The Oldest Dad in the Nursery
May 24, 1992
Let’s start off with a bit of historic trivia. Who is oldest mother in history? I’m going to give you four choices:
Ruth Alice Kistler
None of the Above
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the correct answer is B. Ruth Alice Kistler, who gave birth to a daughter at the age of 57. In case you’re wondering, Ellen Ellis reportedly gave birth to a child at the age of 72 in the year 1776. The book calls her case “unauthenticated.”
What about Murphy Brown? It’s been a tough week for the TV-sitcom Mom. It all started last Monday night when she gave birth to a little boy. It was bad enough that millions of people were in the delivery room with her. Then she had to suffer the indignity of having her morality questioned by the Vice President of the United States who suggested that she was not a good role model for the youth of America. She did get some revenge Friday night when Johnny Carson thanked Dan Quayle for giving him so much good material for his last week on television.
In case you don’t know, Murphy Brown is both the name of a TV show and of the leading character (played by Candice Bergen). On the show, Murphy Brown—an anchorwoman at a Washington television station—becomes pregnant through an encounter with her ex-husband, who promptly tells her he is moving to Brazil to help save the rain forest. Left alone, the over-40 Murphy Brown must decide whether or not to carry the baby to term. Her decision to have the baby despite her age and her singleness became the focal point of most of the story lines during the season. The final episode last Monday night brought the cast into the delivery room where Murphy delivered a healthy baby boy. In the last scene Murphy holds her son and sings softly, “You made me feel like a natural woman.”
The Biological Clock
Although I agree with the general point Dan Quayle was making, I thought the whole episode was tastefully done. At least Murphy Brown had the baby (she could have chosen abortion). The episode also focused attention on the fact that women are waiting longer to have babies these days. It’s not unusual to see new moms in their late 30s and early 40s, and even later in life. Perhaps you remember when Connie Chung took time off from her job several years ago so she could become pregnant. Her decision to attempt to have a baby at the age of 43 or 44 was widely applauded, especially by those women who also feel their biological clock ticking faster and faster.
But the day comes for all women when they can no longer bear children. It’s a normal and natural event, a passage that marks a transition from one phase of life to another. Did you see the current issue of Newsweek(May 25, 1992)? The lead story is all about menopause and the search of “straight talk and safe treatment.” A related story notes that the change of life for most women comes somewhere between 40-55.
That makes the story of Ruth Alice Kistler all the more remarkable. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, in the history of the world there is no authentic record of a woman becoming a mother after the age of 57.
Move Over, Murphy Brown
However, I know of at least one case that makes Ruth Ann Kistler look like a teenager. It’s the story of a woman who gave birth at the age of 90. If that sounds impossible, consider this: Her husband was 100 years old. Before you write the whole thing off as some kind of fairy tale, let me assure you that this story is true. It’s found in the Bible—specifically in Genesis 17 and Genesis 21. Unlike the fictional Murphy Brown, the story of Abraham and Sarah is sober historical fact. It is the story of the oldest mother in history and the oldest dad in the nursery.
This story, told and re-told by Jews and Christians across the centuries, never fails to capture the imagination. An old man and an old woman, childless for decades, are promised by God that someday they would have a baby. Abraham responds with total honesty. He laughs out loud at the Almighty. When Sarah hears the news, she laughs too. How could such a thing happen? Twenty-five long years pass while they wait for God to keep his promise. Now he is 99 and she is 89. Surely they have hoped in vain. Suddenly when it seems like all hope is gone, God intervenes with an amazing announcement: By this time next year you will have a child. Somehow God imparts life to two tired, worn-out bodies, and one year later a son is born. His name is Isaac, which means “laughter.”
Although the people at the Guinness Book of World Records didn’t see fit to include the story of Isaac’s birth, they should have, because the story is completely authenticated in the Word of God.
