Lent 2A

March 10, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 3:1-17

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Genesis 12:1-4a

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments and Observations

    The author of Genesis assumes you already know him. How else can you explain the bare-bones manner by which this shadowy figure named Abram suddenly appears in the biblical text with so little fanfare? At the conclusion of Genesis 11, Abram is mentioned for the first time but as no more than yet one more entry in a rather dry genealogical listing of the descendants of Noah’s son Shem. We find out about Abram’s father, Terah, and his two brothers, Nahor and Haran. We find out who these three boys married and where they ended up living in Ur of the Chaldeans. But that’s it. There’s nothing particularly striking about any of this material and nothing that would catch the reader’s eye . . . unless you already knew how important Abram was. In that case, he was a man who needed no introduction.

    Genesis 12:1 startles us with the announcement that Yahweh himself cleared his divine throat one day and spoke somehow to Abram. And nothing has ever been the same since in this world. What became the nation of Israel started that long-ago day. The Hebrew peoples, later called Jews, started that day. We Christians believe that the line leading up to Jesus started that day, and from there the lines that get drawn clear down to 2014 and the Season of Lent, during which this passage is appointed as a reading in the Year A Lectionary cycle.

    Abram. Abraham. He’s not even introduced to us as being a particularly good, moral, or righteous man. We assume all that, but we’re not told. Earlier in Genesis we were told that Abel found favor in God’s sight. Noah alone out of all the earth was found to be righteous, and the text told us this. But Abram receives no such tag. He’s simply called out of a clear blue sky. “Get going,” Yahweh told him. So Abram left. Flying off on the wings of a promise too grand to take in and almost too good to be true, Abram left.  He did what people in the Ancient Near East often feared to do, which was to leave behind the land of your father.  Many people back then believed that to die away from home, away from your ancestral territory, was to be lost in the afterlife. Nevertheless, Abram left.

    His swift obedience speaks volumes. If Abram asked any questions of Yahweh at this juncture, they are not reported to us. If he had any doubts, we are not told about them. Nor are we told if he and Sarai argued about this hare-brained idea of going to an as-yet unspecified place where the two of them would somehow form a nation (despite their inability so far to form even a family). They just go. They spent however much time it took to pack up and then they go.

    Verses 6-9 read like a kind of travel itinerary. They go here and there, stop now and again. Finally they get to a place called Canaan only to discover, not surprisingly, a goodly number of people known as the Canaanites. As Abram surveys this new land, Yahweh whispers into his ear yet again, “It’s theirs now but it will belong to your descendants later.” God keeps using the words “offspring” and “descendants” like it’s already a done deal. He obviously knows something Abram and Sarai don’t know yet because of all the things they packed up and loaded onto camels in Ur, a baby buggy and crib were not among them. They’d never had use for one before and didn’t have use for one now, either. Yet God keeps talking about a family–one so large it would need a large land like Canaan to contain it.

    That’s the promise anyway, and that’s all they have to go on. So far they’ve been shown a land that already has plenty of people in it (folks who won’t take kindly to the idea of being displaced some day). They’ve been told about a family, and even about an extended family, that has not begun yet (and won’t any time soon, either). To top it all off, verse 10 tells us that the land to which God brings them has a famine! You can almost hear Sarai saying to Abram, “Nice place your God brought us to! You said he promised us a family one day by and by, but did he mention anything about food for tomorrow!?”

    Abram is one ordinary man caught up in the extraordinary saga of God’s cosmic salvage operation. In some ways, it’s easy to see the opening of Genesis 12 as a kind of new beginning in the Book of Genesis. We leave behind the broad strokes of God’s dealings with the whole world to focus on the origins of Israel in specific. But it’s a mistake to do that. We need to see Genesis 12 set in the cosmic context of creation. The same God who created everything, as told in the twin-creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2, is now working to reclaim that creation run amok, and he’s doing it through the hapless figure of the lone man called Abram–a man who could not possibly have grasped the full scope of what was going to end up happening through him. “All the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you,” God promises. But who among us could imagine how such a thing could happen?

    But that’s the promise. God vows to make blessings available all over the place if only Abram will do as he’s told. There are thirty-nine books in the Old Testament. Scattered throughout those books, the Hebrew word for “blessing” crops up 310 times. But Genesis alone contains 28% of those occurrences–talk of blessing clusters in great clumps around the story of Abram because if God’s greater blessing is ever going to come to the world, it will be because of what happens to this man and his long-suffering wife, Sarai.

