As we heard a couple Sundays back, the story of God and us starts off bright and beautiful with God’s creation of the cosmos and everything in it.
But what happens after that doesn’t bode well for the future of the world.
Lured into naughtiness and disobedience by a crafty serpent, the inept and blundering Adam and Eve mess up and get booted from the Garden of Eden.
But their sad-sack story, which we heard last Sunday, in the end serves up this delicious morsel of Good News: Living life east of Eden, as were Adam and Eve, as are you and I, with all its thorns and thistles, hardships and heartaches, comes with the assurance that, though we all have to face the consequences of our sin, God nevertheless prepares a way for us to remain connected to the earth, and to God, and to one another.
That, in a nutshell, is the story of God and us.
As the lyrics to the old hymn go, the breath of God breathes upon us, filling us with life anew, until our hearts are pure and wholly God’s, that we may love what God does love, and do what God would do, willing one will, and glowing with fire divine.
Perhaps, then, the only One with patience greater than Job’s is the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit, who seem endlessly able to put up with human shenanigans and ever-willing to extend grace, mercy, and forgiveness that none of us deserves. Those promises of heaven – kept by the Spirit of God in Christ – continue to burn brightly even unto us today.
But, also like today, embers from the infernos of human passion, desire, greed, dishonesty, and wanderlust still glow with heat and energy sufficient to rekindle even more Dumpster fires in our lives and in our world.
Consider the next chapter in the story of Adam and Eve.
It reveals their son Cain murdering his brother Abel, and sin spreads out like a snake and wraps the whole world in its deadly grasp. God thus sends a Great Flood to destroy the world and rid it of sin, and God starts over from scratch with Noah, his family, and their floating zoo of an ark.
Things start to look up when the floodwaters recede, and God vows never again to send floodwaters to destroy the earth. But then Noah gets liquored-up on wine and curses his family, rendering ugly the beauty of the earth and its people in God’s post-flood re-creation.
Shortly after, the people of Babel starting building a gleaming tower as a monument to themselves and their own ingenuity, and God steps in to halt construction and scatter the people to the four winds.
Is there any hope for humanity? Well, yes, apparently so.
That hope begins with an old man named Abram, whose story begins in this morning’s Scripture lesson from Genesis 12.
The Lord calls Abram to step out in faith on the journey of a lifetime – a journey that will bless Abram and start forming a nation populated with people that the Lord will call his own.
Listen for the Word of the Lord to you this day in these ever-true ancient words.
Now the LORD said to Abram,
So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land.
Then the LORD appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.
From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the LORD and invoked the name of the LORD. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb. (Genesis 12:1-9)
Wouldn’t it be great if the journey of earthly life was as simple and care free as getting your motor running, heading out on the highway, and looking for adventure along broad, straight, smooth ribbons of interstate freeway?
But no, more often than not, life in a broken and fearful world is not an easy ride.
Which is the hard lesson that one trucker in Asia learned some time ago.
I don’t know about you, but I get dizzy and queasy just watching that clip.
My stomach similarly knots at the thought of walking the Glass Plank Road that hugs the side of a mountain in China.
You need nerves of steel to stroll out on the glass walkway that hangs nearly 4,700 feet in the air, and for that reason, it’s known as the Walk of Faith, a white-knuckle hike that’s definitely not for the faint of heart. But those who summon up the courage to step out and get going are treated to an unforgettable experience of a lifetime.
That’s where Abram finds himself.
One day, out of the blue, God clears the divine throat and tells Abram to step out in faith and get going. And so Abram packs his bags and flies off on the wings of promises too breathtaking to take in and almost too good to be true.
Abram and wife Sarai pack up and go – moving lock, stock and barrel hundreds of miles west toward the Mediterranean Sea with only the vaguest understanding of why they’re moving and absolutely no clue about what will actually happen when they get there.
What Abram and Sarai did know was this:
They were doing the one thing that people of their day feared the most – leaving behind the land of their mothers and fathers. To forever leave the homeland of one’s ancestors meant that you’d die in a foreign land, and if that happened, people back then believed you’d be forever lost and alone in the afterlife. So folks tended to put down deep roots in the places they forever wanted to call home, because no one wants to spend eternity lost and alone.
With that hellish threat hanging over them, Abram and company leave the land they know best – walking away from the culture in which they grew up, and all the familiar traditions and trappings, sights, sounds and smells that make a place into a home.
The big move will be destabilizing. It will strip them of all their bearings and landmarks. Saying goodbye to what was will open a gaping hole in their lives, and everything will have to be reimagined and reinvented.
But in return for taking the first step on this great walk of faith, God promises to watch over them and to use them as the divine means of incredible blessing and amazing newness. God once again is beginning the work of redeeming a world run amok, and that work of doing a new thing will start with a hapless couple who’d long ago given up hopes that their lives would be blessed or that they could be a blessing to anyone or anything.
People who walk by faith often hear God’s voice telling them, “You need to leave now. It’s time to move on.”
Sometimes those marching orders have to do with a geographic change, as it was for Abram, but other times, God directs people to leave certain situations, sever relationships, or make other difficult-but-necessary changes.
