(Sermon preached at Cromer Church 8/10/2017)
Let me introduce you to Abram. He was born in Ur of the Chaldeans, which was a city in Mesopotamia – scholars are unsure whether it was the ancient city of Ur near Naziriya in southern Iraq, or the city of Urfa in Turkey, where Jewish and Moslem traditions place it. His father Terah had three sons while the family lived in Ur: Abram, Nahor and Haran. All married, but Haran died in Ur leaving a son Lot, Abram’s nephew. Abram’s name means ‘exalted father’, but he probably didn’t appreciate it very much since he and his wife Sarai could have no children.
We can assume that the family was typical of the period – city dwellers, who probably worked at some trade or other or as merchants, but also may have kept animals for their families’ needs. They probably lived as an extended family, with several generations all together. There were many gods in the cities of those days, and it is likely that the family paid due respect to many of them. Jewish tradition has it that Terah worshipped 12 gods.
So imagine Abram’s surprise when one day he had the experience recorded in our passage: when a God whose name was Yahweh, written in our Bibles as LORD in capital letters, spoke to him.
Notice that Genesis 12:1 says, ‘God had said to Abram…’ Let me read you part of Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:2-3: “The God of Glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’” So at this point Abram lived in Ur. Genesis 11:31 says, ‘Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go do Canaan. But when they came to Harran, they settled there.’ I assume that Abram, as a dutiful son, told his father Terah of his vision of God, and Terah as the head of the family decided to go with him, leaving his other remaining son Nahor in Ur for a time.
Let’s look at what is recorded in Genesis 12:1-3. There is an appearance, a command, and some promises.
1) An Appearance
The LORD appeared to him. We are not told how, whether in a dream or a vision; Stephen in Acts 7 says the God of Glory appeared to him, and while that could just be a way of avoiding the name of God, it must also be true that the vision was sufficiently impressive for Abram not to ignore it. We don’t know that Abram had any idea who God was before this appearance, though we meet another worshipper of God Most High later in Genesis, so amongst all the gods around there was some idea of a Supreme Being. What Abram thought we don’t know – but when God appeared to him he must have introduced himself, for Abram knew enough later in the passage to build an altar and call on the name of the LORD.
Why did the LORD appear to Abram? We don’t know whether Abram was a nicer man than his neighbours, or more religious, or anything like that. The fact that he stayed faithful to Sarai may show he had a good sense of right and wrong – and later in Genesis we read that God expected him to teach his household and his descendants (quote) ‘to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just’. Abram may have been desperately praying for one of the gods to give him a child, and was willing to do anything to get a response – childlessness was probably seen as a disgrace, or a punishment. We don’t know. God did not have to choose Abram. As we read the story of Abram we see that he was flawed just as the rest of us are. It’s the same with all God’s chosen people – the history of Israel and the history of the church are the stories of fallible human beings. But I am sure that Abram was sufficiently aware of his need for divine favour, and sufficiently open to God, for God to be sure of a positive response. Could we say the same about us?
2) A Command
The Lord told him to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household and go to the land he would show him. Think about what God was telling Abram to do. It was a huge ask! Families were important in those days, for the extended family lived close to each other in settlements and looked after each other and provided protection and help against enemies and adversity. Childless Abram was told to leave his family and go with his wife to he knew not where.
Remember also that Abram had been brought up to live a settled existence, first in Ur and then in Harran. Now he had to leave all that behind, uproot himself and become a nomad, living as a stranger in a foreign land, with no fixed abode.
There’s a sense in which every Christian has to face the same decision. We are all ‘aliens and strangers in the world’ according to 1 Peter. Our true home is not here on earth, and our true family is the family of our heavenly Father. We are of no fixed abode in this world and do not belong here, and must not try to blend in or put down roots or in any way dilute our heavenly culture.
Abram had to set out without knowing where God wanted him to go. It was natural to assume that God wanted him to travel along some of the major trade routes. Ur was on what is called the fertile crescent, a fertile tract of land that stretched from Egypt up the side of the Mediterranean to Turkey and then down through Syria and Iraq between the two rivers Euphrates and Tigris (that’s Mesopotamia) to the Gulf. Many traders went that way, and so did Abram’s family. When they got to Harran they settled for a time – we don’t know why, perhaps because it felt like home, perhaps because Terah could go no further. But God did not show Abram that this was the land he was thinking of, so Abram continued his journey.
