Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; 12:1-4
Ernest Hemingway once said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody…is to trust them.” Makes sense, of course. We find out soon enough if the other people in our relationships are trustworthy. Healthy, lasting relationship require trust, of course.
So, too, our relationship with God. Today, we’ll be talking about this fundamental requirement of healthy relationships.
This is week two of our Lenten sermon series called “Covenant.” Throughout this season, we’re exploring what may be the most central concept, the most foundational idea, of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the ancient world, a covenant, like a contract today, was an agreement between two parties, wherein each party agreed to do something. The Old Testament in particular is filled with examples of covenants, covenants made between two individuals, or between an individual and a group, or between two tribes or two kingdoms.
So of course, in the context of a world in which “covenant” was the way people formalized their relationships, our faith ancestors understood their relationship with God in covenant terms. Our subject throughout Lent is the various covenants that God has made with God’s people over the course of our salvation history. Because the way scripture describes these covenants tells us a lot. It tells us a lot about the nature of God. It tells us a lot about the nature of our relationship with God. It tells us a lot about how we show up in our relationship with God.
Last week, we talked about the very first covenant between God and humanity, which was established between God and Noah. After the flood, God made a covenant with Noah and his descendants, an “…everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Gen 9:16). We talked last week about how that first covenant exemplified the primary way that God shows up in the relationship between God and humanity. Our focus was on the concept of grace — the unearned, un-earnable, and unending love that God has for us. That’s the foundation and the context of every covenant that God makes with us.
This week, we turn to the second covenant talked about in scripture, which comes, according to the author of Genesis, ten generations after the flood (Gen 11:10-26). We’re talking about the covenant between God and the patriarch of the world’s three great monotheistic religions — Abraham.
It’s impossible, really, to overstate the importance of Abraham in the history of the faith. And not just our Christian faith. Jews, Muslims, and Christians all trace their heritage back Abraham. Abram, as he was first known, originally came from Ur of the Chaldeans, in the Euphrates River valley near the Persian Gulf. At some point — we’re not told when — he and his family and extended family moved up the river until they settled in Haran, in what is today northern Syria. There, he and his wife (Sarai, as she was first known), built a prosperous life together.
The Book of Genesis tells us that one day, when Abram was 75 years old, God shows up and invites him on a new adventure. God invites Abram to pick up and move. God invites Abram to take all the stuff he can pack and get on the road. And God tells Abram that God will show him — not tell him — where they’re going.
Now, the Book of Genesis does not tell us how the conversation went when Abram got home and told Sarai about all this. (I can imagine how that conversation went. “You want to do what?!? You want to go where?!?! Seriously, where are we going?!?!”)
But Genesis does tell us that go they did, settling in a land they did not know among people they did not know. We’ll pick up the story more than 25 years later, when God appears to Abram again…
[Read Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16]
Can you imagine how this conversation went when Abraham got home? “I talked to God again today…So, two things. The first is that we’ve got new names! You’re gonna want to sit down for the second thing.”
It’s not in the recommended lectionary reading for this morning, so we didn’t read that far. But the very next verse, after God tells Abraham that Sarah is going to have a baby, we read, “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed” (Genesis 17:17). (Sarah does the same thing in the next chapter.)
Scholars believe that the Book of Genesis was written by at least three different authors, at different times in Israel’s history. The most ancient stories, including those about Abraham, began as oral traditions that were subsequently recorded by different sources. And there are many places in Genesis where the same story is recounted multiple times with slightly different variations, as recorded by these different sources.
For example, you may know that there are two different creation stories. These come from two different sources. There are different versions of the same details in the story of the flood. These come from two different sources. And there are actually two different accounts of God’s covenant with Abraham. You guessed it, these come from two different sources.
The first one occurs in chapter 15. The second one is the one we’re reading this morning. Our passage this morning is written by an author that scholars call the “Priestly” source, for reasons that we don’t have time to get into here. That can be the subject for some future Bible study. But suffice it to say that the passage we read this morning comes from the same “Priestly” source who wrote the passage we read last week, about God’s covenant with Noah. Both stories refer to the “everlasting covenant” that God offers, with Noah in last week’s passage, and with Abraham in this week’s passage.
Now in English, the name change for the patriarch of the world’s three great monotheistic religions seems minor. Abram to Abraham just adds a “ha” after all.
But in Hebrew, it’s a big deal. In Hebrew, Abram means “exalted ancestor,” which he certainly is. But Abraham means “ancestor of a multitude,” as we read in the passage, “the ancestor of a multitude of nations” (17:5). Ultimately, those who trace their lineage back to Abraham will come to include: the descendants of Ishmael, through whom Muslims trace their roots to Abraham; the Israelites through Isaac and Jacob, whose descendants include everyone who considers themselves Jewish or Christian; the Midianites, through his second wife Keturah (whom he married after Sarah’s death); and the Edomites, through his grandson Esau. (King Herod, of Jesus’ time, was an Edomite.)
When God called Abram, God promised him many descendants, and God certainly delivered.
All of that is interesting, to me at least. But none of that is really the point for today, actually. Our point in focusing on the idea of covenant throughout Lent is that the way scripture describes the various covenants that God has made with humanity tells us a lot. It tells us a lot about the nature of God. It tells us a lot about the nature of our relationship with God. It tells us a lot about how we show up in our relationship with God.
