We continue our series tonight called, “The Beginnings of Abraham,” and we’re focused on the famous text, Genesis 12, which is often called, “The Call of Abram.” And someday, hopefully, we’ll get to the middle of Abraham’s story and the end of Abraham’s story, but today we are at the end of the beginning of Abraham’s story; and what an end this beginning is. So let’s pray and read it.
God, we ask that You would help us to see, to hear, to understand. We need the Holy Spirit now, so we ask, O Lord, that You would come and meet with us so that we would love You and respond in faith and obedience. And we pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.
Genesis 12, verses 1 to 9. This is the Word of the Lord:
“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. And 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. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. When they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on, still going toward the Negev.”
There are lots of examples in the Bible, across both Old Testament and New Testament, of God, of God coming down, of God showing up, of God coming to a person, an individual, saying, “Get up,” and “go” and “get out” and “take risks” and “I’m going to make you great.” There’s a ton of examples. And that’s what we are talking about when we say, “the call,” the call of God. And this call is one of the most important in the whole Bible because it’s the beginning of our history as the people of God. And it’s probably the most important call from God in the entire Old Testament where we see the beginning of the mighty works of God which are going to become the whole of redemptive history – that He’s going to save the entire world through this one man, Abram, and his family. And that means that we could tonight focus on Abraham and what this call means for the big picture, for redemptive history, for who will come from the lineage of Abram and what the land means. And that’s what Paul does in the New Testament in a place like Romans 4. He thinks about this call of Abram in light of the Gospel and what it means.
But tonight, I just want to look with you first at what God does in Abram’s life here, and then second, how Abram responds to it. And the reason I want to do that is because of Hebrews chapter 11. And in Hebrews 11, we have what’s famously called “the roll call of faith.” And in it, the very last verse of Hebrews 11 says, “All of these Old Testament figures I’ve just listed for you, these people are examples to be commended to you; their faith commended to you.” And the two characters in that list that get by far the most airtime are Abraham and Moses. And it’s this episode that Hebrews 11 focuses on. This is the moment that Abram’s faith is an example to the whole world, to the whole church, to all who would come after him. And so it all starts with a call of God and it all starts with Abraham responding to that call. And so tonight, let’s look at two things together – the nature of the call of God and then the cost of that call.
The Nature of the Call of God
So first, the nature of the call of God. Now if you've been here the past month you know we've been talking about the Babel story. And those were two long and arduous weeks that we did that. And we could have skipped it and just said this, "At the end of chapter 11, humankind is hopelessly lost." We said last time, Abram's family came from Babel originally and then Ur of the Chaldeans, which is a part of Babylon, and then Haran. And every single indication in both the text and extra-Biblical resources that we have, tells us that Abram was a pagan. He was not a good guy; he was a pagan. And in the 1920s, in Ur, which is in southern Iraq today, Sir Leonard Woolley, a Brit, did an excavation – we mentioned it last time – and his wife was actually Agatha Christie, the great novelist. And Agatha went after that excavation at this place Abram was raised, and wrote a book called Murder in Mesopotamia. It sounds like an Agatha Christie novel, doesn’t it? Because it is! And she based it on Abram’s birthplace, Ur. And she said in her journal later that, “I tried to picture in the book what Leonard had found there” – her husband. That this was a very smart, very sophisticated people, but there was clear evidence of human sacrifice at the center of temple worship in Ur where Abram was born, where he was raised.
And we know, when we come to Joshua 24, we don’t even need to go outside the Bible for this, Joshua 24 says that Terah, Abram’s father, served other gods besides Yahweh, meaning he was a polytheist and Abram was a polytheist. And that means that the picture, as we step into chapter 12, Walter Brueggemann, the great Old Testament commentator, he says this. “It is a world that is lost. A world of darkness. A world headed for destruction and ultimate judgment.” And even if you’re an experienced Bible reader and you read through eleven and you come to the end and you start to notice this genealogy is focusing on one family and then one person, and you say, “God’s about to do something here; God’s about to change things. It’s not going to be dark forever.” Then you get to verse 30 in chapter 11 and it says, “But Sarai his wife was barren” – without children. And Brueggemann says, “There’s no hope anywhere. Even if there was, there’s no child. We have been set up at the beginning of chapter 12 for a picture of no foreseeable future. Barrenness is the ultimate metaphor for hopelessness in the Bible, in the Old Testament.”
