Longing to Believe: An Advent Sermon (Genesis 15.1-6; Luke 1.46-55)


Existentialist Jean-Paul Satre may have been speaking for many in today’s world, when he wrote about the human being possessing a desire to be satisfied and fulfilled, but nothing in this world being able to fill the bill. So we settle for a “Happy Holidays” in the presence of what Donne called “immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.” It is so sad that so many never have that longing filled with a truly Merry Christmas. But Alistair McGrath describes this feeling of longing as an opportunity for Christians to announce the Gospel:

“This feeling of dissatisfaction is one of the most important points of contact for gospel proclamation.”[1]

But what happens when the desire to believe comes to, well, believers?  The season of Advent draws us back to Old Testament Scriptures where we meet a believer who could say with that father who wanted his son healed: “I believe. Help thou my unbelief.” This believer’s name was Abraham.

(Read Genesis 15.1-6Luke 1.46-55)

Introduction to the Sermon

You know them by their distinctive artwork. But they were not really artists. Nathanial was a printer and Jim was a businessman. Nathaniel was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts on March 27th, 1813, the second of four children. When Nathaniel was eight years old, tragedy struck. Nathaniel’s father unexpectedly passed away leaving Nathaniel and his eleven-year-old brother Lorenzo to provide for the family. At age 15, Nathaniel would begin a career that would last his whole life. He worked in a lithography shop, a printing process only 30 years in the making at that time. He later moved to New York and set up shop at 1 Wall Street. He produced cheap, mass-market lithographs of, well, catastrophes. He had his first big break in a mass printing when he printed a drawing of a deathly fire in a New Orleans hotel. That fit is melancholy mood perfectly. Nat married Eliza and tragedy struck again in young Nat’s life when their daughter died in infancy. Four months later Eliza died. He remarried, had a son and this child died. Then his brother died during the same period. Some time in all of this, Nat was introduced to a bookkeeper named Jim who had a knack for art. Jim was upbeat, happy and just the opposite of Nat. And together they began to turn out, not lithographs of just disasters and wars, but all kinds of prints, and they were especially known for happy, sentimental scenes of life in America. In all, the firm produced in excess of 7500 different titles, totaling over one million prints produced from 1835 to 1907. And from tragedy in Nathaniel Courier’s life and a vision in Jim Ives’ life to help his friend, they produced the beautiful winter and Christmas scenes we know as Courier and Ives. And now, as Paul Harvey, says, you know the rest of the story. The next time you see once off the beautiful, idyllic Courier and Ives scenes, you are seeing what Nathaniel Courier longed to believe in: a serenity that he didn’t have.

I wonder how many this Christmas are longing to believe. And the gift-wrapping and decorations are hiding that longing. There are young people here today who know the promise of God’s Word, but they are hurting this year because of divorce. There are those here who know the truth of Christ, but whose hearts are grieving for loss of loved ones. There are some who know the truth of Scripture, but can’t find God’s will in their lives. There are some who know the wonder of Christmas in their heads, but not in their hearts.

I have been there. And I think if we are honest, all of us have faced things in our lives that cause us to pause. But God is not put off by our questions about faith. God welcomes us to bring our doubts to Him. If you are longing to believe, the prophecies about the coming of Jesus, are like a roaring fireplace. Come in from the winter cold of doubt and warm your hands and your heart in the furnace of faith.

And Genesis 15 is a good place to go for doubters. Through the covenant made with Abraham by God, interpreted by none other than Mary in Luke chapter one, we come to see how God answers our longings to believe.

Here is what we learn about longing for faith form God’s Word today.

1.      We can all be honest about our longing for faith with God

We can all identity with Abraham’s burdened complaint in Genesis 15. We read the opening words to Chapter fifteen of Genesis:

“After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; you reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless…”

Here is a holy complaint. God is big enough to handle Abram’s heartache and he is big enough to handle yours.

When we read “After these things” we ought to think for a moment about this man and his burdened complain to God. For he had been sorely tested and had sometimes failed. He left all at 75 years of age to go to a new land, not so friendly, and to be the father of a new people, when in truth he had no children and signs of getting any, except this Word from God. But there had been famine. He had fled to Egypt. He had lied about Sarah, his wife, who was very attractive and very attractive to the ruler of Egypt. He told Pharaoh that she was his sister. He was willing to give up the purity of his wife for his own hide. No. It was more. He had a promise from God and Abram felt that if the Promise was going to be fulfilled he would have to use every means available to make it happen. Even lying about his wife and even sacrificing the purity of his beloved Sarah. But God judged this action, brought affliction on Pharaoh. In Genesis 12:18, God uses a pagan kind to admonish his chosen vessel:

“So Pharaoh called Abram and said, ‘What is this you had done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?…Now then, here is your wife; take her and go’” (Gen. 12.18 ESV).

