Saturday, September 17, 2022

“You Need to Go” - September 18, 2022

Text: Genesis 12:1-9

Last week we began our fall excursion through the Old Testament scriptures.  We heard the story of Noah and his family and the animals in the ark, and God making a promise to all the creatures of the earth and giving the rainbow as the sign of that promise.

Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The oldest son, Shem, is the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather (that’s seven greats!) of Abram.  Now Abram had two brothers.  One was named Haran, who died leaving a son, Lot.  We don’t know about Lot’s mother, but she seems to be out of the picture and has apparently died as well.

Abram and his wife Sarai, along with his father Terah and his nephew Lot, set out to travel from their home in Ur of the Chaldeans to the land of Canaan.  But they don’t get very far.

They arrive in the city of Haran.  This of course was the name of Abram’s brother who had died.  Haran was Lot’s father.  We don’t know if they city was named for him or another Haran but it is striking that the family stopped there and apparently could not bring themselves to go any further.  They don’t move on.  And eventually Abram’s father Terah died there.

That brings us to the scripture that Barbara read for us from Genesis 12.  “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  

Did I mention that Abram was 75 years old?  We are not told how long the family had been in Haran, but they may have been there for some time.  Rather than moving to a new land, Abram may have been more interested in looking into a retirement community.  But God speaks to him and says, “Go to a land I will show you.”  

Of course it is difficult to just up and leave.  And of course it is shocking that Abram didn’t even know where it was that God would show them.

But I can’t help but think, maybe, that deep down Abram knew that he needed to go, that he needed to move on.  His family had set off for the land of Canaan, but they had never got there.  Not long into their journey they had stopped.  The place that they stopped – Haran - was a reminder of their loss, a reminder of their grief.  They stopped in Haran and somehow they never got back on the road.  And while Abram did not know it yet, the place they had originally set out for – the land of Canaan – was exactly where God would wind up leading him.

Now the text is interesting here.  It says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  There are actually a couple of Hebrew words that together are translated simply as “go.”

Lech lecha is literally go “to yourself” or go “for yourself.”  Go for yourself to a land that I will show you.  It’s not very smooth.  Maybe this is something like “Get yourself up and go,” but it’s not surprising that most English translations have this as simply “go.”  I looked at several, and I did find one that said, “lit. go for yourself” in the footnotes.  

But I wonder if there is some value in thinking about this as “go for yourself.”  This is not a case of God just arbitrarily telling Abram to head off somewhere.  Abram and his family are kind of stuck.  They began a journey but never got to where they were headed.  Whether out of grief or loyalty to the memory of Abram’s brother Haran or whether they had just become kind of settled in this place, or maybe just out of inertia, they were sort of stuck.  The more time that passed by, the tougher it was to get going.

God asked Abram to go, not only to fulfill God’s purposes, but to go for himself.  This was something Abram needed to do.

Now I have heard this story many times, preached on it more than a few, but I had never caught this little tidbit before.  Go for yourself.  But I think it can resonate for all of us.

We can all get stuck.  We can all have trouble moving on.  Leaving behind old ways is not easy.  There are those times when we need to go physically, but there are also those times when we need to move on mentally and emotionally and spiritually.

Abram and Sarai and Lot pack up and go, along with their household – they may have had servants, may have had herdsman who worked for them.  They loaded up all of their possessions.  It’s not just packing for a weekend trip.  They have the 26 foot U-Haul filled to the brim and it is a one-way rental.  Abram goes all in on following this God that as far as we know, he barely knows.

Did I mention Abram was 75 years old?  They don’t know where they are going, what they will find there, what life will be like.  They don’t know how long this journey will take.  They can only imagine what danger may lie ahead.  

A lot of us do all we can to minimize, if not eliminate, the unforeseen.  We plan ahead for trips.  We use our navigation system to tell us exactly where we are and how to get where we are going and exactly when we will arrive.

Most of us do not do well with risks.  If you are signing up for classes for the next semester, you definitely want to get a scouting report on the professor.  We want to know what we are getting into.

But for all our trying to control things, life just cannot be controlled.  For all our efforts to minimize risks and figure out the future and manage what is coming down the road, we can’t do it.  We may not be quite as clueless as Abram and Sarai, but there is a good chance we don’t have as good a handle on the future as we may think.