As Paul comes to the end of his study of the life of Abraham, he climaxes his discussion by examining the miracle of Isaac’s birth. His purpose is easy to see. Throughout Romans 4, Paul has said repeatedly that Abraham was saved by faith. But what kind of faith did Abraham have? Although his outstanding faith is seen at many points in his life, Paul fastens onto the faith that led to the birth of his son. That faith, Paul says, is
what God credited to him as righteousness.
Our text divides into two parts: First, Paul analyzes Abraham’s faith (4:18-22); then he applies Abraham’s faith to our situation today (4:23-25).
I. An Analysis of Abraham’s Faith
The apostle describes the scene this way: “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.’ 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. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why ’it was credited to him as righteousness.’” From these verses we discover five facts about Abraham’s faith.
1. Faith in God’s Promise
What was the promise that Abraham believed? Verse 18 specifies that God promised to make him “father of many nations.” This must have seemed incredible to a 75-year old man with no children. 75 is a little late to be starting a family, and even if you could, how could you ever start a nation? No, the promise was clearly impossible, a pipe dream, a vain hope, wishful thinking by an old man. Nothing more.
But somehow Abraham found it within himself to believe what God had said. If you go back to Genesis, you find that God repeated the promise 5 times—in Genesis 12, 13, 15, 17, 21. It’s as if God is saying, “I know you find this hard to believe, so I’m going to repeat myself until you believe it.”
Verse 18 tells us how he did it. Abraham “hoped against all hope.” The Cottonpatch Version says it this way, “He kept the faith even when the cards were stacked against him.” It has the idea of hoping even when all human reason for hope is gone.
A Thousand Excuses
When you think about it, there’s only one way Abraham could have kept on believing for all those years. He was God-centered, not man-centered. His life had a vertical focus, not a horizontal focus . As long as he looked at his circumstances, he could find a thousand reasons to give up:
“I’m too old.”
“She’s too old.”
“Nothing like this has ever happened before.”
“We’re tried to have a baby for years and it hasn’t worked.”
“Our friends think we’re nuts.”
His only hope was to believe the promise of God. He did … and after 25 years his faith was rewarded.
2. Faith based on the bare Word of God and nothing else
This is always where faith meets the acid test. Are you willing to believe God even when the outward circumstances argue against it? Abraham was. Where would he find any encouragement? From his friends? Forget it. From Sarah? She thought it was a cruel joke. From his father Terah? He was dead. From his nephew Lot? No luck there. While Abraham was grappling with God’s promise, Lot was playing games down in Sodom. So where would he get encouragement? Not from any human being—living or dead. Abraham had no one to encourage him.
So how did he find the strength to go on? I am reminded of the words of I Samuel 30:6 written hundreds of years later concerning one of Abraham’s descendents. “But David found strength in the Lord his God.” That’s what Abraham did. When all else argued against it, Abraham found strength in the Lord himself.
Here is a marvelous principle of the spiritual life. God wants to bring us to the place where our trust will be in him alone. He brings us to that place by removing all human supports. From time to time we find ourselves in a position where no one but God can help us out. In that moment, our tendency is to panic. That’s unfortunate because when we get to a place where only God can help us out, we’ve become excellent candidates for a miracle from God.
Jerry Hansen’s Five Stages of Panic
My good friend Jerry Hansen pointed this out to me a few years ago when all the human supports were pulled out from under my life and for a few critical weeks I found myself suspended in mid-air, waiting to crash to the ground. During those days Jerry called me up and shared something that I call Jerry Hansen’s Five Stages of Panic.
Stage # 1: “I know God will take care of me.” This is that brave moment at the beginning of the crisis when faith fills your heart and in full assurance you proclaim that God has the power to pull you out of the mess you’re in. You smile a lot, you whistle, you laugh, you joke because you know it won’t be long before the miracle comes.
Stage # 2: “I think God will take care of me.” The second stage kicks in after about a week. You’re still smiling, you’re still laughing but not as much now. You still believe in the miracle but God seems to be taking his sweet time getting around to it. As the days pass, little arrows of doubt find their way into your heart, but you rush to pull them out. “Any day now,” you say, “Any day now.”