Anyone here ever took matters into your own hands? Anyone here can relate to saying, “Well, if this is going to go anywhere I am going to have to do it!” Then you can relate to Abram. “Anyone here ever had it backfire?” Abram did.

Well, then, he ends up leaving Egypt and makes a journey through the desert. I have said in my life, “There are things I did as a young man that I am just not going to do any more! I’ve been there and done that.” I told my wife the other day, “I used to drive 23 hours straight through from Louisiana to the Navy base in California. I did that numerous times. That is probably why I have back problems today.” And I told her, “I will now break up car trips about every two hours. The hotel bills get a little high, but that is the way it is!” Well, human nature being what it is, I guess Abram must have thought that. “I will never make another desert journey.” But there he was in chapter 13, in another desert caravan. Then after a desert journey, Abram makes it, with his family, to the edge of this land where all of the promises were to unfold. And there, he has a quarrel with his ambitious and industrious kinsman, Lot. There is a division of land and Lot goes and gets himself a real nice piece of property. It’s called Sodom and Gomorrah. And wouldn’t you know, Lot ends up in the midst of a war and is taken captive. And who has to pull him out of it? Abram.

How many here had great plans for that refund check, until your brother in law, lost his shirt in a real estate deal that just couldn’t go wrong, but did? Well, it is one thing after another with Abram.

And that part of the story ends with an amazing encounter with a priestly king named Melchizadek who came, mysteriously from the ancient city of Salem, a place one day to be called “God’s city” or “Jerusalem.” Abram gives a tenth of all that he has to this one who gave him a blessing and seemed to offer protection to him in the midst of insane kings who wanted the lives of his kinsmen. It always seemed that whenever there was trouble, mysteriously, there was God.

And so now God comes to Him again. And Abram’s response is not, as Matthew  Henry, reminds us, complaining to God in a sinful way, but Abram is a “burdensome spirit” coming to a “faithful and compassionate friend.”[2]

I thank God today that we can bring our longings to God, even when those longings involve faith.

David was like this as were other Psalm composers. Many of the Psalms are laments and cries from the heart of the worshipper, longing to believe. Listen to just a few of these Psalms that Charles Haddon Spurgeon called the “howling” Psalms because of the cry, “How long?”:

·      My soul also is greatly troubled.   But you, O LORD—how long?  Psalms 6.3

·      How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?   How long will you hide your face from me?  Psalms 13.1

The prophets were like this. Isaiah cried out:

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:   “Until cities lie waste   without inhabitant,  and houses without people,   and the land is a desolate waste,  Isaiah 6.11

And Habakkuk cried:

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,   and you will not hear?  Or cry to you “Violence!”   and you will not save?  Habakkuk 1.2

Even Paul wondered about God’s promises in His own life and ministry. For in Acts 18, we read:

But when the Jews opposed Paul and became abusive, he shook out his clothes in protest and said to them, “Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles.”  Acts 18.6

But Jesus came to Paul to speak to him in his longing:

For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.”  Acts 18.10

Is there anyone here who needs God to come to them to help them in their longing to believe? Maybe a longing to believe in prayer. Maybe a longing to believe in God’s plan for your life? Maybe a longing to believe in seeing a loved one come to Christ? Maybe a longing, at this Christ time, to believe in your future. If so, you are in good company. You’ve got Abraham and David and Paul with you. You have Jesus with you. For on the cross, our Savior, abandoned by His Father in order that your sin could be atoned, cried, “

My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”[3]

The Bible is written to reflect what each and every one of us is going through and to take our burdens to Christ, who patiently, loving waits for us to come to him. In fact, you could say the Bible anticipates your complaint and models how to take that holy burden to the Lord faithfully, even when faith itself is under attack.

There is something else that we learn about longing for faith form God’s Word today.

2.      We can all be hopeful about our longing for faith with God

For we can all marvel at God’s gracious covenant, which came in response to Abram’s longing for a Promised Son.

The Lord listened to Abram’s complaint, his longing for a son. And the Lord confirmed again His Word to Abram. The Promise I have will not come through your servant, which would have been the way in that day, if there was no son. The Promise would go through Abram’s boy, his own boy. But God communicates that truth by bringing Abram outside in verse 5.

