Event Name Sermon given at Matins on the Sunday next before Lent 2016
Start Date 7th Feb 2016 10:00am
Description

The Venerable Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence

Writing in her book 'Abraham', the theologian and academic Meg Warner describes the moment when she moved from her native Australia and emigrated permanently to England:

"So it was that, tired and groggy at eight in the morning, having ticked the box on an Australian customs form that said 'Resident Departing Permanently', I encountered the question, 'In which state did you formerly reside?' The question brought me up with a jolt. Here, for the first time, I was being asked to talk about my home in the past tense. I still had to say farewell to my friends at the departures barrier … but as far as Customs were concerned I had already left Australia".

Many of you attending this service this morning will be all too familiar with leaving your own home and travelling: it may be that this involves a permanent re-location or more likely time to travel for work or pleasure.

However, as part of this series of sermons in February on the life of Abraham, in which I am drawing on Meg Warner's book of the same title, I want to draw out from the text the nature of Abraham's calling and then to reflect on what that might mean for our Christian vocation.

It's just possible that in your time in London you may already have had to do battle with London Transport. We are hugely proud of this city where 24 million journeys are made across the network every day. But whatever your mode of transport, it can be as nothing compared with the long journey Abraham made from the Ur of the Chaldees.

So the first point I want to make about the call of Abraham is that he was already on the move. In the passage read from Genesis 12 it sounds as if he is setting off for the first time: "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 fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. If we read the last verses of the previous chapter, we hear about Terah—Abraham's father.

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

In other words, the family had already been on the move for some time: Ur of the Chaldeans is in the south of Iraq and the first leg of their journey to Haran in modern-day Turkey was about 600 miles. The Bible does not indicate any particular reason for this re-location, we only know that they made the journey to Haran where Terah settled and it was there that he died. As far as we know this was a personal choice. And it was only at that point that the divine call came to Abraham.

And this, of course, rings true to our own experience of God's calling in our lives, doesn't it? It's often not the case that we are completely static, stuck in our ways and rooted to one thing. Rather, there is a mix, a wonderfully human dimension that our own desires and plans and aspirations all have a part to play. It doesn't mean that God won't call us to change direction—he certainly did that with Abraham—but surely it does mean that we should not dismiss the part that we can play as co-workers in God's mission.

And now let's come on to Abraham's call itself. If the family had already travelled northwest from Ur 600 miles to Haran, the journey Abraham was called upon to make was no less arduous—another 400 miles, this time south, from Haran to Shechem, to the land of the Canaanites.

What is very striking is how sparse Scripture is at this point: it is a simple matter of obedience.

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 … So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.

This is extraordinary, isn't it? A simple directive, 'Go from your country' leads Abram to up sticks, to disrupt his family and his social network, and to re-locate what must for him have seemed to be on the other side of the world.

But it was backed up by a profound and far-reaching promise:

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.

Of course, at this stage, it is a while before 'Abram'—whose name means exalted father—becomes 'Abraham', father of the people or of the multitude. It is in this promise that we see in embryonic form the blessing that would come to the nations through the people of Israel. When the instruction comes, the promise is a generic one: he will be the father of a great nation, he will be a blessing to others, but he has to wait to find out the location. And it is on arrival that he is told that the land of the Canaanites is the one he will inhabit:

Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, 'To your offspring I will give this land.'

And then something extraordinary happens.

There is no mention here of the kind of destruction that we will come to associate with Joshua, no instruction to decimate the inhabitants of the land nor to remove them. Rather the opposite: Abram honours the local custom of setting up a shrine beside a holy tree, the Oak of Mamre, at which Canaanites would have sacrificed to fertility and cosmic gods, something he then repeats at Bethel. Joshua 24.2 tells us that when they lived in Haran Abram's family worshiped 'other gods' so perhaps we should not be surprised. Nonetheless, later in the story of the Hebrews, this was something that would be specifically prohibited.

In other words what we are seeing is a period of transition, of development and change, where the traveller Abram brings with him his own cultural baggage and adapts it to local circumstance.

So, what, if anything, does this tell us about our own sense of vocation, and how can we apply the lessons of Abram to our lives? We want to be wary of a simple read-across, these were different times, different mores, different lives.

But there are challenges there:

The first is that Abram was already journeying when the call came; he wasn't sat around waiting, the specific call of God was in the setting of the choices and decisions he was already making. His godly vocation was part of his human responsibility.

Secondly, Abram was obedient, amazingly so, but it was backed up by a promise—a promise that through him many others would be blessed. Vocation can never be solely about self-fulfilment, about 'my calling', 'my ministry' but about service to others, how God will bless communities through us.

And finally, vocation is a process not an act. Abram learnt and changed along the way. Sometimes his actions were decidedly questionable (read on from this passage for his treatment of Sarai). He came laden with cultural baggage which enabled him to navigate the territory and to scout the land. His practices were not what would finally be approved of, but nonetheless God started where he was—and where we are—and led him on from there.

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