Passing the Baton
August 4, 1996
All week long one question hung in the air. Would he or wouldn’t he? Some said yes, most said no. The debate raged in a sports bars across America. He’s America’s fastest runner. But he didn’t practice with the team. He’s our best hope for a gold medal. But it’s not fair to the man he bumps off the team. Who cares? Just win, baby. Wait a second, he’s already got 9 gold medals. And so it went.
In the end Carl Lewis didn’t run on the 4 X 100 relay team in the Atlanta games last night. And, shockingly, America came in second to Canada. Now the second guessing begins. What if Carl Lewis had run? Would it have made any difference?
Replays showed that we lost the race in the exchange between the second and third runners. For a tiny sliver of a microsecond they struggled to pass the baton. That little bit of hesitation slowed them down enough so that the Canadian runners were able to win the gold.
It wasn’t the running that mattered, but the passing of the baton. Our runners were easily as fast if not faster than the Canadians. But in the end, that made no difference. When you fumble the baton, you lose the race.
God Has No Grandchildren
I’m sure you’ve heard it said that the Christian faith is always only one generation from extinction. Or to put it in the words first coined by Bruce Wilkinson, “God has no grandchildren.” The Christian faith is a like a relay race in which one generation passes the baton of God’s truth to another generation. As a father, I have a sacred responsibility to see that my faith is passed down to my children, and if I live long enough, to my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. As a pastor, I must earnestly seek to impart God’s truth to my congregation so that they will pass it along to those they meet. As a Christian, I must use every opportunity to spread the gospel and to say a good word on behalf of Jesus Christ.
Put another way, I do not believe God will hold me accountable for what people do with the truth I give them. I cannot answer for my boys and they cannot answer for me. Nor can I answer for everyone who hears me preach. But I will be held absolutely accountable for doing all I can to ensure that the truth I know is passed along to others so that the Christian faith will continue into the next generation. That much I can do and that much I must do. God will not accept any excuses for my failure to complete that mission.
Father Abraham Had Many Sons
We have come at last to the end of Abraham’s life. He is now a very old man—175 years old. For the last 100 years he has lived in the Promised Land. Sarah has been dead for 38 years. After her passing, Abraham married Keturah and had 6 other sons by her. That means that Abraham had eight sons in all—6 by Keturah, Ishmael by Hagar, and Isaac by Sarah.
No doubt he loved them all. But only Isaac was the son of the Promise. Verses 1-6 make this fact very clear:
Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. 2She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah. Jokshan was the father of Sheba and Dedan; the descendants of Dedan were the Asshurites, the Letushites and the Leummites. The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida and Eldaah. All these were descendants of Keturah. Abraham left everything he owned to Isaac. But while he was still living, he gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east.”
By giving them gifts, he honored his sons. By sending them away to the east, he indicated that Isaac and only Isaac was the son of the Promise.
Satisfied With Life
Now we come to the end of Abraham’s life. It appears that he dies in good spirits.
Altogether, Abraham lived a hundred and seventy-five years. Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, the field Abraham had bought from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried with his wife Sarah. After Abraham’s death, God blessed his son Isaac, who then lived near Beer Lahai Roi. (Genesis 25:7-11)
Verse 7 tells us three facts about his situation at the end of his life: First, he lived to a “good old age.” Second, he was “an old man.” Third, he was “full of years.” I particularly like the way the New American Standard Bible translates those three phrases. It says that Abraham “died in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life.” What a wonderful way to put it. He was satisfied with life. How many people can say that on their deathbeds? Not too many. Most folks come to the end and look back with regret and remorse—regret for lost opportunities and remorse over foolish mistakes they have made. No doubt Abraham had his share of both, yet as he looked back over 175 he was satisfied with the life he had lived.
As anyone knows who has studied his story, Abraham didn’t have an easy life. Just the opposite. Along the way he went through periods of frustration, discouragement, physical privation, and spiritual compromise. He experienced more than his share of personal loss. He saw the glitter of royal Egypt and smelled the smoke rising from the ruins of Sodom. He heard the voice of God and later lied to save his own skin. He had to give up his firstborn son Ishmael and send him away—an act that broke his heart. And as far as we know, Isaac and Ishmael never really reconciled nor did his wife and Hagar. He wept when he buried his wife Sarah, then had the satisfaction of seeing Isaac take Rebekah into her tent.
