Father Abraham, Genesis 12:1–9, Second Sunday in Lent, March 8, 2020
Believe it or not, it is already the Second Sunday in Lent. The season of Lent returns us to the very basics of Christianity. Last week we remembered the fall into sin and the victory of Christ over the ancient serpent, crushing his head and rendering his power empty.
This week our Old Testament reading recounts when Abraham moves on from Haran to Canaan at the command of God, he is going, he knows not where, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Yet he goes out by faith with good courage, God’s hand leading his way, and God’s love supporting him.
Even our Psalm this morning reflects this certainty: “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (121:8) It is a certainty which we, who live by faith, share with Abraham, our forefather. Like Abraham, we too, go out into the world counted righteous by God, certain that we are those offspring who are among the blessed families through God’s blessing. This is how we live, and move, and have in our very being as we move toward the cross with Jesus.
When you think about it God is not very sensibly selective. Abraham was no catch. We learn in Joshua that Abraham was an idolater. Moses will say that God did not pick the children of Abraham because they were anything special. As the story will unfold, Abraham will not get the faith thing right very often.
Yet, God is faithful to promises. All the things which he promised Abraham, He delivered, often contrary to any expectation. Abraham will try to make it easier for God, but God will have none of that.
God is gracious and loving. God had rendered judgment in Genesis chapter eleven, but here in twelve He is turning around to bless and save the very people who had rebelled against Him, bestowing the very things they sought to gain from God through force, meaning and community.
So what can we learn about faith from Abraham? Trust in God’s promises can be a bold thing. It took some guts to believe and do what God asked him to do. God asks us to trust some pretty improbable promises as well. Abraham was childless and 75 years old. Sarah, his wife, was past the age of childbearing. How could he be a father of a great nation? He was probably looking toward an old age dependent upon his nephews and nieces for care. Those folks were in Haran. Now God is asking a 75-year-old man to leave the only support structure he has available to him.
Yet faith is not getting it right, but faith does. Follow and do. It was not sufficient for Abraham to sit in Haran and expect God to do everything. Hearing and believing God, meant he got up and moved, leaving behind his father and his family.
Sometimes you can learn the most about something by defining its opposite. If we do this it might be helpful to turn back to chapter eleven to see what I mean. In Genesis chapter eleven we read the story of the Tower of Babel. There we are told that the people gathered in one place and they said to one another, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (11:4)
The people of Babel sought to do something of significance and to have community, two good goals but they sought it through their own means, building a tower to heaven. While what they wanted was a good thing, how they went about getting it was the problem. How often isn’t that true for you and me too?
Abraham is promised that he will be the father of many nations, a huge community. His name will be great, he will be significant. But God even gives him more. God will bless the one who blesses him and curse the one who curses him.
Abraham is an exemplar of faith because he listens, he trusts, and he gets up and moves.
Now, any careful reading of the text of Genesis will also reveal that Abraham is not entirely consistent in this. Sometimes he tells Pharaoh that Sarah is his sister so as to preserve his own life. Was he ditching her so he could find another, more fertile than Sarah?
He establishes Eleazar of Damascus as an heir and seeks to go around the system with Hagar and Ishmael. God must rebuke this exemplar of faith on occasion. But finally Abraham listens to God’s command and binds his son, his only son, the one whom he loves, on an altar, and is willing to lose him, trusting that God will keep His promise to bless him with many children even though he is about to commit genetic extermination of the line of Sarah and Abraham.
There is a most interesting point to Abraham’s faith that Søren Kierkegaard mentions in his philosophical work published in 1843, “Fear and Trembling”. He explores Abraham’s internal conversation as he climbs Mt. Moriah to sacrifice Isaac. It says that the binding of Isaac was a test for Abraham. God knows he believes, the one who really knows, after the event, is Abraham.
Chapter twelve of Genesis is the beginning of a story, not only the story of Abraham but the story of us as well. As the children’s song says, we are all children of Abraham. The proper response to “who are you?” is always, “my father was a wandering Aramean.” We are children of Abraham by faith.
What can we learn from Abraham?
Is God’s grace resistible? Have we acted faithlessly?
Do we cling tightly to our comfort and our own pleasures, and turn our back to the call which God has extended to us?
Do we spend our money confident of His care?
Do we meet our challenges aware of His promise to be with us and to give us strength for this day?
Do we love our children and see our spouse as the gift from God that they are?
Do we exercise the amazing gift and authority to forgive a sin, no matter how small or large? Or do we bear the grudge and nurse the wound?
Do we look for God everywhere except in the places He promised to be? I have said it before, but I really believe that if we truly believed that someone was putting the very body of Christ into our hands, we wouldn’t complain about the music, or anything else. We would sing off key, in Latin, yet we would still be here. Is the murmuring we so often hear in our churches, but a symptom of a profound faith problem?
We really are of ourselves spiritually incomplete and incompetent people. God has done all the work and we cannot even get the faith right. He has born the weight of this world’s sin, and we miss out because we struggle to believe. The many misconceptions of faith which make it into our own work, and work terror in our heart, and then we are then forced to ask the questions: “Have I done enough?” “Is what I have saving faith?” “How do I know?”
Faith is ultimately a relationship which God establishes and God nurtures. This takes this awesome responsibility out of our hands. God will not run roughshod over us. We may close our eyes and resist Him, it’s true, but that only makes the faith that much more sweet.
Now this faith that I’m talking about is not a generic faith. You often hear people say, “You just gotta have faith,” as though faith has some sort of power within itself. Maybe you may remember the original Peter Pan scene that brings Tinkerbell back to life just because the audience believes. It is the audience’s applause that gives power to Tinkerbell.
Abraham’s faith is not a ‘Tinkerbell faith.’ It is not our faith that gives God permission to save us. Instead, it is God, the Holy Spirit who works faith in us in order to give us the salvation that Jesus earned with His death on the cross. It is not the sincerity of faith that saves. Instead, it is the object of faith that saves. You can have a faith with a sincerity that transcends the universe, but if it is not in a specific Man, who died on a specific cross, outside the City of Jerusalem, that faith is useless. The faith that the Holy Spirit gives has a specific object, Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins.
A child who has disappointed his or her parents is still their child. God has committed Himself to us in Jesus. Like a father who stands up, under oath, and promises to care for a child, He has entered into this relationship for the long haul. His patient care is greater than our failings.
His love seeks us out. He did not put it in a room or some temple somewhere, but He gave it legs and voice, heart and eyes. You probably first felt, it in the gentle arms of your mother, you have felt it ever since in the love of God expressed through the countless Christians He has brought into your life and into your family. Through them, God seeks you out so that He may love you.
God works faith through baptism, word, and sacrament. God has defined who you are. You are now the sheep whom the shepherd seeks. You are the branch which the vine sustains and feeds. You are the child in the father’s arms.
Lent is a time of hope in the midst of hopelessness. Your heavenly Father sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, as possessing nothing, and yet blessing all nations by giving Himself to death for you. He came not to possess the land but to give Himself to those who are journeying with Him to the cross. With the promised blessings, we are still going on toward our final home. Even though you have no deed for it, you have hope in it, because God has promised, just as He did to Abraham. Your hope is in Him. Amen.