XX Sunday After Pentecost
Not used this year
Commentary on the Texts
There is no Lectionary Commentary for
this Reading, but there is available a
The Literary and Theological Setting of the Text
This chapter recounting God's call and promise to Abraham, and Abraham's response, is the pivotal event in the book of Genesis, the theological hinge between sin and grace. It is actually the opening scene of the central event of the entire Old Testament, the exodus, since that event was remembered by Israel as the outworking in history of God's commitment to Abraham as recounted in this passage (rf. Exod 3:6, 6:2-4; Abram and Sarai are the names used in the narrative until Gen 17:15, but for convenience Abraham and Sarah are used here).
To understand the significance of this text, we have to see it against the background of the first eleven chapters of Genesis, and especially as both a literary and theological sequel to the preceding chapter. Chapter 11 is the climax and conclusion of the creation narratives or "Primeval History" that began in chapter one. Creation had begun with such promise as God breathed into all living things the breath of life and pronounced all of creation good. But those first eleven chapters actually describe the unfolding drama of sin in the world beginning with the failure of the couple in Eden in chapter 3 and the first murder in chapter 4. God's creation began to deteriorate as humanity attempted to exert sovereignty over God and tried to become like God.
So chapter 11 is the ending of the primeval history, the climax of where humanity's attempts at self-sovereignty had led them. And in some ways, it was the ending of hope for humanity. Chapter 11 is a dead end. The human family was scattered. There was no unity among people. They could not even understand each other. Even though Abraham had been introduced into the narrative at 11:27, there were not many prospects for anything positive happening. We are told matter-of-factly in verse 30 that Abraham's wife Sarah was barren, she had no children. Particularly in the cultural context of the ancient world, that was an ending, a symbol for hopelessness. When there are no children, there is no future.
It is only against this background of sin and ending that chapter 12 can have its full impact. There can be little talk of newness and a future without first setting it against the finality of ending and the failure of human effort. Otherwise, any talk of newness becomes little more than self-delusion and false triumphialism. It is only against the deepest of darkness that light can really be appreciated, it is only against the dead end of sin and its consequences that grace can be understood and true hope emerges. The barrenness of chapter 11 underscores the result of human effort. Finally, human effort will come to a hopelessness that nothing less than the presence and power of God can change (see commentary on Gen 11:1-9).
Two more observations about the Abraham story, which begins unfolding in this text and continues through chapter 22, will help us hear the impact and message of this text. First, these ten chapters are marked by a series of journeys that God called Abraham to make. Abraham was constantly on the move, first from his homeland in Ur of the Chaldees and from his family in Haran, finally to Mount Moriah, the climax of his journey.
But we must see these journeys as more than the simple wanderings of a nomadic herdsman four millennia ago. They become far more powerful theological symbols for the spiritual pilgrimage of Abraham in coming to terms with this God who had called him into an unknown future. Abraham embarked on physical journeys in these texts, but the stories are really more about his faith journey or journey to faith. It was not always an easy journey, and Abraham did not always move forward. He had doubts and fears, and often he failed. But he continued, ever mindful and reminded not only of where he had been, but where God was leading him. It is that larger journey of faith between Abram's call in chapter 12 and Abraham's faithful response to God in chapter 22 that is the heart of these stories (see Abraham's Faith Journey).
Second, that fact raises important questions for Israel, and for us, about the nature of faith journeys. The stories told about Abraham are not just stories about a lone herdsman who happened to become the ancestor of a people. The stories are told from the later perspective of that people, that larger community as they looked back on their own journey through history and asked questions about it. Who are we? How did we come to be here? Where shall we go from here? Who is this God that calls us and leads us?
What they see as they look at their history is that same wavering and meandering journey that marked Abraham's life. They valued and retold the Abraham story because it was a vehicle to tell their own story, a way to recount Israel's own journey of faith through the centuries. In this sense, Abraham's story is far more than a story about Abraham. It is the means by which Israel expressed what they had learned about God and how he works in the world and with people. And it became a way to define themselves and their reason for being.
In other words, these narratives are Israel's theology text, the means by which they taught their children, succeeding generations, about God and about themselves as God's people. It is the roadmap for journeys of faith, not in the sense that all faith journeys will track exactly like Abraham's or Israel's, but in the sense that this is the nature of all faith journeys. It is in that context that we need to hear this text as the beginning of that journey. While on one level it is the journey of a people, on another level it is still the journey of Abraham. It is that very multifaceted nature of these stories that allows them to become the story of our own and our community's journey of faith as we hear them three millennia later.
