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September 3rd, 2017

God’s call is not about what you do. It’s about whose you are.

Genesis 12:1-9

 

The story of God

You’ve heard me say this often but probably not often enough: when we read the story of Noah or Abraham or David or Paul, it’s not about them. It’s about God. In Genesis, the book of “Beginnings,” we find the Bible’s first lessons about God.

In the story about Adam and Eve, we learn that God creates and commands.

In the story of Noah and the flood, we learn that God promises. The promise was that a storm will never be the end of the story. The news these past two weeks has recreated an urgency to hear and hold on to this promise which is not just for believers but for all people and animals.

In the story of Abraham, we learn that God calls. This, too, is the beginning of a pervasive biblical theme. The word “call” appears more than 750 times in the Bible. Calling presupposes that God is personal, that God intervenes, and that God directs.

Linda and I recently went shopping for furniture. We wandered through a large showroom and didn’t see anything that met our needs. As we walked toward the car in the parking lot, I realized I didn’t have my car key. We returned to the store to look around. While I went searching for the key (I found it), Linda found the exact furniture we wanted. We told the salesperson our story and she answered, “It was meant to be.”

Christians don’t look at Abraham’s story and say, “It was meant to be,” as if some random force in the universe orchestrated the events of his remarkable life. God called Abraham, and the world was never the same. Four millennia after he lived, more than half of the world’s population looks to Abraham as their spiritual father.

It’s critical for your story and mine to understand calling – what it is and what it isn’t. I benefited greatly this week by listening to a sermon on this text by Tim Keller from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. If you want to hear Tim Keller’s excellent sermon on Abraham’s call, click here.

Keller says don’t worry whether I call this man “Abram” or “Abraham.” Abram means Daddy, and God later calls him Abraham, which means Big Daddy. Same guy.

What Abram left (1)

“The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”

Let’s review quickly Genesis 1-11. God creates a world that is “very good,” placing Adam and Eve in a perfect garden. They disobey God and get kicked out of the garden. They begin having children, but the first one murders the second one. Fortunately, there’s one shining light among their offspring, their third son, Seth.

As time passes, religion and morality decline to the point that God decides to wipe the earth clean and start over with Noah. Noah also has three sons, but among them only Shem focuses his life on Yahweh, the Personal God (Genesis 9:26). The term “Semite” comes from the line of Shem. In chapter 10 we find one of those seemingly pointless genealogies, but it’s not pointless. Shem’s line keeps hope alive.

A thousand years (at least) pass from the time of Noah to the time of Abraham. One of the events during that period happens in what we call Babylon, when people decide to build a large tower to reach up to God. This is humanity’s constant error – trying to reach God instead of letting him reach us. They cooperate build a ziggurat (a stepped platform) to heaven, but God confounds their languages.

Still, the line of Shem continues in chapter 11 to a man named Terah, living in Ur. When you read the story you’re thinking, “Here comes another Seth, another Noah, another Shem. We have hope.” Terah also has three sons, but the story zeroes in on one of them: Abram. Great! The righteous line still lives! There’s hope for humanity!

But here’s the problem: Abram and his wife Sarai don’t have any children. The account has led us to a dead end. If you’re following the Bible’s storyline, you’re somewhere between discouraged and despondent at this point. All of Genesis 1-11 has been like a funnel toward one man who will continue the godly line. But how, if his wife is barren? A flickering candle will soon be snuffed out.

God called Abram out of Ur, saying, “Get out of there.” Keller notes that the Hebrew of Genesis 12:1 is closer to the King James Version, “Get thee out.” Literally it reads, “Go yourself out of your country and your family and your father’s house.” In Abraham’s time and culture, this meant abandoning all sense of who he was, including the god he believed ordered the seasons and times and watched over him every night.

Abram’s call reverberates through the rest of the Bible, where we also find additional perspectives on this story. The writer of Hebrews says Abraham “obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). Yahweh won’t tell him until after he gets himself out of Ur.

