Service Date: 18 June, 2017
Worship was led by The Revd. Robert Beard
Rejoice and Sing 99 Morning glory, starlit sky
Rejoice and Sing 553 To Abraham and Sarah
Rejoice and Sing 121 The God of Abraham praise
Rejoice and Sing 521 Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go
Genesis chapter 18 verses 1 – 15
Psalm 116 verses 1,2 and 12 – 19
Romans chapter 5 verses 1 – 8
Matthew chapter 9 verse 35 to chapter 10 verse 23
We first meet Abram, whose name means “exalted father”, in Genesis chapter 11, where he is presented as a descendant of Noah’s son Shem eight generations on:
Terah [we are told] was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. Haran died before his father Terah in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldeans. Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah. She was the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. Now Sarai was barren; she had no child. 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.
Have a look at your map. There are two possible sites for Ur of the Chaldeans, each of which is marked with a figure 2 and outlined in red. Ur probably stood either in north-western Mesopotamia where the river Tigris begins to flow eastwards away from the Euphrates, in the south-eastern part of present-day Turkey, or on the south bank of the Euphrates, not far from where it flows into the Persian Gulf. Haran lies to the south-west of the first of these sites, which some scholars believe makes that one the more likely.
Although not part of the Bible, the Jewish tradition of Biblical interpretation or midrash, portrays Abram’s father Terah as a maker of idols, an idea whose significance I’ll come to in a moment, and the story continues:
The days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran. Now Yahweh 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 Yahweh had told him…
When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem…
Then Yahweh appeared to Abram, and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to Yahweh, who had appeared to him…
And Abram journeyed on by stages towards the Negeb.
Genesis 11.32; 12.1-4a, 5b-7, 9
If you look towards the bottom of your map, you will see the Negeb marked with a red triangle, with Beersheba near the top. From Haran to Beersheba is some 570 miles: about the same distance as from Inverness to Brighton.
At this stage, the story of Abram has already made two fundamentally important points.
The first is his break with his father’s – and indeed his whole world’s – polytheism. In Jewish tradition, Abram is the first person to turn away from the many gods venerated by his society, and to recognise and worship the one true, living God. The midrash contains a number of stories about Abraham smashing the idols made by his father Terah when he comes to believe that there is only one God of heaven and earth. The story of Abram is the story of the emergence of monotheism.
The second point concerns Abram’s obedience to God. He believes that God has made him a promise that in return for uprooting his entire household and establishment and moving south, God will not only give him descendants, despite Sarai’s apparent infertility, but will bless both him and them. And so he steps out, in faith. Abram has seen no signs nor miracles, he has no Scripture or tradition on which to draw for insight or inspiration; all he has is his own conviction that he has received a promise from the one, true God.
Small wonder, then, that Abram is held up by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike as the ultimate example of faith, the person against whose faith we, who have signs and miracles, Scripture and tradition – however we may interpret them – to draw on, should measure our own. Small wonder that St Paul presents Abraham to the Church in Rome as the archetype of righteousness through faith:
I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’
For what does the scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’
Romans 4.3 (citing Genesis 15.16)
It’s important to note that Abraham’s obedience to the call of Yahweh is not blind obedience; on the contrary, the stories tell us that Abraham frequently questioned Yahweh and even challenged him. But throughout this, the story emphasises that he trusted this God who made such extraordinary promises, and in so doing it presents us with the picture of a very special and personal relationship between God and God’s faithful people.
And so Abram, the “exalted father”, becomes Abraham, the “father of many people”; and Sarai, the “princess”, becomes Sarah, the “mother of nations”. And the special and personal relationship between God and God’s faithful people established in Abraham and Sarah remains available to us down to the present day.
I’ve mentioned Jews and Christians, but of course Abraham is a hugely important figure for Muslims in their tradition, too, as the first prophet in the line from Adam to Mohammed (PBUH) who surrenders to the will of God, and therefore for Muslims, too, he is an exemplar of faithful obedience.
Consequently, the figure of Abraham may have the potential to unite, these three great monotheistic, “Abrahamic” faiths. In the wake of 9/11, Christians, Jews and Muslims started to meet in ‘Abraham Salons’ to talk about Abraham. The idea is that in a world where the differences among – and even within – faith traditions are sometimes abused as justification for division, bigotry and violence, we may perhaps find a way forward through Abraham. Many Jews, Christians and Muslims are meeting and working together to find common ground without denying, but rather respecting, each other’s traditions.
Of course, there are aspects of the Abrahamic tradition which emphasise the divisions among the three Abrahamic faiths. For instance, Jews and Christians on the one hand, and Muslims on the other, disagree about which of Abraham’s sons, Ishmael or Isaac, he was called to sacrifice. And the politicisation of Abraham underlies the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people; the Bible presents him as the person to whom God promised the land of Canaan, leading political Zionists to assert that because of Abraham, Jerusalem and the Holy Land are theirs – God has given it to us.’
If Abraham is to become a unifying figure for Jews, Christians and Muslims, all sides will have to show a lot more faith in God and in each other.
Leaving all that aside, I’d like to finish with some words of the Iona Community’s John Bell, which are relevant to all of us in one way or another, and perhaps particularly to Aileen on the occasion of her 90th birthday.
The lovely thing for me about Abraham is that he’s an old man and he is one of several old people who indicate that God is not simply interested in young folk but that God has a peculiar calling to old people. It’s interesting that later in the Bible, in Joel “…the young will see visions and the old will dream dreams…” and it’s the middle aged who really have to watch out.
Right at the beginning, the story of Abraham says that God does not give up on old people and God does not give up in situations that look barren. Both Abraham and Sarah have got to their final years and for them to be the progenitors is a colossal thing.
The relationship that Abraham has with Sarah is very interesting, she’s a bit of an odd puss, she can be quite nippy, particularly in her relationship with Abraham’s concubine Hagar. She also does a great thing in giving God a name that has not been mentioned before – God’s been seen as a creator and she gives God the name Laughter Maker because when her child is born she calls him Isaac which means ‘he laughs’. She says ‘I’ll call him Isaac because God has made laughter for me.’ She gives us a picture of God that nobody else gives: that in God’s heart there is humour and there’s laughter and that he gives that as a gift to humanity.
Revd Robert Beard BD