Guest preacher – Doug Hynd
Genesis 12:1-9, Romans 4: 1-3, 13-25
We have all seen enough of the Star Wars movies to understand the conventions surrounding the way such a movie begins. The camera provides us with images of a sweeping view across the cosmos with the rapidly moving lights of the galaxies passing before us. We are confronted with the magnitude of space and the stars unfolding in front of us before gradually focusing in on the location where the action will begin. All the while we have been accompanied by dramatic music and then a voice starts the commentary that locates us in the drama that is about to unfold. There is an evil to fought, a grave wrong to be righted against great odds, and as the titles roll by on the screen the camera focuses in on a key figure in the drama that will engage us over the next two hours of movie time.
This convention from the movies has much in common with the beginning of the book of Genesis. We have arrived in this week’s Old Testament reading at the point where the saga is focussing in on a key moment and a key character that will be central to the plot. The narrator of Genesis has begun with the cosmic sweep of creation, the emergence of evil manifested in an unfolding and escalating spiral of violence, tarting with the story of Cain and Abel. Peering back through the mists of time, we have stopped just long enough to note an experience of salvation in the survival of Noah and his family. We have then jumped forward to the rise of empire with the concentration of religious, economic, political and technological power in the account of the Tower of Babel, followed by the titles that roll on in the listing of genealogies that take us toward Abram and God’s critical intervention in Genesis at the end of chapter 11 and the critical moment at the beginning of Chapter 12.
So in Genesis 12 in the call to Abram we come to that close up in movie terms where God begins the adventure of renewal in earnest.
If we are to commit ourselves as followers of Jesus, then the God of Abram will turn out to be our God as well. For us as the new community brought into being through Jesus some of the significance of Abram is worked out in the passage in Romans, in the New Testament reading for today, in the intense dialectic of Paul’s argument. I won’t have too much to say about that because Paul’s argument needs a sermon on its own. Though I will briefly comment on his discussion at a couple of points on the way through.
If our confession is that of the one God who made heaven and earth and who called into being the people of Israel, then we must listen and respond to the story of Abraham. It is not just a story about the past – it is our story – a story that is claimed not only by Paul but also by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews 11:8-10 in his account of the call of Abram to a journey that promised a home and new life for his family. So we come back to Genesis 12 and the call of God to Abram. The call is not to some vague religious experience but it is a call to a journey and it is this point that I want us to ponder on.
Abram is not called by God to move to the centre of empire, rather he is called to move off as a wanderer to what was then the margins of empire, a pilgrim with all his entourage, and the text traces in stages their movement across the landscape to what became known as Palestine. The references we have of his travels in this passage are symbolic as well as geographical in their character, in their allusions to significant sites in the history of Israel. We have here an account of the ‘songlines” as the first nations of this country might say of the land that the children of Abraham were to come to regard as embodying God’s promise of blessing.
With Abram’s response to God’s call we have a new history – a history that begins with this moment of leaving and breaking off from the past, leaving his family, his tribe and his land – expressing in this movement a departure from the old history of empire. To grasp the significance and characteristics of that action fully and the character of God’s response fully we need to go back to the last verses of Genesis 11: 30-32 in their connection to our reading.
That text suggests that the place Abram leaves is the place of coercion and hopelessness, a place of death and barrenness (Sarah was barren). Abram and Sarah leave secure barrenness for the sake of a risky future. But they have no heir, therefore there is no way to the future, no way to inherit the land that is promised and the newness and blessing that it represents.
But given the location of passage we are invited to read the call to Abram as the amazing promise of new life in the midst of death as not just about the forming of Israel as a community, but God’s first move toward the reforming of creation and the transforming of the nations, God is promising the renewing of life against the dead end of death and barrenness into which human life had run.
The promise in the text of an heir to inherit the land has to do with God creating a new future discontinuous with the past, to the forming of a community reliant only on God’s faithfulness. The faith of Abram in embarking on this pilgrimage is a response of embracing God’s promised future with a passion that the present can be let go for the sake of that future. The promise of land to Abram only makes sense if there is to be an heir and God’s promise is a bold claim, if only implicit in the text at this point that there will be an heir.
In Genesis 12 we stand at a major moment in the text in advancing God’s engagement with humanity. The key issue of the text is not speculation about the religious experience or the character of Abram – it is a revelation about the character of God.
