Abe sat at the picnic table in his backyard, sipping a cool lemonade. He wiped his brow with the torn T-shirt he was wearing and looked out over his freshly mown lawn.
Sara was of the opinion he shouldn’t push the lawnmower himself, at the age of 75. They could certainly afford a lawn service. But Abe enjoyed pushing the mower up and down, tracing the familiar patterns around the trees and shrubs. He loved the smell of the grass clippings. He loved even more the sense of accomplishment that came with that smell: one more job completed and completed well.
Life was good for Abe. He’d had a successful career. A long and happy marriage of more than 50 years. Money in the bank, always more than they needed. Abe and Sara owned their house free and clear. (It had belonged, in fact, to Abe’s father before him.)
If Abe had any disappointment in life, it was that he and Sara had never managed to have children – but they did see a lot of the nephews and nieces who lived in town (especially that fine young man, Lot, who lived just around the corner).
Sara was seated at the kitchen table, leafing through a pile of real estate brochures. Each glossy booklet depicted one of those adult communities down south. Maybe this was the year, she told herself, they’d actually do it. Maybe this was the year they’d drive a “For Sale” sign into the front lawn and simplify their lives. She had to admit those colorful photos in the brochures looked awfully tempting: golf course, swimming pool, clubhouse. All the outside maintenance is covered by the membership fee. Maybe this was the year they’d make the move.
Sitting at the picnic table in the backyard, nursing that lemonade, Abe hears the Voice. “Go!” says the Voice. That’s all it says: just “Go!”
The Voice doesn’t say where he should go – although Abe is quite sure this has nothing to do with the active leisure lifestyle. The Voice only informs him where he should depart from:
“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” (Genesis 12:1-2).
We’ve been having a little fun imagining Abram as a retiree in an old T-shirt, pushing a lawnmower around. But let’s shift the scene, now, to the way it really was.
Sometimes we forget just how old Abram was in the context of his own culture. Few of us would consider 75 extremely old, today, but by the standards of his time, Abram was positively ancient. Most people back then didn’t live past 40 or 45; the Bible tells us Abram had achieved nearly twice the life span most adults of his time could ever expect to see.
To Abram, the voice of the Lord says, “Go!” The Hebrew verb-form is the most emphatic possible. It’s like writing the word “Go” in all caps, boldface, with half-a-dozen exclamation marks following it. God isn’t making a gentle suggestion here. The Lord’s issuing a stern and solemn command. Ignore it at your peril, Abram!
When Abram hears the command of God, he’s living in the city of Haran, in the southeastern corner of present-day Turkey. He has lived in Haran a long time, but not all his life. As a young man, Abram traveled there with his father, Terah, on an epic journey from their hometown of Ur, located near Baghdad, in present-day Iraq.
So, Abram is no stranger to long journeys. Yet even so, the trek of many hundreds of miles he undertook as a young man is not one a person of his advanced age would be eager to repeat. Travel, in those days, meant walking – or, if you were lucky, riding a camel or oxcart. For a veritable world traveler like Abram to pack up everything he owns a second time and set out on another, equally arduous journey at the age of 75 is unheard-of!
What’s more, God doesn’t even tell Abram where he’s supposed to go. God simply says, in that super-duper, triple-imperative tense: “Go … to the land that I will show you.” Sounds almost like a grade-B spy novel, doesn’t it? “Your mission, Agent 12 – should you choose to accept it – is to go the railway station in Romania; along the way, we will tell you exactly wheret. There you will receive further instructions.”
You have to wonder, too, what Abram’s wife, Sarai, thinks of all this. The Scriptures simply relate that when it comes time to go, Sarai goes too, along with all the “possessions” and “persons” – meaning slaves – that Abram has gathered over the years.
A little later in the story, Sarai shows her independent streak. By now, God has made covenant with Abram – a procedure that resulted in a couple of name changes: Abram to Abraham, and Sarai to Sarah. The Lord tells Abraham that Sarah’s going to have a baby. When Abraham passes on this astonishing news, Genesis 18 tells us, “Sarah laughed.” (You can hardly blame her!)
The Lord overhears her laughter. “Why did Sarah laugh?” God wants to know.
Suddenly, Sarah realizes it may not be wise to laugh at the all-powerful Creator of heaven and earth. “I didn’t laugh,” she insists.
“Oh yes, you did,” says the Lord.
But God has mercy. God looks kindly on a woman in her 70s who finds it difficult to wrap her mind around the disturbing idea that she’s soon to be pregnant.
The story of Abraham and Sarah is a tale of one of the greatest journeys in all of Scripture. When these two set out – for the second time in their lives – on an arduous trek to an unknown land, they journey for all of us. Life has often been likened to a journey. It’s a theme that’s fascinated novelists and storytellers the world over. Centuries ago, the Greek poet Homer wrote The Odyssey, tracing the Trojan War hero Odysseus’ 20-year return home. One of the earliest surviving works of English literature is Chaucer’s famous The Canterbury Tales: a collection of stories told by pilgrims on their way to the holy city of Canterbury. In more recent times, Mark Twain has given us Huckleberry Finn: a journey on a homemade raft down the Mississippi; and Jack Kerouac has published the semi-autobiographical novel, On the Road, the tale of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise, two young men roaring across America in an old car. “Beyond the glittery street,” writes Kerouac, “was darkness, and beyond darkness, the West. I had to go.”
