Good Morning again. And this is now our last session together. And so I don’t want to miss the opportunity to express my thanks to you for coming, and for providing this experience for Kim and I. I don’t ever assume that we’re gonna be received with the kind of enthusiasm that we’ve been received here.
And I’m very grateful for the way that you have processed the material, interacted over it, stopped me, stopped Kim, posed some questions. Some of you just sharing your stories, and your pain, which is both very humbling, and very meaningful that you would extend that trust to us. And just the way that you have encouraged us, as well. So thank you for making this such a joy for us to come and join you.
Knowing Jim’s affections for ties, I put one on this morning. It had a big picture of R. C. Sproul on it. You know, to kind of represent the Presbyterians. But before I left I looked in the mirror and I thought, “You look too much like Jim,” and there is only one Jim. And may there always only be only one Jim.
And I want to express to you how much I appreciate the fact that there is only one Jim. I sat there in that last message just observing him walk us through the sweep of scripture, and bring scripture to bear on the points of the delicacy regarding families. And the challenges that exist with divisions, and opposition, and unity, as well. I just thought, “Thank God for this gifted man, and thank God that he’s available to be serving us in this way.” So much to be happy about this morning. Yes, let’s thank God for that.
This session forms an important moment. One might even call this a defining moment. Because this is where we grapple together with one of the most frightening and one of the most exhausting features of loving a prodigal.And it is a truth, where oftentimes we are reluctant to hear. And the reality of which is something we would desperately long to avoid. And it is the truth that prodigals rarely return quickly. Prodigals rarely return quickly.
There is something about the character of that particular condition. It may be the descent and the amount of time that the descent takes to get to where they go. It may be the unique stubbornness that seems to be embedded in that personality. It may be that, like the prodigal son of Luke, that it just takes a long time to get to the point where you’re feeding the pigs. And even when you’re feeding the pigs you just have this strange feeling like everything’s not right, and then one day you realize you’re feeding the pigs.
My point is that where you find prodigals, you find people who love them, that are in orbit around them, and they are waiting. They’re waiting. And how we interpret that experience makes the difference between whether we are going to be persevering in this trial, we’re gonna be persevering in that experience, or we’re gonna be poisoned by that experience. And I want to suggest to you this morning that the difference between the two of those is the difference of the presence of faith. And faith specifically for waiting, faith specifically for seasons where there is just barrenness in areas where you have sown and toiled.
And so, I want to invite you to open up to Romans chapter four. As we look at this topic of faith for waiting. And I’d like to read to you from Romans 4, beginning in verse 18, and we’ll go down to verse 21. In hope he, that’s talking about Abram, by the way, In hope he believed against hope that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead since he was about 100 years old. Or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waiver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what He had promised. Let’s pray together.
Lord, this passage is so packed with potent truth, and we long this morning to understand it, but not simply to understand it, but to walk away feeling like it has a grip on us, that it is now defining a new reality that we are walking in as we think about the people that we counsel. As we think about the people that we love, as we think about the people that we’re friends with, that are defined by this word prodigal. Lord, arm us and stir our faith in your promises this morning. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
He had already lived 75 years, that’s three quarters of a century. His name, at this point, Abram, literally meant father of many. A kind of stabbing irony for a man with no kids. But he was wealthy, healthy, happy, and surrounded by extended family when one day God interrupts what was undoubtedly a pretty settled existence with a command that, at first glance, is almost incomprehensible.
God says to him, “Abram, leave your country, your people, and your father’s household, and go to the land I will show you, and I will make a great nation of you.” Now imagine that. A great nation springing from an old man with no kids. How does that work? But scripture says Abram obeyed. He uprooted his family, which at that point included nephews, and servants, and live stocks, possession. And he went forth, as Hebrew’s chapter 11 reports, “Not knowing where he was going,” and as he journeyed he waited. Every week, every month, he waited. Each year he waited, he waited for this promise to be fulfilled.