And that means that when we step into chapter 12, we are in a landscape of no hope. The world of Babylon; a world of utter darkness. But then verse 1 and verse 7, God speaks, God appears, God comes down, God opens His mouth. What’s happening here? God calls out. And what do we learn? And this is what we learn, very briefly. That the call of God, the speech of God, God come down into the midst of this place, the call of God is absolutely gracious; it’s absolutely gracious. He meets the world here in the midst of its darkness and He comes down and He says to Abram, “I will make you great.” And what does it mean to be great? And what it means to be great is not to build a tower to the heavens to make a name for yourself, like we just saw in chapter 11. What it means to be great is to hear the voice of God, to hear the call of God. And not only is God’s call absolutely gracious, this text is telling us that it’s absolutely powerful. And Charles Spurgeon, when he’s commenting or preaching on this passage he says this. “God says to Abram, ‘Get out,’ and Abram gets out. Why? Because the call of God is divinely applied and divinely enforced. It is effectual. It does what it’s meant to do.”
What we’re seeing here is one of the first moments in history of the call of God, the all-powerful, all-gracious, effectual call. The speech of God come down to an individual’s life and change them forever. This is exactly what Jesus was talking about when He went to Nicodemus, when Nicodemus came to Him in John 3, and Jesus says to him, “You’ve got to be born again. You’ve got to hear the Spirit. You’ve got to feel the wind of the Spirit blowing.” This is what Paul meant in Ephesians 3 when he said, “Wake up! Arise from the dead! Hear the voice of the Lord!” This is the call of God. And what this passage tells us from the very beginning is that every single one of us needs a personal call from God.
Theologians have been talking for a long time about God’s external call and internal call. And what this passage is saying is that you need both of them. The external call is here, it’s right now, it’s people getting in this pulpit, it’s your friend telling you, “Believe! Wake up! Believe! Hear the call of God!” That’s external. It goes through your ears and into your head. But what we all also need is the internal call of God where God takes what’s been told through your ears and makes it what you actually love. He goes right into the midst of the darkness and the deepest part of your being and He makes you not only say you believe it but actually love what you believe. And that’s the effectual, internal call of God. It changes us from the inside out. And that means it is very good to be a part of this environment, but it’s not enough. It’s really good to be a member and a part of an environment like this from the earliest age, but it’s not enough just to be a member of an environment.
You live in, let's say you're one of these and, like me, you live in Jackson, you live near Culleywood; within a quarter-mile. You live off Meadowbrook. You live off Ridgewood. You live in Belhaven. You live in Fondren. You're from Mississippi. And what does that mean? It means you're cultivated? It means you're cultured, because Mississippi is a cultured place. And Jackson is a cultured place. And what else does it mean? It means this – no doubt, if you live in one of those areas in Jackson, you are a Presbyterian. That's what it means! Just like if you were raised down in the bayou, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, you are a Catholic. Right? And you always will be, because that's who you are and where you were raised. And that's what Jackson is, right? Look, that is the call of an environment. It's a cultural affirmation that we all experience from the call of an environment around us; this, environment. This great, excellent, good environment.
A Personal Call
But the call of an environment is not enough. We need individually a personal call from the living God. We need the speech of the living God where we’re shaken, where we come to terms with ourselves. When God encounters you, when God calls you, you’ll know it because what happens is you lose a consumer mentality about religion. The consumer mentality, it runs away, and you’re willing in that moment to take a great risk for the God who has called you. And that’s one of the ways that you know.
Do you remember the story of Thomas Becket, 12th century? Great story. I heard it again this week. This is more of the movie version I think than like the biography version, but Thomas and Henry – Henry II was the King of England in the 12th century – and Thomas Becket was his priest. And he wasn’t only his priest; he was his boy. He was his drinking buddy. He was his closest friend that partied with him in the most extravagant lifestyle you can imagine and Henry loved Thomas for that. But then the Archbishop of Canterbury dies. And Henry the king has this great idea. “I’m going to make Thomas Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury because then there will be no archbishop there telling me how to live my life. There will be no archbishop there, there will be no church there telling me how I should act and how I should rule. There will be nobody whispering in my ear, ‘This is what God wants for you as a king!’ And I know that Thomas Becket won’t do it because he’s my buddy, he’s my bro, he’s cool; we party together.”
