March 12, 2017
William G. Carter
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan.
When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.
Beginning with this story, the Bible begins to move. Somehow God gets through to Abram and says, “I am going to bless you, and you are going to be a blessing to others.” But here’s the rub: Abram cannot stay where he is.
Up until now in the book of Genesis, God has been kind of general. God makes everybody and everything, and gives some general commands: don’t eat the fruit from that tree, look at the rainbow and remember my promise, don’t build that tower too tall.
But now God singles out one person from one family. God gets very specific and says, “You… right there, you! Go. Leave your country, leave your kindred, leave your kin, and go to the place where I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you. I will magnify your name and make it a blessing.” God gives no reason why Abram is chosen. He’s not the tallest, not the smartest, not the most accomplished – he is just chosen. Then he is told to get moving. There aren’t a lot of reasons why, and neither is a destination revealed. He is simply called to go.
We don’t know anything at all about Abram’s situation - - except that God gets through to him and says, “Put on your traveling shoes, and I will lead you to where you will finally end up.” That’s it – it’s an open-ended invitation. The only way Abram will get there is by traveling with God and listening along the way.
So all of this is going to shape what I talk about today. I want to talk to those who have heard God say, “Follow me,” but they’re not quite sure where they are headed. Maybe you’re making a change in your life, but the change isn’t quite finished yet. Or maybe you’ve heard God say, “There’s something I want you to do,” but you’re still waiting for more directions. Or maybe you know there is something ahead of you, but the place is not yet found on your map.
The story is told of Alexander the Great. The ancient conqueror led his army clear across Asia Minor – but they soon discovered they had marched off their Macedonian maps. They reached the margins, the blank space on the edge of what they knew. Imagine their surprise at reaching the Himalayan mountains, with no guideposts to lead them!
That’s what faith is – marching off the map. So I have a short list of some things to remember when you’re traveling.
The first is this: ambiguity is the first-cousin of faith. Faith is trusting what is not yet clear, seeing what we don’t yet see. Maybe God speaks, or God acts, or God invites – and the rest isn’t entirely obvious quite yet. That’s where faith steps in. Faith does not have it all spelled out in advance. There isn’t always a checklist. For anybody with high control needs, this can be a little unsettling. How many of us would start on a trip like Abram, without a destination, listening for God to give us a clue, wondering what adventures would unfold?
I remember the day when some people showed up in our town for the first time. We got acquainted and they told me the story. It seems opened up an atlas, put a pencil down on a page, and said, “That looks like an interesting place to go.” Off they went and here they are.
This is the story for today. The rest of the Bible is impressed with Father Abraham and Mother Sarah. They packed up and went, because God said, “Go!” One early Christian preacher understood this open-ended journey as a lesson for believers of every generation. His sermon is found in the New Testament book of Hebrews. Listen to a little bit of it:
· By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.
· By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents . . . for he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
· By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old— and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered God faithful to his promise.
· Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” (Hebrews 11:8-13)
Faith begins by letting go of old certainties and hanging on to God. That’s the first thing to note. Faith requires us to leave the familiar and follow God.
The second note is that God’s invitation to leave and follow can come at any time. There is no special time in our lives that is better than any other time. But when the time does come, we will know it.
For Abram, it happened in his seventy-fifth year. That seems risky, doesn’t it? At a time when most people are settling down, playing it safe, and staying close to home, the call comes from God to pack up his tent and go wherever the Holy Wind of God should blow. He’s seventy-five and on the move – maybe you can name somebody like that – seventy-five is not too late.
Of course, this is the book of Genesis, and some people were just getting started at 75. In the chapter before this, we discover Abram’s father was a man named Terah. He became a parent at age 70, and lived to the ripe old age of 205. So biblically speaking, Abram was having, shall we say, a “late adolescent transition.” It didn’t happen too early or too late. The moment it happened was when Abram was able to hear God speak.
Think about the transitions in your life: the subtle nudge, the lingering invitation, the abrupt announcement, the surprising call for you, all of it beckoning for you to pay attention. They can come at any time. What always interests me is how God can speak through these moments, how God is often calling us forward. We often hear it at just the right time. God’s time.
The third note to mention is that the journey doesn’t conclude very quickly. The Lord speaks, Abram answers, and then the rest of it all takes a while. Those of you who were hoping for instant discipleship will be disappointed. When it comes to faith and following, it’s best to take the long view.