We can be hopeful if we are longing for faith with God, for He comes to us and takes us apart to Himself. He does that in many ways.

Enoch was a man who walked with God for 300 years, we are told in Genesis Chapter 5.22. He lived to be 365 years old (Gen. 5.23). So it seems he didn’t learn how to walk with God the first 65 years of his life. But one day he took a walk and just walked right into heaven with God.

How many here are willing to let God lead them out of their longings this morning, to go  with God on a stroll: maybe in His Word, or maybe literally, maybe just time away, to be alone with God. Great things happen in His presence.

Well, the Lord took Abram outside to look up at the heavens in verse 5. That is another good Biblical response to your longing.

Not only go apart with the Lord somewhere, but also take a look up at the glory of God’s heaven.

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Psalms 19.1

Once I was going through some trials in church planting, and it seemed that this troubled situation stayed with me night and day. One morning I had to leave the house very early to go to a men’s prayer meeting that I was exactly looking forward to leading. When I left the house to get in my car, I happened to look up. And there I saw the majesty of the God’s glory in the heavens. And the galaxies strung in space by the hand of the One who touched the leper to make Him whole, spoke of the immensity of His love and sovereign grace. And I felt small. And my troubles seemed small, or at least not too big for God to handle. The Jewish mystic and theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel said at his deathbed that “I only asked for wonder…” Wonder is what God gives us as we look out into His creation. But even the wonder evoked from gazing into the heavens is only a prelude to the wonder of God’s Gospel in Jesus.

For, as Abram is stunned by God’s greatness, God then says to Abram:

“Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So, shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15.5).

An old man, looking off into the deep of space, and the word of God seems to say, “Child, you are looking at what I can do in space. I can do even greater things than  that! I can bring from you a world of sons!”

And from the old man looking at the stars, would come a son, and a nation, and another Son, who would bless the world. And that Promised Son is Jesus Christ. And those stars are all of you. They are all of those who would ever trust in Abraham’s Promised Son.

But the thing would be: this would always be supernatural. This would not be about Abraham and his line apart from God’s supernatural work. We would learn that in the story of the illegitimate son, Ishmael, and the son of promise, who came by a miracle, Isaac. And all through redemptive history, it would be this way. Paul, a Hebrew and blood son of Abraham, lamented to himself in Romans about the unbelieving Hebrews, just like he was. But Paul speaks into his own trouble and reminds us all that this is supernatural lineage that is about God making the family, not man. And Romans clarifies this passage:

“But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham, because they are his offspring…but the children of promise are counted as offspring.”[4]

And John, in His Gospel, says the same thing about this Promise of God:

“He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”[5]

This is the Gospel. The Lord today is the supernatural business of engrafting wayward people, and even longing people, into His family. He makes stars out of skeptics. He makes cherished sons and delighted daughters out of cosmic orphans.  All through the wonder much greater than the heavens: the wonder of the heavens come down into the womb of a virgin, and even more, into the hearts of sinners.

Here is also, what we learn about longing for faith form God’s Word today.

3.      Third, we can all be happy about our longing for faith

That’s  right. We can be happy. For the longing for faith in Abram brought a response from God. That which was promised to Abram, would come true. But that is not the gift I speak of now. I speak now of the gift of faith. For so we read:

“And he believed the Lord, and he [the Lord] counted it to him [Abram] as righteousness.”

Faith is, according to Ephesians 2.8 a “gift of God.” And by faith we lay claim of the gift of being placed right with God through Jesus. Justification by faith is the cornerstone of our relationship with God. We read in Romans:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Romans 5.1

For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.  Romans 10.10

Your longing for faith may have brought you today to receive the free gift of eternal life. You do so, as Abram did by faith—not religion, and not your mother’s faith, not your church’s faith—your faith, which God Himself gives you. Listen to Jesus Himself as He calls you:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7.7 NIV [see also Luke 11.9]).

“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10.9 NIV).

In other words, your longing will be satisfied when you come to Abraham’s Promised child, Jesus, and trust in Him. You will find the pleasant places you have longed for in your heart.

Now here is the amazing thing: this act of faith happens as he is yet without child: just an old man looking up into the starry skies.

