God of the Impossible

Genesis 17

May 12, 1996 | Ray Pritchard

J. Hudson Taylor, pioneer missionary to China, said these words: “There are three stages in any great work attempted for God: impossible, difficult, done.” I was reminded of those words this week when I visited Bob and Marty Briner in Greenville, Illinois. Bob and Marty once attended the church I pastored in Garland, Texas, and have remained friends across the years.

Thursday over the supper table Marty asked about my family. Then she asked me about the Christian school. It was a timely question because in just a few days we wrap up the first year at Oak Park Christian Academy. It is hard to believe how quickly things have happened. After all, it was only 27 months ago that Cliff Raad, Bruce Lavenau, Lois Catrambone and I met in my office to discuss the possibility of starting a Christian school in Oak Park. From those first few exploratory meetings came a task force which became the first school board which led to the opening of enrollment in February 1995. And that led to the opening of the school last September.

I think the crisis of faith came last July when we only had 5 students enrolled with five weeks until the first day of school. At that point the school board faced a major decision: Should we go ahead or not? They decided that they believed God wanted the school open so they decided to go ahead even if no other students enrolled. That seemed to be the turning point because other students soon came aboard and the school opened with 19 students. At the present time the school has 25 students who plan to come next year. They expect that number to rise to between 40 and 50 by August.

It hasn’t been easy, in fact in many ways it’s been harder than we expected. I told Bob and Marty that if we had known how hard it would be to start a school from scratch, we probably would never have done it. But God has been faithful every step of the way.

He Starts With the Impossible

I think most things in God’s work get started in exactly the same way. When God wants to do something big, he starts with something very small. When he wants to do the miraculous, he starts with the impossible. After all, when he sent his Son to the world, he didn’t send him to New York or Chicago or even to Rome. He sent him to a little village called Bethlehem. God loves to start small because then he can show his power in a mighty way. He also is the only one who gets the credit because most of us don’t want the credit for small beginnings. We’d rather start big and go from there.

When God wants to do the miraculous, he starts with the impossible.

No so with our Heavenly Father. He starts with the impossible and then turns it into reality. That of course is the whole story of Abraham’s life. Here is a man whom God found in paganism in Ur of the Chaldees. He’s 75 years old and has no children. God promised this old man that he would have so many descendants that they would be like the stars in the sky and the dust on the ground. No one would be able to count them all.

I. The Promise to Abraham (v. 1-8)

This was an incredible promise to make to an old man and we can hardly blame him if he had trouble believing it. So God repeated the promise many times across the years. Each time he added a bit more detail. First it was general—“I will make a great nation from your descendants.” Then it became specific—“You will have a son.” Then God added promises concerning the nation itself—”To your descendants will I give the land from the River of Egypt to the River Euphrates.” Finally, God “cut a covenant” with Abraham in which he made an unconditional promise to fulfill everything he had promised.

But now 24 years have passed and Abraham is 99 years old. He has no child except the son born through Hagar, his wife’s maidservant. Surely God has forgotten his promise or perhaps he has changed his mind.

Just at that moment of despair God comes again to Abraham with even more details:

1. Your name will be called Abraham—”Father of Many People.”

2. Many kings and nations will come from you.

3. I will make an everlasting covenant with your descendants.

4. I will give the whole land of Canaan to your descendants.

How could Abraham believe such an amazing statement? The answer is the name by which God introduces himself: “I am the Lord Almighty.” In the Hebrew it is El Shaddai. The phrase means something like “the God who moves mountains.” It was God’s way of saying, “Abraham, what are you worried about? I can make a mountain and I can move a mountain. If I want to, I can give you a son when you are 100 years old. This is no problem for me.”

Down South they have a saying for people who can do hard things. They say, “That’s no hill for a stepper.” It means if you’ve got big feet you can step right over the biggest hills as if they weren’t even there. The statement applies to anyone who does something difficult that other people won’t even attempt.

You think it’s hard to have a baby when you’re 100 and your wife is 90? Why, that’s no hill for a stepper. His name is El Shaddai. He can do things you and I can’t even imagine, much less attempt.

II. The Sign of the Covenant (v. 9-14)

But that’s not the whole story. Once God gave this incredible promise, he told Abraham and the other men to do something special. He ordered them to be circumcised.

In verse 11 God calls it “the sign of the covenant.” He goes on to specify several conditions regarding circumcision:

1. All male descendants were to be circumcised.

2. Circumcision should take place on the 8th day after birth.

3. Both natural-born descendants and foreign slaves were to be circumcised.

4. Anyone who refuses circumcision must be cut off from the people of God.

Of all the questions we might like to ask about this, two stand out and deserve special attention. First, why did God ask for this particular sign? Presumably he could have asked for any sign he wanted. Why pick something like circumcision? I think the answer goes something like this. Circumcision by its nature touches the very core of what it means to be a man. In his most intimate and personal moments each Jewish male would forever be reminded that he was a holy Son of the Covenant and that he belonged to God. No one else might know it but once he was circumcised, he could never forget it.

