First Baptist Richmond, March 5, 2023
The Second Sunday in Lent
Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
Today’s Old Testament lesson is the Call of Abraham from Genesis 12. I love this story, if only because it’s the beginning of a saga that will go on for the next 38 chapters: one that will include God’s covenant with Abraham; the birth of his son, Isaac; Isaac’s near sacrifice on the mountain; the rivalry between Jacob and Esau; Esau’s stolen blessing; Jacob’s love affair with Rachel; Joseph and his coat of many colors, and many more. But none of them would have happened if Abraham hadn’t said yes to God. So, let’s take a closer look at that story.
It begins in the previous chapter, where we learn that Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. It’s only a hunch, but I have a feeling that Haran, the youngest of the three, was kind of a wild buck. He fathered a son named Lot (apparently out of wedlock) and died while he was still a young man (probably doing something stupid). Rumor has it that his last words were, “Hey, y’all; watch this!” Nahor and Abram were a little more respectable. Nahor married a nice girl named Milcah and Abram married Sarai, who was beautiful, but, as it turns out, barren. She and Abram may have taken Lot in because they couldn’t have any children of their own.
It was about that time that Terah decided to leave Ur of the Chaldeans and go up and around the Fertile Crescent to the Land of Canaan. Abram and Sarai went with him and took Lot along. But for some reason they stopped before they got to Canaan. Maybe it was because Terah was getting old, or maybe it was because they found a place too beautiful to leave behind. I can imagine Terah saying to Abram, “I believe this is it. I believe I’ve found the place where I’m going to live out the rest of my days.” They settled there, and Terah named it Haran, in memory of his deceased son.
It was a good place, and from all outward appearances Abram had it made. He was living on his father’s farm with his wife, Sarai, and a nephew who was like a son to him. His father was still in good health and as long as he was alive Abram would never have to worry about where his next meal would come from. But one night the Lord whispered to him in his sleep, “Go, Abram. 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.”
I read that passage to the church staff last Tuesday and asked them to listen for how many times the word bless or blessing is found. “Five,” they said, counting carefully. God is planning to bless Abram so that he can be a blessing; it’s as simple as that. And then I told them that’s part of my daily prayer: that I would be “a conduit of God’s love and a channel of God’s blessing.” I said I sometimes picture rain falling onto the roof of a house, collecting in the gutter, flowing through the downspout, and gushing out at the bottom. That’s what I want to be where God’s blessing is concerned. But I also told them I’m not always very good at that. Steve Blanchard said, “You might have too many leaves in your gutter.” We laughed, but he was right. I’ve got a lot of other things going on in my life; the blessings don’t always flow through me in the way that they should. And maybe that’s why God picked Abraham. Maybe his life was wonderfully uncluttered. He seems to be kind of a simple person, doesn’t he? A downspout through whom God’s blessings can flow without obstruction.
Still, when God told him to go from his father’s house he must have had to think about it. I’ve thought about it, and what I think it came down to for Abraham was a choice between trust and security. There was the security of living on his father’s farm and never having to worry about where the next meal was coming from, but there was also this invitation from God to step out on faith, to trust him, and in return God said he would bless him, and make his name great, and make of him a great nation.
Have you ever been there? Have you ever considered a job opportunity in another state? Has anyone ever asked you to marry them, with all the upheaval that entails? Have you ever thought about quitting your job and going into business for yourself? Have you ever had to weigh the risks and rewards?
I was 23 years old when I got married. I was working as a graphic designer at a little studio on Newtown Pike, just outside of Lexington, Kentucky. My boss was a good man, the son of an Episcopal priest, and he was good to me. He had taken me on even though he wasn’t completely sure he could afford me. I tried to reassure him that he hadn’t made a mistake by doing the best work I could and sharing all my best ideas. And I had ideas. This was back in 1984 and most of the work we did was by hand. We designed logos and did illustrations and laid out magazine ads. But one day I stopped in at a new store in Lexington called “Apple,” where they sold personal computers, and they had one with a screen that displayed different fonts, in different sizes. I had never seen anything like that before. I came back to the studio and told my boss I had seen the future of graphic design. He chuckled and went back to work on a beautiful pen and ink drawing that no computer could replicate.
And neither could I.
So, I began to think differently about the future. I began to dream up a five-year plan where I would have my own business and use computers to do graphic design (I know that sounds crazy). And then one day I was at the courthouse in the little town where I lived, running an errand for my boss, and just out of curiosity I asked the clerk how much a business license cost. “Ten dollars,” she said. “Ten dollars!?” That sounded like a deal. I just happened to have a ten dollar bill in my wallet and before I really knew what I was doing I had bought a business license for my new graphic design studio. But this was a small town. When I came to work the next day my boss said, “Jim, I’m going to have to let you go.” He said, “I found out you bought a business license at the courthouse while you were running an errand for me. If you want to start your own business go ahead and do it. No man can serve two masters.” And then he handed me a cardboard box with all my personal belongings in it and a check for two weeks’ salary.