Several years later, God kind of drops by in a vision. Abram, at this state is in an anguished place, he is still childless, there is no heir to his name. I kind of imagine him kind of struggling through this thinking, “Great nation. Great nation. I mean, here I am years later and all I have is a nephew, and I don’t even like him very much. I’ve got a few pets. But where’s this great nation thing coming from?”
And God takes him outside, and bids him to look up to the heavens, and to number the stars. And then God spoke these eternal words, “So shall your offspring be.” And scripture declares that Abram believed God, and it was reckoned to him, it was counted to him, as righteousness. Now, that’s quite a story. And you almost expect that that story’s going to wrap up at that point. I mean, that’s the way a good narrative should wrap up. You’ve got God speaking, you’ve got a sense of faith taking place, you’ve got Abram encountering God.
But all of that, that I just described, all took place before, what I like to consider as, the long wait of Abram’s life. The long wait. The first couple of years weren’t so bad. But after seven or eight years, the memory grows dull. You begin to think, “Did that really happen? Did all of that really happen? Did I experience that? Did God really speak to me?” I mean, at this point, Sarah is barren. She has no children. Abram’s just aging.
At year 10, mistakes were made. Sarah had to know, is it him or is it me? Is it him or is it me? So she pushes Hagar on Abram. Abram capitulates. Ishmael is conceived. Arab history begins. But Ishmael is not the promised one. Another 14 years pass. God returns. God returns, and re-affirms his promise to Abram. In fact, he returns, he re-affirms his promise to Abram, he changes Abram’s name from Abram, father of many, to Abraham, father of a multitude. Abraham is now 99. Sarah, whose name has been changed to Sarah, she’s been through menopause now, and all she has is one child, but it’s not her child, and it’s certainly not the promised child. How long will they wait?
One year later, 25 years after the promise, Isaac was born. Now that’s the story behind Romans chapter four. And if we were going to examine this in the context of Romans, we would be reminded that in the early chapters, what Paul was doing is he’s building this case for a righteousness that comes through faith alone. And so it’s here, in chapter four, that what Paul does is, he introduces his strongest and most stunning piece of evidence for the position that he’s trying to establish. What he does is, he takes Abraham, the father, Abraham, the beginning of the Jewish lineage, and he offers him as exhibit A, for saving faith.
But here’s the thing. While chapter four is certainly about the faith saves, chapter four is certainly about the faith that justifies, we are instructed in chapter four about the nature of faith itself. Because the faith that justifies also portrays a faith that pleases God. The faith that justifies also portrays a faith that helps us to persevere during the long waits of our life. And so when it comes to this business of wayward people that we love, we have to understand Abraham’s faith. Because it’s going to make all the difference for the process, and all the difference for the peace in which we rest in as we wait.
So what I wanted to do is examine together three different facets, three different parts of Abraham’s faith, beginning with number one, believing the promise. Believing the promise. Look again at verse 18, in hope, he believed, against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told. “So shall your offspring be.” So right out of the gate, we learn that Abraham had been told something by God, that he would become a father, that he would have a son. And then we learn that faith responds to the word of God by investing trust in God’s words, and standing on the promise that we have been given, or that Abraham had been given, as if that thing, that word, is a guaranteed future reality. It’s something that’s definitely going to happen, he’s just not living in it yet, he’s just not walking in it yet.
And that was Abraham’s experience. Now I get it, we read something like that and it’s such a temptation to say, “Well yeah, if God came to me in a vision and kind of chatted with me about my future, I think I could believe, too.” You know, as if true faith rests upon simply having some kind of supernatural experience. But the problem with supernatural experiences are that the memory of having them fade. By the way, I want supernatural experiences. I’m wide open to having one, right now. But one thing I know, from reading scripture, is the memory of those experiences fade. They faded for Israel, they faded for the kings, they faded for the prophets, they faded for you and me. And that’s just the way that we’re wired.