There is a newness that begins with chapter 12, even though the exact nature of that newness is not immediately apparent. Abraham would not know for some time, in fact would not live to see, exactly what that newness would entail. But there is clearly a change marked by God's opening word in this text (v. 1): "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to a land that I will show you." The simple command "Go" marked the beginning of a journey that would forever change the world. And in that command lies some of the most challenging theology to be found in all of Scripture!
Some have suggested that God's call to Abraham is not the governing factor in these chapters. Since Abraham's father Terah had already begun the journey to Canaan by traveling from Ur to Haran (11:31), they suggest that Abraham's journey from Haran to Canaan was only the completion of what his father had begun. In this sense God's call was not the call to a radical break with the past but only an affirmation of what was already in process from the human side. The problem is that there is nothing like this in the text. In this passage, the call of God to Abraham is clearly the focus of the narrative. And especially against the background of chapter 11, the contrast between the barrenness in Haran and the promise of blessing somewhere else must be seen as the heart of this story.
While God's word to Abraham is usually seen in terms of three promises, there are actually five elements in this text marked by five first person verbs with God as the subject: I will make you (a great nation), I will bless you, I will make great (your name [and you will be a blessing]), I will bless (those who bless you), and I will curse (those who curse you). Grammatically, these are all subsumed under the main verb "Go," so are presented as the consequence or outworking of that command. As such, they are actually the unfolding dimensions of a single promise. It is important to note that the first three verbs have Abraham as their object, while the last two have other people as their object. While it is not yet developed, even here there is some hint that in this newness Abraham would stand in some way between God and other people.
The center of this promise can be seen even in this text by the repeated use of the word "bless" (Heb: root barak; vv. 2-3). While we from a modern perspective tend to think of "blessings" from God in a more abstract or spiritual sense, in the thought world of ancient Israel blessing was much more encompassing. In that world there was no concept of what we call "luck" nor was there any idea of "nature" operating on its own with a set of "laws" governing the world. For Israel there was only God. Indeed for most people of the ancient world, all of human existence was seen in relation to deity (see Ba'al worship in the Old Testament; for a chart of the differences in world view between ancient and modern people, see World View Comparison). In that context, "blessing" was a way to describe all the dimensions of human well-being in relation to God as Creator and the Source of all things. In light of the precarious existence and instability of ancient people, the most obvious experiences of God's blessing were long life, children and family, abundant rain and good crops to provide food, shelter, and peace (cf. Deut 28:1-14).
That does not mean that we have to return to the thought world of 10th century BC Israel to understand and appropriate this text. We do not need to abandon our own worldview, give up the advances in knowledge afforded by the natural sciences, and assume that God is the immediate and direct cause of every single thing that happens in the world. We only need to understand that the confession here is not about the physical world but about God. The concept behind "blessing" is simply a confession that all of human existence is under God as the Source of all things.
It is in that context that this promise unfolds. The various dimensions of the promise of blessing to Abraham and to the world become foundational promises for the entire Old Testament. In fact, later they become theological promises even for the church.
Encompassed by the promise of blessing both to Abraham and to others, along with the ominous warning of curse, the first dimension of the promise is: "I will make of you a great nation." This would later be emphasized in the change of Abram's name to Abraham and the commitment of God to Abraham in the covenant (17:1-16). The implication of "nation" here is that the promise will have ongoing consequences far beyond the lifetime of Abraham. Of course the story is being recounted by those many centuries later who already lived in that nation, most likely already under a monarch of the line of David. But that is precisely what makes this element in the story significant. This is no idle dream or wishful thinking, nor is it political ideology or nationalism. This is a confession by the Israelites that they exist as a people and as a nation only because of God's commitment to them through Abraham, a commitment from God that the people could trace in their history.
The second dimension of the promise is: "I will bless you and make your name great, and you will be a blessing." Later that would be clarified both in terms of children or descendants (cf. 15:5, 22:17) as well as a place to live as God's people, the promise of a land (12:7, 13:14-17). Both of these dimensions involve a long-range perspective into the future.
