The Calling of Abraham
- Main Text: Genesis 12:1-9
- Accompanying Text: Matthew 28:19-20
Our text opens with God’s promise to Abraham (12:1-3). As in the story of Noah, God’s initiative of grace comes first, and it is not something that Abraham has earned – it is a gift of God. This is particularly significant to us, because through this same promise, God blesses us. A life of faith (and Abraham is often held up in the Bible as an example of a man of faith) is a response to God’s grace, and not a way to earn God’s grace.
We will refer to the story of Abraham (Abram) in all four years of the Lectionary. NB: Abram’s renaming to Abraham occurs later in Genesis 17:5. It is worth clarifying this when delivering a sermon on this text because it can be confusing especially when referencing later texts which exclusively use Abraham (e.g. the NT).
Abram first appears in the Bible a few verses earlier in 11:26, at the end of a long section on the descendants of Shem (Noah’s son). Before God’s promise in 12:1-3 we do not know a lot about Abram, but we are told in 11:30 that his wife Sarai (later Sarah) is barren (and so the lineage seemingly comes to an end). We also know that he comes from Ur of the Chaldeans and that he had set out with his father, Terah, to go the land of Canaan, but had settled in Haran, where Abram’s father died.
The promise made by God in 12:1-3 carries a particular weight for Abram. God is promising to a man who is childless and whose wife is barren that he will be the father of a great nation, and, that through him, all the earth will be blessed. God’s promise gives hope to a man who has cause to despair.
Ray Anderson argues that the barrenness of Sarai represents a ‘barrier to the realisation of Abraham’s dream and God’s promise’.¹ Yet one of the messages of the story of Abraham is that God can bring new life to what is barren and dead (see Heb 11:12). When everything seems lost, there is always hope with God.
Our call to follow Jesus must be seen in light of the promise we have been given in Christ. God’s promise to Abraham is his promise to us (see Gal 3:29). Even when we experience barrenness and homelessness in our life we have hope in Christ that we can and will be a blessing to the nations, that we will have a legacy to leave behind. Hope from despair. Light from darkness.
The promise also follows on from the story of the tower of Babel in 11:1-9. In the promise that God makes to Abram, God gives to him what the people of Babel sought to make for themselves. He promises Abram that he will make him into a great nation and that he will make his name great (contrast to 11:4).
In 12:1 God instructs Abram to leave his country, his people and his father’s household. God’s promise begins with an instruction to leave the comfort and security that he has had in Haran. In the instruction to leave his father’s household it is likely that it is referring to leaving his inheritance from his father, and that he is embarking on a journey that will leave him without the protection of that family and community. He is being asked to step out into the unknown and to place his trust in who God is and in God’s faithfulness.
In 12:2-3 we have the main text of the promise. Walter Brueggemann writes: ‘The promise is God’s power and will to create a new future sharply discontinuous with the past and the present. The promise is God’s resolve to form a new community wrought only by miracle and reliant only on God’s faithfulness. Faith as response is the capacity to embrace that announced future with such passion that the present can be relinquished for the sake of the future.”²
Like Abram, we have been called to a new future in Christ that is ‘sharply discontinuous with the past and present’. We are called to be a ‘new community wrought only by miracle and reliant only on God’s faithfulness.’
Gal 3:29 says that ‘if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.’ As heirs according to the promise, we are also called to leave behind what we know, the comfort and security of our earthly possessions, and, like the disciples, put our trust in Jesus and to follow him (see Matt 16:24-26). When Abram left his country he also left behind his culture.
Abram believed in the promise even when there seemed no hope of the possibility of fulfilment, and we are called to share his belief, and put our trust in the creator God who has the power to bring forth life from what is dead. Gal 3:8 calls the story of Abraham ‘the gospel beforehand’. That what the world once thought impossible is possible by the power of God.
In Gen 12:4 we read that Abram stepped out in faith and followed God’s instructions, taking with him his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot and all their possessions on the 500-mile journey to Canaan. In Hebrews 11:8-16, the author describes how Abram’s faith can encourage us in our own journey of faith. While Abraham is described as being a man of faith, it can be helpful to see that he also had moments of doubt as we do in our faith (e.g. 12:10- 20, 20:1-18, 16:1-16, 17:18). Walter Brueggemann writes: ‘Abraham’s believing does not occur in a vacuum. He must live in history. And so he is not always sure.’²
In our modern age, particularly when the world seems to be turning against Christianity, we view faith often as clinging to what we know as opposed to a journey into the unknown. The story of Abraham encourages us to step out in faith and to rely, not on our Christian values and ethics, but to place our trust in God. Walter Russell Bowie writes on Abram’s faith: “faith is not the anchor but the hoisted sail. It is not the ship in the harbour but the ship that puts out to sea. It is not holding on to something that already is but exploration and adventure toward something vaster that lies ahead.”³
Faith is placing our trust in God and in his promise(s) to us. It is the call to go forth and be a blessing to others fulfilling the great commission of Matt 28:19-20. To proclaim the gospel, as Abram proclaims his faith in 12:8, when he builds altars to God and calls upon the name of the Lord.
This text encourage us to ask what is means to follow God’s promise as Abram did. Are we willing to leave everything behind and follow Jesus? Walter Bruegemann writes: ‘The threat and possibility articulated in the narrative of Abraham and Sarah put a crisis before humanity. It is a crisis of deciding to live either for the promise, and so disengaging from the present barren way of things, or to live against the promise, holding on grimly to the present ordering of life’.²
How does this text testify to Jesus Christ?
The Gospel Transformation Study Bible comments here that: ‘Jesus is the true “offspring” of Abraham (Gal. 3:16). Paul argues that God’s promise to Abraham extends equal citizenship to all in God’s kingdom. Any Jew or Gentile who believes in the Lord Jesus is a child of God and of Abraham (Gal. 3:7–9). God’s gracious provision of secure salvation in Christ is not offered to a privileged few. It is for the entire world. It is for “all nations” (Matt. 28:19).’
Abram is a prototype of the disciples who gave up everything to follow Jesus. Who lived out their faith depending, not on themselves and their own resources, but on God’s promises.
- Hebrews 11:8-19
- Romans 4
- Galatians 3
- Matthew 3:9
- Acts 3:24.
- https://www.gci.org/articles/abrahams-exampleof- faith-a-study-of-hebrews-118-19/
- https://equipper.gci.org/2018/06/f rom-gregpilgrimage- of-the-faithful
Greg Scharf, Relational Preaching, Day 32: God prepares our inheritance (this book was handed out at the GCI UK denominational Conference in June 2018)
- Ray Anderson, The Soul of Ministry
- Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Genesis.
- Walter Russell Bowie, The Interpreter’s Bible: Genesis