Pastor Dale E. Austin Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Last week we heard of God making a fresh start with Noah and his family, following the great flood. In the following chapters of Genesis, we learn how the descendants of Noah spread over all the earth and developed cultures and languages of their own. In time, the world is as diverse and as varied as it had been before the flood. . . . and just as corrupt.
As was the case with Noah, God looks around and finds that not everyone in the human race is corrupt. There are pockets of virtue. There are still those who try to be faithful. Among them is a gentleman from a distant land, named Abram. One day, out of the blue, God taps Abram on the shoulder and asks him, “How would you feel about moving?”
Those of us who are United Methodist pastors know that feeling only too well, although we’re seldom asked to move as far as Abram had to go!
God has decided that it’s time to narrow his focus, a bit. He needs to concentrate on a specific family and tribe to fulfill his plans. The choice of Abraham might seem rather arbitrary. He’s not originally from the part of the world which we generally associate with the scriptures. But he packs up his belongings, gathers his servants, and asks them to guide all of their flocks and herds as they travel a great distance in order to get to where God has directed him. And once there, God promises the land to him and to his descendants.
Abraham is an outsider, in many ways. Apparently, there was no one in the region of the Holy Lands who measured up to God’s criteria, at least, not to the same extent. So this ancestor of Israel and of the twelve tribes is an immigrant, someone whom God has brought in from the outside.
Once more, God is attempting to make a fresh start. Whereas his covenant with Noah had been a promise to all of humanity, his covenant now is with a specific individual and, through him, to the nation which will follow. The focus has been narrowed. From a promise to the entire world, God now moves to a promise to one particular group of people. Yes, for now it is focused in Abraham, alone. But in time, as his descendents multiply and spread, it will extend to an entire group of tribes, the whole nation of Israel. This time, God has chosen to make a fresh start with a specific group of people, who will serve as his messengers, his beacon to the rest of the world.
If we were to pick a point in the history of the human race where God “chooses” someone to be his people, this would be the point. From this time forward, Abraham’s descendents will understand themselves to be “the chosen people.”
There is a tendency for us, even today, to view ourselves in this manner. We are “the chosen people,” the ones whom God has hand-picked as those special people who enjoy God’s favor.
As we see repeatedly throughout the scriptures, though, to be chosen by God is not to be singled out for special favor. That favor might manifest itself, but it will be contingent upon the faithfulness of the people. There would be times when the people of Israel would find themselves in trouble because they forgot this aspect of the covenant. They would become complacent, confident in God’s care, because they were the chosen ones. Almost without exception, those were the moments when someone would sweep through the countryside and wreak havoc on the land, sometimes even carrying the people away into captivity.
Then God would have to raise up a prophet to remind them that to be chosen is to be handed a mission, not a privilege. They were to be a light to the other nations, showing the world what it means to live in God’s will and to reap the benefits of such faithfulness. But the benefits don’t come unless they first fulfill their part of that covenant, to be God’s people. Time and time again, God would need to make such a fresh start with his people.
There’s nothing wrong with seeing ourselves, today, as the contemporary heirs of God’s favor. But, like Israel, we need to remember that such favor carries with it an obligation, as well.
We may enjoy God’s favor, but it is offered only so long as we remain faithful to God. It isn’t just handed to us on a silver platter because of who we are.
As long as we understand our role to be a light to the nations, rather than to be the privileged few, God will bless us as he did Abraham and the generations which followed. From time to time, God still needs to find someone to help us make a fresh start and to bring us back into line with his will. It’s not always on a global scale, as with Abraham. But in our own lives, there are those who are willing to help us remain in God’s ways, and to guide us back when we go astray. We just have to listen to them; that is, assuming that we will make the effort to recognize them.