Have you ever considered the first 11 chapters of the Bible as a unit? Good creation, then a downward spiral. Moment of remaking in the days of Noah, then its the spiral of death again. It seems as though there's no hope until we get a fuller glimpse of God's promise in Genesis 12.
Genesis 12 “From Comfort to Quest” (Vance Elzinga - Preached July 17, 2016)
300 years after Noah, things are hopelessly messed up all over again when God calls Abraham out of comfort into a quest and makes him the most pivotal human of the Old Testament. "Abraham, let's go!" And although Abraham was a person chosen for a special mission, the New Testament tells us, that's the call of faith! God meets each of us in our comfort and calls us into a quest. The Lord says to every follower of Jesus, "Let's go."
And that would be great, and we'd be ready, if "Let's go" did not begin with "LET go"! That's what it meant for Abram. We don't know much but we do know this. Ur was an ancient wonder. It was a marvel of civilization, it was culturally sophisticated, and it had an infrastructure that made it a high-tech city of convenience in the ancient world.
Ur was a comfortable place to live, and what we do know of Abram indicates that he was well-positioned to enjoy Ur's every comfort. Abram seems to have had the good life by the tail. So when God's call came to Abram, it was a call to let go of some things that were working reasonably well for Abram. It's not like he'd flunked out of Ur!
This Sunday (May 7) we’re looking at God’s promise to Abraham and what it means that we have a covenant-keeping God. As I looked at Genesis 12, I was reminded that I preached on this passage last summer. Reading it over, I realized there were some important things addressed that we (myself included) need to keep before us. So, first the first time, here’s a sermon rerun in writing for you...
He knew the territory. He knew how to get what he wanted. He was surrounded with relatives and friends when God said "Go". Actually the story begins a few verses earlier when God said "Go" to the whole tribe, the entire family he was part of. And they'd gone, a ways, to a place they called "Terah." Then they'd stopped going. This was far enough and it was still familiar and still on their map.
But God wasn't done calling. The KJV says it in old English, "Get Thee out!" I like that wording, because it captures something. God was now saying to Abraham, "Get YOUSELF out!" His family had settled down prematurely, so if they wanted the comfort of having the journey done, Abram was to keep going anyway.
We get a bit of that when we see the sequence of God's words: Leave your land, leave your people, leave your family! Imagine that! Letting go of homeland is one thing. Leaving an ethnic group is another. Leaving some of the people closest to you when they won't move, that's some real letting go!
But that's the story of faith in Abraham's life. That's the story of faith in the Exodus from Egypt hundreds of years later, that's the story of Israel's exile and return. That's the story of the entrenched religious leaders Jesus dealt with and that's the story of the first Christians in the book of Acts letting go of all their Jewish ideas of what a Jesus-follower looks like. That's the story of the Reformation leaders 500 years ago leaving the safety, security and privilege of Catholicism to rediscover the faith of the Bible.
Letting go was a big part of the Puritan's quest in 1630 as they left everything they knew. The call to faith has always begun with letting go. Abram's journey would take him as far on foot as Huntsville AL is from here. It would take him far from family and out of the comfort of being in the ethnic majority. He would leave behind the ability to function in society with his native language. He'd step into an unknown world with only God to protect him.
The life of faith has always involved letting go of the comfort we want to hang onto. It's always about loss and how we handle it. God calls us from comfort to quest, so I wonder what you might have to let go of today to follow Jesus faithfully? I wonder what comforts may be a challenge to real obedience to God's call? Let's just sit with that a moment...
And what about "us?" What about our hundred-year history as a congregation might be a comfort keeping us from the quest God calls us to? What about the BIG "US?" What might it mean for the church of Jesus Christ to live faithfully when we are no longer the majority consensus in our culture? When we are marginalized and discouraged and the way we have done things isn't working any longer, what short of the truth of God's Word might we be called to let go of?
Abram responded to God's "lets go" by letting go. He left comfort. He left privilege. He left familiar surroundings. And he moved OFF THE MAP with God.
LEARN AS YOU GO
Did you catch that? God moved Abram off the map. There may not have been a map, but if there was, God moved Abram off the map when he said, "Go to a place I'll show you."
I'm going on a kayak trip in a couple of weeks along the northeast shore of Lake Superior. Staring about 15 miles from where the Edmund Fitzgerald went down. I've been on trips like this before, but this is the first time I won't have my GPS, which I lost somewhere on Isle Royale. So I've been reading about navigation using landmarks, a map and a compass. It changes things when you don't have coordinates to the exact place you are going.
