I’d recommend you read Genesis 12-19 and Hebrews 11 before reading this. And I’d recommend you not read it if you’ll be sitting in the Blandford UMC sanctuary on Sunday, June 16, because you’ll probably be bored during the sermon. But you don’t have to listen…
Since the dawn of time, humanity has been looking for a way to survive. For most people, that means teaming up with family or close friends, forming bonds that require individuals to rely on each other. From the very, beginning, those groups were called “tribes.” In their book Tribal Leadership, Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright lay out five stages of “tribal development,” that Phil Jackson has used to examine the success and cohesiveness of his basketball teams. Having found success in with the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, his use of the book’s characteristics carry some weight. Moving from least cohesive to most cohesive, they are as follows:
1-This is shared by most street gangs and is characterized by despair, hostility, and collective belief that “life sucks.”
2-This is a loose group of primarily apathetic people who perceive selves as victims and who are passively antagonistic, believing “my life sucks.”
3-This is a groups that focuses on individual achievement and is driven by the mindset that “I’m great and you’re not.” Individuals within the group have to win and winning brings personal core values. They either outwork or outthink their competition on regular basis but they are basically a collection of “lone warriors.”
4-This group is dedicated to tribal pride and the overriding conviction that “we’re great and they’re not.” It requires strong adversary from outside the group, and Jackson says that the bigger the foe more powerful the tribe
5-This group has achieved success as a tribe as they rally around their sense of innocent wonder and strong belief that “life is great.”
Stop for a moment and consider what groups you belong to, and where they might fall on a spectrum of tribal leadership. Are they 1s or 5s or somewhere in between? The truth is that all of them place value primarily on what the individual brings to the group, and what the group can do. There’s no reflection of accepting help or recognizing a “higher power.” It’s more of a study in personalities than a reflection on grace.
But today, as we examine the story of Abram, you will see that the tribe God calls Abram to be is a “5+” with the realization that God causes the wonder and makes all things good. In Genesis 12:1, God shows up and tells Abram, rather bluntly, to leave where he is, to turn his back on his family, and his ancestral land. It comes with the “carrot,” that God will make him into a great nation, will make Abram powerful and famous, and that he will BE a blessing. God basically tells Abram that he’s going to use Abram to have a powerful impact on the world IF Abram will be obedient to leave and go. God’s first big test for Abram is to leave what he knows, to put aside the comfort and security of the life he has lived, and to go on faith that God will take care of the rest.
So, at the ripe young age of seventy-five, Abram goes. And takes his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, and their entourage, and they begin their journey. It doesn’t take long (Chapter 13) before Lot and Abram split because Lot says there’s not enough space for all of their people. It’s like a RISK or Monopoly power play: he who controls the land, controls the power. And Lot doesn’t just want to follow Abram around: he wants a piece of it for himself. What God had intended for unity, for that ONE TRIBE, Lot couldn’t accept because he wanted more than his share.
Of course, Lot gets himself in trouble, several times really, and Abram rescues him. Sarai worries that her barrenness means that God’s plan needs some “help,” so she has Abram sleep with Hagar; Abram keeps asking God what he really means about a blessing. And then we get to chapter 17, and God lays it all out there. “I’m going to make you the father of many nations, to be fruitful” (echoing those words he spoke to Noah after the flood.) “I will be your God and your descendants’ God. You will no longer move from idol to idol when you move about, but will recognize that I am your God.”
God is presenting something countercultural and fantastic: that one God would be enough, would fulfill everything that a person or a tribe could ever need. “But this covenant is one we’re going to keep. I’m the higher power, and you’re the lesser. And the sign that you get this is circumcision.” Sounds painful, right? But the thing about the covenant was that God gave Abram and Sarai new names, Abraham and Sarah.
And God promises Abraham a son, because without a son, he can’t really be the father of a nation, or the beginning of a tribe. It spoke against his character within the tribe; it meant that he wasn’t on the same level with his people. But God is not done with Abraham, or Sarah, or even Lot. God’s desire for Abraham and Sarah brings them through some crazy situations, through Sodom and Gomorrah, through Abram faking that Sarai is his sister not his wife, through old age and childbirth. And the same Abraham who so compassionately pleads for his nephew and for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, he gets tested by God at the very threat to the thing he loves the most: his one and only son.
This story from Genesis 22 still gives me chills. I remember the first time I ever preached on it. It was the spring of 2008, and our first son had just been born in March. I don’t know what caused me to preach on it, or why I thought it was a good idea at the time. But I set out to unpack the story of Abraham’s preparations to sacrifice Isaac. And I got so choked up I couldn’t talk.
