Seeing with the Eyes of Faith
September 24, 2017
Rev. Laurel Neal
Download the PDF document format of this sermon: Seeing with the Eyes of Faith
Genesis 13 (NIV)
Abram and Lot Separate
So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him. Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.
From the Negev he went from place to place until he came to Bethel, to the place between Bethel and Ai where his tent had been earlier and where he had first built an altar. There Abram called on the name of the Lord.
Now Lot, who was moving about with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents. But the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together. And quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s. The Canaanites and Perizzites were also living in the land at that time.
So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.”
Lot looked around and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan toward Zoar was well watered, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt. (This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east. The two men parted company: Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom. Now the people of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the Lord.
The Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone could count the
dust, then your offspring could be counted. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”
So Abram went to live near the great trees of Mamre at Hebron, where he pitched his tents. There he built an altar to the Lord.
Seeing With the Eyes of Faith
September 24, 2017
Last week we walked with Abraham through a crisis. The land promised to him by God had been overtaken by famine, and Abraham became anxious and afraid. He responded by focusing all his energies on self-preservation. First, he decided to relocate to Egypt, where food was plentiful. Then he decided to pass Sarah off as his sister instead of his wife. Why? Because he thought her beauty might jeopardize his own safety among the Egyptians. So Abraham put Sarah at risk to save his own skin — and, in the process, he put the whole covenant at risk as well. When the king of Egypt actually married Sarah, God intervened to rescue both her and the covenant. Meanwhile, Pharaoh was furious with Abraham and threw him out of the country. The whole episode was bad, but also a learning experience — especially the time he spent in the Negev, where he got himself sorted out on his way back to Canaan. Now he could see:
How his anxiety and fear had gotten the best of him.
How he’d forgotten about everything except saving his own skin.
How a financial windfall from Pharaoh had become more important to him than his wife, the land, and the offspring promised by God.
How one of the nations God wanted to bless through him had actually experienced nothing but trouble because of him.
So it was that Abraham kept walking — all the way back to the hill country of Canaan. To Bethel, to that altar he’d built. To the place where he’d committed himself to God in the first place. And there Abraham begins again, intending to embrace the covenant more fully and trust God more completely.
But it’s not long before he faces another challenge here in chapter 13. Anyone who lives west of the Mississippi River knows about the challenges of sharing water and land. Water and grazing rights are complicated and deeply important in the western U.S.: to farmers and ranchers, to Native Americans and environmentalists, to state and federal governments. They often lead to conflict:
like in southern Oregon, where there’s been fierce competition for water from the Klamath River;
and places like the Malheur Wildlife Refuge over near Burns.
Well, in Genesis 13, Abraham faces a challenge involving grazing and water rights. He is, we learn in verse 2, “very rich in livestock.” And, according to verse 5, his nephew Lot also owns flocks and herds. Between them, they’ve now got too many livestock for the available land — and their herdsmen are squabbling and competing with each other over grassland and water. But it’s even worse than that. There are also others who occupy the land — people and herds who were there before Abraham and Lot arrived. The area around Bethel has become congested, so Abraham’s got a new problem he needs to solve. And he tackles this new problem in a very different way than he tackled the drought and famine problem in chapter 12. This time, he doesn’t try to save his own skin. This time, he trusts God for his survival and future — instead of trying to control the future himself. He says to Lot, “Let’s not have fighting between us, between your shepherds and my shepherds. After all, we’re family. Look around. Isn’t there plenty of land out there? Let’s separate. If you go left, I’ll go right; if you go right I’ll go left.”
