March 5, 2023 homily on Genesis 12:1-4a by Pastor Galen Zook
The Call to Go
In Genesis chapter 12 verse 1, the Lord speaks to Abram (whose name is later changed to Abraham). The Lord tells Abram and his wife Sarai to leave their home country, and to go to a land that God would later show them, saying, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…” (Gen. 12:2). And we read in verse 4 that “Abram went, as the LORD had told him” (Gen. 12:4). And the Apostle Paul in Romans, quoting from later on in Genesis, states that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3).
It’s a nice, neatly packaged story. A story of simple obedience and faith in God. The Lord spoke, and Abram heard and obeyed.
Except that it wasn’t always that simple. If we know anything about Abraham’s story, we know that there were a lot of twists and turns along the way. We know that Abraham made mistakes, and that there were times when he didn’t seem to believe God. Times when he took matters into his own hands, and when he acted in ways that were not so upright and honest.
And yet, in this particular instance, when God called Abram to leave behind everything that was familiar and to travel to a place that God would later reveal to him, Abram obeyed. He believed that God would indeed lead him and his family to a good place. He and Sarah picked up and left their homeland and everything they had ever known, and stepped out in faith. And because Abraham and Sarah were willing to do that, because they trusted God, God did indeed fulfill his promise to Abraham, by eventually making Abraham and Sarah parents, and indeed the parents of a great nation, and by blessing the world through their descendents – and one prominent descendent in particular – Jesus Christ.
Into the Unknown
Some of you know what it’s like to leave everything behind and start over somewhere new. Perhaps you left home to go to college or grad school, or you left to join the military, or you moved for a new job, or to be with someone you love. Perhaps you never moved far from home, but you’ve stepped out in faith to start a business, or to go to a new school or church or work at a new job. You know the faith that is required to venture out into something new. But imagine loading up a moving van and selling your house and waving good-bye to your family, and having no idea where you’re heading! Imagine getting on the highway with no clue as to the final destination, or jumping on a train or bus or plane and having no idea where you’re going to land.
This was the situation for Abraham and Sarah when God called them to leave their homeland and to go to a place that God would later reveal to them.
Reading this story made me wonder several things. For instance, how did Abram learn to recognize God’s voice? And how did Abraham and Sarah gain the faith and trust in God to obey – to leave everything behind – and to follow God, especially when they didn’t even know where they God was leading them?
And then I started looking at the genealogies in the previous chapter. Now, I know that if you’re anything like me, you probably tend to skip over all of those long lists of names in the Bible – the ones about who begat so-in-so, and how long such-and-such a person lived, and who was married to who. There are all those names that are really obscure and difficult to pronounce, and it’s difficult many times to see why it even matters.
But I noticed something interesting in the previous chapter – Genesis 11 – where it lists out all of Abraham’s ancestors – and that is that Abraham’s ancestors lived a really long time. A really, really long time. Abraham’s ancestor Shem, for example, who was one of Noah’s 3 sons who was on the ark during the Great flood, is said to have lived for 600 years! Shem’s son lived to be 438 years old. His son Shelah lived to be 433. That’s a long time! And, it means that they would have all still been alive when Abraham was born! ~10 generations, all living at the same time. Can you imagine that? Imagine knowing your 9th great grandparents!
Not only that, but some of Abraham’s living ancestors would have lived through the whole Tower of Babel fiasco, which took place 100 years after the Flood. This means that Abram would have heard about the Great Flood and the Tower of Babel – events that took place hundreds of years before he was born – not from history books – but directly from his ancestors who lived through those events! That’s equivalent to us getting to talk with pilgrims who sailed on the Mayflower, or soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War!
Abraham would have heard all about how God had saved and preserved and protected his ancestors through the flood. How God had instructed his ancestor Noah to build an ark, of what it was like for his 9th-great grandfather Shem to live through that horrific disaster that claimed the lives of everyone on earth except for their family. How they had to start all over after the flood, and then how Noah’s descents tried to build a tower that would reach all the way up to the heavens, but how God prevented them from doing so by making all the people speak different languages so that they would be forced to spread throughout the world rather than stay centralized in that one place.
Abraham would have been steeped in these stories – hearing them directly from the people who lived through them. Perhaps that’s how he learned to listen for and discern the voice of God, or perhaps at the very least by hearing their stories he received adequate warning about the consequences of not doing so.
A Fresh Experience of God
What this means, though, is that when God spoke to Abram, and told him to leave his home country, and to leave his kindred and his father’s house, and go to the land God would show him – these ancestors were part of the family that he was called to leave behind! His ancestors who had lived through these major world events, and his grandparents, and great-grandparents who were no doubt still alive as well – these were the very people that God called Abraham to leave behind when he called him to go to a land where God would show him.