I mean, I know you’re like me. I forget incredibly quickly. We were in a small group meeting, not long ago. The small group leader, it was right around our anniversary. Kim and I were sharing an anniversary the following day. Small group leader says, “Hey, Dave and Kim, you’ve got an anniversary coming up.” Then he says, “Give us a memory from your wedding day.” And I think, the question sounds like it would be a really, such a softball. This one’s going way out of the park. And I begin searching my mind, pulling up the disk. Just searching. And then I realize, I’m getting nothing here.
And so Kim and I lock eyes, and you know when you’re married to somebody, you know how you communicate? By just looking at one another. And you don’t have to say anything, but you know the other one’s panicking. So I’m looking at Kim, and I’m trying to prompt her, and she’s like, “I’m getting nothing, either.” And I’m thinking, this is crazy. I look down at my finger, there’s a ring on my finger, I definitely know I was married. At some point in my history I was married. But I got nothing right now.
Listen, Abraham didn’t rest on the memory of an experience. God spoke, and he believed, and he drove a stake of confidence right there. Now, for us, the promises of God are contained and preserved in our bible. Listen, if you’re not working your bible, it’s impossible to grow in faith. The two of them are vitally connected. Romans 10, verse 17, so faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. So we see these promises in scripture, promises where God, or verses of scripture where God promises to hear our prayer. And yet, when we pray, we feel like the heavens are brass and nothing’s getting through.
And so, what are we doing at that point? What are we believing at that point? Are we going with how we feel about that? Or are we going with what God says about that? Or you read places in scripture, in the bible, where God has promised a specific promises. Jim mentioned some of them earlier, for marriage or for kids. But your experience doesn’t right now map onto any of those promises. And then you feel the creep of cynicism coming in. And feeling like, yeah, that happens for other people, I hear that happening all the time. Man, I hear the testimonies at church. But that could never happen with me. That could never happen in our family.
And yet, there’s something inside of you that, where you say, “I know that’s wrong. I know that’s not what we’re all about, that’s not what we believe.” And so, faith tells us to let scripture be louder than the voices that we hear around us. Faith tells us to let scripture have the promises from scripture speak to us. Because let’s be honest, to be alive today is to have voices speaking to you all the time. Our fears speak, our circumstances speak, our suffering speaks, our fatigue speaks. See, what faith does, is faith trusts what God says about the future more than what those voices say in the present. Faith trusts what God says about the future more than what we feel in the present, or what those voices inside of our head are saying in the present.
So the question that we need to ask, and the question that we need to resolve this morning are, what voices matter most to us? What voices are we listening to most? And Abraham had to wrestle through that. That’s why, in verse 21 it says he became, eventually, fully convinced, verse 21, that God was able to do what he had promised. It was kind of a settled conviction, that Abraham eventually arrived at long before Isaac arrived. Why? Because God said it. It was God’s word, and God’s word, alone.
So if we’re going to understand Abraham’s faith, we’ve got to understand first, we’ve got to first believe the promise. Secondly, is embracing the circumstances. Embracing the circumstances. Let’s plug in at verse 19. He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead, since he was about 100 years old. Or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. You know what I love about this description of Abraham and Sarah is, it links faith to reality. It links faith to reality.
In other words, there’s no denial of how bad things really are. There’s no dumping of the evidence. there’s no spin taking place, where it’s really bad, but you don’t really want to talk about it. there’s no attempt to avoid the raw truth. Because the raw truth might somehow reinforce negative thoughts about the situation. I mean, you know as well as I do that there is a body of faith teaching that tells us that voicing the reality of how a situation is is actually empowering the problem. Or, is actually emboldening the enemy. And it makes Christians appear, at times, like … I want to say this delicately, lunatics.
I mean, it makes us appear like lunatics. Denying reality in the name of faith. You know? Denying that reality, in the name of believing a promise. That’s not how God defines faith. And when you think about it, isn’t this such a refreshing passage, where we’re told, “Okay, he didn’t weaken the faith. He considers his own body, his body’s as good as dead. He’s about 100 years old. He considers Sarah’s womb, her womb is barren.” So Abraham, first, he’s bringing his mind, he’s bringing his honest thoughts, he’s thinking hard about the reality of where they actually are, he’s considering the circumstances, he’s looking at the reality, and he’s saying, “Yeah, the results ain’t pretty. I mean, this is not looking good.”
