Twickenham URC 27 Oct 2002
The end of the journey (Gen. 25, 1-10 + Heb. 11, 8-16; 12, 1-2)
Today we reach the end of Abraham’s journey through life, and the end of our own journey of exploration which we started four years ago. During the 16 parts of this series we have read every verse of thirteen plus chapters of Genesis, leaving out none of the passages which at first glance may seem uninteresting, problematic or embarrassing. We have seen the importance of Abraham to Jews and Christians, and, as Deacon Duncan Macpherson reminded us, to Muslims too. We have seen how the stories we have read have influenced many artists and writers over the centuries.
Today Abraham’s long journey through life is at an end. The writer ties up some loose ends – his second marriage with another six children – reminding us that the promise that Abraham would be the father of nations – plural – was to be fulfilled, and tells how that he took good care to provide for all his children.
Then at a hundred and seventy-five years, thirty eight years after the death of Sarah, Abraham breathed his last breath. In the words of our reading he was “an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people“. Back in Genesis 15 God had promised him that “You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age“. “Being gathered to your people” is a phrase used in the Old Testament of believers. In Abraham’s case he would be laid to rest in the tomb he had bought for Sarah, and, as is often the case today at funerals, his death would bring separated members of his family, Isaac and Ishmael, together.
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As we’ve read of Abraham’s journey through life perhaps you’ve seen scenes that you can relate to:
- Perhaps you’ve been challenged to go off to an unknown place, physically or otherwise, as Abraham was in part 1 of this series.
- Perhaps you’ve tried to act with magnanimity and have been left feeling taken advantage of, as Abraham was when he offered Lot the choice between verdant pasture and rocky hillside.
- Perhaps you’ve had to step in at personal cost when a member of your family has got into trouble, as Abraham did, when Lot was seized.
- Perhaps you’ve been tempted to accept gifts from and become beholden to someone who hands are not totally clean, as Abraham was after he rescued Lot and was offered a share of the plunder by the King of Sodom.
- Perhaps you’ve been challenged to give more than ever before, as Abraham was in his encounter with Melchizedek – and in turn was richly blessed.
- Perhaps you’ve been torn by doubt and had to turn for God for reassurance, as Abraham did, more than once
- Perhaps you’ve experienced the heartache of not being able to have children – something which Abraham and Sarah had resigned themselves to. Or perhaps something else that you really felt was meant to be never happened or has yet to happen.
- Perhaps your life has been changed because of your willingness to put yourself out for others – you may have been here when we looked at the wonderful story of Abraham and Sarah receiving three unknown visitors.
- Perhaps you’ve been moved by the plight of those facing disaster, as did Abraham when he pleaded for Sodom
- Perhaps you’ve been faced with having to give up something very precious to you, as Abraham was when he felt the call to sacrifice Isaac.
- Perhaps you’ve had to face the death of a much loved spouse or other close family member or perhaps you’ve reached an age where you cannot do everything for yourself and need to trust someone else to do something of great importance to you, as Abraham did, when he sent Eliezer off to find a wife for Isaac.
If so, the Bible reminds us that such things are not just your experience but the experience of men and women through the ages. But life is not all about hardship and difficulty. Our next hymn talks about the changing scenes of life, trouble and joy. Through all the changing scenes of his life, Abraham had experienced close communion with God, being allowed to share in his plans, being reassured that God’s promises would be fulfilled. He enjoyed a long long marriage to a dearly loved wife. He had at least one servant who he could trust completely. God had prospered him. He had lived as a man of God, and now had become one of the saints who from their labours rest.
But we cannot stop here. Oliver Cromwell is quoted as saying to Sir Peter Lely, who was about to paint his portrait, “I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it“, thus the phrase “warts and all”.
The writer – or writers – of Genesis have painted us such a portrait of Abraham: that of a man who obeyed, who believed, who trusted in God, who shared and who prayed. But the portrait painted in Genesis 12-25 is also of a man who, not trusting in God to provide went down to Egypt; who, not trusting God to protect him, told half-truths about Sarah being his sister; and who, not waiting on God to deliver on his word, took on himself the task of providing himself with an heir. Abraham was a man of God but also someone with human frailties like you and me. The people that God chooses are not from some super-race, but ordinary people like you and me, but people he wants to transform through their faith and the Holy Spirit acting through them.
We go back to our first reading, from Hebrews, part of a much longer passage where the deeds of men and women of faith through the centuries are recounted. There are those who have gone before us whose names we cherish.
The writer of the Apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus starts chapter 44 with those well known words: “Let us now praise famous men” but goes on to remind his readers that “of others there is no memory; they have perished as if they never existed; they have become as if they had never been born, they and their children after them. But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten“.
Many of the saints throughout the ages, who we remembered in our last hymn may now have no names but were no less men and women of faith than Abraham and Sarah. We are called to honour them, but also to be inspired by them to run the race of faith with them cheering us on. There will almost certainly be times of challenge and uncertainty in our lives like the ones Abraham was faced with. But there will also be times of discovery, times when we face overwhelming odds and come out on top, times when God seems to speak to us in a way that brings us peace and reassurance that the world cannot give. If at times we feel let down by others, we will also be moved by those who show us what true service is. We will be challenged to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, when something else might look to be to our advantage, tempted to take the easy way out, challenged to trust on God promises, challenged to give generously as he gives to us.
Life isn’t easy. As I’ve already said, our next hymn reminds us that life is made up of trouble and joy. We can face both, not in our own strength, but with Jesus Christ at our side. In responding to the call to leave a settled and certain life, Abraham found a new and more fulfilled life, not one of idle play in green pastures, rather one that was sometimes hard, but through his willingness to trust God he was blessed and through him countless generations since. May the witness of Abraham and all those others who have followed God, all those who have taken Jesus Christ as their Saviour be an inspiration and encouragement to us to do likewise.
I finish by quoting from Chuck Swindoll’s commentary on Abraham:
Whenever God calls, obey
Whenever God promises, believe
Whenever God tests, trust
Whenever God blesses, share
Whenever God burdens, pray
When the time comes from us to rest from our labours may we be ready to go in peace having spent the years allotted to us as followers of Jesus Christ.
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Hymns: R&S 121: The God of Abraham praise; 367: I want to walk with Jesus Christ; 658: For all the saints; 685: Through all the changing scenes of life; 553: To Abraham and Sarah