Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 8, 2008

2008.06.08 “Go Forth”

Central United Methodist Church

 “Go Forth”
Rev. David L. Haley

June 8th, 2008

“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.” – Genesis 12: 1 – 3, New Revised Standard Version


Sarah was awakened around 4 in the morning, to the noise of Abraham packing.

“What are you doing, Abraham?” 


“What for?” 

“We’re leaving.” 

“Where are we going?” 

“I don’t know.”

“Why are we going? 

“Because He told me to.” 

“Who’s He?” 

“He didn’t tell me.” 

I imagine Sarah calling her father: “What am I going to do?” 

And I imagine her father saying, “I knew you shouldn’t have married this nut.”

        What would you do? Suppose your husband/wife/son/ daughter says to you, “God came to me last night in a dream, and told me to go to the airport and that he would tell me which airline to go on and which destination to go to, and I’m never coming back.“ Wouldn’t you say, “You think God came to you in a dream? — I think you just dreamed God came to you.”

After all, who hears the voice of God? Schizophrenics hear voices, which sometimes tell them to do terrible things. Religious fanatics, defined as “someone who knows they are doing what the Lord would do if the Lord were also in possession of the facts,” claim to hear the voice of God.  Having said that, we must also acknowledge that some people who claim to hear the voice of God change history.  Abraham was such a man.

These two words of God spoken to Abraham as recorded in Genesis 12:1: “Go forth” (in Hebrew, “Lekh l’kha”), are some of the most famous words in the Bible. “Lekh l’kha” literally means, “betake yourself.” A Jewish commentary interprets it as, “Go forth to find your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.”

These two words are the beginning of everything: of monotheism, of the Abrahamic faith (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), of life lived by faith in God. In saying “Lekh l’kha” to Abraham and through Abraham’s response, God changed the history of the world.

The story of Abraham is “only a story,” say some scholars.   But to the three billion people who are Jews, Christians, and Muslims, this story still shapes their lives and gives meaning to their hopes.   Often the children of Abraham are not a blessing to each other: the accounts of crusades and jihads and holy wars involve fighting with each other as much as with others.  But you cannot talk any of the three out of the notion that the call to Abraham made them a people with special blessings and responsibilities.

Though our spiritual ancestors they may be, there is much about Abraham and Sarah that is foreign to us:

Ten generations after Noah, Abraham appears out of nowhere, born — scholars believe — around 1900 B.C.E. 

According to Genesis 11:31, Abraham was initially a citizen of Ur, the capitol of ancient Sumer, a city of some 200,000 people, one of the greatest cities of the ancient world.  Though there is not a shred of archaeological evidence for Abraham, or for that matter any of the characters of the Old Testament, more is known through archaeological discoveries about Sumer than any other time or place. Archaeologist Samuel Noah Kramer has observed, “History and, in a sense, the Bible itself begin at Sumer, for here mankind learned to write, transforming fragile speech into imperishable word.”  From digs emerged story of an inventive and resolute people who developed remarkable systems of law, commerce, farming.  Sumerian artists plied crafts with skills unequalled in ancient world save Egypt.  Astrologists applied mathematics invented here by their ancestors, solving equations, calculating square and cube roots and the areas of circles and rectangles. Our 360-degree circle and sixty minute hours are derived from the sexagesimal system invented in Sumer.  Yet God says, “Abraham, I want you to leave here, the New York City of the ancient world, and move to what? Arkansas?  Utah? The land of the Canaanites. (California?)

What would he have looked like? Based on contemporaneous images, he would likely have worn a knee-length pleated wool skirt, probably brown, with a long felt shawl draped over one shoulder. To this he would have added a bronze belt and sandals.  His shoulder length hair was likely parted in the middle, and he probably had a pointed beard and no moustache. And Sarah? Guessing from the text, Sarah must have been a Sumerian supermodel, attracting the attention of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, almost as soon as she entered the country.  

Yet, across the foreignness of centuries and culture, because he is our spiritual ancestor, there is much about Abraham and Sarah that is familiar to us. 

Abram was the first in the Bible to teach us that God is everything, that God is all that there is, that everything else comes and goes, but only God remains. 

Born in a culture that was polytheistic — believing in many Gods — Abraham believed in the One God, whom he believed had called him, making him the ancestor of the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  

For Abraham, so great was this one God, everything else is transitory, and much be taken as such.  It did not matter if you lived in the greatest place on earth, amidst the greatest civilization of the time, had the most beautiful wife, the most comfortable, cultured existence — Abraham was willing to exchange it all — the known for the unknown — the known pleasures of Ur for the as yet empty promises of God.  In essence, Abraham was the first to hear, “Go and sell all that you have and come and follow me.”

