Twickenham URC 23 Aug 1998
The life of Abraham part 1: The call (Genesis 11:27-32)
Today we look at the beginning of Abraham’s life. The first eleven chapters of Genesis deal with the story of creation, the fall of man and the stories of Noah and the tower of Babel. At chapter 11 we move into something that is much more recognisable as history. The period is around 2000BC.
Why should we be interested in someone who lived so long ago? To answer that question we need only look back to our reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In Galatians 3 we read “Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith”.
Paul is castigating the Galatians for trying to get right with God through their own efforts instead of believing in his promise of salvation through Jesus Christ. The blessing promised to Abraham comes to us through accepting Jesus Christ. Paul reminds them – and us – that if we belong to Christ, then we are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
Terah, Abraham’s father was, we are told, a descendant of Shem, one of Noah’s sons (from where we sadly get anti-Semitic). In Chapter 24:2 Joshua tells the people: ‘Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshipped other gods’. They lived in Ur. During the nineteenth century archaeologists made many discoveries that tell us about life in that era. Ur, which on its own just means ‘city’ is now identified with Tell-el-Muqayyar in southern Iraq. More than one hundred thousand inscribed clay tablets have been found which tell us of a city of a quarter of a million people: weavers, jewellers, copper workers, carpenters, ship-builders, potters and leatherworkers are amongst many of the trades that were known to exist. More than three hundred gods were worshipped, but Suen or Sin, the moon god being the most important. So Abraham grew up in a relatively sophisticated urban setting, and we may deduce that his family was reasonably well off.
Then something told Terah to uproot and move to Canaan. In Genesis it’s not ascribed to God, but in Acts, Stephen states that the move was as a result of God speaking to Abram. And so they packed up and set off: the party included Abraham, at that stage called Abram, his wife Sarai, and Abram’s nephew Lot whose father had died. We may surmise that the childless Abram and Sarai had taken him under their wing and felt a responsibility towards him.
They set off following an established trade route westward to Haran, and at this point Terah decided to go no further. I’m sure that at times we have all set off to do something or go somewhere and have got sidetracked by other attractions along the way. Then God spoke to Abram much more directly: “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you”. Haran was not the place to which he was called. For as long as he stayed there it would be impossible for him to fulfil God’s plans. But with the command comes the promise. God then outlines a series of promises; let’s look at each one in turn:
“I will make you into a great nation”: Abram must have listened to this with some incredulity. He and Sarai were both past their childbearing age and had no children. If we follow Abram’s story through the next few chapters of Genesis we will see this promise being repeated, and how Abraham thought that God needed a helping hand.
“I will bless you”: We may guess that Terah had settled in Haran because it was a nice place to live. Cannan was a much more uncertain place; it might be hard, but he was not on his own. But Abraham could be assured that whilst he was in the will of God he would be blessed.
“I will make your name great”: Like the first promise, this one must have seemed hard to take on board. And yet it was one that was to come true. Abraham’s name appears through Old and New Testaments.
The next two are a promise to Abraham that he is not on his own: “You will be a blessing: I will bless those who bless you; whoever curses you I will curse”. God would be a friend to those who befriended him, and would be on Abraham’s side when he met with difficulty. And as one speaker has memorably said, “God plus one is always a majority”.
“All peoples on earth will be blessed through you”: In this last promise God’s plan for all mankind is set out. Paul returns to it in his letter to the Galatians: “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise”.
So once again they set off, making a journey of about 400 miles. Abram was by now seventy-five years old. They entered Cannan and arrived at the great tree of Moreh at Shechem, a site which we may assume was one related to pagan worship. We may surmise that Abram’s first impressions were not favourable. The writer records “at that time the Canaanites were in the land”: we may infer that they were not overly welcoming. God does not promise us a journey through life that is free from hardship and difficulty. What he does promise us is that he is always with us, and he is a God who keeps his promises. Lest Abram was in any doubt God appeared to him once more and said, “To your offspring I will give this land”. In recognition of this Abram built an altar: much like planting a flag on some newly conquered territory, this was the start of claiming the land for God.
From there Abram went on towards 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. The land may not have been what they expected; indeed it must have been quite hard for this 75-year old to start pitching tents, having been brought up in the urban sophistication of Ur, but his trust in God was unfailing.
We too are people who are called to follow God’s calling: this may involve a physical move, but I would guess that for most of us it will not. We are called to leave behind the things that might hold us back, and may be called to cross boundaries (perhaps of our own making) that we once thought impassable. And we are called to do so not acting in our own strength but calling on the strength we are given when we claim the promises of God. God may call us to go into what seems to be very uncertain territory – office, factory, club or whatever, but, like Abram building his altars, we must be willing to go, taking our faith with us.
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