A "great name" involves a heritage, in the ancient Middle Eastern culture always defined by family and descendants who carry on the name and legacy (which includes reputation; cf. 2 Sam 7:9-12). Here lies the significance of the often-repeated injunction in the Old Testament to pass on the heritage and traditions to the children: "when your children ask in time to come . . . you shall tell them" (e.g., Deut 6:20-21). Children and descendants, whether biological or theological offspring, connect the past with the future. And yet Sarah was barren, without children. Here the story begins to track the impossibility that lies in human efforts and the possibility that lies with God. The promise is that God will continue working with Abraham and that God will provide the future. Sarah can't have children without God, and yet children are the key to the future. In other words, the future lies with God, not with Abraham or Sarah.
The symbol of place or land is not yet a prominent feature of the story in this text except in general ways. Abraham is only called here to go to a "land that I will show you" (v.1). Yet the significance of land as a theological symbol already begins to impact this narrative. In this context in the Old Testament and in the Abraham stories land was a physical place, just as later the innermost Holy Place in the Jerusalem temple was a physical place. In the unsettled context of the ancient world where order was imposed with a sword and government was in the hands of those who had the strongest army, a settled place was the only form of social and economic stability. We should not discount the physical dimensions of this promise for Abraham.
But as this story was retold in later generations who had experienced a greater degree of stability under the Israelite monarchy, the idea of land took on ever greater dimensions as a theological symbol of God's provision of stability and security in an unstable world. In the same manner, the Holy Place in the Temple was not just a room, but was a powerful symbol of something far greater. Theologically, land is not just a place to live just as sacred space is not only a place to practice religion. The theological symbol of land in the Old Testament always invokes the concept of sacred space, a "place" that God creates amidst all the turmoil of life in which God's people can be his people.
In fact, some 500 years after the Abraham stories, when Moses went before Pharaoh to plead for the release of the Israelite slaves, this theological dimension of land again comes into the foreground. The Israelites cannot worship God in Egypt because Pharaoh is god in Egypt. What they need is a place where they can worship God, where they can have the "space," the freedom to be his people. So Moses stood before Pharaoh and asked that he let the Israelites go a three days journey into the wilderness that there they might worship their God (Ex 5:1-3). That deep longing for "space" in the world in which they could be God's people amid the chaos around them is at the heart of the symbol of land, sacred space, and the concept of deliverance (salvation) that unfolds from here in the Old Testament. It is this same dimension of land and sacred space that lies behind the concept of "heaven" in later biblical tradition.
The final part of this verse is significant: "you will be a blessing." This simple statement will become the object of narrative commentary throughout the Abraham story. While it is easy to focus on the promises of blessing to Abraham, it is equally important, perhaps more important, to focus on this aspect of the promise in which Abraham is the agent of blessing and not just its recipient. In rather unequivocal terms, this verse connects the blessing of Abraham with the blessing of others. In some sense, there is even the implication that the purpose of Abraham's blessing is to bless others (so the NRSV translation: "I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing").
The implications of this dimension are not at all clear yet here. But they will unfold throughout Abraham's and Israel's history. This text, seen from the perspective of the later and larger community of faith coming to terms with its reason for being, becomes a crucial confession of Israel's purpose in the world. The entire story of Abraham will unfold the struggle to come to that confession.
The third dimension of the promise is: "I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." This is the second time here that God's blessing upon Abraham is part of the promise. But there is another aspect that is inescapable here. This is also the second time in these verses that Abraham's blessing is connected to the blessing of others. Here that is expanded from simply saying "you will be a blessing" to include "all the families of the earth." Again, as noted earlier, exactly what this means for Abraham and what it would later mean for Israel is not detailed here. In faithfulness to the story perhaps we should not read too much of that into this text anyway. Part of the dynamic here is that Abraham is called into a future that he does not know. The details are not what is in view here, only the larger goal, that while God desires blessing for Abraham, he also intends that Abraham will be the channel for blessing to the whole world.
Here is one of the most profound theological concepts in all of Scripture. Here is the revelation from God that he has chosen to work in the world through human agents, through a chosen people. That does not mean that God is helpless without humanity, nor does it mean that human beings are now elevated to any sense of privilege or divine status. But it does mean that, for whatever reason, God has chosen to cooperate in his creation with the humans that he has created, that he has given them the responsibility of mediating the blessing of God to the world. Part of the faith journey of Abraham is his own struggle in figuring out what it means to be that blessing and how he should live in the world in order to accomplish it.
