Text: Gen 12:1-9 Preached at Werribee Church of Christ 17/10/04
The back page of CHOICE magazine each month is titled “The hard word”. It displays some of the interesting attempts advertisers or manufacturers or retailers have made to convince people to buy their product. Let me share just a few examples.
• One pack of crackers for eating dips is branded in big stylised script “Pride of France”, emblazoned against the tricolour pattern of the French flag. The label on the back says “Product of Holland”.
• Somewhere there’s a shop called “Manchester Road Fish & Chip Shop”. The bold sign in the window reads “Open every day” .. the small print beneath – “closed Tuesday”.
• Closer to home: In June this year, Tasman Meats placed an ad for Scotch Fillets at an exceptionally low price per kilo. The timeframe was a tad confusing. It read: “Sunday only special, effective 20th to 26th June”.
The real estate industry does it even better. “Renovator’s dream” is a phrase we’ve become very familiar with in these days of the property boom. As far as I can tell, it generally means if you put your foot on the front verandah, the house will fall down, but at least you won’t pay much to put it back up. If you were a terrestrial traveller out on a Sunday afternoon spaceflight, and you cruised past a planet, with a sign poking out of it’s north pole saying “Renovator’s dream”, would you bother staying for the auction? I wouldn’t.
Yet that’s just the kind of sign that could have been poking out of the ground on planet earth at the end of Genesis 11: “A renovator’s dream”. But like the “renovator’s dreams” we read about in the Star .. who’d want it? Who would want to invest anything of significance in a rundown planet like that? .. Sure it was grand when it was built – perfect in fact. But we’ve just read the case history, haven’t we, over these past weeks – all eleven chapters of it from the start of Genesis. And it’s not pretty; certainly doesn’t inspire investor confidence. .. Perfect structure, soundly held together in perfect harmony by a network of perfect relationships. But that was before the careless agents allowed the rising damp to eat the floorboards .. and next thing it was in the frame as well, and the rats were in the roof. They didn’t listen to the owner-builder’s flood warnings, and the big wet nearly destroyed the place.
It looked better for a while after the settlement with Rainbow Insurance. .. But then came the upper storey extension project – the grand vision .. We saw what happened to that last week: the contract disintegrated, all talking stopped, and the whole crew went walkabout. Now who would invest in that? .. Probably no one ..
God’s big plan
Except that the rest of the Bible really is the story of a renovator with a dream. God is the great renovator, whose dream is to restore the world and all its inhabitants to the beauty that once was the outcome of his creative word .. when he spoke, and said “Let there be light .. vegetation .. creatures .. man in our image.” And it was so – and God stood back and looked – and said “very good”.
God could have scrubbed the whole thing after the Tower of Babel incident in chap 11. He’d have had every right, as the owner of it all. He’d already demonstrated by a flood how intolerable sin is to his pure character. He could have wiped the entire creation completely, and started something fresh.
But there’s a problem with that course of action. It’s hinted all the way through the Bible .. but you need to get to near the end of the NT before it’s spelled out in black and white. John reflected on the great act of God in Christ. And in chapter 1 of his first letter, he says it’s the shed blood of Jesus God’s son that cleanses us from all sin, and so makes it possible for sinners to walk with God once more. Then in chapter 3 he exclaims, “Look what love the Father has lavished on us, that we could be called his children.” But in the next chapter, he goes still deeper, right to the heart .. Love isn’t only what God has given to us – it’s who he is, it’s his character. And he must act in love, because to do anything else would be a denial of himself. “God is love.”
In the OT there are places where the language of passionate love describes God’s heart devotion to his people Israel. The love of a man for his wife, or a father for his child. The Book of the prophet Hosea brings both of those together. Hosea is built around a powerful metaphor/ parable of a tortured husband devoted to his unfaithful wife – God is the husband, Israel is the wife. At one point, speaking through the character of the aggrieved husband which was Hosea’s own experience, the Lord says to Israel, “Even though your unfaithfulness deserves shame and abandonment, ‘How can I give you up!?’ I can’t .. my compassion won’t let me.” (Hos 11:8)
Just a few verses before that, the Lord uses the other metaphor of an aching father with a rebellious child: 11:1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 The more I called them, the more they went from me. Have you heard parents say that? .. said it yourself about your own kids? .. That’s the pain in God’s heart over the people he calls his own.
There it is in Hosea .. and there it is in 1 Jn (to name just two examples from many throughout scripture): that tension between God’s grief and utter intolerance of the rebellion that works out in every level of human affairs .. and the love he cannot surrender for the people he formed for fellowship with himself. .. And the resolution to that .. is the Gospel – the grace of God, the Father’s lavish but undeserved kindness, in sending his own Son to die the death we deserved, so we could go free and walk with God as objects of his delight and love.