That leads to the second question. Why did God choose a sign that applied only to the men? I think the answer is that God was reminding Abraham that he was the head of his own household, and as such he had to answer to God for what happened in his own family. Circumcision meant accepting your place God’s appointed spiritual leader in your own family. It’s like a father giving his daughter away at a wedding. He stands and speaks on behalf of the whole family. The circumcised man was saying to God, “I accept the covenant you have made.” In Joshua 24:15 we have this idea expressed in a very similar fashion when Joshua exclaims, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

III. The Promise to Sarah (v. 15-16)

Lest Sarah should feel left out, God now gives several specific promises to her:

1. Her name will now be Sarah—which means “Princess.”

2. She will soon give birth to a son.

3. Through that son she will become the mother of many nations.

4. Great rulers will descend from her.

This is an vast demonstration of God’s amazing grace. The last time we saw Sarah she was urging Abraham to sleep with Hagar in order to help God out. Then she began mistreating Hagar when the girl became pregnant. It’s not a very pretty story.

God blesses us in spite of ourselves.

Yet God includes her in his promise to Abraham. Though she is far from perfect, and though her faith is very weak, she too will be included in God’s plan. It’s as if God said, “Don’t worry Sarah. I’m going to bless you in spite of yourself.” That’s often what God does, isn’t it? He blesses us in spite of ourselves.

This is one of the great themes of Abraham’s life story. Whatever God does, he does in spite of us, not because of us. This week I had occasion to read the gospel of Mark all the through in one sitting. One of the points that shines through most clearly from Mark’s story is how dense the disciples were. They can’t figure out who Jesus is, they understand his miracles, and when he tells us them “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees,” they think he’s talking about bread-making. Several times Jesus just looks at them in utter exasperation and says (I’m paraphrasing here!), “You guys are a bunch of dunderheads. Don’t you understand anything I’ve told you?” The answer is no, they didn’t understand any of it. And these are Jesus’ hand-picked men. When you read the story, you think that maybe a half-dozen drunk monkeys could choose better disciples by throwing darts at a phone book.

But these were the men he chose, and since he is God and we are not, these were the men who changed the world. We are here today because of those unlikely men. Get the principle clearly. Whatever God does, he does in spite of us, not because of us.

IV. Two Sons, Two Promises (v. 17-22)

It’s interesting and instructive to see how Abraham responded to these incredible promises. The Bible says he laughed. In fact, he fell down on the ground either in total shock or because he was laughing so hard. He didn’t believe it! He said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” (v. 17). Good questions. Generally speaking the answer is no. I can tell you for an absolute fact that this has only happened once in human history—and that took place 4000 years ago. So Abraham is on good grounds to doubt God—at least from a statistical point of view.

That’s why he brings up Ishmael. I think he’s worried that maybe God has gotten himself in over his head. After all, it’s been 24 years and Ishmael is his only son.

God responds with four statements:

1. I’m going to give you a son and you will call him Isaac.

2. He will be the son I have promised you.

3. I will bless Ishmael and make him into a great nation.

4. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac.

Then he adds one more important sentence, “Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.” Now that’s a very specific promise. After 24 years of waiting, God has pinned it down to the next twelve months. Abraham will celebrate his 100th birthday by painting the nursery and changing diapers.

God is never early and never late.

I find this whole story tremendously comforting because it drives home the point that God is never early and never late. He’s always right on time. As I thought about it, I was reminded of that famous line from the old television program Candid Camera. “Somewhere, sometime, when you least expect it, someone will say, ‘Smile, you’re on Candid Camera.’” God often seems to work on Candid Camera principle. When you least expect it, and often when you’ve given up all hope, God comes through just in the nick of time.

V. The Act of Obedience (v. 19-21)

Our story contains one final detail. After God finished speaking and left him, Abraham was circumcised. Verse 23 specifies that it happened “on that very day.” This is instant obedience. He then had Ishmael and all the other men in his household circumcised. This is complete obedience. It was Abraham’s way of saying, “Lord, I believe every word you say is true and I’m going to believe it even if I don’t understand it.” Here is proof of Abraham’s faith: A few minutes ago he had been laughing in disbelief. Now he is circumcised to seal his dedication to God and his Word. Doubting is no sin, so long as your doubts don’t keep you from obeying God.

The Word For Today

You may rightly wonder what all this means for us today. Let me suggest several lines of application.

1. Because his name is El Shaddai he is still able to move mountains for his people. That’s why Jesus said to his disciples that through faith in God they could move mountains (Mark 11:22-24). This week I ran across this definition of faith: “Faith is telling the mountain to move and then being surprised only when it doesn’t.”

Don’t despair if you are facing a mountain today.

Don’t despair if you are facing a mountain today. Remember the words of J. Hudson Taylor: “There are three phrases in any great work for God: Impossible, difficult, done.” You may be in the impossible stage this morning. If so, don’t give up because his name is El Shaddai and nothing is impossible with him.

2. God’s call to you will sometimes require acts of obedience that may seem strange to you at the time. I’m sure Abraham may have wondered about circumcision because God didn’t explain himself at all. Let me give you a sentence to chew on: If God is in charge, we can do the difficult because he can do the impossible.

