As I mentioned, I have two brothers...one older and one younger. I'm the middle one, but that's a different story. My older brother and I are very similar physically, but my little brother was, and is, different. He's small and wiry...and can climb like a monkey. One day when we were playing up on the mountain, he decided to see if he could climb up the face of the cliff. So he starts up and my older brother and I are urging him on. He got about a quarter of the way up and he stopped. It seemed like he couldn't go any further. He had nothing to try to grab a hold of. He couldn't go any further up. But, he had another problem...he couldn't get down either. He couldn't look down to see where to place his feet or reach for a handhold. Eventually, he had to let himself just slide down the face of the cliff he had climbed. Fortunately, other than scraping a lot of skin off of his hands, and ripping the knees out of his blue jeans, he was OK. But he had discovered an important life lesson...sometimes, the further you go, the more difficult it is to go back.
I'd like to turn to our key text for today. It is found in Genesis 12:6-8. God has called Abram to leave Haran, where he had lived with his father until his father died. So, Abram obeyed God and set out for the land of Canaan. Beginning in verse 6, "Abram travelled through the land as far as the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time, the Canaanites were in the land. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, 'To your offspring I will give this land.' So he built an alter there to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there, he went toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. Then he built an alter and called on the name of the Lord." Like Abram, we are also being called and each one of us is on a road, going somewhere. And like Abram, we all find ourselves somewhere between Bethel and Ai. I found it interesting as I read about these two ancient cities that their names had specific meanings. Bethel literally means "house of God", while Ai means "ruin". And right now, we find ourselves someplace between the two. The name of my message tonight is "At the Crossroads to Bethel and Ai" and I want to talk about several things that this message tells us about how to navigate our way on this road.
What does this passage tonight tell us that we can apply to our lives today? First of all, we find ourselves surrounded today by the Canaanites! You may be asking yourself what I'm talking about. In ancient times, the inhabitants of the promised land...the Canaan...were called Canaanites. This encompassed a number of different tribes, but collectively they are called Canaanites. Throughout the Old Testament, we read of God's anger and wrath directed at these peoples. We read in Joshua that the Israelites were to completely destroy every man, woman and child who were Canaanites in the Promised Land. Why? I know in my own thinking, it seemed pretty extreme to kill the women and children. But everything about the Canaanites was polluted by sin. Everything was defiled. There was sexual sin and perversion everywhere. The laws against homosexuality and bestiality that God gave to Moses were given specifically because that is the culture that the wandering Israelites would find themselves surrounded by when they crossed the Jordan River. Not only did the Canaanites relish in sexual perversion, they also sacrificed their own children at times shedding innocent blood. And finally, they worshipped false gods and idols.
I hope you can see the similarities between the Canaanites of nearly 4000 years ago and the world we live in today. Pornography, prostitution and sexual sin is a multi-billion dollar industry in this country. Gay lifestyles are readily accepted as normal in our society. Thousands of unborn babies are murdered every year in the abortion clinics in this country. People everywhere are worshipping at the alter of money or drugs or fame or power...you name it. Let's face it, we live in a new Canaan.
We find ourselves in this evil, immoral, polluted place but our passage today gives us directions. Verse 6 says that Abram stopped at the "tree of Moreh". As I've shared before, the names we find in the Bible always seem to have a meaning and this is no exception. In Hebrew, Moreh means "instruction." We need to do the same thing that Abram did. God has left us a "tree of Moreh"...a place of "instruction". It's found in the Holy Scriptures. Everything we need to make the right decisions in life are found in the Bible. But, like Abram, we have to stop there for awhile. God appeared to Abram at Moreh, and He will appear to us and reveal Himself to us through His Word...His instructions.
In verse 8, we read that Abram built an alter to God and called on His Name. How do we apply this passage today? We need to understand the purpose of the alter. We think of an alter as a place of worship, but it's primary function is a place of cleansing. The Hebrews sacrificed bulls and sheep on their alters, and the blood of the animals provided for a temporary cleansing of the sins in their lives. We need to do the same thing, but not by sacrificing live animals. The sacrifice for our cleansing has already been completed...2000 years ago on a lonely hillside of Jerusalem. On the Cross of Calvary, by our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Like Abram, we need to call on the Name of the Lord and accept Christ's sacrifice...worship the slain Lamb of God, who died for yours sins and mine.
Tonight, we all find ourselves like Abram, somewhere between Bethel, the presence of God...and Ai, the ruin and destruction of our old lives. We are at a crossroads. We have to go one direction or the other. Like my little brother on the face of the cliff, he had to either keep climbing up or come back down. We can't stay in one place...we will move one direction or the other.
Many days, it's not easy to choose to walk toward Bethel. We seem to take two steps forward and then one back. Or, on some days, one step forward and two steps back. We find the pull of the world so strong. It seems like we're wearing a suit of armor instead of the "armor of God" and the enemy has a giant magnet drawing us toward him. But, the Bible warns us not to turn back. In the story of Lot and his family fleeing from Sodom and Gomhorra before it was destroyed, they were warned not to look back. But sadly, Lot's wife did. And it cost her her life. The same thing can happen to us. We start walking toward Bethel, but we turn back to see what we're leaving...one last time, and we stumble back into sin...and death.
If God has called you to go to Bethel, to join Him in His presence, and His Kingdom, the Bible gives us all the directions we need. In Genesis 35:14, Jacob is called to return to Bethel with his family. Before they leave, Jacob instructs his family to get rid of all their foreign gods, to purify themselves and to change their clothes. God is giving us the same instructions tonight. What kind of "gods" do you have in your life? Get rid of them! Allow yourselves to be purified by the blood of the Lamb, by the blood of Jesus Christ! Take off your filthy rags and follow Paul's command to the Romans to "clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature." (Romans 13:14)
As we decide to walk on the road that leads to Bethel, we need to use this book of instruction that God has given us. 2 John 6 tells us that we need to walk in obedience to His commands. We are to walk in love and compassion with those God has placed around us. We are to rid ourselves of anger and hatred, and jealousy and pride and lust. In the book of Acts, Luke tells us in 14:22 that we will encounter many hardships in our journey to enter the Kingdom of God. We will lose family members and friends to death that we can't understand. Someone we love will turn their back on a relationship with the Lord. Bad things will happen to us that we don't understand. There will be days when the attack by the enemy will be so great, so intense...that we don't think we can survive another day. When that day comes, go to the book of 1 John 4:4 and be encouraged by remembering the source of our strength. In the passage, the apostle John reminds us, "the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world." Men, we've already won the battle if we stay on the road to Bethel.
As we close tonight, remember that we can't stop moving. God doesn't call us to rest...we are called to walk...to walk with God. When things get tough, don't turn back... away from God. Recognize, like the twelve disciples in John 6:68 when Jesus asked them if they wanted to leave Him too. Peter said, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life?" Men, stay on the road to Bethel. The journey may be difficult at times, but the destination is worth it.
Photo from Flickr