Sermon: The Call of Abram

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to the book of Genesis. Genesis is the first book in the Bible, Genesis chapter 12, beginning in verse 1. This morning we will be beginning the story of Abraham. More accurately we will be beginning the story of God’s redemption through Abram. Abram, whose name means ‘exalted father’ will soon have his name changed by God to the more familiar Abraham, which means ‘father of multitudes.’ While this name change will not happen in our story this morning, I don’t want anyone to get confused. In the next few months we will be listening to God’s Word through the story of Abraham, in order to better hear God’s call and his grace in our own lives. But before we hear God’s word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

If you are able, I invite you to stand to hear God’s word.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God:

The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

I will make you into a great nation,

and I will bless you.

I will make your name great,

and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you

and whoever curses you I will curse

and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

And Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Harran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Harran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.

Abram travelled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time, the Canaanites were in the land. The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him.

From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD.

Then Abram set out and continued toward the Negev.

This is the Word of the LORD. Thanks be to God.

At the end of October, I took a trip that had been on my bucket list for ten years, be in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 2017 – 500 years to the day of when the Protestant Reformation started in the very place that it started. It was a nerdy dream and the trip was wonderful. As part of the trip, I stayed at a hostel in Berlin, a city of 3.5 million people. I spent most of October 30 walking around the center of the city, looking at monuments and museums. Yet after a while, something began to nag at me. I saw no churches. At the very heart of this large and impressive city were incredible feats of human engineering like the Brandenburg Gate. There were also monuments to the achievements and activities of humankind – both great and horrible. But I saw no churches. There were plenty of altars to the works of men, but I saw no altars proclaiming the mighty works of God.

Berlin is not unique in this. If I walked into the heart of many cities in this country, the largest and most beautiful buildings would not be churches praising God, but banks and financial buildings, stadiums and arenas, shopping malls, or government buildings. Our cities in Europe and North America are filled with altars, but fewer and fewer to the one, true God. There are other gods who claim our loyalty and who claim that the earth is theirs.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. It was good. God formed the world and filled it with life. He created man and woman in his image and gave them the responsibility to fill up, care for, and develop creation. All the ends of the earth were to proclaim the praise of the LORD, the King. Yet, Adam and Eve, our first parents, betrayed God and in doing so desecrated the land itself, bringing a curse upon the ground, upon the womb, and upon human relationships. Their children would continue this betrayal and pollution of the land, when Cain killed his brother Abel and Abel’s blood cried out from the ground. Cain’s children would continue the bringing of curses as later Lamech would promise seventy-fold vengeance upon anyone who hurt him.

Yet for all their sin, God did not abandon his creation or his people. He clothed Adam and Eve, promising a child of Eve who would one day crush the serpent and end the enmity between God and us, between us and creation, and between all human beings. Yet violence, oppression, and wickedness continued to multiply until the the thoughts of the human heart were only evil all the time. So God cleansed the land humanity had polluted with a mighty flood, saving only Noah and his family. Upon exiting the ark, Noah builds an altar to the LORD. The building of the altar was both an act of praise and a proclamation that this land belonged to the LORD. The LORD is King. Yet, sin still tainted the heart of Noah and he used the fruit of the land to bring down more curses – getting drunk on wine, lying naked in his tent, and then cursing his grandson, Canaan. Having cleansed the earth and, in effect, started over, God reissued the call to fill the earth and rule over it, but the people did not listen. They gathered on the plains of Shinar in order to make a name for themselves. They try to build a tower to heaven, but God comes down, confuses their languages and scatters them. The place was named Babel, which sounds like the Hebrew word for ‘confused.’