Then there is the one ominous note of warning in this text: "the one who curses you I will curse." There is an indisputable connection here between blessings and curses. In fact, the covenant passages in Deuteronomy clearly juxtapose blessing and curse as two possible outcomes in relation with God (Deut 27-28). While this is not elaborated here, there is clearly the implication that the potential for blessing also carries with it potential for curse. While the curse is directed here at others in their relationships with Abraham, we will find out later in the narratives, in fact just a few verses later in the latter half of this same chapter (12:10-20), that Abraham himself can bring the curse of God upon others by his own actions (v. 17).
This serves to underscore two sobering aspects to Abraham's calling here. First, the blessings are not automatic and unrelated to actions. The promises here are not unconditional promises disconnected from human response. And second, with Abraham's calling comes the responsibility to live out that calling in ways that bring blessing to others. When Abraham fails to respond faithfully to God, he can bring curse into the world just as easily as he can bring blessings when he is faithful.
Verse four is one of the high points of this passage, and is one of the three pivotal events in the whole Abraham story (the others are 15:6 and 22:3). Abraham is willing to go. That is one of Abraham's best moments. "So Abraham went as the Lord told him." The response is there. God calls Abraham to a new future and he is willing to risk everything for that future and God. God is willing to commit himself to this newness. But Abraham is still left with the task of responding, to commit himself to God's newness and to God. We do not know what God would have done had Abraham refused. Indeed, we do not know if God had called others and they had refused to go. But Abraham went. And with that obedience and willingness to respond to God's call, and commission, begins the unfolding of a new future.
At this point we must resist the great temptation to romanticize either Abraham or his response. We are used to reading Abraham from Hebrews 11, and from within our own context of Christianity that has been shaped by a sense of triumph and victory. And for some we even read this from certain perspectives of Christianity and culture that emphasize instant solutions to all problems of life. So we see Abraham as a great man of faith who immediately recognizes the import of his calling and responds in full faith and trust. But that's not how the story in the next ten chapters tracks. Abraham constantly struggles and often fails in his 35-year faith journey. So we must take seriously the story that tells us that response to God is not the victory, but rather the beginning of the faith journey. And that raises serious questions for us as it did for Abraham. How do we live between the time that we leave home and the time that we come to depend upon God totally? How will God deal with the failure? And how do we bring blessing? That's what the faith journey is about.
And yet we must not discount the magnitude of Abraham's decision, and the impact of verse four in the narrative. If we place ourselves in the story for a moment, we might begin to catch the significance of the simple statement that "Abraham went as the Lord had told him." By hearing the narrative from within we can begin to catch the theology that is woven throughout the passage.
On the level of the narrative, the questions come easily. Why can't Abraham be blessed of God and become a great nation where he is? Why can't God fulfill all the promises wherever Abraham is? Why does Abraham have to go from his country and his kindred and his father's house? Isn't God big enough to do it there? Why does he have to leave?
One of the central issues in this text is obedience to the leading of God, and the faith and trust that allows people to respond to God in obedience. We tend to think of obedience as an issue of power. God has all the power on his side, so when he says do something, we do it. We obey out of fear. But that is not really the dimension of obedience and response portrayed here. Rather, it's a willingness on God's part to trust us to respond. And it's a level of obedience that is willing to trust God that he is leading beyond where we are. And recall that in this narrative, where we are is a dead end with no future!
Obedience almost always involves our comfort zones. Do we stay where we are and remain comfortable, safe, and secure even though there is no future there? Or do we respond to the call of God to move beyond where we are as we embrace and risk the unknown possibilities of God? At the beginning of this chapter, Abraham is in his own country, he is among his own family, he is in his father's house. That means he is protected, he has support, he has everything in hand that he needs. It would be easy to settle for the status quo that leads nowhere.
But this text is not about comfort and the easy way. It is about risk and insecurity, it is about the unknown where God's possibility lies. What that says in ways with which we may not really be comfortable that newness comes at a terrific risk because newness implies doing away with present security and comfort. Abraham is called by God to "Go" precisely because leaving the security of the past is the only way to embrace the possibility of the future. The problem is not that God could not bless Abraham where he was. The real problem is that Abraham could not respond to God adequately unless he was willing to take the risk of going.
Here, in Abraham's story Israel is reflecting on its mission as people of God and what they were to be about in the world. And here is the realization that for them to bring newness and blessing into the world and for God to bring newness and blessing into the world through them, they would have to put everything that was secure for them at risk. They were going to have to take the faith journey. And taking journeys means that we leave someplace to get to someplace else.
