Would you open your Bibles to Genesis chapter 11. One of Satan's ploys I believe is to get you so focused on your past that you neglect what the present and especially your future is all about. Your past and all that it means is valuable as a guidepost but it can become dangerous if it becomes a hitching post, if you park there. I love the Italian custom of celebrating New Years'. It seems that New Years' Eve just around midnight the streets are vacated, there's no traffic, there's no pedestrians and even the police take cover because at twelve sharp the house windows fly open and each family member will take some thing, some object, it could be a vase, it could be an ornament, and it could be even a piece of furniture. Something that reminds them of the past year, something they want to erase from their minds and they toss it out on the streets. That might sound radical, I think it sounds like a lot of fun. But it brings up an important point that no matter how flawed the past, your future is spotless. The message today is simple basically and that is your past may have shaped you, just don't let it mis-shape you.
Now we're in chapter 11 tonight and we begin a study of the life of Abraham. That's where we're going to study and look at the next several weeks, Abraham. It's a series I'm calling "Making Your Mark," because honestly I believe that's what you really want to do. I think God put within us, in our hearts, all of us, a desire. A desire that when our life is done we know that we did the right thing, we lived with a goal in mind, we lived with purpose, we fulfilled what he called us to fulfill. Some of us in fact most of us aren't content with just making a buck or making a career. We want to make a difference, don't we? We want to know that our life counted for something. There's a psychologist by the name of William Marsten who asked three thousand people this question: What do you have to live for? He said he was shocked to find that ninety-four percent were simply enduring the present while waiting for something to happen in the future. He said things like for children to grow up and leave home, for the next year to come around, for another chance to take a long-dreamt-off vacation. Well, Abraham, called here Abram made his mark, made his mark in history, in his culture and in the hearts of mankind. Three major religions look back to Abraham as their leader or patriarch: the Jews do, Christians do, we include him, and the Muslims do. One of the indicators that this guy is really important is the amount of space that's devoted to him in the Bible. Think of it this way, eleven chapters in Genesis are devoted to the two thousand some-odd years preceding Abraham, including about nineteen generations of people, eleven chapters. Fourteen chapters, the entire middle section of Genesis is devoted to the life of this one man. And then we come to the New Testament and he is used as an example in one chapter of Romans, two chapters of Galatians, he's called the father of all them who believe, he is the model of justification by faith, he's included in Hebrews 11, the hall of fame of faith; and three times in the Bible he is referred to as the friend of God. How'd you like to have that title that God gave you, the friend of God. In fact, to this day, Arabs still refer to him as el kahlil, friend of God. We're going to look at him in the next few weeks.
Tonight however, what I want to draw your attention to of all places a geneaology, chapter 11 of Genesis is that five experiences marked the early life of this great patriarch. Five experiences, four of which he really had no control over, the last one he did, it was probably his response at least in part to the first four, but they shaped his past. They shaped his past but they did not mis-shape his past.
Now let's read the text together and if you look at verse 10 on down you see a lot of names, I'm going to skip most of those names. Number one because I don't know that I can pronounce them all and number two, I have a hunch you don't care. But let's look at verse 10, "This the geneaology of Shem. Shem was a hundred years old and begot Arphaxod two years after the flood." Let's quickly skip down to verse 24, "Nahor lived twenty-nine years and begot Terah. After he begot Terah Nahor lived a hundred and nineteen years and begot sons and daughters. (still going in his old age) And Terah lived seventy years and begot Abram, Nahor, and Heron. This is the geneaology of Terah. Terah begot Abram, Nahor, aand Heron. Heron begot Lot and Heron died before his father Terah in his native land, in Ur of the Chaldeans. Then Abraham and Nahor took wives, the name of Abram's wife was Sarai (it will be changed later)a, the name of Nahor's wife Milcah the daughter of Heron, the wife of Milcah, and the father if Iscah. But Sarai was barren, she had no child. And Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot, the son of Heron, his daughter-in-law Sarai and his son Abram's wife and they went out with them from the Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan and they came to Heron and dwelt there. So the days of Terah were two hundred and five years and Terah died in Heron."