I want us to notice where this conversation with Lot takes place. Bethel’s located in the hill country of central Canaan — mountains, really, that average about 3,000 feet in elevation. These hills rise from a plain that’s at sea level — and in some cases below it. Bethel sits on the highest ridge — and from here Abraham and Lot have a panoramic view in all directions. Although I’ve been to Israel, I haven’t been to this exact spot, because these areas are part of the West Bank today. But I’ve been to places like it — and you probably have too. The place I think of is in Ouray County, Colorado: a narrow ridge called The Bridge of Heaven, in the San Juan Range of the Rocky Mountains. So, at its lowest point, Ouray County is 7,000 feet above sea level — and the elevation of the Bridge of Heaven is 11,000 feet. It’s not the highest spot in the area, but it provides one of the best views. From the Bridge of Heaven you can see most of southwestern Colorado, plus a lot of southeastern Utah.
So this conversation between Abraham and Lot takes place on a high ridge overlooking all of Canaan. Lot listens to Abraham and takes in the view. What catches his eye especially is the Jordan River valley — a fertile, well-watered plain stretching out before him to the east. To Lot’s physical eye, this area is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden itself… and of Egypt. To Lot, it looks like paradise. So he chooses this good-looking land for himself. And Abraham — perhaps seeing things with the eyes of faith this time — lets it go. Gives it all to Lot, who packs up and moves down into the valley.
There is, however, an ominous note to this account. In choosing the best land for himself, Lot also chooses a place that will prove problematic in the future. Some of the towns in the Jordan valley are becoming places of corruption and wickedness — and Lot won’t escape their influence. He’ll become compromised in various ways, and his own circumstances will become less and less secure as time goes on. But right now, all Lot can see is the beauty of that land and the future financial success it promises. While Abraham, this time around, seems to be using a different calculus.
Not long ago I read a novel called, Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger — a writer who’s known mostly for his mysteries. But Ordinary Grace isn’t a mystery. It’s a novel about two brothers: Frank, age 13, and Jake, age 9. Like Abraham and Lot, Frank and Jake see the world in very different ways — ways that affect their own lives and also the lives of others. The story’s set in a small town in Minnesota — a town called New Bremen — during the summer of 1961. In 1961, Minnesota’s got a new major league baseball team; the country’s got a new, young president; and kids are still allowed to roam free during summer vacation. But the summer of 1961 turns unexpectedly grim. We learn in Chapter One of Ordinary Grace that this will be a summer of death in New Bremen. Five people will die — an ominous fact that hangs over the entire novel, just like the names Sodom and Gomorrah hang ominously over Lot’s choice of land in Genesis 13. Frank and Jake look at the world differently and see different things. Older brother Frank is a natural leader. He’s independent and impulsive. An eavesdropper and risk taker — always “working all the angles” of a situation. At 13, Frank’s trying to make sense of the world around him: a world that turns out to be full of secrets and lies, adultery and betrayal,
death and grace. Jake, on the other hand, is more of a follower — partly because he’s the little brother, and partly because he’s got a terrible stutter. Jake’s stutter forces him to keep his mouth shut most of the time — and this has turned him into an observer. As a result, Jake excels at sizing things up, connecting the dots, understanding what’s really going on. He sees to the heart of things. Frank will have to pay dearly for the wisdom he acquires — but Jake’s already wise beyond his years. Frank, in other words, reminds me of Lot: working the angles, going for broke, making decisions too quickly. Lot will have to learn wisdom the hard way.
But Abraham — after the disaster in Egypt — is more like Jake. He’s quieter and more deliberate — able to size situations up and think them through. Abraham’s more grounded in the covenant this time around. He has a reference point outside himself, and this time he uses it. Which is why he’s able, this time, to deal with a big problem in a different way. To let go of self-interest — instead of trying to save his own skin.
Here’s what happens after Lot and Abraham part company. Verse 14: The Lord says to Abraham: “Open your eyes, Abram, and look around. Look north, south, east, and west. Everything you see, the whole land spread out before you, I will give to you and your children forever. I’ll make your descendants like dust — counting them will be as impossible as counting the dust of the Earth. So — on your feet then, Abraham! Get moving! Walk through the country, its length and its breadth — for I’m giving it all to you.”