Abraham says, “Yeah, I look at my body, in the mirror, and it’s as good as dead.” But because he’s a guy, he’s saying, “Because I’m a guy, it’s a very hip kind of dead. It’s a very cool kind of dead. I’ve still got something going on kind of dead. But it’s dead.” He says, “I look at Sarah, she’s 90 years old, she’s been through menopause, she’s gorgeous to me, but she’s barren. She’s a babe. She’s barren. She’s a barren babe.” That’s how he saw her, that’s how her husband saw her.
Do you see what’s being set up here? See, this is what this section is meant to communicate. I want you to think about this, in terms of the push and the force and the desperation that’s supposed to come out of this. Because this is what this section is meant to communicate. You look at Abraham, it’s impossible. You look at Sarah, it’s incomprehensible. Everywhere you look is dead. Everywhere. There is no seed, no hope, no way, no life. It’s as if the circumstances, the reality, speaks as a jury. It comes back. It offers its verdict. It says, “Impossible. There’s no life. He’s 100, she’s 90. She’s barren.”
Do you see the relevance, and the impact, this could have for how we’re thinking about our prodigals? Abraham believed when there was no life. See, if you love, or are working with, or are counseling, a wayward person, you know the burden of an absence of life. You know what it’s like to have the circumstances reveal an utter barrenness. In fact, you’re experiencing it right now. You’ve been praying for them for years, this one person. You love them. And you keep hoping for a change. But if you’re honest with us today, if you were vitally honest, if you’re speaking to the reality of where things really are right now, there’s no change, no hope, no interest, no life.
Or someone you love is just being crushed by the foolish decisions that they’re making. And when you honestly assess where they are, and you honestly assess where they were two years ago, you realize there’s no strength, there’s no power, there’s been no change. There’s no life. Or you look at your child, and you think, they have been given so much by God, and they are bearing so little fruit for God, and when I look at them right now, I have to honestly conclude that there is no zeal, no heart, no interest, no life. All around me is barrenness, who can relate to that?
God says, Abraham can relate to that. And by the way, not just for a short season, but 25 years. In fact, the interesting thing about the passage is, God intentionally waited until it was too late. Until, not just that it seemed too late, but it was physically impossible. See, the problem is not just Sarah’s barrenness, but it’s Abraham’s age. In other words, it’s not just her, the absence of life, and her inability to have a baby. It’s his, and this is in the text, this is implied in the text, his, and you’ll know where I’m going here, when I said, his utter inability to produce life.
When it says his body was as good as dead, that’s what it means. He was beyond those years. So his body is as good as dead, her condition, barren. It’s all there intentionally. I mean, when it opens, in hope, he believed against hope. That’s just another way to say, “This was pretty hopeless.” But God brought them to a place where it was evident to them, and to everyone around them, that this was way beyond man. That if something was going to happen, it was going to happen outside the leadership of a man or a woman. It was going to happen outside of the glorious parenting of any human being. It had to be something that came from the outside. It had to be some kind of supernatural intervention. It had to be something that came from God and God alone.
And so Abraham, he believed the promise. And then he embraced the reality of the circumstances as part of his expression of faith. He embraced the reality. And then lastly, he sustained the trust. And verse 20 talks a little bit more about how that transformation actually took place. Let’s check it out together. Verse 20, no distrust made him waiver, concerning the promise of God. But he grew strong in his faith, as he gave glory to God. Let’s stop there for a second. So Abraham believed, think about this, long before the circumstances changed.
In other words, the story of Abraham, as it relates to Isaac, is the story of a man who’s sojourning in barrenness. And having to find God when God doesn’t seem to be around at all. And God has made all of these promises, and held out all of these things. But there’s nothing in life, there’s nothing in his family, that seems to verify or testify to the reality of what God has said. So he believed long before his circumstances changed, he met God in barrenness.