Certainly he lived a full life and he packed a lot into those 175 years. But through it all, even in the worst moments, he remained a man of faith. He never lost sight of the God who called him out of Ur 100 years earlier. For that reason—and that reason alone—he was satisfied with life when he died.
Gathered to His People
The Bible also says that he was “gathered to his people.” Who were his people? This does not refer to the pagan ancestry he left behind in Ur. Genesis 25 tells us that when he died, his sons Ishmael and Isaac came together to bury him in the cave of Machpelah, which he had purchased from Ephron the Hittite. This tiny bit of land represented a toehold in the land of promise. It was like a small title deed to the whole land of Canaan. By burying him there alongside his beloved wife Sarah, his sons were saying, “Daddy lived by faith in God’s promises. And when he died, he still believed in them. We’re burying him right here because some day all this land will belong to us.” Thus the torch of truth passed down from one generation to another. That’s why the last verse of our text says that “God blessed Isaac.”
One runner finishes his race. Another takes the baton and continues down the track. From Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph and across the generations the baton is passed—all the way from Machpelah 4000 years ago to Oak Park at the end of the 20th century.
In this closing message I would like to survey Abraham’s life and what made him such a great man that he is still revered by two billion people today. What was the secret of his enormous influence that persists across the centuries? I find four obvious answers to that question.
I. He Believed God
Abraham believed God. You can say more than that about this man, but not less. Supremely, he was a believer in the God of the universe. No other fact can account for his remarkable life. From the moment when God first spoke to him as a prosperous pagan in Ur till the moment he breathed his last, he believed God. Not simply that he believed in God, but that he staked all that he was and had on the truth that God had spoken to him.
Abraham believed God and thus became the pattern for believers of every generation.
Thus Abraham stands as the preeminent man of faith in the Bible. That is why, when the Apostle Paul wants to convince the Romans as to the true nature of saving faith, he illustrates it by referring to the life of Abraham (cf. Romans 4:3). He even quotes Genesis 15:6, “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”. Abraham stands as the model believer for both the Jews of the Old Testament and the Christians of the New Testament.
What is a Christian? Of all the many words that might be used in answer to that question, perhaps the most basic is the simple yet profound word “believer.” A Christian is a person who believes in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and who is therefore trusting Christ and him alone for eternal salvation. Over 300 times in John’s gospel some form of the word “believe” or “believer” is used to describe what it means to be a Christian.
Abraham believed God and thus became the pattern for believers of every generation.
II. He Kept on Believing
Abraham was 75 years old when God appeared to him in Ur and promised to give him a son through whom he (the Lord) would bless the world. It was hard enough to believe at that point, but years passed, then more years, then a decade, then another decade, and still no son who would fulfill God’s promise. Finally when Abraham was 100 years old—and Sarah was 90!–Isaac was born.
I would like to remind you again of Paul’s words in Romans 4, as he describes the magnitude of Abraham’s faith:
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 (Romans 4:19-21).
His body was “as good as dead.” Every man understands these words. This is a simple biological fact. If you live long enough, every part of your body will wear out. Your hair will thin, your eyes will dim, your teeth will loosen, your skin will wrinkle, your muscles will droop, your joints will ache, your arteries will harden, and your belly will swell. No one is immune to the passage of time.
Recently I visited a nutrition center looking for some special supplements. What I found amazed me. Row upon row of bottles with strange-sounding names. Herbs, vitamins, amino acids, dietary supplements, capsules, caplets, powders, liquids, muscle builders, prostate reducers, and much, much more. For all their vaunted claims, the best these products can do is slow the steady march of old age. Ever since Ponce de Leon searched for the fabled Fountain of Youth, men have searched for a way to turn back the clock. No one has ever succeeded.
His Body Was Dead!
Abraham had none of the benefits of modern pharmacology, but it didn’t matter. There isn’t much you can do when a man reaches 100. His chances of having a child were nil.
Not only that, Sarah’s womb was also dead. She was so far past childbearing years that most of her contemporaries were now great-great-grandmothers, if they were still alive at all. There was no way—no way!–she could ever give birth.
But against all of that, and in full understanding of the human impossibility of it all, Abraham kept on believing in God’s promise.
