Father of a Multitude

Part Two of “The God Who Keeps Promises”

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
March 4, 2012

The Second Sunday in Lent

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (NRSV).

 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  We know that.  What we don’t know is why.  In a poem called “The Creation” James Weldon Johnson suggests that God did it because he was lonely, and that even after he had made the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth and everything in it, he was still lonely.  “Then God sat down on the side of a hill where he could think,” Johnson writes; “by a deep, wide river he sat down; with his head in his hands, God thought and thought, till he thought, “I’ll make me a man!” And here’s my favorite part of the poem:

Up from the bed of the river 
God scooped the clay; 
And by the bank of the river 
He kneeled Him down; 
And there the great God Almighty    
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky, 
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night, 
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand; 
This Great God, 
Like a mammy bending over her baby, 
Kneeled down in the dust 
Toiling over a lump of clay 
Till He shaped it in His own image;
Then into it He blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.   
Amen. Amen.

Now, the theologians would disagree that God made a man because he was lonely.  They would say that hypothesis implies that something was lacking in God that needed to be filled, and that God, who is perfect, lacks nothing.  But even if God wasn’t lonely I get some hints from the Bible itself that God enjoyed human company.  In Genesis 3:8 we read that Adam and Eve heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and they hid themselves, because they had done what God told them not to do.  But in verse 9 the Lord God called to the man and said, “Where are you?”  And he answered, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”  He said, “Who told you that you were naked?  Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

Well…you know the story.  But it’s that moment just before that interests me: that moment when God is walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, calling for Adam.  You get the feeling it’s something he used to do all the time.  And I can almost picture the two of them walking along together, talking about all the things they saw.  God would point at a particularly beautiful flower and ask Adam, “What did you name that one?”  “Dandelion,” Adam would say.  “Oh,” God would say, “That’s a lovely name!”  And then Adam would slap a mosquito on his neck and ask, “Why did you make these pesky things?”  And God would just smile and shrug his shoulders.  On it would go, day after day, until that day when God came looking for Adam and he wasn’t there.  He was hiding behind a bush, naked and ashamed.  “Who told you?” God asked, and then it dawned on him.  “Have you eaten the fruit of that tree?”  

Things were never the same after that. 

God didn’t put the man and woman to death, as he had threatened, but he did put them out of the garden, where the man had to earn his living by the sweat of his brow and the woman suffered pain in childbirth.  The intimacy of their fellowship had been broken by sin, and it never recovered.  God and humans grew further and further apart until we get to this place in Genesis 6 that Lynn talked about last week, where “the Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”  He was deeply disappointed with the human experiment.   And so the Lord decided to start over again, and he decided to start over with Noah.

You know why, don’t you?  Because “Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.”  God seems to have this wild hope that if he could start over again with one righteous person, then all the people who came after him would also be righteous, as if there were a “righteousness gene.”  But God was disappointed again.  No sooner did the ark touch down on the top of Mount Ararat than Noah and his offspring began to go their own way.  A few chapters later we learn that they have traveled as far east as the plain of Shinar, where they begin to make bricks and build things.  And in Genesis 11:4 they say, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.”  And when the Lord saw it he was, again, deeply disappointed.  It was so far removed from what he had wanted in the beginning—to have fellowship with his creation, to walk with people in the cool of the evening, to hear their hopes and dreams.  But now they wanted to build a tower to the heavens, to climb up there and drag God off his throne.  And so he mixed up their languages so they couldn’t talk to each other, so they couldn’t fulfill their wicked intentions, and because they couldn’t talk to each other they were soon scattered abroad over all the face of the earth. 

But James Weldon Johnson might say that God was right back where he had started—lonely and sad, sitting on a riverbank with his head in his hands.  He had tried making a man to be his friend and companion.  He had tried again with a righteous man.  Now what?  God thought and thought until he thought, “I wanted the whole human race to know me and love me, but it didn’t work.  It might never work.  But what if I could choose one family out of all the families on the earth to be mine?  I wonder if that would do it?”  God searched the world over until he found Abram, and he said to him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 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 the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3). 

And the remarkable thing about Abram is that he went.  He was 75 years old at the time.  He packed up all his earthly belongings, gathered his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, his manservants and maidservants, his flocks and herds, and started off down the driveway not knowing if he would turn left or right when he got to the end.  God would show him.  That may have been why God chose him—because he was so obedient—but I don’t think it was the only reason.  In the fifteenth chapter of Genesis Abram has settled in Canaan, the land that God has shown him.  And God comes to him in a vision and says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my household is Eliezer of Damascus?  You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”  But the Lord said, “This man will not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.”  And then he brought him outside his tent and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars if you able to count them.  So shall your descendants be.”

