Blessed to be a Blessing
Why you should know about Abraham
Today’s sermon on Genesis 12:1-10 is key to our sermon series Bible Stories You Should Know. Why should you know about Abraham? Because this is the foundational story of the three largest monotheistic religions in history. Christians, Jews, and Muslims all share this story as the launching point for the development of their faiths. Even if you aren’t a believer, you should still know Abraham’s story because more than half the world’s population shares a worldview shaped by this story. Just think. More than 14 million Jews, nearly 2 billion Muslims, and over 2 billion Christians stand in awe of the moment when God chooses to bless the world through Abraham’s descendants and when Abraham chooses to follow God.
Any understanding of how our world works should include learning Abraham’s story. For we in the faith we ask what is his story and how can it positively impact our faith journeys today?
How Abraham fits into the biblical story
Abraham probably lived a bit more than 4,000 years ago. Although there are no direct archeological remnants from him, the Koran, Old Testament, and New Testament talk about him. Hundreds of other ancient stories circulated about him but they didn’t find their way into the scriptures.
Abraham’s name was originally Abram which means “exalted father.” But the exalted father and his wife were barren. He reached the age of 75 being called exalted father every day without having any children. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says the barrenness of Abraham and Sarah stands as a metaphor for humanity—barren, not producing the goodness that we are meant to embody.
Called to make a gigantic leap of faith
In the Biblical story, Abraham emerges several generations after Noah. Basically, humanity had become a mess, filled with corruption, incivility, and violence. God decides to intervene in human history by calling Abraham to be the leaven in the loaf. God wants to work through Abraham and his descendants in faith to raise human behavior around the world to a higher level. So, one day, God approaches Abram and says, “Go to a land that I will show you later and I will bless you. I will bless those who bless you and mess with those who mess with you. I will make of you a great nation; through your descendants, all the world will be blessed.”
Finally, Abram could father the children he’s always wanted. I’m sure he raised an eyebrow as he looked over to his wife Sarai (who later becomes Sarah) who was also aging, the crows’ feet and sagging places that come with numerous birthdays. Really? He must have thought. But he didn’t have any other hope.
Finding purpose in later years
I like that Abram is 75 when this happens. I see people who are in their 70s get new claims on a life all the time. Just because you’ve had some birthdays, doesn’t mean that God is done with you, that God won’t call you to new adventures.
Abram has to leave what is comfortable, what he’s known all of his life. He must leave his father and his father’s land. It’s a powerful reminder that sometimes to grow, to access the blessings meant for us we must move beyond what we’ve always known. We must adopt new ways of thinking. Acceptance of people we were taught were bad. We must learn new approaches. Try new things. Take a leap of faith.
Blessed to be a blessing
There is a lot of talk about blessings in the passage. God will bless Abram who will share those blessings with others. He’s a conduit. We pray for God’s blessings: a sense of peace, a moral compass, success, safety, good health. But this story reminds us that we are to be conduits of those blessings that come to us, to find ways to share them. Like Abraham, we are blessed to be a blessing to others.
Think about the Dead Sea, or the Sultan Sea, here in California. They are dead because there is only intake, and no outflow. They are just below-sea-level receptacles too salty to sustain much life. In the same way, our faith becomes stagnant when we live only for ourselves, when we receive but don’t give. It’s okay to be concerned about your standard of living if you are also raising your standard of giving.
Some people talk about this principle using the metaphor of health. We pray for spiritual, social, and physical healing, for gifts. But when we receive the healing, we move from patient to physician, finding ways to let our experiences help others. So many great counselors, especially those with addictions are people who have walked that road and seek to help others after they have been in their recovery journey.
If you are good at business that is a blessing. Pass it on by being ethical, treating employees well, and caring for the environment. If you have the blessing of time, find ways of volunteering. Raise your standard of giving back.
Ishmael and Issac
So Abram sets forth on a long journey, believing in God’s promise. He wanders from territory to territory and prospers. But there is a problem. They still have no child. Sarai takes initiative by doing something customary at the time. If the wife was barren, the couple chose a servant to bear the child. They select a woman named Hagar who gets pregnant with Abraham’s child, Ishmael. Muslims trace their lineage through Ishmael—that is how they are connected to Abraham.
A few years after Ishmael is born, Sarah miraculously conceives in her old age and gives birth to Isaac. The Judeo-Christian tradition traces its lineage through Isaac. Now there are two children. We might think this is the place where it says they lived happily ever after. But no! Sarah feels threatened by Hagar and they banish Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. Although Sarah and Abraham cast them off, God looks after Ishmael, saves him, blesses him, and promises to always be with him and his descendants even though those descendants and Isaac’s descendants are destined to become rivals.
Abraham’s story is a mixed bag. He does a lot of good things. He trusts God, he obeys. He offers extravagant hospitality to strangers. He’s a peacemaker. He pled for sparing Sodom and Gomorrah. But he did a lot of horrible things, too. When he went to Egypt and was concerned that Sarah was so beautiful that Pharaoh might kill him and take Sarah into his harem. So Abraham said, “She’s my sister. Go ahead and take her into your harem.” Eventually, he is found out and Sarah goes back to him. You would have thought he learned his lesson. But no! He goes to another territory and passes off his wife as his sister again. Dirtbag.
Honoring a bad father on Father’s Day
It’s weird to talk about father Abraham on Father’s Day because he wasn’t a very good father to his children. He cast off Ishmael and showed a willingness to sacrifice Isaac. He tied Isaac up, laid him on the altar, and raised a knife above his chest before God told him child sacrifice isn’t part of this religion. Sacrifice the ram caught in a thicket instead.
The Bible offers us, Abraham, as a real person who did a lot of good and a lot of bad. This introduces a major theme of scripture where the heroes are painted as real people. We are to emulate the good, avoid the bad, and take from it what can make us better. Abraham is like any of our fathers. We take the good and try not to repeat the mistakes of the father.
The point of showing people like Abraham seems to be that we see that God doesn’t call just the perfect, blameless people. But God calls all of us, warts and all. We don’t have to be perfect to be useful, to do some good. We don’t cancel Abraham and Sarah, but we honor them and realize that God has purposes for people like us, too.
Together Isaac and Ishmael bury their father
After Sarah dies, Abraham takes another wife and has several more children. He lives long enough to live into his new name. Abraham means “father of many.”
When Abraham dies, Ishmael returns and helps Isaac with the burial. Rivals from birth, leaders of emerging nations with different ways of doing things, stand side by side and do the task to bury their common father.
Shortly after 9/11 at the height of tensions between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, Jewish scholar Bruce Feidler, wrote a wonderful book about Abraham as the Father of the three religions. We have something in common, we share this story of Abraham. We share the story where Isaac and Ishmael come together and stand side by side without hurting each other without trying to convert each other, and without thinking that they alone had the truth and God’s blessings. They extend to all. He says maybe that is where our hope is for peace between the three great religions. We seek that common ground and start by standing side by side without disparaging the other.
We receive God’s blessings and let them flow through us to elevate and bless the whole world through love.
How to honor Father Abraham
I was wondering how to acknowledge Father Abraham on this Father’s Day. Maybe we could wear ballcaps with the Rams insignia on it? Remembering the time when God showed him a better path. No. Better would be that we choose the God who chooses us. We choose to live in peace. We choose to break out of the familiar to do good in the world. We offer hospitality. We see people from other faiths as our brothers and sisters, not mortal enemies. And we choose to believe that no matter how barren our lives may feel, there is still a promise ahead of us. Amen.