After God’s judgment at Babel, Is God done with his project to redeem this world? No. But the story takes a turn that the eleven previous chapters would not have led us to expect. Instead of bringing another flood or issuing another command to the four corners of creation, God picks one man, Abram. An unlikely choice. The end of chapter eleven tells us Abram was born in Ur of the Chaldeans – modern day Iraq, ancient Babylon. Babylon whose name is intimately connected with Babel, where the people gathered to make a name for themselves with a tower that reached to the heavens. Abram is an unlikely choice, because he is also a pagan. While his father was still living the family had left Ur and moved into Harran, but they had not left their gods behind. Later Joshua will tell the Israelites when they gathered at Shechem, “Long ago your ancestors – Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor – lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods” (Joshua 24:2). Up to this point, Abram is not a worshipper of the one true God, but likely worshipped any number of gods from his home country, people, and father’s household. Lastly, Abram is an unlikely choice because he is an old, childless man. He has a nephew, Lot, but no children. The end of chapter eleven tells us that his wife, Sarai, is barren and in verse 4 we learn that Abram is seventy-five years old.

In our journey through the story of Abram, who will later be renamed Abraham, we will find him, at times, a model to be imitated and, at other times, a warning of what not to do in the life of faith. But it is important that we remember at the beginning that the call of God came by grace. This unique call of Abram and his unique place in the history of redemption did not come because of anything that Abram had to offer or anything he had done. He had nothing to offer and perhaps did not yet know the God to whom he should offer his life and worship. Yet the call came by grace. It was God’s choice, not Abram’s goodness, that laid the path of redemption. It is pure grace.

The call of God comes to Abram, “Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” The LORD calls Abram to make a complete break with his past and his identity. A few of us in the room know what it feels like to leave your home country for a new one. Some of us have felt the cost of following Jesus when it cuts us off from our family. The call God issues to Abram is hard. For those of you who farm land, particularly land that has been in your family and was entrusted to you, the idea of leaving that all behind would be painful. It may even feel a little like betrayal. While in our highly mobile society, we do not have the same ties to the land that our ancestors once did, I think we can imagine a bit of what Abram was called to give up. His country, his people, his father’s household. It was these relationships that defined who he was. Even as an adult, he was always Nahor’s boy. But God says, “Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”

God does not even tell Abram where he is going yet. Abram is called to make a complete break with his past, but without knowing anything about the future, only to trust the God who has called him. This isn’t immigration from the old country to the land of opportunity, but a blind trust in where God will lead him.

Yet the LORD strengthens Abram with seven promises: 1. I will make you a great nation. 2. I will bless you. 3. I will make your name great. 4. You will be a blessing. 5. I will bless those who bless you. 6. whoever curses you I will curse. 7. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you. Seven promises. Seven is the biblical number of completeness, so Abram is outfitted with complete promise. Instead of making himself into a great nation like the people of Babel sought to do, God will make Abram into a great nation. Instead of seeking to make a name for himself, God promises to make Abram’s name great. Instead of only being recipients of blessing, Abram and his offspring will also be a blessing to those around him – the blessing of God will flow through Abram to others. We will see in the weeks to come how God will begin to fulfill these promises in the life of Abram, but finally fulfill them in Jesus Christ, but this morning we should note that the final scope of God’s promises to Abram is the ends of the earth. Through one man, through the descendant of this one family, God will bless the whole world.

Verse 4 is startling for how short and blunt it is. And Abram went as the LORD had told him. Hearing the call of God and strengthened by his promises, Abram goes. There is no indication that Abram took time to think about it, even that he talked about it with Sarai, his wife. God speaks and Abram follows. He took everything – family, livestock, possessions, people. From what we know of Near Eastern geography, this was a four hundred mile journey and all we are told is and they set off for the land of Canaan and they arrived there.

We are told nothing of the journey, because I believe we are meant to focus more attention on what Abram does once he arrives in Canaan. In the rest of our time together, I want us to listen to what Abram does and imagine what God might be calling for us to do today.

Abram travelled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time, the Canaanites were in the land. The LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him.