A few days ago my family returned from our annual vacation. This year we spent a few days in Garland, Texas, where I once pastored a church. The family we were staying with invited some of our former church members over for a party. Bruce and Peggy Tanner came—and brought their four-month-old son with them. I should stop and explain that Bruce and Peggy already had three daughters—one about 16, one 14 and the third about 11 years old. I can say conclusively that they were not planning on having another child. But here came Bruce proudly carrying his young son in a little portable crib. At one point during the evening all the guys got together to talk. We couldn’t resist giving Bruce a hard time. He was a good sport and laughed along with us. When I asked him, “Bruce, tell us, how did this happen?”, he thought for a moment, smiled, and said, “I don’t know how it happened.” The room broke up, and then I said, “That’s part of the problem.”
We laugh because when we see a friend having a child at that age (Bruce and Peggy are in their 40s), we know it is highly unusual, but clearly it is not impossible, and no one would call it a miracle. However, what happened to Abraham and Sarah was a miracle plain and simple. There is no other explanation for a man who becomes a father at the age of 100 or a woman who becomes a mother at the age of 90.
His Faith Was Also a Miracle
Perhaps Abraham’s unwavering faith is just as much of a miracle. Most of us would have given up years earlier or we would never have started believing in the first place.
Not Abraham. He kept on believing even when all the “facts” were against him. This week I read about the Chinese Bamboo tree. When you plant it, it doesn’t come up for five years. The first year—nothing. The second year—nothing. The third year—nothing. The fourth year—nothing. Then in the fifth year, it grows 90 feet in six weeks! The question is, “Did it grow 90 feet in five years in six weeks?” Obviously, it took five years, even though for most of the time it seemed as if nothing was happening.
Abraham kept on believing even when all the facts were against him.
Most of God’s greatest works in our lives take place, not overnight, but over the years. But he can’t do his work unless we are willing to keep on believing even when all the “facts” are against us.
Someone has said that “patience is letting your motor idle when you feel like stripping the gears.” But if God is in charge, you can let that motor idle! Every problem doesn’t have to be solved today for God to be faithful. He will do his work in his time if we will only be patient.
III. Though He Stumbled, He Did Not Fall
Abraham was not a perfect man. Far from it. As you read his story, you discover that he was made from the same human mold we are. He struggled with doubt, fear, discouragement, deception, rebellion, blaming others, selfishness, and all the other problems that beset the human race. Though he was a good man, he was still a man in every sense of the word. He was no different from us. As someone has well said, “We are all made of the mold, but some of us are moldier than others.”
Abraham was not the “moldiest” man in the Bible, but he wasn’t the “cleanest” either.
Twice he lied about his wife, calling her his sister in order to save his own skin. Both times he risked her purity for his own personal safety. Neither incident (Genesis 12:10-20; 20:1-18) makes him look very good. He comes off both time as a man who is too clever by half being found out by pagans who expected something better from him.
The Hagar Affair
By far the clearest example of Abraham’s “moldiness” comes from the sad story of the birth of Ishmael. At Sarah’s urging, he slept with the young handmaiden from Egypt, Hagar. No doubt he and Sarah rationalized that their actions were only meant to help fulfill God’s promise. But God doesn’t need our “help,” especially when that “help” involves immorality. In the words of Dr. Bob Jones, Sr., “it is never right to do wrong in order to get a chance to do right.”
To this very day the world suffers through one crisis after another in the Middle East and the sons of Isaac and the sons of Ishmael struggle for control of the Holy Land.
In light of the above, how can we call Abraham a righteous man? First of all, we can call him that because that’s what God calls him (Genesis 15:6). Second, when we evaluate a man’s life, it’s crucial that we look at the big picture. Direction makes all the difference. It’s better to be one foot from hell heading toward heaven than one foot from heaven heading toward hell. For all his weakness and his occasional stumbles, Abraham’s heart remained fixed on God.
A Friend of God
That’s why he was called a “friend” of God, one of the highest compliments God ever paid anyone in the Bible. Do your friends ever disappoint you? Yes, of course they do. Are they still your friends? Yes, of course. Why? Because you know that deep down they are still committed to you. That’s precisely how God looked at Abraham.
Those whom God saves he saves forever.
Let us repeat again the truth that salvation is forever because it rests on God’s character, not on our performance. Those whom God saves he saves forever. Eternal life begins, not the moment you die, but the moment you believe. Those who are born again can never be unborn any more than a baby can return to its mother’s womb.
