Monday, September 17, 2018

Living with purpose--a sermon on Genesis 12

Rev. Teri Peterson
St. John’s
Living With Purpose
Genesis 12.1-9
16 September 2018, NL1-2, Forward in Faith 2

Last week we heard the story of Noah, his family, and the animals sailing in the ark, and then God making a promise to all the people and creatures of the earth. Noah’s family included three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The oldest son, Shem, is the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather (that’s seven greats!) of Abram, who we are going to hear about today. The reading comes from the book of Genesis, chapter 12, beginning at verse 1, and can be found on page 13 of the Bible.

The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
‘I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.’
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.
Abram travelled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.
From there he went on towards the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord.
Then Abram set out and continued towards the Negev.


Whenever I have been in a discussion of this story, a few questions always come up. Usually the first question is “why would Abram leave his home when he was 75 years old?” After that come more questions—why did God call Abram in the first place? Where was Abram supposed to go? How did he know how to get there? And then the really hard ones that we aren’t sure we’re allowed to ask because it makes us uncomfortable to question the Bible or God: when it says they took the “people they had acquired” does that mean they had slaves? When it says the Canaanites were in the land that was being promised to Abram, does that mean God was promising the land away right out from under the people who had lived there for generations?

These are all good questions, and important to ask. Even the ones that make us uncomfortable. The Bible isn’t here just to be pretty or to tell a nice fairy tale. It’s here for us to engage with, to talk about, to question and learn from, and to point us toward God. It’s a bit like the map Abram didn’t have, showing us the way, but only if we look closely and pay attention and don’t just brush off the difficult bits.

I should tell you, though, that I don’t have answers to any of these questions. I wonder just as much as anyone else, and I have some ideas, of course, but I don’t know definitively why God didn’t see millennia of Israeli-Palestinian conflict coming before speaking these words, or take this opportunity to condemn slavery at the beginning of the story. I only know that what we have here is a book that tells us about people’s relationship with God, and about what God has done with ordinary people to change the’s written by people who were products of their history just as much as we are. It’s a map that needs interpreting, just like any other map filled with symbols.

Here’s what I do know about Abram: He obviously trusted God. And God trusted him. Though there’s nothing written about Abram and Sarai before this, they must have had some sort of relationship with God. When God spoke, Abram listened. And he didn’t just hear the words, but he obeyed them. Without the benefit of google to help him figure out who was calling or where he was going, with no maps to show the route, and not even a photo or a TripAdvisor review to rely on, he packed up his whole life and went on. 

I love the way this encounter between God and Abram is written. God gets increasingly personal with Abram: go from your country, your people, and your father’s household. Leave behind your sense of nationalism, of ethnicity, and of family name. The things that are often used to define us: where are you from, who are your parents...these are the things Abram is to leave. Somehow, along the way, God will show him his true identity, the place where he belongs in the story of the world, the story of God.

Then, when making promises to Abram, God gets increasingly universal: I will bless you...and you will be a blessing...and because of you every person on earth will be blessed. Whatever Abram’s job was before, this is his new job now: to allow God’s blessing to flow through him. God chose Abram to be the conduit of blessing. While we may not know why Abram was the one chosen, we know that God has a mission in mind, and needs someone to carry it out. Abram has a purpose now and he begins to live it out as best he can.

Figuring out our purpose, as individuals or as a church, can be a difficult thing. There are so many options—so many things that are good, or interesting, or fun. But while there are many good things to do, they aren’t all our thing to do. When Abram heard God describe his purpose, he was able to use that as a guide for his action. When we know our purpose, we can measure our options against that and use it to help us decide what is ours to do. 

Unfortunately we don’t often get quite the same clarity that Abram and Sarai got. Perhaps it’s because we don’t expect God to speak to us, so we aren’t tuned in to God’s voice like they were. Or perhaps we don’t always like what we hear, so we pretend to be confused...after all, God calling us to leave everything and go to somewhere unknown is a scary possibility, but it is something God still calls some people to do—otherwise I wouldn’t be standing here! And the idea of our lives being about blessing others is hard for us too—so much of western culture is based on accumulating blessings for ourselves, not about passing them on. What would it mean to live purposely for the blessing of the world? To live for others?

I do think it’s possible for us to get the kind of clarity Abram and Sarai had, though. They were just ordinary people, going about their ordinary lives. But in the midst of their lives, they had a habit of worship. They practiced listening for God. We can tell because in each place they stop, they build an altar, a cairn that marks the journey God is taking them on. Just this little section of their story has them stopping to make camp twice, and in each place they built an altar. Wherever they found themselves, they made space and time to worship God. They made a physical marker reminding them that God has brought them here and will lead them on. Worshipping God, giving thanks to God, listening for God...these things were literally built in to their lives, wherever they were, which helped them discover the new identity God was giving them, not based on nation or tribe or family, but based on relationship with God. And that relationship gave them an edge when it came to hearing God’s purpose for them.

That is still true. When our lives have built in time for giving thanks, for worshipping together, for listening to God’s word, we are far more likely to discern our purpose. God has a purpose in mind for each and every person, and for each and every church. We are called to trust and follow where God leads, to go forward in faith and find our questions answered along the way. But if we aren’t attuned to God’s purpose for us, practiced at listening and responding, we will find ourselves doing everything that seems like a good idea, and then we’ll be tired and scattered, rather than focused and energised. When we live to God’s purpose, we are blessed to be a blessing. 

May it be so. Amen.

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