Every day for seventy-five years Abram’s name had been a problem. No doubt he didn’t mind when he was a child. Perhaps as he became a young adult his name didn’t ‘grate so’ upon him…but as the years passed and the hope that he and his wife Sarai might finally have a family came…and went…the name his father Terah had given him at his birth seemed to be just a hollow joke. For ‘Abram’ means ‘exalted ancestor’ – and that Abram would never be.
Seventy-five? The book of Genesis (or ‘the book of beginnings’ as that can be translated) deals in large numbers for birthdays. You can take this as you wish. Some treat the number of birthdays literally, but others see the huge ages ascribed to Noah, Abram and the patriarchs as the writer’s way of leading us away from the halcyon days of creation. Slowly, slowly the glory of God’s creative activity is marred and we end up with humankind being lucky to achieve the biblical three-score years and ten. However you read it, we’re still meant to know that Abram and Sarai were well passed their child bearing years when God made His promise to them. Abram had reached an age where it was difficult for him to pull on his socks and Sarai (for all her longing for a child) had more than done with hot flushes and sleepless nights. And then, when all seemed set for the couple to ease into their golden years with enough in the bank to mean they had people to ‘do’ for them, the Almighty, the LORD said to Abram ‘Go, go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you…’
The thing is, Abram had had no dealings with the Almighty before this moment. Noah, all those years before him had ‘walked with God’. But not so Abram. In fact, the little we know of him through half a verse in the Book of Joshua is that Terah, his father worshipped ‘other gods’ in Ur of the Chaldees. But something seems to have been going on in this family for some time (and there’s something worth noting there) , for by the time we get to our passage this morning Terah, Abram and the wider family have moved from the bottom right hand side of the fertile crescent (Iraq) to the top of it (Haran) – the borders of modern day Syria. And now Abram is asked to make the journey (away from safety and the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers) and go across the desert in search of the ‘promised land’.
These verses are some of the most important in our scriptures. Jews, Christians and Muslims recognise the importance of the call of Abram. But what is going on? What might we learn? I quite like the idea that Abram completes the journey that Terah his father began. I think you have to strain somewhat to reach this idea but there for me there some degree of truth in it. We are all born into families (for good or ill), we are all shaped by our upbringing and environment and, most of us find positive ways of breaking away from these things as we forge our own identities. And yet, even the most rebellious of teenagers can find themselves in later years sounding like their mum or dad. Terah had moved from a land where the worship of many gods was par for the course and the movement of the stars was believed to shape your destiny: possibly he had begun to sense the call of the one and only God. But it’s not insignificant that later in the story his son Abram will see the promise of God for him to have a family writ large in the numberless stars of the night sky, not because these stars have determined Abram’s lot but because the Lord has promised and His word is eternal.
For me, Abram carried forward this move towards monotheism that his father had begun. But he still must separate from the past in order to step into God’s future. This is something we all struggle with to greater or lesser extent. Abram steps way from his family. He steps away from the place he called home and (only taking what he can carry) heads off into the future. This really is faith isn’t it? The promise of a child, the promise that he will become a great nation is dependant upon him breaking with the way of life that has sustained him so far. God doesn’t give him and child and then ask him to move. It’s the other way round.
And so we end up with this ‘exalted ancestor’, (with, lest we forget precisely no children), heading into the great unknown with his wife. And why…? Because he trusted the call of God…indeed, he trusted a call he had never heard before. This really is unusual. He and Sarai are to birth a nation that has no land to call its own. The foundations of the nation won’t be in kinship or blood-ties or in place…but in trusting the word of God and His promises. That’s why (by the way) you and I are Abram’s descendants – because the key thing isn’t our physical family tree but our life of faith.
And I suppose that’s another thing that is remarkable about Abram’s call: for all that he attempts to assume he knows best by taking Lot along with him (presumably to inherit his wealth and continue the family name), and then assumes that his servant Eliezar will inherit unless God does something…and then again makes his slave girl Hagar pregnant in order to have a child (any child!) in his old age, God makes him hold out until the child of promise is born. Abram’s faith must be living and active which teaches us that faith is a journey not a destination. Abram and Sarai are to wait twenty-five more years before their son Isaac is born: having a faith is one thing, living in faith is another. Like love and trust in a marriage the more you do it the more you have. For some, this ask of the Almighty is perhaps too much: it is a recipe for disappointment – the Promise seems too far away. Abram and Sarai however find a way to live ‘looking forward’: each day becoming a day when perhaps, just maybe, God might be seen to be at work.
They are then, a remarkable senior couple and you can apply lessons from their story personally (as we are asked to ‘walk with God’ across the desert of Lent towards the unknown destination of Easter and a transformation that we have not begun to grasp) or you can read the story as applying to the people of God, the church of God down the ages, across time, in this place. For how many congregations in the church in England must their be, like ours, that are ‘top heavy’ with silver hairs? How many congregations have given up on their having any ‘descendants’ in the faith – for sure, the numbers of children in church haven’t shifted much for decades. For all our best efforts our own children don’t necessarily share our faith and for all our great traditions who will inherit, who will carry on our hope in the promise of God?
Abram and Sarai show us that it is never too late. What God asks of every generation is a willingness to hear and the courage to obey and we are no different. Build on the past – it is important- but don’t let it hold you back. Travel lightly and travel in faith. Be faithful. Move in step with His call and trust.
I can’t but help thinking that a prayer we have used down recent years sums up what is required of us perfectly:
Loving God, Though our destination is not yet clear, May we trust in Your graceful promises;
Though we are uncertain of ourselves, May we be rooted in Your loving regard;
Though our attention is inclined to wander, May we hear the things You are saying;
Though we often neglect Your influence, May we be convicted of Your power to change,
In Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
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