Scriptures: Genesis 12:1-7 ; Hebrews 11:8-10

Birth of a Nation: Start of a Journey

We are doing our biography series, and today we start with somebody who is what you might call an actual historical figure. I believe Adam was historical as well, but we don't have any records on him and Eve except the Scriptures. We now are coming to somebody where we have alternative sources and nobody disagrees that he lived, and the facts of his life.

We're going to be looking at Abraham and Sarah. Not together, for the most part, but separately, because they represented different things. I'm not being sexist, but we're starting with Abraham. There's just a lot more on him than there is on Sarah.

Their country of origin, or birthplace, was Mesopotamia, which right now, I believe, is in the areas of Iraq and Turkey. Their hometown was Ur, and currently it's known as Tell el-Muqayyar, in Iraq. It's an important city, situated about 140 miles southeast of the site of Babylon, and about ten miles west of the present bed of the Euphrates River.

Abraham was a prince, a merchant prince if nothing else, but there are indications that he was a prince in Ur. And he had a problem. He had no heir. In those days that was a real problem, especially if there was royalty involved in any way. So into this situation – and Abraham was already 75 years old – God spoke.

Mind you, Abraham did not worship God, at least originally. They had what they called household gods. Those gods were little idols made of wood or clay, that represented certain figures in the pantheon of Mesopotamia or Sumeria, and they worshiped those.

Their names to start with were Abram and Sarai. They had been married for a long time, and she was barren. His nephew was Lot – you'll hear about him a bit in one of the coming weeks. Sarai's maidservant was Hagar, and you'll hear a bit about her as well, more with Sarai than with Abram.

Sarai and Hagar, and what they did, are really at the root of the issues in the Middle East these days. So these things that we're going to be looking at in the coming weeks actually are very relevant to our world today, politically and, in many ways, economically.

Abram was a normal guy. He had his courage. He had his fears. He had times when he did well, and he had times when he did very poorly, and we'll be discussing some of those things. I think it's important for us to remember, as we look at heroes of the faith – and that includes the heroes of our faith – that they're human. They're not superhuman.

Even Jesus was human, which a lot of people seem to forget. They say, oh yes, he was 100% human, 100% God. But they don't talk about his sense of humor, the fact that he got angry – even if it was for the right reasons, actually that shows that Christians can get angry, without sinning. Too often in our churches we have this idea that if you're a Christian you can't show anger, you can't show pain.

Now Abraham (I'm just going to call him Abraham because that's the name everyone knows, even though he doesn't get that name until later, and actually the addition of the “ah” is part of the name of God, so that was actually an important change that God made to their names, Abram to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah) had a vision of some sort. He met the Lord, and the Lord said, “Leave your country, your people, and your father's household, and go to the land that I will give to you.

That's a tall order. We live in a small town. How many of you, on the basis of a vision, would be willing to just pack up, leave your home, leave your friends, leave your stuff, and go off to a place that you're not even sure where it is?

In our history in America, we've had folks that have done that. “Go west, young man,” and there were the pioneers who went west. But today, despite the fact that we're a more mobile community than they ever were, how willing would we be to leave?

God did add a bit of an incentive. He said, “I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you. I will curse those who curse you. And all the peoples on the earth will be blessed through you.” This is what is known as the Abrahamic Covenant, the first part of it (the second part dealt with his descendants).

That's a pretty impressive promise. We have God telling a man who is childless that He is going to make him into a great nation. We have God telling a man who has never left home that He's going to make his name great. People are going to respect him. People are going to know of him. People are going to come to him. Not only that, God has promised that He is going to be with him, blessing those who bless him, cursing those who curse him.

During this time period (I think I've mentioned this in Bible study, but I don't remember if I've mentioned it in sermons), gods tended to be local. They had defined boundaries and territories. Not just domains that they worked in, like rain or lightning or the ground and fertility, but they also tended to stay local.

In fact, one of the things that happened, if one country invaded another and succeeded, was that the people who were invaded would usually convert to the god of the invaders. This was not to appease them. This was because it was obvious to those citizens that the invaders' gods were more powerful than their gods. Who's going to worship a loser? So they were convert, and the invaders' gods' territory would be expanded.

Yahweh, our God, has always been a God who goes beyond territories. Even as early as with Abraham, He said, “I will be with you wherever you go.” No other god promised that, in any of the religions, in any of the pantheons. “I will be with you wherever you go. It doesn't matter what territory you're in. It doesn't matter what country you're in. It doesn't matter where in the world you are. I'll be there.”

That's quite a promise. In the New Testament, we know that Christ promises, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” and that builds upon this promise from God.

“So Abram left, as the Lord had told him, and took Lot, and set out from Haran. ... They took all the possessions they had accumulated that they could carry with them, and set out for the land of Canaan, and arrived there.” This was not the travel of a week. This was travel that took months, notwithstanding the fact that Abraham had a caravan. They didn't have U-Haul. They had to pack up camels, pack up mules, pack carts, and travel with those things.

I can tell you, based on military-type specs back in those days, that while a human in good shape can handle about three miles and hour, and thus could travel, in the course of a ten-hour day, if they really walked that long, with minor breaks, twenty-five to thirty miles, it was considered good travel time in the military if you managed to do eight to ten miles in a day.