When you walk by faith grounded in things unseen, God never lets you settle into places of stability. Just when you reach a certain place spiritually and decide to pitch your tent and relax for a while, God says, “Get going! And even though stepping out on a walk of faith scares the living daylights out of you, I promise that everything is going to turn out OK.”
Thus Abram’s caravan leaves town with bags stuffed full and boxes packed tight with the promises of God. Those promises are their sources of courage and determination, and those promises must be ours as well. We live and move solely off the promises of God, whose grace flows through heaven’s channel of promise.
Many of us, though, are more commandment-oriented.
Those folks wake up every morning with God’s moral law hanging over them, and they try to do right so God will approve of them at the end of the day. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Lord, after all, reveals himself to demonstrate a way of life that’s compatible with God’s holiness and helpful for human wholeness.
But trying to uphold every letter, jot, and tittle of God law is a fool’s errand, because living that way makes for an uphill climb that typically falls short of the summit.
We’ll all fare far better waking up confident in God’s promises – what the Lord says he’ll do is exactly what God will do for us today. Then and only then will God’s power working in us direct us tenderly yet firmly in the way of obedience and right living.
The tender-yet-firm unconditional love of the Lord for us – as revealed in his gracious promises of mercy, forgiveness, protection, justice, and restoration – is the only thing that draws us to a closer walk with God.
In his moment of promise, Abram feels so close to God that he builds an altar to the LORD and calls on his name. Abram’s heart reaches out to God in worship. God has been so good to him, so generous, so affirming, that the only thing Abram can do is fall down on his knees in praise.
Abram didn’t earn any promise or blessing by what he’d done. The promise comes to him all because of grace. And because of that grace – even though he has no map, no GPS, no AAA brochure, no lineup of motel reservations along the way, Abram travels with the assurance of promise that God will show him where to stop when he gets to wherever it is that God wants him and his entourage to go.
Abram couldn’t see God’s bigger picture, and Abram was OK with that.
Faith is happy to step out not knowing where it’s going, so long as it knows that God is coming along. As long as God’s strong hand is holding Abram’s, everything is going to work out just fine, and the caravan moves ahead in faith.
That’s the excitement of walking with God. God is in control, and that is enough. God will unveil the route as you go along.
Faith deals with the invisible things of God. It refuses to be ruled by the physical senses, rational logic, or irrational fears. So don’t be so afraid when you don’t know exactly how God will lead and take care of you. Just hold on tight to God and keep moving ahead.
Don’t worry so much about what the other person might be doing. It really doesn’t matter, because God has promised to uphold and defend you.
Our going will have its ups and downs, its peaks and valleys, its strong leaps forward, its woeful stumbles backward, but that’s the way it is when God calls you by name – you are summoned to a journey whose destination is glory, yet the path to that glory is long, dangerous, frustrating, and always fraught with the temptation to chuck the whole thing in favor of just looking out for good ol’ No. 1 in the here and now.
Thankfully, God’s faithfulness toward us is more constant than ours toward God, and so by grace, God’s Holy Spirit in Christ keeps steering us back onto the path of promise.
As we now know only too well, that path of promise meanders straight to a Cross.
If ever there were a more-gruesome picture of what promises made null and void looks like, it would be the Cross. From that Cross, the Son of God shouts on a Friday we call Good, “It is finished.” But by saying that, Jesus doesn’t mean that he is defeated, done in, and down for the count. He means that something is finished in the sense of being completed.
The blessing once promised to that man named Abram in Ur is completed at last in Calvary’s mournful mountain cry: From the horror of death comes the promise of resurrection.
Even though it sometimes feels like the world is intent on kicking the stuffing out your faith, even though it often feels like evil has the upper hand and is winning the fight, even though your inner spirit echoes with deep hollowness more often than not, you nevertheless still hold tight to the promise of resurrection through all your travels, thanks to a faith abiding still in the belief that the Lord always keeps his promises.
Believing that isn’t easy. But neither is taking that first step when God says “get going.” So Abram left. And so must we.
May God give us the grace to journey by stages with Abram and all who followed him in faith, assured of God’s promises to fill the empty places in our lives with resurrection.
John Newton is the the converted slave trader and drunkard who became a faithful pastor and author of the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” He also wrote a lesser-known hymn that reveals God’s faithfulness in allowing trials into our lives and our need to rely on God rather than turning to our own schemes when the going gets tough:
I asked the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Instead of this, he made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Perhaps it is, then, that story of God and us hinges on believing that the answers to our prayers lie in the crosses we’re forced to bear and in trusting that we do not bear those crosses alone.
That’s the assurance of Bethlehem’s manger that we heard just a month ago at Christmastime, when an elderly man holding a newborn King shouts with joy that his eyes have seen God’s salvation, prepared for all peoples, a light of revelation and glory. (Luke 2:28-32)
Incredibly Good News that John’s Gospel sums up in simpler terms: “From his fullness, we have all received, grace upon grace.” (John 1:16)
Ancient words, ever true.
Amen, and amen.
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, January 30, 2022. The fourth sermon in his series “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God and Us,” it is adapted from scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Terence E. Fretheim and Scott Hoezee.