Oh, we hear of Abram departing instantly – that sounds so courageous, so daring, so faithful! Sounds like a freeze-dried disciple, just add water. But then we hear the rest of the story: they leave Haran, they go to Canaan. They pass through Canaan and then to Shechem. Then it’s up to the hills, to Bethel, and on it goes. He marks some of the spots along the way as altars, as places of prayer, but he keeps going.
Then for the first of many times in the Bible, we hear that wonderful little line: Abram “journeyed on by stages.” I think that’s the story of my life and yours. The point is he doesn’t get the whole piece, the whole blessing. It comes in stages, as he travels in stages. It will not be rushed. God promises this 75-year-old man that he will be a father; that promise wouldn’t be fulfilled for another 25 years.
Speaking of faith, we never quite arrive. We move along in stages, a piece at a time, a stage at a time, not too fast, but always in motion. There are no instant saints; saints have to be made, and that takes a while.
So that’s a special word to our newest members who join us today. Welcome to the First Presbyterian stage of our Christian journey. It’s not the whole journey, but it’s a stage along the way. And for this chapter of your life, we welcome you as you travel with us and we travel with you.
Finally, and fourth, the call of God is usually a little bit messy. God speaks when there are other noises in the air. God calls us to follow in the thick of a lot of other allegiances. God says, “Abram, leave behind your kindred.” So what does he do? He takes his wife Sarai, which is understandable. He takes his nephew Lot, which turns out to be a questionable decision. And then they pack up all of their possessions, which include all the slaves and servants that they purchased in Haran.
Martin Luther probably had it right when he wrote these words in his great hymn, “Let goods and kindred go.” But Abram can’t quite do that yet. He had to carry what was familiar as he traveled to the unknown.
It reminds me of my stepson when we traveled to Barstow, California for a family wedding. I told the family, “Everybody brings one bag and one bag only.” My wife said, “That doesn’t include my hand bag and my knitting bag.” Well, we are traveling for four days; one bag is all anybody needs. Somewhere between Vegas and Barstow, we pop a tire in the Mojave Desert. The donut spare goes on the rental van, and there’s no room for the flat. That’s the point when we learn my stepson has brought a suitcase containing every compact disc that he owned. Oh well – the flat tire had to go on his lap. And his baggage slowed us down.
The Christian life is a journey. Maybe you think you are going to get away and have a fresh start. And then you unpack your bags to discover you’ve merely packed yourself, in all the curious peculiarities of your life. We never outrun ourselves, much less the baggage any one of is carrying.
The good news is that God somehow uses all of it. Abram took Sarai – Sarai described repeatedly as “barren” – and in another twenty-five years, she is rocking their cradle for the first time. Abram couldn’t have become the father of a multitude if he didn’t take along his wife – his repeatedly-described “barren wife” – who has the first of a series of impossible pregnancies throughout the Bible.
The call of God is always sifted through our life circumstances, but it is not bound by them. It comes to each of us – as we are – but it calls us forward to what God is inviting us to become. This is the road of spiritual growth.
The word today is that it is an unfolding journey. We are called toward a land that we cannot yet see.
Over the last number of weeks, I’ve concluded the sermons with words from notable poets. I may be in a rut, but I found one more poet that fits for today. It’s not T.S. Eliot, but Theodor Geisel, AKA Dr. Seuss. He wrote a piece years ago called On Beyond Zebra!
Said Conrad Cornelius O'Donald O'Dell,
My very young friend who is learning to spell:
"The A is for Ape. The B is for Bear.
The C is for Camel. The H is for Hare.
The M is for Mouse. And the R is for Rat.
I know all the twenty-six letters like that...
...through to Z is for Zebra I know them all well."
Said Conrad Cornelius O'Donald O'Dell.
"So now I know everything anyone knows
From beginning to end. From the start to the close
Because Z is as far as the alphabet goes."
Then he almost fell flat on his face on the floor
When I picked up the chalk and drew one letter more!
When I picked up the chalk and drew one letter more!
A letter he never had dreamed of before!
And I said, "You can stop, if you want, with the Z
Because most people stop with the Z
But not me!
In the places I go there are things that I see
That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z.
I'm telling you this 'cause you're one of my friends.
My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends!"
"My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends." That’s what the wise teacher says to Conrad Cornelius O'Donald O'Dell. There’s more than we thought, more than we had when we were playing it safe, and it’s all ahead of us. Take heart in the knowledge that God’s wisdom for our lives is greater than we can yet know.
And when God calls, put on your traveling shoes and get moving.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.
 Dr. Seuss, On Beyond Zebra! (New York: Random House, 1955) 1-4.