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I’ve been doing some preaching on the Old Testament narratives lately, especially the stories of Abraham. One thing that always amazes me about these stories is their honesty. In picturing these Old Testament saints, the authors do not airbrush the flaws or crop out the nasty details.
In the great honor roll of the Old Testament saints in Hebrews 11, you get the impression that Abraham was a man of unshakable and persistent faith. “By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country. . . . For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
Well, yes, but it wasn’t all that simple or uncomplicated. In fact, Abraham’s faith often wavered; he often lost patience with God’s promise of a child. At one point, he suggested his faithful servant Eliezer as heir of the promise. At another time he nearly destroyed his family by taking a more fertile concubine and having a son by her. And before it’s all over, both he and Sarah end up laughing at the whole prospect of the promised child.
If you are reading these stories, the take-away is not what a marvelous man of faith Abraham was, but what how amazingly faithful God was to his promises. It’s not so much that Abraham was a hero of faith, as that the covenant God is a rock of fidelity.
In other words, the wonder of the Old Testament stories is that they read us, they understand us. Delving into them, I realize how I begin to see myself in them. I see my struggles of faith, I recognize my conniving ways, I experience my own way of wrestling with God. These old narratives begin to join the narrative of our lives. We don’t just read the story, we are in the story.
In a way, that’s not much different from how we read a good novel. We get involved with the characters, we care about them—and most of all, we see ourselves in them.
But the biblical narratives offer us something far more than any novel. These are not just stories in which we see ourselves, but in which we see God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is our God. His promises have not changed, his patient grace has not run out. We can harbor our own doubts, we can hatch our own plans, we can laugh in God’s face, and we may, like Abraham, sometimes pay the price for our doubts and conniving. But God remains faithful.
That’s one of the reasons why it’s usually wrong to try to wring a moral out these old stories. Dare to be a Daniel, or fight the giants like David, or have the faith of Abraham. The moral of the story typically has little to do with human moral goodness. The moral of the story is always to trust in God and his promises.
God is the main actor in these stories, just as God is the main actor in our lives. In the end, the story of my life is not in the choices I made, or the achievements I accomplished, or the mistakes I have made, or the sins that I fell into. The story of my life, like the story of Abraham, is finally about the grace and faithfulness of God. The story of Abraham doesn’t call me to be like him. It teaches me is to trust in our covenant God through all the ups and downs, the doubts and fears, the trials and sins.
All those wonderful stories in the Old Testament ultimately lead to Jesus Christ. He is the child of promise. In him, says Paul, all the promises of God find their Yes!