That’s exactly the type of relationship they had. And what happens? You remember, Thomas Becket gets into the archbishop’s seat and he is at first incredibly convicted of how unworthy he is to be the archbishop. But then it becomes more than that; it’s not just about the office. He realizes how unworthy his life has been before God. And he hears the call of God and he has a radical conversion experience. And he starts to tell Henry, “This is not how a king should live. You need to repent. You need to change. This is not how you should govern the kingdom.” And what happens? Henry experiences this love and hate for Thomas like he’s never experienced. He actually loves Thomas Becket for who he used to be, but he now hates him for who he has become – pious and God-fearing and growing in holiness and calling on the king to bow before Jesus Christ and repent. And ultimately, you can guess the end of the story if you don’t know it. Henry, of course, gets drunk and he sends two assassins to kill Thomas Becket and Thomas knows it’s coming. And when he gets there and they begin to kill him, he cries out and says, “Poor Henry. Father, forgive him.” And he looks an incredible lot like Jesus Christ at the cross in that moment.
And the only difference between the two of them is that he’s heard the personal call of God and he’s moved beyond the environment, beyond the Catholic environment, beyond the religious environment he was in; he’s heard the personal call of God and it’s changed him and it’s wrestled him and it’s shaken him up. Look, there are a number of times in the Bible – just to close this point – where God has called people in radical ways. I had a friend in Jackson who lives in Jackson now who I knew in a previous life. And it was sort of a Henry and Thomas Becket sort of time period. And this guy had lived a rough existence. And one day he was driving on the highways and byways of rural Mississippi and he didn’t know what happened to him but he pulled over on the side of the road weeping and broken. And his grandfather had put, years ago, a little Bible in his glovebox and he pulled the Bible out and he read it voraciously and he didn’t know what he was looking for and he sat on the side of the Mississippi highway for hours and walked away from it a Christian. And he doesn’t know – there was no sermon, he had not been in church his whole life; something extraordinary happened to him. Something radical happened to him and there are moments like that in the Bible. And this is one of them – the call of Abram, the call of Moses to come up the mountain and see a great sight. Or when Paul is knocked back by the light of Jesus Himself in Acts chapter 9.
But sometimes, sometimes Jesus just turns to a group of poor fishermen and says, “Hey, get up and let’s go. Come on and follow me.” There’s nothing extraordinary about it. And that’s probably the story of many of us or the story that we’re looking for, except it is extraordinary. Because it’s the exact same call of God, no matter how it happens – the personal call of the living God. And the question tonight is, “Have you heard it?” Has God shaken you up? Has God shaken you out of your boredom? Has God shaken you out of complacency? Of addiction to consumer religion? Has He shaken you up? Have you heard the call of God?
The Cost of the Call of God
And secondly and finally – we only have two points tonight. It’s a two-point sort of a day today. This morning David only had two points and now I only have two points. And we could say, “You’re welcome,” but of course you know that that just means the points get longer, instead of having three or four or five! How can you know if you’ve been called? And the second thing that we learn in this passage from the details is because of the cost of the call. And this is where we get to the example that Abraham is to us. John Calvin loved Abraham. If you’ve read any Calvin, he likes Abraham. He talks about him a lot. And one of the things he says about this passage is he says, “We ought to esteem Abraham as one equal to a hundred thousand if we consider his faith, which is set here in Genesis 12 before us as the best model of believing. To be a child of God we must be reckoned as members of Abraham’s tribe. But,” and then he gets into the details of Genesis 12, “as far as the experiences of his life go, when he is first called by God in this chapter, he is taken away from his country, from his parents, from his friends, which are considered by men the sweetest things in all of life; as if God deliberately intended to strip him of all of life’s delights.”
Disrupts A Life of Comfort
When the call of God comes and you experience the resurrection power of that call, you’re changed from the inside out, you’re called to radically surrender. And that’s what Abram does here. And when you do that, what the text teaches us and what the Bible teaches us is that it’s going to cost you. And there are just three brief things to say about the cost here. And the first one is this. The first way we see it costing is that the call of God, the personal call of God in your life will disrupt a life of mere comfort and complacency, and instead it will replace it with a life of unknowns. You see in verse 1, the Lord says to Abraham, “Go from your country and from your kindred and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” God says, “Go” and He really says, “Get out of the land and go to a land that I will show you.” But nowhere in the passage Calvin points out does He tell Abram where he’s going. And the whole journey sequence in this chapter is telling us that Abram never really knew exactly where he was going, he just knew it was a place God had promised. And God says, “Go! Get up! Get out!” And Abram is saying, “Where?” And He said, “It doesn’t matter where. You don’t need to know that right now. Just get up and respond and go!”
