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. 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.”
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. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired 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. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So, he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country 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 invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.
I asked her one day, when she was looking kind of melancholy, “Judy, what’s wrong?”
“Oh, I don’t know; nothing really. I think I am having a midlife crisis.”
Now here is where I went wrong, and after being married some 30 years when this happened, I knew what I should and shouldn’t say, but as Judy will attest, it takes more than the willpower I can muster to hold back saying something that I think is clever! So, I replied, “Midlife crisis… Can’t be! You’re well past midlife!”
Well, Judy, I am here to say that maybe I am wrong. This passage in Genesis, this story of Abram, soon to be renamed Abraham, and Sarai (soon to be Sarah) challenges my notions of what midlife is and what young is. I have may need to rethink what is the suitable age range to be able to say that this is a story about young newlyweds starting out on their own. You heard it. Abram was 75 according to the story. How long does he live? He will live another 100 years! So, Abram here is pre-middle-aged, according to this timeline.
You probably do know more about Abraham – although it is okay if you don’t – how he fathers his first child, Ishmael, at 86, and his second child, Isaac, at age 100. Sarah, in case you were wondering, was 10 years younger than Abraham, but it would be hard to call her young when she gave birth at 90.
All of these numbers are head-scratchers for us as we have scarcely seen anything like this in our lives. Set aside the fact that Sarah was known to be unable to bear children. Again, I don’t know how this story was understood by its original hearers, but from our perspective it seems as though there are two facts that double down against Sarah as being the mother of a great nation. Yet here we have the impossible made possible, and all we can put forth is what we believe, which is “With God all things are possible.”
Well, in 40 some years of preaching, I could not alleviate the head-scratching that often arises from some aspects of Biblical story, and I still cannot today. But it turns out that head-scratching about seeming impossible outcomes in Bible stories is not the only kind of head-scratching and confusion that Bible stories present. The greater and more important head-scratching arises from the behaviors and the responses of the models of faith, in this case Abram and Sarai. It seems untenable that Abram would do what God called him to do, leave a land of security to go off into the unknown, but off he goes without consulting a travel agent and perhaps scratching his own head, wondering if he was crazy for doing so. Then he gets shown a land that God says will be his, or at least the home for his many, many descendants, which, he will find out, must come from the beautiful woman he married with a showstopping flaw, her inability to have children. They may think they are in midlife or pre-midlife in their understanding of how long humans live, but 75 and 65 years old seems like a time to live off of accumulated resources and not venture further, to take all of one’s investments out of growth funds and put them into lower risk bonds. Abram and Sarai could carve out a comfortable life where they lived, in the region of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, that arch of land we learned to call in school the Fertile Crescent. That place had been and continued to be the breadbasket for many an empire. Why would he not cash in his chips and stay right there, playing golf and living off of his accumulated holdings. Instead, God tells him to place a bet on a new life?
“When your world ends, who will you become?” (Again) When your world ends, who will you become? That was the question that my pastor – and yours – posed to us last week. As she led us on a journey through the story of Noah and the flood, she spoke of our God, who wanted to start over with the Creation that God declared “Good!” every step of the way, but nevertheless, thanks to humans who choose a direction other than goodness, Creation became something other than “Good!” I imagine God asking God’s self that same question. “When I end this world, what will become? What will I bring forward? What will I save as foundations for the next?”
I wish I were with you last week, although I am happy to have been able to catch it on the recording; powerful sermon – from a powerfully important Scripture for our time, for we seem to have seen lots of momentous world changes and ones in plain sight on the ominous horizon! I hope you didn’t lose the – shall I say – irony that you were meditating last week on the flood story and Pastor Leanne posted the picture of the present-day flooding in Pakistan. What will we become when our world ends and another one begins? That question connects us to today’s Bible story which asks us: What will we become – not when we are flooded with a new world – but when we are the agents called to change our world. God tells Abram and Sarai to set all blessedness and comfortableness aside and embark on something new and seemingly impossible.
What will we keep on the ark that we will build, when God calls us to go a different direction? And, more aligned to the imagery of today’s passage: What altars will we build to keep us centered on the life God calls us to live?
We read today that Abram built two altars:
Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So, he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.
And reading on…
From there he moved on to the hill country 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 invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.
