Second Sunday in Lent (February 17, 2008)
In Lent, we spend some time reflecting on the seriousness of our sin. Sin brought death into the world, as we learned last week when we heard about Adam and Eve and their Fall into Sin. And in order to pay for our sin, it cost the life of God’s Son. Death is a big topic in Lent, culminating in the remembrance of Christ’s death on Good Friday.
At the same time, the season of Lent is also about new life. Lent comes from a word that means “spring.” And certainly, we see evidences of new life all around us. The ground that seems so dead and lifeless is starting to burst forth with crocuses and tulip leaves. Tree branches are becoming more colorful as the sap begins to flow and prepare for new leaves and new growth.
God is all about giving new life. Although death was a consequence of sin, yet God promised Adam and Eve that he would send a Savior from the seed of the woman. Although God destroyed the whole wicked world in a flood, yet he preserved Noah and his family to begin anew.
Now, today, we jump ahead in history to the call of Abram. Abram means “exalted father.” Later, God changes his name to Abraham, which means “father of a multitude.” That makes sense on the basis of God’s promise to Abram in our text today, that he would “make of you a great nation.”
But before this could happen, there were some obstacles to overcome. To begin with, Abram did not know the true God. Joshua 24 informs us that he was an idol worshiper. Also, at the age of 75, Abram and his wife Sarai had no children. How could a great nation be built from an old childless couple? Spiritually, Abram was dead. Physically, he was as good as dead, having no son to call his heir.
Nevertheless, God graciously calls Abram to start a new life. It was a gracious call, because Abram had done nothing to deserve being called by God. But God called him anyway. He promised him, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Those gracious promises gave Abram the power to faithfully answer God’s call and place his faith and trust in the true God. St. Paul wrote that God is the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” It’s not much different from Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel where he tells Nicodemus that he must be born again in order to enter the kingdom of God. The new birth is not something we do. It’s something God does by water and the Spirit. Through water and the Word of God, the Spirit enters into our hearts and gives new life and creates faith. He gives life to those who are spiritually dead and calls faith into existence where it did not exist before.
Abram was not baptized when God called him. The sacrament of Baptism was instituted by Christ in the New Testament. But you still might say that Abram, in a sense, was “born again.” God called him to start a new life. The beginning of that new life was leaving the old behind. The Lord said to him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Abram was to leave his country and his family ties ... all the idolatrous connections and influences that surrounded him and among whom there is neither faith nor fear of God.
In the new life that Christ has begun in us by baptism and by faith, you and I have to turn our back on certain things. In baptism, we renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways. As followers of Christ, our loyalties to country, family, and friends are secondary to our loyalty to him ... especially when those other loyalties direct our attention away from him. Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
God called Abram to start a new life in a new land. When Abram reached that new land, what is one of the first things he did? Our text says, “When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord.” What did Abram do? He built an altar to the Lord, and probably near a place of idolatrous worship. Heathen worship in those days often took place near large trees, and the oak of Moreh was probably one of those trees.
You and I are foreigners here. We may be citizens of this nation. But we are still strangers and pilgrims. The sinful world around us is opposed to us, because it is opposed to Christ. And this shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus warned us ahead of time: “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” (Matt. 10:22) But like Abram, we set up our “altars” in the face of opposition. We worship Christ in spirit and in truth and proclaim his Holy Name, even in “enemy territory.”
God also called Abram into an uncertain journey. Abram left the luxury and comfort of home to living in tents in the wilderness on his way to Canaan. God gave Abram some wonderful promises, but he didn’t have all the details. “How are you going to do all this God?” I’m sure he may have asked. But Abram received God’s promises in faith and acted on them, even though the details hadn’t been revealed to him.
I’m reminded of a story I once heard about a middle-aged man. By the way, at age 75, Abram was middle-aged, when you really think about it. He died at the age of 175. Well, this other middle-aged fellow had a good job, a beautiful home, a wife and several children. One day, all of a sudden, he thought that God was telling him to quit his job, sell his home, and move his family across the country to another state. There was no job waiting for him there. There was no place to live. But he just had this strong feeling that God was telling him to do this. He really felt that God had some great things in store for him. He did exactly as he felt God was telling him. But nothing happened. No job. No place to live. They ended up living with family for a while and eventually moved back from where they came. It’s dangerous to think that God is telling you to do something on the basis of a vague “feeling” that you have. It may be your own desires to want to start something new and exciting, instead of staying put and being a faithful father, husband, and employee where God has placed you.
So you can imagine the surprise of Abram’s family when he told them what the plan was. “You want us to move where? And God told you to do this? Which God? We’ve got a bunch of ‘em, you know.” Nevertheless, Abram traveled in faith on the basis of God’s promises. The author of Hebrews writes, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob; heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” You see, even though Abram received God’s promise of inheriting the land of Canaan, yet he was still looking forward to a heavenly country. Again, the author of Hebrews writes, “If they (meaning Abraham and Isaac and Jacob) had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” God’s promise of the land – even for Abram – paled in comparison to having God as his God and having the promise of eternal life. In faith, his journey was not uncertain, but certain, because God’s promises are certain. And that goes for our journey, too. Our journey in life is not uncertain, but certain because of God’s promises to us ... promises of forgiveness, new life in Christ, new birth through water and the Spirit, being declared righteous by faith, even as Abraham, our father in the faith was declared righteous, with God “giving life to the dead and calling into existence the things that do not exist.” (Rom. 4:17)
The Lord called Abram to start a new life. He called Abram into an uncertain journey. By faith, Abram began his new life and set out on a journey made certain because of God’s promises. And God blessed Abram so that he might be a blessing to others. “I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great so that you will be a blessing ... and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” The Savior of the world is descended from Abram, therefore it can truly be said that all families of the earth are blessed through him. In that way, Abram was blessed so that you and I might be blessed. He called Abram’s faith into existence. He gave life to Abram and Sarah, even though they were as good as dead, and gave them a son, Isaac. And it was Isaac whom Abram was told by God to sacrifice. By faith, Abram took Isaac to sacrifice him, but God stopped him and provided a ram to offer as a substitute. That ram points us to Christ, who was our substitute. You and I deserve to die because of our sins. But Christ took our sins upon himself at the cross, and died in our place so that you and I might live. And in Baptism and by faith in Christ our Savior, you and I become a part of that great nation that God began when he called Abram ... that great nation called “the Church.”
Abram was blessed to be a blessing. So is this “nation” called the Church. We have been blessed beyond measure by God’s grace. He calls us to start a new life. He calls us to a journey of faith made certain by his precious promises. Blessed by God, he calls us to be a blessing by bearing the Gospel to all the world.