Hope for Tomorrow: How God Keeps His Promises
October 6, 2002
This is the 19th and final sermon in the series on Genesis 1-11 that we started in late April. Almost five and a half months later, we have come to the end. In bringing this series to a close, I feel as if I should congratulate the congregation for your patience and your perseverance because this is the longest series I have preached in the 13 years I have been your pastor. In the olden days, when I was younger and perhaps not as wise as I am now, I tended to preach much longer series. I recall that after graduating from Dallas Seminary in 1978, I went to my first church in Downey, California and preached for two solid years from the book of Acts. Those dear saints will receive some sort of reward in heaven, I’m sure, for having given new meaning to the term “long-suffering.” And just to show that I had not learned much from that experience, I turned around and preached over 70 sermons from the book of Hebrews.
But we all live and learn, and we come to understand that the mind can only absorb what the body can endure. So for my years at Calvary I have chosen to preach shorter series, and it has seemed to be a good decision. But I broke that self-imposed rule this time, and I’m glad I did. I hope you are too. There are few sections of Scripture more crucial for us to understand than the first 11 chapters of Genesis. This is where the story of the Bible begins. And this is where we first come to understand who God is, who we are, where we come from, how we were created, what it means to be made in God’s image, how sin entered the world, and how the earliest civilization spread across the earth. From these chapters come the foundational doctrines of the Bible—God, man, sin, judgment, grace, salvation, forgiveness, and the first promise of the coming of the Messiah, later to be revealed as the Lord Jesus Christ. In these chapters we learn about marriage, the family, the course of temptation, the dangers of anger, jealousy, sexual lust, drunkenness, idolatry and pride. We learn something about the power of Satan to deceive us, the power of temptation to overcome us, the power of sin to destroy us, and the power of rebellion to divide us. We also learn that no matter how evil the world becomes, God always has a remnant of people who still believe in him and still call on his name. When the judgment comes, as it did in Noah’s day, that godly remnant is spared by grace. We learned that creation is true, that evolution as an explanation of human origins is not true, that the world was created by a direct miracle of God, that there really was a serpent who really did tempt Eve, that the first murder was a case of brother killing brother, that a man named Enoch walked with God and was taken up into heaven, that Noah built an ark to save his family from the flood that covered the whole world, that the rainbow means God always keeps his promises, that Ham’s sin led to his son Canaan and his descendants being cursed, that racism is both foolish and sinful, that all the nations descend from Shem, Ham and Japheth, and that God stopped the tower of Babel so that idolatry would not spread over all the earth. The confusion of languages that result explains why we have so many languages today. Amazing stuff. All of that is in the first 11 chapters of the Bible.
Let me now repeat a paragraph from my very first sermon last April:
Say what you will about Genesis 1-11, but sooner or later you have to deal with it. This is where the Bible begins so we can’t escape it or ignore it or pretend it isn’t there. Our church theme this year is “God’s Word: Our Unshakable Foundation.” If we mean to take that seriously, then we ought to make sure our own spiritual foundation is strong and secure. A song from The Sound of Music says, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” Absolutely right, and where else would you start but with the very beginning of the Bible? So that’s what we intend to do. By God’s grace, we will “start at the very beginning” and see what God has in store for us. I think we’re going to have a wonderful time as we journey through these early chapters of the Bible.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have certainly had a wonderful time. And I truly do thank you for your patience.
Names We Can Hardly Pronounce
This morning we come to the final section of Genesis 11. And what do you know? It’s a genealogy! This is the third time I’ve preached on a genealogy in this series. Genesis 5 and Genesis 11 both contain genealogies. And the Table of Nations in Genesis 10 is a sort of geographic genealogy of Noah’s three sons. Now the problem of a genealogy is easy to understand. It’s a list of names. So-and-so became the father of so-and-so who became the father of so-and-so. It’s like reading the phone book except that you can hardly pronounce any of the names. There are names like Arphaxad, Reu, Peleg, Eber and Serug. Basically this is a genealogy of the ten generations starting with Shem, Noah’s middle son, and Abram (whose named was later changed to Abraham). So the genealogy goes like this:
Basically we’re told each man’s name, how old he was when his first son was born, and how long he lived after that. In most cases we are also told that he had other sons and daughters. That’s what makes up most of this passage, and the general temptation is to read it and to shrug it off as a list of meaningless names. But those names represent actual people. Names matter because people matter.