What we have here is a big, fat “Well done!” from God. In this crisis, God approves of Abraham’s deliberations and decisions. No intervention needed from God, because this time Abraham’s handled the situation in a pitch-perfect way. He’s demonstrated “insight, good sense, and generosity.”蜉 He’s been wise. He’s put his trust in God and the covenant. He’s let go of his preoccupation with self-preservation. What we also have here is God reiterating, and confirming, and intensifying his covenant promises. There’s still no detail about where Abraham’s descendants will come from — and Sarah’s barren, remember? There’s just the emphatic assertion that there’ll be descendants and plenty of them. But there is more detail about the land. Lot stood on this spot and picked the best-looking land for himself. Now God reaffirms that he’s eventually going to give everything Abraham can see to Abraham himself — and to Abraham’s offspring.
What follows this promise is an act of appropriation and ownership. Since other people inhabit this land, it’s mostly symbolic. Abraham can’t literally or legally take possession of it. But God still asks Abraham to walk the length and breadth of it. This is exactly how “land deals” were handled in the ancient Middle East: new landowners both paid for their property and also walked around its perimeter, while witnesses looked on. The walking verified the property’s boundaries and confirmed the legality of the transaction. In this case, God watches while Abraham walks — symbolically taking possession and ownership. But it must have looked a little strange to the locals: this old man tromping to and fro from one end of Canaan to the other. “What on earth is he doing?!,” they must have wondered.
It reminds me, in fact, of a wonderful movie from 1999 called The Straight Story — in which an old man named Alvin Straight drives all the way from Iowa to Wisconsin — on his riding lawnmower! Alvin’s 74. He’s a widower with a bad hip, emphysema, no driver’s license, and very little money. He lives with his mentally disabled daughter, Rose — who does drive, but only around town. One day, Alvin’s brother, Lyle — 350 miles away in Wisconsin — suffers a stroke. They haven’t spoken to each other for ten years, and Alvin wants to set the record straight before Lyle dies. So Alvin builds a makeshift trailer for his John Deere lawnmower. He assembles some supplies and sets off for Wisconsin. Riding out of town on Main Street, several of Alvin’s friends rush out of the hardware store to try to dissuade him. “You’ll never make it,” they tell him. “You’ll get blown off the road.” But Alvin keeps going. All the way to Wisconsin — because there’s something important at stake. And he refuses to give up, despite frequent mishaps and mechanical breakdowns.
He meets various people along the way, many of whom think he’s an old fool. But others help him out — and listen to him reminisce about his life: his childhood, his courtship and marriage, his days in the Army, the decade he lost to alcohol and nastiness. And these people — the ones who listen to Alvin and spend a bit of time with him — they see something other than old fool. They see someone who’s “emerged from the forge of his imperfections…a better man, purified, [and] simple.” 蜉
It’s the same thing with Abraham. He may look foolish and strange walking the perimeter of the land of promise, but he’s not. Abraham’s learning to trust God — and God’s learning to trust Abraham. That’s what’s really going on here. Slowly but surely a true partnership is forming.
So far, you may have noticed, Abraham’s been pretty quiet. It’s God who’s done all the talking. But two weeks from, for the first time, Abraham will speak up. Being partners, you see, requires conversation.
We keep seeing how God works as we move through this story together. Today we learn that walking with God involves letting go, looking foolish, becoming someone God can trust. All these things, it seems to me, apply to you — to your situation as a community of faith and as a church in transition. All of them involve seeing with the eyes of faith: assessing your situation spiritually and theologically — as Abraham’s beginning to do with his own circumstances. So here are a few questions that arise from this episode in Abraham’s pilgrimage — questions to ponder and pray over as you make your way through this ongoing time of transition:
What might you need to let go of in order to move forward with God — either personally or as a congregation?
How willing are you to do something that seems strange, even foolish, to the outside world? Just because God thinks it’s important and asks you to do it?
Where are you in learning to trust God? And, perhaps more important: to what extent do you think God is able to trust you as partners in his covenant of grace?
Abraham had to ponder all these questions — and my guess is that all of us do, too. In our own lives — and on behalf of MPC.