A sermon based on Genesis 12:1-5a preached on March 16th, 2014.
Is there a direction to the bible?
The first 11 chapters of the bible are a mess. I wonder if you’ve ever had a chance to read them yourself and thought the same thing. There are many parts of the bible that seem completely foreign to us—violent, perhaps even chaotic to our rather sensible and ordered lives these days, but the mischief that the people in the first few chapters of Genesis get themselves into is pretty remarkable. As we read stories about Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the story of their son Cain killing his own brother Abel, a flood that wipes out all of creation so that God can start all over again, we have to wonder if these people had any sense at all.
And what about God’s parenting skills?
You have to wonder after reading these first 11 chapters of Genesis if these people have any direction at all.
It is in Genesis chapter 11 where we have the story of the Tower of Babel. It’s such a chaotic scene that sort of sums up what could be called a disastrous start to life as the bible knew it. People from all over gathered together to build for themselves a stairway to heaven—a tower to the sky that they thought would make them more like God. It will be so high that from the top they could see every which way around them, giving them more control over creation. God sees what these people are up to and doesn’t like it. God gives them all different languages so they can’t cooperate together like this again. God scatters them in a thousand different directions.
The first 11 chapters of the bible are a mess. They are the story of a people behaving badly and a God who seems not to know how to handle his troublesome creation. But at the beginning of chapter 12, something new happens. Very abruptly, the madness of the first 11 chapters stops, and all the sudden an actual storyline seems to emerge.
Genesis 12 has been called the beginning of scripture. With this passage, the real story begins.
Here in chapter 12, we meet a God who starts acting differently. No longer will God save the people from their wayward ways by wiping them off the face of the earth and scattering the people from one another. Instead we meet a Creator who wants to establish a real relationship with creation. And God does so by reaching out to just one family—to Abram, Sarai, and Lot. This will be the way God will use to teach all the people of the earth how to live—by establishing a relationship with us, blessing us and giving us direction.
This is the first time in the bible where we hear that God wants to lead us somewhere.
In the movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks’ character, Chuck Noland, is a FedEx worker whose plain crashes down onto a remote island in the middle of nowhere. He rigs several of the items that were being delivered on that FedEx plane into things that help him survive and make it on the island all by himself. Years and years pass by, and after using what he has to make a raft for himself, he sets off into the ocean and finds his rescue when he encounters a huge ship that delivers him back home again.
After so many years lost at sea, he finds his girlfriend, only to see that she has married another man and has begun a family. She looked happy and fulfilled in this new life, so Chuck Noland drives away from what he spent so long trying to find again, not at all sure where to go next.
And so at the end of the movie, there’s this beautiful but still very sad scene, where it dawns on Chuck that he has nowhere else to go. He stops at a crossroads way out in the middle of the country. The land is flat and he can see for miles in every direction. He unfolds his map on the hood of his truck and studies it, and then he stares out beyond him, wondering in which new direction his truck and his life will now take him.
There’s a very poignant, un-asked question that hangs in the air at the end of that movie: “What will become of me?”
Abram had to ask the same question himself here, as he heard God speak to him for the very first time. Can you imagine the uncertainty Abram must have felt hearing this message spoken to him from a God he had never heard of before? Out of the blue, when Abram was wandering around this barren land—suddenly he hears a voice and he’s told to travel in a direction that he’s never been asked to travel in before.
No longer will Abram and Sarai, these life-long nomads, wander at the crossroads in the middle of their country. God tells them to go. To move in a specific direction. Not only that! God tells them who they will become: a great nation, their descendants will have land—a new place to rest their heads and call home, and if that wasn’t enough for Abram and Sarai’s old hearts, God also said that their descendants will be blessed. Yes, their descendants! Abram and Sarai had no children and they were old. How could this be!
No longer will God’s people be scattered across the earth—God was now calling his people together. And God was going to do that through this one family. Here the entire bible takes a very drastic turn. Rather than tossing a difficult creation aside and starting over from scratch again, God doubles down and acts through these people for the reconciliation of the world. Here, God will guide Abram and Sarai into a new life, into a new land, with a new purpose. And the entire rest of the bible is based on this one promise made to this one family.
We don’t have to wonder where Abram and Sarai are headed though. The rest of the book of Genesis—indeed the rest of the bible answers that question for us. God will change Abram’s name to Abraham—“the father of many nations”—Sarai would be renamed Sarah, which means “noblewoman”. God has big plans for this little family, there is blessing up ahead and things, wonderful things, that God will show them. Abram, Sarai, and their nephew Lot must have wondered: “What will become of us?”
We could spend all day wondering why Abram and Sarai were chosen. I bet they spent many of their days from that moment on asking themselves the same question. There was nothing in particular about them that made them good candidates for this massive future that God had now promised them. Maybe the only thing Abram and Sarai possessed was an ability to listen closely—to hear God’s call upon their lives and to respond to it.
Notice that neither Abram, Sarai, nor Lot says a word in this passage. There’s no, “Why us? Why go?” There’s no, “We’re fine here since this is home and all our stuff is here, thank you very much, God, but I think we’ll pass!” There is just Go.
There’s a village called Pumporale on Cape York in Australia. Every person in Pumporale speaks English, but we would have a hard time understanding them. When you ask a Pumporale, “How are you doing,” the answer you’ll get will most likely go something like this, “North-north-west in the middle distance, how about you?”
First off the Pumporale don’t use relative directional terms like left and right, forward or backward, they always report where they’re headed using absolute directions like North, South, East and West. And if you think it’s complicated to answer the age-old question “How are you?” by sharing your specific trajectory with everyone who asks, then it gets even more complicated. There are actually 80 some choices that a Pumorale will use to report to another “how they are doing”.
The Pumporale are direction-based people. And when you’re there, you literally can’t answer “How are you?” without knowing which way you’re facing.
The Pumporale might know something about God’s call to Abram and Sarai that we are completely unaware of.
See, it’s not important where or who Abram and Sarai are right now. Reporting that is not worth the breath it takes to share such a thing. The only thing that matters is the direction in which God is pointing them and who they will become along that journey.
So how’s our sense of direction? In which ways are we being pointed? And how do you think our journey into the future that God has for us will define our identity? In the language of the Pumporale, how are we doing as God’s people? Do we know which direction God wants to take us? Are we listening carefully for God to share that with us? What does God have in store for us down the road? And who are we becoming?
The question of discipleship, during our journey through Lent as well as our journey through this, our Centennial year as a congregation, is not “How are we?” or “Who have we been before?” Those questions won’t get us anywhere. Just like Abram, Sarai, and Lot, let us lean forward into the future that God has for us. Let us ask ourselves more important questions: “Where are we going?” and “Who are we becoming?”
God is still making us into a holy people. Let us listen for God’s directions.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful.