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Our Father Abraham

 

 Genesis 17:1-8; 15-22

      Psalm 47        Hebrews 11:8-12        Luke 1:67-80

 

Whenever we bring out our family photo albums and look at our ancestors – great-grandfather, grandmother, father, and then finally ourselves – it’s easy to see a family resemblance. Our ancestor’s jaw or hairline or nose is evident generation after generation.

More important than the biological family that we were born into and whose traits we’ve inherited, however, is the family of God. The family and household of God, scripture reminds us, consists of those whom the truth and reality of God has startled and stimulated. The family and household of God consists of those whom God’s presence and persistence has roused from spiritual slumber and who have found themselves jabbed awake or won over or wooed into loving the One who comes upon different people in different ways but always to the end of rendering us his children.

To be sure the nature of the response varies from person to person. Some are taking their first, tentative steps in faith, fending off detractors who tell them that faith is no more than unconscious fantasy and love for their Lord no more than disguised love for themselves. Others have lived close to him for years and want only to move closer to him. No matter. All alike belong to the family of faith, and all share a family resemblance with their foreparent in faith.

Foreparent? Yes. Everywhere in scripture, newer testament and older testament alike, Abraham is deemed the ancestor of God’s people. Abraham is acknowledged the prototype of the believing person, the model for all believers in all eras and in all circumstances. Abraham is the ancestor whose spiritual “genes”, as it were, are found in all whom the gospel captivates.

 

I: — What is the first family resemblance that is traceable from Abraham to you and me? The first is that we live by God’s promise. Abraham’s story begins with his obedience to God’s command: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Abraham is invited and summoned to step out from his comfortable familiarities and step towards a new land, step into a new future. What land? We don’t know its name. It’s spoken of only as “the land of promise.” Abraham is invited and summoned to move out into a future that appears radically uncertain and therefore radically insecure.

Then is Abraham merely naïve? Is he simply foolish, even stupid? Not at all, for Abraham isn’t stepping into a vacuous future; he isn’t stepping into a cosmic hole or into cosmic treachery. He’s stepping into a future that appears uncertain and insecure from a human perspective, to be sure; yet this future is already filled with the God whose faithfulness and goodness Abraham knows he can trust. At this point Abraham begins to live by the promise. But of course living by promise makes sense only if the promise is going to be kept. Then to live by promise is to live trusting the promise-keeping God. Abraham steps out confident that God will unfailingly keep the promises he has made to Abraham. Only the promise-keeping God can we trust, and only the promise-keeping God should we trust.

It has always been the conviction of the Church that the promise God made to Abraham concerning land – “Go to the land that I will show you” – is fulfilled in the kingdom of God . The promise of land made to Abraham doesn’t entail real estate; the promise is fulfilled in the kingdom of God .

The kingdom-promises of God are manifold.

[i] Here’s one. “Whoever comes to me I never turn away.” This is the promise of ready welcome, of free forgiveness, of a Father’s eagerness to embrace any and all who are fed up with living in the “far country” and want only to go home where they belong. This promise guarantees that any penitent who looks homeward is going to find arms of mercy that seize her even as her sin is forgiven and forgotten forever.

[ii] Another promise. “Whoever gives to one of these little ones a cup of cold water…will not lose his reward.” This is God’s guarantee that the work we undertake in the name and Spirit of our Lord for the sake of his people; our work in this regard will unfailingly be fruitful even if we don’t see the fruit. The work we undertake for God’s people he will invariably use to enhance others and to increase our own faith and enlarge our opportunity for service.

[iii] Another promise. “The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” “Will keep”? The Greek word phulassein means “will garrison (it’s a military metaphor), will safeguard” our life in Christ and our identity in Christ regardless of what howls down upon us. As often as we are assaulted in life Christ’s grip on us will always be stronger than our grip on him, with the result that we are garrisoned within that “fort” which Jesus Christ unfailingly is for his people.

[iv] Another promise, as profound as it is simple: “I will never fail you or forsake you.” It is simple, isn’t it. At the same time, what could be more profound? After all, don’t other people fail us as surely as we fail them? Worse still, don’t we fail ourselves? And as for forsaking, don’t others forsake us as surely as we forsake ourselves? All of us have said and done what left others looking at us sideways, muttering to themselves, “And I thought I knew who he was.” All of us have said and done too what left us shocked at ourselves, saying to ourselves, “I always thought I knew who I was.” What else is this but to be self-failed and self-forsaken? In the midst of all such distress, whether inner or outer, there continues to sound forth that throbbing, bass note of our lives, “I will never fail you or forsake you.” This throbbing, bass note determines the rhythm of our lives; it’s the downbeat of our lives; it’s the first beat in the bar, the predominant beat, as we step ahead as people of promise: “I will never fail you or forsake you.” He who raised his son from the dead is never going to abandon you and me to that deadliness by which we are otherwise victimized, even self-victimized.