The profound result of faith in making our life choices is not when we look around and see that all is well with us, when we have our basic needs met and we are comfortable. Faith is not a quest for comfort and bliss as if that confirms we believed in the right God. So, we can eat, drink and be merry. No, that isn’t close to what faith’s most important influence is.
Instead, the profoundness of living a faith-informed life is what we are willing to do despite all present appearances, whether we are surrounded by blissfulness or tragedy. Faith-filled living calls us to make altars that mark events or revelations that will supersede the present reality and what we see before our eyes. Living by faith means we will not react to the present blessings and troubles that we experience. Instead, faith bids us, as the psalmist put it so poetically, to “…lift up [our] eyes to the hills…” and declare, despite all appearances to the contrary, that “…[Our] help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
Build altars to remember the times of God’s presence. Choose altars that will keep you faithful. That is the message today. Now, I am sure some of you might debate that none of us is like Abram and Sarai, but let’s think about this some. We are blessed with a Biblical record that fleshes out a fuller picture of who are the heroes of the faith. Were we to write a tribute to someone that we hoped others would revere, we would tend against including the negative character traits and the embarrassing choices that our model human may have made. That is hardly the way of Biblical writers. There are scathing and damning testimonies to the “feet of clay” that God’s messengers have exhibited. Adam, Eve, Noah had some embarrassing moments as well. Abram is no exception. You really should read on from the passage we read today. Abram built these two altars, and, as our reading attests, he traveled to the Negev in stages. In Bible geography that means he moved south. Eventually he ended up in Egypt.
Let’s remember that he built those two altars that signified the promise that God bestowed upon him, that he and Sarah would have a huge descendancy and a Promised Land. They were given the honored task of carrying God’s message to the countless generations that follow. But! Abram & co. went south, all the way to Egypt because there was a famine and they needed to survive. Well and good, it won’t be the last time Egypt played in to the survival – I should say SALVATION – story of God’s children. But guess what he did in Egypt. So afraid was he of people in power there and so aware of how beautiful and desirable was Sarai (even as she was over 65! Take that, agists!), that he feared for his life and decided to leave Sarai unprotected. He told her to say they were brother and sister in case these mighty men with hyperactive libidos might kill him to get to her. If she was a sister, they could – and they did – try to have their way with her without worrying about a husband to knock off.
Oh, I could go on about Abram/Abraham, but that one story should suffice. (Some of us want to go off to brunch!) Read on for yourselves the Holy Bible record of Father Abraham and Mother Sarah. The point I am trying to make is that Abram and Sarai are more like us than we think. It wasn’t that he was more virtuous and more inclined to living in faith than any of us. He traveled away from the altars and often let the faith and promises of God be flooded or overwhelmed by the circumstances of the moment.
Well, I believe it was right for Abram & co. to move on from the altars. It was right for him to live out of a tent as our reading states instead of establishing a more permanent and stationary dwelling. We are to live life, to move on and respond to our circumstances that are before us. From time to time, however, we must return to the altars we have built or at least remember them in our day to day and live according to the call and promise they represent even when the current setting appears to be disproving God’s blessings bestowed on us and the promises of our future and salvation. And, the other thing we must remember is that we should be ready to place our bets on the unknown future when it calls us. We may not be brought to this time and place to live comfortably and enjoy our resources. We may be called to take risks and boldly move forward in the name of the God who blesses those who bless us and curses those who curse us.
Again, I don’t know about how life was for Abram and Sarai with respect to their length of life and the limits of childbearing age for them, but I think I can still say that, even for those of us who are orbiting around the age of 75 or are past it, we are never too old to start something new. We never have an excuse, be it age or something else, to keep from taking risks in the name of the One who blesses us.
So, go from this place remembering – maybe returning – to the altars that clarify our life’s purpose shown to us in our faith. Do not be driven to despair by the circumstances that surround our present day. There will always be threats to life that cast doubt on the faith we have followed – but the threats of today seem especially threatening, don’t they. We will make mistakes. We will forget the promises our altars commemorate, but we built them for such times, and the God of grace allows us to return to get back on t
 For those who do not know, “Abram” means in Hebrew “Exalted Father.” God renames him Abraham, meaning “Father of a Multitude” when God offers another blessing, which expands upon this original blessing, promising that his descendants will be as great in number as there are stars in the sky. (See Genesis 16:16 – 17:10)
 Matthew 19:26 is but one reference for the quotation.
 Psalm 121