That’s how quickly life can change. That’s how quickly you can move from the security of a steady job to the insecurity of an unknown future. I didn’t know what I was going to tell Christy when I got back to our little apartment above the drugstore, when I climbed those stairs with my pitiful cardboard box. We had been married only a little over a year. She had a part-time job but I was the breadwinner and here I was, wondering if we would have any bread the next month. I had a business license and a few skills as a graphic designer, but I didn’t have any clients yet and wasn’t sure how to get them. Would I be able to provide for my young wife, or not? It was a very scary feeling.
I think Abraham must have had some of those same feelings when the Lord called him. As I said, he had a lot of security where he was. But now here was the Lord telling him to go away from all of that, from his country, his kindred, his father’s house, to a land that only the Lord knew anything about. So much uncertainty. So much insecurity. And yet so much promise. So much possibility. Suppose that, just like me, Abraham had been feeling a little restless. Suppose that he had been waiting for an opportunity to make a life for himself. What if that was the reason the Lord came to him in the first place, because he knew that for Abraham the sweetest word he could hear was the word go?
That’s what my boss said to me, and in that moment it didn’t sound sweet at all. I had wanted to go into business for myself but not then. I wasn’t ready then. I had a whole lot of things to figure out first. But when I got fired I lost that luxury: the luxury of time. I had to figure things out and I had to figure them out immediately. I called a man in our church who ran an advertising agency and he said, “Yeah, I have a few, small freelance jobs I could probably send your way.” “Thank you,” I said, as if he had just saved my life, because in some ways he had. I ended up doing a good bit of work for him and making more money than I had before.
But here’s the difference between Abraham and me. I hadn’t trusted myself enough to step out on faith, at least not at that point. My boss had to push me out of the nest. But Abraham trusted God enough to do it on his own, to put his things in a cardboard box and follow God down the driveway not knowing if he would turn right or left when he got to the end of it. He trusted God, and that’s why we are still telling his story.
I won’t say that I have seen the future of preaching, but in the last few months I’ve been introduced to something called “ChatGPT.” Have you heard of it? It’s a computer program powered by artificial intelligence where you type in your request and it comes up with a response. It’s so good it’s making English teachers nervous. They’re afraid their students will ask it to write a 20-page term paper on Romeo and Juliet and they won’t be able to tell the difference between actual and artificial intelligence. So, when I was working on this sermon I asked ChatGPT to tell me the difference between trust and security, and it did a good job. But then I refined my request by asking it to compare trust in God with the security of a good job, and here’s the result that came back:
“Trust in God” and the security of a good job are two different concepts that can provide individuals with different forms of reassurance and confidence.
“Trust in God” typically refers to a belief in a higher power that guides and protects individuals through life. For some people, trusting in God can provide a sense of comfort and security, knowing that they are not alone and that there is a greater purpose and plan for their life. This type of trust is often associated with faith and religious beliefs.
The security of a good job, on the other hand, refers to having a steady income and employment that provides financial stability and reduces the risk of economic hardship. A good job can provide individuals with a sense of security and peace of mind, knowing that they have a reliable source of income and the ability to support themselves and their families.
While “trust in God” and the security of a good job are different concepts, they can be interconnected. Some people may find comfort in their faith while facing job insecurity or financial difficulties, while others may attribute their success in their career to their faith and trust in God’s guidance and protection.
Ultimately, both “trust in God” and the security of a good job are important for individuals to feel secure and confident in their lives. The extent to which an individual relies on one or the other may depend on their personal values, beliefs, and experiences.”
Well, there you have it: an explanation of the difference between trust and security written by an artificial intelligence program in the year 2023. And then you have Abraham, somewhere in the Second Millennium, BC, gathering up all his belongings, his flocks and his herds, his manservants and maidservants, his wife and his nephew, and setting out toward a land that the Lord had promised to show him. He didn’t have a computer to consult. He didn’t have a GPS. He was stepping out on faith, trusting God to guide his steps, to bring him at last to the land that he had promised. Was he nervous? Excited? Probably both, and yet if we could have interviewed him in that moment I think he would have said that he was starting out on the greatest adventure of his life, and that he couldn’t wait to see how things turned out.
That was true for me. Getting fired from my job was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It forced me to stop trusting in myself and start trusting in God. It freed me up to consider options I might never have considered. In the fall of that year I headed off to seminary and began a journey in ministry that continues to this day. It’s been a blessing—a huge blessing. I only hope that some of the rain that’s fallen on my roof has collected in the gutter, flowed through the downspout, and gushed out the bottom in a way that blesses others because I think that’s why God does it: I think God blesses us so we can bless others.
Just as he blessed Abraham.
—Jim Somerville © 2023