The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 15

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The Highs and Lows of Obedience.

The chronicler of Hebrews eleven is not yet done with Moses. “By faith,” he goes on to relate, “(Moses) kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel. By faith the people passed through the red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.”

If these verses are characterized by anything, it would be by skillful understatement. They summarize the culmination and turning point of 400 years of Hebrew slavery under the iron fist of the Egyptians. They chronicle God’s plan communicated to Moses and the Hebrew people through specific commands and the miraculous outcomes Moses’ obedience released. God’s call expressed through God’s commands becomes a game-changer for God’s people. What we are told in less than 50 words is not meant to tell us the whole breath-taking story, but to plant in us the seed of the idea that obedience to God’s call puts people on God’s path. A later writer would call it “a highway”, “the Way of Holiness”, and a way not for “wicked fools” but for “the redeemed…and the ransomed of the LORD” (Isaiah 35).

There is a pattern here, a rhythm of contrasting opposites that is not meant to strip the complexity of relationship with God into easy platitudes; rather, it is meant to paint us a picture showing us two things. It shows us that obedience to God brings people out of death into new life. And it shows us that God fills that new life with a complexity of experiences, like a spectrum of colours with a myriad of tints and shades of those colours.

In the first case, God Himself determines who will escape the culture and cycle of death enslaving all humans. His determination is not based on deific fancy, but on His perfect knowledge of each person’s choice to obey Him or not. For Moses and the Hebrews, the direction to obey the unprecedented command of bloody doorway-smearing was beyond the paradigms of either Hebrew or Egyptian culture. The Hebrews obeyed God and lived. The Egyptians hardened their hearts to the command and experienced heart-wrenching death. God is the God of life. Only as we submit to Him do we find we are released from death into eternal life.

Secondly, we see that obedience to God is a path of many tints and shades—of highs and lows—of apparent successes and of seeming failures, of soul-deep wounds and breathless joys. The Hebrews’ victorious escape from Egypt’s oppression was an unimagined high. They travelled and camped for several days, boldly rejoicing in their good fortune of escape, following God’s cloud-and-fire leading. Then suddenly they found themselves huddled enmasse at the shore of the Red Sea, hemmed in by Pharaoh’s pursuing army. Hebrew hearts plummeted in fear and disbelief as they watched a hopeful situation deteriorate and go south. Yet God was present and working through this dark hour. God sent a storm that churned and divided the sea, and commanded the Hebrews to cross the dry seabed throughout the dark and stormy night. They obeyed and the crossing of the Red Sea, followed by the flood-water repulsion of the Egyptian pursuers, became a faith-builder for the Hebrew people for generations to come. It, more than any other single event, would remind the people in later dark hours that God is faithful. He delights to create a spectrum of colour out of shades of darkness for those who follow Him.

God’s call into fullness of life for all people is always and without exception embedded within the paradigm of command-and-obedience. The Hebrew experience becomes a picture for all God-followers; like the Hebrews’ first Passover event, we must daily stand behind the protection of a doorway marked with blood-stains—those of Christ whose obedience paid the redemption price for our sins. Then we must step out and obey His overarching command to live lives of love and holiness in order to access God’s path for us. His path will take us safely through every obstacle and dark night, through every high and low of human experience.

Obedience is essential. Only as we trust Him and obey Him will we recognize that His call brings us blessing. So listen to God’s call and obey Him. Then include yourself in the song of Moses who sang, “O LORD…In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling…You will bring them in and plant them on the mountain of your inheritance—the place, O LORD, you made for your dwelling, the sanctuary, O Lord, your hands established. The LORD will reign for ever and ever” (Exodus 13:15,17,18).

(Photo Credit: By Ben Njeri [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons)

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The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 14

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Who Are You?

Growing up as a prince of Egypt had its benefits. The young Moses had been raised with every asset the household of Pharaoh could supply. But Moses could not ignore the growing sense that he was an imposter. His birthmother had told him stories that rung true. Moses was not an Egyptian. He dressed like one, he was raised like one, but he knew deep down he was not one.

