Is there a call you dread getting? A call you try to avoid on a regular basis?
As a United Methodist pastor, I am always checking my caller ID from February through April. That’s the time of year when the District Superintendent calls to ‘project’ a move, a relocation of jobs (and families). It’s nerve-wracking to get a call from the District office during that time, unless you have been told you’re going to stay.
Likewise, September through October is the window in the life of the church when nominations are being made for the following year. Some of you know this because you’ve been part of a conversation (or two) about how you might serve the church next year. Some lifelong Methodists are keen enough on this that when they see the preacher coming, they try to hide! And you think I’m kidding…
But there are two components to every call, whether it’s a phone call or God call: there’s the caller’s message and the receiver’s response.
Today, we’re looking at the story of Abram – the man who became Abraham – who received a call from God out of the blue in Genesis. God shows up several times in the narrative, telling Abraham different things he needs to know. But God is always stressing this “covenant” that God wants to make.
The first time, God shows up in Genesis 12 and says:
“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.”
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.
Don’t you wish God would show up and communicate so clearly? I wonder if that provided Abram with any comfort or if he wished God would use a different form, less signs or more cowbell? I wonder what it would take in our lives for God to get our complete and absolute attention?
A new pastor moved into a town, and he went out one day to visit his parishioners. All went well until he came upon this one house. It was obvious that someone was home, but no one came to the door even after he had knocked several times. Finally he took out his card, wrote on the back “Revelation 3:20” and stuck it on the back of the door.
Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with me.”
Later in the week, as he was counting the offering, he found his card in the collection plate
Below his message was the notation “Genesis 3:10.”
Genesis 3:10: “And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked: so I hid myself.”
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?
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 various authors over time.
Self-sacrifice is what unites the one tribe of Abraham: 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.”
In all things church, I am constantly reminded that each time God called someone, that God equipped them.
They didn’t have what it took initially. They weren’t prepared. But they were obedient.
Abram wasn’t ready when God called him, but he went.
Abram wasn’t a warrior but he rescued Lot.
Abraham desired a son but he was ready to give him up.
Abraham wasn’t perfect, but when God called, he answered.
And in each moment where Abraham gave up something, God gave something back even greater. God used Abraham’s obedience to make the nation of Israel, to serve as the foundation for the people of God now united in Jesus.
God blessed Abraham so that Abraham could be a blessing. God blessed the world through Abraham.
So ask yourself today: What is God calling me to do? What has God already worked in my life that I can use to be a blessing for others? What gifts do I have that I should be sharing? Is it quiet service in the back? Is it playing an instrument up front? Is it teaching our young people? Is it inviting others to church and welcoming them in?
God equips those he calls and God calls us all.
Are you listening? Or are you hiding, hoping God won’t notice?
We know the caller ID. He’ll just call back.