You had to break down the tents, pack them all back up, put them in the carts, get everybody moving, stop early enough to set up the tents while it was still light, get the campfires going – to ward off the animals and the bandits which were prevalent in the desert – and set up guard posts.

So they did not travel quickly. There is every indication, as well, that Abraham had lots of livestock with him. The word abiru, which became “Hebrew,” literally means “nomad” or “wanderer.” They didn't stay in one place, but traveled with their flocks, to feed them.

Caring for livestock was also very different from how we're used to think of it. Here in America, we drive our cattle and sheep from behind. We put them in a pasture, where they have lots of nice grass. They can eat as they like. Out there, in the Middle East, grass is not so prevalent. Water is scarce. I don't think they get snow like we have, unless you're way up in the mountains.

So the shepherds, the cattlemen, the ranchers, had to actually lead their livestock, looking for grass, looking for water that was suitable. This was the lifestyle of a nomad. There are actually people in the modern day, called Bedouins, who still do that, mostly with goats (not so much with cattle – they eat too much).

So picture it in your mind. This was how Abraham and his entourage made their trip to a place unknown. The Bible tells us the place is Canaan. It also makes it clear that Abraham didn't know where he was going. It's doubtful that people in Ur actually knew that there was a place called Canaan. That's for us, the readers, to understand.

So he made this trip, on the basis of a command from God. He had faith in God's promise, God's provision, and God's protection.

In the passage in Hebrews, you'll notice that he was called a hero of the faith because of his willingness to follow God's call. Really, it is an example, because all faith, in the end, is a journey. It's a journey to places that we don't know. If you're truly following God's call, if you're truly trusting in God, His provision, His promise, and His protection, then you are willing to go where He leads.

Sometimes it may take us a while to get there, even to the point of leaving. I freely admit to people that when it came to the call to ministry, I was very stubborn (my mother would have said pigheaded), and it took twelve years from the time I received the call to the time I finally said, “OK, Lord, you win.”

During that time I actually walked away from God, then had a rededication of my life to Christ, and immediately the call reasserted itself. I tried to bargain with God (which we'll talk about in a few weeks), saying, “How about if I do this?” or “How about if I do that?” or “How about if I do this other thing?” But “Just don't make me one of those.”

You know why? Because then who knows what's going to happen? I was no longer in control. It's hard to answer the call of God, whether it be a call to ministry, or a call to living your own life in a particular way and in a particular place. It takes faith, faith that is originally a gift from God, and then it needs to be acted on.

You see, that's the other thing. Abraham could have just stayed there in Haran and said, “I worship you, God. I praise you, God. We'll make an idol to you. We'll do all these things for you.” God would not have been pleased. (Remember, this is before the Ten Commandments, so a command against having idols hadn't yet been given to the people.)

Abraham could have done all that, and stayed right where he was, in his comfort zone. But he acted. He acted upon the call of God, and moved forward. And his life became an adventure. It had its ups. It had its downs. It had its moments where he was brilliant, and it had its moments where we face-palm and think, “How could you do that? That was so stupid.” It had its moments where he showed brilliance and moments when he showed stupidity and wimpiness, particularly when it came to dealing with his wife – but that's a whole other story.

My point for today is that Abraham, as we explore his life, gives us an example. There are warnings about what not to do, and encouragements about what to do. But the greatest thing of all, the greatest thing of all that we can learn from his life, is acting out our faith.

Not just listening to God, and worshipping God from the comfort of our home or church or wherever it might be, but following God's call even if it's to a place we don't know, even if it's to do something that we've never done before, even if it's doing things in a new way.

I'm really glad I was late this morning – not because of what happened before, I'd just as soon not have to call an ambulance – but because Terry had a chance to talk about the mission. I heard that as I was coming in. She pointed out that that was a way we reached out, and people who didn't know us before responded to us.

The Session, who are your spiritual leaders, determined that mission. Somebody who was inspired by God brought that to the Session, it was deliberated, it was discussed and we figured out how to do it. And then we acted on it.

That's a living example of how, even in a local situation, you could reach out in a way that you'd never done before, going to places and people that you may have never gone before, and sharing the results of our faith and the gospel, the good news, with others. I'm thankful that Terry had the opportunity to mention it. It gives me my corner to turn on here, for the conclusion.

Everybody's individual life should show the same kind of intent, deliberation, and actions, that the church did in its mission. Everyone's life should show the same kind of trust and faith and courage that Abraham did. It's not out of our reach. Because the same promise that was given to Abraham was also given to us. God will be with us, always. And whoever blesses us will be blessed, whoever curses us will be cursed, and through us, all the people on the earth will be blessed. Why? Because of Christ. We bring Christ to them. And through Christ, they can be blessed.

For Abraham, this was the birth of a nation and the start of a journey that took a lot of years. He was 75 when he started. I know a lot of you are older, but I bet most of you aren't 75 yet. Admittedly, he lived until he was 130, so if you want to play statistics, that means he was middle-aged, the equivalent of our 50. But that was the start.

You're never too old, you're never too poor, you're never too uneducated, to share the love of Christ. May you determine where God is calling you, and faithfully respond, like Abraham.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.