As he daily saw the overt cruelty of the Egyptian taskmasters toward the Hebrew slaves, Moses felt increasing angst. If he was descended from the Hebrew patriarch Abraham, how long could he stand by and watch his people—the people of the true God—being mistreated?

“By faith,” summarizes the author of Hebrews 11, “Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the kings’ anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible” (Hebrews 11:24-27).

Moses’ identity underwent a massive paradigm shift sometime in his early adulthood. His self-awareness as a prince of Egypt, entitled to all Egypt’s treasures, power and benefits, was as secure as the shifting sands of the Nile River delta at flood-time. Moses knew something had to change. So he did what any deep-thinking, ethically-conscious responsible person would do: he ran and hid.

For forty years he hid in the hills where no one—neither Egyptian nor Hebrew—could find him. For forty years he asked himself questions like, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘How could God be letting this happen to me?’ For forty years he heard nothing but silence.

Our lives can be like Moses’. Our identities fluctuate with every passing wind of social, emotional, and even political influence. ‘Who are we deep inside?’ we wonder. And who is God who allows life’s twists and traumas to occur?

Finally Moses’ heart was ready, and God spoke to him. Moses listened, but his first reply exposed the deep ache of his lifelong question.

“Who am I…?” cried Moses, prostrate and barefoot before the strange fiery epiphany of the LORD God.

God answered simply, “I will be with you.”

Then Moses countered, “Who are you?”

“I AM WHO I AM.” Period.

God’s replies to Moses’ bold questions were bedrock answers. God knows every person’s identity is satisfied only in Him. God is the inexhaustible identity from which we must gain our own. More than that, He promises to be with us. His presence, when fully appreciated by us, meets the broad spectrum of our needs. His presence enables us to know who we are because of who He is; to both accept God’s rescue and to rescue others; to rest without angst and to work wholeheartedly and with maximum impact; to live with God in the present and to live with Him for eternity.

Moses did not become perfect. But Moses became usable. He walked back into Egypt, confronted both Pharaoh and his own Hebrew people with God’s instructions, and watched the results. To the extent that Moses obeyed God implicitly throughout the final forty years of his life, Moses more and more realized and recognized who he was, and who God is.

That’s why the author of Hebrews 11 lists Moses among those who heard God’s call and stepped out in faith. Moses recognized God. That is the invitation for each of us who find ourselves asking the same questions, ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who are you, God?’

God’s answer to us is the same as it was to Moses.

“I will be with you,” and “I AM WHO I AM.”

Period.

(Photo Credit: By LBM1948 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 13

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The Trustworthy Nature of ‘Vox Dei’.

“By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict” (Hebrews 11:23).

Taking refuge in Egypt had backfired. The famine in Canaan c.1500 B.C. was nothing compared to the cruel bondage the Hebrew people now experienced in Egypt. For four generations Pharaoh’s taskmasters had drowned out any sound of God’s call in the Israelites’ ears. The oppression had become unbearable. Then pharaoh published his decree: ‘All male Hebrew infants must be aborted—must perish in the river Nile.’

Perhaps it was the shocking nature of the edict that awoke the pregnant Jochebed and her husband Amram to the distant memory of God’s call upon their forefather and people, Israel. “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring,” the LORD had promised. “I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you…” God had pledged.

So when their baby was born, Jochebed and Amram saw much more than a nameless, forbidden infant slated by the Egyptians for drowning. They saw a child of promise—one of the offspring of Israel, through whom God had vowed to bless all people. Defying Pharaoh’s command by hiding the baby was the natural response for two who valued God’s call over all others’.

We don’t know if any other Hebrew parents were also listening to God in the midst of their suffering. We don’t know if they, too, clung steadfastly to God’s promises or whether they had let the memory of His call slip quietly into obscurity through carelessness, bitterness or disbelief. Those who choose to follow God’s quiet leading often walk a lonely path.

