for his own safety. He and Sarah both then doubted that God would keep His promise of a child in their old age. Yet finally his faith was so strong that he was willing to place Isaac on the altar, knowing that God would keep His promise to make Abraham the father of a great nation through Isaac. His faith was counted to him for righteousness, which is still true for all believers.
    Thanks for the great post -- looking forward to the next one!
    God bless,

  2. Great post, Frank.

    I Corinthians 1 Tells us God has not chosen the educated, the beautiful, the rich or powerful to do his will. Instead he chose the common ordinary people such as Abraham, a fisherman like Peter, or a tentmaker like Paul. One can only wonder how much of our present day focus on the "super Christian" model is actually counterproductive.