Scriptures: Genesis 12:1-9; Hebrews 11:8-12
I had an English professor at Whitworth University who spoke at a chapel service and said, “Faith is the courage to step out knowing there is no certainty until after the step has been taken.”
That’s the story of Abraham in our scriptures this morning. Notice what Abraham is asked to leave behind:
Now the Lord said to Abram [his name before it was changed to Abraham], “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
Abraham was asked to leave behind family, friends, community, and country to set off for a land that God was going to show him. God did not even tell him where he was going. God just told him to set out. All he could do was hold on to the promise.
Now about that promise. I have said before in a sermon and I said it again last Sunday in the adult Sunday School class: the first three verses of Genesis 12 are the most important verses in the entire Old Testament. Abraham is given three promises in these three verses:
- Land: “Go to a land that I will show you.”
- Descendants: “I will make of you a great nations.”
- Blessing: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Land, descendants, and blessing. The next 900 pages of the Old Testament, and much of the New Testament, is the story of what happens to those three promises.
For his part Abraham is one of the least likely people to succeed at these promises.
- Land: Abraham is promised a land, but he spends his whole life as a wandering migrant, moving his sheep and cattle from place to place searching for pasture and water. The only piece of the promised land he ever owns is the cemetery plot for his wife Sarah.
- Descendants: Abraham is promised descendants who will become a great nation, but he and Sarah have no children and they are getting old. How will Abraham become the father of a great nation, if he dies childless?
- Blessing: Abraham and his descendants are to be a blessing to all the families of the earth, but Abraham spends his entire life just trying to survive in a parched land with sometimes hostile neighbors. How will a life like that ever be a blessing to others?
The only asset Abraham has, the only thing Abraham has going for him, is faith—the courage to take that first step and set out for the promised land, even though he does not know where it is.
Having said that, I must note that Abraham’s faith wavers all through the story. In the very next story, Genesis 12:10-21, there is a famine in the promised land. What does Abraham do? Does he trust God’s promise? No, he bails on the promised land and heads to Egypt. Then he lies to Pharaoh about Sarah, claiming she is his sister instead of his wife. He does this so that Pharaoh can take her into his harem without having to kill Abraham first in order to claim her. Basically he throws Sarah under the bus to save his neck. So much for having descendants with her. And because of this God brings plagues on Pharaoh and the people of Egypt, which means that far from becoming a blessing to other nations, Abraham has become a curse. No sooner does Abraham receive the promise of God than he endangers it because he tries to take matters into his own hands instead of trusting God.
And yet, God keeps saving the promise. Because of the plagues, Pharaoh restores Sarah to her husband Abraham, and later they are able to have children. Every time God’s people endanger the promise with their unfaithfulness, God saves it. That is the story of Genesis and the rest of the Old Testament. God keeps saving Abraham and his descendants until finally the descendant comes who can fulfill the promise—the descendant of Abraham who finally brings blessing to all the families of the earth.
And that is where we get Jesus. The very first thing the Bible tells us about Jesus, the very first verse of the New Testament, tells us that Jesus is a descendant of Abraham. He is the one in whom the promises to Abraham are finally fulfilled.
But that does not happen in Abraham’s lifetime. Instead Abraham must take a step into the unknown, knowing that there is no certainty until after the step has been taken.
In her book Traveling Mercies Anne Lamott writes,
A memory came to me then, of our pastor Veronica telling us just the week before how she gets direction from God in prayer; she said that when she prays for direction, one spot of illumination always appears just beyond her feet, a circle of light into which she can step. She moved away from the pulpit to demonstrate, stepping forward shyly—this big-boned African-American woman tramping like Charlie Chaplin into an imagined spotlight, and then, after standing there looking puzzled, she moved another step forward to where the light had gone, two feet ahead of where she had been standing, and then again. “We in our faith work,” she said, “stumble along toward where we think we’re supposed to go, bumbling along, and here is what’s so amazing—we end up getting exactly where we’re supposed to be” (p. 84).
For Abraham inheriting the land was not an event but a journey. This is exactly the point made about Abraham in our first scripture reading from the New Testament book of Hebrews: “By faith Abraham set out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.” For Abraham inheriting the promise was not an event but a journey, and the same is true for us. Faith in God does not mean you have arrived as a parent, a spouse, a neighbor, a coworker, or even a fully mature follower of Christ. Faith does not mean you have arrived. It means you are willing to take the next step God wants you to take, trusting that God knows where you are going and will be there every step of the way.