The Abraham stories remember that Abraham was constantly on the move. There has been a great deal of debate about the person of Abraham and the nature of the culture out of which he came. Some have suggested that he was a nomadic herdsman who wandered around the desert keeping herds and livestock. While the stories do tell of herds and wanderings, it is not at all clear that he was a nomadic herdsman. Others have suggested that he was a merchant, which is entirely possible from what we are told in the stories. Finally, however, these historical questions are not really significant to the story. The fact is Abraham is presented to us as one who is constantly on the move and stopping at significant places. It is from that movement that the theological dimension of a "faith journey" is built in the narratives.
Abraham's family originated in Ur in ancient Babylonia (11:28-31), but the family had migrated to Haran on the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It was from this ancient and prosperous city that Abraham began his journey (v. 5). The story tells us that Abraham was 75 years old when he left Haran. Part of the significance of his age is that at 75 he was getting along in years. It was not the time in life to start planning families and looking for a new future to unfold, let alone to begin thinking about building a great nation. In that culture Abraham should have been firmly settled in his ancestral home land. And yet at 75 years old, Abraham began his incredible journey.
It was probably more than just Abraham, Lot, and Sarah on this journey, but included a large group of people along with their herds and livestock and a larger extended family, as well as all the possessions they had gathered and the persons they had acquired in Haran (v. 5). Abraham was responsible for a large family who was dependent upon him for their survival both for protection as well as economic needs. Faith journeys are rarely just individual journeys for people or nations. It is far more than a personal struggle to follow God's leadership, because the kind of newness that begins with the command "go" from God usually leads to the kind of journey that impacts everything and everyone that touches the life of the one called. It can never be just a private journey, in spite of the old gospel song that declares "there's room for just two," "just Jesus and you."
When Abraham and his clan reached Canaan they made two key stops at Shechem and at Bethel. They were both places that later became significant in the northern tribes' worship of God (Josh 24, Gen 35:6-7, 1 Sam 7:16). They were originally centers of Ba'al worship among the Canaanites that the Israelites took over and later adapted to Yahweh worship before they built the temple in Jerusalem. While northern kings would later corrupt both sites, in the early days of Israel's history they were important religious and social centers.
It is likely from a much later perspective in Israel's history that the older stories of Abraham are employed here to reflect on some significant aspects of the interaction between God and people. On one level, the narrative here functions to tie these holy places back to Abraham. He made stops and camped near these holy sites. It was a way to outline Abraham's physical journey, but also a way to mark his faith journey. He came into contact with sacred places, and he encountered God and worshiped at these sacred sites that would have significance later. In the literary and theological context of Genesis, this is a way to say that Abraham was establishing spiritual markers for the faith journey of Israel. He was laying down spiritual tracks here for people to follow. The text communicates that metaphorically by noting Abraham's encounters with God at these sacred places.
On another level, there is an even deeper theological significance to these two stops at Shechem and Bethel. The first stop was at Shechem (vv. 6-7). This is interesting historically as well as theologically. Centuries later under the leadership of Joshua Shechem would become the Israelites' main base of operations for all the northern territory they would attempt to conquer. It was also the place where Joshua would later call the people to assemble to renew their covenant with God (Josh 24). Again, as Israel looked back over their history and their long journey to the land, they saw in this Abraham story the beginnings of that journey and understood its significance.
At Shechem, the Lord appeared to Abraham for the first time in the narrative. Before, God had only spoken to Abraham (v.1), so this is a significantly different encounter between Abraham and God. Here God in simple terms reaffirmed two dimensions of the promise, that Abraham would have a future through offspring and that he would have the security of the land. To that reaffirmation of the promise, Abraham responded by building an altar. In the cultural context of that time, an altar was basically an organized pile of stones that marked sacred sites or places of encounter with God. Later in Genesis and throughout the journey of Israel to Canaan individuals and the people were constantly building altars and leaving piles of stones. When something significant happened they left a pile of stones or an altar (e.g., Gen 13:18, 26:25, 31:45-46, Ex 17:15, Josh 4:3-9, 8:30, 7:26, 8:29). While the pile of stones as a memorial and as an altar are two different things, the significant aspect here is that these altars or memorials marked times of encounter with God. They were markers of the faith journey (cf. the significance of the memorial stones in Joshua 4).