So what is the character of the God that is rendered here in the call to Abram?
- We have here a claim to radical newness that is parallel to, the affirmation of creation out of nothing, the resurrection of the dead, the justification by grace through faith. This is a God who brings life out of death and barrenness Abram stands at the end of a long history the result of which is nothing but barrenness and death – but this is location of God’s life giving action. God’s call is all that is needed for newness, hope, promise, summons and assurance
- The call of Abram to pilgrimage points to the central metaphor of the journey for the life of faith. The God who calls Abram out of the empire of human satisfaction, security and striving calls him to seek a new home by way of pilgrimage. In the New Testament Christians were described as “people of the way” and the images of pilgrimage form the core of the argument in the book of Hebrews and in Peter’s description of the status of Christians. God is one who calls out a community of people – not just a lone individual to some personal relationship.
- God is not pinned down to a specific nation, state or the project of building of a religious cult, but is one who accompanies the pilgrims those who are searching for a land and for a home. The language in US politics and by some evangelicals in the United States that suggests some special relationship of god with the US has no basis in scripture and cannot be found here in the God of Abram.
- God who is particular in his name and character – not a God of some generic spirituality but a God who is inclusive in the reach of his call – all the nations of the earth will bless themselves in you is the promise. Any language about God which is narrow and restrictive is not referring to the God of Abram.
- The speech of God brings life and resurrection – note Paul’s comment in Romans 4:17 – the God whom Abraham believed in is characterised as one “…who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist”. Paul is referring here to the nature of God’s grace.
- The departure from home is embodied in the story of Abraham – he and his community joins the long the arc caste by God’s association with those who are willing to be exiles while longing for the kingdom of to come in its fullness. We have the promise that in the drama of Scripture the end of the journey is a homecoming to a city in which justice will be done and the tears wiped from all our eyes. Martin Luther King a notable Baptist preacher used the terminology of the Beloved Community to try and speak of this.
The question for us then given the character of God that is presented here – how do we in our lives as a community follow this God of Abram – a God who ask us to abandon our security, our attachment to the lesser gods of our age to follow him? What might this mean for us?
Historically being a Baptist involved giving up the security of social standing and becoming in a certain sense outside the law by refusing to comply with an established church and its teaching for the sake of conscience and as a witness to freedom. There is a resonance here between the character of the call to Abram and the Baptist spirit of openness to the call of God against the grain of security and social respectability.
We need to keep that memory in mind and not be afraid to follow the claims of conscience, the freedom of the Gospel and the grace of God even if to do so may become costly. Current debates within the Baptist Association of NSW raise questions about whether we wish as Baptists to retain our heritage or seek a security of control and drawing lines ahead of time as to where the Spirit may lead us. Let us not be afraid to stand peaceably for that historic legacy with its echoes of the call of Abram and be willing to follow the call of Abram’s God out into unchartered and uncertain territory if that should prove to be necessary.
What signs should we be looking for that might help us discern the presence of this God of surprising newness? How can we keep our heart our mind, our imagination open to God’s call.
I like many of you I am sure continually find my imagination is being claimed by the images of empire, those principalities and powers that Paul talked of. The assumptions of many in our society is that security is to be found in arms, violence and intelligence agencies. Or by the images of consumerism, seeking comfort and security in consuming more and seeking to protect and subsequent insecurity from those who are different and might threaten our hold on those things. We should look beyond these images and look to where God called Abram in this story, to the margins where life is celebrated and affirmed –to where the stranger is welcomed as a bearer of gifts, where the costly path of peacemaking is followed.
To follow the call of the God of Abram is to take a path into the wilderness but it is at the same time to live our lives towards the promise of newness and shalom, flourishing that this surprising and disturbing God is seeking to bring into being. The healing of the nations and the renewal of creation is the goal of this journey- nothing less. If you are present at worship this morning in anticipation of committing yourself to anything smaller and safer in religious terms you have not yet grasped what is at stake. Star Wars set its story in the scope of the entire cosmos. The God of Abram who calls us to pilgrimage does not work with any smaller goal in view.
May our hearts and minds be open as Abram was to this call to follow this God in the hope that we can join in the blessing that was promised, a blessing that was to be extended to all the nations of the earth.