This is the text of the message I preached on Sunday 12th March 2017, the second Sunday in Lent (Year A) at Lake Tyers Beach Uniting Church.
Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
The first sermon I preached in the way I’m preaching now, i.e. as the man in the pulpit with twenty minutes and twenty people in front of him, I preached on the first eleven chapters of Genesis. This was in 1991; I was 19 years old, and it was an evening service at Ulverstone Uniting Church where my dad was the minister. I’m telling you this because I concluded that sermon at the verses that I’m starting this one, Genesis 12:1-4. In that first sermon, I spoke of the eras prior to Abram’s advent where God had created the world and the Garden of Eden and the people in it. (We heard about them last week.) I spoke of how God had observed the life of the first parents outside Eden, the first sibling squabble and the first human death; of how God had seen the rise of sin in the world, the coming and going of Noah in his ark, the coming and going of the Babelites in their tower, and ultimately the breaking down of every relationship established in Eden. Each man and woman had become alienated from God and the natural world. God’s perfection had been removed from spousal relationships, parental relationships, and sibling relationships. There had been a breakdown between each woman and her neighbours, and between each man and the individual strangers who made up the rest of humanity. By the start of Genesis 12, we had reached the end of that first real sermon where, in Genesis 12:1, one man stands alone. The man stands in a fallen world, where life goes on but every connection, every relationship in creation is damaged. The good news is that having seen all human pre-history come to focus upon this one solitary man God speaks to that man and God begins the work of rebuilding the world in love and creativity. God so loved the world that God gave… as Jesus says in John 3.
We meet Abram when at the age of 75 he agrees to be uprooted from all he has ever known to follow God into the unknown. The world that Abram inhabits is spiritually bleak, as the first eleven chapters of Genesis has made out, but it’s also a real world of sunshine and commerce. It’s life, life being lived just as we live our lives today, just with less electricity and more dirt. Abram has everything to lose by walking away from where he is and what he has made of himself. He’s 75 years old, he’s begun to kick back at the end of a long life; he’s begun to snooze off the heart of each afternoon in the cool shade of the palm-trees outside his home while sucking on a stubbie of Sumerian Bitter. But God has other plans for Abram and God offers the retired man the promise of blessing of such abundance that Abram himself would be a blessing to the entire earth. Not only will the whole planet be blessed through Abram, and remember that we’ve just read eleven chapters of mounting curses against the world, but every man and woman on earth will measure their own blessing against the gold-standard of Abram’s example. It seems that without much thinking it over Abram goes, and his nephew (Lot) goes with him. Mind boggling stuff!
From a time about as far back as Paul is from us in history, Paul reviews Abram’s example in Romans 4 to explain that Abram’s merit was gained by his faith, not by his obedience, even as remarkable as that obedience was. Some areas of Jewish scholarship at the time of Paul pointed to Abraham’s perfect obedience and spoke of how he had kept the Jewish Law perfectly even before it had been given. Remembering that Abraham comes earlier than Moses even so Abraham is said to have kept the Ten Commandments and all the other stuff without fault. Paul turns this idea on its head to say that it was Abraham’s faith which had elevated him to friendship with God, and that his obedience had come because of his trust.
What makes sense to me is that you can’t obey somebody unless you trust him or her. It is not normal behaviour to obey a random stranger, especially if that stranger suggests you entirely uproot your life at 75 and walk out into the desert on a promise of “I’ll look after you”. I’d be asking “how can I trust you to look after me, I don’t even know you?” But where trust has been built first, then you might follow in obedience based on trust, which is faith. So, Paul is saying what matters now as followers of Abraham is not that someone has Hebrew ancestry, or that he or she obeys Torah religiously, but that he or she exhibits deep faith based on deep trust within that relationship, with the sign that such faith leads to obedience. Even when God’s answer seems slow in coming, and the promise is physically impossible to accomplish, the true inheritors of the promise of Abraham will hang on in faith, hope and trust. As the saying goes “God will come through in the end: if God has not come through then it’s not yet the end”. Abraham waited twenty-five years for Isaac, having stuffed up with Hagar and Ishmael, not to mention his lies to Pharaoh and the mess he made with Lot. Yes, Abram did leave Ur and walk his whole estate across to Hebron, via Egypt, just because God asked him to. But the heroism is not in Abram’s leaving Ur on a whim but on his staying faithful to the voice and command of God in obedience yes, but more so in establishing a strong and resilient reliance upon God based on relationship. Anyone, really, can obey an authority figure; but who can really hang in there through turmoil and impossibility to forge a relationship with God? Abram did, and Paul says that that is where you find the substance of Abram’s being a blessing to all people and the standard by which our spiritual, physical, and emotional prosperity is measured.