Abram, too, feels he has to go – but it’s more than wanderlust that propels him. Abram and Sarai set out from Haran for parts unknown because God has called them to do so.
Indeed, this is a story for all of us. The fact that Abram is 75 years old when he first heeds God’s call lets none of us off the hook. Robert Raines, in a little book called Going Home, tells how he received a call from God when he was in his 40s:
“A call may come as a nudge, glimpse, touch, glance, fresh insight, or tearing sorrow. It may come in the earthquake of anger, grief, sexual energy, or in a still small voice. However, it comes, the initiative of an alien/friendly power strikes us with surprise and disruption. I was taken by the scruff of my life and shaken loose from the securities and identities that had served me or that I had served for 44 years. I was mugged in the night by a strange inner assailant!” (Robert Raines, Going Home (Crossroad, 1985), pg. 17)
When you picture the typical seminary student, you may imagine a fresh-faced young man or woman, a recent college graduate. In reality, our seminaries have been filled with adult students of all ages ever since the 1980s. I was over 30 when I started my seminary studies. God’s calling all sorts of people to ministry these days. There are more Abrahams and Sarahs in our midst than you may think.
Often, in the church, we talk about our need for volunteers. You’ll often hear old-time members talking about it, with special vehemence: “Why is it we always see the same old faces? Why don’t more of these new members come out and help?”
The story of Abraham and Sarah teaches us that these are the wrong questions to ask. The church isn’t a volunteer organization like the Rotary Club, Hospital Guild, Little League or Boy Scouts. The church is different. It is a called-out organization.
If we ask for volunteers when something needs doing in the church or its mission, we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of prodding and cajoling and encouraging people to shave off a few hours of their valuable time and give it to a worthy cause, maybe we should frame the question in a different way. Maybe we should say: “Here is good work that needs doing. We think God may be calling you to do it!”
There is no task in life more satisfying than work done in response to the call of God, and the experience of countless Christian disciples confirms it.
Here’s how it happens; I take these steps from experience: It begins with a voice you hear, not with your ears, but deep within your heart. For most of us, it’s merely a tickle, a pebble in the shoe, a thought you just can’t get rid of.
“It could be you!” that voice is saying (although not in so many words).
You try to ignore it. You try to run from it. You try everything — but there it remains, a steady drumbeat sounding within your heart. It is, says the prophet Jeremiah, “like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9).
This is not to say that the call of God is blatant. It’s very often the subtlest, quietest voice you could possibly imagine. Why would God need to shout? Even when He spoke my name it wasn’t in a booming voice. Sometimes the whisper of God is more than enough.
It’s like the old-school librarians that some of us may remember. Back before libraries became “media centers,” they were quiet places where people sat and read books. Remember how, in that quiet place, a single human conversation could assault your ears like a cannon? And do you remember how the whispered voice of the librarian had that magical power to strike terror in the heart of even the most unruly student? The basketball coach might shout and scream and jump up and down, but the librarian needed no such dramatics. Within the hallowed confines of the library, a whisper was all it took.
That’s the way it is with the call of God. When Abraham heard the command to go, it wasn’t anything like the clarion note of a trumpet. More likely, it was a murmur deep within his soul, an experience such as Henri Nouwen describes in a little Christmas meditation. He’s speaking, here, of the famous Advent passage from Isaiah, of “the shoot that shall spring forth from the stump of Jesse”:
“When I have no eyes for the small signs of God’s presence, the smile of a baby, the carefree play of children, the words of encouragement and gestures of love offered by friends, I will always remain tempted to despair.
“The small child of Bethlehem, the unknown young man of Nazareth, the rejected preacher, the naked man on the cross, he asks for my full attention. The work of our salvation takes place in the midst of a world that continues to shout, scream, and overwhelm us with its claims and promises. But the promise is hidden in the shoot that sprouts from the stump, a shoot that hardly anyone notices.” (Henri J.M. Nouwen, Seeds of Hope (Image Books, 1997), pg. 157).
It’s very possible for God to call us – for a very long time – but we’ve been looking for some spectacular sign in the sky when we should have been paying attention to the quiet voice within. God speaks to a great many of us, calling us to do all sorts of things. But so often there’s a temptation to stand there, and say: “Who, me? No, it couldn’t be me!”
But it is you. God’s call isn’t limited to the seminary-bound. It’s a more common experience than most of us imagine.
Abram never saw most of God’s promises fulfilled. He never saw himself become a great nation, nor his name become great. He never saw all the Earth’s people blessed through him.
Abram simply believed what God told him. He took God’s word at face value. He trusted the promise of God – and, as it says in today’s Romans passage, “it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:22).
By faith in God’s promise, Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all their households and possessions and set out for the land of Canaan. He settled there, a stranger in a strange land. At Shechem, by the great oak of Moreh, the Lord again appeared to Abram to assure him of the promise: “To your offspring, I will give this land.” And Abram trusted this to be the promise of God. He built an altar, piling stone upon stone. And there he worshiped the God who makes promises and remembers them.
This God of ours still makes promises. This God of ours still calls. Are you listening?