And it happens to him again later in his story. God says to Abram, "You are going to be a great nation. I'm going to give you a child." And he says, "What child? My wife can't have children. We're seventy-five and eighty and eighty-five and ninety, and ninety-nine!" And God says, "Don't worry about that. You just respond in faith. Get up and believe and do what I'm telling you." And he has no idea where it's coming from. And that means when the call of God comes into your life, you don't know where He might take you. You don't know what He might call you to, but you must be ready. And that's what the faith of Abraham teaches us. The call of God unsettles your life. And that's exactly what Hebrews 11 notes for us is the most important part here. It says this. "By faith Abram obeyed, when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, but he did not know where he was going" – Hebrews 11:8. Spurgeon says this. "Note well, Abram got up, he went at once, he didn't stop, and he plowed on." The faith of Abram.
In the World But Not of the World
The second thing that the call, when it comes to you it’s going to cost, and the second thing we learn here is that it teaches us that you’re going to have to be in the world but not of the world. In the world but not of the world. This is a call to a kind of separation. And if you go back to verse 1, you see it again. “Leave. Get up and go. Leave.” And notice what other things He said. Not only leave your country, but “leave your kindred and your father’s house.” And what he’s saying there is that the call of God will call you to leave behind a culture that you may have held onto too long. Idols in a culture of sin. God said, “Leave your kindred. That means leave the culture that you’ve come from, the people that you’ve come from, the lifestyle that you used to live because I’m giving you a new lifestyle; a lifestyle of obedience.” It’s a call to separate yourself. And this is not a mere physical separation from the world, from culture. It’s a moral, ethical separation from culture. It’s not a monastic call. The call, to put it this way, the call of God will make you into a public Christian, into a public Christian.
Now in 12:6 – let’s just look at this briefly. Well before that, in four, he leaves Haran. He’s seventy-five years old and he travels to get to the oak of Moreh, the terebinth – I like that word better from the King James, the terebinth of Moreh, he travels 600 miles through the dust and the dirt a long time ago. And it was incredibly hard. I can’t even begin to imagine. So the trite phrase, “When I was a boy…” – you’ve heard this – “When I was a boy, I walked to church uphill in the snow,” has nothing, nothing on what Abram does here at seventy-five years old. Six hundred miles through the desert. There’s no telling how long it took him. I will say that I gave the gift to my three-year-old when we lived in Edinburgh that when she grows up she can say to her children and grandchildren, “When I was three, I did walk uphill to church in the snow, 1.7 miles to be exact, multiple times!” That’s the Scottish life!
He travels 600 miles at seventy-five years old, and he settles finally for the first time at the oak of Moreh near Shechem in the promised land, in verse 6. And what's going on here? The oak of Moreh, the terebinth of Moreh, is a terebinth. Moreh means "oracle" or "tale" or "saga" or "prophecy." It can mean any of those things. And what it's saying is that he went – and the commentators note this commonly – right into one of the places that was well-known in the Canaanite world as a centerpiece for public prophecy. People would come to the oak of Moreh and they would hear a Canaanite priest prophecy or give oracles or tell sagas of the gods. It's one of the centerpieces. It's right between Mount Ebal and Gerizim if you know that history. You see it again in Deuteronomy and again in the gospels. It's an incredibly important place for Canaanite worship. It's like when Paul goes in Acts 17 up the Areopagus, Mars Hill, the dead center of Athens to preach the Gospel.
You see what he’s doing? He’s been called to separate himself from the world, and to do it, he goes right into the thick of it. He goes to the oak of Moreh, to the center of all Canaanite religion, and he builds an altar and he plants a flag and he says, “This is the land of Yahweh,” and he starts to gather followers and tell people about the true God. He’s not monastic. It’s not that kind of separation. Nor is it a private, personal religion. It’s public belief; it’s public religion. He goes right into the heart of the worst of it, the thickest of it, and plants the altar of Yahweh right there in the middle. You know what a public Christian is, or at least this is how I think about it. I have had moments in my life when I haven’t been a public Christian and still struggle all the time with it. What’s a public Christian? Or what’s a private Christian? It’s a Christian that gets in a pattern of only exercising personal, private religion without any public faith; whose not sharing the Gospel, whose not planting the altar in the thick of the culture. Who’s likely, in my own life, to get bored with the Bible and with the Gospel over time when I keep it all to myself and keep it all tight. Where your outside life looks no different than the outside world.