That also chimes in with the Christian life. We too are going to a land God will show us, and we haven’t got there yet. We’re all still on a journey, and it isn’t always a joy ride. Often we too make mistakes; we think we’ve arrived where God wants us to be, and then he moves us on.
Scripture emphasises the faith of Abram. God’s commands seemed unreasonable, his promises unfulfillable, yet Abram trusted him enough to obey his commands and believe the unbelievable. His faith wavered at times, but when it mattered his faith resulted in obedient action. This is what we’ve been seeing in the evening series on James – faith without action is not faith at all. We know far more than Abram about God and his ways and his plans; let us trust him enough believe his promises and do whatever he tells us. Whatever.
The LORD gave Abram amazing promises.
‘I will make you into a great nation.’ That implied two things: a great nation has a great number of people in it, and they would be Abram’s descendants; and a great nation has a homeland somewhere. God would make Abram into a people, and give them a land.
‘I will bless you.’ The blessing was both for himself – he would be famous and respected; and for others – he would be a blessing to all who spoke well of him (and on the other side of the coin, a curse to all who wished him ill). In the end he would be a blessing to the whole world.
Remember the definition of God’s kingdom we’ve been using during this sermon series? God’s kingdom is God’s. people living in the land God gives them, under his rule and blessing. That was the pattern we saw in Genesis 2, which was lost in Genesis 3 when humans rebelled against God and went their own way. Now God is putting into action his plan for the world he had created, despite the evil now in it; and he begins with one man, Abram. Through Abram there would eventually be a people God could call his own, living in the land he promised, enjoying his rule and blessing under the Messiah God would send. How that works out we’ll see in the rest of this sermon series.
On the surface God’s promises to Abram look more like a fantasy. Yes, he was going on a journey, to he knew not where. But how could God make him into a nation? He and Sarai were childless, and neither of them were getting any younger. As for blessing, where was that? No family, no place to call home, is that a blessing?
Yet Abram obeyed God. He believed God enough to do what he said.
V.4: Abram sets off from Haran with Sarai and all his possessions, and also with his nephew Lot who decides to come too with his family and possessions. They head towards Canaan, which was the obvious direction to go, travelling along the fertile crescent towards Egypt. When they get to Canaan, God appears to him again, and gives him a more specific promise: ‘To your offspring (‘seed’ in the original) I will give this land.’ This is the land God had promised to show Abram, and this is the land his descendants would inherit and call home. Abram’s response is to build an altar to sacrifice to the LORD – a public display of worship, expressing honour and commitment. Interestingly, it is at Shechem, in the centre of the land, an important city at a junction of major trade routes north, south and east. The great tree of Moreh could have been a worship centre for the local deities; yet it was there Abram built his altar to the LORD. He was not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve.
However, Abram did not stay there. He moved south, near to Bethel, where he again built an altar to the LORD, and we read he ‘called upon his name’. There was no appearance of God this time; yet Abram had the faith to ‘call on the name of the LORD’ – speak to him, presumably by prayer and thanksgiving.
Were God’s promises to Abram just fantasy? Abram did not see them fulfilled. He didn’t get to own more than a burial field. He and Sarai were eventually given only one son to inherit the promises. Yet we see in the rest of Scripture that God has been keeping his promises, and that his plan is working out. The final fulfilment of his plan is yet to come, and may seem most unlikely; but come it will: God will send his Messiah Jesus, and history will be fulfilled in the arrival of God’s kingdom in all its glory, the true homeland of all God’s people, including Abram. And us, if we share Abram’s faith and obedience. God keeps his word, even if not in the way we expect or at the time we expect. Trust him!
Apply to congregation:
Appearance: God speaks in many and various ways – not necessarily in visions and appearances. The Word! What matters is not how God communicates but how we respond.
Commands: Is there any word from God that you are currently choosing to ignore?
Promises: What has God promised his church? This church? You? Are you prepared to believe him, even though you haven’t a clue how it can possibly be fulfilled?