Sept. 2/3 God Builds a Nation
Scripture: Genesis 12: 1-4, Genesis 17: 1-19
Today we continue “The Story,” a 31 week adventure spanning the beginning of creation in Genesis to God’s beautiful work of “making all things new” in Revelation. On this journey, we’re exploring the grand thrust of God’s narrative: creation, fall, redemption and restoration. If you’re just joining us, last week we looked at God’s vision to come down and be with us in a beautiful garden in relationship with us, but the first two humans rejected God’s ways and introduced to us the problem of sin. And ever since, we’ve found ourselves in the same boat, rejecting God and desperately trying to find our way back. In response, God hatches a new plan to be with us, and the rest of the Bible is an unveiling of how God makes it possible for us to enter a loving relationship with him and truly become his people. And that’s where the Story leads us today.
I love a good story. And I believe every great story provides a moment where someone is invited to change their circumstances by stepping out and taking a leap of faith. It might be the moment he pops the question and you say, “Yes, I’ll marry you.” Or the moment the job offer is thrust in front of you and you sign on the dotted line. Or the moment you find yourself praying the words, “God, I can’t do life like this anymore.” A few weeks ago I had the chance to pray with a young man who’s made quite the mess of his life. If anyone fits the role of the prodigal son, it would be this young man. He’s literally wasted his riches on wild living. He’s tried to make sense of his life’s downward spiral, but in all the wrong ways. He’s done it through alcohol and sex. And now he’s not allowed to see his kids. As we prayed, this young man sensed that God was calling him to step out and begin again, to start at square one and do life the way God always meant for him to do it. But it would require a lot of faith and a lot of trust. Becoming God’s people doesn’t happen any other way!
In many ways, this young man’s story points me back to story of Abraham. Like this young man I prayed with, Abraham was invited by God to step into an adventure that would redefine his life- and millions of lives that would come after. Long before Jesus walked along the shores of the sea of Galilee, calling men and women to follow and be his disciples, God called a man named Abraham to follow, to be a sort of “disciple” and to counter-culturally reorient his life around a deep faith in God. And Abraham responded, becoming the “father” of a new nation called Israel, and a model of faith for all who yearn to walk with God.
My guess is that when we hear Abraham’s name, we think of someone who is larger than life, someone whose standard of faith and holiness we hope we could live up to, but doubt we ever could. Three major religions trace their roots back to Abraham- Christianity, Judaism and Islam- so it’s obvious that Abraham’s life has influenced millions of people throughout the ages. But Abraham’s story didn’t begin as a larger than life story. God doesn’t call larger than life people. He calls people like Abraham, who was a pretty average guy. In an earlier passage of Scripture, we discover that Abraham is more appropriately described as just “another name” in his father’s family tree. He had a mom and a dad, two brothers, a wife named Sara. His was a fairly ordinary life. There’s nothing about Abraham’s life that would suggests he was bound to do great things. In fact, what makes Abraham stand out is not what he possesses but what he lacks: He doesn’t have any children. And this proves to be a not-so-small detail that greatly impacts this story.
In the ancient world, when reproductive knowledge and biological information was not readily available, fertility was viewed a sign of God’s blessing, proof that God looked at you with favor. Children were an inheritance from God, and childbirth was the natural way of continuing a family legacy. From the beginning, God’s plan was for humanity to “be fruitful and multiply,” (the first commandment we have in Scripture) thus extending God’s life-giving blessing from generation to generation. But that blessing is absent in Abraham and Sarah’s life. For no particular reason, Abraham and Sarah find themselves in hopeless situation: no matter how hard they try, they just can’t fulfill God’s original plan. They can’t live up to God’s first commandment. What has happened so naturally for previous generations, what has become normal for so many others, has become for Abraham and Sarah a dark, unexplainable reality. They are barren. They are fruitless. And they have no idea why.
Although it’s a theme we don’t care to bring up too often and would much rather ignore, barrenness is a common theme in Scripture. It’s common because barren situations are the places where God’s redeeming work begins to take root, where God’s desire to do a new thing is conceived. It was in the dark and hopeless chains of Egyptian slavery that God began to lead Israel into the Promised Land. And it was in a dark and hopeless grave where a messiah lay dead that God began to resurrect and overcome the power of death and sin. And so it’s no coincidence that God begins to fashion a new nation, that God begins a plan of redemption, out of a barren and hopeless situation. When we find ourselves in trying situations, we should begin to look for signs of life and signs of God’s activity. But barrenness is a powerful, seductive force in our lives that causes us to dig in our heels and settle for what we do have, so that we don’t lose anything else.