The first experience of his early life that I draw your attention to is disbelief. Now after a great introduction of Abram's life like you just heard and how important he was in the Bible and how he was called the friend of God, you would be surprised if not shocked to know that he didn't start that way. He has his roots in paganism, when we open up his life, we don't find him in the land of promise but in the land of polytheism. It mentioned Ur of Chaldeans, it was the cultural center of southern Mesopotamia, it happens to be (get this) present day Iraq. So it makes it very interesting to find out his roots, does it not? Now the spade of the archaeologist has discovered that Ur of the Chaldeans was not some little Podunk town in the middle of the desert but a thriving metropolis at that time with a population of at least three hundred thousand, as I mentioned a cultural center, in fact the capital of Sumer where the Sumerians, the early civilizations began. It was an advanced culture. Again, archaeological digs have discovered musical instruments of all kinds. They have also discovered crafts and art, artifacts that speak of a culture that was well advanced and artistic. The town had a university and a library with an emphasis especially on math and astronomy. However given all that the town was still pagan for in the center of town was an impressive temple that had a ziggurat or a large tower that spiraled up to heaven, because it was a place where people worshipped several gods, nature-it was animistic. But the principal god that it worshipped was the moon God whose name (get this) was sin S-I-N. Interesting isn't it, they didn't know what they were doing but they were worshipping sin way back then, the moon god.
Well, what about Abram's home life? Well, putting the scriptures together and understanding where he grew up, we know that his dad Terah was an idolater, worshipped idols. Now we don't have to guess that for it says in Joshua 24 verse 24, let me read it, Joshua has the group of Israelites in front of him and recounts their history and says, "Your ancestors, including Terah, the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the Euphrates River and they worshipped other gods." They worshipped other gods. Now presumably some of that wore off on Abram. We don't know for sure how much but that was the culture that he grew up in. A Jewish commentary known as the Midrash said that Terah manufactured these little idols and Abram his son was his assistant. Now remember something, this is post flood, this post Tower of Babel falling, so God has revealed himself powerfully in ancient times in a way that is unforgettable, and yet very shortly after that, it doesn't take long for corruption and decline and idolatry to gain a footing in the ancient world and especially here in Ur. Further insight into Abram's culture comes years later with his grandson, you know his grandson's name: Jacob. And you know that Jacob sort of swindled his brother out of the birthright. Remember that? And Jacob fled where? Mesopotamia where his dad, his grandpa had their roots. He goes back there, finds a guy by the name of Laban, marries his two daughters Rachel and Leah. After a period of time decides to come back to Canaan but it says, "Rachel took from the house some household gods." Do you remember that? Little idols, little statues, and she stuck them in the saddle of her camel. And I bring that up to point out this, that not only did Abram's family worship idols when he grew up but three generations removed, his relatives over in Mesopotamia were still cherishing and owning these idols. So that's the culture he grew up in, one of disbelief in the true God.
We could draw a quick parallel to our own culture for Abram's early life describes a lot of us. We grew up in an advanced culture, the most advanced probably in the world today, America. We grew up in a spiritual culture, not necessarily a Christian culture but a spiritual culture and today spirituality is very very central, it's gaining a foothold. New York Times religion editor said that today we are witnessing a mass movement of individual seekers finding spirituality but not necessarily truth. That sounds a lot like Abram, that's his first experience.
