a sermon on Genesis 12:1-9 and Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
preached on March 16, 2014, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
There’s an old song I learned back in Sunday school:
Father Abraham had many sons,
many sons had Father Abraham.
I am one of them, and so are you,
so let’s just praise the Lord.
Now we are clearly not all “sons” of Abraham—some of us are daughters of Abraham, after all!—but this simple song reminds us that Abraham is one of the most important characters in the Old Testament. His story is an important part of our story. His story defines us, too.
Abraham started out as the man named Abram in our reading from Genesis this morning. Abram seemed to be a pretty average older fellow, seventy-five years old, who had no children or grandchildren. For some unknown reason, God reached out to Abram at his advanced age and made him quite an offer:
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
There’s no clear reason for why God chose Abram. He wasn’t exactly in the prime of life to make a long journey, let alone father a great nation. His family at that point consisted of a wife who was unable to bear children, a nephew who seemed to stand at the center of controversy wherever he went, and the women and men who were his property. And Abram was pretty well settled in his home and life at that point, with extensive possessions and people around him, so there was no reason for him to go anywhere. All in all, Abram wouldn’t have been my first choice to receive the great fullness of God’s blessing, so it’s almost as if several others had been approached and turned it all down! Yet for whatever reason, God chose Abram to receive this promise of something new.
But nearly as important as God’s choice in all this was Abram’s response. After God gave him this command, Abram picked up his possessions, his small family, his slaves, and his animals, and set out on this journey. It was a pretty crazy move. Nowadays, people think very little of moving across the country, away from family and friends, but even one hundred years ago, a journey of 400 miles as Abram made would have been very difficult. First off, long-distance travel was not easy. The roads were focused on commerce, so a family on the move would have been very much out of place and would have faced some real danger along the road. But once they got “to the place that [God showed them],” it didn’t get any easier. The place wasn’t empty— “the Canaanites were in the land,” and Abram and his family couldn’t just buy it up with the proceeds from the land they had left. But Abram didn’t turn back—he built an altar to the Lord there at his first stop, then traveled on further, pitched his tent, and built another altar to the Lord as he “journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.”
That of course is not the end of Abram’s story. God continues to work in his life to keep changing things for him. His journeys take him a little further, into Egypt, before he finally settles back in Canaan. He receives a new name, Abraham, that indicates how God’s promises are taking hold in his life. And he and his beloved wife finally bear a son in their old age who is the firstborn of the promised great nation. In the end, Abraham’s journey covers hundreds of miles and many, many years, but it ultimately reflects the deep and wide promises that God offered to him and that carry through the centuries of Judaism and Christianity.
Abraham’s story matters for us in a wide variety of ways. Now there are certainly some elements of it that are more problematic, such as the promise of land in Genesis 14 that continues to inflame relations between Israelis and Palestinians today, the truly shameful way in which Abram tossed out his slave Hagar and their son Ishmael, and the disturbing tale of how Abraham followed God’s instructions so carefully and so far that very nearly he offered his beloved son as a human sacrifice to God. But the broader story of God’s promise to Abraham and Abraham’s subsequent response is one of the great defining stories of faith for us even today. It gives us three particular gifts for our own day and age, for our own walk of faith in this world.
First, God’s promise to Abraham shows us how God’s transformation can take hold in our world. Things do not have to remain as they are now, even if we don’t quite know how they will change or where we are going. We like Abraham can listen for God’s call and journey forth into a new and different way of life. We can encounter something deeper and greater than what we have known before. We can stop being defined by what has come before and instead trust that God will unfold a new future for us.
That new future holds the second great gift of Abraham for our lives of faith today, the gift of the journey. On this journey of Lent, I’ve been paying particular attention to the daily devotional that we’ve been sharing, Too Deep for Words. This past Tuesday, it offered a beautiful reflection on the gift of Abraham’s journey. First it lifted up the simple prayer of modern monk and mystic Thomas Merton:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself…. I hope that I will never do anything apart from [my] desire [to please you]. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. (Thoughts in Solitude)
Then the writer for the day looked further at this how this journey affects us:
However the Spirit spoke to Abraham, he followed the voice on an unlikely journey to a place he’d never seen, trusting God’s promise that blessing would come if he’d only follow. I doubt he saw many cairns, trail markers, as he trudged along looking for his new home, but his life is a cairn for us, showing us the right way, the way of faith. He did not know what each day would bring or where he was going. He simply put one foot ahead of the other, trusting that God was guiding him and would fulfill the promise, even on days it didn’t seem likely. (David L. Miller, Too Deep for Words: Reflections for Lent 2014, p. 17)
So Abraham gifts us with the possibility of a journey in our own lives, following God into unknown places, trusting a new and different way, looking for signs and markers of God’s presence, and filled with confidence that we are not the first to journey this new way.
But strangely and wonderfully, we are more than just people of promise and journey. Abraham’s third gift to us is family. We are people defined so well by that strange little song about Father Abraham, united by this common parent, linked with one another and all the families of the earth as we live out God’s blessing. Again, our Lenten devotional put it so beautifully:
Centuries separate us from Abraham, but we are all his children. Our situation is the same. We go our way trusting the great heart who launched us on life’s journey, joined with others who help us keep the faith when we waver. (David L. Miller, Too Deep for Words: Reflections for Lent 2014, p. 19)
All of these gifts are signified so well in today’s service as we ordain and install our ruling elders and deacons. In this strange and wonderful moment, we watch as God’s promises take hold in our midst as new leaders step forward and are set apart. Like Abraham, we trust that God’s call in our lives is enough to carry us through to places that we have not yet seen. And in this strange act of the laying on of hands, we are bound together with Abraham and so many other saints to know God’s continuing presence as we go forth on this journey of service and life together.
It is a gift and a challenge to walk in these ways, the gift of God’s grace and the challenge of God’s love to go forth into something new, but we can trust always that we will not journey this way alone, that Abraham and so many others have gone this way before us and that God will go with us just as God has gone with them. So may we trust the gift and challenge of God’s grace and mercy to be like Abraham, to trust that God’s promises for us are real, to step out and journey into that something new, and to remember that there are always companions with us on that journey. Thanks be to God! Amen.