March 16, 2014: Genesis 12:1-4a

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March 16, 2014

Year A, Lent 2                       

                                                                              

          I don’t like the question, “What’s your five year plan?”  This is despite the fact that I’m a planner and always have been.  I still remember my first planner when I was in 6th grade.  I wrote everything down.  I don’t have a paper planner anymore, but I still love to see my calendar all planned out.  Until a couple of years ago, I always had a 5 year plan.  The 5 year plan worked out until college graduation, then life started going off plan, no matter how dedicated I was to my plans.  As I look back on the last 10 years I realize that nothing has really gone according to plan.  So I stopped making 5 year plans.  Now when people ask me my five year plan I usually remind them of the idiom, “When we make plans, God laughs.”

          Our Old Testament reading for today is one of the first times that we encounter Abraham (or as he is called in this text: Abram).  He first appears in chapter 11, but all we learned was that he is the son of Terah, has three brothers and a wife named Sarai who is barren.  He lives in Haran with his family.  We later learn that he is 75 when the Lord first speaks to him. We don’t even know what he did for a living.  Our ignorance about Abram is interesting, but not as fascinating as what Abram doesn’t know about God.  We do not even know if he believed in God, or if he was polytheistic, meaning he believed in multiple gods. 

          For millennia, rabbis have been hypothesizing about the back story of Abram.   Jews have something called a midrash.  It’s similar to Biblical commentary, but more creative.  In ancient midrash, learned rabbis would create stories about certain biblical characters.   They would essentially fill in the gaps.  There are several midrash stories about Abram, especially before age 75.  One story explains that his father was a creator of idols.  He made and sold idols of gods.  Abram’s job was to sell these idols. However, according to the stories, he was not a very good salesman because he mocked those who bought them.  In one story, he asked the customer how old he was.  When the customer responded, Abram said, “You are so old and yet you spend so much money on a god that is only one day old.”  Since Abram had actually seen these idols made, he knew that there was nothing to worship. 

          Obviously, we have no way of knowing if such stories have any truth.  But I can understand why these stories were developed.   It almost seems like we need Abram to believe in God before he first heard the voice of God.  Otherwise the whole thing is just madness. One minute Abram is minding his own business living with his family and then a voice comes from somewhere (we don’t know where) and tells him to leave all that he knows and go to a place that the Lord has not yet disclosed so that the Lord can bless him and make his name great. 

Can you imagine that conversation with his wife?  “Sarai, sweetheart, I heard a voice that told me to leave town.  No, I am not sure where we are going.  I guess we will just start walking and the voice will lead us from there.  And I have reason to believe we will be the parents of a great nation.  I know we don’t have any children yet and we are both 75, but you know, the voice said so; let’s start packing. Who is the voice? The Lord.  That’s all I know. ”  Of course the rabbis needed to provide a backstory.  With no backstory, Abram sounds crazy.

Despite the craziness and lack of information, Abram follows God’s call.  Abram and Sarai journeyed from place to place.  There was never a five year plan, never a map, never a destination.  They would travel to a place, pitch a tent and set up an altar.  God would speak to Abram, remind him that his descendants would be numerous and then they would start all over again. There were adventures along the way.  Abram became rich with livestock and land.  He fought wars.  He interacted with kings.  God and Abram kept talking, but there were still no children.   Abram would ask God why there were no children and how he could be a father of a nation with no children.  God did not tell him how, he just kept repeating the promise.   

This went on for 24 years until Abram was 99.   At age 99, God told him once again about all his descendants and then asked Abram to make a promise, to create a covenant with God.  God would change his name to Abraham and ask him to be circumcised along with all of his family.  This is what Abraham gets for 24 years of faithful loyalty: a new name and a very painful physical sacrifice.  With this news, Abraham finally just fell on his face and laughed.  This time it was man laughing at God’s plans.   As a result, God gave Abraham more specific information.  He gave him the name of the son that Sarah would have.  The name would be Isaac….which means he laughs.   This seemed to be enough for Abraham because he did just as the Lord asked, once again.  A year later his wife had her first child at the age of 100.  They named him Isaac. 

I don’t think that God laughs at our plans, at least not in a mean way.  That idiom is just a reminder that our plans are as brittle as the paper we write them or as changeable as the devices we record them on.  I don’t know if the rabbis were right and Abraham’s resume had idol salesman on it.  But considering where and when he lived, he was certainly part of culture that was steeped in idol worship.  As I result I wonder if there was a longing in his heart for something bigger.  Because of that longing, when he heard that big voice of God, he believed it.  Perhaps Abraham appreciated a God that did not give a plan, did not have a backstory.  Abraham was accustomed to seeing people worship figures that men had created.  Seeing how powerless those gods were, Abraham knew there was a need for a God that could not be known, could not be handled or molded by human hands, and could certainly not be controlled by our own plans. 

While we do not have stone idols that we worship, we know what it is to think that we hold the world in our hands. And sometimes we know what it is to feel crushed by those hands, those hands that hold tight to our expectations and the world’s expectations.  It would be so liberating if we could break free of those plans….wouldn’t it? 

I would love to stand up here and tell you all how I have learned to let go of my plans.  You see, I have a 5 year plan that I want. I’m just realistic enough to know that it’s probably not going to happen.  Sometimes I am ok with that.  Sometimes I get really angry that God has not seen the wisdom and pragmatism in my plans and frankly, gotten with the program.  Then I am reminded of that man and woman who waited 25 years for a promise.  During that time of waiting, they had adventures.  They grew closer to God and one another.  Every place they stopped, one of the first things they did was set up an altar and worship the one true God.  During that time, God would actually consult Abraham on actions that he was taking.  By the end, they had a relationship, a relationship so natural that Abraham could fall on his face laughing as God looked on.  So instead of waiting for our five year plans to really happen, what if we made the waiting the destination?  What if we used that time to create a relationship with God (and one another) that would sustain us? Then, we would know what it is to be blessed. The promise just might be in the waiting itself.

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