Now go on down to verse 27, the second experience of his early life was death. This is the geneaology of Terah; aTerah begot Abram, Nahor and Heron; Heron begot Lot and Heron died before his father Terah in his native land in Ur of the Chaldeans." We learn something from those verses, tragedy pushes its way into the early life of Abram. This is his brother who has died, Terah's son Heron. It says that he died before his father, we don't know exactly what this means, there is a Jewish fable that said Terah's kids, his sons refused to worship the fire god so he cast Heron into the furnace and let him burn to a crisp in front of him. I doubt that that's true. In fact, it doesn't necessarily mean that he kicked the bucket while his dad was watching. To say he died before his father could simply mean chronologically he died before his father died. And what it is simply meant to do is introduce to us this tragedy in the life of a father and a family. It tells us something about Abram's past, it tells us that this was a guy who when he was growing up, he didn't skate through lifer unscathed from pain or sorrow or heartache but rather just simply by this death of his brother and later on his own father, he is shaped by that. Pain, heartache was a part of his past life. I know as a pastor that death can affect a family like few experiences can. A dark cloud settles over that family for a long period of time. And I also know that survivors never forget it if they have witnessed somebody die in their presence and they never forget the death notification. Some of you may be chaplains or police officers and you have given a death notification. "Your daughter has died," "Your son has died," "Your father or mother has died." That person hearing that never forgets that moment as long as they live. Just like I never forget the night when I was 22 and my father called me on the telephone and told me of my brother's death. I can picture the room, I can get in touch with my emotions, and when those emotions come up like at funerals or other people who are in a position like that, I can get clearly in touch with them because I never have forgotten that. Many of you have gotten the same phone calls, the death of a loved one, and it shook you. In fact, let's just say that in some cases it even shook your faith to the core. Up to that point perhaps, life was great and God, you had him all figured out and you saw him clearly. And then after this you weren't quite sure, you may have even said a few things in doubt or disbelief or anger at God. Maybe like Martha who said, "Jesus if you'd a been here, my brother wouldn't have died." It's because death can unearth our view of God and it can challenge our faith. And my point in this is this: even special people, even people like Abraham that had a special place and role picked by God and made their mark on society, suffered like this, it shaped their past, it was part of their past.
A third experience, let's read on, is disappointment. Now this is in his marriage. It's not that he was disappointed with his wife, something else caused a disappointment. "Abram and Nahor took wives, the name of Abram's wife was Sarai, the name of Nahor's wife Milcah, the daughter of Heron, the father of Milcah and the father of Iscah, but Sarai was barren, she had no child." If you know anything about ancient cultures, you know it was catastrophic for a woman two, three, four thousand years ago, to be unable to conceive a child. It was devastating for her, it reflected her worth as a woman, her place in the culture, and her husband (in this case Abram) suffered as well. You see, in pagan cultures, they looked at this as a curse of the gods, the moon god, the sun god, the fire god, they have cursed our marriage. And this superstition even found its way into Israel, where if an ancient Israeli couldn't conceive, she thought her life was cursed by God, Yahweh. I mentioned Jacob a few moments ago. Jacob married two women and had a lot of kids. The first wife was Leah and Leah got pregnant and listen to what she said as soon as she found out she was pregnant she said, "For the Lord has surely looked on my affliction." That's what infertility was called back then, an affliction. When Rachel, his other wife, Leah's younger sister found out that she was pregnant, she goes up to her husband, grabs him and says, "Give me children or I die." That's a lot to put on a guy, she did it. Even the rabbis later on said seven people are excommunicated from the presence of God. First on the list a Jew who has no wife; second on the list a Jew who has wife but has no child. That's the belief system that came with this. It was a heavy burden to bear.
