Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 8, 2020

Genesis 12:1-4a Commentary

The early chapters of Genesis show us the steady downhill slide of humanity beginning with the Fall in Eden, with some terrifying secondary falls along the way—Cain and Abel, the increasing depravity of humans resulting in the massive cleansing of the Flood, the building of Babel resulting in the scattering and confusion of the nations. Interestingly, and thankfully, each successive downward movement by the human race is met with a gracious act of God.  Thus, the human race is not terminated, although we see again and again that the “soul that sins shall die.”

But God keeps intervening in grace even after his judgment, never more spectacularly than in this simple story of one man and his wife.  Indeed, all scholars point out that this story marks an important transition in the book of Genesis.  Chapters 1-11 are called primeval history, while chapter 12 to the end of Genesis is salvation history.  We need to be careful with that distinction. Sometimes it is alleged that the primeval history is not really history, just myth.  While I reject that simple distinction, it is definitely true that Genesis 1-11 has to do with humanity in general, while the following chapters focus on the chosen people beginning with the sudden and inexplicable election of Abram.

It’s not as though Abram came from nowhere, like the mysterious Melchizedek later in Genesis.  No, Abram comes from the nations who were scattered by God at Babel, as Chapter 11, particularly verses 27-32, show us.  In fact, as I will explain in more detail in a moment, the calling and blessing of Abram were God’s direct response to the sin of mankind at Babel.

Frank Spina points out that there is a pattern in Genesis 1-11—sin, judgment, and then grace.  The calling of Abram is the grace following Babel.  He puts it memorably. “Is humanity doomed to be always the victim of ‘The Babel Syndrome?’  That is, from now on will human beings be condemned to be scattered (i.e., unable to live in community) and confused (i.e., unable to communicate)?”  The call and blessing of Abram are the beginning of God’s response to the “Babel Syndrome.”

I say “beginning” because Abram is the first in a long line of mediators, ending with Jesus.  Ingeniously, the RCL has chosen to follow that line in this season of Lent—Adam, Abram, Moses, David, Ezekiel, the Servant of Isaiah—each God’s man for the hour.  Then comes “the Man Christ Jesus,” the one Mediator between the one God and the whole human race (I Timothy 2).  “One for all” is the theme of this series of readings.  It is God’s way of salvation through Christ.

Reading our text closely, several things beg for sermonic attention.  First, it is clear that God takes the initiative here.  Out of the blue, God speaks, not because of any special merit on Abram’s part, but because God choses to do so.  What God says is mostly blessing.  True, there is a command, as in Eden, a much more difficult command than the one in Eden.  But the substance of God’s initiatory word to his covenant partner and his descendants is blessing.  That blessing will not be earned by obedience (though obedience is important), but will be given by God in his grace.  Note the prevalence of the first person singular—I will make, I will bless, I will make, I will bless.  As a result of God’s blessing, Abram will be a blessing and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through Abram.

Second, as I just mentioned, the command God gives to Abram is much more difficult than the Edenic command to Adam and Eve.  They were told that they could have everything in the garden, but they had to leave that one tree alone. Abram is told that he has to leave behind nearly everything that mattered to him—his place in his homeland, that is, his stake in the settled world of the post-Babel nations; his relationship with the clan of which he was a part, that is, his extended family to whom he was tied  by blood; and most difficult, his father’s household, that is, his home with all its comforts and support.  Leave it all behind and go…. Where?  He isn’t told; it will be a “land that I will show you.”

Some scholars make much of the fact that the words “trust” and “obedience” are not used in this text, while later history would make much of Abram’s trust and obedience.   But even if the words aren’t here, the reality certainly is.  Abram had to trust God immensely to obey such a difficult command.  Why else would he do exactly what God said?  There’s no threat for disobedience, as there was in Eden.  There is simply a promise– a magnificent promise, to be sure.  But it was still just a word hanging in the air, when Abram was told to leave everything that gave his life meaning and security.  He trusted Yahweh, putting so much faith in the promises that, as verse 4 summarily puts it, “Abram left, as the Lord had told him….”

The third thing that demands some attention in your sermon is the richness of God’s promise.  For one thing, it is seven-fold, always the number of completeness in Scripture (think seven days of creation, for example), though some scholars see only 4 blessings.  More significantly, notice how this blessing mirrors what rebellious mankind was trying to accomplish at Babel.  They wanted to be great, to make a name for themselves, to reach up to the heavens and perhaps realize their divinity.  God promises Abram exactly that: “I will make of you a great nation,” “I will make your name great,” and you will be the instrument of divine blessing for the whole world.  That is, you will be as God to the world, which clearly harks back to the Garden of Eden and the false promise of the serpent.

In other words, everything humanity tried to obtain for itself by its own effort, God was willing to give by his grace.  It’s not that God is stingy or selfish, as the serpent suggested.  It’s that God knows humans are not and cannot be divine.  The only way to blessing is not to try to be God and make yourself great, but to trust and obey God who will give you the desires of your heart.

That last clause is true if our heart’s desire is shaped by God’s desire.  And here in Genesis 12 we learn that God’s desire is to bless the world through his chosen people.  He doesn’t bless us only to make life secure and easy for us.  Rather he blesses us, so that we can be a blessing to those who don’t know God yet.

All of the blessings spoken to Abram are designed to accomplish the blessing in that last sentence of verse 3; “and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”  There are some translation issues in those words, but the intent is clear enough.  God will bless the scattered and confused world through the one man and his descendants, especially the One named Jesus.  That’s why Yahweh came out of the blue to Abram, made him into a great nation with a great name, blessed them with the Land and all it held for them, and made them the center point of salvation history—not just for themselves, but for the whole world.  Election was unto mission.

There are several ways to preach on this.  One could emphasize that last point.  We are blessed to be a blessing. Election is not simply privilege; it is responsibility.  In churches full of the “frozen chosen” that is a very needed message.

Or one could stress the importance of obeying even when the command is impossibly difficult.  The key to obedience is trust, trust that the God who asks so much gives even more.  In a world that only trusts in self, we need to hear a call to trust the God who makes promises and keeps them.

Or, given that this is the Lenten season, we should focus on the grace of God that doesn’t quit on even the most rebellious.  Over and over again, God gives new beginnings to those who have rebelled egregiously.  He does that because of the One who came into the world to save sinners.  Preach Christ as the One who came for all, so that “all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through him.”

Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.

Illustration Idea

Two famous poems by Robert Frost help me think about the words of Genesis 12.  “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken” begin with mention of “woods.”  Remember?  “Whose woods these are I think I know” and “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.”  In the first, Frost stops to watch the woods fill up with snow, but he moves on for a simple reason.  “These woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.”  In the second, Frost ponders which of two roads he should take through the woods.  One is less travelled and that’s the one he takes.  The poem concludes: “I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence; two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Throughout history, God has been faced with roads that diverge—to punish or to pardon, to end the human race or to continue its existence, to bless or to curse.  Whereas anyone with a sense of justice might think God would choose the more travelled road of justice and punishment, God has always taken the less travelled road of grace and pardon and blessing.  In spite of all those times when he threatened to give up on sinful humanity (think of the prophets), in the end God kept going down the road less travelled, because God has promises to keep.  And that has made all the difference for the world.


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