For the first eleven chapters of Genesis we are given the biblical version of "World History." As chapter twelve opens, we are plunged into the life and faith of Israel. We meet Abram and Sarai, whose names and identities will change, whose lives will change as they leave their homeland and head into the land of promise, the land which the Lord, their God, is giving them. And they begin this walk when the Lord simply says, "Leave your country, your family, and your father's home for a land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). God promises a new land, blessings beyond measure, and this: "All families of the earth will be blessed through you" (Gen. 12:3). John Calvin wrote of this, "God asks Abraham and Sarah to go with their eyes closed . . . until having renounced their country, they shall have given themselves wholly unto God."
"Abram obeys blindly and without objection" (Gerhard Von Rad, Commentary, p. 161). He sets out. He does what ancient men never did, for to leave a home and to break ancestral bonds was unheard of in the ancient world. It was almost impossible. It was like a change of faith. He had no idea where he was going. This open-ended invitation to move leaves Abram with nothing but a verbal promise and a contour-less map.
Setting out with his nephew, Lot, the 75-year-old Abram and his young wife Sarai (only 65 yrs. old), first arrive in Shechem, an ancient Canaanite city. There God appears again with the good news, "I will give this land to your children." Abram doesn't ask, "What children?" Or, "What about me, Sarah, and Lot?" "Abram builds an altar, the first in the Holy Lands, and this altar, not far from the pagan cultic center of the Canaanites, is a sign at first still silent, still non-combative of infinite significance" (Von Rad, p. 162).
The text tells us that he keeps moving south. Between Bethel and Ai, again two Canaanite settlements, he builds a second altar and calls on the name of the Lord. He doesn't preach to the heathens (as some would surmise). He prays to the Almighty. He calls on Yahweh for help. And then, he moves one more time, this time arriving in his future home (although he doesn't yet know that). This is significant because the fulfillment of this promise lies beyond his lifetime, his journey, his path. His purpose is to walk, to pray, to trust, to build and to believe the promises of God.
With eyes closed, Abram walks away from his present situation and follows God's path into an unknown future. How amazing. How many of us just set out on a journey one day? How many of us trust God to guide our feet? For those who do, you know that it is a stunning experience. To follow a roadmap with no specific direction and no clear destination is a counter-cultural journey. It is not encouraged in too many families. We are expected to know the way we are headed and go there. We laugh at those who seemingly have no sense of direction. And we all want our children to have purpose and direction, just like us. When they reach their senior year of high school, they are expected to decide on a college, declare a major, and to head a certain way forward.
The other night during Luke's honors celebration at Worthington Kilbourne High School, I was amazed that one teen after another stood up, announced their college and their major and walked into the future, seemingly unfazed by their clear direction (while I sat there trying to figure out how they knew all of this already). One young woman stands out in my memory of that night. Like Abram, she courageously stepped to the mike and said, "I don't know where I am headed in the future. I am going to take some time off and sort things out." It was gutsy and honest heresy. She told a room full of expectant parents and honors graduates that she wasn't going to spend $10,000-40,000 of someone else's money to wander in the wilderness of life. I want to meet this young pilgrim. Her name is probably Sarah and she is dating a guy named Abraham. Trusting the unknown, she journeys on.
William Bridges tells of a moment of existential crisis in his own transition story in his book: Transitions: Making Sense Out of Life's Changes. He was a Classics professor. When the department in his small liberal arts college closed, the college employed him in the admissions department. He was unfulfilled and left the job for an unknown future. One day, his young daughter was playing with a friend. He overheard them talking about their dads. The friend's dad was a successful rocket scientist. Bill Bridges' daughter said, "Well, my dad used to teach Greek to a handful of students. Now he doesn't know what he's doing." Sweat! Existential Anxiety. Perhaps Isaac said the same of his father, Abraham!
Following graduation, or job loss, or a move which we haven't quite figured out for ourselves, or the loss of a child, a close friend, or a parent or a spouse, or the loss of a long and meaningful relationship, we don't seem to know what we are doing and where we are going. From Abraham, we learn to simply set out. Simply opening our sails, pointing our nose into the wind, and setting out works. The journey of faith is like that. There are times we would rather stay in our comfort zone. But, in the words of Soren Kierkegaard, moving forward in our lives "takes a leap of faith." In his song by that name, Bruce Springsteen sings, "It takes a leap of faith to get things going. It takes a leap a faith. You gotta show some guts. It takes a leap of faith to get things going. Hey, in your heart, baby you must trust." Sometimes a leap of faith from the midst of loss and struggle looks more like one baby step forward. I might add, the future of Jewish and ultimately Christian and Islamic faith changed the day that Abram and Sarai took one another's hands and started walking south.