Abraham then moved into the hill country to the east of Bethel, camping between Bethel and Ai (v. 8). The word Bethel means "house of God" and would later become an important religious center during the Israelite monarchy. The connection here with Ai also anticipates the later Israelite entry into the land under Joshua. These connections clearly ground Israel's history and journey of faith in Abraham's own journey. Again, the significance of the interweaving of these two perspectives will play out only in the larger narratives of Exodus through Deuteronomy. But the anchor point for that journey is here being fixed in the journey of Abraham.
For Abraham to call on the name of God here is to acknowledge God as the Promise Maker, and to submit himself to that God and that promise. At this point Abraham responded faithfully.
But there is a more subtle, and perhaps more important, aspect to Abraham's response here that moves into the heart of Israel's theological confession. At Bethel Abraham also built an altar. But unlike the altar he built at Shechem, this altar was not built in response to God but on Abraham's own initiative. Rather than God speaking to Abraham, here Abraham called upon God. This serves to emphasize the fact that Abraham's journey of faith is not totally from God's side. There is a genuine interaction portrayed here, first God calling and then Abraham responding, and then Abraham calling upon God in worship. Of course Abraham's initiative is still grounded in God's initiative. But the response to that original call goes beyond simply responding at that moment. Abraham is here portrayed as seeking the presence of God in his own daily life as he lives out the promise. Here the divine-human encounter is a genuine interaction, a relationship in which both sides are partakers in the divine-human dialog. Here is the foundation of a biblical perspective on the nature of religion and God's work in the world among humanity.
This reading closes with Abraham journeying "by stages" toward the Negeb (v. 9). There is an openendedness to this journey that reflects the unknown of the future into which Abraham is going. It is that uncertainty, and yet the willingness to continue the journey, that will unfold as one of the primary biblical definitions of faith in the Abraham story.
This story is so rich and deep in its confessions about God that it provides a great variety of Preaching Paths. Most, however, will center around the budding faith of Abraham and his willingness to put himself at risk for the promise and the journey. Even then, how that path is developed can take many directions depending on the needs of a local congregation or group, or even on where the preacher is in his/her own faith journey.
One possibility for this passage is to focus on the radical faith that it takes to make decisions to trust God with an unknown future. This involves not only how we understand God and his call, but also how we see ourselves as part of God's calling.
The questions that this text evokes are still very much in the foreground. What kind of a God would call someone to leave all the security of home and take such a risk? After all, if God is God surely he could figure out ways to make newness happen without asking us to take that kind of torturous journey and that kind of risk. Can't he just make things happen so I can stay home and be dependent upon him? And why Abraham? Couldn't God have found someone who would have been better at all this than Abraham? Or me?
Part of my personal struggle at this point is that I come from a rural background where the idea of having roots, being anchored in a place, and having family around is important. I guess that's why these kinds of questions come so easily here. I don't want to be told that I have to leave that kind of security and identity behind. I want God to be able to do marvelous things in my life without interfering with me a whole lot, just like the rich young ruler in the New Testament wanted eternal life without giving up anything to get it (Matt 19:16-22). I would rather that God just change everything around me to make it all better and just leave me alone.
But what we learn from this story is that the problem is not just that Abraham needs a change of environment. It is also that Abraham himself needs changing. And the uncomfortable fact is that he will likely not change much in Haran in his father's household. As long as he is secure and at home, there is no need to change even though no change means no future! While I may be comfortable with who I am, that may not be enough. Where I am and who I am may well be the dead end of chapter 11.
This story teaches us that faith journeys are the only way into God's future, that moving beyond the security of where we are is the path to newness and growth. In fact, Jesus made the statement that unless a person hates father and mother, they cannot be his disciple (Luke 14:26). Hate here is not the human emotion, but is a figurative way to talk about an attitude that says, "I'm willing to risk everything and leave those things that provide comfort and security for something greater. I'm willing to leave home and put everything at risk for the sake of a new future even though I don't have a clue what it is about." That attitude is modeled by Abraham here.
The specifics of this will take many different shapes in different communities or with different people. But there is a fundamental truth here that transformation and change, and the risk that goes with it, are the avenues to spiritual growth and new possibilities, and the carrying out of our calling to be a blessing to the world.
