How appropriate that this text is assigned to the season of Lent. During this season, we embark on a journey of faith, following Jesus to the cross. Our Old Testament lection for this second Sunday in Lent is the paradigmatic journey of faith – the summons to Abram to leave (relinquish) his homeland and his family to journey with God to a land of promise and newness of life.
For context, it is important to emphasize just how settled Abram was in his old life. Abram’s place of origin was Ur of the Chaldees (the eastern end of the Fertile Crescent. But Abram’s father, Terah “took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there” (Genesis 11:31). Then Terah died at a ripe old age. Abram, along with his barren wife, Sarai, is now fully settled in the land of Haran, the northern tip of the Fertile Crescent. We are told in chapter 12, verse 4, that Abram is 75 years old. His life is settled.
He has family with him in this new location, and even though he and Sarai do not have children, there is a nephew named Lot (Lot’s father Haran had died back in Ur before the migration) who was under his care. This great drama begins in chapter 12 with an intrusion. Unexpectedly and inexplicably, God speaks. We do not know how Abraham would know the voice of this God, if indeed he has ever even heard of this God, whose name we are given, but seems to remain hidden from Abram. The voice disrupts Abram’s settled life and established plans. But this is how every faith journey begins – the disruptive, intrusive, unsettling word of God. God always moves first in the story. We Wesleyans call this prevenient grace.
I think of the movie Field of Dreams… Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) is living a settled life with his family on a farm in Dyersville (Dubuque County) Iowa. Suddenly, a voice intrudes upon him in the middle of the night. He does not know who is speaking… he can barely make sense of the meaning of the “call.” “If you build it, he will come.” Most everyone thinks Ray is crazy for paying attention to the voice in the night… maybe he had a bad burrito for dinner is all. But Ray is captivated by the voice… and the rest is movie history.
There is also an echo of this call in the movie “Moana.” In a moving scene, Moana’s Grandma has reminded her that the Ocean has chosen her to sail across the sea to rescue a world that is being overwhelmed with darkness and destruction (“restore the heart of Te Fiti”). Moana has never voyaged beyond her island’s reef, but the call is so powerful (and the promise of her dying Grandma’s continual presence so compelling), that Moana risks everything to answer that call.
Both of these movies parallel two of the main ideas that lie at the heart of the call of Abram – 1) the call comes to them unexpectedly and outside of themselves… and 2) the call is not for them alone, but will be a means of blessing and “salvation” for many others. Abram, who will later become Abraham, pays attention to this voice in the darkness. And the intrusive voice makes a big “ask.” Go! Leave! Depart! Move out! Set out on a new journey. It would be a “big ask” for anyone! How much more for a 75 year old man whose life is settled and stable!
Note the three things he is called to leave behind – his land (property), his kinfolk (extended family), and his father’s household (was he the primary caretaker of his widowed mother?) The call makes a big demand on Abram. But the call is not without a promise – four promises in fact:
1) I will make of you a great nation,
2) I will bless you,
3) I will make your name great, and
4) You will be a blessing… in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
Now each of these promises are significant, but even more so in light of the larger context of Genesis 1-11.
The first promise is one of many descendants. What an unlikely candidate is Father Abram (his name means “exalted father”). This is ironic, since he is no father at all. At 75 years of age, parenthood is a pipe dream for this patriarch – except for the promise of God. “I will make of you a great nation,” says the Sovereign Lord. If I’m Abram, I’m thinking, “Nice words, but I don’t even have the first child, much less a nation of progeny.” Much of the story of Abram, who later becomes Abraham (Father of Many) is the fulfilling of this incredible promise, which does not come true until 25 years after the promise is uttered.
God’s second promise to Abram is a promise of blessing. We will have more to say about this as we move on to the fourth promise, which is intricately related to this one. We will discover, as the story moves on, that to be blessed of God includes the enjoyment of great wealth, power, and privilege, but also the assurance of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness (Genesis 24).
A third promise made to Abram is that God would make his name great. This is especially intriguing in light of the recent (Genesis 11) Tower of Babel fiasco, which was a human effort to “make a name for ourselves.” It seems that name-making, when attempted as a self-aggrandizement project, is doomed from the start. However, God, by grace, will make this man’s name great–a name that is remembered and honored to this day.
God’s fourth and final promise to Abram is that he will become the source of blessing to others. It has been noted by Jamie Smith and others that our first creation narrative (Genesis 1:1-2:4a) is poetically structured so that Days 1-3 are reflected in Days 4-6. This rhythm of creation speaks to the vocational call of humanity, in general, and the descendants of Abraham, in particular.
Day 1 – God separates darkness from light… Day 4 – God fills the darkness with lights (sun, moon, stars)…
Day 2 – God separates waters above (sky) from waters below (sea)… Day 5 – God fills the sky with birds and the sea with fish…
Day 3 – God separates the dry land from the sea… Day 6 – God fills the land with animals, including humans…
Then comes Day 7 – God rests, sanctifies, and blesses…
This creation pattern (God separates and God fills, so that God may bless) is not only a pattern for worship, but the paradigmatic vocation of human life. Blessing is not only God’s gift to humanity, it is also our vocation. We are to take dominion over this earth (in the second creation story the human is charged with serving and protecting the earth – Genesis 2:15) so that the blessing of God may continue to cover all of creation.
Of course, this good creation was intruded upon by human self-sovereignty, and God’s blessed world was marred by brokenness. Genesis 12 is the beginning of God’s rescue plan for this broken creation. It functions as a dramatic turning point in the story of God. The focus shifts away from the beginning (Genesis) of creation to the beginning of a particular people.
The call of this family in Genesis 12 is key to the entire story of God. It is Abraham, and his descendants, who are summoned into existence as a special (peculiar) people – the people through whom God intends to restore blessing to this broken creation. This is the people God has chosen to redeem and reclaim the world. What is overwhelming about this story, and instructive for us, is that Abram “embraces this call” with such wild and reckless abandon (I borrow the phrase “Embracing the Call” from Walter Brueggemann in Interpretation Commentary). He immediately packs up and leaves home, just as the Lord had said.
Who among us would respond to such a radical call with such radical faith? That is the grand invitation of this call narrative.