Practicing the Promise

In Genesis 12.1 God tells Abram to “Go” so we may not be surprised to read later in verse 4 “So Abram went.” Suddenly we find ourselves in a travel adventure “And they set out for the land of Canaan.” When we arrive at verse 6 we find that “Abram traveled through the land.” And at verse 8 “From there he went toward the hills east of Bethel.” In verse 9 “Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.” By the time we arrive in verse 10 “Abram went down to Egypt.”

These travels have meaning for us because we are told that wherever Abram goes in chapter 12 he goes as the recipient of a promise. This promise is given as a plan devised by God that involves a partnership between God and His chosen people that will be a blessing to all the people of the earth. After getting directions to his location in Canaan “as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh” (such directions may cause us to want to stop and ask Miss Belle for some of her sweet tea). With the promise in mind it is worth noting that in Canaan Abram “built an altar there to the Lord.” It would not be a stretch to say that he practiced the promise among the Canaanites. Then again, in the hills east of Bethel “He built an altar to the Lord.” And again, we might say he practiced the promise while there.

Yet something entirely different takes place in Egypt. Perhaps Genesis wants us to know there is something opposite to the promise. There are plans not devised by God that are intended for self-survival and personal blessing without concern for others. Here Abram makes a plan to maximize his chances for personal blessing and survival. While he does survive and is treated well, Abram has no concern for others and the Egyptians are not blessed. In fact, they are afflicted with serious disease instead of blessing. Genesis wants us to know from the start that the Lord is serious about this promise. God is serious about this plan and the partnership with His people.

God has Assigned a Group Project

In Genesis chapter twelve God calls unlikely, aged, childless Abraham and promises future generations who would become a blessing for the world. We may wonder what is up with a God who dreams such impossible plans and makes such impossible promises. Yet Genesis insists that God is serious about such impossible promises.

God’s plan was to form a people to be an instrument to unite humanity with God and with one another. Those of us who have witnessed or experienced some relationships in the church may think it easier for a barren couple to have a baby. Obvious challenges come when walking with others. Brothers and sisters are not exempt from scandal, nor are they exempt from causing problems for us. Sometimes the whole thing can seem overwhelming yet God brings us together to be witnesses. In fact, it is through one another with all our gifts and limitations that God makes Himself known to us. God has assigned a group project.

This becomes important. God did not select Abraham to be a solo agent who would one day hand off to another solo agent. We sometimes act as if we are solo agents and even talk about alone time with God as if it is the goal. In our wiser moments we would be talking about the dangers of attempting to follow alone.

Noah: a Response to the Narrative

The trouble with approaching a familiar narrative is that we have convinced ourselves that we know the story.  That its lessons and implications are known.  That we have already gleaned its treasure.  This is a risk that some of us take when we read the Noah narrative.

It is easy to think that this is a text about an ark or a flood.  Yet, the text is telling us something more.  The more time we spend here the more we realize that this text is about the relationship between God and creation.  This relationship is in crisis.  The text says that God is grieved.  The wickedness that is in creation has an impact on the Creator.  And so, He enters the pain and fracture of this world.

We can fool ourselves into thinking that God stands outside the story sending His wrath, but this is a story about the pain God feels for a wayward creation.  In this context, we find Noah.  Noah is introduced as son of Lamech, one who will bring comfort.  In the midst of wickedness and evil human intentions, Noah is righteous, blameless, and walks with God.  The narrative announces with confidence that faithfulness is possible even in a wicked world.

After forty days of rain and one hundred fifty days of water covering the earth there is possibility of feeling forgotten.  But, “God remembered Noah…”  This is an issue that cannot be overlooked.  Each one of us knows what it is like to be forgotten.  In this narrative, all of creation may feel forgotten.  But “God remembered Noah.”  Walter Brueggemann implies that this is Gospel.  The flood appears to destroy everything except the commitment of the Creator to His covenant partner.  Brueggemann goes so far as to suggest that God is preoccupied with His creation.

Following the flood, we still find that “the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”  And we still find that humans are created in the image of God.  Yet, not everything remains the same.  Genesis wants us to know that this relationship between God and creation has changed.  Namely, we receive a promise and a sign that God will never destroy the earth like this again.

Creation has not changed.  You could say we are all in the same boat. Hopelessness remains.  Humans rebel against the purpose of God.  Any chance of hope depends on God.  Genesis brings good news!  God keeps His covenant with creation.  Human rebellion does not ruin His plan.  A grieving God will have unlimited patience with a rebellious world.  This is Good News because we are not capable of saving ourselves.

God Creates Witnesses with His Words

From the beginning, God has always taken a special interest in people.  This becomes even more evident in Genesis 12.  God speaks again and creates a people who will be witnesses for Him.  He calls a community of faith to bear witness of His name.  “A great nation… and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”  And as we have become used to, God appears to take the impossible route.  God picks one who is childless and barren to bear witness to His name with many descendants.  One thing we know about God is that He does not avoid situations that appear hopeless.  Instead He seems to look for them as opportunities to make things happen.

Childless and barren, Abraham and Sarah take the promise into a land that was already inhabited, “now the Canaanite was then in the land.”  And we are reminded that the promise of God is never easy to believe and practice.  Canaanite ways may be attractive to Abraham.  Their lifestyle may be tempting compared to the slow pace of God’s promise.  But here is Abraham living among the Canaanites.  Living the promise among those who do not believe the promise.  Trusting God among those who do not believe in God.  Believing the reality of the promise.  The text knows where we live – among those who do not believe the words of our God.

Our text falls right between a genealogy that takes us back to the flood and a journey to Egypt to avoid a famine.  These may be noteworthy.  We are caught between two texts.  On one side the flood.  Famine on the other.  In between, the promise that Abraham’s descendants and all nations will be blessed.  Abraham obeys right between flood and famine.   This is where we are called to be witnesses.  No matter what has come before.  No matter what is expected later.  We are witnesses to the promise of God.

In chapter eleven we find the people of the earth saying “let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach the heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name.”  This story reminds us that modern people are not the first to desire fame and greatness.

In contrast, God tells Abraham “I will make you a great nation… And make your name great.”  Here is a contrast between men who try to make a name for themselves and one that God promises to make great.  If Abraham is ever to have a great name it will not be because of any self-initiated effort.  The great name will be a gift, not an achievement.  God is the Name-Maker.  Interestingly, reading further we find that Abraham builds an altar “and called upon the name of the LORD.”  The one who God promises a great name calls upon the name of the LORD.

Instead of a tower to become famous, Abraham builds an altar that Yahweh may be known.  An altar right there in the land of the Canaanites .  This is a statement against every other god and every other loyalty that he had ever known before.

It is not a tower to the heavens that will bear witness of greatness.  Not even the works of creation.  Instead it will be people.  A family that believes the reality of a promise making God.  God wants to bless the earth with these people.  God wants to bless every family with these people, the family tree of chapter ten, and the family tree of chapter eleven.  All families are to be blessed by these people created to be witnesses of God’s greatness.

God Intervenes With a Promise

When Genesis chapter eleven ends, Abraham’s father is dead, he is childless, and his wife is barren.  Here we enter an arena where barrenness is reality.  When chapter twelve begins, God is speaking.  Here we enter an arena where promise is reality.  Genesis begins with God speaking.  In the beginning God creates with words.  Now we are twelve chapters in and God continues to speak.  The same God who created the heavens and the earth is still busy creating.

Let us imagine Abraham at the local diner for breakfast.  We might find him to be a big shot, part of the good ole boy network.  People might gather to hear him tell jokes or talk about goats.  People may think he is clever.  He might be asked for insider tips on camel races or a recipe for spiced goat.  People may offer to buy him breakfast.  But this may get interrupted by someone bursting in and handing out cigars.  This man and his wife are expecting a child.  While others  might start gushing about the baby, Abraham stares at the wall.  But there he might notice a photo.  One where the owner at the diner is posing with his father (who opened this diner years ago) and his oldest son (who will inherit the diner in the future).  A three generation picture.  Abraham might get up to leave at this point, having lost his appetite.  After all, his own father is dead, he himself has no children, and Sarah his wife is barren.

Chapter 11 leaves Abraham in an undesirable situation.  Barrenness is both reality and metaphor.  A metaphor for hopelessness.  There is no foreseeable future.  There is nowhere to go.  Time seems to have run out on Abraham and his family tree.  The family that survived the flood is about to disappear.  But then, God intervenes – with a promise.  Genesis wants us to know that barrenness is an arena that God enters.  God speaks into the most hopeless of situations.  “Now the Lord said to Abram”

God’s first words to Abraham begin with an imperative “Go.”  Where he is now is not where he is to remain.  He cannot be a blessing if he stays where he is.  When God speaks to him in chapter 12, he does as he is told.  In this passage, the narrator speaks, God speaks, but Abraham does not, he just goes.  He is presented simply as obedient.  Genesis eliminates all the questions and excuses and attachment to memories and reputation and relatives and just says, “So Abram went forth as the LORD had spoken to him.”

Abraham is not chasing God.  He has grown up thinking that he had a number of gods to choose from.  Instead, God seems to have chased Abraham.  And an amazing thing happens.  Abraham recognizes that the voice of this God is different.  This is a God to listen to.  And God says “Go.”

God is a God on the move.  Not stationary.  Not stagnant.  He is not interested in staying in any particular place.  Instead He is interested in being with His people.  If Abraham responds to God’s “Go” obediently, he will be blessed.  If he stays, he will not.  To stay is to refuse the offer of this God.

There is a text from Joshua that sheds some light on our Genesis text; Joshua 24.2, “Your fathers lived beyond the River, namely, Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods.”  This is of interest to us for an obvious reason.  Abraham may have been introduced to multiple gods while growing up.

There is another text that influences our reading of this text.  Hebrews 11.8, “by faith Abraham when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going.”

Our text is caught between these two texts.  One an OT text, tells us that Abraham was raised worshipping other gods.  The other, reminds us that Abraham obeyed one God above the others even when he did not know where he was going.  The Genesis text stands alone, but becomes tangled with these others.  This creates an interesting look at our text and the way we respond to it.  Abraham is raised on other gods yet follows Yahweh into the unknown.  In a land where pagans dwell and pagan gods rule God speaks.

If Abraham responds to God’s “Go”, the rest is up to God.  Yahweh has his back.  Just in case we doubt whether God has an interest here we look in 12.1-3 and find God saying “I will show you… I will make you… I will bless you… I will bless those who bless you… I will curse.”  I think we can safely say that God has his back.

Abraham does not argue with God in this text.  We want to ask why.  We get hung up on a point like that because we don’t understand it.  It doesn’t happen so easily for us.  We fight whenever we are asked to do something we hadn’t planned on.  We don’t like to be inconvenienced.  We like what we know.  We feel safe there.  We like the familiar.  We are suspicious of the unknown.  And we tell ourselves that we are glad that God is asking Abraham and not us.

What are we to do with this God who continues to have such an interest in humankind that He will not stop talking to us?  Doesn’t the creator of the universe have other things to do?  Perhaps we find comfort in the idea that God is still speaking.  Perhaps it has us on edge.  What will he say next?  What will He be telling us to do?