This is the text of a short sermon I recently preached at a Thursday morning prayer service at the Cathedral Church of the Advent.
"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. 2 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. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4 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. 5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 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. 8 From there he moved 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 called upon the name of the Lord. 9 And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negeb." (Genesis 12:1-9)
Now the Lord said to Abram.
Abram? Who was Abram? Oh, do you mean Abra-HAM? The man that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all claim as THE Patriarch. Father Abraham, the one about whom Sunday school children sing? The man that the Pharisees claim as their ancestor in John 8? The one who had enough faith to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice when God commanded him to?
Do you mean HIM? No… not him… not yet. At our current spot in Genesis, God has not yet changed Abram’s name to Abraham. In fact, we learn very little about Abram before this passage.
By the time we reach the first phrase of our first verse, “Now the Lord said to Abram” the Bible has only told us the following:
Abram’s father was named Terah. He was a descendant of Noah’s son Shem. Abram married a woman named Sarai who was barren. Abram was from the land of Ur of the Chaldeans, and had begun moving toward Canaan; however he settled in the land of Haran before he got there. That’s about it. That’s about all we know at this point.
So who was Abram? Abram was a nobody. There was nothing special about him. It’s hard to tell from the passage if he worshiped the Lord already or if he engaged in the idolatry of the land. Regardless, it is apparent that it was the Lord who took the first step in their relationship. At the age of seventy-five, Abram was just your average elderly guy. He did not, and he could not do anything to merit God’s attention.
But the Lord said to Abram.
The Lord God Almighty, the all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal God, the one who alone is to be worshiped. This God chose and spoke to this nobody Abram.
Before I moved to Birmingham, I lived in my parents house in Orlando, FL. I worked in the kitchen of a local Chick-fil-A, and I absolutely hated it. Great chicken, great company, but not my favorite work environment. I loved my coworkers, but the work itself was repetitive, boring, oftentimes stressful, always greasy, and seemingly meaningless. Day after day I fried chicken, mopped floors, cleaned oily machines, and fought my own lack of motivation.
“This isn’t right,” I thought to myself. "I wanted to be a somebody! I wanted to be important in the eyes of the world. I wanted to do something that I felt had meaning. I wanted my name to become great, I wanted to be respected and admired."
As I see it, I have a lot to live up to. My dad served in the Air Force and has done some incredibly cool things. He’s flown faster than the speed of sound! One of my friends from college became an officer in the Marine Corps. Other friends of mine went off to study at Yale, while still others entered law school. I wanted that sort of prestige. I wanted to be the envy of my friends. I wanted to be an Abra-HAM who was revered and respected. Instead, I was, and still am, just an Abram. I was a nobody tucked away in the greasy kitchen of a Chick-fil-A with no real prospects for moving forward and making a name for myself.
Perhaps you feel similarly. Perhaps this morning you find yourself caught in a dead-end job that you hate. Maybe it pays the bills but it sucks the life out of you. Or maybe it doesn’t even pay enough to cover the bills, but there is no other option for you at the moment. Perhaps you find yourself envying those who are financially more successful than yourself, those who are more attractive than you, those who have more prestige, or those who seem to simply have their lives together.
Maybe you too feel like a nobody, and you think that if you could just accomplish a little bit more; if your situation could change just a tiny bit, then you would be happy. Then you would be a somebody!
Now the Lord said to this nobody 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 dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So, the Lord God Almighty chooses this nobody Abram and says that he is going to bless him, to make his name great, that he will be the father of many nations and the entire world, the entire world! will be blessed in him.
And what does God require of Abram? Here’s the fascinating thing. At the very same time he requires absolutely everything and absolutely nothing from Abram. Abram cannot earn this favor with God; he cannot make himself worthy of his blessing; he cannot somehow make God “owe” him this blessing. This is pure grace. God chooses this nobody Abram and promises to bless him, but God also requires that Abram leave all behind, to leave his country, his kindred, and his father’s house and to trust that this God who has spoken to him is trustworthy.
“By faith,” as the author of Hebrews says, “[Abram] obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.” (11:8).
Because Abram trusted God, he obeyed him and left all behind.
But pay let’s pay particular attention to that last part of God’s promise. “In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Here, if we listen closely, we can hear a small echo of the promise given to the woman in Genesis 3. Eve’s seed, the descendant of the first woman, would crush the head of the serpent who tempted humankind into sin. Her descendant would come to destroy evil; now we hear that in Abram all the world will be blessed. These promises are two sides of the same coin both pointing forward to the same person: to God in the flesh -- to Jesus.
And Jesus, like Abram, also left his country and his father’s house. He left his home in heaven to become a servant for us.
Abram left his home country, a land of darkness and sin and idolatry, and he came to a land of promise and blessing.
But Jesus left his home of heaven and entered our world of sin and darkness, and rather than receiving a blessing, he took the curse of death on our behalf!
Abram was a nobody whom God chose to bless and to make into a somebody.
Jesus was and is a somebody -- he is God! -- Who became a nobody on our behalf!
Or as Paul puts it in his letter to the Philippians, it is this Jesus who “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:6-7)
Jesus, though he is and was a somebody, became a nobody for our sake. The Almighty God was born as a little infant in Bethlehem to poor parents who also appeared to be nobodies.
He lived as a homeless, wandering teacher who was a nobody in ancient Roman society. He died a cruel death that was reserved for common criminals -- for those who were the least of the nobodies. Jesus took the curse of sin that we brought upon ourselves, and he conquered death through his resurrection in order that we might have a relationship with God. Jesus became a nobody that we might become somebodies.
God does not promise us that he is necessarily going to bless us financially or even that our dismal situations are going to change when we trust him. However, he does promise to change us. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
I experienced a fair amount of disappointment when I worked at Chick-fil-A. It seemed like nothing I tried to pursue was working out for me, and I was stuck. However, the worst part of my situation was not my circumstances, but the fact that I had become so consumed with the American dream, with getting ahead, with being a somebody by the world’s standards, that I had made an idol of status and success.
And then, over time, through meditation on the Bible, through the difficult school of disappointment, and through the godly example of people around me, the Lord said to me -- the nobody fry cook -- “Go from your sinful home of idolatry. Repent and find that in Christ, you are somebody. Repent, and experience the sufficiency and the contentment that is a restored relationship with me.” I was already a Christian at that time, but repentance is never a one time event. We must repent of our sin every day, and that repentance is painful. Leaving our homeland of sin always is.
I did not get a new job for a while, but slowly the Lord worked on me: sometimes it was three steps forward, two steps back. Sometimes it was more steps back than forward. But over time my perspective changed. I was becoming aware again that Christ has chosen me. That in him I was, and am, a somebody.
My work didn’t change, but I was no longer as ashamed of it.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “even if it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; (Go ahead) sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”
When our identity is in Christ, not in our accomplishments, not in our bank account, and not in our social status, we are free to live as somebodies. We are free to love our neighbors and do our work well.
That painful command to go from our homeland of sinfulness is always coupled with Christ’s healing invitation in Revelation to “Come.” “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” (22:17)
Abram was a nobody. God made him into a somebody.
Jesus was a somebody. He became a nobody for our sake.
God wishes that none should perish but that all should come to repentance. To each and every one of us he has said, “Go! Leave your homeland of sin, and come to me. Be reconciled to me and experience new life. Let me make you a somebody in Christ.” Amen.