A young farmer, standing in his field, observes a peculiar cloud formation. The clouds form the letters G, P, and C, and he thinks they are a call from God, standing for the phrase, “Go preach Christ!” The farmer calls for an emergency meeting of the deacons and insists that he has been called to preach. Not wanting to squelch his enthusiasm, they invite him to fill the pulpit that week. His sermon is long, tedious, and virtually incoherent. When it ends, the congregation is grateful to finally be singing the closing hymn. Most of the deacons rush out to lunch and avoid shaking the farmer’s hand for fear that he might ask them how it went. One brave and wise deacon goes up to the would-be preacher and whispers in his ear, “I think the clouds were actually saying, ‘Go plant corn!’” Calling is both a profound and a very strange thing. Too often we’ve individualized it, making it about ourselves and our particular gifts. Too often we’ve made it about our own worth and capabilities. God’s calling on our lives is bigger than what each individual decides to do with their lives. God’s calling brings the community of God’s people into existence, and this people’s calling is for the sake of the entire world.
God has been trying to get humanity on board with God’s purposes since the very beginning. There are a lot of false starts in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Ever since the creation of Adam and Eve, humans have been rebelling against God. Cain murdered his own brother Abel, and humans continued to choose wickedness and evil. There was another chance to start over after the whole earth was flooded. God saved one family, the family of Noah, a family that also ultimately turns from God’s ways. Humans build the Tower of Babel, in an effort to once again be like God, choosing their own ways and their own power instead of God’s purposes. God will not give up so God decides to be in relationship with one family, one nation, and through that family, bless the whole world. The calling of God’s chosen people all begins with a man named Abram. In the chapter before our text for today, we learn about the family line of Abram. We learn Abram has lots of ancestors and that his father is named Terah. We learn that his wife’s name is Sarai and that she is barren; she is without child. Abram’s family line stops here. He and Sarai are living in despair; they have no hope; they have no future. There is no reflection on why they are barren; there is no suggestion of punishment or curse. The text simply suggests that the family has played out its future and has nowhere else to go. They’ve resigned themselves to living out their days in a place that doesn’t really belong to them, since there is no heir to inherit their land and their wealth. Their barrenness is a metaphor for the broader hopelessness, the wasteland that is their lives. It’s as if the history of God’s people has come to a complete standstill, an abrupt stop. It turns out that they cannot invent or secure their own future or be their own gods.
It is into this barrenness that God speaks. It is into this barrenness that God chooses to enter and to lay claim on this people. It is in the midst of this barrenness that God decides on a new way of relating to the world. In his poem, “The Call of Abraham,” John Dunmore Lang illustrates the radical break from the old to the new that is required by this call. He says,
ABRAM, son of Terah, hear!
‘Tis Jehovah gives command:
Haste thee from thy kindred dear,
Father’s house, and fatherland.
Far beyond yon dreary waste,
Lies a land divinely fair;
Abram, son of Terah, haste!
I, the Lord, will bless thee there.
Abram hears, nor disobeys,
Though weeping friends around him stand;
Trusting in Jehovah’s grace,
Soon he hails the promised land.
Sinner, son of Adam, hear!
‘Tis Jehovah speaks to thee:
From a world thou hold’st so dear–
From its sins and follies flee.
Far beyond this wilderness
Lies a land divinely fair;
Abram’s God will surely bless
And exalt thee highly there.
Haste then thee, O sinner, haste!
‘Tis Jehovah gives command;
Far beyond this barren waste
Lies Immanuel’s blessed land.[i]
God calls Abram to go from his country, from his kindred, and from his father’s house. He is to leave the place he knows, the security he has. He is to separate himself. He is to go towards a land God hasn’t even revealed to him yet. He is to leave all that is familiar behind. It’s a call to abandonment, renunciation, and relinquishment. He is to depart from safety. It’s the only way out of barrenness. He can choose to step out on faith and go where God tells him to go or he can hold on to the way things are. While the present is filled with hopelessness, it is familiar and known. If Abram lived in our time and place, I imagine he would have said something like, “No, thanks God. I think I’ll just stay here. You know, we’ve been through enough as a family. We’ve worked hard and deserve to sit back and relax! It’s the time in our lives to focus on what’s good for us. We owe it to ourselves. Sarai and I aren’t really up for any more risks. We’re going to be kind to ourselves and rest now.” But the miracle is that Abram doesn’t say any of these things. He accepts and embraces God’s call. He asks no questions; he only obeys. He forsakes everything – settlement, security, and placement – to set out on this journey of following God, a journey that will continue long after his lifetime.
Abram’s call requires him to separate himself from his family and his homeland. The rabbis tell us that Abram’s father, Terah, made and sold idols. It is important for Abram to leave his family behind so that he cannot get caught up in the worship of idols, but to set out for a new place, with a chance of a new start, with a chance of following after God and living only for God’s purposes. Abram is called from the city of Haran, the place where Terah settled his family. The verses right before out text tell us that Terah had actually had set out to go to Canaan, but ended up stopping short and settling in Haran. When he settles in Haran, he also settles for a life that is short of what God wants. Haran means “highway” or “crossroads.” It becomes a crossroads for Abram, a crossroads where Abram is faced with a decision to stay in the land of his father the idol-maker or to go where God calls. Here he decides to forsake the land that was permeated by the worship of other gods. Here he decides to leave his old life behind and to follow after the Lord, the one true God.