Now we know the rest of the story, we've read about Abraham before and so you know that this infertility was simply a setup for a great miracle that will come later on when miraculously she conceives and has Isaac. But in the meantime, they don't know that. In the meantime, as a part of what shaped his past, he's living with the death of a brother which means the adoption of his nephew Lot because he's going to bring him with him. The disappointment of having an infertile wife, and just think of Sarah growing up, you know she grew up maybe playing with primitive dolls, imagining what it was like to be a wife, have a home, cook, cuddle the little doll as a mama. And then they got engaged, her and Abram, and I bet they had conversation don't you think? Like, "Well how many kids do you want to have?" Especially difficult for Abram because his name Abram means exalted father. You would be the laughingstock of the villages. Everywhere you went, "What's your name?" "Exalted father." "How many kids you got?" "None." He would refrain. I know that I'm talking to some people who are painfully relating to this, this is a part of your past, it's a part of your present, you're unable to conceive. You've been to doctors, you've been prayed for, you've been anointed with oil numerous times, you'd take a bath in oil if it would work. But it's painful for you every time there's a baby dedication or a Mother's Day. It's tough for you to be there. It's an expectation you wanted, it has broken your heart, it is an unfulfilled one. Infertility affects 6.1 million in the United States, ten percent of the reproductive population is affected by this, or 16 of a hundred couples, which means right now in a crowd this size, hundreds of people sitting around you are somehow affected by it. For others it's not this, it's not infertility. It might be another disappointment, another expectation that is unfulfilled. Maybe your past includes, up to the present you've waited for a wife, you expected you'd be married by now and you're not. Maybe you expected to be healed from a disease by now and you're not. Maybe by now you thought you'd get that raise at work and they didn't give it to you, in fact they lowered your wage. Others of you thought, "The court settlement will be ruled in my favor," and it's not turned out that way. So you have a pain, a disappointment that forms who you are and you bring it to this very moment. I'm sharing all this with you because those are very real things, they were real in his life. They can become for you a place that you park your life. You look back to the past, it becomes a hitching post rather than a guidepost. You go back to that and you relive it and you relive it and you'll not let it go, and you won't grow til you do.
Let's move on, there's a fourth experience and that is displacement. Displacement, verse 31. "Terah (notice how its worded) took his son Abram and grandson Lot, son of Heron and daughter-in-law Sarai his son Abram's wife, and they went out with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan and they came to Heron and dwelt there." I know we just read that and we look at it as a matter of fact without reading behind that the emotion. If it wasn't bad enough to have a death, a disappointment of infertility; now there's the displacement of everything Abram knew grewing up, the hometown, the friends, some relatives and dad gets up and moves and the whole family moves with him. I bet by now some of you have heard of the work of Dr. Thomas Holmes who has done a study on stress and he comes up with stress points or stress factors. And he assigns certain life experience, based on his study, a certain value in the stress indicator test indicating if you are close to an incident he calls it, a stress-related incident. It could be a nervous background. He figures that if you have had two tot here hundred of these points in the last year or so you're in tough shape, put it that way, you're in tough shape. Let me give you a sampling, especially as it pertains to Abram. This doctor supposes that athe death of a close family member would yield 63 stress factor points. Abram has two deaths in the period of a few years if I'm reading the text correctly. Major personal injury or illness, 53 points. Marriage, 50 points. You see you can have good stress as well as bad stress, it's still stressful. Change in the health of a family member, think of Sarai now, 44 points. Change in residence, 20 points. In fact, he even says Christmas yields 12 stress point, I'm not surprised, I would think more even. Now if I counted correctly that's about 303 points for Abram. excluding Christmas for obvious reasons. The Census Bureau of the United States of America reveals that 36 million Americans, twenty percent of the population, moves every year. There's a huge shifting, more than any other time in our history, a huge shifting of population. The average American according to the Census report, the average American moves eleven times in their lifetime. If you're in the military, this is a style of living for you, you've moved all over the place. But add all of that together now in his past, the move, the disappointment (can't have kids), the death, and no spiritual resources really to cope with that growing up.
