I was 18 years old, and, sitting there in a pew in my hometown church; I couldn’t believe what I was hearing: our pastor was leaving us! I just couldn’t believe it! He was MY pastor! Pastor Van, as we all called him, was the one who, a few years earlier, had given a sermon that inspired me to want to BE a pastor! I remember that day, sitting there with the choir in the balcony, and Pastor Van talked in his sermon about resisting becoming a pastor…but finally realizing God was calling him to preach and teach, and, me listening…a very strange feeling came over me and I realized that God was calling ME to be a pastor like HIM, like my “Pastor Van”! He was also the one who pointed out to me, as I entered college, a Lutheran fraternity I could join, where I eventually met the love of my life, Diane! He was the man who taught me the Lutheran faith, and now he was leaving me! How, possibly, could he justify leaving a congregation that loved him!
As I sat there, aghast, I witnessed Pastor Van give one of the greatest sermons I had ever heard. He compared his listening to God calling him to leave our congre-gation…to Abraham listening to God’s call to leave family and home in Haran to go to the Promised Land. Abraham had never been to that place, to Canaan. Abraham was given NO other instructions from God; God didn’t tell him what to do when he got there, what to bring with him, what to expect from the people there – nothing…just “Go.” Go, Abraham, into that foggy future!
We, too—not literally but figuratively – are moving, as a world, into a foggy future right now, as we begin to open up in this covid era. Questions abound: What is the best timing, the best means, the correct way to open up? Will there be new treatments, a vaccine, or not? Will there be school this fall? What will happen to our economy? Will there be a second wave of the virus, or not?
Some may be tempted to react to all of these (as yet) hard to answer questions by deciding, once you see the sun rise through your bedroom window, to turn over in your bed, and pull the covers over your head. But that day in 1981 – when my pastor was telling us why he and his family were moving on – on that day Pastor Van showed us what it means to stride forward into an unknown future. He read to us from the book of Genesis – the beginning of chapter 12 – which is our ‘Boost from the Bible’ for this week: “Now 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. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…and in you ALL the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Picture, if you will, Abram’s reaction. I wouldn’t be surprised if Abram (he had not yet changed his name to Abraham) reacted – inside – to all this salesmanship from God with a kind of sarcastic, “Riiiiigggghhht.” I mean, there were no details given in this plan of God’s. And why did God choose Abraham and Sarah, anyway? Those two couldn’t even produce one BABY at that point, let alone a whole nation!
But do you know what Abram’s REAL reaction to God’s call to radically change the rest of his life WAS? Let me quote Genesis 12, verse 4: “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.” That’s it. No hemming or hawing…no debating with God over whether this was the best way to face the future; nothing like that. And when Abram, his wife and his nephew Lot and their servants, after a journey of many miles, finally arrived in Canaan, what did Abram do first? He built an altar to the Lord, and thanked God, even as he was a stranger in a strange land.
We can relate to Abraham and Sarah; we, too, are strangers in a strange land today – this weird COVID-19 time period and its strange future. And, like Abraham, we have received a call from God – to move forward INTO that future in faith. Not a faith in OUR plans or strategies for the future. You know, we all had plans back on January 1st, 2020…plans for the next year of our lives. Where are all those plans now? In the dustbin of history. For when it comes to our carefully-made plans, God knows the score, as we read in Proverbs 19:21 – “The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.”
Oh, we TRY to be in control of our own destiny…or, at the very least, we deeply desire a glimpse of the future. Growing up I remember how every January the tabloids would, in screaming headlines, give us psychic predictions for the upcoming year, like: “Elvis is found to be ALIVE! He will no longer be a hermit and will be elected president!” I’m sure those prediction issues were bestsellers. Oh, we so WANT to be SURE of what the future holds – especially in the hard times!
When Abraham and Sarah started their trip to Canaan, I like to think of what they might have said to their near-relatives and friends, trying to explain their journey: “Oh, we’ve heard lots of good things about Canaan.” “Uh, well, to tell the truth, God told us to go; really, God did; that’s all it is.” But what the Bible says about Abraham’s reaction to God’s promises was this: “And Abraham believed the Lord; and the Lord chalked up Abraham’s faith (in God) as…righteousness.” You see, to be really righteous is NOT to try to construct your own little kingdom, but rather, (the Bible says) to be really righteous is to LISTEN for what God is saying to you in prayer, then believing what God is telling you, and finally obeying these sometimes strange instructions. And, doing those things, you will be blessed; God will tell you how to be a person who loves and serves others, and in so doing, like Abraham, you will be blessed in order to be a blessing to others.
To some degree this means going into the future “blind” – blind to how you and yours will turn out financially and materially. I remember as a young pastor Diane and I going out to see Pastor Van the day after I filmed my appearance on the game show Jeopardy. Pastor Van’s move from my home church back in 1981 at first hadn’t gone well, but he had moved a second time and now he was enjoying serving a church in L.A. He listened as I told him that I was contemplating leaving pastoral ministry altogether and becoming a writer. He didn’t condemn me; Pastor Van had known the ups and downs of following Jesus. I reminded him what he had told us as he was leaving my old home congregation – how, he said, he felt like Abraham…called by God into a new and challenging future. He replied that I may be headed for difficulties the first few years, just as Abraham had – just as he, Pastor Van, had — but that, in the long run, as Van had experienced himself, God would give me more ministry opportunities. And God did!
My brothers and sisters: we, too, are headed, together, into a new, complicated, and foggy future. Let us listen for Jesus, as Abraham listened for God, and be prepared to act as Christians, no matter what, as we enter that fog: that we do unto others as we would want done to us; that we judge not, lest we be judged; that we love others just as much as Jesus loves us; that we welcome others in the same way that the prodigal son was welcomed by his father; that we serve others as the Good Samaritan did; and that we go to bat for the most vulnerable among us. Remember, Jesus identified with those most vulnerable in HIS time on earth and so commands US: “I was hungry, and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink; I was naked and you clothed Me.” And we should, in that same Spirit, add one more thing Jesus would say: “I was vulnerable to COVID, and you did all you could to protect Me.”
You see, we Christians are told, over and over again in Scriptures, to put more focus on what we’re called to DO, and less focus on where we GO – where we go is GOD’S job to determine. To have the faith of Abraham and Sarah is to give control over to God, as God unfolds our days and calls us into our weeks. The coming days and weeks may change our lives, yes, but our values – the way we love others in our lives – must remain the same, or may even get better! It doesn’t matter if, in the future, you find yourself in a mansion or a mobile home, a job or a jail, a house or a hospital…you and I are called to get out of bed each day and journey forth, just as Abraham and Sarah did, and do God’s will, always confident that our lives are held in the palms of God’s loving hands. Amen!
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