For those who want a change from the Gospel
Lent 2 – Genesis 12:1-4a
This snippet of God’s big story is tiny in proportion to the importance it has. On one level it tells the story of, and the reasons for, Abraham’s call, but actually it is a hinge passage on which turns the whole of the story of redemption. It marks four transitions:
1) From myth to history
I can remember at my very liberal theological college much debate about when exactly history begins in the Bible: who was the first real historical character for whose existence there is evidence? It is generally reckoned that Genesis 1-11 are mythical in nature. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not true, but they are the stories Israel told in order to explain life, the universe and everything. How did we get here, and why is it all so beautiful and such a mess at the same time? Expecting it to answer scientific questions about cosmology is like asking when exactly Pandora opened her box, and whether it was made of wood or metal. That just isn’t the point of the story. But when we arrive at Genesis 12, we have a real character who actually lived.
2) From judgement to salvation
From Genesis 3 onwards we have a catalogue of human rebellion against God, which involves murder, perverted sex, violence, corruption and arrogance. These chapters are perhaps summed up in 6:5 – ‘Every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.’ Even God’s attempts to wipe everything out and start again resulted in yet more sin. So God tries a different tack: he will chose for himself a righteous man to found a holy nation whose role is to call all the nations back to God and to obedience to him, so that the whole world can be in receipt of his blessings rather than under his judgement.
3) From call to recall
In Gen 11 Abraham’s father Terah had left Ur in Mesopotamia with his family to move to Canaan, but they had settled on the way in the city of Haran, which was very similar in nature to Ur. So God had to call Abraham again in 12:1. Before he had been taken by his father, but now he has to go at God’s command, even leaving his father behind. Abraham is the patron saint of those who begin well with God but need to encounter him personally if they are not to settle down in a pretty similar place to the one from which they had set out, and of those for whom family faith needs to transition into personal faith.
4) From all people to the chosen people
But with this new call came a new task. Up to now God has dealt with all people, all the nations who came into being with the scattering at Babel. But now his new plan is revealed. He desires to bless all nations, but he chooses to do it through one nation, Israel. And, being God, he chooses to found this nation from a couple unable to have children. Humanly speaking, Israel simply could not have come into existence: the fact that it did speaks of divine purpose from day one.
Abraham’s task is twofold: he is to be blessed and to bless. His family are to be the means through which all the nations of the earth are to be brought into relationship with God. The Jews are called to be waiters and waitresses of the good things of God to the whole world. Yet so often they, and the Christian Church which grew from them, want the first without the second, like waiters sitting and eating a meal themselves while others go hungry. In the OT the people are constantly being reminded that ‘it is too small a thing’ for them merely to work with their own nation, but rather they should be there to serve and bless others. Simeon recognised that the infant Jesus was not just to be for the glory of Israel, but also as a light for revelation to the Gentiles. Jesus cleansed the Temple from its narrow nationalism and reminded people that it was a house of prayer for all nations. And the NT Church needed some miracles, a dramatic vision and a General Synod before people realised that Jesus was for Gentiles as well as Jews. Today, whenever we run Church according to our own preferences and forget that we exist for the benefit of non-members we are heirs of this same sin: wanting blessing but not wanting to be a blessing.
In this season of Lent this raises questions about our observances: are they so that we will be blessed, or will they in any way bless others?