Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Second Sunday in Lent: The faith of Abraham

The lectionary reading for the just-past second Sunday in Lent had one focus on the faith of Abraham, both in the original Genesis setting and in Paul's re-envisioning of it in Romans 4.

Abraham is always held up as an example of having faith in God, and Paul uses him as the example of the kind of faith that God counts as righteousness.

But as we consider this, we should be careful not to co-join Abraham's faith with some idea that it was his exemplary life that pleased God. Yes, Abraham did a lot of things right. Most importantly he was willing to migrate when he was already 75 years old. But he lived in a nomadic society, and God did not call him to do this until after his father had died. It was not as important that he migrated, as is was that he heard and listened to God, then headed in the direction God asked. This is what Paul is getting at in Romans 4: the important thing is that Abraham believed God. Even then, Abraham migrated in part because God also promised him this would be a good land that would be given to his descendants.

Notice that God was not asking Abraham to sacrifice his lifestyle, or do a lot of good deeds, or to obey a set of laws, or love his neighbor as himself. He was really only asking Abraham to believe what he said, and move. It was only then, after Abraham took this first step, that God revealed more to him and the two of them began to establish a relationship of trust, promise, obedience and fulfillment.

As they lived in relationship, God seemed to prefer direct and unmistakable communication, spaced at length intervals. For his part, Abraham felt free to question, to try to change God's mind on behalf of others, and to wonder if he'd misinterpreted something—especially after long periods of silence with an important promise left unfulfilled after decades.

We see Abraham treating visitors and the peoples he lived among with respect and hospitality. We see him willing to give his nephew the supposedly better deal. Abraham emerges as a straight dealer who keeps his word. And God seemingly rewards him by steadily  increasing his wealth and standing.

Yet we should not miss that life is not always easy for Abraham, and that like us he must deal with his share of hardships, life events and uncertainties, as well as those long periods of non-communication from God. It's easy for us moderns to chide Abraham's passing off Sarah as his sister (twice!) when they end up in Egypt because of the famines. Or both Abraham and Sarah giving up on the long-delayed promise of children, and figuring that after all the silence from God, perhaps they'd gotten it wrong and Abraham needed to give it a try with Hagar. Or the harsh treatment of Hagar by Sarah, with Abraham's tacit approval. Or the fact that this family "owned" other people to begin with. But this was 4,000 or so years ago, in a culture very unlike our own. Likely the ancient Hebrews nodded in understanding at the passages we read with a skeptical eye today.

But here is precisely where we can take solace with Abraham's life story and his relationship with God. In the end, what is counted to Abraham "as righteousness" according to Paul? That he believed God.

Abraham listened to God and did what God asked, when he asked. In between those times, Abraham lived the kind of life available to people of his time period. He had slaves. His wife had a certain position and status typical of the day. He had sex outside of marriage. He experienced hunger and preserved his family by lying and yes, opening up the possibility his wife would essentially be raped. He heard things from God and then years of silence passed in which he wondered whether he'd missed something or was remembering things the wrong way. He saw God destroy Sodom; he saw God not intervene in famines. It seems he had to negotiate deals with the locals and live much of his life without God's direct help.

He lived his life then much as we live ours now: some occasional periods of certainty about God, a couple of mountaintop experiences, periods of figuring stuff out on his own, wondering whether he was doing what God wanted him to do, making mistakes, being blessed, enduring hardships. The constant was that Abraham believed God, and God counted it to him as righteousness. Abraham stuck with it, even when things did not make sense (as with the almost-sacrifice of Isaac), even when he seemed to be on his own. There were just enough God events to keep Abraham going, and to his credit, he did. God credited it to him as righteousness.

This is what God really wants from us: to believe him and listen to him, to enter into and then stay in relationship with him. Will we make mistakes? Yes. Will God let us make a lot of our own decisions and plot our own course? Yes. Will the bad things of life happen to us? Yes. God does not promise to take those things away from us.

But there will be times, like Abraham probably with lengthy intervals in between, when God will speak to us, instruct us, ask something of us. There will be times when we argue with God. Those times seem to matter very much to God, and if we believe him and continue to honor and remain in relationship with him for the long haul, we will be emulating our brother Abraham.

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