This is a teaching from Lent 5.
The Children of Abraham
April 10, 2011
James Jordan says that the Bible was written by a musician, but it’s been interpreted by lawyers for the last 500 years. Like a fugue, Scripture opens with a theme that is revisited again and again through the text. Genesis opens with a repeated rhythms of day 1, day 2, day 3 and so on. Throughout the story key songs interweave to form a multilayered composition that we are still unfolding in all its brilliance.
When reading through the Gospels, I sometimes hear a jazz ensemble in the background. Matthew lays down a steady beat with a cool tune exploring an expected birth that still comes as surprise. Luke joins the sweet sounds with a variation on a theme and adds to the surprise with another birth that comes unexpectedly. But then some minor chords from the song of Herod’s rampage break in with discordant strains that threaten the melody line.
During Epiphany, we focus on the great melody that surprises, delights, and fills with the wonder of God become man. This song seems to fully flower on Transfiguration Sunday, sending light beams of peace and love in all directions. During Lent, we pay more attention to those minor chords, playing a tune with a threat of discordance.
If you listen to those discordant sounds, the hints keep reappearing. Immediately after the baptism, the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness to face the tempter. Think about that for a moment. The Spirit comes down and the Father speaks, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Right after this moment of glorious authentication of Jesus’ life and ministry, the same Holy Spirit drives him into the threat of the evil one.
Those minor key’s in Herod song resound in the “Satan.” Or rather, we discover the true singer of discordant songs, the evil one. His song works against the theme, attempting to question, challenge, unravel the glorious melody at every point. After Transfiguration, the discordance becomes more pronounced.
In fact, the stories are a bit jagged. Think of the debates between Jesus and the Pharisees in John. Instead of the sweet miracle stories, we hear fighting words back and forth, back and forth. The dialogues are almost irritating, unsettling. A certain dissonance moves toward center stage.
As Jesus and the Jews argue, we hear a clash of sounds. Disruptive. Unsettling. In the dialogues of John chapter 8, we hear this clash, this discordance all too clearly. Jesus and the Jews both seem to be arguing about their respective fathers. He speaks of His Father, and they accuse him of being a Samaritan and having a devil.
They speak of their father Abraham, and Jesus retorts that while they may be the offspring of Abraham, they look and act more like their father the devil.
It used to bother me how Jesus seems so aggressive in these stories. He’s not the kind and gentle Jesus we’ve all come to adore. C.S. Lewis has said that kindness can kill. In the “Problem of Pain” he writes, “Kindness consents very readily to the removal of its object – we have all met people whose kindness to animals is constantly leading them to kill animals lest they should suffer. Kindness, merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering.”
Jesus is not always kind but he is always loving even when his love has an edge: a double edge to be exact. His word pierces “to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12 ESV).
In the confrontation with the Jews, Jesus speaks as Emmanuel, the “Lord with Us.” The Lord comes in judgment and finds these people wanting. Their blind and cannot behold the “Light of the World” who stands in their midst. His very presence is judgment on their blindness, their hardness of heart, and the dangerous containment of their enclosed world.
When God breaks into that world, he is not welcome. But Abraham welcomed the God who breaks in. Abraham obeyed. Abraham beheld. And Jesus says that Abraham would have rejoiced to see this day.
As we read this stark confrontation, let us pause and give thanks to God who has given us eyes to see Jesus and lips to proclaim “Jesus is Lord.” We cannot make this confession of faith outside the grace of His Spirit. We cannot grasp why, but in His loving grace, the Father has drawn us to Jesus and sealed us with His Holy Spirit.
In Christ, we have eyes. In and through Christ, we behold the goodness of the Lord. By the sheer overwhelming grace of God and through faith we have become the children of Abraham. As his descendants, let us pause think more deeply about Abraham’s song of faith, his life of trust, his longing to see the fullness of God’s promise that would one day be fully unveiled in Jesus.
He starts out as Abram living in the land of Ur. The land of plenty. Ancient Ur built a thriving civilization, sustained a successful and wealthy people, enjoyed the riches of the land. Ancient Ur was also a self-contained world sealed off from the voice of God.
God breaks into this world and commands Abram to “Go you forth!” The word “lech lecha” means Go! or Go forth! It only appears in Genesis 12 and Genesis 22. Both times it refers to the command of God to Abraham to “Go ye forth!”
In Genesis 12 we read,
Yhwh said to Avram:
from your land,
from your kindred,
from your father’s house,
to the land that I will let you see.
I will make a great nation of you
and will give-you-blessing
and will make your name great.
Be a blessing!
I will bless those who bless you,
he who curses you, I will damn.
All the clans of the soil will find blessing through you!1
The Lord breaks into this self-contained world and calls Abraham to leave. In Joshua 24:3, we read that God “took Abraham from beyond the River.” The command of God seems to have come with force. Again and again in Scripture, we behold a God who comes and calls His people with dramatic force.
Abraham must leave behind his identity, his comfort, his people, his civilization. He is called to an uncivilized world of barbarians, and he is promised land and descendants. Not simply descendants but a great nation that will impact all nations. Yet as we read the story, we discover a problem. Abraham never gets the land. When he dies he own one tiny plot of land, the tomb where he is buried.