Now there's a final one and we're going to close with this, a fifth experience and that is disobedience. And I'm going to explain, but let me say this, the first four experiences of Abram's early years were largely out of his control. You don't control the death of your brother, you don't control the fact that your wife can't have kids, you don't control what values aor religion were passed down to you by your parents; you don't control the fact that Dad says we're moving to Heron. But this last one you can control. How do you respond, how do you react to things that go on in your life? Now I'm going to take you back to verse 31, I'm going to read all the way down to chapter 12 verse 1 and I want you to follow me carefully. "And Terah took his son Abram (notice how it's worded, it's not that Abram went out because God told him to do so, he's leading) Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot, the son of Heron, his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son and all these other people and they came to Heron and dwelt there." Notice that the name of the place is the name of his son who had died) So the days of Terah were 205 years and Terah died in Heron. Now the Lord had said (not said at this point but had said) to Abram, 'Get out of your country from your family, from your father's house to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great and you shall be a blessing." We're going to read more of that next week. Notice though that Terah takes his family and moves, he's moving across the Euphrates River, he wants to skip that large basin of desert between there and Canaan, that's where God told Abram to go, and he's making his way westward along the river and he stops at Heron. Why does he stop there? Well it's interesting, if you look at the geneaological records of Terah the father of Abram, you notice something. There's a lot of names in his ancestors' geneaoloogy that have the same names of this area around Assyria or Heron where he stops. Because of that, most historians have traced Terah's roots back to Heron, that's probably where he was born and later on they say there was an exodus of a lot of people in this region and they went 600 miles east to Ur of the Chaldees. Which means this is where Terah grew up, spent his youth. He goes there and he stops right there. But (if you notice again) in chapter 12 verse 1, "Now the Lord had said to Abram, 'Get out of your country (well he did that), from your family (he didn't do that), and from your father's house (he didn't do that) to a land I will show you (he didn't do that). He stopped in Heron, the land God had for him was Canaan. In fact, he really doesn't obey until verse 4, "So Abram departed as the Lord had spoken to him, and Lot went with him and Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Heron." So he has been in Heron for a while (or maybe it's pronounced Haran, however you want to say it).a
Would you keep a marker here and turn to the New Testament, I'm going to clear something up, I'm going to piece it all together for you. Chapter 7, the book of Acts. A young rabbi named Stephen is speaking in front of a court, the Sanherin. What he says in court has to be said and crafted very carefully and he does and you'll get the understanding of what I just read in Genesis in the New Testament. Acts chapter 7, "Then the high priest said, 'Are these things so?' And he (Stephen) said, a' Brethren and fathers, listen.' Let me just say to you right now, listen. 'The God of glory (interesting designation for God, very unique) the God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia before he dwelt in Heron aand said, "Get out of your country and from your relatives and come to a land that I will show you.' Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Heron, and from there when his father was dead, he moved him to this land in which you now dwell.'" And let me piece it all together for you. God first appeared gloriously no doubt in some glorious vision or apparition to Abram while he was iving in Ur of the Chaldees. "Leave this place, leave your family, there's a new start in a new land." Well he didn't do that. He didn't do that. Rather, he probably told his dad about it, his dad was shaken up over his son's death and they decided to leave but go to where he grew up and Abram stayed there til his dad died. So, Abram had enough faith, he believed God at the beginning, enough to start out but his faith is still weak, it's a little faltering. He's learning, God just revealed himself to him. He's not a mature believer, he's barely a believer. He just believed and he went but he stopped halfway there. Now God said, "Leave your country, leave your family, go to a new place." He did one of those things but he neglected to fulfill the rest. He took Terah, his dad, and Lot. By the way, just as an aside, it may mean something, it may not; did you know the name Terah, do you know what it means? Delay. Boy, talk about a guy fulfilling his destiny or his name, it means delay. And this dad, bless his heart, delayed his son Abram, in God's obedient calling at least five (some scholars say fifteen) years delay. Delay. I'm not denying that Abram had it tough, he had a tough past. He had no spiritual resources, he had the death of a brother that shaped him, hardship shaped him. He had the disappointment of an infertile wife. He had the dislocation of being put in a different place but not where god wanted him. And all of that is true, he was a fledgling believer, he wasn't mature yet. But he didn't obey. And here's my point: your past can become a weight. You can hold onto something so dearly it becomes a weight instead of a wing, a hitching post instead of a guidepost. Whatever you bring with you from your old life into your new life can create problems. He brought Terah and Terah delayed him. He brought Lot and if you know the story Lot created all sorts of problems til they finally parted.
