Sunday, August 30, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Abraham: 75 Years"

Genesis 12:1-9

The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you.”

4 Abram left just as the Lord told him, and Lot went with him. Now Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran. 5 Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all of their possessions, and those who became members of their household in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan. When they arrived in Canaan, 6 Abram traveled through the land as far as the sacred place at Shechem, at the oak of Moreh. The Canaanites lived in the land at that time.

7 The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I give this land to your descendants,” so Abram built an altar there to the Lord who appeared to him. 8 From there he traveled toward the mountains east of Bethel, and pitched his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and worshipped in the Lord’s name. 9 Then Abram set out toward the arid southern plain, making and breaking camp as he went. (Common English Bible)

“From 40 Days to 84 Years: Waiting on God’s Word,” Week One

They are some of the most historically and scientifically important documents in all of human history, and in order to view and handle them to this day, you have to don special protective clothing and sign a waiver of absolving the paper’s holders—the Bibliotheque National, the National Library, in Paris, France—of any damaging effects to your health as a result of radiation.

Even though these documents themselves are over 100 years old.  Because as it turns out, the isotope radium-226 has a half-life of over 1,600 years.  They’ll be safe to handle around 3500 CE.  To put that in perspective, that's almost as long as Christianity has been the pre-eminent religion in Western European and American tradition after Emperor Constantine made it the state faith nearly 1,700 years ago.

Marie Curie, the famous female pioneer of science and radiology, did her work surrounded by this invisible, dangerous radiation.  She would carry radioactive materials with her, on her person, and store them in her desk drawers, unaware of the danger she was in and how long that danger would remain in place.  All of these practices would be unthinkable now, 1/16th into radium-226’s half-life.

Such is the power of time—that the tools of the trade of one of our great heroes of scientific advancement are still dangerous weapons and will remain that way for another 1,500 or so years.

It kind of puts into perspective our faster-moving, instant gratification mentality of today, yeah?  And that’s what we’ll be talking about today, and throughout this entire six-week sermon series: our need to put our time into perspective and context of God’s far greater and good time.

This is a new sermon series, just in time for the fall season of school years and football seasons alike starting, and that’s in fact very important for us to remember right now, because this series really is about the passage of time and the effect it can have on our faith.  It was grown, in fact, out of an idea from one of our elders, Alisha Hayes, whose seed of a suggestion that she made to me grew into a full-blown six-week series, and that seed simply is: what about people who sometimes have to wait to understand God’s will for their lives?  What happens when God acts in our lives according to a divine timetable rather than our own human timetable?  And why do God’s favorites, even people as revered as Abraham and Moses, have to wait as long as 75 or 80 years before God reached out to them and called them by name?  In fact, that is where we are kicking off this series, with one of those two chaps: father Abraham, the patriarch of patriarchs, forebear to the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but also a very human man with some very human failings.

Sounds an awful lot like us, right?  Well, that’s Abraham.  And he still changed the world entirely.

Just not at first.

For the first 75 years of his life, Abraham wasn’t even known as Abraham—his given name was Abram, and only later on in Genesis will God rename him as Abraham, much in the same way that God renames Abraham’s grandson Jacob as Israel much, much later on in Genesis.  The author of Genesis does not say at the outset why Abraham had found favor with God initially, only that God spoke to Abraham to tell him that he would become a blessing—which, first, isn’t that amazing to hear from God?  But second, we are given an inkling of why Abraham might in fact have found favor with God by the fact that he obeys immediately, “just as the Lord told him,” Genesis writes.

And if someone asked you to distill Abraham’s life and faith in following God down to a single word, “obedience” would be a pretty solid answer.  While Abraham balks at some of God’s most wrathful actions—such as when he successfully haggled God down from not destroying the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if Abraham could find fifty righteous people to not destroying the cities if Abraham could find ten righteous people—he is even eventually willing to sacrifice his own son Isaac simply because God instructed him to do so, no matter the agony it must have put him in.

Now, from our perspective, imagine having spent up the first seventy-five years of your life and not felt God’s presence in so profound a way as Abraham just has—that God has, in no small way, felt absent from your life.  Would you be as quick as Abraham is to obey this johnny-come-lately deity in your twilight years?  Might you hit the pause button for just a moment or so and ask “why bother?”

There is a common theme, if you noticed it, of Abraham’s initial travels with his family: he stops to worship and build altars.  Nowadays, the only things we stop our travel for are airline-mandated connections at whatever godforsaken hub airport they shunt us to and trying to combine getting both gas and lunch into one stop, which is why beef jerky is such a great road trip delicacy.  Unless it’s really special, there’s just no room for reverence when we travel through time or across space.

But that isn’t so for Abraham, even as he advances in years, and even as he travels the span of, basically, most of the Mediterranean coast from modern-day Turkey—where the villeage of Haran is believed to have been—past the Mediterranean and all the way down to the Negev, the southernmost desert in modern-day Israel.  He stops for the real stuff, the soul-sized stuff, the worshipful stuff that following God actually entails, and by building altars, in a real, tangible way.

Is that a patience we ourselves can truthfully say that we would exhibit?  After 75 years of waiting, never mind, say, (hypothetically for me), 30?  Or would we just light out there into whatever our divinely-inspired mission was, neglecting altogether to give thanks to the One who called us to it?

Rather, it is because of how long you may have waited to hear the voice of God calling us forth that we should be so inclined to take time to stop and worship God along the way.  If you, like Abraham, waited 75 years for God to speak, what’s another hour to worship God like you are doing now?

Put another way: if, in a world where centuries can come and go and millennia can pass before a scientific pioneer’s defining work becomes once again safe for human touch, then what is another five minutes, or ten, or twenty, to you, o small but wondrous thread in God’s great tapestry of life?

Can we begin to see our world, our lives, and ultimately ourselves from the God’s view of eternity, rather than our own human view of selfishness and conceit.  Abraham took that first step towards understanding the depth and grandeur of God’s eternity when he took that first step from Haran.

Will we do the same with our first steps out of this church building today?  Or will we be forever destined to muddle along in our own fears and insecurities?

That choice, believe it or not, is entirely up to us.  It was up to Abraham to ignore God, and he chose not to, to instead heed the divine voice ringing in his ear, and it is up to us, as followers of the same God that called Abraham, to be those followers and follow suit.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
August 30, 2015

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