Thoughts on Genesis 12:1-4

(Second Sunday of Lent, 2023)

A path in the Cosa Rican wilderness.

During Lent, we often talk about the wilderness as a negative place—a place of deprivation, temptation, and wandering. But in this week’s reading from Genesis, God calls Abram into the wilderness: “Go from your country . . . to the land I will show you.”

I imagine Abram was terrified—not to mention terribly inconvenienced by God’s call. Still, I have to admit that I’m a bit jealous. It’s not that I want to leave my country and my family and my house. I don’t. (Usually.) But I would love to hear the voice of God so clearly: “Now the LORD said to Joanna, ‘Go here and do this and I will bless you and others.’”

It’s kind of a fantasy of mine, to be called by God in such an obvious, concrete way. To have no doubt whatsoever about what I should do and where I should go. To know for sure that I am following the will of God.

Upon first reading, it seems that Abram gets to live this spiritual fantasy. But in looking at the story a bit more closely, in thinking about it a bit more deeply, I’m beginning to wonder if the call was really that clear and certain for Abram. Was he completely confident in the call of God and the direction he should go?

While God does tell Abram to go from his country and family, the Divine voice is much less specific about where Abram should go to. “. . . to the land that I will show you.” God’s not exactly drawing him a map here.

Also, we should realize that this is a retrospective account of what happened. Biblical scholar Amy Allen urges us “to remember that Genesis is a book written by the Israelites after they had received the blessing of the land of Canaan.” More specifically, this is a book that emerged from the oral history of the Israelite people; stories told from generation to generation. This is not a real-time, play-by-play account. Rather, this is a small piece of the broad story the Israelites are telling themselves about who they are and what their relationship with God is about.

We are no longer a primarily oral culture, but we still know about story telling. We’ve all heard stories about our ancestors—our blood relatives, our predecessors in the faith. We have so many stories of Anabaptists struggling to survive and to stay true to their pacifist values. Stories of women working for equal rights. Stories of Indigenous people caring for, fighting for, preserving their culture and this earth. Stories of our heroes who spoke and wrote and sang and marched and boycotted during the Civil Rights movement.

These stories have been told over and over and over again. They have been written down. And they seem so clear to us today. Of course God was calling Conrad Grebel to baptize Georg Blaurock in 1525. Of course God was calling Rosa Parks to keep her seat on that bus.

These stories are inspiring. And comforting. These stories make it seem like our predecessors had no doubts. Like they were convinced of the clarity of their callings.

But I wonder if that was how people experienced it. Did Conrad and Georg take a moment to consider whether being re-baptized was worth the hassle? Did Rosa Parks wonder if keeping her seat was the most effective way for her to protest Jim Crow laws?

Did Abram wonder whether this calling into the wilderness was really the voice of God or merely some bad lamb stew?

“The voice of God said, ‘Go,’ and Abram went.” Is it possible that the certainty of this text comes, not from Abram’s experience with God, but from the way that Abram’s descendants needed to understand their place in the world and their relationship with God?

Because even the promised land can be a wilderness. Even the chosen people can feel lost. We need stories that ground us and guide us. As we watch God at work in history, we can—maybe-catch a glimpse of God at work right now. As we hear the voice of God speaking to Abram, to our ancestors, to our heroes, we can—maybe–discern the Divine whisper in our own ear.

Whether God’s voice is clear or not, God’s presence is sure. And God’s promises remain. God calls us, always, into blessing—into receiving blessing and into offering blessing.

Thanks be to God.

*This post is slightly adapted from a sermon I preached in 2017.

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