A baptismal meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, August 3, 2003, Pentecost 8, dedicated to Timothy E. Smith on his first Sunday as our Minister of Music and to Braden Davis Cook on his baptismal day and always to the glory of God!
(Part I of V in the sermon series, "Abraham: The Father of Three Faiths")
Genesis 12:1-9; John 6:24-35
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in my sight O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
"He has no mother. He has no past. He has no personality. The man who will redefine the world appears suddenly, almost as an afterthought, with no trumpet fanfare, no fluttering doves, in Genesis 11:26, `When Terah has lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran.' From this a-heroic start, Abram (which in Hebrew means "mighty father") goes on to abandon his father at age seventy-five, leave his homeland, move to Canaan, travel to Egypt, father two sons (the first from his wife's servant and second from his wife Sarah), change his name, circumcise himself, circumcise both his teenager and newborn, exile his first son, attempt to kill his second, fight a world war, buy some land, bury his wife, father another family, and die at one hundred seventy-five." (Bruce Feiler, Abraham, William Morrow, HarperCollins, New York, NY, 2002, pp. 18-19). This is what the texts of Hebrew scripture tell us about Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Not much. Not noble.
For almost four thousand years, the story of Abraham was almost universally believed - as the word of tradition, the word of scripture, the word of God, or all three. With the coming of the Enlightenment, many began demanding proof. With no bones, no physical evidence, and no substantiation, scholars and lay people throughout the past 200 years have doubted that the patriarchal narratives had any basis in fact. By 1974, T.L. Thompson wrote, "The quest for the historical Abraham is basically a fruitless occupation." He continued, "the story is little more than a collection of literary traditions, best compared to tales like Hamlet and King Lear." (Ibid, p. 21).
"But, Abraham fought back" (Ibid). Tablets found in Nuzi, in northern Iraq, clearly supported having children by handmaidens as a legal and well-known custom. Archaeologists presented supporting evidence that mass migrations from Mesopotamia to Canaan happened around 1800 B.C.E. Although precise evidence is lacking still, a new consensus is emerging that the Abrahamic story, deeply rooted in oral tradition can be grounded in his native soil.
Whether an actual figure or a composite, Abraham emerges from the world of Semitic tribes on the upper arm of the Fertile Crescent. His lifestyle is one both Hebrew and Aramaic in nature; a semi-nomadic man or Arab (which is the meaning of semi-nomadic) and yet a settler on God-promised land.
Abraham's story is a mix of history, and myth, of wandering and settling, of stranger in a strange land, of outsider who longs to be the insider, of landless one who longs for the land, of pious man who finds his peace in one God, a peace that brings him at last to rest in God from the pains of his journey. (References to Feiler, p. 21).
What makes this "mighty father" special is that he comprehends what no other man or woman before him has "gotten." Abraham understands that "God is one." He is the first monotheist. While Jews have Moses; Christians have Jesus; and Muslims have Muhammad, all three traditions hold as special this one man who knows, who believes, who follows, One God. For Jews, it is Abraham who receives the promise of the Land. For Christians, Abraham is spoken of in liturgy and song, Abraham is the model of faithfulness to God, the one who obeys God and follows where God leads (Hebrews 11). For Muslims, Abraham is the rock upon which the entire faith is built for "God is One" is the core belief of Islam.
God's choice of Abraham is in itself very special. God who creates the universe, the sun and the moon; the earth and the seas; every living creature who walks and swims; this God, our God needs Abraham. While humans have disappointed God time and time again in the text of Genesis, Abraham is different. God wants to be imitated. God wants to be loved. In Abraham, God creates someone who is faithful and obedient, who imitates and loves, who is grateful for the blessing of life.
As the first man in the 20th generation of humans, Abraham is not spoken of as righteous. He is not particularly special. By the time we meet him he is old. He seems unsure. He makes mistakes. In a text which is completely focused on creation, Abraham is not able to create. His story is dominated by the childlessness. It is almost as if he is so unlike the Creator, that this makes him special. He is human! As such, he is completely in need of God! (Reference, Feiler, pp. 22-25).
While many in the human race, especially in our generation, strive to be Godlike, powerful, and in control, in so doing, they lack what Abraham possesses. They lack absolute humanness. Nelly Sachs, the German poet who won the Nobel Prize in 1966, viewed Abraham as a representative human being, looking out at a decimated landscape, peering beyond the flames, aching for just a piece of the divine. Nelly Sachs writes: "You have called me, Abram. And I long so much for you." (Ibid, p. 25).
By the 20th Generation of humans, God certainly needs one such as this - one who is so fully human, yet one who longs so much for the divine. As much as we are like Abraham - so human, and yet so longing for the divine - we too will find our rest in God.
And so it begins. In the weeks to come, we will explore the father of three faiths. Remember, that between now and next Sunday, over half the world's population will invoke the name of Abraham, the man who loves God. May the same be said of you in the week that stands before us. Amen.
Copyright 2003, The First Congregational Church
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