And I’ve got to be honest with you. This is so provoking to me, because so often with me, like this is kind of how I roll. Is my faith sparks based upon some hopeful sign in the circumstance. You know? So let’s say your kid is not doing well, and you’re struggling, and you’re so discouraged. But then one day, you walk into their room, is that a bible? It’s tucked there under there bed. Looks like they may have read it, they may have pulled it out, they may have just kicked it, I don’t know. But that’s a hopeful sign. God is at work. This is what we’ve been praying for.
Or they bowed their head, you know, when you were praying over the meal. Or they said they needed something, and would you pray for … you know, all of these things that we’ll seize upon, that could, indeed, be the activity of the spirit. But are not designed to be the point of orientation for our faith. And so, we struggle with unbelief, and we have these issues that emerge, within the situation, even in the barrenness. And we’re so tempted to seize upon them, and to think, God is real, God is amazing. But the trigger for the faith is perceived change, not the promise of God.
It’s perceived change. It’s a change in the circumstance. It’s not the promises of God. See, this is where we have to get what’s going on here, with Abraham. Abraham’s path went through the barrenness. And it was in the barrenness that this statement is made about Abraham, “He grew strong in his faith.” Didn’t start strong. He grew strong in his faith, as he gave glory to God in the barrenness. So what happened to Abraham in the barrenness? Well, he grew strong in his faith. How did he grow strong in his faith? He gave glory to God.
Okay, now we’ve just gone to a whole different level. Because what this means is, God is saying, “Dave, I’m inviting you away from your self pitying place that you tend to go, where you kind of enjoy just wallowing around in how bad things are. And I’m inviting you to go, not only to a place where no distrust makes you waiver, concerning the promise of God. But I want you to grow in faith. And, Dave, guess what? You’re going to start giving glory to God.” Well what am I giving glory to God for, Lord? I don’t see you working. “Because of the promise, because you believe I’m going to work.”
He grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God. Why? Because he was fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. And so for Abraham, his growth is specifically linked to seeing the promises of God, and glorifying God for them. Not seeing the circumstances change. In fact, the results were for Abraham, for a long time, the circumstances didn’t change. But his faith did. His faith revealed this sustained trust. And I wanted to make this point, because the reality of prodigals, if you’re walking that road, typically it means that God is going to fix both a pain and a promise in your life, at the same time. There is a pain, and there is a promise.
And he allows that pain to play out over a long period of time. And the promise doesn’t necessarily get traction for a while. I mean with Abraham, it was 25 years. God was changing his name from Abram to Abraham, from father of many to father of a multitude, father of many nations. I mean, this guy’s being upgraded, and all he had was the son of a slave, and a promise.
And let’s not sanitize this. Let’s not sanitize what Abraham was going through. Let’s not imagine that somehow, this wasn’t a defining experience for him and Sarah, as month after month, Abraham would come in and expectantly, “Well, is there any evidence?” “No, there is none.” Going to family events, “Any children yet?” There is none. An attack on their identity. You know? Father of many, still no kids. Just all the shame that was involved in that. And yet, his strategy was to raise his voice. He grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God.
And so much of what this season is about has to do with the work of God in the prodigal person that you’re thinking about. And so much of what this season is about has to do with the faith that you are, or you’re not, exercising in this world of barrenness in which you live. So let’s make it personal. How are you doing right now? In this season? Between the promise and the fulfillment. Are you patiently waiting for God? Can your voice be one that other people hear, giving glory to God?
Or are you on the opposite lane? Do you know what the opposite lane is, the opposite place is? You’re out conceiving an Ishmael, that’s what it is. See, in Galatian chapter four, Paul says, “Ishmael symbolizes a child of the flesh.” In other words, Ishmael symbolizes these self sufficient choices that we make, where we basically say, “You know what, God? I’m done. I’ve waited long enough. You’re being displaced from this project, I’m taking over. Management is not pleased with the way this situation is being run. What it really needs is some real leadership, I’m your man.”