We do know how prone we are to become deaf to God’s call when things don’t go as we had hoped or planned or felt God ought to allow. We know the argument: ‘It goes against reason to listen to a God who allows suffering to come into people’s lives.’ But there is a truer argument—one that Jochebed and Amram chose to believe and act upon, one that argues ‘God’s Word is faithful, even when everything seems to point against it and Him.’

Acting on this premise positioned Jochebed and Amram to make a creative decision. They hid their baby in the one place no soldier could ever look: the bathing pool of Pharaoh’s daughter. Washing led to finding, and—for the soft-hearted princess—finding led to adopting, naming and raising the baby Moses in the very household of the infanticidal Pharaoh. The word of Egypt’s most powerful leader was indeed no match for the call and purpose of God.

“ ‘Vox temporis’ (the voice of the times),” quotes Os Guinness of Thomas Oden, “is no more trustworthy than ‘vox populi’ (the voice of the people) when set against ‘vox dei’ (the voice of God).” Trustworthy, life-giving, loving and faithful is the call of God on every life, on yours and mine as it was on Moses’. The Scriptures are full of that call. The determining question is, will we be deaf and blind to it, following the edicts of the status quo, or will we step out in faith that God’s Word and call give life?

God’s Word over and over again reiterates the refrain that our lives are not ordinary; we are called by God to live extraordinary lives, lives led by God.

“Nothing will change your life,” observes author Tim Keller, “like hearing the voice of God through the Scripture(s).” Hear vox dei and live.

(Photo Credit: Retrieved from https://www.oneforisrael.org/bible-based-teaching-from-israel/the-mysterious-case-of-moses-parents/)

 

The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 12

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Faith Speaks.

“By faith Joseph,” continues the Hebrews 11 account, “when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions about his bones.” An emigration and an exhumation is an unlikely pairing for a dying valediction. What was Joseph, great grandson of Abraham, thinking?

The end of life—like the end of a good novel—has a way of clarifying the most important things to us. To Joseph, it served to supply a final opportunity to speak hope to his loved ones—the descendants of his father Israel who were living in Egypt with him, far from their Promised Land. If Joseph had learned one thing in his long and challenging life, it was that God’s plans are for our good, even when everything around us seems to be stacking up against us. That’s a lesson some people would never learn unless someone like Joseph were to speak out.

Some ninety years earlier, Joseph had been bullied and sold into slavery by the brothers to whom he now spoke. Enslaved in Egypt, the angry treachery of his master’s wife had then sent Joseph to the pharaoh’s dungeon. Kindnesses to other prisoners were repaid to Joseph with thoughtless indifference. Joseph was forgotten by all.

But somewhere in the midst of the darkness of his life experience, Joseph remembered what God had said. He remembered the promise God had spoken to his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. It was a promise that God was working for his—Joseph’s—good and the good of all who honoured God from their heart. Like a piercing ray of light, this word, this call of God on his life, brought Joseph hope.

And later Joseph began to see God using him to bring hope into others’ lives, including those brothers who had begun the terrible chain of events Joseph had suffered. “You intended to harm me,” he would later summarize for his guilt-ridden brothers, “but God intended it for good.”

Now Joseph had one more opportunity to speak. He could have used it to bitterly berate his family members for their cruelty to him resulting in so many years of his youth being lost to slavery. He could have used it to take credit for the personal skills that led to his release from prison. He could have used it to flaunt the power and prestige to which he had eventually risen in Egypt. Rather, Joseph’s words reveal that his heart was set on something bigger, something much more important, something of eternal value. Joseph was now thinking of the distant future. He was visualizing God’s promises fulfilled.

God had promised the Israelites a land of their own. He had promised to bless them. More than that, He had promised to bless all nations on earth through them. And most notably, He had promised to send a unique Someone through the Hebrew family line who would reverse the ancient curse produced in Eden by humanity’s inaugural sin.