3. We all need to be circumcised today. But the circumcision God requires is the circumcision of the heart. That’s what Romans 2:28-29 clearly teaches. “A man is not a Jew is he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.”

Note this carefully: Circumcision—although it was a physical mark on the body—was never meant to be an end in itself. The physical mark was meant to be accompanied by a deep spiritual commitment to God. Where commitment was absent, circumcision soon degenerated into ritualism. That’s roughly what had happened over the centuries. By the first century many rabbis spoke of circumcision as if it were an automatic ticket to heaven. One writer said, “Circumcision saves from hell.” Another said, “All the circumcised have part in the world to come.”

Circumcision had become the supreme symbol of Jewish superiority! A man need only to be circumcised to insure his place in heaven.

A Modern Application

Although some may find this entire discussion academic, it has an incredibly relevant application to modern American church members. Many of us regard our baptism in much the same way the Jews regarded circumcision. Some churches even teach that baptism saves from sin and guarantees entrance into heaven.

To put a sharp point on it, this is one place where the practice of infant baptism may be rightly criticized. Multiplied millions of people are today putting their hope of heaven in the fact that a priest sprinkled some water on their forehead when they were a few days old. Whatever may be said in favor of infant baptism, this is the most damning indictment against it. It tends to become a religious ritual that leads many people away from saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Let us be clear on this point. All religious ritual is worthless unless something has already happened in the heart!

—Baptism cannot save you or help save you!

—The Lord’s Supper cannot save you or help save you!

—Church membership cannot save you or help save you!

—Tithing cannot save you or help save you!

—Praying twice a day cannot save you or help save you!

—Lighting candles cannot save you or help save you!

—The sacraments cannot save you or help save you!

—Religious ritual cannot save you or help save you!

Those things are not altogether bad. But to whatever extent you base your hope of eternal life upon any of those things, you are making the same mistake the Jews made 2000 years ago.

Let me say it one more way just in case you have missed the point. I can personally baptize you myself but unless you have Christ in your heart, your baptism will do you no good. In fact, I can hold you under water so long that you’ll come up singing “Amazing Grace,” but even that won’t do you any good unless Christ is in your heart.

“Daddy was a deacon.”

To return to the larger point, circumcision originally was supposed to mean, “I am dedicated to God.” Where a person was truly dedicated, it had legitimate meaning. Where they weren’t, it became a ritual without reality. In the same way, baptism is supposed to mean, “I have given my heart to Jesus Christ and he is my Savior.” When that is true, baptism is a wonderfully appropriate step of faith. When that is not true, baptism has become meaningless—and even dangerous because it may lead you to think you are a Christian when you really aren’t.

Its about your heart, not your actions.

Unfortunately, millions of people have a religion based on superstition. They put their trust in some outward factor as their hope for heaven. Such people will someday be sadly disappointed. Others trust in inherited religion: “Daddy was a deacon. Momma was a Sunday School teacher.” They act as if salvation is inherited like you inherit the color of your eyes. It doesn’t work that way when it comes to salvation. No one else can believe for you. You have to believe for yourself if you want to go to heaven.

Any Baptists in Heaven?

In one of his sermons George Whitefield tells of a strange and terrifying dream in which an angel transported him to the gates of hell. When he arrived, he cried out to the gatekeeper, “Have you any Methodists in hell?” “Oh yes, we have plenty of Methodists down here.” “Have you any Lutherans in hell?” “Plenty of Lutherans, too.” “What about Catholics?” “Hell is filled with Catholics.” “Have you any Baptists in hell?” “More than we can count.” “Have you any Presbyterians?” “By the hundreds.” With that, Whitefield sadly took his leave of hell.

Suddenly he found himself transported to the gates of heaven where he met St. Peter. “St. Peter, have you any Methodists in heaven?” “No Methodists up here.” “Have you any Catholics in heaven?” “I’m sorry to say, no Catholics have ever come this way.” “What about Presbyterians?” “No Presbyterians either.” “What about Baptists?” “Not a one in all the years I’ve been here.” “Any Lutherans?” “We have no one that answers to that name.” Finally in desperation Whitefield cried out, “Who have you in heaven then?” And the answer came back, “Christians, only Christians.”

“Are You a Believer?”

Suppose I were to ask you this question: “Are you a believer?” What would your answer be? “I’m a member of Calvary Memorial Church.” But that’s not what I asked.

Suppose I asked, “Are you born again?” What would you say? “I was baptized by Pastor Gray.” But that’s not what I asked you.

Suppose I asked, “Are you saved?” What would you say? “I was born a Catholic and I’m going to die a Catholic.” But that’s not what I asked you.

Suppose I asked, “Are you a Christian?” What would you say? “Of course I’m a Christian. After all, I was born in America.” But that’s not what I asked you.

Five Simple Words

It all boils down to this: In what are you trusting for your eternal salvation? Or to put it more accurately: In whom are you trusting to take you to heaven? After all, salvation is not a what; it’s a who. The issue is your relationship to Jesus Christ.

Let me give you five simple words that can take you all the way from earth to heaven. Here they are: Only Jesus and Jesus only. Only Jesus can save you so put your trust in Jesus only.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?