And I have to wonder if it’s because perhaps God wanted Abraham and Sarah to have a fresh experience of God for themselves. Perhaps living among all of those ancestors who had lived through so much and seen so much caused Abraham and Sarah to become complacent, to “ride on the coattails” of their ancestors. Alternatively, perhaps those ancestors had become jaded and cynical. (We have very little idea how the events that they lived through impacted their outlook and perspective, or what their relationship with God looked like at this time).
At the very least, it seems that God wanted Abraham and Sarah to learn to trust and depend on God for themselves. To learn to lean on God as their source of strength for themselves, to make their faith their own, and not just rely on the faith of their parents and grandparents and those who had gone before them.
Because, in and through Abraham and Sarah, God was doing a new thing. And it wasn’t that God was done with the previous generations. Even after Abraham and Sarah left, I’m sure that God continued working in the lives of Abraham’s kindred back home. But for Abraham and Sarah to fulfill the mission and purpose that God had for them, they had to be willing to leave everything behind, and venture out in faith to wherever God was calling them to go.
And so, they left it all behind, and they followed God out into the unknown, to the place that God promised to reveal to them.
Experiencing God When We Step Out in Faith
Those of you who have picked up and moved from one place to another, or ventured into a business or job or school know that those types of experiences can be stretching experiences, to say the least. In those times we learn to depend on God in ways that we haven’t before. Some of you might be in that season now, where you’re still trying to get adjusted to everything, still trying to find your footing in a new place or field or industry or phase of life. Others of you may be sensing that God is leading you into something new. Know that if God has called you into something new, then God will go with you, and God will give you what you need, if you will only look to God for your source of strength and life.
Every Generation Needs a Fresh Encounter with God
But reading this passage in light of the genealogies in the previous chapter, and thinking about all of Abraham’s ancestors who were still living when Abraham was called to leave his kindred and follow God to a land that God would later reveal to him, got me thinking about the roles that we as the “older generations” play when it comes to fostering and encouraging the faith of young people. It got me thinking about how every generation needs to make their faith their own, and how each and every generation needs a fresh encounter with God.
Recently there was a lot of press about the Asbury Revival or Awakening that took place several weeks ago at Asbury University, a small Christian university in Kentucky that is part of our Methodist tradition. After chapel one day, some students stayed around to linger and pray, and that turned into a nonstop, two-week prayer session that brought tens of thousands of people from across the country to join in. Even now we’re hearing reports about similar prayer sessions that have broken out in other places.
If you follow any Christian pastors or thought-leaders on social media, most likely they’ve had something to say about it. On the one hand, some have celebrated this as a mighty move of God, and have wondered if we might be on the cusp of another Great Awakening, like the great revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries, or the Jesus Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. Others have been more critical, saying that they have not yet seen the “fruit” that would define such an awakening or revival.
But in the midst of all the commentary on both sides about what was happening, I appreciated the perspective of Lutheran pastor, author, and theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber, who admits that she is frequently suspicious towards anything that mixes together sentimentality and religion. And yet, when describing what was happening at Asbury, she says, “Noticeably absent from the front of the chapel are: flashy praise bands, lighting systems, projectors and screens, celebrity worship leaders and people over 25. There is such a simplicity, and dare I say, a humility to it.”
And she’s right. As opposed to many of the larger events that I’ve seen put on to try to attract young people, from what I saw of what was happening at Asbury, there were no fog machines or flashing lights, or big-name celebrities on the stage. Rather what I saw were young people, humbly and quietly sharing their testimonies, worshiping, and humbly seeking God’s face.
Nadia Bolz-Weber goes on to say,
I know that there can be a lot of cringe-worthy, ego soaked performance-y stuff in church. I know that when it comes to Christianity there are legitimate reasons for commentary and critique at every turn. But, as I like to say, nothing is only ever one thing. Because there is also God’s Spirit, who I believe is still stirring in the hearts of God’s people…
From my perspective, as someone who worked in college campus ministry for 17 years and who is still actively involved in the lives of young people, I would say that God’s Spirit is indeed still stirring in the hearts of God’s people. The faith of the younger generations may look different than it did in previous generations, and faith-filled living may look different for this generation than it did for previous generations, but God is at work nonetheless.
If you’ve been around church for many years most likely you’ve seen God work in some amazing ways in the past. But most likely you’ve also experienced a lot of hurts and pains and disappointments as well. And that can lead many to be jaded or cynical, or suspicious. But my prayer is that, rather than shake our heads and critique or discourage our young people in their pursuit of God, that we would pray that their faith would be fanned into flame, that they would experience God in fresh and, yes, even new ways.
My prayer is that no matter how old or young we are, we would never stop learning, never stop growing, never stop relying and depending upon the Lord for our strength. May we pass along the wisdom that we have gained over the years, but may we do so without discouraging the younger generations. May we be willing to get out of the way when necessary, so that they too may learn to depend and rely upon God for themselves., And may all of us, like Abraham and Sarah, be willing to follow God wherever God leads, even into the unknown.