This message is echoed in our psalm today, but it took some finding. I don’t mean to suggest that I hammed the psalm about until I got it to fit my agenda, but that I’d always been told of a different interpretation to this psalm than the one I’m going to share with you now. In Psalm 121:1 the question is asked where “help” comes from: in other words, perhaps in Abram’s words, the question is “who can I trust?” Does our help come from the hills? Do we rely upon Mt Zion, knowing that this is a pilgrim’s psalm for example? The ones singing this are obeying God by going on pilgrimage from home to Jerusalem, so since each is being a good little Jew and walking religiously to the holy city on the holy mountain they assume that God shall protect each on the road. Now, perhaps the psalmist thought that, probably the pilgrim singers did think that, but that doesn’t seem like an Abraham or a Paul idea. And so, this other interpretation, which came from a Jewish scholar whom I very much like, is that the singers are saying that my help does not come from the mountain people’s local baals but from God alone. Unlike the indigenous Canaanites, Jebusites and Vegemites, says the pilgrim, I don’t look to local superstition, I look to the great YHWH who made the world and called out my ancestor Abraham to build a great nation. In this way, I am demonstrating obedience to the one I know, not because it obligates God to protect me as a pilgrim but because I am fully confident that my Father and the God of my People has got my back because I am loved. So, my “help” does not come based on my obedience in trekking my way toward an ascent of Mt Zion but upon the gift of God’s grace which I access through faith. The psalmist tells us that God is never drowsy but always fully attentive and alert to the task of saving the people who trust in God, but through Paul and Jesus we know that this is because it is God’s nature to be like that. God is not obligated by our obedience or our ancestry, but because the LORD is good God’s protection always keep us safe.
But let’s not overlook that this psalm is a pilgrim’s song; and that what is expected of God is pertinent. We are assured by the knowledge that God is faithful that we will have safety on the road. We will not experience sunstroke. We will have protection in all times and all places between home and worship and back home again. No bandits, no sharp rocks, no wheels falling off our carts, and no food poisoning after our counter meal at the Megiddo pub. When our help comes from the LORD it is the right help at the right time.
So, what are you trusting in, other than God? I doubt that any of you are diving off into the high country to worship the local baals between Sundays, but I wonder whether you, like me, tend to short-cut the way of God by taking fate into your own hands. We might not be worshipping less-demanding gods, we might not be having intimate relations with our wife or husband’s slave to hasten along a promise of children, but if you’re anything like me you’ve thought or acted according to the idea that God needs help and a hurry along. Instead, let us be followers of Abram in the way that God intended; let’s be pilgrims on the road who walk the road right to the end, and then trust God for provision once we have arrived. Unlike Abram at his outset we already know the one who calls us beyond, we know and have learned to trust God.
During this time of Lent as we look toward, at, and then beyond the events of Easter let’s act like Jesus. Jesus knew as soon as he turned toward Jerusalem that troubling time was ahead, but he trusted God to glorify Godself and to honour the faith of the faithful man. Jesus’ trust and obedience cost him his relationship with creation, he died alone, abandoned, and cut off even from his Father. But by in dying in this way Jesus was the way that the Father brought hope into the world of Genesis 11, and began to rebuilt the relationships between all created beings. The death of Jesus carried such deep significance, no wonder it was so difficult for him to accomplish.
So, let’s just do it. Let’s listen, obey, trust, and follow.