Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-6
June 15, 2014
Perhaps you saw in the news about 12 year old Athena Orchard of Leicester, England who recently died of cancer. After her death her parents found a collection of sayings she had handwritten on the back of a mirror during her illness.
Here are a few of them.
- Happiness is a direction, not a destination.
- Love is rare, life is strange, nothing lasts and people change.
- Life is only bad if you make it bad.
- Happiness depends upon ourselves.
- Maybe it’s not about the happy ending, maybe it’s about the story.
As I was reading the lectionary Scriptures for this summer, I was aware that I am likely to wrap up my time with you during these sermons, and a new pastor will take over before I get through them all. I was drawn into the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures about the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. Pilgrimage with the Patriarchs seemed appropriate for concluding your interim journey between pastors and preparing to welcome a new pastor. I know “patriarchs” sounds a little sexist in our day, but that is how we identify these characters and it alliterates with “pilgrimage,” so I’m going with it and hope it won’t sidetrack any of you.
Hebrews 11:9-10 is a New Testament lens for understanding Abraham as well as Isaac and Jacob who follow the pattern set by Abraham. “By faith [Abraham] stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” As Abraham’s descendants by faith, we are God’s friends on an adventurous pilgrimage to the City of God.
Three times the New Testament quotes Genesis 15:6 as the core principle of faith that unites all Scripture and drives the Gospel. Abraham “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23) Romans and Galatians are built around grace and faith and are sometimes played against James with its emphasis on showing faith by works. This is not contradictory but confirms the continuity of faith. Abraham trusted God enough to leave home when God called him, and he trusted God enough to conceive a child by Sarah when they were both aged. Such faith is about a relationship that defines one’s life.
Because he trusted God, Abraham could live in the Promised Land as a foreigner, a sojourner. He did not try to claim any territory from the local inhabitants, confident in having the last laugh, as he knew God would give it to his descendants. God’s promise did not make Abraham possessive, insisting it belonged to him because God gave it to him, but it enabled him to be generous.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived in temporary, portable tents. Where they pitched their tents, the also build altars of earth or uncut stone to symbolize that the God whom they served at the center of their lives was also portable, not limited to a specific territory as were the local pagan gods. (Genesis 12:7-8; 13:3-4, 18; 26:25; 35:7, 21)
Hebrews 11:10 said Abraham looked “forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” Seen through this New Testament lens, God’s promise to Abraham was dramatically larger than even Abraham could have imagined. While on an earthly pilgrimage, the journey may be more important than the destination, it is the City with Foundations whose architect and builder is God that gives meaning and value to our pilgrimage.
Jehoshaphat, a reforming king of Judah, gave a speech calling them to seek the Lord and in which he was the first to call Abraham the friend of God in 2 Chronicles 20:7. In an oracle of encouragement to Judah, Isaiah 41:8, God addressed them as “descendants of Abraham my friend.” When the Apostle James (2:23) wrote that God reckoned Abraham’s faith as righteousness, he called Abraham the friend of God. As Abraham’s descendants by faith, we are also God’s friends on an adventurous pilgrimage to the City of God.
Foreshadowing the global mission of the Church, when God called Abraham, God promised that all the families of the earth would be blessed through Abraham. In Galatians 3:8-9, the Apostle Paul wrote that “those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.” Abraham would have had no way to imagine that 4,000 years after God’s promise, he would be a blessing to us in West Texas. Yet, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Abraham’s heir, is exactly how not only we but all of the world’s people have been blessed through Abraham.
Romans 9-11 wrestles with God’s relationship with the Jewish descendants of Abraham. Attempts at a single, simple solution are difficult. However, Galatians 3:7-8, 29 is crystal clear that those who believe are descendants of Abraham, heirs according to the promise.
A huge part of sharing in the blessing of Abraham is that we, too, are friends of God. A number of years ago Roberta Bondi wrote a series in the Christian Century on intercessory prayer. She is retired Professor Emeritus of Church History of Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Her premise was that friends tell friends what their concerns are without telling their friends what to do about them. As friends of God, we can tell God whatever concerns us and trust God to act appropriately, which might mean teaching us new ways to respond to our concerns. This seems to be exactly what is going on between Abraham and God in Genesis 15. God reaffirmed the promise of descendants to Abraham, and Abraham is concerned that those heirs might have to come through Eliezer of Damascus. God responded with a vision of the stars to indicate the magnitude of Abraham’s descendants and relationship with God. Our translation obscures the power of verse 1 by suggesting that God will give Abraham a great reward. A better rendition is that God is Abraham’s reward. “I am your great reward.”
Several years before becoming a pastor, living in tents from Hebrews 11:9-10 became the defining metaphor for my journey. I could not have foreseen God’s adventures that were coming, including the adventures becoming an interim pastor at this stage of my life would bring. I hope I have imparted some lessons for the journey so you can welcome your next adventures with a new pastor and new avenues of mission.
Believe God. As God called Abraham from his home to go to a place he couldn’t see yet, your next adventure in ministry is not about philosophy and techniques as much as responding to God’s call as Abraham did.
You are on a Pilgrimage with the Patriarchs and not settled residents protecting your territory. As your new mission emerges, you will want to keep it as simple, flexible, nimble, portable, and generous as possible.
As your Pilgrimage with the Patriarchs takes you through ever-shifting terrain and unexpected twists and turns in the path, keep looking forward to the City with Foundations whose architect and builder is God. As God’s friends, we have the privilege of a non-stop, running conversation with God about where we are going and the way to get there. Our security and stability lie in that friendship, not in the transitory distractions that would lure us away from the journey.