The Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday reminds us that the God whom we worship in Jesus Christ is a God who calls. Yet it also reminds us that God always calls for a purpose. So we listen, not just for God’s call, but also for what purpose God calls us.
At the beginning of time God first called the creation and its creatures into existence. Yet people whom God created stubbornly rebelled against their loving Maker’s call. In fact, even after God essentially starts over with Noah, people naturally stubbornly resist God’s call.
Yet the God whom we worship in Christ doesn’t let our rebellion stop God from calling people. Long after we’re tempted to give up on people, God keeps calling. After all, the God who creates is a God who also longs to “bless” (2) what God creates.
The identity of those through whom God blesses that creation, however, is shocking. After all, while Genesis 11’s genealogy moves along quite predictably, it seems to come to a screeching halt at verse 27. We’d probably call its Abram a success story. He, after all, seems to have it all. But Abram doesn’t have children. His wife Sarah, Genesis 11:27 bluntly reports, is “barren,” unable to bear children. So while Abram has a history, he has no future.
Nearly all of us know people who struggle with such childlessness. It’s deeply painful. Yet in Abram and Sarai’s day infertility meant something even more than it usually means today. Their contemporaries married largely in order to have children who helped out at home and in the fields.
But children also cared for their parents and grandparents when they could no longer care for themselves. In that way children were a kind of pension plan or life insurance policy. If Abram and Sarai’s contemporaries had no children, they had no retirement savings. So childless parents’ futures were bleak.
Both literal and figurative “barrenness” remains all too common. It’s the kind of dead end you and I may run into at home, on the job or at the doctor’s office. Barrenness is dead relationships and underwater mortgages. Barrenness is what poverty, joblessness and a poor education produce. Barrenness is the stubborn resistance to peace of Palestine, sub-Saharan Africa and some of our city streets.
Yet Sarai’s infertility isn’t just a symbol of the kind of dead-end that sometimes plagues humanity. It’s also precisely the kind of place where God loves to work. After all, God doesn’t depend on the potential or power of the one whom God calls.
The God who creates the world out of barrenness repeatedly also creates new possibilities out of humanity’s barrenness.
So in the face of verse 27’s “Sarai was barren” we have verse 1’s “The Lord … said.” Right next to Abram’s dead end we have God’s lively, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
Those to whom we preach and whom we teach may not long to start a great nation or have a great name. Yet all of us do long for the kind of clear sense of God’s calling that Abraham receives. You and I want to know what God wants us to do.
But sometimes it’s hard to know what that call is because it’s hard to discern that call. God reveals God’s will clearly in both the Scriptures and in the life, death and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus Christ. Yet while both offer good general principles, neither often speaks to things like our choices of friends, a spouse or vocation.
Maybe, suggests Craig Barnes, that’s because our most important calling doesn’t involve whom we marry, what work we do or where we live. Our most important calling is to be followers of Jesus Christ who are, like our text’s Abram and Sarai, open to going wherever God sends us.
Yet God’s call to Abram is far more specific than just being willing to be used by God. God calls him to sever his ties with his extended family and even most of his immediate family. So it seems like God is calling Abram to do something painful.
Why, then, does God call Abram to sever cherished ties? Earlier Abram’s father Terah had started a journey to “Canaan.” Yet for some reason he stopped and settled outside of that land of promise. So Terah left it up to his elderly son Abram to complete that journey.
Yet it’s precisely the kind of journey Abram’s contemporaries feared. In fact, some even believed that if you died away from your ancestral home, you would be lost in the afterlife. So we can almost hear the conversation at the Haran McDonald’s: “You’re doing what, old Abe? You’re leaving? Why? Because God told you? Okay. Well, where’d God tell you to go? To a land God will show you. Uh-huh, sure.”
God longs to make Abram’s wife and him into a great nation, as well as make Abram’s name great. Yet Abram and Sarai’s culture’s goal was to accumulate enough stuff so that people would never have to move again. So Abram and Sarai in that sense have arrived. They have everything they need to stay right where they are.