Stage # 3: “I hope God will take care of me.” Now you’ve been in this crisis for a month or more. The smile is gone, the laughter dies on your lips, the jokes seem forced. Deep in your heart you’re beginning to plan for the worst. What-ifs fill your mind and cloud your confidence. Satan seems to have appointed a demon to sit on your shoulder and make fun of you. Still, in your better moments you believe God can come through for you, but your doubt is almost as big as your faith.
Stage # 4:
“Ain’t no way God will take care of me.” You hit the fourth stage not long after the third stage. At this point doubt has won the battle and faith has been routed from the field. Anger and despair replace hope and joy. It’s all over now, and you’ve lost. What a fool you were to trust in God! He never meant to help you. Filled with recrimination and accusations, you lower the flag and give up. You’ve been beaten.
Stage # 5: “I don’t know how he did it, but God took care of me!” This is always the final step. Somehow, someway God took care of you. You got the job, you found the money, you made that phone call, you forgave the unforgivable, you battled back from the bottom, and now you’re on your way to the top again. How did it happen? As you look back, you’re not sure. You are sure of only one thing: God did it! You had nothing to do with it.
My friend Jerry Hansen makes one point about these five stages. In the really big crises of life, God almost always takes us all the way to stage four before he delivers us. Why? So that when he delivers us he alone gets the glory.
That’s what happened to Abraham. No one could look at him and say, “Abraham, you old devil.” No one could say, “Sarah, you’re really a hot number.” She stopped being a Golden Girl about 25 years ago. God took Abraham to stage four (it took 25 years to get there), and then he gave him a son. No way for Abraham to take credit. God did it!
3. Faith in the face of impossible circumstances
Here we come to the heart of the matter. Abraham believed in spite of humanly impossible circumstances. Notice how verse 19 puts it: “Without weakening in 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.” I love that expression—”He faced the fact.” In every crisis you eventually have to face the facts head on. You can’t run from reality. If it’s cancer, then you have to face the fact. If it’s divorce, then that’s what it is. If it’s the loss of a job, then you’ve got to face the facts. You can run and hide and stick your head in the sand. That’s won’t do any good. Faith doesn’t avoid the facts; faith faces them and then reacts to the facts on the basis of the Word of God. Faith doesn’t say, “This isn’t happening to me.” That’s not faith; that’s pure fantasy. Faith says, “This is happening to me. But this isn’t God’s final word on the subject.” Faith believes that beyond the crisis a better day is waiting to be born. Faith believes that there is more than meets the eye. Faith “sees” things that are invisible to the naked eye.
Abraham faced two unavoidable facts:
His body was dead.
Sarah’s womb was dead.
On both sides of the equation, Abraham faced an absolute impossibility. On a human level, he was too old. Period. End of discussion. Case closed. To put it bluntly, Abraham was impotent and Sarah was 45 years past menopause. Unless God did a double miracle, no baby would be born.
John Calvin summarized the matter well when he said that Abraham and Sarah were closer to the grave than to the marriage bed.
Abraham faced that fact, and decided to believe God anyway. Many of you know the old chorus that puts this truth into simple words:
Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees,
And looks to God alone.
Laughs at impossibilities
And cries, “It shall be done.”
4. Faith that is unwavering.
The text indicates this in several ways: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed” … “Without weakening in faith” … “He did not waver through unbelief” … “Being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.” We might sum up his reaction to his impossible situation in two ways:
He didn’t look for reasons to doubt God.
He praised God for the blessing before it ever happened.
So many of us fail the test right here. When a crisis comes, we look for reasons to doubt God. All that inner pessimism comes out in the moment of difficulty. Some of us go right to Stage 4: “Ain’t no way God will take care of me.” How much better to begin in Stage 5 by praising God for his answer before the answer even comes. That’s what Abraham did.