It’s important to know that God will not let Abraham settle for what he has.. God’s call to Abraham, this simple word “Go,” is in stark contrast to the concept of settling, which we might find to be quite unsettling. To a God who is seemingly always on the move, settling is not a something to be held up as an achievement. To be rooted, is one thing, and to become rooted is a fruit of deep faith, but to settle is another conversation. Out of his barrenness, Abraham settled for life as he knew it, and by most accounts, his settled life was pretty fulfilling. By all accounts, Abraham has a fine life. He’s a good man. He does good things. But that’s not what God calls us to be. And Abraham had just about everything else most human beings long to have. He had great wealth and a loving and supportive spouse. He had a great career and the resources to ensure economic success. What more could a person want? And yet God was calling Abraham out of that settled life. This was not a call to be a great man; it wasn’t even a call to be a good man; it was a call to be God’s man. Completely God’s. And we should settle for nothing less.
I think this is a good moment to pause and ask some questions that might challenge us. Why is that God would ask Abraham to leave what most of us deeply value? I mean, is there anything we value more than our families, our country, our employment, or our traditions? And why doesn’t Go just say, “Abraham, your purpose is to be a good person? These are the things we live for! These are characteristics we value. But here’s the question we must wrestle with: Is this the adventure to which we have been called? Is this truly the life Jesus died to give us?
A few years ago, a movie called “The Hobbit” hit the theatres. In the movie, the main character, Bilbo Baggins is invited to go on an adventure. The only thing is, he doesn’t want one. Bilbo’s life contains all he ever wanted. He spends his days in peace and luxury. He has the most wonderful neighbors and is always well fed. But one day Bilbo is visited by a divine-like wizard named Gandalf, who has witnessed what Bilbo has never experienced, because Bilbo has never stepped out in faith. And Gandalf invites Bilbo to travel with him on a journey that will forever change this hobbit and the way he views the world. But Bilbo is in no hurry to follow, as his initial response makes clear: “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty, uncomfortable things. I can’t see what anybody sees in them. We don’t want any adventures here, thank you!“ If you know the story, you know that eventually Bilbo throws up his hands, runs out the door and jumps into the adventure. He simply cannot ignore the life he could have.
God’s call to Abraham is pretty simple. Go. Go from your kindred, your country and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you. And I could see Abraham responding in much the same way as Bilbo Baggins. This adventure would invite him to be marked in a new way. God would soon make with him a new covenant called circumcision and it would be a sign that Abraham was no longer his own man, but God’s. Jumping into that invitation would forever change his life. And he doesn’t think twice. The text simply says, “He went.” This wasn’t a call to do something great that will go down in history. Nor was it a call to go to a third world country and fight wild beasts and learn a new language. This was a simple call to trust God to be God and to obey his will. This was a radical call to fully surrender his life to God’s goodness and God’s plans. And that’s the greatest adventure we could ever take.
Through Abraham, God begins to redeem creation by building a new people. Those who were “out” are now part of God’s family. Those who thought they couldn’t be part of this covenant community are now invited to come on in. You have been called to be part of God’s new people, to receive a new name. It’s the call offered to Abraham. And It’s the call offered to you. But it’s an adventure full of risk, one that no longer trusts your heart to show you they way, but chooses instead to trust God’s heart. “To stay in safety”, says theologian Walter Brueggemann, “is to remain barren. To leave in risk is to have hope.” I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the young man I prayed with a few weeks ago. There were no promises that life back home would get better, no guarantees that his situations would automatically change. No promise that he would get his kids back. There was only hope. Hope that this God who says “Go” and “Come” and “Do” and “Be” would meet them in his barrenness, give him new life and will always be there for him as Savior and Provider. And for young prodigal, the hope of what could be was a risk worth taking. What about you? Remember, old Abraham was 75 when God called him! So, when God says, “Go, leave your well-constructed life and follow me” will you stay or will you go? Amen.