There are all kinds of doorways to the future in life, moments when things change.  Going off to college, graduating, getting married, seeing your children go off to college, starting a new job, buying a house, retirement.  These are events that can change the course of our lives.  So can events that we don’t necessarily choose, like illness or divorce or getting laid off.

If we look back on our lives, most of us would not have come close to predicting the twists and turns our lives would take.  Most of us would think we have very little in common with Abraham and Sarah, as they come to be known.  Setting out, not knowing where they were going?  At an advanced age?  We cannot imagine that.  

But looking back, we realize that we are more like them than we might think.  And like Abram, there are those times when we are called to something new – for ourselves, for our own good.

Abram and Sarai were headed to a land that God would show them.  That is exactly where we are headed.  We do not know where we will be at some point in the future.  Many of you did not know that the land God would show you would be called Iowa.  And it is even possible that a few years from now you will live here in Ames, perhaps living in the very same house you are in now, and yet things will be so different you will for all intents and purposes be living in a new land.

There was an incident involving a bus driver in the Bronx.  He simply drove away in his empty bus one day and kept going.  He wasn’t going anywhere in particular, he was just going.  No one knew where he or the bus were until he was picked up by police several days later in Florida.  He told police that he was just sick and tired of driving the same old route, day after day, month after month, year after year, and he decided to drive a different route and go on a trip.

As he was being brought back to New York, it was clear that the bus company was having a hard time knowing what to do.  This story was in the news and by the time this driver arrived back in the Bronx, he was kind of a folk hero.  A crowd of people was on hand to welcome him.  When the company announced it would forego legal action and give the man his job back if he promised not to pull a stunt like that again, cheers went up in the Bronx.  Clearly, there were a lot of other bored and unhappy people around who would have loved to do what this man did.

Sometimes, we just need a change.  We need to do something different, go somewhere different, be someone different.  We need to go “for ourselves.” Often, God can be in these times of feeling unsettled.  Choices we make and changes we make often come in God’s Time.  As God led Abram and Sarai, God leads us in making choices and making changes and setting out on new journeys, whether it is a journey to a new place or a journey to a new way of living or a journey to a new understanding of God and ourselves and others.

Pam Tinnin said that as she was considering entering seminary at age 47, the idea of graduating and trying to get a church at age 50 was overwhelming.  She remembers talking about this with her older sister and saying in a rather anguished voice, “But if I go now, I'll be 50 years old when I graduate.”

Her sister asked her, “Well, how old will you be if you don’t go?”  That seemed to help put it in perspective for her.  She went to seminary, and has now served churches in Kansas and California.

Of course, setting off on a new journey isn’t easy.  It can be scary.  Novelist Stephen King, who knows a thing or two about scariness, said, “The scariest moment is always just before you start.”

And so God gives us grace and courage for those journeys.  For Abram, God’s call came with a promise – a covenant.  “Leave your home, go to a place I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation.  In you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.”  

It is an amazing promise.  But we couldn’t really blame Abram if he had said, “God, I think you’ve called the wrong person.  Sarai and I are too old.  We are too set in our ways.  And more to the point, God, it seems like a really bad plan to have an older, childless couple be parents of a great nation.”   

We may feel overwhelmed by what is before us.  But if God has called us, God is with us, and we are up to the challenge.  Harry Emerson Fosdick, the great Baptist preacher, said, “Always take a job that is too big for you.”  How’s that for a philosophy of life?  If God has given us a dream, if God has given us an opportunity, God will be with us.  

Now, there is a lot to be said for permanence, a lot to recommend it.  There is certainly a lot to be said for stability.  There are those times when God says, “You need to go,” and there are also those times when God says, “You need to stay.”  But it is possible to be so focused on maintaining things as they are, so committed to preserving things as they always been, that we can lose sight of what really matters.  

And this is not only true for individuals.  It is true for institutions, for schools, for communities, for churches – we can get stuck.  It is possible to make caring for the institution more important than caring for souls.  

If you think about Jesus, one of the things that characterized his ministry is that he was on the go.  He goes from place to place, sharing and embodying the Good News.

The place we are called to may be far away or it may be the very place that we live, but either way we are called to journey with Jesus.

Go for yourself on that journey.  Amen.

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