So perhaps God calls them to move, to strike out on a new and dangerous adventure because Abram can’t experience all the blessings God has for him unless he disentangles himself from what he has settled for. Maybe God understands that for Abram to recognize the blessings God will give him, he must give up many of the “blessings” he has accumulated.
Jesus understood that. He constantly invited his followers to leave what they’d piled up. Jesus always invited them to abandon their sin, guilt and self-righteousness in order to follow him. God has great plans for barren humanity, as well as the Sarai and Abram whom God calls to serve God. Yet more than anything, God plans to bless Abram. “I will bless you,” God tells him in verse 2.
There’s a lot of chatter about that concept of blessing. Some Christians claim it’s wrong to think of things like strong families, good health and safe travels as blessings. They suggest such claims infer those who don’t enjoy them are somehow not blessed.
The Hebrew word for blessing is barak that at its most basic level refers to God’s favor. At least in the Old Testament, it usually contains elements of prosperity, fertility and victory. Yet that favor also always has a strong flavor of grace. God’s blessing is something that’s neither created nor deserved by the person whom God blesses. It’s always a gift.
Yet at our best we recognize that such blessing sometimes comes in the form of what seem like difficult things. God, after all, often uses relational, health and other struggles to make us more and more like Jesus Christ. So perhaps it’s okay to talk about good things as blessings from God as long as we’re open to blessings also coming in the shape of challenges.
But does God promises to bless Abram in order to make his life fulfilled or empty of hardships? Does God promise to bless him so that Abram can finally settle down with the big brood of kids that God has promised him? Does God promise to bless him so that he can travel a little, pay for his kids’ college educations and save enough to retire well?
No, God promises to bless Abram so that can be what verse 2 calls a “blessing.” You and I can disagree about the particular shape God’s blessings take in our lives. But we can’t disagree about why God blesses you and me. God blesses us so that we can be a blessing to other people. God designs every blessing, each gift God graciously gives us to equip you and me to graciously show favor to the people around us.
Yet God promises that it isn’t only in the land toward which God points him that Abram will be such a blessing. It isn’t just the people who bless him that God will bless. It isn’t just the people close to Abram whom God promised to bless through him. No, the scope of God’s blessing through Abram is worldwide. God promises to graciously bless “all peoples on earth” (3) through Abram. Those who preach and teach Genesis 12 as those who listen to use are, by God’s grace, among those whom God has blessed through Abraham.
Yet before God can bless the whole world through him, Abram must leave his own country. We don’t read about either questions for God or even arguments between Abram and Sarai. Abram simply gets up leaves because he trusts God’s promise to bless him. God has promised his family and him a blessed future. So Abram leans into that future by traveling toward the land God promises to show him.
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In the chapter, “God and a Grateful Old Man,” in his book, My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir, Lewis Smedes writes about God’s blessings: ‘I remember how Doris and I, on three different trips to an adoption agency, came home with three very different children who now, after “many a conflict and many a doubt,” nurture a warm affection for the aging parents who made so many mistakes in bringing them up. With memories like these, gratitude comes as easily as my next breath.
I remember magnificent things and I remember little things, and I feel grateful for them both. I remember that Jesus died to do whatever needed doing to let the river of God’s love sweep me to himself, and I also remember the Velcro that makes it easy to put on my sandals. I remember my mother’s weary weeping after a long week’s labor, and I remember the pleasure Doris and I had with our first garage-door opener. Big things, little things, it matters little as long as they were gifts with a person attached.
But, then, when I thank God for being so very generous to me, I seem to imply that he must be a stingy crank to many others. When I remember that a thousand times ten thousand are living out a thousand varieties of hell on earth, my joy feels self-centered and obscene to me. This is why, on my little island of blessing in this vast ocean of pain, my “thank you” always has the blues.’
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 12, 2017
Genesis 12:1-4a Commentary