And yet the risk is real. I know one person in a local church who was convinced that God told him to sell all of his business and his property and give it to the church. He was convinced that God was going to use that money in that church to do great things for the Lord, and that God would bless him richly for his generosity. So, he sold his business and his house and gave all the money to the church. The problem was that the pastor of the church at that time was not spiritually stable and was experimenting with all kinds of theological perspectives and programs. In less than a year the pastor was caught in moral problems, the church split and struggled even to survive. Now the person was broke and had to get a job in a store to make ends meet. Yet he had been convinced from the beginning that God had told him to do this.
It is a serious question. What is the line between stupidity and faith, and how do we sort it out? We can ask a very practical question here. How did Abraham know? Part of the problem is that Abraham didn't know. Remember, it is the narrator of the story who knows the outcome. It is the later community that can look back on this history and understand its significance. One difficulty with the person in my example is that the didn't ask any advice, he didn't ask anyone to pray with him, and he didn't seek the counsel of anyone in the community of faith. He had some faulty theology that led to confused thinking. And so he assumed that anything that he thought was God's will. But yet as unwise as his actions were, I can't fault him for his faith because he was willing to risk everything on what he thought God wanted him to do. He probably should have taken a different course of action and sought God's leadership in ways other than his own ideas. And yet, I do not finally know what God told him. How many of us would even consider that kind of radical obedience if God called us to "Go"? Would we even be able to hear the call? Or would we have already convinced ourselves that we could be all that we could be by staying home and being comfortable, and so would never listen to the call if it came?
I am convinced that we have a hard time taking risks for God. I know I do. We talk about laying our all on the altar. We know all the right things to say about commitment. And yet when it comes right down to it sometimes it's really tough to be able really to risk things for a future. We often take great pride in being conservative. And yet the word "conserve" means to maintain things the way they are, to maintain the status quo. I fear that sometimes in our conservative traditions we are afraid to risk everything, or anything, for a promise.
That is why I have a great deal of admiration for middle age people who are willing to leave careers and return to seminary in order to enter ministry, or young people who are willing to raise money to spend a year in missions in Eastern Europe or Asia. I sometimes wish I had that kind of courage and faith to raise money to support myself totally for a year in Bulgaria, and then leave home trusting the people who pledged support to follow through with their pledge! There is a certain sense of excitement in being willing to risk everything, because like the writer of Deuteronomy says, and Paul confirms, it is only then that we know it is all of God and not ourselves (Deut 8:11-18, 2 Cor 4:7)
This is not a call to stupidity. It is not a matter of just deciding some specific thing to do and then imprudently pursuing that dream no matter how improbable. But when God calls, when there is a promise, it is worth the journey. And the commitment to make the journey of faith is always worth the risk. The commitment to follow God into an unknown future is a fundamental aspect of what it means to become the people of God. And it is in that journey that the promises unfold, especially the promise of blessing to the world. And that is the calling of all Christians.
There may be a negative dimension of this story as well. While we can speak of Abraham's positive response to God, there may well be a place in modern contexts to preach the negative side of the story. What are the consequences of staying in Haran, of not taking the risk? Of course, this can have many applications as well.
For example, if we are convinced that only one kind of song is the only way to worship God we may have decided to stay in Haran. If we think that we must sing "Victory in Jesus" or whatever favorite song we have or favorite kind of music that makes us feel good, we may have adopted a mentality that chooses stability and the status quo in Haran. Or if we decide that only one way of doing ministry, or only one way of preaching or doing evangelism is the only way, we may be stuck in Haran. Or we may have decided that the theology that we learned as a child from our Sunday School teacher is all we ever need to know about God. Or we may think that what our college professor or pastor taught about the Bible is all we ever need to know about Scripture. And so we choose to stay in Haran. As long as we are in Haran, we will never get around to asking what we should be doing to fulfill our calling of blessing the world. We will never begin the journey of faith that leads to new possibilities that can never occur in Haran. By choosing to remain where we are, we may have chosen the dead end of life rather than embracing the miracle of God's promise. Like Abraham later in chapter 12 we may actually be bringing curse on others by choosing our own stability and safety and comfort.
That desire for stability and rejection of change may just cost us a future because the future is not in Haran. The future is in the willingness to strike out on that journey, to do new things that may make us uncomfortable, but that we do for the sake of the promise. It is the willingness to grasp a future that we don't even understand but for which we are willing to take risks. Does that mean we will always succeed when we take those risks? No. But it means that we will have been faithful to our calling! The point is, we will never succeed in our calling if we choose to stay safely in Haran.
This Sunday in the Church Year
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