Last week, we focused on the gracious nature of God as revealed in the covenant with Noah. We begin to learn about God’s grace in the earliest chapters of Genesis. Every covenant that we have with God — literally from the beginning of the Bible to the end — is initiated by God. God moves towards us first, because God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us. God’s grace is the foundation upon which we build our relationship with God.
But what’s our part? Now, I’m not asking, “What rules do we have to follow?” Or at least, I’m not asking that yet. Next week, we’ll talk about the covenant with Moses, which begins with the Ten Commandments. I’m asking, if God shows up in the relationship with grace, how should we show up?
The answer to that, it seems to me, is best embodied in the patriarch of the world’s three great monotheistic religions. Religions that would not exist were it not for the way Abram responded when God called him back in chapter 12…
[Read Genesis 12:1-4]
One of my favorite theologians is a Presbyterian minister named Frederick Buechner. He tells a story about a time in his life when things were difficult.
He writes, “I remember sitting parked by the roadside once, terribly depressed and afraid about my daughter’s illness and what was going on in our family, when out of nowhere a car came along down the highway with a license plate that bore on it the one word out of all the words in the dictionary that I needed most to see exactly then. The word was TRUST.”
He took this as an epiphany, a sign from God that somehow everything would be ok. It helped him get through this difficult period, and he wrote about the experience in a published article.
It turns out that the driver of that car read the article. Touched by the story, the driver, who was a trust officer in a local bank, tracked down Buechner and gave him the license plate.
Buechner writes, “…[it] sits propped up on a bookshelf in my house to this day. It is rusty around the edges and a little battered, and it is also as holy a relic as I have ever seen.”
It’s one thing for a famous theologian and preacher to trust in God when he gets a reminder from the universe that he should. But when Abram got the call that day, he had no track record with the God who asked him to pack up all that he had and go to a land he did not know. But he and Sarai went.
For twenty five years the promise of children would go unfulfilled. But he was still listening for God. And in his great trust of this God who appeared to him in what today would be considered the twilight of his years, Abraham models for us what we must bring to this relationship that God offers us. Would that we all had the courage to follow Abraham’s example.
We even have a tremendous advantage over Abraham. We know God. Our ancestors have been in relationship with God for thousands of years. And if we’ve grown up in the church, or at least if we’ve discovered the church, and certainly if we’ve discovered this congregation of Christ’s Church, we not only know God. We also know that God is a God of grace. That God’s covenant with us, which is to say God’s offer of a relationship with us, begins and ends in grace. There’s nothing to fear.
But we, for our part, do have to trust. We have to trust the God who has been proving Godself trust-worthy since Abram was called out of northern Syria and led to the land flowing with milk and honey. The God who saved Noah and his family. The God who gave the Law to Moses on the mountain. The God who became a human being in Jesus Christ, and taught, and healed, and did miracles, and died on a cross, and rose again on the third day, all that my soul and your soul might know its savior.
I’d say that our passage this morning teaches us to be like Abraham. Except that we’ve got thousands of years of evidence that Abraham didn’t have. By God’s grace, we are offered a relationship with the creator of the universe. All we have to do is trust God enough to accept it. And then, once we say yes, God calls us all to faithful living.
The season of Lent, our season of self-examination and prayer and repentance in preparation for Easter, is the perfect time to ask ourselves a couple of important questions. Where is God calling us to go, right now? And do we trust God enough to follow where God wants to lead?
Maybe there’s some change in our lives that God is calling us to make. Maybe there’s some stand in our lives that God is calling us to take. Maybe there’s some act of mercy or justice that God needs from us. Maybe there’s some spiritual discipline that we’ve been neglecting, perhaps out of fear that God will lead us out of our safety zone, out of our comfort zone.
Where is God calling us to go, right now? And do we trust God enough to follow where God wants to lead?
If we’re not currently following Abraham’s bold example of trusting God, that’s certainly nothing to feel guilt or shame about. I imagine that at some point or another in all of our lives, we avoid the kind of radical discipleship that we see modeled in our heroes of the faith.
But Lent is a good time to honestly examine how we’re doing. And to remember Ernest Hemingway, who once said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody…is to trust them.”
God has proven trustworthy now for thousands of years.
Kilian McDonnell is a Benedictine monk at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Born in 1921, he joined his monastic community in 1945, and spent his career as a theologian and university professor. At the age of 75, he began writing poetry.
This poem is from a published collection titled Swift, Lord, You Are Not, his first of four books of poetry. It’s titled “The Call of Abraham,” and it very well may be the best poem I’ve ever read. Some of you may have heard it. We’ll close with it today.
Talk about imperious.
Without a “may I presume?”
No previous contact,
no letter of introduction,
this unknown God
This is not a conversation.
Am I a nobody
to receive decrees
from one whose name
I do not know?
I have worshipped my own god.
To you I had addressed no prayers,
like sudden fire in the desert,
I hear “Go.”
am I supposed to scuttle my life,
place my arthritic bones
upon the road
to some mumbled nowhere?
Let me get this straight.
I will be brief.
In ten generations since the Flood
you have spoken to no one.
Now, like thunder on a clear day,
you give commands:
pull up my tent,
desert the graves of my ancestors,
for a country you do not name,
there to be a stranger.
God of the wilderness,
you promise all people of the earth
will be blessed in me.
You come late, Lord, very late,
but my camels leave in the morning.
 Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), p. 326.