I love the King James rendering of Paslm 37:23-24, “The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD: and he delighteth in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down: for the LORD upholdeth him with his hand.” Proverbs 24:16 assures us that “though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again.” When Abraham stumbled and fell, he got up. That’s what a righteous man does. A pig stays in the mud, but a righteous man gets up, cleans himself off, and keeps on going.
IV. He Never Took His Eyes Off Heaven
Let’s go back and take a look at that defining moment when Abraham and Lot divided up the land . Genesis 13 tells us that Abraham offered Lot the first choice of the land. Even though he was older and therefore had the right of first choice, he voluntarily yielded that right for the sake of peace. Lot chose the well-watered plain near Sodom and the rest is history. But don’t forget what God said to Abraham in response to his choice:
Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you. (Genesis 13:14-17).
It’s as if God said, “Don’t worry about it. Because you yielded your rights, in the end all this land will belong to you and your descendants.” This is what God meant when he called himself “your exceedingly great reward” (Genesis 15:1). God will be no one’s debtor. When the books are finally balanced, no one will be cheated by God. Those who trust him will find themselves rewarded beyond their wildest dreams.
As we think about that fact, it’s crucial to remember that Abraham lived and died in faith. He never saw the fulfillment of all that God had promised. But he believed that someday everything would come true. To put it in modern terms, Abraham believed in heaven and that made all the difference.
The City God Builds
Two thousand years later the writer of the book of Hebrews analyzed Abraham’s whole life this way:
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:8-10).
The underlined phrases tell us everything we need to know:
1. He obeyed God’s call (v. 8)
2. He lived in tents all his life (v. 9)
3. He was looking for a city with foundations (v. 10)
Verse 10 is the key. Abraham kept following God because he was looking for a city “with foundations,” that is, for a city that would offer permanent security. Only God could build such a city. Indeed, he has already built it. It is called “the New Jerusalem” and its glories are described in Revelation 21-22. All the saints of all the ages will one day live in that great city “whose architect and builder is God.”
Was There Ever a Church Here?
But between now and then we’re all on a journey. Everything built by man will eventually crumble and fall to the dust. Nothing made by the hand of man lasts forever.
Recently I visited Garland, Texas, where I pastored a church for nearly six years. Because it was a new congregation, we didn’t have our own building so we rented a storefront and converted it into a church building. It wasn’t very beautiful but it was cheap and it met our needs adequately.
In the last few years the congregation has moved to other quarters, so I decided to drive up First Street in Garland and see what had happened to our old storefront. The owner had subdivided the property so that a dollar store now stands where I once preached the gospel. Our office space now houses a Hispanic congregation. The rest of the space is taken up by an auto parts store, an appliance repair shop, and a very dingy-looking local market. As I walked through the dollar store, I could hardly remember being there. It hit me that no one would ever know that a church had once worshipped God in that location. There is no sign, no marker, no memorial to the great things that happened. Just row upon row of cheap plastic trinkets.
So it is with everything in this world. Nothing lasts forever. Even the greatest monuments give way to the erosion of the passing years. Everyone—and everything–is eventually forgotten.
“I Want to Know Christ”
If you’re looking for lasting significance, you’ll have to look outside this world. Abraham understood that principle. That’s why he could give up the “good” land and take the desert scrub for his flocks. He believed in God and that kept him from coveting the things of the earth.
A day or so after we left Dallas we arrived in Memphis where we spent an evening with Roberta Hoppe. Late that night she spoke with us about what God has shown her in the months since Len’s tragic death. Then she said that on a recent trip to Chicago she had picked out the phrase that will be engraved on Len’s headstone. It will say
“I want to know Christ”
Those of us who knew Len can testify that those words summarize his life, especially his life in the last few years. God gave him a holy passion to know Christ and no one could be around him for long without feeling the strength of that desire.
One final verse and I am done. When Jesus was debating the religious leaders of his day, he made a passing comment about Abraham that bears repeating. “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:58).
Abraham saw Jesus and the sight transformed his life. Len Hoppe saw Jesus and was never the same again.
Have you ever seen Jesus with the eyes of faith? Behold the Son of God. Fix your eyes upon him. Gaze upon his beauty. As the song says, “Look full in his wonderful face and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.” Those who look to him will never be disappointed and like Abraham of old, they will rejoice and be glad forever.