Although Joseph knew he would not live to see the day these promises would be fulfilled, he had two reasons in mind when he spoke the message captured in Hebrews 11. Firstly, Joseph believed God’s call on individuals’ lives to be authoritative—both practically and spiritually; Joseph understood every event of his life to be a concatenation—at series of connected events—through which God’s call and promise would be fulfilled. Without Joseph’s enslavement there would have been no inroad into an Egyptian prison. Without the prison, there would have been no opportunity to serve the Pharaoh. And without serving the Pharaoh, Joseph’s family back in Palestine would have perished when the years of drought wreaked their havoc. Looking back over his life, Joseph was able to see that God’s seemingly distant promises had influenced Joseph’s day-to-day opportunities to be faithful. So when Joseph’s final words reminded his people that God would be true to his promise to lead them to their Promised Land, he was passing the baton on, so to speak. He was encouraging them to remain hopeful, faithful and true to God.

Secondly, Joseph believed that God’s call involved inexplicable hints that life was designed to be eternal. He knew the oral tradition told by his ancestors. It spoke of death as a post-scripted addendum to God’s original plan for human life. Had there been no sin there would have been no death. So while Joseph knew with certainty that he, like his ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would die he wanted to make a final statement on behalf of God’s original plan for an undying humanity. He wanted his bones to be brought to the Promised Land because if God’s plan some day included reinstituting eternal non-dying life—if there was Someone who would initiate a resurrection—Joseph wanted to be in on it.

That is what faith in God’s call speaks. It speaks of God taking the difficult events of your and my faith-filled lives and turning them into good. It speaks of a resurrection to eternal life. It speaks of Jesus. This is how faith has and will speak. Are you letting it speak through you?

The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 11

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To Hear is to Worship.

Jacob had been a schemer. As a young man he had blatantly deceived his own father in order to obtain the proverbial ‘blessing’, a divine endorsement he expected would ensure his health, wealth and tribal superiority. He had maneuvered a plan to purchase the girl of his dreams only to discover he had been out-schemed by his new father-in-law, Laban. An unexpected switch found him married to the weak-eyed sister of his intended bride. Jacob had schemed with regard to the wages he earned from the equally wily Laban, and then secretly escaped with Laban’s daughters, idols, and flocks in tow to make a break from the uncomfortable relational ties. He schemed for decades to save his own hide at the expense of family, friends, and the entourage who relied upon him. Jacob’s conniving nature seemed bent on achieving his name’s meaning. He was a ‘supplanter” and ‘heel-grasper’ to the nth degree.

But God would not abandon Jacob to his own miserable misanthropic ways. He would not stand by and watch Jacob dehumanize himself, lost in the downward spiral of his foolish pursuits. God would speak into Jacob’s life in a way that was completely unexpected and counterintuitive. God would call Jacob and rename him. No more was he to supplant those he envied. Never again was he to descend to relationship-destroying deception. Jacob must replace his identity as a manipulative, cunning heel-grasper with a new identity. No longer must he try to grab the world by the tail. Henceforward he must grasp only God. Now he would be called Israel (“he wrestles with God”).

We don’t need to imagine what this new identity did for Jacob/Israel. We’re told. Genesis 35 tells us that following this mid-life christening, Israel immediately put a halt to his travels and worshiped God. And not only then, but also from then on, worship would become the modus operandi, the defining practice, of the renamed patriarch. Some time later, after exacting a promise from his son that upon his death his bones would be transported back to Canaan—the land promised by God in connection with the Covenant—Israel again is recorded as commemorating the moment with reverential worship of God. So when in Hebrews 11 the author summarizes Israel’s life, it comes as no surprise to hear that, “By faith Jacob (sic), when he was dying…worshiped…” Hearing God’s call transformed Jacob’s identity, gave him a new lease on life, a new hope after death, and a new faith in the identity-giver.

