Sunday, October 7, 2007

BEGIN AND THE BEGINNING: Address 9: The Great Rift of Faith (Gen 11:0-12:9)

Address 9: The Great Rift of Faith (Genesis 11:10-12:9)

I am sure you have heard of the Rift Valley, The Rift Valley that runs through East Africa and gives us Lake Albert and the Rwenzori Mountiains, is a major fold in the earths crust that allows molten lava from below the earth to emerge and found new rock formations.

Genesis 12 represents such a Rift Valley in salvation history, of God’s dealings with the world. Leon Kass describes the rift in this way:

The failure of the city and tower of Babel brings to a close Genesis’s saga of universal human beginnings. Multiple nations arise as the necessary remedy for the proud and perilous political project of humankind united. After and because of Babel, God abandons His plans to work simultaneously with the entire human race. But He in no way abandons His universal aspirations for human beings. On the contrary, He pursues the same ends but by different means. Having dispersed mankind into many nations, He now chooses one nation to carry His way as a light unto all the others, and He takes up a prominent role as that nation’s educator and guide. Accordingly, after the story of Babel, the Bible turns immediately to the effort to establish God’s way through the founding of His chosen nation of Israel.

The true political establishment of Israel as a distinctive people must await the liberation from bondage in Egypt and the giving of the Law at Sinai, the major events narrated in Exodus, the second book of the Bible. But Israel has curcial prepolitcal beginnings that reveal already the core of what the new way will demand: man’s free choice for obedience, a concern for justice, and a disposition toward holiness, a way of life guided by awe and reverence before the divine. The remainder of the book of Genesis shows how theis orientation is established in the lives and generations of the Israelite patriarchs: Abraham the founder, Isaac the transmitter, and Jacob – later renamed Israel – the progenitor of the twelve tribes that become the incipient nation of Israel.

The rift begins with the line of Shem, Noah’s most faithful son. As there were ten generations before the flood, which culminated in Noah, so again there are ten generations of Shem’s line all aiming toward the person of Abraham (11: 10-30). These generations continued on, even after the fall of Babel, in Mesopotamia, nodoubt farming the rich soil and living in cities with pagan gods. Abram’s father Terah, however, seems to have been stirred to move upriver to Haran.

Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan; but when they came to Haran, they settled there. (verse 31)

The route they took is in fact the only way to move west, because the great Syrian desert stands between Mesopotamia and Canaan. So the patriarchs were on the move, but they were still waiting for the final word from God, which comes to Abraham:

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. And 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 him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves." (12:1-3)

Some of you may have learned that these verses constitute the Call of Abraham and the first iteration of the so-called Abrahamic Covenant. You may recall the three promises which God makes here: the promise of a new land; the promise of offspring; and the promise of God’s blessing.

Today, however, I want to concentrate on the kind of man Abraham was, the kind of character he displayed, the kind of faith he revealed to the world. The Bible describes his response in one verse: “So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.” In a later chapter, Scripture says this: “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness” (15:6). And finally after Isaac is born and the Lord commands him to offer his son up as a sacrifice, it simply says: “Early next morning Abraham saddled up his donkey…” (22:3). In one way, Abraham seems very strange to our human understanding, yet he is also the paradigm of the man of faith.

In a famous “Eulogy of Abraham” (the prologue to his famous book Fear and Trembling) The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard meditates on the character of Abraham. He begins by noting the contrast between the “normal” passing of generations, which forms the backdrop to the emergence of Abraham:

If one generation succeeded another like the singing of birds in the forest, if a generation passed through the world as a ship through the sea, as wind through the desert, an unthinking and unproductive performance, if an eternal oblivion, perpetually hungry, lurked for its prey and there were no power strong enough to wrench that away from it - how empty and devoid of consolation life would be!

Kierkegaard goes on to contrast those people who live ordinary lives and those who live extraordinary lives:

Everyone shall be remembered, but everyone became great in proportion to his expectancy…. There was one who relied upon himself and gained everything; there was one who in the security of his own strength sacrificed everything; but the one who believed God was to be the greatest of all.

Interestingly, he identifies two kinds of ordinary: those who gain everything and those who give everything up. We might call them the master and the martyr. Each in his own way “gains” the world. The first gains fame and power and money. The second gains purity and glory and sainthood. But, Kierkegaard says, the third type, the man of faith gains nothing but God.

By faith Abraham emigrated from the land of his fathers and became an alien in the promised land. He left one thing behind and took along his faith…. By faith Abraham received the promise that in his seed all the generations of the earth would be blessed. Time passed, it became unreasonable, Abraham had faith. There was one in the world who also had an expectancy.

For Kierkegaard, the essence of faith is expectancy. Abraham for the rest of his life was always on the move. Note how many places they visit.

And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions which they had gathered, and the persons that they had gotten in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. (verses 5-6)

The Canaanites were in the land. What an understatement. The Canaanites owned the land; the Canaanites ruled the land in fortified cities. What claim did Abraham possibly have to show. Did he have a title deed? Did he have a treaty? Did he have an army? No, he only had the expectancy that God would bring his promise to pass. And God did indeed reiterate this promise time and again over the years:

Then the LORD appeared to Abram, and said, "To your descendants I will give this land." So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.

God spoke again, and Abraham up and moved again:

Thence he removed to the mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD. And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb. (verses 7-9)

His final rest in this passage is the southern desert of Palestine, not a place “flowing with milk and honey.” At the end of his life, Abraham’s foothold in the land consists of one burial cave that he purchased.

The New Testament writers hold up Father Abraham as a model of Christian faith. The letter of the Hebrew says:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. (Hebrews 11:8-10).

Hebrews makes clear that faith requires something invisible. It is one thing to have faith that the chair you sit in will not collapse and dump you on the floor. It is another to set out on a journey with no provision and no visible destination.

Many people hearing of Abraham’s faith may think it is too risky, too likely to end in defeat and disappointment. Kierkegaard maintains that just the opposite is true. Those who trust in the flesh and the world will grow old with them. But the man or woman of faith will “renew their strength like an eagle. He describes in a lovely image Abraham’s golden anniversary:

But Abraham had faith and therefore he was young, for he who always hopes for the best (the master) grows old and is deceived by life, and he who is always prepared for the worst (the martyr) grows old prematurely, but he who has faith – he preserves an eternal youth. So let us praise and honour that story! For Sarah, although well advanced in years, was young enough to desire the pleasure of motherhood, and Abraham with his gray hairs was young enough to wish to be a father. Outlandishly, the wonder of it is that it happened according to their expectancy… So there was joy in Abraham’s house when Sarah stood as bride on their golden wedding day.

The Great Rift Valley runs not only through Uganda but through Canaan, through the land of Abraham. But we can only inherit that land if we come to it with the same faith that he brought with him when he left Babel, when he left his father and his father’s gods behind and ventured toward that city whose foundations rest in God alone.

One of the adverts for the Uganda Studies Program says: “Risk the Venture.” Let us venture out across this Rift Valley of Faith in the footsteps of Father Abraham.

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