If you’re a Christian, that I trust is the grace you know and treasure. But where does that gospel grace begin? .. Where does God begin to save the world by grace? .. It starts in Gen 12, when in v1 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. The great renovator has begun to act out his dream to restore the planet. .. And can you believe it – he’s going to do it through people! God has committed himself to the human race, despite people’s desperate frailty. That’s grace. .. Wouldn’t you feel like grabbing God by the coattails and saying “Lord, we’ve just had 9 chapters of people wrecking the planet; and you’re going to use people to fix it!?” Why?! …
A month ago, when we were reading about Noah, I referred to something Paul wrote in 2 Cor 4. To repeat: “He said God has blessed this desperate world with a treasure of grace, a gospel that saves restores and reconciles. .. But it comes through frail, failing human messengers like us (“jars of clay”). And he says God has chosen to convey the gospel treasure in that way, so that people will recognise that God himself is the only one with the power to save their lives and heal the world.”
Now – why has God chosen to begin his massive restoration project of putting the world back together, using a person? .. So that from the very start it will be quite clear that God is the one who’s really saving the world. It has to be God’s work, because we’ve already seen the mess people make of the planet when left to themselves. So the role of Abram and his descendants is simply to be a beacon to draw the attention of lost people to the one who’s calling them to fellowship with himself.
And from about verse 27 of chapter 11 right through to the end of chapter 12, almost every line contains another reason to trust God to save the planet. And for the remainder of our time, I’d like to look more closely at just some of them:
• From 11:27 we’re introduced to the family of Terah, and we note that one of his sons was called Abram. By inference, v28 lets us know that this family lived in a Chaldean town or region called Ur. In other words they were foreigners. The ancient Israelites knew Chaldea as the region “beyond the river” (Euphrates).
Centuries later Joshua was leader of Israel, and on one occasion (Josh 24:14f) he challenged the nation to determine who would be their God. And he said “Your ancestors lived beyond the river .. and they served other gods.” .. That’s Abram. In other words, when the Lord called Abram at the start of Gen 12, Abram was in another country worshipping pagan gods. His heart wasn’t turned towards the Lord .. he was just another worshipper of idols like everyone else. .. And the Lord called him to be the Father of Israel, the nation through whom God would restore the world to himself.
Who’s going to save the world? Certainly not Abram .. it has to be God.
• 11:29 we’re introduced to Abram’s wife Sarai; in v30 we learn that Sarai can’t have children. .. 4 verses later (12:2) the Lord mentions a great nation that’s somehow going to spring from Abram, and 12:7 says his descendants are going to be given the land of Canaan .. What descendants!? Abram’s wife is infertile .. It doesn’t matter how many early nights they have – there’ll be no nation .. unless God intervenes. (Which he does, with the birth of Isaac in chap 21.)
Who does the world’s restoration depend on? .. Not Abram and Sarai .. it’s a work of God.
• 12:1 The Lord calls Abram to go .. where? to the land that I will show you. So in v4 he sets out .. And can you imagine the conversations with the neighbours? “Abram, where are you going?” “Dunno.” .. This is a picture of a man who’s utterly helpless in the hands of God.
Who’s in control of Israel’s and the world’s destiny? .. Not Abram – he doesn’t even have a map! .. He’s not in control .. God is.
• Well they headed on their journey; and in v5 they arrived in the region of Canaan, still with no idea where the destination was. We know they knew about Canaan, because 11:31 tells us that was where they were thinking of going a long time before. But anyway in 12:7 the Lord says “This is it, Abram; this is the land your descendants are going to receive.” .. But there’s a problem, isn’t there. Verse 6 spells it out: At that time the Canaanites were in the land. You can’t take possession of a land that’s already inhabited – the locals might object. Abram doesn’t have the power to take possession of the land where all God’s plans are meant to come about.
Who’s show is this? Who’s going to make it happen? .. From start to finish, there’s only one who can bring it about. .. The world’s salvation belongs to God.
• And so all that Abram can do is build an altar to the Lord in v7 and again in v8 – and call on the Lord. There’ll be no land .. no descendants .. no blessing to every nation .. unless the Lord reveals himself and brings it about.
God is committed to people. He is committed to restoring people to himself, to one another, and to restoring the creation to the order and beauty he at intended at the first. He is a renovator with a dream.
God is committed to using people to achieve his purposes. He has made that abundantly clear, in that his first act after the human race has succeeded in destroying every one of the relationships that held the universe in balance .. after all that God’s first act is to call a man, and declare that he will be the channel of God’s blessing to every family on earth.
God is committed to saving people .. and he is committed to using humans as his instruments. And if he can use Abram .. he can use me .. and he can use you .. and he can use the community of the WCoC. In the end, as Scripture shows us over and over, it’s not the stature or the wisdom of the man that counts .. it’s the wonder of what God intends to achieve through them to save the world.
… If Gen 1-11 speaks only one thing into your life, let it be that only God himself can fix the world. Don’t rest your ultimate faith or trust or hope on yourself, or your church tradition, or your present pastor, or the elders, or the next minister, or the person who discipled you, or your parents, or your wife, or your husband .. And don’t confuse any of these with God. That is to say, if you regard any human person or system or tradition as utterly indispensable to your security and joy and future hope .. then they have become your God, and the object of your worship.
Yet nevertheless .. frail and fickle and flawed and unreliable and self-seeking though humans being are, God has chosen to do nothing in his renovating dream to save the planet .. without using people for his grand purposes. And he starts with a man in spiritual darkness, named Abram. And he asks of you only what he asked of Abram .. he asks simply “Will you go?”