The amazing story of how God spoke words of truth and hope into Jacob’s life are relevant to us today. God doesn’t call merely one man. He is not limited to one historical setting or one unique people group. God calls all whose hearts are soft toward him. He calls us and we find ourselves being changed into worshipers. He calls us and our new identity is as His workmanship, His children, His friends, His beloved, His heirs, members of one body, sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus, overcomers, the faithful, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, sons of God, the persecuted, the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the sanctified, the forgiven and the forgiving, seekers of God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, storers of heavenly treasures, loved by God and enabled in turn to love others. Read that again and worship Him.

His call to each of us is recorded throughout the pages of Scripture. His words are life and light, identity-giving and worship-producing. Today, God calls us to live by faith, but one day our faith will be made sight.

And in eternity, each of those who have faithfully listened to God’s call will be given a new name. They will be names upon which our identity in Christ will call us to higher and truer deeds of worship that bring ever-expanding glory to the One who gave everything for us. As a result, our worship of Jesus will be transformed into something far more thrilling, effective and productive than any of our feeble heel-grasping ventures came close to approaching on curse-bound earth. The new earth will be a place where our mother-tongue will be worship.

For now, we open our hearts to listen to God and to worship Him as we are able. That is enough for now. That is faith.

The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 10

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The Blessing

Now Isaac, Abraham’s son, had become old. His eyesight had faded, his joints were stiff, and he had by now passed off the day-to-day responsibility of the running of his estate to his middle-aged twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Aged as he was, there was one thing that had never left Isaac’s mind: The Blessing.

The oral teaching and tradition of this one particular call of God, passed along to Isaac at his mother’s knee and later at his father’s side, was a careful record of the Blessing. It would be another five hundred years before Moses would commit to writing the Blessing that provides the infrastructure to the book of Genesis. Isaac had heard about his ancestor Adam whom the LORD God had blessed with the ability to be “fruitful.” The Blessing had been imbedded into the curse upon the serpent through whom Adam and Eve had rebelled against God, vowing, “(Eve’s) offspring…will crush your head.” God had spoken the Blessing over Abraham, promising, “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” and had reiterated it to Isaac word for word. The Blessing was tied inextricably to offspring—to one specific Offspring.

The Blessing was not the same sort which other peoples invoked or to which other people groups aspired. Isaac’s wife Rebekah had come from a family who had transacted her wedding to Isaac with the typical tribal blessing of “…may your offspring possess the gates of their enemies.” That sort of blessing was based on survival of the fittest, on having the top competitive edge, on producing the greatest number of progeny as an insurance policy for ethnic survival. It was a cutthroat ‘us over them’ mindset.

God’s Blessing was different in several ways. Firstly, the Blessing was to be carried through a select line of people within the larger ethnic group. Abraham heard God speak it and from him the lineage must begin. In time his younger son Isaac heard God speak it. Later Isaac’s unlikely son Jacob would hear God speak it. The Blessing insisted a particular family line must be the channel to reach the objective. God designated this lineage specifically and through unexpected individuals to transmit and convey the Blessing toward a specific end: One particular Offspring. It was this Offspring who would crush the head of the serpent who had invaded the Garden of Eden, and dissolve the curse the slippery devil had diverted onto earth’s inhabitants.

Secondly, it was designed to benefit all people—not a select ethnic, social or political group. God had promised, “All nations on earth will be blessed,” with an emphasis on the word ‘All’. Nothing like this had ever been considered before. Disparate peoples were fanning out over the globe, each bent on their own survival and, at times, dominance. In contrast God’s Blessing speaks of a unified human glory—a joy of which every human heart has heard the inner whisper, and for which some yet dare to hope. What did the angel bespeak to the shepherds on the holiest of nights this earth has beheld? “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” The Blessing is offered to all.

Thirdly, the Blessing foreshadowed the arrival of God Himself entering human history as one of its own. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” the eyewitness John would one day recount.

