Abraham: The Father Of Us All

For Sunday June 5, 2005

           Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)
           Genesis 12:1–9 or Hosea 5:15–6:6
           Psalm 33:1–12 or 50:7–15
           Romans 4:13–25
           Matthew 9:9–13, 18–26

Paradise with Christ in the lap of Abraham, 13th century Germany.
Paradise with Christ in the lap of
Abraham, 13th century Germany.

           Parents of teenagers are experts in the counsel of the Genesis story about Abraham for this week—that some of the most important choices we make in life can be the most counter-intuitive ones. After loving their children for about fifteen years by exercising significant control over their lives, parents must actively unlearn that pattern, relinquish control, and do so at times when their natural impulse is to do the exact opposite.

           The first nine verses from Genesis 12 tell the story of God's call upon Abraham's life, and it is a call repeated to each one of us. This call from God subverts much conventional wisdom, and so it can feel counter-intuitive, for it is a call to move beyond three very human, powerful and deep-seated fears—fear of the unknown that we cannot control, fear of others who are different from us, and fear of personal powerlessness in the face of impossibilities.

           First, God called Abraham to leave his geographic place and, with it, everything that was familiar: "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you" (12:1). So Abraham gathered his family and possessions, left Haran, and "set out for the land of Canaan." This story is about more than a change of geography. In leaving Haran for Canaan, Abraham left all that was familiar—all custom and comfort, family and friends, all regularity and rhythm of his life. The only thing he would retain of Haran was the power of memory. This was a journey from former clarity into a future of genuine and profound ignorance. Abraham journeyed from what he had to what he did not have, from the known to the unknown, from everything that was familiar to all things strange. Thus the New Testament commentary on his subversive obedience to God: "By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country" (Hebrews 11:8–9).

God covenants to make Abraham a father of many nations, Marc Chagall, 1931.
God covenants to make
Abraham a father of
many nations,
Marc Chagall, 1931.

           In his journey into the unknown, Abraham embraced ignorance, relinquished control, and chose to live with confidence in God's promise to bless him in a new and strange place. But this required a second choice on his part. He had to leave not only his geographic place. He had to leave behind his narrow-minded, small-minded, parochial vision, the tendency in all of us to exclude the strange and the stranger, for God gave a staggering promise to this obscure, Semitic nomad: in response to his obedience God would make him the heir of all the world.

           Notice the simultaneous narrowing and expansion of God's action in history, a move from the particular to the universal. God calls a single individual, Abraham, and promises that he will inherit the entire earth. There is a progressive expansion in God's promise. God vows to make of him a "great nation." Paul describes him as a father of "many nations" (Romans 4:17 = Genesis 17:5). We then read that "all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (12:3). Once again, the New Testament commentary elucidates this Old Testament story. Through this one man, and the one nation Israel, God made Abraham "the father of us all" (Romans 4:16–17). In one particular person God enacted his universal embrace of all humanity.

The call of Abraham, ceramic relief by Richard McBee, 1980.
The call of Abraham, ceramic relief
by Richard McBee, 1980.

           Our common tendency is to fear the other, to suspect and marginalize the strange, to dismiss all that is different from who and what we know. In his new book Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places (2005), Eugene Peterson comments on our propensity to sectarian, narcissistic narrow mindedness. Says Peterson, we

exclude all who don't suit our preferences. We become a sect. Sects are composed of men and women who reinforce their basic selfism by banding together with others who are pursuing similar brands of selfism, liking the same foods, believing in the same idols, playing the same games, despising the same outsiders...A sect is accomplished by community reduction, getting rid of what does not please us, getting rid of what offends us, whether of ideas or of people. We construct religious clubs instead of entering resurrection communities...[But] with the call of Abraham, the long, slow, complex, and still continuing movement to pull all these selves into a people of God community began. The birthing of Jesus' community on the Day of Pentecost was an implicit but emphatic repudiation and then reversal of Babel sectarianism.1

Instead of this exclusionary parochialism, instead of defining people out of the community "according to our own tastes and predispositions" (Peterson), God called Abraham and now us to a universal and inclusive embrace of everyone and "all peoples on earth."

           There was one problem to this divine promise of progeny to bless the entire world through a single individual who in obedience journeyed into the unknown. Abraham and his wife Sarah were both about seventy-five years old (Genesis 12:4), and while they might not have had our knowledge of the biology of human reproduction that we enjoy today, they knew full well that they were beyond their child-bearing years. Humanly-speaking, they faced an impossibility that brought them face to face with their own powerlessness to alter their circumstances. Biologically-speaking, barren Sarah and impotent Abraham were "as good as dead" (Hebrews 11:12).

Your descendants will be as numerous as the stars, Genesis 22:17.
Your descendants will be as numerous
as the stars, Genesis 22:17.

           But Abraham made a counter-intuitive and subversive choice; he believed that God had the power to perform what He had promised, for He is a God who "gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were" (Romans 4:17, 21). That is to say, Abraham moved beyond his fear of powerlessness to faith that God could, quite literally, make something out of nothing. After a few false starts and flounderings, Issac, the son of promise, was born.

           When God called him, Abraham made the counter-intuitive choice to subvert conventional wisdom and move beyond what might be normal and understandable human fears—ignorance, inclusion, and impotence. Instead of lamenting his ignorance and the loss of control, he embarked upon a journey into the unknown. Instead of fearing inclusion of the strange and the outsider, he gave himself to God's promise of universal blessings for the whole earth. In the face of his own profound impotence, he believed that God could do the impossible. In so doing, Abraham became "the father of us all."

[1] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), pp. 242, 244.