Trav’lers on a Journey

preached Sunday at South Liberty Baptist Church (Liberty, MO)
Genesis 12:1-4a

When my parents first got married, my Dad was a college debate coach. One morning the team was gearing up for a trip, and Dad was scheduled to meet the van with evidence files. If you have ever been a debater or known any debaters, you know they each carry large tubs of files. And all of the files did not fit in his car. So my Mom, a loving wife, followed my dad to the debate tournament. Or more precisely, she tried to follow my dad to the debate tournament. Being the trusting woman that she is, my Mom failed to get directions, believing that her husband would guide her like a knight in shining armor to their destination. And that plan seemed to be working. She was driving along behind him just fine… until she began following the wrong car and ended up at a bar, not a school. Dad was gone. My somewhat directionally-challenged Mom was left stranded with no cell phone, no way to contact my dad and absolutely no clue where she was going.

That scenario is what I usually picture when reading that God invited Abram to pack his belongings, grab his family and go “to the land that I will show you.” Can you imagine coming home from work and saying to your spouse “oh, by the way, you should pick up some boxes tomorrow, because we are moving this weekend.” After the initial shock, your spouse might play along and ask “oh really? Where to?” You pause for a quick consultation with God… “I dunno… somewhere in that direction.” It doesn’t seem to make any sense. Those around you might try to have you commited. And what if we lose God somewhere along the way? Will we be stranded on the side of the road, asking gas station attendants if they have seen a pillar of fire go by?

And can you imagine more unlikely candidates? Abram is 75 and married to Sarai, who is barren. It is possible that Abram and Sarai have been caretakers of their nephew, Lot, who was apparently orphaned with his father’s death – we have no information on Lot’s mother. Abram has one remaining brother, Nahor, who is married to Milcah, who does not yet have children.

The great Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us that barrenness means the end in the ancient world. “It is an effective metaphor for hopelessness,” he writes. “There is no foreseeable future. There is no human power to invent a future.” This family is done. They’ve given up. They have nothing left but each other. And God calls Abram and Sarai to leave. Leave your country and your kindred and your father’s house. Leave it. Leave it all. Leave those who are valuable to you. Leave those whose very survival depends upon you being there, providing. Leave those who help make sure that you, too, are provided for. And go where? “I will show you.”

Abram’s family lives in Haran, which is likely in present day Turkey. The Mesopotamian name for the city was “harranu,” which means “journey,” “caravan” or “crossroads.” While perhaps a nice literary nudge for a journeying family, this name also suggests that Haran was a major trading spot. The family stopped here originally because this was a good place to do business. A good place to live.

And now Abram is asked to head to the unknown. Likely to the less inhabited. Almost certainly to his death. That doesn’t sound like a good deal, does it? At the very least, Abram should be able to stay with his family and enjoy what is left of life. But then, God says something absolutely, totally, completely, utterly absurd. God says “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.” Perhaps God hasn’t noticed the barrenness of Abram’s family.

Abram must have lost his mind at this point, because our text tells us that he went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. There was no uncertainly about what this meant – this was goodbye. There were no cell phones or long distance plans, no frequent flier miles and no reliable mail system. When Abram, Sarai and Lot walked out the door, they would be cut off from their family forever. And with that crazy step, there is a thread of hope. We are left with the paradox that leaving all security is the one chance for hope. The God who spoke the world into being is speaking again to end the barrenness that has consumed Abram’s family.

Abram’s call is an invitation for him to step into what God had intended all along – blessing. When Abram’s family stopped in Haran, they had been on the way to Canaan – a place we know as the Promised Land. The family was heading for Promise, but stopped and took up residence in the Crossroads.

We are in the second week of Lent, a time that is often described as a Journey to the Cross. At the beginning of this Lenten Journey, Ash Wednesday, we were asked to consider our own mortality. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.” Ashes to ashes. In our religious tradition, ashes serve as a sign of mourning and despair. We begin a journey with no hope, because in our mortality, we, too are barren. And like Abram, we are invited to travel toward what must be certain death, because we have this sense that God is calling us elsewhere – calling us from a land of Crossroads into a place of blessing.

As we watch and hear the reports from Japan, we can’t help but doubt the blessing. With more than 7,000 dead, around 10,000 still missing and thousands more indefinitely displaced – either from loss of housing or from fear of nuclear disaster, we are overcome. And we naturally want to ask “why?” Why did this happen? Why didn’t God stop it? Why? Several have tried to answer from a religious perspective – claiming that the end of the world is nigh or that God is judging Japan. Neither of those responses sits well with me. The truth is – we don’t have an answer.

Adam Hamilton, author, and pastor of the Church of the Ressurection in Leawood, reminds us that the earth is made up of large plates that fit together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Those plates are always moving at a slow pace, and when they rub up against each other, we get earthquakes. But the way the plates work is what keeps the earth’s core from overheating – in other words, it is what keeps us alive. He suggests that we now know that earthquakes do not happen as God’s punishment directed at groups of people, but as the natural and necessary occurance of the earth’s design. For God to stop this activity would be to ensure the destruction of the entire earth from overheating. He’s right. And yet we look at the devastation and wonder if there might have been another way. Couldn’t God have slowed the movement of the plates? Or maybe placed them all on top of a soft, pillowy surface so that the movement wouldn’t be so violent? Doesn’t it seem easy to question how God runs the world when it seems to us something has gone drastically wrong?

The reality is we don’t have an answer for why so much suffering is occurring in Japan, and – due to our global-connectedness – why so much suffering is occurring in the world. Have we lost track of God? Did we make a wrong turn somewhere and just haven’t noticed that we are following the wrong car? Or might God be calling us into the barrenness of the world?

And of course, hopelessness isn’t limited to those who’ve experienced natural disasters. What about the unemployed? The grieving? Those overwhelmed by busy schedules or job pressures or family problems? God is calling us out of our barrenness, not for our own blessings, but so that we in turn can bless a barren world. God is calling. Are you ready to leave your Crossroads?

(photo credit)

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Trav’lers on a Journey

  1. Jeanie McGowan

    Sos beautifully done, Jennifer! Abram’s story is one of the most amazing in scripture, I believe. He truly did the ridiculously nonsensical thing–left everything–to go–where??? Considering that he lived in a pagan city where many different gods were worshipped, it’s likely that he worshipped other gods, too, isn’t it? Yet, somehow he KNEW this was GOD and despite the seemingly foolish decision, decided to follow! What if we all were willing to do that? It blows my mind to think what could happen! Great job!

    • Thanks, Jeanie! You are right, changes are he did worship other gods. And since this is the first positive thing to happen since the flood and the mixing of languages at the Tower of Babel, seems a strange God to follow!

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