Sermon Series: Is it I, Lord? Stories of following God's lead
“Abraham and Sarah: An Unsettling Call”
We are starting a new series of talks today on six stories from the Bible. I selected these particular six stories because they are each about God leading or calling people to do something—leave home, lead revolutions, take risks, change jobs, change sides, have a baby.
There are lots of stories like this in the Bible. I selected these particular six stories because they involve different sorts of people at different stages in their lives: older people, children, teenagers, men, women, couples. And I selected these particular six stories because the way that the people in the stories experience God’s leading or call are different in interesting ways.
And the question I am inviting us to ask ourselves is: does God still do this today? Does God still lead and call people to do things, to take certain paths in our lives, to live in certain directions? Because if God does, knowing what God is leading or calling us to do would be a pretty big deal. If God is leading us or calling us, it would be the sort of thing we’d really, really want to know.
On the other hand, thinking God is leading or calling us to do something if God isn’t might be one definition of being wacky. It could be a delusion.
So what we think about this may be a pretty important question for our lives. Does God still lead and call people today?
So my goal in these talks is to pay attention to these particular six stories from the Bible, to try to read them as though I were reading them for the first time, and to see what we might learn about this idea of God leading or calling people.
The first story is about Abraham and Sarah.
In the story in Genesis, God talks to Abraham and tells him to leave his country and his relatives and his family’s house and to go to a land God will show him and it turns out to be Canaan. Canaan, where the nation of Israel is located today, is where Abraham and Sarah’s father had been intending to move to but never made it (Genesis 11:31).
God tells Abraham to go to Canaan, and God tells him that he will be the father of a great nation, which is sort of ironic because Abraham and Sarah had tried to have children and decided they couldn’t. They couldn’t even be the parents of one child and God tells them they will be the parents of a great nation.
God tells Abraham that his name will become great, which is also a bit strange because Abraham was pretty much a nobody. He was a Semite, which was a small tribal group considered primitive and unsophisticated, semi-nomadic, without much of a culture.
God tells Abraham he will be blessed and that he will be a blessing. God says to Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Something good is going to happen to all humanity through you.
So Abraham and his wife Sarah take their nephew Lot and all their possessions and their entourage and go to Canaan.
As I’ve been studying this story this week and after listening to folk discuss the story at our Wednesday night No-Holds-Barred Bible study, here some thoughts I’ve come to about this story.
The first is that God’s leading in Abraham and Sarah’s life is not about vocation. It is not about their work. It is about their lives.
Whenever we start to talk about the idea of a calling I start to think about vocation or occupation. In fact, the word “vocation” literally means calling. The idea of vocation is that it is something we are called to do.
But Abraham and Sarah’s call is not about their vocation or occupation. Abraham was a herdsman. He raised sheep and cattle, and maybe goats. Throughout his entire life his occupation never changed.
In the Bible God leading people or calling people did not necessarily have to do with occupation or vocation because having vocational options is a relatively new thing in the history of humanity. For most of history, certainly in biblical times, if your parent was a farmer, you didn’t have an option. You became a farmer. If your parents were tent-makers, they trained you in tent-making and you helped make tents from a young age on and that became your occupation. If your parent was a carpenter, you became a carpenter. They called Jesus “the carpenter” sometimes because his father was a carpenter so that’s what he was too.
Because most of us have vocational options, which is a great thing, we put a lot of emphasis on choosing our vocations or occupations and when we talk in church about God leading or calling us, the first thing we tend to think about is what vocation God might be calling us to, but in the Bible God’s leading and calling was usually about life.
A sense of God’s leading in our life might influence our work but it is not necessarily all about work. I am afraid we have come to expect too much of our work.
Originally the word “vocation” was a religious term. It meant a calling to a religious vocation – to be a priest or a nun or a monk or a brother or a sister in an order. Some of my Catholic friends still use it this way. When they talk about someone having a vocation, they are talking about someone planning to become a priest or a nun.
Martin Luther, who started the Protestant reformation, is given the credit for beginning to use the word “vocation” for secular work as well as religious work—the idea being that God calls people to be electricians and school teachers and lawyers as much as priests and nuns.
But this is not exactly what Martin Luther taught. Martin Luther taught that while our profession or work may be part of our vocation, our vocation is actually much larger.
Here’s what Marc Kolden, who teaches at a Lutheran Seminary, says: For Luther, “‘Vocation’ refers to more than mere dedicated service in one’s occupation. It refers above all to the whole theater of personal, communal, and historical relationships in which one lives.”
If God leads us or calls us to certain directions in our lives, this may affect our occupation or work, but it is not necessarily primarily about that. Sometimes work is just about the way we make a living but our vocation or calling is something larger than our work.
Abraham and Sarah’s calling was about something greater than their work.
Here’s a harder question that the story of Abraham and Sarah raised for me. Why did God picks Abraham and Sarah?
God picks a couple who think they can’t have children to become the parents of a great nation.
They are old. Abraham was 75 when he heard God’s call. People seemed to live longer then or else they measured years differently. Some people lived 400 or 500 years, the Bible says, but they tended to have children when they were in their 20s and 30s so in terms of this call, they were old.
And they aren’t exactly role models of morality and propriety.
The role that God is assigning Abraham and Sarah is to be the parents of the group of people who give us the Ten Commandments and who introduce ethical monotheism to the world. Many philosophers believe ethical monotheism is most important concept in the development of ethical thinking in western civilization.
