Preached by Michael Cheuk, January 17, 2016
Taken from Genesis 12:1-4; Isaiah 43:1-7
I like going on trips to new places. When Beth and I travel, I used to always take a map or a road atlas with me because I love studying maps. Now I use a GPS and Google Maps to calculate the best routes, distances, and how long it would take – including meals and fueling stops – before we get to our destination. From my perspective, maps, atlases, GPS, and Google Maps are all good things because I hate not knowing where I am or where I’m going, and I hate the feeling of being unsure of which way to follow when the road forks, or losing time because I took a wrong turn, or being surprised by road construction or traffic backing up due to an accident.
Most of you are probably not as compulsive about planning trips and studying maps as I am, but I think I can safely assume that, when you take a trip, you have a pretty good idea about where you’re going, what routes you’ll take and how long it’ll take you to get there. So imagine this conversation you might have with your neighbor one day:
“Hey Abe, what’s up? Why are you packing all your things and putting them in a moving truck?”
“Well, Sarah and I are packing up to leave Haran.”
“Really? I don’t remember you talking about this when we had breakfast last week.”
“Well, I just found out a couple of days ago.”
“How did you find out?”
“Well, God promised me some land, but I had to pull up stakes here and go where God was going to show me.”
“Really?! Uh, so, where is this land?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“Look, your dad didn’t kick you out of the house, did he?”
“OK, so what else did God tell you?”
“That Sarah and I were going to have countless descendants and be a great nation.”
“Interesting. Does God know that you and Sarah are childless and in your seventies?”
“Hmm, I hope you won’t take this the wrong way, but have you seen your doctor lately?”
I imagine that if I were Abe’s neighbor, I would be concerned about my friend and his wife. But in our Old Testament lesson from Genesis, God calls Abram to leave home, go on a journey, and keep going until God tells him to stop. That’s pretty crazy, right? In a world of maps, global positioning satellites and receivers, Google and Mapquest, it just doesn’t seem prudent or responsible to just “go and move.”
While this story tells about a geographical journey, I believe it also addresses the nature of faith and the journey of life. When it comes to the journey of life, I imagine most of us want to know about our future. Most of us are curious about what we want to do when we grow up, whom we will marry, where we will live, how things will turn out for us. Many times, our parents and our families have expectations (whether spoken or not) about these matters, and in some families, heaven help those children who go against those expectations! I think it is part of human nature to want to know these things, and to have a plan or strategy to reach our desired future in our life journey. That’s not necessarily bad. But today, the story of Abram challenges us to examine what it might mean to live a faith journey according to God’s plan for our future.
For one thing, a faith journey requires that we loosen our grip on the steering wheel of life. In our culture, we are taught that in order to be a success, we have to be captains of our own fate. Sure, God is with us, but as the bumper sticker reminds us, “God is my co-pilot,” while I’m the one in the driver’s seat steering the course of my life. But in today’s story, when God told Abram to go, Abram just went, without knowing ahead of time where he was going, and Abram was seventy-five years old!
How did Abram do it? In this story, God summoned Abram from a comfortable and familiar world to a call of adventure into an unknown world. This journey is grounded in three promises. The first promise to Abram is the promise of land. In our faith journeys, as we loosen our grip on the steering wheel of life, we may find ourselves going in unexpected and sometimes even unwanted directions. It’s likely that Abram had a secure, stable life in Haran. It’s unlikely that Abram wanted to leave everything that he had known in order to receive an inheritance in a strange land. Yet, sometimes, following God means branching out, going and doing something totally different from what has been done in our family for generations. Sometimes, following God means going against the expectations of our family, our friends and even ourselves. But despite the uncertainty and difficulty of these changes, it is important to remember that Abram was called to a place that God will show as a suitable home for Abram and his household. According to the book of Hebrews, “By faith [Abram] made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.” Now, while we tend to think of land as geographical real estate, I would like for us to consider that the promised land is not just a patch of dirt in Israel, but wherever God is calling us to go, because God is already there, waiting for us, calling us home. Where is God calling you to go? Who are you called to create a place for?
The second promise to Abram is the promise of a nation, a people, descendants. God was promising not just a place, but a family, a people who will call Abram “father.” The problem was that Abram and Sarah were childless at that time. According to the standards of their time, Abram and Sarah were failures because they had no children. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, and for those of you who have experienced infertility, you know about the pain and frustration of not being able to bear children. Genesis 18 records that Sarah laughed upon hearing that she was going to have a child. In my mind, it was a laugh of dismissive absurdity voiced by a broken heart. And yet, God’s promise was fulfilled when Isaac was finally born to Abram and Sarah, and scriptures recount the ever increasing numbers of the Israelites in the generations following.
This morning, we had the privilege of seeing Will and Erin Brown as they present baby Seth to the love and care of God and of this congregation. What a powerful reminder of the fact that God is still answering the promise of descendants. God has called us together as family, to extend love and care to one another. God is still reminding us to live in faith with the people in this room and in our community so that we usher in the future and the hope that God has promised. Who has God called you to be a family with to usher in the future?
As we ponder this question, I think the key is not focusing on the future that we want, but on the future that God wants. Our faith journey is not about self-actualization; it is about the actualization of God’s will and fulfillment of the Lord’s prayer: “Thy Kingdom come.” This leads to the third promise that God made to Abram. You will be blessed, so that you can be a blessing to all the peoples on earth. Imagine that, God called Abram and his descendants to be God’s channel of blessing to humankind. That’s as big a job as you can get! The journey of faith that God called Abram to was not to bless him alone. God’s divine plan has always been the blessing of God’s world, and all the people on earth! Who is God calling you to be a blessing?
All God asked was that Abram walk with God and trust in the promises of a place, a family, and a blessing, no matter how improbable its fulfillment might seem at the time. In doing so, Abram was renamed by God. He was given a new name, which reflected a new identity in the eyes of God, an identity that spoke to a new future. From the name “Abram” which meant “exalted father,” God renamed him “Abraham,” which most scholars think means “father of a multitude.” In walking with God, Abraham and his multitude of descendants were also promised that they will not walk alone. Hundreds of years later, when Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites, were exiled in Babylon, the prophet Isaiah reminded them, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
Hundreds of years after that, after Jesus was resurrected and was about to ascend into heaven, he told his followers to embark on another journey of faith, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
God is calling me and University Baptist to take a faith journey. As we go on our journeys, God is telling us:
“You do not walk alone. Just like my promise to Abraham, I promise you a place and a home. I promise you a family and a people. I promise you to be a blessing for all peoples.”
Who are you called to create a place for?
Who are you called to be a family with?
Who are you called to be a blessing?
Let me close this sermon with an old Irish blessing:
May you see God’s light on the path ahead,
When the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear,
Even in your hour of sorrow,
The gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard may hardness
Never turn your heart to stone,
May you always remember
when the shadows fall –
You do not walk alone.