You say, “Do you mean that Abraham never doubted?” Not at all. Genesis 17 says that when he heard the news that he was going to have a child, he fell on the ground and started laughing. Later on, Sarah did the same thing. It seemed like some cruel cosmic joke played on two old people to make them look foolish.
Listen carefully. Abraham had his doubts. That’s natural. Who wouldn’t. He was a man, not a plaster saint. He had his doubts but he didn’t dwell on them. That’s why we’re talking about him today. Sure, he had doubts. Doubting isn’t a sin. It’s what you do with your doubts that makes a difference. You either fight through you doubts or you give in to them. It’s just that simple. Faith is always a struggle, always a battle, always a conflict. If faith were easy to come by, it wouldn’t be faith.
The point is, Abraham doubted and wondered what God was up to … but he never gave up!
“I wonder if God is kidding me?”
Abraham was 75 years old when he received the first promise from God. He was 100 years old when Isaac was finally born. I wonder what he was doing during that 25 year period? I wonder if it went something like this:
76 — Buys a crib
78 — Makes a list of possible boys’ names
80 — Orders super-absorbent Pampers
82 — Stocks up on Gerber’s Strained carrots and peas
85 — Goes hunting while Sarah’s friends give her a baby shower
86 — Puts up wallpaper in the baby’s room
90 — Subscribes to New Parents magazine
93 — He and Sarah start Lamaze classes
96 — Drives a practice run to the hospital
98 — Packs the bags and puts them by the door of the tent
99 — Scratches his head and says, “I wonder if God was kidding me.”
Is that possible? Sure, it’s possible! Abraham believed and doubted at the same time.
5. Faith that acts.
We come now to the climax of the story. Abraham believed to the point of action. Would you like one simple proof of that fact? Abraham did something that must have seemed truly ridiculous before Isaac was born. He changed his name. In the beginning, his name was Abram, which meant “Exalted father.” That in itself was a kind of cruel joke since he wasn’t a father at all until Ishmael was born at the age of 86. But now he changes his name to Abraham, which means “Father of many nations.” But note the chronology. He changed his name not only before Isaac was born, but before Isaac was even conceived. He changed his name while his body was still dead and Sarah’s womb was still closed. He said, “I am about to become the father of many nations, so that’s what I’ll call myself.” That’s faith! If his friends thought he was crazy before, now they think he’s certifiably nuts. But that’s Abraham. His faith moved him to action.
Which brings me back to the familiar definition: Faith is belief plus unbelief and acting on the belief part. Faith is not 100% certainty. Faith means seeing the promise and the problems, and then deciding to act on the promise even before you see it fulfilled. Faith doesn’t wait. Faith acts. It takes the proverbial leap into the dark. If God’s not there, you’re in for a fast ride to the rocks below. If he is there, then you’ll be okay. But you’ll never know till you jump.
The Humble Bagel
How many of you recognize what I’m holding in my hand? That’s right. It’s a bagel. I bought it at Great American Bagels about 6:30 A.M. this morning. The humble bagel is one of God’s greatest creations. You make it by first dipping the dough in boiling water and then cooking it. You can get bagels in almost every flavor—onion, garlic, rock salt, pumpernickel, poppy-seed, or in trendy flavors like apple-cinnamon, banana-nut, or chocolate chip. (As a side note, I should tell you that there is nothing better on a Saturday morning than a toasted bagel covered with cream cheese.)
Bagels are a uniquely Jewish creation. You will find them almost everywhere in the world because you can find Jewish people almost everywhere. And where do the Jews come from? Israel, you say. Yes, that’s right. But before that. They come from Abraham. The same Abraham I’ve been talking about today.
Four thousand years ago God made a promise to a very old man with a very old wife. He promised to give them a son and through that son to bring into being a great nation of people. The first Jewish father was Abraham and the first Jewish mother was Sarah. There are 15 million Jews in the world today. All of them ultimately descended from that old man and that old woman.
Look it up in the phone book if you don’t believe me. You’ll find Goldberg, Goldstein, Goldblum, and Goldblatt and hundreds of other Jewish names.
And the bagel? It’s a symbol of God’s faithfulness! As unlikely as it may seem, there is a direct line from Abraham to the bagel I hold in my hand. After all the attempts to destroy them—from the pogroms to the Holocaust—The Jews are still here. And they’re still making bagels for the world!
Proof positive that God keeps his promises.
That leads me to ask a simple question. Where is God stretching your faith right now? Where would be it easier for you to doubt God than to believe him? As you think about those questions, ponder the story of Abraham and Sarah. God put it in the Bible for at least two reasons:
—So that we will know that God always keeps his promises.
—So that we will never stop believing even though we have to wait a long time for God to answer our prayers.
II. The Application of Abraham’s Faith
Paul now wraps up his story of Abraham’s faith by applying it directly to you and to me. The story of Abraham is not just for him nor is it simply an ancient account of how God used to work. No, this story is written in the Bible for our instruction. The God of Abraham is our God too.
The particular application Paul stresses has to do with the way of salvation. In verses 24-25 we have the Christian gospel in its most compact form. Martin Luther said that in these two verses “the whole of Christianity is comprehended.”
1. The Way of Salvation 23-24
“The words ’it was credited to him’ were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” Righteousness, Paul says, comes by faith. That’s how Abraham found it; that’s how we find it. Not by works nor by any religious ceremony, but by simple faith in Jesus Christ whom God raised from the dead. When we believe in Jesus, God “credits” our account with Jesus’ righteousness.
2. The Ground of Salvation 25
Paul adds a most important word in verse 25 lest anyone think that faith in general saves. Not so! The only faith that saves us is faith that is grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “He was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification.” Here is a crucial point. The Christian faith rests ultimately on the reality of two events that actually happened 2000 years ago. One is the death of Christ on the cross; the other is the resurrection of Christ from the dead. The first paid for your sins; the second guaranteed your right standing before God. Chuck Swindoll explains the meaning in verse 25 this way:
Man owed God a debt for his transgressions that he could not repay. However the Lord, who is both just and merciful, sent His Son to pay man’s debt. Jesus Christ took the bill in His hand and paid it in full on Calvary. The payment was made by His own blood. Three days after He was buried in a tomb, Jesus rose from the dead and presented the bill as paid to His Father. The Lord stamped it Paid in Full and gave His Son the receipt. Thus, any person who believes that Jesus died for his sin and rose from the dead for his justification is secure forever. The Son has the receipt to prove it!
The only question that remains is, Have you accepted what Jesus Christ has done for you? The answer to that question is the difference between Heaven and Hell, salvation and condemnation, eternal life and eternal death.
He Took My Hell
Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse used to say that he could summarize Christianity in three sentences:
I deserved Hell.
Jesus took my Hell.
There’s nothing left for me but his Heaven.
One final word and then we close our study of Romans 1-4. It would be a terrible shame to complete this series of messages and have anyone walk away unsure about where they stand with God. That’s why Paul wrote Romans—so you could be sure about your relationship with God.
If you are willing to do what Abraham did, you can be saved.
Are you willing to believe the promise of God?
Are you willing to act upon that promise?
Heaven is as close as your answer to those questions. All that God asks is that you stake your life forever upon Jesus Christ. Nothing more needs to be added. Nothing more could be added. Jesus paid the price for your salvation. Now the time has come to act.
Here is a simple prayer you can pray. “Lord Jesus, I freely confess my sinful condition. I know I cannot hide the truth from you. All the good things I have done are as filthy rags in your sight. Thank you for dying on the cross for me. Thank you for bearing the penalty for my sin. I do believe you rose from the dead on the third day. Thank you for providing your righteousness in the place of my sin. Here and now I trust you completely for my salvation. Come into my heart and be my Savior. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.
God help you to pray that prayer and then to believe that God has heard and answered you.