The other day I saw a man who won a lottery and became a multi millionaire overnight. But nothing looked different. He looked like a guy who worked in a factory. In fact,, he said that he would be at work the next day. I don’t like lotteries, but I hope you get the point of this. This man looked like nothing had happened to him. But his life had really changed. Isn’t that what we look like as God’s people who believe? It looks like nothing has happened—we win, we lose, we sometimes make really bad mistakes, we live, we die—but there is an inward renewal going on that has transformed us into the sons and daughters of the Most High. That is a gift. Faith does not meant that you have it all together enough to believe. It means you believe in God to put it all together and you haven’t the slightest idea about how He will do it. Except that it involves the life of His Son. It involves His blood. And it is all up to God to do.

Now the other gift I want you to see is the very gift of the fulfillment of this promise. It involves a virgin named Mary. And Mary becomes the New Testament prophetess who announces the fulfillment of the covenant made with Abraham. What did Mary think was happening when she was bearing the Christ child? Just read her words:

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,  Luke 1.46-47 ESV

Now skip down to the last verses of her song:

He has helped his servant Israel,   in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers,   to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”  Luke 1.54-55

Mary was an astute Bible scholar who knew that what had happened in the coming of God’s son, was the fulfillment of a promise made to Abraham. She saw the birth of Christ in light of God’s covenant promises.

Abram longed to believe and God fulfilled his longing, and the prophet’s longing in the birth of Jesus. And I would say that He fulfills every human longing to believe.

This week, the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is due to be released.[6] It promises to be a good film and will be if faithful to the wonderful Christian allegory for children by the great Christian apologist and scholar. But Lewis, like Nathaniel Courier, had a very unhappy childhood. And he longed to believe, even when an atheistic professor at Oxford. The only thing he could believe in, then, was the imagination. And he read myth and fable. But later he came to see that his longing, and even the pagan myths and fables, were also longings to believe. And Lewis wrote:

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food . A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water…If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. “

C. S. Lewis was made for another world. And one day, this man longing to believe…well, he just did.  And that longing was one day filled when Jesus, who was born in a manger, was born in C.S. Lewis’ heart. And the most wonderful children’s stories, as well as some of the most insightful theological essays and books written in the Twentieth Century poured from that transformed heart.

The whole story reminds me, yes, of another old movie: “Miracle on 34th Street.” Remember the story? Kris Kringle, Edmund Gwenn, believes he is Santa Claus. And the authorities want him sent to the insane asylum. And all of this takes place in the presence of a little girl, Susan Walker, played by a beautiful little Natalie Wood. That girl in the movie had been hurt by the loss of a father. But in the end of the story, old Kris Kringle is shown to be sane and the world mad. And he gets to little Natalie Wood and she believes. That little girl needed to believe in Kris Kringle and to believe in the wonder of Christmas.

What wonder do you want to believe in this Christmas? Maybe that there can be happiness in marriage. Or that there is a life to come where you will see your parents, or like Courier, your children. Maybe you long to believe in order to satisfy the desire inside of you, like C.S. Lewis.

The Bible says that in the birth of Jesus, God has remembered His mercy to Abraham and to his descendants forever. My dear friend, you who long to believe: let the whole world be mad. The longing to believe is always settled in the wonder of one much greater than all the Kris Kringles of all mythology and story: our Lord Jesus Christ. He is here today and welcomes doubters, skeptics, little girls and little boys, and all who will say, “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief.”

I close with this prayer of Ann Brontë. She called it, a “Doubter’s Prayer:”

“Oh, help me, God! For thou alone

Canst my distracted soul relieve;

Forsake it not: it is thine own,

Though weak, yet longing to believe.

Oh, drive these cruel doubts away;

And make me know, that Thou art God!

A faith, that shines by night and day,

Will lighten every earthly load.

If I believe that Jesus died,

And, waking, rose to reign above;

Then surely Sorrow, Sin, and Pride,

Must yield to Peace, and Hope, and Love.

And all the blessed words He said

Will strength and holy joy impart:

A shield of safety o’er my head,

A spring of comfort in my heart.”[7]

[1] As quoted in “Real Joy and True Myth” by Dave Brown, located at http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/3505/LewisJoy.html (December 2, 2005).

[2] Matthew Henry, Leslie F. Church, and Gerald W. Peterman, The NIV Matthew Henry Commentary in One Volume : Based on the Broad Oak Edition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1992), 30.

[3] And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Matthew 27.46 (and Mark 15.34).

[4] Romans 9.6,7.

[5] John 1.11-13.

[6] December 9th, 2005, The Walt Disney Company and Walden Media.

[7] “The Doubter’s Prayer.” by Anne Brontë (1820-1849), located at http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/bronte/poems/pba-doubter.html (December 2, 2005).

About Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D., MPA (University of Wales; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author.
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