The first key to the biblical concept of calling is this: God’s call never provides advance details. We want God to tell us where it will all end, what it will ultimately cost, how this will affect relationships and the bottom line. He won’t.

The closest human parallel is marriage. “For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” We should paraphrase it to, “I don’t know if I’m going to like you in the future or you’ll make me sick. I don’t know if we’ll live on the Penthouse suite of a high rise condo or in the slums. I don’t know if you’ll turn out to be an invalid or an Olympic athlete. Whatever happens, I’m in. All in.”

Abram didn’t know how his journey would play out. God just asked him to leave everything – his god, his family, his claim, only because he trusted the God who calls.

What God promised (2-3)

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 gives seven specific promises to Abram in vv. 2-3. I said last week that we overuse the word “promise” both in relation to each other and how we speak of Scripture. The word “promise” in the Bible is almost always used of “covenant promises” – the ones he made out loud to Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, and David.   God shows up visibly and speaks audibly, to give the Big Picture promises. We should be careful to label encouraging Bible verses as “promises.” Otherwise we may become disillusioned and think God has broken a promise he never made.

I had a very thoughtful response to that message from someone who said there are some specific promises of Scripture they hold on to, like “Your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58) or “God is able to do more than we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20) or “Nothing can separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:39).

I have no objection to calling those verses “promises,” and here’s why. They are covenant promises. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we have the wisdom to discern between the covenant promises that apply to all of us, and those that God may have spoken to one individual or situation.

The promises spoken to Abraham in Genesis 12 are good examples of what I was objecting to last week. We can’t take promises spoken to one person (in this case, Abraham) and “claim” them for ourselves. These promises weren’t even for Abraham personally. God was creating a covenant that would endure long past him.

We will look in more detail next week at God’s covenant with Abraham, but for now we notice that God’s call to him includes blessings. “Bless” is a pervasive biblical theme that occurs 65 times in Genesis alone. It means to grant prosperity or favor. Things go well for you when you’re blessed, and God gets rather specific with Abraham. He will be blessed as a great nation. His name will be made great, and he will be a blessing. God will bless those who bless him, and curse those who curse him.

They were told that one of the reasons for judgment and scattering of the Babel-builders was that they wanted a name for themselves. Here God says he will make Abraham’s name great, but notice it will not be for Abraham’s sake. Through Abraham all the families of the earth will be blessed.

Here’s the second great principle of calling that begins with Abraham and stretches through the ages: God’s call is always bigger than you. God puts you in a place where he can bless others through you. If he makes your life better, he does it so that he can channel his blessings to someone else.

When you think God is calling you to do something or go somewhere, as you write down or think through the pros and cons, put the benefits on the con side. That’s not because God never wants to do anything good on your behalf – he does. But it’s far too easy to confuse my interests with God’s. If a calling to a new situation will make you more prosperous or will give you a chance to see a new part of the world or will help your business interests or give you greater self-esteem, set those considerations aside. When God calls, he may or may not prosper you. He definitely wants to bless others.

What Abram did (4-9)

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.

 Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the Lord, who had appeared to him.

 From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and called on the name of the Lord.

Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.

 

In verses 4-9, Abram travels through the land from north to south. He spends time in what is now called the West Bank and would become the center of Israel. This place was already occupied by Canaanites (6), and his stops included what’s called “the great tree of Moreh at Shechem,” which we know from other sources was used throughout history as a religious site, including worship of idols before and after Abraham’s time.

Abram builds altars to Yahweh in the land, comparable to planting a flag. He claims this territory for Yahweh, but he will never live to see his people occupy it. It’s irrelevant to calling that we should be able to witness short- or long-term results.

This is very early in Abram’s spiritual journey, very early in monotheism. Don’t make Abram into a mature Christian. You can’t even read Moses’ law back into Abram’s time, much less Jesus and Paul.