Now if you're taking notes tonight, I want to close by giving you two lessons, two let's call them life lessons from the life of Abram, his early life. Number one, the past has shaped you, no doubt but don't let it stifle you. The past has shaped you, don't let it stifle you. You have a past, all of you, all of us, we have a wagonload of baggage that's shaped who we are. Where we were raised, who raised us, what values were given to us, pain, joys; all sorts of stuff that form our little baggage that we enter into the Christian life with. Learn to face that but don't let it stop you from fulfilling God's plan or God's will for your life. You know a lot of people hide behind the past? "Well I am this way because when I was young..." and you can fill in the blank. "I am this way because I'm Irish or I'm German, or I'm Latino," or whatever it might be that you use as your little excuse. I'm saying use your past as a springboard not as a sofa. Let it be a teacher, not an undertaker. Remember that Paul said, "All that was past for me I have learned to count as loss and I look ahead," he said, "for the prize. Forgetting the things which are behind, I look forward to the things which are ahead." Even your failures, let them go. Even the greats, even the heroes, like Abram, failed and started out sometimes in failure.
The first time you tried to walk, you fell. Even though your parents looked at you and thought you were Olympic material, you fell. The first time you tried to swim, you almost drowned. The first time you tried to hit a ball, you probably didn't. The first time you got a report card, you didn't get straight A's and if you did nobody liked you in the whole school. My point is, that's life, we're not perfect, we don't start out that way, we're learning things. Here, isn't it great, isn't it great to read about Abram, that he wasn't perfect right out of the start, right of the gates?
In 1831 a man failed in his business, didn't work, lost money, quit. The next year in 1832, he was defeated for his legislature. He was elected to it however in 1834 two years later. His girlfriend died the next year, 1835. This man had a nervous breakdown the following year. He was defeated for Speaker of the House in 1838, defeated for elector in 1840, defeated for Congress in '43 but elected to congress in '46 but defeated again for Congress in '48 and defeated for Senate in 1850. He ran for Vice President and was defeated in 1856 and for the Senate in 1858. That's a lot of defeated, defeated, defeated; fail, fail, fail. But this man, Abraham Lincoln was eventually elected to the presidency of the United States of America.
Here's my point: Abram had a past and some of it was failure. Death, disappointment, displacement, disobedience; but he went on to make his mark. He went on to make his mark. The past has shaped you, don't let it stifle you. Number two, and finally we close, disobedience postpones influence. Listen carefully to that. Disobedience postpones influence. Oh yeah, Abram made a mark no doubt, we're going to read about that. But he could have gotten a headstart, at least five or fifteen years without the delay. It was his disobedience that postponed his influence. He wasted some time, didn't he? He wasted some time.
Ben Franklin had a little quip, he used to say, "For the want of a nail," or "For the lack of a nail, the shoe is lost 9the horseshoe). For the loss of a shoe, the horse is lost. For the loss of a horse, the rider is lost." And I would say for the want or the lack or the loss of obedience your influence is lost.
So, tonight would you decide to take based on these two things two steps. Two steps, two things that you need to do. Number one, look back on your past, just in your quiet time this week, in your spare time, go over some of the monumental things of your past that's shaped who you are. Face that, deal with that, that's who I am. But based upon that, number two, set priorities for your future, because the truth is you cannot turn back the clock, you can't go back. You can't turn back the clock but God can wind it up again. God can wind it up again. Right now, right here where you're at, no matter what age, you can make a mark on your culture.
Heavenly Father, we want to be men and women of influence. And some of us will have smaller or medium or larger spheres of influence. It all begins with a nail in our analogy, something small. Every one of us has a past, if we were to paint it, if it we were to create it before it happened, it probably wouldn't be the way it is. A But it is the way it is, it's what has happened to us but it is not necessarily who we are. May we be shaped but not stifled by it. And Father I pray that we your people would decide to take steps of obedience and not delay our influence. In Jesus' name. Amen.