[v] Concerning the congregation here in Schomberg there are two promises taken together that move me over and over: Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” and “If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed…nothing is impossible to you.” David Bloomer has told me several times of the days when the worshipping congregation here was down to four or five people. They sat at the front of the church and the minister, wanting to be less formal amidst so few people, pulled up a chair before them and simply related to them in a conversational tone what he had meant to preach that day. I am moved at the promise-clinging faith of people like David and Betty and a couple others who didn’t give up, didn’t turn angry or bitter, didn’t do anything except trust that with God a promise made is a promise kept. It is because of their Abrahamic confidence that there’s a congregation here today.

Living by promise is always an adventure. It’s as much an adventure in 2004 as it was for Abraham. For like him, you and I don’t know what life is going to bring before us. We don’t know which people, what events, what kind of challenges or assaults or griefs or opportunities are going to appear from nowhere, loom before us and linger with us. We can’t anticipate them.

Myself, I noticed years ago that virtually all of the disastrous downturns that I feared might happen to me didn’t happen. In other words, my anticipation of negativities was groundless. On the other hand, the assaults that clobbered me (one of which at least brought me as close to being admitted to hospital as I’ll ever come without being admitted) I couldn’t anticipate in any case. We tend to fear what turns out not to happen, and we can’t anticipate what does happen. Then we are left having to live by the promises of God.

   Promises, plural. Yes, the promises of God are manifold. Nonetheless, said John Wesley, all the promises of God recounted in scripture are gathered up in one, overarching, grand promise. There is one grand promise that comprehends them all: it’s the promise of shalom, salvation. The promise of shalom, salvation, is the promise that on the day of our Lord’s appearing we are going to be found fully restored, every last defacement of God’s image in us remedied, every last disfigurement addressed, every last sin-wrought flaw healed. We are going to be found restored. The book of Hebrews says it succinctly: “There is a Sabbath rest (restoration: in the wake of the Fall “rest” is restoration) promised the people of God.”

Knowing that this grand promise is going to be kept, like Abraham of old we step forward in life knowing that whatever else the adventure brings, it always brings with it the unfailing goodness of the promise-keeping God. He will not fail us or forsake us.

 

II: — While we are thinking of family resemblances on Christian Family Sunday we should realistically admit that there are some family resemblances we wish weren’t there. There is an unsightliness here or there, a blemish, even an ugliness, which appears from generation to generation. We wish it weren’t so, but it is.

As much can be said about Abraham’s life under God and about ours too. Abraham is journeying with his wife into foreign territory. The king of this foreign country, a fierce fellow, starts eyeing Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Abraham sees that this king has lecherous designs on Sarah.   Abraham, frightened now to the point of near-panic, thinks to himself, “This man is going to rape Sarah. If he thinks she’s my wife, he’ll kill me in order to have her. But if he thinks she’s only my sister, he’ll rape her in any case but spare me.” In that dreadful moment of screwed-up thinking that is as understandable as it is inexcusable Abraham blurts, “She’s my sister; she’s only my sister.” Truth to tell, Abraham did this twice. He lied to save his skin.

Are you and I any different? In a moment of intense pressure haven’t we falsified ourselves, falsified someone else, exaggerated, lied or simply fallen silent because in our cowardice we panicked before the consequences of telling the truth? When was the last time we were dead wrong before our children but wouldn’t admit it because the loss of face would have been too humiliating? Haven’t we given silent, tacit consent to malicious gossip, wickedly untrue, because we didn’t have courage enough to stand up for the person our silence victimized, and didn’t have courage enough to contradict the crowd we wanted to include us? Haven’t we all behaved in a manner that could never be squared with a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, and immediately pleaded any number of “reasons” that will never extenuate us?

Abraham lied to spare himself even as he exposed his wife to sexual molestation. This can only be a hideous, grotesque disfigurement in our spiritual forefather. Yet we must admit that it is part of the family resemblance, since the same cowardly abandonment is found in us.

God’s people are those whom scripture speaks of as his “peculiar treasure.” Unquestionably we are God’s peculiar treasure. And yet the treasure is tarnished. We shouldn’t be cavalier about this. At the same time, neither should we be paralysed by it. You see, because God has promised that there will always be more mercy in him than there is sin in us, we shouldn’t write ourselves or others out of the household and family of God just because the treasure is tarnished. Tarnished treasure is still treasure. What matters finally isn’t that our discipleship is perfect; what matters is that we aspire after consistency. John Calvin was fond of saying that what mattered finally was aspiration not achievement.

In a moment of panic Peter says, “Jesus? Never heard of the man.” Once? Three times. Still, eventually Peter is the acknowledged leader of the church in Jerusalem . Everyone knows what happened yet no one is writing him off.

