A little hope (Pagan Abraham, part 2)
Last week, I opened with these words. See if they mean something a little different to you now: “[God] brought [Abram] outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.”
Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Genesis 15 NRSV
Rich Mullins sang: “Sometime I think of Abraham – how one star he saw was there for me. He was a stranger in that land; and I am that, no less than he.” A star for me?
And we climbed Sumerian temple steps and glimpsed the worship there. Then we went around the world, and saw that 4,000 year old religions on every continent labored to please fertility gods patterned after sun and moon. That was Abram’s world.
In 2005, I realized a personal connection to all this. Lucas [my son] and I were in England, and we went to a little village called Avebury. We had heard it was like Stonehenge but not fenced-off, and older. So we took a train and a bus, and were dropped off beside a field like the one you see at the right.
At first we saw these stones – and a couple other small ones, and were disappointed. But somehow we got the hunch something bigger was happening, crossed the highway, and began to see more, and then came upon this:
Turned out the little thatched – roof village of Avebury adjoined a giant curve of stones bordered by this immense smooth ditch, maybe 25 feet deep. You can just see Lucas on the far slope. The ditch was originally much deeper – perhaps 200,000 tons of chalk were dug with antler picks and oxbone shovels, and hauled away.
And then we realized that we were on the edge of a huge stone circle, nearly half a mile across.
Turns out it is the largest stone circle in the world. Some of the stones weighed as much as 40 tons.
No one knows who put these stones here or how they moved them. But we know a few things: there are gates lined up on the points of the compass, there is some sexual symbolism, and we know when: they were put up about the same time as the Sumerians began to build temples for the same purpose. In fact, they were probably built within a few hundred years of Abram’s birth in Sumerian city of Ur.
As far as we know, all of us had ancestors who worshiped fertility gods. Just a few miles from these stones is a village called Ashbury. Perhaps my ancestors worshiped here. It is our world, too.
Last week, I ended with these words: “Why does Abram go journeying with this strange new God? Perhaps its because he’s heard a voice that’s so different, so attractive. Think of it: Unlike the unknowable gods, this God has pursued him. Unlike the gods who see humans as their slaves, this God cares about Abram. Unlike the gods of the endless wheel of life, this God offers Abram a future. Unlike the gods whose rages are only contained by ritual sex and murder, this God invites Abram to become his friend. Unlike the gods that care nothing about human life, this God promises to bless all peoples everywhere through Abram.
Get the context, then: What would you say is God doing with Abram?
[beginning the possibility of relationships with all of humanity by starting a relationship with Abraham?]
“God is beginning the reclamation of planet earth and he goes about it by growing a relationship with one man. And this will change everything.
Does Abram know much about God? Does he have the Bible? The 10 Commandments? Another human being to learn from? A background of healthy relationships? Nah. Nothing.
But Abram slowly begins to listen more and more to God. Like all of us, his progress is uneven. Sometimes he really gets it. But other times, he leaves people hanging out to dry. Sometimes he lives like the new God who cherishes people. Other times, like the old gods, who use people.
But you watch him change, bit by bit. He and God become more and more close. Then he gets scared, old instincts take over, and people close to him get hurt.
Take the time they all go down to Egypt to escape a food shortage. Turns out Sara is very beautiful, Abram gets scared that the Egyptians will kill him to get her. So, “Sarah, tell them you’re my sister, so they won’t hurt me.” She does. She gets installed into Pharoah’s harem. Sometime later, Pharoah finds out, “AAA, why did you do this?” and sends them on their way.
He let his wife get put in Pharoah’s harem in order to save his own skin!
The old gods gave little value to people, and used them for whatever they liked. A’s heard the new God’s promise, he’s seen God love and care for him – but maybe it hasn’t occurred to him yet that this God wants Abram to be like him. So Abram gets scared, goes back to acting like people don’t matter. Like us?
[cue Abraham with the three visitors] So many good stories in these chapters. Just one more.
We talked about the three men who come to Abram in mid-day. He gets up and cares for them. Turns out they are somehow God, and again the promise is made – and Sarah laughs, remember? Then they get ready to leave, and they talk among themselves:
Shall I keep back from Abraham what I’m about to do? Abraham is going to become a large and strong nation; all the nations of the world are going to find themselves blessed through him. Yes, I’ve settled on him as the one to train his children and future family to observe God’s way of life, live kindly and generously and fairly, so that God can complete in Abraham what he promised him. Genesis 18:17-19
What does this tell you about the relationship between God and Abraham?
And so God tells him that Sodom and Gomorrah’s sins are terribly wicked and he’s going down to check them out. He doesn’t say “wipe them out” – but Abraham knows. And here’s how Abraham responds:
“Are you serious? Are you planning on getting rid of the good people right along with the bad? What if there are fifty decent people left in the city, will you lump the good with the bad and get rid of the lot? Wouldn’t you spare the city for the sake of those fifty innocents? I can’t believe you’d do that, kill off the bad and the good alike as if there were no difference between them. Doesn’t the Judge of all the Earth judge with justice?” Gen 18.22-26 The Message
God says, “OK, if I find fifty decent people, I’ll spare the place just for them.”
And Abraham starts over, and works down: 45, then 40, then 30, then 20, then, finally, ten. God agrees. “For the sake of only ten, I won’t destroy the city.”
Can you imagine such a conversation happening in the temple back in Sumer? How very far Abram has come in his relationship with God. How very deeply God wants to listen to Abraham, and invite him into his plans. Truly, he became the friend of God.