Right after God tells Abram to go, he makes a covenant with him. If Abram will go, God will make of him a great nation – a strange promise for a couple who has not been able to have children. He will bless him and make his name great, so that he will be a blessing. He will bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him. And in him, all the families of the earth will be blessed. His future will not be secured by his own accomplishments or achievements. His future will be God’s gift. God’s blessings will not be in things or wealth that benefit just his nuclear family. God’s blessings will be the well-being and security that comes from being in relationship with God. God will favor him; God will stay with him; God will work through him to achieve God’s purposes. These promises are not solely for the sake of Abram and his family. These promises are for the blessing of an entire nation that Abram will be the father of, and this nation will bless the entire world. The whole point of God choosing him and making promises to him is for Abram and his family to be special agents in bringing blessing to the entire human family.
Sometimes we would rather stay in safety, in the familiar, in the known, than to listen to God’s call. We’d rather not risk. We’d rather play it safe. We’d rather remain in control. We’d rather seek our own security. We’d rather settle for the future we can gain for ourselves. We’ve counted up the costs, and we aren’t sure it’s worth it. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus talked about being called away from the familiar, away from family, in order to follow God’s call. He said, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:35-39). This scripture is hard to swallow. Just like God called Abram from his country and from the land of his father, Jesus called disciples out of the boat and away from their families. Jesus calls us away from our families too. If our families pull us away from following Jesus, we must choose God’s call over our families. But it’s not necessarily about abandoning our families. Jesus says whoever loves father or mother or son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Jesus is calling us away from the idolatry of family and towards allowing God to use our families to be a blessing for all the world, like Abram’s family.
In her book Creating with God, Sarah Jobe writes about how six months after she’d weaned her child, she could not get her body to stop producing milk. Sarah saw this as a nuisance, but one day she had an epiphany of how her experience might be teaching her about a love that extends beyond her own children. She says, “In the premodern world, my body’s refusal to stop producing milk would have allowed me to nurse other women’s children. It would have allowed me to nurse a child of one of the many women in my city who would have died in childbirth. It would have allowed me to offer my body as a gift to children besides my own. My crusty old milk reminds me that I’m able to give my body as food, even to children who are not my own. My milk reminds me that the gift of Jesus’ body is not limited to biological family. My crusty old milk clings to me as an obnoxious sign that I am to continue giving my body for the life of the world, even after I stop nursing my own children.”[ii]
In our baptisms, we have become a part of God’s chosen family. Particularly during Lent, we are reminded that we have given up our lives for the sake of the kingdom. We have given up the securities of the world in order to gain true life in Christ. If we hold our nuclear family’s safety, happiness, and security above God’s call on our lives, above God’s purposes, above God’s kingdom, then we have made an idol of our families. As James K.A. Smith says in You Are What You Love, “Our promises in baptism…signal that what counts as ‘family’ is not just the closed, nuclear unit that is so often idolized as ‘the family.’ [As Christians, we] need to become communities in which the bloodlines of kin are trumped by the blood of Christ. [Our baptismal promises] initiate us into a household that is bigger than that which is under the roof of our house.”[iii] “If the church is our first family, then our second homes [the ones where our nuclear families live] should be defined by [the church], and our doors ought to be open to the stranger, the sick, and the poor.”[iv] We are called away from lives that indulge only the desires of those people closest to us. We are called to sacrifice what might be best for our families in order to make way for what’s best for all of God’s children. Our homes and dinner tables are to be places that can be interrupted by God’s children who are in need of a place and a people to whom they can belong.
Recently Adam and I opened our house to one of our best friends from college who was going through an unexpected life transition and needed a place to call home. The rhythms of our house feel quite different than when we all lived together during our college days, but our friend became a part of the routine of our life with a toddler. He needed something that we were able to give him, but he gave so much more. He became a part of our family. He helped to work through toddler dinners filled with temper tantrums. He held Isaac and helped make dinner and helped get him out the door so we could go to work in the morning. Isaac had to learn that he didn’t have mommy and daddy all to himself at the dinner table, that other people besides him needed attention. And yet he also gained an understanding that there was someone else who cared about him, someone else he could rely on, someone else who loved him no matter how much food he threw on the floor at dinnertime. Isaac learned that family includes more than his biological family.
Our call to be God’s people is a call to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. Our call is not to a certain job or to be a volunteer with a certain agency or even to vocational ministry. Our call as God’s chosen people is a claim on who we are and how we relate to the world, to all of God’s children. It’s a call from the idolatry of kinship. It’s a call from the idolatry of country. It’s a call to stop trying to secure our own futures. It’s a call to stop idolizing biological children. It’s a call to stop trying to sustain ourselves. It’s a call to recognize our creaturely limits. It’s a call to stop thinking our hope rests in our own bloodlines or in our own ability to create or produce. It’s a call to trust in God even though we don’t know where we are going. It’s a call to obey without having our questions answered or a detailed plan in front of us. It’s a call to let God speak life into our hopelessness. It’s a call to let God work God’s purposes in us so that our lives can be a source of blessing to others. It’s a call to allow our family’s needs to take a back seat to what God desires for the entire human family. It’s only by answering this call and losing our lives that we are sure to gain God’s blessing, and in turn, to become a blessing for the world that God loves.
[ii] Sarah Jobe, Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of Pregnancy, ___.
[iii] James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love, 116-117.
[iv] McCarthy, Good Life, 52 as quoted by Smith in You Are What You Love.