As the journey of faith begins in Genesis, a sermon on faith comes to an end in Matthew's gospel. Matthew 7:21-29 brings us to the end of the Sermon on the Mount. The sermon began with Jesus' teachings known as "The Beatitudes." Those opening sermonic words of hope, promise, and blessing passed by chapters ago. Here at the end of his sermon, Jesus offers warnings and judgement. I like the way, Eugene Peterson translates this section in The Message. Beginning in Matthew 7:13, Jesus says to his followers:
"Don't look for shortcuts to God . . . The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don't fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life - to God - is vigorous and requires total attention.
Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or other. Don't be impressed with charisma. Look for character. Who preachers ARE is the main thing, not what they say. A genuine leader will not exploit your emotions or your pocketbook. These diseased trees with their bad apples are going to be chopped down and burned.
Knowing the correct password - saying "Lord, Lord" for instance - is not going to get you anywhere with me. What is required is serious OBEDIENCE - DOING what my Father wills. I can see it now - at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying `Lord, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.' And do you know what I am going to say, `You missed the boat! All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don't impress me one bit. You are out of here.'
(He continues) These words are not incidental additions to your life. They are not homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build your life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Even with the rains and the floods, nothing moved that house.
But, if you use my words in Bible studies and don't work them into your life, you are like a stupid carpenter who built his rock on the sandy beach. When a storm rolled in and the waves came up, it collapsed like a house of cards.
When Jesus finished his talk, the crowds applauded. They had never heard teaching like this. It was apparent he was living everything he was saying - quite a contrast to their religious teachers. This was the best teaching they had ever heard.
I read this to mean: "walk the talk." Jesus is done with hypocrisy and two- faced messengers. He isn't interested in smooth-talking personalities. Character not charisma is what he is looking for. At the end of the day or the end of your life, you will have to answer for the way you lived and what you did in relation to God and other people. You, not someone else, will have to answer for you.
Jesus really helps us with these words. He cuts to the quick. He calls each one of us to look at ourselves. He calls each one of us to confess to God what is not right inside of our hearts, our minds, and then to accept God's forgiveness and grace. He is quite clear: there are a lot of preachers who have lots of charisma, they look good, they talk a sweet line, but they don't live the way they talk. They lack character. I can't speak for other preachers and religious leaders. I can tell you I have shortcomings. I have failings in my life. Some of you have taken time to point them out to me through our 5 ½ years together.
I can also tell you I confess to God each day the places of my brokenness, of which I am aware. Jesus tells us here that each of us must do the same thing. I can't answer for you. You can't answer for me. Are you living right in God's sight? Are you honest? Are you kind? Are you fair? Are you just? Are you loving? Is faith an act or a way of life? Are you walking the talk?
I am mindful this Memorial Sunday, of the men and women who sacrificed their lives for us on the battlefields of war. For each soul, in each battle, in each war, I give thanks to Almighty God for the ultimate sacrifice they gave for me and for all of us. As I think of them in the context of this passage, my mind goes to the film "Saving Private Ryan." At the end of the movie, having been saved by a unit of courageous men who laid down their lives for this one man, the commander of the unit facing certain death himself, looks into Private Ryan's eyes and says, "Live a good life. Be a good man." Fifty years later, near the end of his days and standing by the grave of that Lieutenant, Private Ryan asks if his wife and family with tears streaming down his face, "Have I been a good man?" Like Private Ryan, all of us have to answer that question before our maker one day. Have you been a good man? Have you been a good woman? Know that God accepts the confessions of our hearts. He welcomes our honest prayers and reflections on the shortcomings of our lives. He wants us to turn from any and all ways of wickedness and live.
So set out today. The future may be uncertain. But take a leap of faith. Go with God. And as you do, know that the way of Jesus can and will guide you to be good men, good women. Amen.
Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church