And so, I’m going to start creating some momentum here, I’m going to start creating some activity. We’re going to get out of this barren phase, we’re going to get into some fruitfulness. And we’re going to see something happen. See, Ishmaels are conceived when impatience marries unbelief. You get an Ishmael. And by the way, just to be clear, Ishmael is not our wayward person. Ishmael is the fruit of our unbelief regarding their life. That’s the Ishmael.
Because you know, we can’t tolerate their decisions. We can’t abide by how he lives. We can’t believe that she’s making the choices that she’s making. We think what they really need is the truth. They need to hear the truth. They need to know that we’re going to maintain a prophetic voice in their life. When what they really need is a relationship with us. But we find 100 ways to telegraph our disapproval. Because we feel like our disapproval is an important thing to communicate. And sometimes, it’s not that even we’re intentionally communicating our disapproval, it just comes through in 100 different ways, because we’re embracing unbelief in barrenness.
And the mind and the voice of unbelief is disapproval. And so it leaks out all over the place. And so we find 100 different ways to telegraph that disapproval, and then we’re mystified that they never call us. See, Ishmael is a voice that whispers to the wayward mind, and Ishmael speaks to that prodigal and says to him or her, “Oh certainly they love you. Oh yes, they love you. They just don’t like you.” Of course they love you, they’re your parents, of course they love you, they’re in your family. Of course they love you. They’re on record for loving you. You’re just not likable. They don’t really prefer having you around. You kind of represent something that’s kind of appalling to them. You’re disgusting to them.
Or for some, it’s, Ishmael can be the opposite. It’s the person that, we talked about this the other day, that won’t look away. That just wants to protect the peace. That will accommodate the anger at any cost. And will tolerate anything, and not see how it deadens their soul, and obscures the promises of God. It’s kind of Ishmael at any cost. Or you might have a single woman or a single man, that are kind of finding their way in Christianity, but they meet somebody and they think, “Oh he’s not a Christian, but he’s so close.” Or she made a profession, and she seemed like she was very genuine, and so I married her, and I’ve been living with him, and I’ve been living with her and that mistake for a number of years, now.
It’s like Ishmael with irreconcilable differences. And if we were honest, we would acknowledge that, for some of us, our Ishmaels stare at us each day. A kind of daily reminder of the fruitlessness of our own effort. The fruitlessness of trying to do this ourself. The fruitlessness of pushing God aside, and allowing impatience to marry our unbelief. But listen, if that discourages you, I want you to think about this. Abraham is offered, in scripture, as the one who got faith right. And Ishmael is embedded in his story. He’s the one who got faith right. So Abraham is not offered to us as this perfect exhibit, he’s actually offered to us as the one who points forward to one who will be perfect.
And it’s because Jesus came, and Jesus lived that perfect life, and Jesus died that substitutionary death, and rose on the third day, that he now has the power and the authority to redeem us. Which means that our fleshly choices, those places where we didn’t trust God, those places where we didn’t do it right. Our fleshly choices need no longer define us. It means that we don’t need to spend the rest of our life seeking to atone for the mistakes that we’ve made. Even the mistakes in parenting, or the mistakes with the prodigal that we’re thinking of. We don’t need to spend all this time atoning for our sins, we can look to the atonement of another.
So yeah, like Abraham, our life may be, we have Ishmaels, just like Abraham did. And our Ishmael may live on, because they’re written into our story by a sovereign, providential God. But they’re written into a story that passes through the cross, and redeems us, despite our past, despite our sins, despite our mistakes and our failures and our Ishmaels.
And here’s the thing, Abraham trusted this. It’s how he was able to grow strong in his faith, as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. And as we draw this message to a close, and we draw this conference to a close, my prayer for myself, and my prayer for all of us, is that, may God help us to be more convinced that he is able to do what he had promised, what he has promised. May he help us to give glory to him, right here and right now. Not because our prodigal has changed. Not because our circumstances have changed. Not because we’re not in a barren land right now. Let us give glory to God right here and right now because our faith has changed.
Because that’s what gives honor to God. And that’s what positions a loved one to let a prodigal know that they can be liked, and not just loved. And that you can be available to make a difference in their life.