Abram enters Canaan from the north and travels right to the heart of the land, to Shechem. It is there that God reveals to him that this is the land God will give him. This will be his inheritance and the beachhead of God’s work of redeeming the world. But the land is already occupied. There are already people in the land. In fact, Shechem is one of the centers of worship for the Canaanite religion. There are people there and they are already worshipping their gods. Yet, God promises to give this land to Abram’s descendents, so in the center of the land, in full view of the Canaanite shrine, Abram builds an altar to the LORD.

Abram then moves south to Bethel and again builds an altar to the LORD near another center of Canaanite religion. Lastly, he moves toward the southern edge of the land in the Negev and in a few chapters we are told he builds an altar to the LORD at Mamre. Only after Abram enters the land God will give him and only in that land does Abram build altars to the LORD. The four hundred mile journey from Harran to Canaan takes less than half a verse, but the seventy-five mile journey from Shechem to the Negev takes four full verses. Why is it so important for us to know about Abram building altars?

Building an altar is both an act of worship and a proclamation that this land belongs to God. Abram is praising God and reclaiming the land for the LORD. Just as Noah had built an altar after the flood proclaiming God’s rule over the earth, Abram’s altars are like raising a flag over the land of Canaan. Wherever God had given Abram land, Abram claimed it for the LORD. As John Calvin says, Abram “endeavoured, as much as lay in him, to dedicate to God, every part of the land to which he had access, and perfumed it with the odor of his faith.” We should note that Abram does not claim the land through force or conquest, but through worship. He lifts high the name of the LORD where the world is watching.

After Babel, things looked bleak. The peoples of the earth were scattered in judgment. Would God continue to care for, watch over, and rule the earth? Would God’s kingdom still come on earth as it is in heaven? Yes. The call of Abram is God’s answer, “Yes.” I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you. I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you I will curse and all people on earth will be blessed through you. God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven and it will begin through Abram. It will begin in Canaan.

So Abram builds an altar as a testament and trust that God’s kingdom rules over this land. Canaan was to be a beachhead of the kingdom of God and Abram, in effect, plants a flag so that all can see.

Abram’s descendants would inherit both the land and the promises. At times, they were shining examples of what it looks like when the kingdom of God has come, when the king’s will is done. Justice, peace, holiness, worship. But often they failed to live into the promise. They, too, polluted the land with their sin until it vomited them out into exile. Yet God did not break his promise. Eventually he brought them back and one day, he sent an angel to a young virgin who said, You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The LORD God will give him the throne of his father David and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.

In that child, Jesus, the promises made long ago to Abraham will finally be fulfilled. In him all the peoples of the earth will be blessed. God came as Jesus Christ to keep his promise to Abram to bless the world through him, his promise to Adam and Eve to end the separation. After dying and rising again, this God-man Jesus Christ said to his disciples words similar to those given to Abram. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

A few days later, he said to them, But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. The promise and the mission continue today. But now it is not just Canaan, but the very ends of the earth that are being brought under the saving rule of our Lord Jesus Christ. As Abraham Kuyper puts it, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

The LORD is king. He is redeeming his world and he graciously chose to do it through Abram. In response, Abram built altars to the LORD. Where God had placed him, Abram proclaimed the kingship of God.

Friends, where is God calling you to build an altar to the LORD? I don’t mean a physical altar of wood or stone, but where is God calling you to stake a claim that this land belongs to the LORD. He is king here. Maybe it is like Jeremy and Susan and their family, who have gone to Niger and by their words and their lives join with many in Niger who proclaim that the LORD is king. Perhaps it begins by asking how you can glorify God in your work, in your school, or in your home? What would it look like to build an altar and call upon the name of the LORD?

The landscape of our cities say much about what we value as a people. So does the landscape of our lives. A stranger walking through our country might hear a lot of talk about God, but would see that we build our altars to very different gods. Yet instead of trying to ‘take back the country for God,’ what if we began where God has placed us – in our homes, with our friends, on our land and in our work? What if we began here and asked what it would look like to build an altar to the LORD, to dedicate our lives wholly to the worship and mission of God?

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

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