And now the stage is set for our return to the story of Abraham and Isaac.
1After all this, God tested Abraham. God said, “Abraham!”
“Yes?” answered Abraham. “I’m listening.”
2He said, “Take your dear son Isaac whom you love and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I’ll point out to you.”
3Abraham got up early in the morning and saddled his donkey. He took two of his young servants and his son Isaac. He had split wood for the burnt offering. He set out for the place God had directed him. 4On the third day he looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5Abraham told his two young servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I are going over there to worship; then we’ll come back to you.”
6Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and gave it to Isaac his son to carry. He carried the flint and the knife. The two of them went off together.
7Isaac said to Abraham his father, “Father?”
“Yes, my son.”
“We have flint and wood, but where’s the sheep for the burnt offering?”
8Abraham said, “Son, God will see to it that there’s a sheep for the burnt offering.” And they kept on walking together.
9They arrived at the place to which God had directed him. Abraham built an altar. He laid out the wood. Then he tied up Isaac and laid him on the wood. 10Abraham reached out and took the knife to kill his son.
11Just then an angel of GOD called to him out of Heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”
“Yes, I’m listening.”
12“Don’t lay a hand on that boy! Don’t touch him! Now I know how fearlessly you fear God; you didn’t hesitate to place your son, your dear son, on the altar for me.”
13Abraham looked up. He saw a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. Abraham took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
14Abraham named that place GOD-Yireh (GOD-Sees-to-It). That’s where we get the saying, “On the mountain of GOD, he sees to it.”
Monte: What’s the difference between this story and the one I just told you about Sodom? There, Abraham goes to the mat with God for strangers. But when it comes to the ones closest to him, Abraham reverts to the ways of the old gods that suggest people aren’t worth much.
In fact, it’s been a pattern in his life to defend strangers – even to go to war for them – but remember how he let his own wife end up in Pharoah’s whorehouse?
The Bible describes this as a test – but the word for test in Hebrew is different than a test that we think of – it means more like “to exercise” or “to train.” So the Isaac story is not so much to prove something about Abraham as it is to teach something to Abraham.
Leonard Sweet: “There is an ancient Jewish tradition that argues that God never wanted Abraham to kill Isaac and was hoping that Abraham would argue with God and ultimately refuse to carry out the directive.” [Out of the Question … , 50]
See, Abraham was a hero to everybody but his wife and son. And them, he still treated like the old Abram the Sumerian. He still treated them like the old gods regarded people – of little value – rather than growing relationships of love and care and respect and trust. Yes, Abraham obeyed God – he passed the obedience test. But what if God was also giving a relationship test? What if God was saying, “Now, Abraham, I want you to know me well enough to know I wouldn’t have you do this. And I want you to love your son well enough to bring the issue to me and wrestle it through like you did for Sodom. Come on, Abraham, you’re growing, now bring your growing home where it matters most. Why be a hero to strangers and freeze up when those you love most are at risk? Why not get enough of God that you grow relationships with them like I’m growing with you? Why not share this with Sarah like I shared with you before I destroyed Sodom? Why not plead with me all the way to Moriah like you did when I shared my plans with you before? Why not act like what you know about me?”
And isn’t it tempting even today to reduce our faith to blind obedience to rules and regulations as a substitute for really having a romance with God? Isn’t it tempting even today to want to do great things for God but never really become like him in our most private relationships?
Isn’t it tempting even today to learn more and more about God, but stubbornly not notice when he uses life events to challenge those fears that drive us back to the ways of our old gods?
So, I think, it was with Abraham.
Several of you remember when the Madalitso Choir of Zambia were here. They had such a gentleness. It seemed so recognizable, as if you could say, “Oh, yes. I know that Spirit.”
And some of you remember Rosemary. Her husband, John, had died just two weeks before.
I asked a couple of the men about John Zulu. John Zulu, her husband, was the District Superintendent. He had been at the American Embassy getting visas, when he collapsed with what sounds like a brain aneurysm.
“He was a good man,” they said. He loved everybody, even the drunk on the street.
On Friday morning, I picked up four women of the choir, including Rosemary, from their host homes, and I asked them about him. He had been the District Superintendent for 15 years, and before that had been their pastor. When we arrived at the church, they were still telling me about this wonderful, godly man – and we sat in the car outside, because they weren’t finished telling it. “He was our [spiritual] father,” they said. “He was so good.”
Do you know anything about marriage across Africa, or the status of women in many places there?
Lori [my wife] talked with Rosemary. She showed us photos of his funeral – so many came to pay their respects. Sometimes, while they talked, Rosemary would say, “I loved him very much.” But other times, she would say, “He loved me very much.” What a man he must have been – what a follower of Jesus – to have left behind a woman of Africa who could say to all the world, “He loved me very much.”
And I felt like John Zulu was there in all these people. Guess what – the presence of Jesus that he must have shown them reached our small town in America through them, and made me want to be like Jesus, too.
And did you know that even though Abraham may not have been a quick study in some of these lessons, he kept on coming back to God, he kept on growing? And in the NT, where he is mentioned a lot, writers rave about his faith, and about how he became the friend of God.
Rich Mullins: “Sometime I think of Abraham – how one star he saw was there for me. He was a stranger in that land; and I am that, no less than he. … And step by step he’ll lead me, and I will follow him all of my days.”
Maybe there’s hope for you and me.
Sermon of 08.07.06 (Rev. of 05.07.03) Proper A8, continued – Abraham and Isaac