Life is less certain when you don't know exactly where you are in relation to the map and have to figure that out. If you've got GPS you may be in unfamiliar waters, but you always know the course, you always know your bearing, and you always know the heading to your destination! Abraham had nothing but God. Abraham was "off the map."
Now that's a tall order! Take everything, because we won't be coming back. Okay, but where, Lord? "I'll worry about where, you just get moving." So what was a personal surrender - letting go - is now a radical volitional surrender to the unknown will of God! Hebrews 11.8 emphasizes this, and a few verses later the same is said of Sarah his wife. They will encounter things they never imagined! And they will learn on the way.
The life of faith has always involved learning as you go. Luke tells us of early Christians grasping for new categories, testing their assumptions and traditions. They had to figure out what a non-Jewish Christian looked like! Luther and Calvin and others moved off the map when they began to call their people back to biblical Christianity.
But here's what helped them, here's what helped Abram: Genesis is clear that it's the same God who authored everything and is now with Abraham. And the same God who authored everything and led Abraham and others for His redemptive purposes still leads his people today.
Even though in many ways we are off the map of reality as we knew it. Even though we are grasping for new categories to understand what God is up to. Even though Christendom is over with and living for Jesus means holding onto timeless truths and living with new realities. Though we're encountering stuff we never imagined.
Faith means trusting God and learning as we go. It means because God is the same, we can step out without coordinates. We can step out before we have it all figured out. Going who knows where with the God who knows where. We enter a quest of faith and on the journey get the answers. Faith is following God off the map.
And that's what we need today. I can imagine Lewis and Clark when they found themselves off the map. Their Corps of Discovery was supposed to follow the Missouri up to its headwaters, then connect probably with the headwaters of the Columbia river and follow it downstream to the Pacific. They were to find the elusive "Northwest Passage" which connected the coasts by water.
As they journeyed for months up the Missouri river, they were on the map. Then at long last came the day at the Missouri's source. Lewis may have expected to crest a series of hills or small mountains, see the land slope gently downward, and after a tough but manageable portage coast by canoe the rest of the way.
Instead, he saw mountains like he’d never seen before. Mountain followed by more distant mountains. Rugged, ragged mountains with snow-capped peaks. And the Mandan people told him, more mountains after that. The Rockies were not on Lewis' map. They were unlike anything he'd seen and they seemed unending. The Corp of Discovery could turn back, or go "off the map." Forget the canoes! This was unlike anything they'd dealt with and I'm sure there was a brief temptation to chuck the whole thing.
Maybe that's a bit of what Abraham felt, but he kept going because that's faith in a sovereign God.
God's plan is always bigger than ours and bigger than "us". So Abraham kept going. God had made a promise. He would not see the end of the promise, but God's promised sustained him nonetheless. Abraham heard from God at age 75. He heard from God again at 85. And at 99. He was in for the long haul and would spend his life though imperfectly leaning into that promise.
That's the Hebrews hall of fame faith story, too. It lists lots of people who kept going and few who ever personally saw the long-term fruition of their faith in this life. But they were faithful and their faith mattered. They were significant in God's plan.
And there were also those who were sorely tempted to give up and to go back. Years later the Exodus people wanted to, almost from the get-go. And the spies who checked out the promised land across the Jordan. Even the early Christians were tempted to just go back to their Jewish Christian ways or even to revert to some legalism from their past. Some of the early epistles we have in the New Testament address that temptation.
We're tempted to step out in faith for about 3 weeks. And then if we don't see results, we retreat to the familiar. Or we stumble and mess up and discover what doesn't work and we give up. But the world needs and God expects a consistent quest, not a retreat to comfort.
Abraham's encounters 4000 years ago are still a challenge and an encouragement to us today. We have the same God and we are off the map again - not for the first time. This is actually God's NORMAL.
Abraham and others like him listened, and trusted, and obeyed God off the map. He was willing to suffer loss, to learn as he went, and to keep going despite setbacks and lack of immediate results. So was the New Testament church! And many of God's people in hard times and places since.
We are off the map, like it or not. We live in a world with terrorist truck drivers. And changing public values. And confusion and brokenness. And resistance to the message of the cross. Where God’s truth is the same, but old ways don’t reach new people. And we're called to be faithful here.
It will mean letting go. It will mean learning as we go. It will mean a challenge to stay the course. It's a new day, but we've got the same God. Will you be part of His "corp of discovery?"