Narrative Lectionary Reflection
September 16, 2018
Most of us (hopefully) are saving for retirement. Little by little we set aside a portion of our income for that future time when we decide to stop working or work less.
Or maybe we are already retired and starting a new life traveling or volunteering, things you wanted to do in your working years but couldn’t.
What many of us don’t do or don’t plan to do is start something new. We don’t expect the elderly to start something entirely new like a new business. A small number do, but most don’t.
This week we continue with the running theme of covenant. In the previous reflection, we talked about Noah and the covenant God makes with him and with all creation; to never again destroy the earth with water. God creates a rainbow to remind God of the promise and to find other ways to redeem creation.
One of those ways is to make a covenant with a people, a nation that will be the light to the rest of the world. Today, we see God call Abram a man of 75 years who is called on a new journey to found a new nation.
Engaging the Text
The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.
The story begins with Abram and Sarai, whose names are later changed to Abraham and Sarah. This lesson covers their entire journey and so, for sake of consistency, “Abraham” and “Sarah” are used throughout. At the core of their journey is the establishment of a covenant between God and the descendants of Abraham. It is important to remember that the covenant is with the descendants of Abraham, and not exclusive to Abraham and Sarah.
Chapter 12 of Genesis is a turning point in this first book of the Bible. Chapters 1-11 are full of foundational stories like the creation, the fall and the flood. Starting with Chapter 12 until the end of the book, we start focusing on one particular family and it all begins with Abraham.
In verse one of chapter 12 we are introduced to Abraham. The story tells us he’s 75 years old (we don’t know if the ancients counted in the same 12 month year as we do or not, but the age indicates he was getting on in years). So Abe wasn’t a spring chicken. To put it in modern terms, you could imagine an elderly man living with his wife in some retirement community in Florida or Arizona. We have no idea what he did before in his life (and the writer of Genesis doesn’t seem to care), but we do know he is old and just living his life.
It’s then that Abraham gets a call from God to leave everything he has known to become the father of a great nation. God says that Abraham will be blessed and that all nations will be blessed through him.
Now, you have to imagine the absurdity of this. Abe is 75. His wife Sarah has never bore him a child and yet God is talking about Abraham becoming the father of a great nation. What’s even more amazing is that Abraham just packs up and does what God says. He takes his wife as well as his nephew Lot and heads for the land of Cannan. When it means Abraham left he really left. In fact, the Hebrew states the word go means go-immediately!
Let’s go back to our modern interpretation. A retired man all of the sudden feels the need to sell his house in the retirement community and packs up his wife to head to Silicon Valley to start a new software company. This is how odd God’s call is. It’s just not something that is done.
Abraham’s leaving his country was in a way abandoning his identity. God called Abraham to leave his “kindred” to leave the web of familial relationships, to even leave his father, meaning severing of the nuclear family and even his nationality. This God that is unknown to Abraham tells him to leave it all behind and trust God.
Abram’s response comes down to a matter of trust. He believed God, even though God didn’t do a good job at explaining how somethings would take place, like that whole you-gotta-have-a-baby-to-have-descendents part. This story is an example of God calling a person to do something. When a person decides that they might want to become a pastor, that person might be asked if they felt “called by God.” Like Abraham, the potential pastor was contacted by God to start on a new journey, with all the details filled out later.
This account is one of the first accounts where God calls someone. Throughout the Bible, there are stories where a person is just doing his or her thing and is called by God. The call of God is not something that is limited to just Bible characters or pastors. Everyone is called by God to do something to further God’s kingdom. Abraham was called to step out of the life he had set up for he and Sarai and trust God.
Theologians and pastors love to show Abraham as a model of what it means to hear the call of God and place total trust in him. But don’t we wonder if Abraham doubted? Did he wonder what in the world he was doing? Did he sometimes think that maybe it was last night’s pizza and not God calling him?
The Bible never tells us what Abraham was thinking- all we know is that he followed God and left all that was familiar, all that brought him comfort. What we do know is that Abraham believed- even when the facts told him this made no sense. Alexander Campbell (one of the founders of the Christian Church-Disciples of Christ) had this to say about the faith of Abraham:
There was nothing more extraordinary ever believed by any man, than that he, an old man, ninety-nine years old, and his wife ninety, who had in her youth, and through all the years of parturition, been barren; should, by this woman, became the father of many nations, and have a progeny as innumerable as the countless myriads of the host of heaven. This was contrary to nature. When Abraham considered his own body as good as dead to these matters, and when he looked at the poor, wrinkled, shrivelled, and drooping old Sarah, and thought that they two, old and faded as they were, should become the parents of immense nations, it transcended all the powersof reason to believe it upon any otherpremises than the omnipotence and inviolate truth and faithfulness of God. To these he gave glory and rested assured that God would make good his promise.
The distinguishing peculiarity of Abraham’s belief was, that contrary to all evidence from the reason and nature of things, he embraced, with undoubting confidence, the promise: obviating all the arguments against his confidence, arising from nature and the common lot of men, by the power and faithfulness of God.2
One of the words used to describe Abraham is “pioneer.” He was taking a big risk to leap into the unknown, to stake out new territory. This is the opposite of what culture expects of us. We are told to go into the world as young people to make a name for ourselves. They make a name for themselves, become popular and then are forgotten. Abraham is risking everything to go into the unknown and will be made known through his ancestors. Because of his faith he is regarded a hero of sorts, being willing to risk and trust even when nothing is clear.
There is one more hero here: God. We like to talk about choosing God, but in effect, God always chooses us. Abraham didn’t go to the Promised Land all by himself, but he was chosen by God. Time and again, God chooses, calls us. When God calls, how will we respond?
What is God calling you to do? What journey is God asking you to partake? Are we willing to leave all that is familiar and take a step in faith?
In Luke 9:57-62, Jesus calls several people and time and time again, the people who get the call come up with excuses. One says they need to bury their father. Jesus says, “Let the dead bury the dead.” Another person was called and they wanted to say goodbye to those in their house. Again, Jesus brushes away what he sees as an excuse: “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”
God seems to call people immediately, even if it mean to leave behind what you know. But that passage also shows how hard it is to live by faith in God. It is not natural to us, we prefer the known to the unknown.
Theologian Dan Clendenin has this to say about the call of Abraham and how it relates to us today:
Abraham left Haran in faith, not knowing where he was going, or even why except that God had commanded him. He acted whole-heartedly without absolute certainty.1 In so doing he defied both the inner propensities of human nature and the outer pressures of cultural conformity to cling to the familiar, the self-serving, and the broad and easy road. Abraham journeyed from what he knew to what he did not know, from what he had to what he did not have, from the the comfortable to the strange and the unpredictable. He journeyed “like a stranger in a foreign country” (Hebrews 11:8–9). Today, most everything in our culture, education and employment encourages us to journey in the opposite direction: from the unknown to the known, from what we do not have to what we think we want and need, making every effort to remove the strange and unpredictable in order to guarantee the safe and the secure. We demand certainty and act timidly.1
God chooses. We follow. Easier said than done, but as Abraham shows, it has been done.
- Dan Clendenin, journeywithjesus.net, February 2005.
- Alexander Campbell, The Christian Baptist, 1828.
Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.