There is also a second problem. Sarah is barren. In some ways, the barrenness of Sarah and Abraham may image the world they are leaving. While Ur wealthy and strong, it is in decline. It is barren. It has no power of the future. It will eventually cease to exist.
Abraham and Sarah are called to future promise with visible signs of the promise. They spend their lives as nomads, trusting the call of God. Their needs are met. The Lord prospers them with great wealth and cattle and servants but the promise of land and descendants is slow in coming.
Finally after many years of wandering, the Lord gives them the child of promise, Isaac. Through Isaac the Lord will fulfill His promise to Abraham of making him a great nation. God breaks in yet again with His command to “Go you forth!”
In Genesis 22 we read,
Now after these events it was
that God tested Avraham
and said to him:
Here I am.
Pray take your son,
whom you love,
and go-you-forth to the land of Moriyya/Seeing,
and offer him up there as an offering-up
upon one of the mountains
that I will tell you of.2
Before Abraham was called to leave his past behind. Now Abraham is called to leave His future behind. Isaac is spared, but the story reveals God’s demand upon Abraham: he must live in naked trust before the Lord. He lives as a friend of God and in relation with God. His hope is not in past identities and future dreams but in the Creator who sustains him moment by moment.
If we follow the story in Genesis 22, we’ll notice an emphasis upon seeing. By God’s grace Abraham has moved from hearing to seeing. As a man of faith, who has learned to trust in faithfulness of God, Abraham has learned to see, and he does rejoice in to see the day of the Lord’s appearing.
Now if we view Abraham’s whole story, we’ll notice several dramatic encounters with the Lord. We’ll notice several adventures that Abraham lives through. But if we think of the long period this story covers, we may come to see that Abraham had a few encounters with Lord but was called to walk out in obedience to the command with long stretches of no words, no encounters, only promise: a tentative promise of land that Abraham never fully realizes and a slow in coming promise of descendants.
In one sense, much of Abraham’s story is a story of waiting. Waiting. Waiting. What did he while he waited?
In the beginning of his story, we notice that he built altars wherever he went. In Isaac’s story, we see the same pattern. So this pattern of building altars was still going on as he raised Isaac. So Abraham builds altars while he waits. Isaac’s story also tells of unplugging wells that Abraham dug.
So Abraham wanders through the wilderness following the call of God. All the while, he is building altars and digging wells. The altar is the place of worship. The place of acknowledging his dependence on God. The place of offering thanksgiving.
The well is place of sustenance. In a wilderness area, a well can mean the difference between survival and extinction. This place of provision also becomes a gathering place. If we follow the image of wells through Scripture, we discover people gathering in community at the wells. Several people meet their spouses at a well.
As Abraham follows the call and waits on the promise, he worship God and sustains community. As the children of Abraham in Christ, we should hear and see the Lord calling us even in the life of our father Abraham.
For we also live in the land of Ur. Like the ancient Jews and the people of Ur, we live in a self-contained world that has little room for God. When writing our current culture, Louis Dupre exclaims, “Culture itself has become the real religion of our time, and it has absorbed all other religion as a subordinate part of itself. It even offers some of the emotional benefits of religion, without exacting the high price faith demands. We have all become atheists, not in the hostile, antireligious sense of an earlier age, but in the sense that God no longer matters absolutely in our closed world, if God matters at all.”
We live in a world of practical atheism that has no room for God. It is in this world where God breaks into our lives with his command to “Go you forth!” In following our Savior, he may lead us away from comfort, security, old identities. He may call us a land of promise that we cannot see.
Much of the life of faith may be spent following a call that seems as though we are gazing through a glass darkly. We may not understand the story we are in or even the part we are really playing in God’s grand design. And much of our lives may be spent waiting. Waiting upon the Lord. Waiting for His promise. Waiting for His guidance. Waiting for His grace.
In this place of waiting, let us heed the simple discipline of our father Abraham. Let us build altars and dig wells. Let us cultivate a life of thanksgiving and worship to God in all things. When we eat and drink and work and play, let us lift up praise unto the Lord. Let us worship in the assembly of God’s people. Let us heed the words of Scripture. Let us draw near to the table of the Lord.
At the same time, may we also dig wells. Let us live in and sustain communities of faith. We need one another. We need to hear one another, face one another, love one another. Let us offer our bodies as living sacrifices unto the Lord and serve one another humbly in the grace of our Lord.
Even as we struggle and wander and wonder when the Word of the Lord will be made sight, let us rest in His faithful love. He is making us into signs. As living witnesses before a dissonant world, we are echoing the harmony of His love, His grace, His goodness. We are truly caught up in a song of praise, and He is assembling into a vast symphony of praise unto our God and Creator. Blessed be His name.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
1 Fox, E. (1995). Vol. 1: The five books of Moses : Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy ; a new translation with introductions, commentary, and notes. The Schocken Bible (Ge 12:1–3). New York: Schocken Books.
2 Fox, E. (1995). Vol. 1: The five books of Moses : Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy ; a new translation with introductions, commentary, and notes. The Schocken Bible (Ge 22:1–2). New York: Schocken Books.