Mark accompanied the apostle Paul on a missionary journey. Mark was only nineteen years old. He became homesick and returned home. Paul, of course, was disappointed. More than disappointed, he pronounced Mark unfit for apostolic work and refused to have Mark accompany him on his next missionary journey. Barnabas, on the other hand, Barnabas thought Paul to be wrong with his “one strike and you’re out” approach. Barnabas thought Mark should be given another opportunity. And so Barnabas took on Mark as missionary companion. Eventually Mark gave us the gospel that bears his name. Barnabas proved himself right in the episode with Mark, Paul wrong. Paul must have known he was wrong, for he subsequently wrote, “I’m not perfect…but I press on.”

In our Abrahamic venture what matters is that we press on.   What counts is our aspiration. We aspire to be worthy of our Lord Jesus Christ who has called us. And as God continued to use Abraham despite Abraham’s treachery, God’s promise is that he will continue to use us. Martin Luther said it so well: God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick. God will ever use us despite the disfigurement we can’t hide.

 

III: — All of which brings us to the last family resemblance we are going to discuss today. Abraham is called out of the city of Haran . Haran is Toronto , Montreal , Newmarket , Aurora , King. Abraham and his family are called away from this. They are to distinguish themselves from that city which doesn’t know Abraham’s God and behaves as not knowing Abraham’s God. Abraham and his people are to have a different outlook, different convictions, different commitments. God’s people are always and everywhere different simply for being God’s people. We are therefore to think and do differently. We must distance ourselves from the outlook, convictions and commitments of those who aren’t Abraham’s descendants.

Yet Abraham doesn’t shun the city in principle. Instead, having distinguished himself from the city, having distanced himself from it as it were, he intercedes for the city; he pleads for Sodom and Gomorrah . This twofold movement, withdrawal from our city for the sake of commitment to our city with its people and problems and perverseness; this twofold movement is a pronounced family resemblance of the household of God. As the people of God we are called to an orientation different from that of our society so that we can exercise a ministry of intercession for the sake of our society.

Judicious balance is required here. Lack of balance results in two polarized positions. One segment of Christendom wants to repudiate utterly the society around it. These people speak of the need to keep oneself “unspotted from the world.” They uphold a religious isolationism that seeks to preserve the church by segregating the church from a society which they describe as godless. Such isolationism renders the people of God irrelevant.

The other pole in Christendom is determined to be “with it.” No isolationism for them. No self-distancing from the world at all. They identify with the world uncritically. While they are quick to tell us they love the world just because God loves the world, they fail to understand that they and God don’t love the world in exactly the same sense. God loves it to redeem it. They love it to ape it. Such uncritical aping renders the people of God useless.

The truth is, Abraham is neither irrelevant nor useless. Abraham stands back from his society precisely in order to be able stand with it. Abraham refuses to identify himself with the society in order to be free to intercede for the society. We who are possessed of Abraham’s faith must grasp what is to be done here and why: we who are citizens of the kingdom of God first are never citizens of that kingdom only; we remain citizens as well of a realm to which God has appointed us just because he has appointed himself to it, for indeed “The earth” – the whole earth – “is the Lord’s,” says the psalmist.

In order to exercise a ministry of intercession for our society we have to have a mind informed by the mind of Christ. As Paul puts it, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God remake you so that your whole attitude of mind is changed.” (Rom. 12:1) Christians are mandated to be aware of what enhances human existence and what is degrading; what enhances community life and what destroys it. We have to be aware of what is important and what is indifferent. Some people will agree with us; many will not. No matter. When Abraham set out he was a minority; when he interceded for Sodom he was a minority. All that matters is that we discern the truth of God and do it.

At all times we must return to the balance of the twofold movement: God’s people can be helpful in a society only if they are first holy – distinct in some sense. (The root meaning of “holy” is “different.”) Conversely, we are genuinely holy only if we intend to be helpful (God’s holiness, remember, always aims at helping us.)

Some of the people who are most committed to a holy intervention in the world may be people whom we think initially to be world-denying. Thomas Merton, instance. Thomas Merton was a Roman Catholic Trappist monk in rural Kentucky . Yet when members of the churches in the USA were involved in voter registration drives for Afro-Americans; when Christians gave leadership in the civil rights movement and the anti-Viet Nam war demonstrations, it was Thomas Merton whose writings and conversations and wisdom informed these leaders and infused them, even as Merton wrote and spoke from within a monastery. Merton not only informed and infused; he reminded Christians relentlessly that unless they were immersed in Jesus Christ they would soon have nothing to say or do or be concerning the society around them.

Long before Merton, long before me, Abraham knew.

-Abraham knew about the society he would neither fawn or nor forsake.

-Abraham knew as well that the treachery of his own heart didn’t disqualify him as God’s servant.

-Above all, Abraham knew what it is to live in the land of promise, knowing that no uncertainty or insecurity outweighs the substance and truth of the God who unfailingly keeps the promises he makes.

Abraham’s is the family resemblance we want to recall and glory in on this day, Christian Family Sunday.

 

                                                                                                   Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                

May 2004