The story we hear today is the first event in the beginning of the Judeo Christian story. And its foundational for Muslims as well.
At this point in Genesis we mark the move from prehistory stories that deal with the nature of the world and humanity and the "general" in relating with God and we move to a new chapter of ancestral history. Not only have we moved into the story of Gods people, we begin following a particular relationship of one man, one people with God.
Abram, the patriarch is traced back to Noah and now we will follow his story and his families story all the way through the pages of scripture. Chapter 12 marks the call of Abram. "Go from your country and your kindred and your fathers house to a land that I will show you. I will bless you." Says the Lord.
This is a momentous beginning, its a brand new start!
But then as with many new things, if we look closely there is much more of the story in the background there too.
Our new thoughts, new inventions, new directions always have a story behind them. In chapter 11 we read after the Tower of Babel how Abrams father Terah, looses a son that was Haran, Lots father and decides to leave the Ur of the Chaldeans and resettle in Canaan.
It might be more than just cute to note here that this makes Abraham an Iraqi by birth! But the prologue to our story makes it clear that this a journey that comes out of family tragedy.
Not only do we learn that Haran has died, but that Sarai, Abrams wife is barren and that the journey Terah launches out on remains unfulfilled, they settle in Harran further up the Tigris Euphrates valley.
Im glad the text gives us this background detail. Far too often we get the idea of these great figures of God beginning out of the blue, with some flash of a call as if out of nowhere and we might fear that God will do the same to us.
No, I believe that as in Abrams story there is sense, reason and purpose, even some logic behind the exciting new call of God. It is a call with a history as well as a future!
In fact the heading in some Bibles: "The Call of Abraham" would better read: "God Calls Abraham," because God is the main subject here. And God is shown as a God who engages with people, with needs and concerns, who communicates and helps. Jewish commentary understands this text as a major transition in the Torah from the decline and fall stories of Genesis 3-11, to the story of world redemption worked out through the family of Abraham. It is a big journey for Abram, a big promise to live within and very big purpose behind the whole endeavor.
Yahweh, as the Hebrew text identifies this God, speaks to Abram and issues a challenge to take up a new and unknown future. The first word of the text, and he said, uses the common verb for reported speech, and is followed by the subject Yahweh. "Yahweh said." Before this, Yahweh spoke to Eve, to the serpent, to Cain, to Noah, and three times to himself. That God, Yahweh, is a communicating god is one of the most profound aspects of Gods character revealed in scripture. That God communicates with people is critical aspect of our faith.
Yahweh challenges to Abram to leave things behind and go out into the unknown. Really, he ought to have known better! Abram is 75 at this point, we would advise him to look for a good retirement village at that age! But he lives as a Semite herdsman on the fringes of a sophisticated Mesopotamian society. His clan seems well to do think Western district aristocracy men of the land who do well feeding the city. "Leave the land, kindred, and culture, leave the fathers house and go to the land I will show you," he is called. Abram is challenged to get out of his comfort zone, to leave the secure and familiar and to go in trust. And he goes!
It reminds me of stories about people buying land on speculation, not even having seen if the plot is a mosquito infested swamp. There used to be lots of those stories coming out of the Gold Coast particularly, tales of naïve southerners stung of their savings, but I think now even if you had been sold the swamp back then it would be well worth hanging onto these days.
Its a matter of going on faith, of exercising ones trust isnt it?
Do you trust the agent, the salesman, the glossy pictures? Abram had no pictures to go on, he had no track record with the promising agent, but there was a half fulfilled mission that his father had began to get to Canaan, and only faith in the word of this God to reassure him.
This section of the Jewish lectionary is headed lek leka, an emphatic term that combines two parts of the verb to walk. We might say get going!
The destination for Abram and family is an unknown country. This journey into the unknown, of taking a risk and embracing the new, is today still often an essential part of faith. And even in the Basis of Union of the Uniting Church, we speak of the life of faith in terms of a journey, "on the way to a promised end."
All of this is a most profound reflection on the nature of life and humanity. Abrahams family story is one born of tragedy, his brother dies young and his wife is barren, an ultimate disgrace in their culture.
Which one of us does not have an untimely death in our family story or a disgrace to live with or a difficult burden to bear? Its part of the human condition isnt it, to deal with tragedy and mixed fortunes?
Abrahams story is one that needs generations to work out. It was Terah, his father who set off originally.
Dont we know that important work will often take many years of patient work.
Decline in mainstream western churches has happened over the last 20 40 years and it wont be turned around overnight. It will take faithful and at times risky action, launching out into the unknown and it will take patience!
Abrahams story begins here with the challenge to leave the familiar behind and to go, to embark on the journey without knowing what the destination is like.
We make decisions dont we, often based on the flimsiest of feelings or some gut level reaction not having a clue of the consequences that might follow. We choose a career path, make a friend, hook up with a life partner, make a purchase go this way instead of that, follow this God, not that one all not knowing the outcome! Life is risk!
Without risk, without journey, life is not life, but a state of stagnant anxiety wrapped in "safe practice".
But in the risk there is also promise. Abraham is promised children and blessing. His blessing and his descendents are to bring blessings to all the peoples of the earth.
It was a mighty promise, but at the same time, mightily absurd! A great nation, God promised would come from two old Semites who lived as semi nomadic farmers on the fringes of civilization? And Sarai was barren!
And it is absurd that people should hold faith today in this God whose holy book is so unscientific and whose followers have done so many atrocious things in his name. "His name" (sic), in brackets, and it is sick what has been done in Gods name; crusades, inquisitions, wars and pillage supposedly for God. No its absurd that faith in this God still lingers.
Absurd that the Christian church still exists!
But we belong to a fine lineage of absurdity that stretches from Abraham to Jesus and on to us. Hard to believe, but true that Abram and Sarai parent the nation of Israel and bear the seed of three great world faiths.
These Hebrews were never a super power in terms of numbers, riches or military muscle. But they were, and are, a small Semitic nation that has been misunderstood more than any other, suffered more than any other, but also somehow influenced the world more than any other. In religion, music, literature, law and science, neither any other tribe nor empire has made such a disproportionate contribution to the world.
How? we dont know, but we do know that there are elements of Gods call, and human response, elements of risk taking, of journeying in trust and faith.
God made something quite amazing of Abrams response.
His faith took him a long way. Many have benefited, many been blessed through his faith I dare to believe the same principle holds true today.
I think it may have been just the same for Matthew, who was called by Jesus. He was a man living on the fringes of society, called to take an incredible risk, not knowing the consequences.
Can you imagine Matthew explaining to his mum how hes left a secure and lucrative job with the Roman empire to follow an itinerant Galilean preacher? No, it is absurd!
A motley group of Galileans to change the face of the world?
No its too much to expect, too much to believe, or is it?
God calls; Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God calls Saul and David, Jeremiah and Amos, Matthew and me and you too.
We are called to a journey of faith, called to a journey in God and with God, and ultimately to God.
To follow the call of God may be an absurd risk, but the promise - and the observable outcomes give me faith.
How about you?
There is challenge and hope for you and me.
The church in this 21st century is not as hopeless as Abram was.
There is even hope that through your faithful actions and mine we may just be some small blessing to other lives too.
By the grace of God. Amen.