Last night Rob & Mary Gaskill and some of their children (and Rachel Fields) came over to our house for a visit. While we were having a snack, their daughter Amber asked what I was preaching on this morning. I told her and she thought for a moment and said, “Can you mention my name in your sermon?” Before I could answer, all the kids piped up and said, “Please, Pastor Ray, mention me too.” So I promised Beth and Missy and Rachel and Amber and Ray that I would try to mention their names if I could. I don’t think they believed me when I said I thought I could do it. But, really, it’s not hard to mention Beth and Missy and Rachel and Amber and Ray when you are preaching on a genealogy. After all, a genealogy is basically a list of names. Why not add a few more? They were pleased when I told them I would try to do it. Names matter because people matter. If your name were Arphaxad, you would sure be glad to see your name on that list.
As we consider this genealogy from the standpoint of the flow of biblical history, there are three facts that stand out very clearly.
The Narrowing of the Line of Grace
The first fact that stands out is that our God is a choosing God. He chooses some and not others. We see this all through the Bible. He chooses Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau; Judah, not his brothers; David, not his brothers. And so it goes throughout history. Genesis 1-11 is the story of how God starts with Adam and through a series of choices across the generations ends up with Abram.
Out of Adam he chooses Seth.
Out of Lamech he chooses Noah.
Out of Noah he chooses Shem.
Out of Shem he chooses Arphaxad.
Out of Terah he chooses Abram.
Don’t miss the point. Adam had others sons but God chose Seth; Lamech had other sons but God chose Noah; Noah had other sons but God chose Shem; Shem had other sons but God chose Arphaxad; Terah had other sons but God chose Abram. God continually narrowed the line across the generations.
This is the basis for the biblical doctrine of election. He chooses some; others he does not choose. This fact has vast implications for the doctrine of salvation. Many are called, few are chosen (Matthew 22:14 KJV). We may not like that, we may even fight against it, or deny it, but the fact remains that our God is a choosing God. When we get to heaven, we will discover that God chose us to be in Christ before we ever chose to come to Christ by faith. We can say it this way. God chose us and we chose him, but his choice is the one that matters. God’s choice always comes first. If he didn’t choose us, we would never choose him. With regard to Genesis 1-11, we can summarize this truth in one sentence. God’s election is by sovereign grace in order to narrow the line that will one day produce the Messiah. From the beginning God always intended to send his Son to the earth to be our Savior. The line of promise goes across the generations from father to son. It starts with Adam, goes to Seth, winds its way to Noah and then to Shem, passes along the line of Genesis 11 until it reaches Abram. Later the line will include Isaac, Jacob, Judah and David. Finally the line will culminate in Joseph and Mary and an infant lying in a manger in Bethlehem. There is a long distance between Genesis 11 and Bethlehem, but the line between them is a straight line. Genesis 11 contains the line of Shem because he is the chosen one from Noah’s three sons, just as Abram is the chosen one from Terah’s three sons. Our God is a choosing God.
The Gradual Shortening of Human Life
We also learn from this genealogy that sin always destroys life. In this case sin shortens the human lifespan. You may remember that in Genesis 5 the patriarchs lived for hundreds of years—several men lived over 900 years, and the shortest lifespan (apart from Enoch who was taken to heaven when he was 365 years old) was 777 years. Things have changed by the time we get to Genesis 11. Shem lived 600 years, Arphaxad 438 years, Peleg 239 years, Nahor 148 years. When Joseph dies in Genesis 50, he is only 110 years old. There are several explanations for this gradual shortening of human life, including vast changes in climate and environment after the flood that covered the earth and radically changed everything. But the most basic fact is that as sin became deeply ingrained in human nature, life grew shorter and shorter. Sin always destroys life. We see that today through the abuse of alcohol and drugs. And we see it in the violence that causes shooters in Maryland to pick people at random and gun them down on the sidewalks. And we see it in the sexually-transmitted diseases that afflict those who make foolish moral choices. Hundreds of thousands of people are dying at the age of 20 or 30 or 40 who otherwise would live another 50 or 60 years. The testimony of the Lord is clear on this point. The wages of sin is death. Always has been. Always will be. Sin leads to death. Death reigns because sin reigns on the earth. Sin and death are twin brothers that always go together.
Sin destroys your spiritual life.
Sin destroys your social life.
Sin destroys your personal life.
Sin destroys your physical life.
The declining life spans of Genesis 11 illustrate that profound truth. And they remind us if we want life that cannot be destroyed, we must find it from outside this sin-cursed world. We need the eternal life that Jesus offered when he declared, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
The Necessary Preparation of Abram’s Faith
In the last few verses of Genesis 11 we see the necessary preparation of Abram’s faith. Verses 27-32 focus on Terah, the father of Abram. Terah actually had three sons—Abram, Nahor and Haran. Haran died while his father was alive. Eventually Abram married Sarai (later called Sarah). Verse 30 adds this note: “Now Sarai was barren; she had no children.” The whole family moved to the city of Haran (perhaps named by Terah in memory of his son) where they stayed until Terah died. That was evidently a period of many years. Only after his father’s death did Abram proceed to Canaan, the land the Lord had promised to him long before.
