A Written Sermon

“Everyone Travels with a Text” (Genesis 12.1-9)

Abraham becomes famous in Genesis chapter 12. But we meet him one chapter earlier where he is a nomad. He is old, childless and he serves the gods that culture offers up, just like everyone else does. He is an unlikely candidate to be on the cover of Time Magazine. Yet, there he was on September 30, 2002. Everything changed for Abraham when he received a text “Go… and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

It is important to know that all of us begin the year with a text. It does not matter whether we are looking for one or not. We have a text and it will shape the path we follow. We read a text today. Before it was our text, it was Abraham’s text. Abraham, one raised to serve other gods, Abraham, old and childless receives this text. He was told to “Go… and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” It is of interest to us that when he received this text, Abraham gives up the texts he has heard before. He stops listening to those other texts and heeds this text.

Genesis makes it clear to us what Abraham’s text is. It is less clear what our own text might be. The text we choose to live by may not be so obvious. Still each of us live by a text. Sometimes we think if we did not have the biblical text, we would have no text at all. But everyone lives by a text, known or unknown.

If we are not listening to the biblical text, other texts will take over. Many texts are waiting to move in and guide our lives. Genesis may suggest that these other texts are less adventurous, less reliable and shallow. Still the texts of culture tempt us. In desperate moments we borrow from them or even partially commit to them. We regularly find ourselves with people who are haunted by the question “Is there a text that can make sense of my life?” I propose Abraham was one of those people. That is until he received this text.

From that time on this text became Abraham’s constant companion. Genesis says Abraham went forth. Everywhere he went, this text, this promise, was present. We read that he is in Canaan, among the Canaanites, these words were with him. He was to live by this text while surrounded by people who do not know this text. He was to live by this text among people who follow different texts.

I cannot help but stop here and ask “What does it mean to be where we are and surrounded by others who live differently? What does it mean to be listening to words no one else is listening to? Are we secret operatives who carry news that can save the world? Are we spies who deliver news to a land that has not heard this news before? Are we couriers who belong to some revolution? What reason do we have for living by a text so different than what others live by? Genesis suggests it is because “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

Perhaps we should be surprised that Abraham receives this text at all. After all, humans were originally a critical part of the plan. The role they are to play in creation is significant. People are the image bearers of the Creator – the representatives of God in the world. But people drop the ball. Not just once but multiple times. Yet, in a surprise move God does not give up on people. God does not abandon the plan. He still calls people to stand at the dangerous intersection where heaven and earth meet. That is where we find ourselves today. Ever since Abraham received this text.

I think of the way the book of Job is introduced with a meeting in the heavens and I imagine that something like that might have taken place with Abraham. I sometimes wonder about the days when the sons of God, Satan among them, presented themselves before the Lord. I wonder if on one of those days the Lord asked Satan, “Where have you come from?” And Satan would reply “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.”

And then Satan would continue, “I know that you desire humans be your image bearers, your representatives on earth. But the human experiment has been a disaster. They disappoint at every turn. Do you remember what happened in Eden? Have you forgotten the corruption of the days of Noah? Must I remind you what they were doing at Babel? Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that humans will never become the representatives you had hoped for.”

And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered the human Abraham? I have selected him to leave his home. His descendants will be many and his reputation will bring me glory. The whole earth will be influenced by this plan.”

Then Satan answered the Lord, “Have you considered his age? Have you considered he is childless and his wife is barren?” Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, watch this plan change the world.”

Abraham and Sarah are introduced in a way to show this is still God’s plan. People are a blessing to the world. But, God has a specific people in mind. A particular family who are living by a particular text. Abraham and Sarah are called to reverse the problems of Adam and Eve. As God was present in Eden he will dwell with his people who live by his words.

The biblical text is a necessary companion of the church. At times the difficulties cause the church to try to travel without portions of the text. Yet the people of God and the word of God belong together. Each of them is incomplete without the other. Each helps to make sense of the other.

Still we are constantly turning the page to find yet another challenge from the text. We cannot shrug it off because we do not like where it is going. We should not attempt to move past these parts quickly or quietly. Like Abraham we do not know exactly where this text will lead. We do not know exactly what happens next. But we must take this text seriously. Because we know that a promise was given to a particular people that says “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”

Exodus and the Empire

The world, governed as it is by Pharaoh, is convincing. It becomes easy to accept what Pharaoh offers and accept it as reality. Exodus sees things differently and opposes Pharaoh’s reality. Exodus implies a promise from God. Pharaoh does not like such a promise because it suggests the present empire is inadequate. That is to say – Exodus makes empires nervous. Exodus brings people from a place where everything they do is never enough to a place where what God does is enough.

Preaching Exodus then, can never be “How to Put Egypt Behind You” or “Five Ways to Survive the Wilderness.” Such sermons are strongly influenced by the empire and endorsed by Pharaoh who is convinced that with enough resources and gumption we are able to manage our own dilemmas. Exodus cautions against leaving out the main player in this drama and knows that we cannot put Egypt behind us or survive the wilderness on our own. But then – Exodus wants us to know that we are not on our own.

The Reality of the Promise

We find an interesting picture as the Joseph narrative is nearly finished and Joseph introduces his father Jacob to the Pharaoh of Egypt. Here Genesis gives a clash of world views. Two different histories. Two different ways of life. One appears secure, the other appears to have nothing. In fact, these two have only one thing in common – Joseph. Pharaoh is settled, safe and prosperous. Jacob is a nomad with nothing but a promise. Yet he believes this promise more than any of the Egyptian realities.

“Then Joseph brought his father Jacob and presented him to Pharaoh; and Jacob blessed Pharaoh.” Pharaoh asks a question, Jacob responds, but Genesis seems more interested in telling us again “And Jacob blessed Pharaoh.”

This conversation does not go the way we might expect. This meeting between Jacob of the promise and the Pharaoh of Egypt. Of all people to bless – Jacob blesses Pharaoh. Not only am I predisposed to think that Pharaoh does not merit a blessing. But, it seems that if there is a blessing to be made between these two players, it would be the other way around. Jacob appears needy, he is dependent on Pharaoh for resources. He sent his sons to beg Egypt for food. Pharaoh has everything at his disposal. Yet, Genesis is clear. Jacob blesses Pharaoh. Israel blesses Egypt.

Jacob is not alone in having an audience that may be looking elsewhere for stability. We are not the first to share blessing with people trusting in a more visible reality. As Pharaoh, people who hear our words of blessing may not be expecting a word from God. In fact, they may, as Pharaoh may have been, be thinking that they are ok with the way things are. Yet, God is not. So He sends a word.

I am struck by the fact that Jacob blessed Pharaoh. Jacob blessed Pharaoh and we are reminded that it is not necessary to have more than those we speak to. Jacob blessed Pharaoh and we are reminded that God is interested in people that we may find undeserving. Jacob blessed Pharaoh and we realize the success of preaching is not in our hands. Jacob blessed Pharaoh and we are reminded to believe in the reality of the promise more than the reality of the prevailing worldview.