Yet they themselves aren’t what we might consider the most ethical people.
Genesis tells the story about there being a famine in Canaan so Abraham and Sarah go to Egypt where there is apparently food available. Sarah is very beautiful. Abraham is afraid the Egyptians will kill him so they can marry Sarah so Abraham convinces Sarah to tell people that she is his sister instead of his wife. The Pharaoh takes Sarah as one of his wives and Abraham is rewarded with all sorts of privileges as a result of being the Pharaoh’s brother-in-law. Until the Pharaoh finds out what Abraham has done, and is furious with them and sends Abraham and Sarah away.
The Egyptian Pharaoh has higher ethical standards than Abraham and Sarah whom God chooses to be the parents of the culture that develops the highest and most respected system of ethics in the western world.
Apparently God doesn’t choose people because they are good or morally superior or even because they excel in what God has planned for them. God works with people where they are.
Theologians say that God choosing Abraham and Sarah was an act of divine sovereignty. That’s the theological term. There was no inherent reason for choosing them. It was God demonstrating that God can pick whomever God wants to pick to do what God wants to get done.
Another way of saying this is that God sometimes shows off. God sometimes picks the last people you and I might choose just to show off.
Yet another way of saying this is that to believe in God means to believe that history is not closed. The future is not determined by the past. My future is not determined by my past. Your future is not determined by your past.
I was listening the week before last to the podcast from the First United Methodist Church of Pensacola, Florida. It was Wesley Wachob’s sermon the Sunday before Easter. He started his sermon by warning people in Pensacola, Florida, that they should think carefully about whether they wanted to come to church on Easter Sunday or not. He said that if they came to church on Easter Sunday there was a very good possibility that other people in Pensacola would think they were liberals, which is apparently not necessarily a good thing to be in Pensacola.
If you don’t want to be considered a liberal, he said, you should think twice about coming to church on Easter. Resurrection is a liberal idea, he said. People sometimes mistakenly think it is a conservative idea, he said, but it is really a liberal idea. It is a liberal idea because it is the idea that you cannot keep God in a box. The past does not determine the future.
The fact that there has always been war does not mean there will always need to be war. The fact that there has always been hunger doesn’t mean there will always be hunger. The fact that there has always been disease doesn’t mean there will always be disease. The fact that there has always been prejudice and discrimination doesn’t mean there will always be prejudice and discrimination.
God does new things all the time. God does new things in history. God does new things within the lives of people we have written off—even if the person we have written off is our own self. The resurrection was really a new calling in the life of a group of disillusioned disciples.
God doesn’t necessarily call people because they are superior people. If you read their entire story, Abraham and Sarah could have invented the concept of dysfunctional family. Their story includes incest, prostituting your spouse, sleeping with the help, and then firing them to get rid of them. Read the story of their family and it will make you feel better about yours, I promise.
God chose Abraham and Sarah because God wanted to do a new thing, and so he chose unlikely people to use to do it.
One more thing I want to say about this particular story. When Abraham and Sarah messed up the most in their lives was when they tried to take their calling into their own hands. When they stopped listening and following God’s lead and tried to take charge themselves.
God had promised them they would be the parents of a great nation and they were old and had no children so, at Sarah’s suggestion, Abraham slept with Sarah’s Egyptian servant Hagar and had a son Ishmael with her. It was not a good idea.
Listening is the key to following God’s lead in your life. Doing what they thought God wanted them to do usually got Abraham and Sarah in trouble. Trying to manufacture the results themselves usually got them into trouble. Listening and following God’s lead was what worked. It is what saved their son Isaac’s life. Doing what they intellectually thought God would want them to do almost lost Isaac his life, but listening to God saved it.
I love the Pushcart Prize Best of the Small Presses anthologies. This year was the 34th annual edition. I think I’ve read them all. You never know what you are going to find in them.
The current 2010 edition includes an essay by a guy who is a poet and who works for a chain men’s clothing store. He is also a volunteer hospice chaplain. His name is Spencer Reece. He wrote an essay in the anthology entitled “Two Hospice Essays.”
He has decided to become a priest although it is not clear whether that will be his vocation. It will be his life but not necessarily his vocation.
This is what he writes:
I have been called. That sounds arrogant, unstable even, I know. But that is not how I mean it. I mean to express obedience and transformation. No cell-phone, answering machine or labyrinthine voicemail system reached me. I got quiet. Through silent retreats, spiritual direction from nuns, Hospice courses, volunteering, and simply aging, I began to listen… There was a tentative quality to what I heard. I think sometimes Jesus is tentative… He commanded me in a gentle, invisible, determined way… There are those who have been put into locked cages for hearing voices; conversely, the voice I heard gave me the keys… Perhaps you know of what I speak? For this is a long legacy of one whisper that came down from a horrible day on a hill.
It was Abraham and Sarah’s father who first left his home to go to Canaan, but he never got there. He stopped and settled somewhere else along the way. Maybe God’s call was to Abraham’s father but he stopped listening. Maybe God’s call came to Abraham and Sarah when they were old because they’d been too busy to listen much before then.
Maybe God is leading and calling every life, but there are few of us who stop to listen.
Marc Kolden, “Luther on Vocation,” Word & World at http://www2.luthersem.edu/Word&World/Archives/3-4_Luther/3-4_Kolden.pdf.