Here’s Abraham, minding his own business, having been fully obedient to the words of God, and finally, after years of wandering, and fighting, and struggle, he’s reaping the rewards. Maybe he’s just sitting in the opening of his tent, just soaking in the wonder of his boy playing outside. And God calls. God says, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” Again, I’m all about questions. I don’t ask for directions, that’s where I cross the line. But I mean, c’mon, “did I hear you correctly? You want me to take Isaac, the kid we sweated over, that you promised, that we waited a century for … and what? I must’ve missed something.”
But it says that the next day, early in the morning, Abraham loads Isaac up and heads for the sacrifice site. And he takes his son on the road to certain death, to sacrifice on an altar to the God who says that he loves him, and who loves his son. Isaac is old enough he knows what’s going on. “Um, Dad, we’ve got fire, wood, a really big knife… but where’s the lamb?” Abraham provides one of those answers we say, but we’re not really sure that what we want and hope for and need is actually what God has in mind: “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”
So Abraham builds an altar, ties up his son, and lays him on the altar. And draws back the knife and God calls out “Abraham! STOP!”
AND THERE’S A RAM CAUGHT IN THE THICKET.
And God says, “I swear by my own name, that because you have been obedient and not held onto your son, your only son, I will bless you. Your family will be as plentiful as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. And all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” This is the moment when the children of Abraham begin to become ONE TRIBE. When God established that the remnant saved on the ark wasn’t just one family but was an incorporation of people into ONE TRIBE, originated by the faith of one man. That people who never knew Abraham would receive God’s blessing.
Of course, this is the ONE TRIBE later fulfilled in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. ONE TRIBE of people lifted out of sin, out of pain, out of rejection, out of despair to a life of hope, joy, and eternal relationship with God. This is the ONE TRIBE that should be unified in the Church (big “C”) but which too often is full of disunity and struggle, because ultimately, we’re still human. But the good news is that one man was willing to sacrifice his one and only son, the thing he held the most dear, to be obedient to God… and that God, who saw a heart that was willing to go all the way, would one day sacrifice his one and only son, the thing he held the most dear, to save ONE TRIBE from their broken situation.
Funny how things have a way of working out, how Abraham was just a precursor of the sacrifice God would go all the way with. Funny how obedience by a father reflects obedience by THE Son. But there’s nothing funny about being obedient to the call, no matter how hard, and recognizing in that sacrifice that God sees men (and women) after his own heart.
What is so dear to you that you could never lay it down? Even if God asked you to? Maybe he’s not calling you to lay it down. Maybe he will some day. But does your obedience to the call of the almighty, creator God resonate with you in a way that you’d go to your cross and lay it all down?
On Father’s Day, we celebrate the men who’ve stood up and served. Who’ve raised children with their wives, who raised children who weren’t their own. Who taught in classrooms, worked with teams, who lay down their own lives to be obedient to the call of God. If all of us would be as obedient as Abraham… wow. Are you there? I have some work to do.
In Hebrews 11:8-10, it says, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Abraham knew he was building something new. He knew that God’s promise of ONE TRIBE was so crazy, so ridiculous, that it had to be true. He went looking for something to hold onto, but he knew that he had to let go of what he did have if he wanted to gain more. If all of us were as giving as Abraham… wow.
Are you there? I have some work to do.
We could beat ourselves up pretty good about how we’re NOT like Abraham. Or we could recognize that God still speaks, in strange and mysterious ways, calling us from our comfort zone, asking us to lay down the stuff that’s filling our hands, so we can take up a new mission, and become better than we ever thought we could be. Merely asking us to be obedient to the call. Later in Hebrews 11, it says that by his faith, Abraham showed that he knew God’s promises would come true even if they weren’t through Isaac.
Abraham believed that dream wouldn’t die—that God could resurrect it one way or another. What we give up for the sake of God’s “tribe” comes back to us in full. What Abraham gave up was returned to him by a miraculous ram. What God gave up in Jesus was returned to him by the saving power of the resurrection.
What is God calling you to give up? Are you ready? Is it to sacrifice your expectations about your life or your church, to be Jesus even when it costs something? Is it to embrace someone not like you, who doesn’t believe what you do, and love them with the assurance that God’s grace is enough? Is it surrendering your dream to God, and recognizing that God’s will for your life is better than you can imagine? Is it laying you down so that others might truly live?
In every story that’s been told about a hero, the “good of the many has outweighed the good of the few” or the one. It’s true in the story of Jackie Robinson a real life hero who endured verbal jabs and worse to break the color barrier in baseball. It’s true in the story of Superman, as told by Zach Snyder in Man of Steel, out this weekend. Self-sacrifice is what unites the ONE TRIBE, taking it from that stage 5 of tribal development into a 6th: That of a group dedicated to the belief that life will be better for all, once we lay aside our personal needs and pursue God’s hope for us all. I call that group “church.” But THE ONE TRIBE works, too.