Abram is from the beginning a flawed person. Ur was a vibrant city in Abraham’s time – sophisticated, urban, wealthy, religious – think Rome, Jerusalem, Mecca, or Salt Lake City. Abram bought into that culture thoroughly. Centuries later, Joshua would say that Abraham and his family “lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods” (Joshua 24:2). When God called Abram his whole identity lay within the system that, instead of worshiping Yahweh worshiped a thing – the Moon.

And do you realize that although God called him in Ur, telling him to leave his family and their gods, he took his father and nephew with him? Besides that, the journey stalled in Haran (modern day Turkey). It was also a place known for worship of the moon, so perhaps Abram (or at least his extended family) were not really “all in” yet. While there he accumulated more people and property (5) when God had said to leave it all behind (1).

It’s clear from the story that follows our text (plus many others) that Abram was far from a model believer in many respects. He started and stopped and stalled along the way. Did you notice that none of Abram’s words are recorded in Genesis 12? He was not a man of many words. The first time Abram speaks in the Bible, he instructs his wife to tell a lie (12:11-12).

Why am I pointing out Abraham’s flaws? Because this is the third great lesson he teaches us about calling. God’s call is always by grace. God doesn’t choose people to do something because they have performed well or possess a glowing resume. If you think you are being called to do something because you’re good at it, mistrust the call. God takes Abram when he’s quite comfortable climbing a ziggurat to worship a moon god in Ur, and he only gives up those pagan ideas and ways in stages. His heart is still wrestling, but his feet move. Wherever he goes, he calls on the name of the LORD, but he’s a model of a sinner saved by grace, not a saint chosen by spiritual achievement. God’s call is not about what you do. It’s about whose you are.

A quest, not an adventure

What do I mean by “call”? When I was growing in faith, we talked a good bit about guidance, or how to know God’s will for a decision. I’ve read several good books on that subject, and some not so great. J. I. Packer’s Knowing God includes an excellent chapter on guidance – making Spirit-led decisions. Packer points us to Scripture as the primary place we should go when making decisions. Abram didn’t have a Bible to turn to, but we do. Packer urges us not to trust our inner promptings.

Calling is deeper than guidance. Calling has to do with who you are, not what you do. Let me add one more insight borrowed from Tim Keller. Calling is a quest, not an adventure. Do you know the difference?

An adventure is there and back again. You choose to go on an adventure, and when it’s over, you resume your normal life. A quest is more like a call. A quest comes to you. With a quest, once you’re in, you’re all in – to the death or to the completion, in which case you can never be the same. You can’t go home again – or if you do, neither you nor home is what is was before the quest.

Keller makes the comparison with The Hobbit (an adventure) and Lord of the Rings (a quest). When Elrond gives Aragorn the sword named Anduril, the Flame of the West, he says, “Put aside the ranger. Become who you were meant to be.” Aragorn was still thinking like an adventurer, planning to return to the life he knew before. This quest forced him to assume his true identity as the King of Gondor.

I could make many other parallels. A date is an adventure; marriage is a quest. Babysitting is an adventure; having a baby is a quest. Fostering a child is an adventure; adopting a child is quest. Going on a mission trip is an adventure; leaving home for a career in missions is a quest. Everything changes.

That’s why Abraham’s call is the prototype for discipleship. You might think of Noah’s experience as a call, and it’s true it was a scary ride. But ultimately life settled back down and not much changed for him personally. Everything changed for Abraham to an extent that he never could have imagined. He had to die to the old life, loyalties, and ways.

Isn’t that exactly what Jesus said is the call to follow him? Lay down your life. Put yourself to death. If you try to find your life in yourself, you’ll lose it. If you lose your life for me, you’ll find it. That’s a quest from the God who calls.

What kind of God is worthy of obedience to the call to give up everything else? The kind of God who himself embarked on a quest that changed him forever. Jesus, eternally one with God, was made flesh for us, taking on our humanity and suffering even to the point of death, that his quest might bless us with life. This is the God who calls us to follow him. Amen.

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