If you stop and consider what it means, the last few verses of Genesis 11 are all about death and loss and a series of separations in Abram’s life. He was …
Separated from his Homeland when he left Ur of the Chaldees.
Separated from his Family when his brother and his father died.
Separated from his Destination when he stayed for many years in Haran.
Separated from his Dream when his wife was unable to have children.
Any one of these four separations would be a heavy burden for any man to bear. Taken together, they represent the shaping of his faith and his character through adversity. Looking back, we can see that these things were necessary in order to prepare Abram to become Abraham (“father of multitudes), the supreme biblical example of a man of faith, and the father of the Jewish nation.
Mark this truth: These things were necessary. A. W. Tozer said, “It is doubtful that God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” That statement is true both to the Bible and to life. As God prepared Abram through trial and loss, so he prepares us in the same way. Nothing is ever wasted with God. Your pain is not wasted. Your sorrow is not wasted. Your loss is not wasted. Your defeats are not wasted. Your broken dreams are not wasted. Your tears have a purpose, and your broken heart has a place in God’s plan. We can state the principle this way: God prepares us for better things to come by weaning us from those things we thought we couldn’t live without. This is a hugely important biblical principle. It may be a relationship that we thought would last forever. It may be a job we wanted to keep until we retired. It may be a house we loved or a church family that meant so much to us. It may be a friendship that gave us joy and strength. If we live long enough, we will discover that most of the things we thought were irreplaceable are taken from us one by one by one. It is not that things are bad in themselves. Not at all. These are good things that bring us joy and fulfillment. And God weans us from the good things of life, taking them from us until there is nothing in life but God alone. We come into this world with nothing and we leave with nothing. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Naked we come, naked we go. And the things we possess in between are not really our own. Even our most cherished relationships within the family are gifts from God. The whole process of spiritual growth is a slow weaning away from those things that mean so much to us. In the end we are back where we started—just us and God. Then the Lord says, “I did not do this to punish you but to prepare you and to teach you to trust in me alone.”
After all that he had endured, Abram’s greatest days were yet to come. Weeping endures for a night but joy comes in the morning. Let that thought encourage you as you consider God’s work in your life. The pain you are going through is not for nothing. He takes away the things we thought we couldn’t live without in order to give us something better and more satisfying. We yield the temporal to gain the eternal. We give up the things we could not keep in order to receive those things we can never lose.
I close with this thought. The genealogies of the Bible teach us that God is faithful across the generations. He is a trans-generational God. The God who was faithful yesterday is the God who is also faithful today. And the God who is faithful today will also be faithful tomorrow. Because he is the Alpha and Omega, he is fully faithful at all times and in all situations. We can say that another way.
The God of Tomorrow
The God of my ancestors is also the God of my family today. He has promised to care for me and for my children, and he will do it. But that same God is also the God of my grandchildren yet to be born and my great-grandchildren some years down the road. But better than that is this: The God of my great-grandchildren is also the God of my great-great-grandchildren a hundred years from now. And as long as time itself shall last, our God will be faithful to every generation—past, present and future. He is faithful to us, but his faithfulness doesn’t depend on us. He is faithful even when we are faithless. So I don’t have to worry or fret about the future that lies beyond my vision. The God of Shem and Arphaxad and Reu and Serug and all those other unusual names of Genesis 11 is my God too! He is fully able to take care of any situation that may arise a thousand years from now.
I find another word of consolation from this truth: God is not in a hurry. That’s a consolation but it is also a challenge because I am pretty much always in a hurry. Life always seems to be in the fast lane, with too many things to do and too few hours in the day to get them all done. But the God who spans the generations is not in a hurry. And he won’t be rushed either. And he doesn’t take kindly to people who try to hurry him along. God works according to his own timetable that stretches from eternity to eternity. He’s not uptight about whether or not I’ll make it to the airport in time to catch my flight tomorrow afternoon.
It helps to remember that we rarely see the big picture of life. As Shakespeare said, all the world’s a stage and we are but actors who enter, play our parts, and then exit. The play started long before we got here and it will go on long after we exit stage right. Only God understands the plot of history because he is the writer and the producer and the director of the play. Genesis 11 tells us that God’s plan spans the generations. And we who believe in Jesus are privileged to have a small part in the play God is producing.
Fear not, brothers and sisters. Be of good cheer, my Christian friends. Let not your heart be troubled. All that happens to us is part of the unfolding of God’s master plan. Don’t worry about your future but place it in the strong hands of Jesus Christ. Trust in him and all will be well. Amen.