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. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
Robert Bly – the founder of the modern men’s movement – says that whereas most animals pass on their wisdom to the next generation through instinct, human beings pass down their wisdom through the retelling of stories. Accordingly, Bly spends a lot of time in his writings taking apart ancient myths such as the ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ legend and, most famously, the story of ‘Iron John’.
Bly’s source material is generally European myths and legends, but we know that the Indigenous people of this land (Australia) similarly passed down their wisdom from one generation to the next through the re-telling of the Dreamtime.
What has been sinking in with me lately is the extent to which this has been equally the practice in both the Jewish and Christian religious traditions. We too pass on our wisdom to our children through the retelling of stories – Biblical stories, in our case.
Indeed, it is worth recognising that the Bible itself is a story – one big story, in fact, that starts in a garden and ends in a city, with lots of other smaller stories within it. This may not be obvious to the casual reader, perhaps because most of us start in the middle and so have trouble working out where the story begins and ends.
Jumping in at the middle though shouldn’t, in and of itself, be too big a hurdle. Most of us started the Star Wars saga at Episode 4, and that didn’t stop us from grasping the larger narrative. Even so, the Biblical plot-line is more complex than that of Star Wars, and the characters far more nuanced.
What I want to do today, at any rate, is to reflect a little on the greater Biblical story, and today seems to me to be the obvious day to do that because our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures today is from the book of Genesis, from the opening verses of chapter twelve, which introduce us to Abraham – the hero of the Biblical drama – and hence function as the starting point of the Bible’s greater story.
Now I appreciate, of course, that the twelfth chapter of Genesis is not literally the beginning of the story. Obviously, the story begins eleven chapters earlier with “in the beginning …” (Genesis 1:1). Even so, I think it’s once again a bit like the Star Wars series (or like any modern movie, really) where the film inevitably opens with some action-packed battle scene, after which we are properly introduced to Luke Skywalker (or whoever the main character is).
In the Biblical drama, the opening scene is of the great battle over creation that rages throughout Genesis chapters one to eleven. In the beginning, God creates the Heavens and the Earth, and it is good, after which human being begin to unpick the handiwork of God, turning what is good back into something chaotic and violent, and the whole scene ends at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) in division and confusion.
We could spend all of our allotted time today (and a good deal more) reflecting on those chaotic scenes that together create the backdrop for the greater Biblical narrative – the garden, the forbidden fruit, the murder of Abel, Noah and his flood, and the tower – but suffice it to say that it is a saga of growing alienation between God and God’s creation, where what was once good sours, and as Genesis eleven closes on the failed building project known as Babel, we see people who have lost all direction running about, unable to communicate with either God or with each other, and it is into this scene of chaos that Abraham steps forward as a new hope.
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. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
Thus, we meet the hero of our story – the man whose name will dominate the entire Biblical drama from this point on. He doesn’t look too promising at this stage, but neither did Luke Skywalker when we first met him, and, of course, the new hope that emerges with Abraham is not really grounded in the nature of the man, but rather in the promises that are made to him by God – “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and … through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
As these promises are reiterated and unpacked in subsequent chapters, it becomes clear that they are three:
- That Abraham will father a great nation
- That God will give his descendants a land to live in
- That through Abraham all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
Of those three promises, the first two find their fulfilment early on in Biblical story, with the growth of the nation of Israel and with the resettlement of that nation in the land of Canaan. It is the third promise – the promise of the blessing to all the nations that will flow from Abraham – that remains elusive throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.
In the context of the Bible’s opening scene, we need to understand this third promise – that through Abraham all the families of the earth will be blessed – as the vocation of Abraham and his descendants to undo all the damage that was done at the very beginning of human history. They are to reverse the curse of Babel and lead everybody back to the garden of Eden, or rather, to that even-better-than-Eden place that supersedes it in the Biblical imagination – namely, the New Jerusalem!
Of course we are dealing with metaphors here, and metaphors that are alien to our own culture. We don’t dream of gardens or of glimmering cities any more, and, if we do, we generally dream of escaping the city and getting back to the bush, rather than vice-versa. Even so, I think we can recognise behind these metaphors a hope that is familiar to us – a hope for a world that is truly at peace and full of love.
The Jews of the Ancient Near East were a very different people from a very different period of human history, and yet the Bible itself makes clear that their hopes and dreams were really not that different from our own. They yearned for a world where they could bring up their children in peace, just as we do.
Perhaps I’ve taken one too many trips to Syria in recent years, but those visits certainly have reinforced to me the centrality of the simple things of life – having people that you can love and trust, having enough food and clothing and clean water to get by on, and not having to live in constant fear. And let’s be clear that this is the essence of the happy ending that the Biblical story depicts as the New Jerusalem.
Generations of Christians have grown up with the idea that the goal of our religion is to help us escape this world to go to another world called ‘Heaven’ where we can live as disembodied spirits. This escape is generally supposed to happen when we die.
