Lech-Lecha (Go for yourself)

So Abram is our shining example of righteous faith – according to St Paul.  Abram (soon to be Abraham) stands first for Paul in the list of those who have trusted God.  Interesting that Abram is first because of what he will become in time – an icon of Jewishness; first ancestor of a people destined to wander; a patriarch of patriarchs; THE ONE who answered God’s call without argument, without condition, and without questions…or so we are told in Genesis chapter 12.

This first call (there will be several) comes out of nowhere.  We find it in a part of scripture that serves to give the history of God’s people a very particular context.  Following the safe arrival of Noah and his family, following the “total destruction” that comes as a result of human wickedness, the world must be re-populated, re-oriented and Genesis tells the story of all that.  From one family comes every nation known to ancient scholars – every potential ally and enemy of Israel springs from the sons of Noah.  The genealogy in chapters ten and eleven of Genesis read like a geography text of the ancient world, and Abram walks out of that geography into God’s story with very little to recommend him as a hero.

In the beginning he’s not a hero – he’s not much of anything, really.  For all that Abram hears and “acts” (packing up his family and heading out into the unknown), he is the most passive character in the text.  God points and reveals and proclaims; Abram gathers and travels and observes and accepts.  No challenges (not yet) and no questions (though they will eventually come) and more importantly for us, no doubts at all!

What moves Abram to accept this sacred invitation?

God’s habit (thus far) has been occasional (but very direct) intervention, according to the text.  Abram’s immediate family has no history of visions or visitations, which means there are some obvious questions we might ask of the text.  First -Why did God choose this particular person?  Perhaps the thought of questioning God’s motives seems a little unnerving, so we’ll lay that aside and concentrate on the second question; Why would Abram follow the leading of this divine stranger?

“Now the Lord said to Abram…’go for yourself’…”  The Hebrew – Lech-lecha is emphatic – urgent.  But Hebrew traditions suggests that this is the first time since Noah that God has spoken…so how did Abram know to obey?  It is a common enough jest in our time to suggest that if a person speaks to God, they are praying, but if a person hears God, they must be mad.  That is a modern misunderstanding and too easily dismisses the sort of sacred visionaries that are so common in Scripture, and among indigenous peoples all over the world, even today.

Abram is captured by his curiosity – surrounded as he was by the vast and constantly changing beauty of the earth – the sky – the weather – the changing seasons; Abram’s experience of the universe becomes an encounter with the Holy.  Set against the magnificent backdrop of creation – countless stars and limitless grains of sand – poor Abram was helpless to resist the urge to respond.  The scope of Creation invites him to explore; the call becomes audible and the first moral of the story of our first patriarch is that mere mortals are powerless against the enormous pull of the Creator’s work.  In Abram we find someone for whom God is an obvious, if entirely mysterious, fact of life.

The certainty of Paul in his praise of Abram makes me uneasy; I know that I can’t recreate that level of faithfulness – that level of pure obedience that Abram seems to demonstrate.  I am much more likely to sound like Nicodemus.  “How can these things be?”  He may have been a teacher of Israel, but the world has changed.  God’s people have more experience – greater expectations – there have been disappointments.  When the majesty of Creation is overshadowed by daily activities and national hopes, God’s nature is (perhaps) not so obvious.  When the concerns of the moment replace the reality of God, the simple obedience of Abram gives way to rule-minding and gate-keeping.  I think that Nicodemus comes to Jesus because Jesus reminds him of the mysterious nature of God – something that has always been present.  Nicodemus is starting to hear God through the noise of the rules; the call to order, righteousness and purity that religious traditions so often cling too, is competing in Nicodemus with the call from God.

Jesus will continue to have this effect on the people he meets.  For Nicodemus, Jesus represents a challenge to his system of thought from within – a Jewish thinker and teacher with new ideas, new energy; this was a meeting of like minds, for the most part.  But while debating the law and its interpretation, Jesus manages to keep the focus on the glorious possibilities represented by the God who called Abram.  Bigger than the situation at hand – bigger than the majestic structure of the law – an unmeasurable presence that cannot be explained; that compels curiosity and urges people to reevaluate themselves.

“Very truly I tell you that no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the spirit.”  Jesus continues to answer questions that Nicodemus didn’t ask; sure that he is looking for something more than mere explanation.  Nicodemus has come looking for a mystery – the same mystery Abram sought on his desert odyssey – the mystery each of us yearns for in some part of our selves.  We want assurance that the vast, inexplicable universe has some order to it.  We want to know, whatever happens, that everything will eventually be okay.  We can satisfy ourselves with theories from the sciences, with the archeological record, with religious rules for living that quantify our behaviour and qualify our devotion – but none of these things satisfies the need for mystery; only God can do that.

Not god cast in an image and raised up for our devotion.  Neither god as defined by rules of behaviour and engagement that reveal our prejudice.  Only God – revealed in the breathless wonder that makes the heart beat faster and moves the soul to sing.  Only God – revealed in love that lifts up the powerless and gives sight to the blind.  Only God – whose children are moved to great sacrifice; to abandon kin and country; to defy the status quo; to live lives guided by curiosity, compassion and love.

It took Nicodemus some time to recognize that, in Jesus, he had seen that mystery – discovered God afresh.  Abram’s story suggests that he too took some time to truly appreciate the power that moved him and shaped him.  And we, who imagine ourselves so far removed from such moments of wonder and awe – we too have a chance to look beyond the “rules” of our religion; beyond the strange notion that God speaks only in certain ways and only to certain people.  Lent offers us a chance to reflect on the majesty of God – the deliberate devotion of Jesus – the distractions that keep us from faith.  Not that our faith needs be perfect; only that all faith might find God, faith’s true object.

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