Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 5, 2023
Genesis 12:1-4a Commentary
That is God’s first word to Abram. And it sets up what will become a curious dynamic for the people of God forever after. The people of God are a traveling people. Wherever “home” might be for us, it is as often as not something still up ahead of us rather than something we already possess.
Abram and Sarai were, of course, already well established in Haran. The last thing they would have wanted to do was pull up stakes and set out for . . . well, they didn’t even know how to finish that sentence as the story begins. Their destination is, according to God, “the land I will show you.” Today we’d say we would not even have anything to punch into our Google Maps or GPS. Just hit the road, head out in some general direction, and sit tight for further navigational instructions. Initially at least the going was more important than the place to which one was going.
For Abraham we know that he actually never gets back the kind of settled home he had in Haran. Oh yes, he gets to Canaan eventually but never settles down. He never owns anything again like he had presumably owned his land in Haran. By the time Sarah dies in Genesis 23, Abraham has to parlay with the locals to purchase a plot of ground large enough to bury his wife in. Near as we can tell, that is the sum total of land in Canaan he ever owned. Just a grave plot.
Years ago when I was on a study committee for my denomination to think about immigration and a biblical way to view immigrants, I noted in the Bible section that I wrote in the larger report that as a result of God’s “Go!” command in Genesis 12, Abraham essentially became a lifelong immigrant. The proverbial “wandering Aramean.” His descendants eventually do put down roots in Canaan but before Genesis is finished, the whole clan of Abraham’s kin have re-located to Egypt where, eventually, they will be treated cruelly before once again becoming a wandering people on a journey back to the Promised Land.
Small wonder that in God’s Law as revealed to Israel through Moses in places like Leviticus there is again and again special provisions made for “the alien who is within your gates.” Israel needed to have a special place in its heart for immigrants because they themselves had both been an immigrant people and they knew what it was like to be mistreated as the foreign people in a different land (Egypt). “Don’t do unto others what the Egyptians did unto you!” God essentially commands again and again. Israel did not always do so well with this. When someone did follow such a command, however, good and gracious things happened (think of how Boaz treated the Moabite immigrant Ruth as the Bible’s most clarion example of this—treat an immigrant well and you end up in the family line that leads to Jesus the Messiah!!).
Ultimately Israel will conquer Canaan but they lost it again eventually and once the exile to Babylon happened, they never fully settled into their own land ever again. Centuries of living under the occupation of foreigners became the norm until Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. The Jews then become a people in Diaspora pretty much from that time forward.
Even Jesus, the Son of God, was in a sense the ultimate immigrant. John 1 tells us that in the beginning the Word was “with God” but that for us and for our salvation he had to leave that divine “home” (as it were) and come into this world. And once here as a kind of divine and incarnate immigrant, people did not recognize him. He came to his own people, John writes, but even they “knew him not.” Small wonder that when one day someone asked Jesus where he lived, Jesus essentially replied, “Me? I don’t have a home.” Not in this world for sure.
Yet Jesus kept promising that if we stayed with him, if we journeyed in our lives of discipleship with him, he would bring us to a final and settled home after all. “In my Father’s house are many rooms . . . I go and prepare a place for you.” “Can we get a map for how to get there?” Philip soon asks. “No,” Jesus replied, “I am the map, I am the way. Stay close!”
Lent is a good time to ponder all this, which is why I suppose Genesis 12 is assigned for the Second Sunday in Lent in Year A and is paired in the Psalms reading with the so-called “Traveler’s Psalm” in Psalm 121. Even the Gospel text in John 3 is finally about the Son of God coming into the strange territory of this world in order to save it.
Meanwhile, we are not home yet either. We are still an immigrant people journeying somewhere better. And it all began with Abram in Genesis 12 and the simple yet devastating command “Go!” Hebrews 11 sums it up well when talking specifically about Abraham, Sarah, and their offspring:
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”
A popular song to sing during Lent, therefore, gets it right: “We Are People on a Journey.”
Note: We have a special page dedicated to further sermon ideas and resources for the 2023 Year A Season of Lent and on into Easter. Visit this page here
In Maya Angelou’s classic essay “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” we catch a glimpse of a woman who knew she was on a journey to someplace better. Set in the South back in the late 1940s, the essay tells of a time when Maya’s Momma was taunted and insulted by a group of white girls while Momma was doing no more than sitting in a rocker on the front porch of the small grocery store they ran.
The girls said nasty things to Momma, laughed at her for being black. One thirteen-year-old girl even did a hand-stand so as to let her dress fall down. She wasn’t wearing any underwear and so she mooned Momma with her bare bottom and front.
Watching her Momma, young Maya was furious that Momma didn’t do something, talk back, lash out. Yet Momma stayed calm and as Maya moved closer, she heard Momma singing quietly, “Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.” The girls tired of the show and left eventually, and as Momma left the porch to return to the store, Maya heard her singing again, “Glory hallelujah when I lay my burden down.”
Momma knew she was heading somewhere else, somewhere better in a place her Lord Jesus was even then preparing for her. Knowing this may not always make this tough world easier to bear but it provides something we all need: steadfastness, endurance, and perhaps above all, Hope.
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