Abraham and Sarah are therefore the first in the Bible to teach us what we have also discovered, that responding to the call of God is difficult, and has its price. 

How would you like to hear those words coming, irresistibly, inescapably, “Go forth!” I can imagine Abraham looking around his tent, or his house, at his family, out the window at his city, weighing and worrying over what he was about to do to them.  

Most of us, I expect, in fact, have been there, and know that, one day we will be there again.  Before you walk out and lock the door for the last time, you will walk through the house, remembering, with joy and sorrow, the scenes of your life that have transpired there.  Most of the time, our attraction to the familiar is so strong, we refuse to give it up unless we are believe that leaving it is nothing less than the call of God to us.

Sometimes, however when God tells us to “Go Forth”, it’s not geographic boundaries God wants us to cross, but spiritual boundaries. Sometimes, it’s not our exterior circumstances that God wants us to change, it is our interior attitudes:  our beliefs, our prejudices, our behaviors, our desires. 

That’s exactly what our Gospel is about today: Jesus crossing boundaries. In today’s text the complaints about Jesus were that he was doing what was not done: calling a tax collector to be his disciple; eating with sinners rather than the righteous; reaching out to touch an unclean woman.  The call of God to Jesus was also to “Go Forth” from established ways, to break the holiness code in the interest of showing compassion.  “Go and learn what this means,” said Jesus, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ 

I believe one of the greatest challenges of the church today — of every one of us — is to hear the living voice of God speaking to us, calling us to “Go Forth” from our established ways. What are the cultural expectations and norms that keep sick people sick, poor people poor, dead people dead, paralyzed people stuck, sinners unforgiven and marginalized people marginalized, and how do we transcend them? How is God calling us to live differently, crossing cultural norms to bring healing, sharing, life, momentum, forgiveness and fellowship to all, in Jesus Christ?

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but it was sometime during my last pastorate that I realized this was true with regard to the church. Those of us clergy educated in ministry 20, even 30 years ago, where taught how to do the traditional tasks of ministry: worship, preaching, counseling, pastoral care, administration. What they didn’t tell us, and what they didn’t even know then, was the ground was changing beneath our feet, and that it would be possible to do all those tasks well, and for the church to still die. The greater task of ministry would be leadership: leading the church in a changed culture, and finding ways to reach new generations.  If we don’t do that, we’ll soon be out of business. 

I hear God saying to us, “Go Forth” from the old ways of leading and being the Church (which no longer work anyway) to ways that I will show you.  As the Psalmist told us in Psalm 33, It’s time to “Sing a new song unto the Lord.”  Because, as much as we may love it, the old song is getting pretty old, and fewer and fewer people are listening.

If you find this difficult, you will perhaps be comforted to hear that Abraham did too.  Perhaps the most encouraging way that Abraham is like us, is that he too — the Father of Nations — is not perfect.

Abraham felt like we do, that God has called us, but let’s face it, sometimes God is not so great at project management, and, like Greyhound, leaves the driving up to us.  And so we try to do God’s will without losing our lives and fortunes if possible, even if it means cutting a few moral corners here and there. So when Abraham got to Egypt, and found out that Pharoah had eyes for his wife, Sarah, for the mutual benefit of everybody, Abraham told Pharoah that Sarah was his “sister.”  (The text doesn’t tell us what Sarah thought?) When Pharoah found out the truth, our spiritual ancestors got escorted out of Egypt. Some spiritual ancestors, huh?

Of this story of Abraham, Bill Moyers commented in his book about Genesis:

“The writer John Gardner once observed that history never looks like history when you are living through it. It looks confusing and messy, and always feels uncomfortable. You can certainly say that about history as we find it in the Book of Genesis.  God is founding a dynasty, the beginnings of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. One might expect the storyteller to paint the First Family ten feet tall with several coats of whitewash. But the picture we get of these men and women is uncomfortably human. There is so much marital conflict and sibling intrigue they almost forfeit the call and fumble the promise. Yet the storyteller refuses to clean up their act. This is the amazing thing about the people of Genesis.  The more we talk about them, the more they look like people we know – faces in the mirror.”  

Lewis Smedes adds, “What really matters is not whether Abraham is good or bad or cowardly or heroic, but that God pursues his design for the welfare of the human family with people like this – in other words, people like us.”

Do you hear it? The voice of God?

“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.”  

“Lekh l’kha”: Go forth!



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