And you know the people who are public Christians. We could name them right here in this room. You could name them right now. They’re the people that unsettle you when you’re around them because, as we used to put it in my Southern Baptist days, “They’re on fire for Jesus!” Right? They’re unsettling. They’re willing to take great risks. They’re willing to lose for the sake of God. They’ve heard the call and they’ve responded to it and they’ve surrendered to it. They’re willing to put their life on the line, their time on the line, the dinner table on the line. Their Saturday morning, to lose it, to a pastoral crisis, to works of mercy. That’s public Christianity. And Spurgeon puts it this way. “Brethren, it is no child’s play to be a Christian. ‘If any man loves father or mother more than Me,’ saith Christ, ‘he is not worthy of Me.’”
A Life of Sojourn/Mission
Thirdly and finally, the call of God means a life of sojourn or a life of mission; a life of costly mission. And in verse 2, we can’t cover the whole passage, but in verse 2 this is a centerpiece. He says, “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.” Now the translation here is ambiguous when it says, “so that you will be a blessing.” The commentators say in the Hebrew it could either be, “so that you may be a blessing,” or “go and be a blessing.” It could be a command as well. It’s a form of a verb that’s ambiguous to translate. And so most commentators actually prefer it to say, “I will make your name great. Now go and be a blessing.” In other words, this is a commission. It’s a moment of undergoing the misseo – mission; to be sent. It comes from the Latin verb, “misseo.” And anyone who’s heard the call of God is on mission. That’s what this means.
What we’re talking about here is ministry; Christian ministry. What’s Christian ministry? If you’ve heard the call of God, you’re on it. And what is it? It’s this. It’s taking the gifts and resources that God has given you and using them in the name of Jesus for the kingdom of God – exercise them publicly. That’s ministry. And there are two gifts that God has given every single one of us to minister with – the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a personal gift that’s different for each person, that you can learn about from the New Testament and figure out. Christian ministry is taking those two gifts and expending yourself, giving your life in whatever world God’s put you in, at the point of loss, of great personal loss.
You see this in verses 8 to 9. Commentators point out at the end of this passage he doesn’t know where he’s going exactly so what he does is he moves from place to place. He goes from Shechem to the hill country east of Bethel and then west toward Ai and east, all over the place, all the way until he goes down toward the Negev, toward the south. He’s going everywhere. He’s on mission. He’s getting up and he’s going. He’s heeding the call. Professional ministers are not the comprehensive total of ministers. Every single person who has heard the call of God is a minister of the Gospel, the New Testament teaches us, and so was Abraham. And the call of God means that you are on mission.
Now let's close with this. I was reading Tim Keller's little book this week on self-forgetfulness and he has a helpful little part in it where he says, he's talking about some of this story in other places of the Bible and he says, "You will never be as happy as you can be." He says, "You will never have the kind of joy that you were made for until you hear the call of God and embrace your mission to the point of personal loss." And how do we know that's true? It's because, in John chapter 17, Jesus was praying His prayer before He goes to the cross. And in verse 18 He said, "Father, as You have sent Me into the world, so I now send them." And a few verses later, what does He say? "I am saying all of this that they might have My fullness of joy." Which means that being on mission to the point of personal loss is the key to being happy in this life. Because the one man who was most fully on mission for God in all of existence, in all of history, also had the most joy of any person who has ever lived in the history of the world.
You see, before we can go on mission for God, before Abram could go on mission for God, you have to, we have to know that He has been on mission for us from the beginning of time. And the one Son of Abraham, not born of a barren woman but born of a virgin, He came to this world with the hardest mission, the most ultimate mission – to enter into the world of darkness, to crush death, to kill sin forever, and He was the happiest person that ever lived. He came to lose everything. He was so full of loss and loneliness and He was so full of joy at the very same time. He was the loneliest and the most joyful Man who has ever lived, and His ultimate loss was at the same time the joy that was set before Him, knowing what He would gain from it. And that means being on mission to the point that you’re willing to lose – that’s where you can truly be happy in this life. And so here is God’s call. Jesus Christ died for your sins and He conquered death for you so that you would wake up and hear the call of God, so that we would wake up and hear the call of God, and then when we hear the Savior speak, we would then know He’s not only our Savior but also our example. “As You have sent Me, O Father, I have sent them that they might have fullness of joy.” And that’s where you can be happy. Let’s pray.
Our Lord and God, teach us to have joy in the midst of giving ourselves away for the kingdom of God. And we ask that You would train us and teach us to want this, in Jesus’ name, amen.
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