And fourthly, the Blessing impacts and continues to transform all—without exception—who have submitted to its power. Passive and a little foolish in his favouritisms, Issac learned to love both his sons and was successful in moving the Blessing forward. “By faith Isaac,” the 11th chapter of Hebrews chronicles, “blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.” While unknown confounding influences were at play as Isaac blessed his sons, the Blessing found its mark as determined by God. Forty-one generations down Isaac’s lineage, the Blessing would be fulfilled in the life of Jesus. The author of Hebrews records Isaac’s part as “by faith.” While he could not have imagined Jesus, he performed his part of the blessing as an act of faith that God has the future in His control.

And so it is with us. We see Jesus as the object through which the Blessing is realized, but we do not yet see our promised future Blessing, our eternity with Him. We too must walk by faith. As we daily open our ears and hearts to Him we step forward in faith into the Blessing as Isaac did. Confounding influences may seem to hold sway over events in our lives, but God is faithful. His Blessing will not be hindered. Come to the Blesser today.

 

The Call of God (Hebrews 11), Part 9

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Faith and Reason.

“Stop!” Abraham heard God command in no uncertain terms. It was time to interrupt Abraham’s obedient display of faith. A ram ensnared in a nearby bush would be the substitution for Abraham’s son Isaac who had been awaiting his fate upon the hilltop altar. Listening to God had brought Abraham and Isaac here, and listening to God would take them home. This father and son were given a new vision of God. He is God the Great Provider.

This is the story, first recorded in Genesis, to which Hebrews 11:17-19 refers. It’s an unnerving and unsettling story in many ways. We’re left feeling less sure of the boundaries within which God contains Himself. God had emphatically labeled the pagan practice of child sacrifice a “detestable” thing, a practice “I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.” Yet God used Abraham and Isaac as actors in a display that would foreshadow the ransoming sacrifice of God’s One and Only Son, Jesus, two millennia later. How could Abraham have agreed to obey God’s direction, not knowing what the outcome of his obedience would be? The author of Hebrews explains “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”

Abraham reasoned.

Reason, the process of thinking in logical, orderly and rational ways, is a gift of God to us humans. It enables us to take what we know about God and this world and infer conclusions that then inform how we ought to behave. Abraham, listening to God’s directive to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice, needed to use a high level of reason to be obedient.

He first reasoned that having heard this command spoken directly from God, it must be a good command—God is good, therefore His every command will result in ultimate good for His followers. Abraham reasoned that he could entrust the outcome of his obedience to a good God.

Secondly, Abraham reasoned that God is all-powerful. A humanly speaking hope-destroying event such as death was as nothing to God. God would be able to bring Isaac back to life. Abraham could see compatibility between God’s promise to build his family through Isaac and God’s command to sacrifice Isaac.

But “Reason,” muses Dante in Paradiso, “even when supported by the senses, has short wings.” Abraham must have second-guessed himself with every step he and Isaac took climbing the hill toward the spot God had directed him. Reason moved his feet but his heart was aching. Wasn’t it more reasonable that he a centenarian should die, Abraham must have thought, rather than this young son of his—this son of the promise? Abraham needed something to support and gird up his commitment to reason. So Abraham added to reason the wingtips of trust.

Trust took Abraham the final steps of that distressing trek. Trust kept his ears open, listening for the slightest sound of God’s voice. Trust focused Abraham’s mind on the only One who is ultimately trustworthy, so that even the promise took second place to the Promiser. And trust enabled Abraham to hear God halt the test and joyfully exclaim, “because you have done this…I will surely bless you…and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Each of us walk a similar trek. Subconsciously we reason out each action we take, each decision we make. But do these reasons include the goodness and greatness of God? Do we consciously remember what we know to be true of Him? Do we consider His great love for each of us and His unlimited power as we rationalize how we live?

To entrust ourselves to the One who is unmatched in trustworthiness is the pinnacle of reason. Faith and reason together lift us up over the valleys and crags we face in our lives and bring us to the blessing God promised us through Abraham and finally accomplished through His Son Jesus. Listen to God’s voice and find faith and reason come together.