I’ve been in the desert at night.  I have stared up at a sky that looked like a billion diamonds scattered across a piece of black velvet, glittering under a white-hot spotlight.  In a moment like that it is easy to be overcome by awe, and in just such a moment the Lord whispered to Abram, “Someday you’ll have that many descendants.  Do you believe me?”  Abram didn’t say a word, but he must have done something, must have nodded his head while he stared up at those brilliant stars, because the writer of Genesis says, “He believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  And this, I think, is the reason God chose Abram out of all those others he might have picked: because Abram was a believer.  In fact it’s only after this episode that God comes back to make his covenant with Abram.  He’s 99 years old by this point.  He still doesn’t have a child of his own.  Nevertheless God says in our reading for today, “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.  No longer shall your name be Abram (which means “exalted ancestor”), but your name shall be Abraham (“ancestor of a multitude”).  I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you” (Genesis 17:4-6).  That’s quite a promise, isn’t it?  And all of this, apparently, because Abraham believed God. 

Let me say a little more about that.

I’ve been reading a book called Speaking Christian by New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, a look at “why Christian words have lost their meaning and power and how they can be restored.”  Now, I probably need to warn you that Borg has a reputation as a “liberal” scholar.  I don’t agree with everything he says—in fact there are places where I write the word “No!” in the margin with an exclamation point behind it—but he stretches my mind and makes me think and I appreciate that.  I appreciate what he says in this book about the word believe.  After looking at the way the word is often used in conversation, and the way it’s defined in the dictionaries, he says: “These definitions of the common meaning of believe share two important features.  First, they define believe as believing that—believing that something, a statement or statements, is true, with varying degrees of certainty.  Indeed, believing most often involves some uncertainty—if there were no uncertainty the word would be know, not believe.  Second, in a religious context, they identify believe with having faith.”

But then he says this:

“The modern meaning of believe is very different from its meaning from Christian antiquity until the seventeenth century.  In English, prior to about 1600, the verb believe always had a person as its direct object, not a statement.  It did not mean believing that a statement is true, with varying degrees of certainty, but more like what we mean when we say to somebody, ‘I believe in you.’  Note the difference the preposition makes,” he says.  “To believe in somebody is not the same as believing somebody. The latter refers to believing that what the person has said is true—that his or her statements are true.  But ‘I believe in you’ means having confidence in a person, trusting that person.  In a Christian context, it means having confidence in God and Jesus, trusting God and Jesus.”[i]

So, think of Abraham again, out there standing with God under that star-filled sky.  The writer of Genesis says that when God told him that one day his descendants would be as countless as the stars Abraham believed him, and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.  But did Abraham believe what God told him, that one day his descendants would outnumber the stars, or did Abraham believe God, did he simply trust him with the future no matter what might come?  I think you can see where I’m headed with this: that God chose Abraham not because he could believe things no one in his right mind would believe, but because he believed in God, he trusted him.  I think that’s why God chose him out of all the others he might have chosen, and I think that’s what it means to be a believer still.  Not believing things about God, but believing in God, trusting him, no matter what the future might bring. 

If God really did make people because he was lonely, you can see why he might wish for the kind of people who would believe in him and not just believe things about him.  John 3:16 says, “God loved the world so much he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believed in him might not perish, but have everlasting life.  Marcus Borg says, “The meaning of the word believe prior to 1600 includes more.  It comes from the Old English be loef, which means “to hold dear.”  The similarity to the modern English word belove is obvious.  To believe meant not only to have confidence and trust in a person, but also to hold that person dear—to belove that person.  Believing and beloving were synonymous.  Thus until the 1600s,” Borg says, “to believe in God and Jesus meant to belove God and Jesus.”[ii]  So where did we go wrong?  When did we decide that believing in God meant believing certain things about God?  When did faith become a matter of giving one’s assent to a long list of doctrinal propositions?  When did we get away from the kind of simple faith and trust that Abraham placed in God?  This is what God reckoned to him as righteousness, and this is what will number us among his descendants: if we can believe in God as Abram did; if we can simply put our faith and trust in him.  These are the kind of people God makes promises to—people who love him, and believe in him, and trust him with the future,

No matter what.

—Jim Somerville 2012

[i] Marcus J. Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power and How They Can Be Restored (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), p 118.

[ii] Ibid., pp. 118-119.


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