From Hopelessness to Promise
God’s Five Act Play, Lent 3: Israel
I hope you had a chance to read Valerie Matthew’s reflection in this week’s issue of Tidings. In it she talks about God calling her to leave her home, her large and loving family, and all that was familiar and warm, and to travel to an unknown land, one with below zero temperatures. Why would God call a hard-working, fun-loving, and faithful Jamaican woman away from all that she loved, including mango trees? Why would God call her to a land she had never seen nor could imagine? As Valerie mentioned in her essay, before coming to Minnesota the only time she had seen snow was on a card her uncle sent from England.
Valerie was willing to follow God’s leading to the U.S. and into a field she had not imagined for herself, early childhood education. By doing so, God has used her to bless and encourage untold numbers of children and their parents in North Minneapolis, including parents and children living in homeless shelters. Through her God has brought hope and promise to places and people who often felt hopeless and forgotten. She has brought new life and new possibilities to people who felt barren.
In today’s scripture passage from the 12th chapter of Genesis God approaches a man named Abram and says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (v. 1-3).” The land of which God spoke was Canaan. Years earlier, Terah had left Ur with Abram and the rest of his family, hoping to make it to Canaan, but for whatever reason(s), only made it as far as Haran.
Both Abram’s father Terah and his brother Haran died and were buried in Haran, where Abram lived with his wife Sarai and nephew Lot. The three of them lived in Haran for awhile, hoping that Abram and Sarai might have a child, but it never happened. Sarai was barren, and if you read between the lines, you can pick up on the grief and anguish the inability to have a child caused her and Abram. Sarai became so desperate for an heir, she suggested that her servant Hagar have Abram’s child.
God speaks to Abram at a moment when he is probably wondering about his future and the future of his family. Like the human family in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, Abram’s line appears to be coming to and end. There was so much hope and promise at the beginning of Creation, and so much hope and promise in Abram and Sarai’s early years, and yet here they are, living with barrenness and grief, wondering if this is all there is, realizing that they alone cannot will new life and new possibilities into being. While the humans in the early chapters of Genesis are created in the image of God and give us glimpses of God’s glory, they are also flawed people who want to think themselves better than others, hate and kill one another, and fail to trust God’s wisdom and leading. At the end of the 11th chapter of Genesis, we and they are wondering what the future will hold. Does this God really care about the creatures God has made? What kind of future do Abram, Sarai, and humanity have in store?
Into a situation of hopelessness and barrenness, God speaks a word of hope and promise. Abram, who probably thought himself cursed or forgotten, is chosen by God. Why Abram? Why this particular person of no great note? One constant theme in the scriptures is that God works through the particular. God works through specific people living in specific times and places to accomplish God’s purposes. And typically, the people God chooses are not the perfect people, the people who have it all together.
And let us not forget that Abram is not blessed here just so he can feel good about himself like Stuart Smalley’s on Saturday Night Live: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, God likes me.” Abram is blessed so that he and his offspring will be a blessing to others. Abram and his family are to live and practice the promise wherever God leads them, so that others will see and know that God is real, God is the loving and generous creator of the universe, and God is the only one who can bring new possibilities and new futures where there appears to be nothing.
Abram’s journey took a long time. In the course of it God changed his name to Abraham ad Sarai’s name to Sarah. Like many of us, Abraham never saw the full fruits of God’s promise. He had a taste of it, but, like Moses, never experienced it in its entirety. That was left to Abraham and Moses’ heirs. But because of Abraham and Moses’ faithfulness, God never forgot or abandoned the Israelites, no matter what they said or did. When they cried out in anguish as slaves in Egypt, God rescued them. When they complained in the wilderness, God did not abandon them. Eventually, after a long time, the Israelites reached the Promised Land.
Throughout the history of Israel, her people understandably yearn for what they cannot create or change, learning to wait in hope. Abraham’s journey, like the ongoing sojourn of the Jewish people, becomes a metaphor for the life of faith. We must be willing to take a leap of faith while simultaneously waiting patiently and expectantly, like Abraham, for the fulfillment of God’s promises. While the Israelites want to be settled and have the illusion of control, their God, Yahweh, is not a God who settles, but a God on the move. When God later sends Jesus to wake people up and set them free, Jesus also lives a life on the move.
I wonder if you, like me, are troubled by the fact that the land God promised to Abraham already had many different people living in it. What about the Canaaanites, the Hittites, and the Jebusites? Are they not loved by God? Why did God promise Abraham and Sarah a land in which others resided. Is this purely a case of Jewish nationalism seeping into the scriptures, or is there something else at work here?
If you read the biblical story of Abraham carefully, you see God’s acknowledgement that other people lived in the Promised Land. And you will see that “Abraham’s work is not to convert the Canaanites and build a church. Instead, as scholar Walter Brueggemann observes, “he is to live among them, to practice and believe the promise” (Genesis, p. 124). As he lives and models the promise, Abraham helps the Canaanites and others see the power and potential of life in God as it was originally intended.
By the time we get to Jesus, and to the 28th chapter of Matthew – from which today’s Gospel was taken – we see Jesus commission his followers to share the promise and teach people how to live it. As Eugene Peterson puts it in the Message Bible, “Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this, day after day, right up to the end of the age.”
Faithfulness means trust and the willingness to leave whatever is familiar in order to venture into unknown places and situations. It means a willingness to leave behind the things that give us the illusion of security, so we can meet God in the vulnerability of encountering new places, people, and customs. It also means being willing to take up Jesus’ cross, whether that involves walking across the Pettus bridge in Selma or leaving Jamaica to serve homeless children and their parents in North Minneapolis. Following Jesus, being part of the Body of Christ, and living God’s promise isn’t just one more activity, among many. It’s a way of life, a commitment that calls forth everything we are and have. Faithfulness is a blessing, and if we believe and live God’s promise, others will be blessed.
I wonder what crossroads we face this morning – individually and as a faith community? How might God be calling us to venture forth into unfamiliar territory and new ways of being in relationship with others? How might God bless us and those around us if we respond in faith?
Let us take some time this morning to think about what it would be and look like to believe God’s promises, and to live them as a sign of hope not only for ourselves, but also for those around us. Amen.