    Abram is going to have to relinquish his present for the sake of a future he will never live to see. Abram will live to see Isaac born, but he’ll die many generations before anything resembling a “great nation” appears on the face of the earth.  If, in the end, Abram could look at that and yet still somehow believe the promises to be true, then it required of him a faith that can be described only as sacrificial. In Genesis 12, Abram ends up trying to save his own life and feather his own nest so that his present moment would be better, not worse. Before his life is over, however, he will learn that if God’s promised blessing is ever going to come at all for this world, it will be because people like him renounced the comforts of the present moment so as to open himself up for a future destination toward which he would travel but at which he would never arrive in this life.

    As Elizabeth Achtemeier has pointed out, in terms of narrative, the call of Abram in Genesis 12 follows directly on the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. In that story, the people cook up a plan to make a name for themselves. “Come, let’s make a name for ourselves.” But the end of that story is confusion and scattering. By contrast, in Genesis 12 Yahweh comes to Abram and says, “I will make a name for you!” Yahweh himself will be the one to make Abram’s name great, and the result will be a new in-gathering of all the peoples of the earth under the canopy Yahweh’s singular blessing.

    But it’s not going to come easily or quickly. The journey of faith cannot be fast-forwarded and there are no short-cuts we can cook up for ourselves to speed things up or to accomplish anything better than God himself will accomplish in his own good time. The journey toward cosmic blessing, like Abram’s own journey of faith, will have its ups and downs, its peaks and valleys, its strong leaps forward and its woeful stumbles backward. But once God’s promise is spoken in Genesis 12, one thing is certain: it will happen, it will come to fulfillment.

    “So Abram left,” Genesis 12:4 starkly tells us. Abram left, and he never stopped traveling really.  Abram left and he never did return, never did settle down again as he had done once upon a time in Ur.   Indeed, leap forward a dozen chapters in Genesis and you will discover that in his lifetime, the only plot of ground Abraham ever managed to secure was the little piece of real estate he bargained for in order to bury Sarah, the love of his life.

    That’s the way of it when God calls you: you are summoned to a journey whose destination is glory yet the path to that glory is long, dangerous, frustrating, and always fraught with the temptation to chuck the whole thing in favor of just looking out for good old #1 in the here and now, the same way Abram did in Egypt. Thankfully, God’s faithfulness toward us is more constant than ours toward God, and so by grace God keeps yanking us back onto the path of discipleship. As we now know only too well, that path meanders straight into a cross. If ever there were a gruesome reality in the teeth of which the promises looked null and void, the cross was it.

    From that cross the Son of God shouted, “It is finished,” but by saying that, Jesus did not mean to convey that he was finished, washed up, done in and defeated. He meant that something was finished in the sense of being completed. What was finished? The blessing once promised to that man called Abram in Ur of the Chaldeans. “I’m going to bless the whole world through you,” God told Abram. A couple millennia later a man named Jesus said, “Done!” And that’s where the story of Abram leads for us Christians.  We’ve got promises to hold onto through a faith that believes God will keep those promises. But we have to hold onto them in a world intent on kicking the stuffing out of our faith some days. That’s not easy.

    “So Abram left.”

    So must we. May God give us the grace to journey with Abram and all who followed him.  God give us the grace to follow our Lord in Lent and beyond.

    Illustration Idea

    Years ago I read a sermon by someone who lamented the fact that many Christians today treat the characters we meet in the Bible casually, as though they are people just like us, as though someone like Abraham could just as well be the older guy who lives next door. Yet the stories of the Bible, especially stories that go as far back as Abraham’s tale, are ancient. Some years ago there was a cover story in National Geographic magazine was about Abraham. The article’s author re-traces the steps of Abraham’s journeys through the Ancient Near East by taking a modern trip along that same path. He notes along the way the varying ways by which the Abraham story has been used and interpreted by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. As is always true of National Geographic, the article was accompanied by some impressive photography.

    The pictures swiftly remind one that these events took place nearly 4,000 years ago in a place and at a time as different from our world and times as can be imagined. Indeed, pictures of even the present-day Middle East reveal a terrain and a culture quite foreign to us. Much of the landscape around ancient Ur and other locations Abraham is said to have visited resembles the hard-bitten, mountainous areas of Afghanistan with which we have become so familiar in recent years. Another photo shows the slaughter of sheep at a temple on Mount Gerazim where a small group of Samaritan Jews continues to follow the Old Testament’s laws governing animal sacrifice. It’s startling to see blood-spattered priests presiding over this ritual next to a large burning pit. It most certainly does not look like anything we typically associate with church, religion, or spirituality!

    These stories are ancient, yellowed with age, nearly brittle and fragile by now.   We need to enter into them accordingly and appreciate all the wonder that can come when we see these narratives aright.

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 121

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    Romans 4:1-5; 13-17

    Author: Stan Mast