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Sermon: The Promise

March 20, 2011

Genesis 12:1-9

I placed a book order through a major online retailer the other day.  I try not to do that.  I prefer to use small, independent local merchants, but I occasionally get sucked in by one of the big players.  When I placed my order, a message prompted me to try out their premium customer package for free.  If I did, I would get complimentary second day shipping for my order.  It was a free trial, so I could cancel in a month or pay $79 per year to get free second day shipping on all my orders.  I love my books and I hate waiting, so I signed up for the free trial.

I had my books in 36 hours from some distribution center halfway across the country, but in today’s world, 36 hours is waaay too slow.  If you have a tablet for reading your books electronically instead of in actual book form—which for me, would ruin the whole book experience—then you can get your books nearly instantly.  Touch the screen to select the book you want; make sure your credit card information is correct, and there it is—Moby Dick in all its electronic glory for your reading pleasure.  Instantly.

Do you remember the Sears catalog?  Everybody in town would wait around all year for the catalog to arrive.  Then you’d spend weeks leafing through it and planning what you wanted to order.  You’d fill out the order blank, keep your fingers crossed that you chose the correct sizes and then, before you even knew it, a scant two months later, the postman would bring your order to the door.  Or, if you lived on the rural route like we did, you’d drive into town and pick your merchandise up at the Sears catalog center.  Nowadays you get frustrated if your Wi-Fi connection is slow and it takes a full two minutes to download War and Peace.

That’s the nature of our world.  It flies by more quickly every day, and we expect results and satisfaction immediately.

Let’s try to keep that in mind as we attempt to understand the world of our number one character for today, Abraham, or, as he is known at this point in the story, Abram.  The two chapters of Genesis immediately preceding our story for today, are two of the most difficult reading in scripture because they are long, involved genealogies with very little information to distinguish one name for another.  There is a brief interlude about the tower of Babel and a short description of the mighty hunter Nimrod.  Other than that, it’s just names.

Yet these names are important, if for no other reason than the fact that they represent the many generations after Noah.  Noah, his sons and their wives emerged from the flood to repopulate the earth, and this genealogy describes how the family of Noah multiplied and spread throughout the land.  They were successful families, at least in terms of their ability to reproduce.  That is, they were successful except for one family.  From the time of the flood, these men and women made up generation after generation until it came down to Abram and his wife Sarai.  Abram and Sarai did not have children.  They were the end of the line.  That was it for that branch of the family tree.  It could grow no more.  Abram was 75-years old, and Sarai not much younger.

That was the moment God chose to say to Abram, “I want you to gather yourself up and leave your land.  Leave your relatives and the life your extended family has built here.  I want you to go to a place that I will show you later.  Don’t worry about where that new place is right now.  I’ll show you later.”  So far, this command of God seems all right, if a little thin on the details.  Abram and Sarai are in their 70s, and they have no children, so why not travel a little?

Then came the promise.  “You see, what I’m gonna do, Abram, is make a great nation of you.  I’ll make your name great.  You will be a blessing.  Through you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

There’s no record of it in scripture, but I’m pretty sure Abram said, “You know God, uh, we’ve been getting our Social Security for a while now.  And we have no kids.  You might want to rethink that ‘great nation’ business.”

God said, “Eh, that’s a minor detail.  I’ll handle it.”

And Abram took God at God’s word.  Abram and Sarai took their nephew Lot, and all their stuff—including their slaves—and they started off on the journey to the new as-yet-unnamed place God had sent them.  When they arrived in Canaan, the place we now know as Israel and Palestine, God had the whole group stop at the nearest KOA.  There were already people living there—Canaanites, of course—but God said to Abram, “This is the land I am going to give your descendants.”

“Remember, God, about the age thing?”

“Yes, I remember.  This is the land I am going to give to your offspring.”

And then, they moved on.  They arrived in the land that God would give to Abram’s great nation, but they moved on.  They kept going.  They traveled from one campground to the next as they journeyed south toward the Negeb, the great desert that straddles the border of Israel and Egypt.  They kept traveling like this, moving from here to there, occasionally marking a memorable location with an altar to God.  We don’t know how long this journey took them, but it certainly wasn’t a weekend trip.  The strange promise seemed to have no end in sight.  God had promised them a new land, and they got there.  God said, “This is the place,” but they kept going.  And God had promised them offspring, but that certainly wasn’t happening.  After all this traveling, they seemed to be no closer to their destination than when they started.  In fact, they were moving away from the land God had shown them.

We know what would have happened if God called an Abram today.  Abram would say, “Yeah, God, give me the coordinates and I’ll get it up on MapQuest.  We don’t want to get out there and discover there’s already somebody living there.”  But that’s not what happened.  Abram and Sarai endured a long trip with an uncertain destination.

One of the remarkable features of this story is that Abram didn’t ask any questions, didn’t raise any objections.  And there are places in scripture where people question God.  Moses is well known for trying to get out of his God-given assignment.  “Oh no, Lord, you don’t want me to go to Pharaoh.  I don’t speak too well.”  Abram himself will argue with God a little later in the story.  But here, when God asked him to leave his homeland behind because God had plans to make a great nation of a childless couple in their 70s, we hear not a peep from Abram.

Maybe that’s because Abram and Sarai were at the end of the line.  They were at one tip of a branch of the family tree, and for a culture in which creating children and providing a next generation were so important, they had nothing to give.  They were barren.  That was it.  They were done.

But God wasn’t done.  God had plans to make a great people out of nothing more than two senior citizens.  Abram and Sarai really had two choices.  They could stay put in the place they knew.  They could live out their lives among family and friends in the old hometown, or they could strike out on a strange, uncertain journey to a place not yet named in the off chance that the promise was real.  To stay in safety and comfort [was] to remain barren; to leave in risk [was] to have hope” (Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis [Atlanta: John Knox, 1982], p.118).  To their credit, they chose the latter.

But that promise, that hope, was not to be fulfilled quickly or easily.  From this beginning of the story of Abram and Sarai, there are decades still ahead of this couple before the promise will come to fruition.  There are hundreds and hundreds of miles yet to be traveled.  There will be famine, violence, fear and doubt.  This is not a quick and easy promise, and we get hints of that in our text for today.  There are Canaanites in the land.  That will be a problem.  Abram and Sarai are traveling here and there away from the land.

Even though the story of Abram and Sarai is full of promise, hope and the power of God, it can be a discouraging story.  One of its messages to us is this: “Do you have a problem?  Are there struggles in your life you want resolved?  The power of God who can create a great nation out of two barren people, who can create something out of nothing, can do all things.”  But the discouraging part of the message is this: “Prepare to be patient.  The fulfillment of the promise may be a long time in coming.  The road may be hard.  You just have to keep walking and trusting when it seems as if there are no reasons left to trust.”

So here’s the deal.  If I get antsy waiting two minutes for a book to download, how am I going to deal with 25 years of wandering and waiting?  I have problems that need to be fixed today.  Yet God is not interested in my timeline.  God has plans that don’t adjust themselves to my television viewing schedule.  The creative power of God cooks according to its own needs—it is a crock pot, not a microwave.

So that means that if I want to latch on to the promises of God, I have to be patient.  I have to adjust my have-it-now attitude and wait.  That’s frustrating, but maybe good news to those of you who have struggled and struggled and assumed that maybe for you, the promise never will come.  For those of you who seem to be moving away from your goals, let alone making progress, perhaps this is good news.  God works slowly, and to our minds, strangely.  But God works.  God creates out of nothing.  Where the line ends with barrenness, God brings life.  And if that is where you are, at the end of the line, then you have hope.

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