This form of religious hope was actually something we adopted from the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. It has little to do with the Biblical story that starts in the garden and ends in the New Jerusalem. The Biblical hope is for this world (albeit, a liberated version of this world) and it’s a hope for resurrection rather than for life in any form of disembodied spirit! It’s a very tangible, human hope, and it is this tangible, human hope that is the end-point of the promises made to Abraham in Genesis chapter twelve, and the Bible’s story of the history of the people of Israel (at the risk of over-simplifying it) is the story of Israel’s repeated failure to help humanity reach that goal.
The key point I want to make is that the great Biblical hope is the same hope that all human beings cherish – a hope for a world that is truly at peace and full of love. What is unique in our Judeo-Christian tradition is our understanding of how we reach that goal and what it was that got us into the mess we are in now in the first place, and what got us into this mess, from the Bible’s perspective, is idolatry!
Christian theologians normally describe humanity’s problem in terms of the far more abstract concept of ‘sin’ but the problem is really just idolatry. We worship the wrong god. We worship power and we worship money and we even worship other people – celebrities, rock idols and political leaders – and so we fail to worship God, and our failure in worship leads us into bondage – becoming slaves to the gods we worship.
It is idolatry that led the people of Israel into exile (with the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BC) where they had to suffer for their sins – a tragedy that seemed to derail any hope we might have had that these descendants of Abraham might be the ones to bring God and humanity back together. It is in this context though that the New Testament writers point to Jesus as the one who comes into the world as the true representative of Israel, as the one who will suffer for the sins of Israel and so get them out of exile, and thus put the greater project back on track!
I’m going to stop the story at this point and raise what seems to me is the obvious question that arises out of the Biblical narrative when it’s framed this way – namely, ‘where do we fit into this story?’
It’s taken as a given in our culture that religion is a personal thing. That’s because religion in our culture is understood as being primarily about me! It’s about me and my personal relationship with God, me and my holiness, me and my salvation! The amazing thing I discover when I step back and look at the greater Biblical narrative is that it doesn’t seem to be about me at all! The story of the Bible is the story of Abraham and his descendants. It’s a very ancient story and it’s a very Jewish story. From a New Testament perspective, yes, it’s all about Jesus, but Jesus understood as the true representative of God’s people, Israel!
When Jesus spends forty days and forty nights in the wilderness and prevails over the devil, He does so, not to show me how to overcome my own temptations, but as the representative of Israel, who failed their 40-year period of testing in the wilderness. And when Jesus suffers for sin on the cross, He suffers first and foremost for the sin of Israel – the sin of idolatry that led them into exile.
Now I know that we ‘uncircumcised gentiles’ get included in the story towards the end, as the Apostles and the early church realise that God is expanding the family of Abraham to include all sorts of people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, and I recognise that this inclusion is indeed foreshadowed in those very promises made to Abraham at the very beginning of the story. Even so, to be quite frank, I had assumed that I played a more indispensable role in the greater narrative!
To translate this issue into the more familiar Star Wars context, let me ask, ‘at what point in the Biblical movie do we make our cameo appearances?’ We were not there at the beginning, nor at the climactic battle-scene. Are we a part of the epilogue, right at the end? I’ve been giving this a fair bit of thought, and I reckon that we make our appearance in that extra scene that comes up after the credits have finished.
I’m not talking about the blooper reel that often appears in movies during the credits (though some of us might feel we deserve a spot in that). I’m talking about that extra scene that often (but not always) appears right at the end of the movie reel, after the credits are over and after the less-savvy movie-goers have already left the theatre. I’m talking about that thirty-second spot at the end that is the teaser for the sequel.
That’s our spot, I think. We are the teaser for the sequel. We are not the heart of the story. We are not the warriors in the great battle scene. The key victory was won long before we were born. Our role is simply to be the teaser for the sequel – signifying to the rest of the world what is yet to come.
My great spiritual mentor, Henri Nouwen, used to say that when you’re preaching the Good News, always make sure that it’s both good and news, and so I never finish writing a sermon without asking myself ‘where’s the good news in that?’ Where’s the good news in being told that the story of the Bible is not about you?
In truth, I think that actually is the good news – that it’s not our story – for it reminds me that the future of the world does not depend on me (thanks be to God).
The story of the Bible is Abraham’s story, it’s Israel’s story, it’s Jesus’ story, and ultimately, it’s God’s story, and it is God story that the world needs to hear because the world needs God, and not me!
Of course, we can make God’s story our story, and God invites us to do so – to make that story (as Kierkegaard put it) ‘the truth that is true for me, the truth for which I can live and die!’ Even so, that story will always be much bigger than me and much bigger than any of us, and indeed, that story will continue long after each of us has left the scene.
And so we pass on this story to our children, believing that this story not only contains the wisdom of our ancestors, but also a word from God for our world – a word of hope, of reconciliation, of freedom and of life!
first preached by Father Dave to Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on March 12th, 2017