Abraham is one of the Bible’s best known characters, but why is this man who lived 4,000 years ago so important? Find out how the promises God made to him are so important for understanding the whole Bible and why Abraham himself is a great example to us.
Below is a version of the sermon preached at St. George’s on 17th January. You can also watch a video version of the sermon preached at St. Luke’s on that day.
Why does Abraham matter?
Abraham was born in the city of Ur around 2,000BC. We live about 2,000 years after Jesus, Abraham lived around 2,000 years before Jesus.
We might imagine that his world was rather backward, but actually it was one with well established cities and cultures that extended across the middle east. After all the great pyramids of Egypt were built hundreds of years before his time and many of the cities mentioned in our reading had been around for hundreds of years – far longer than the United States has existed in our time!
The city of his birth was Ur. It was a key trading city and around 2,000BC was at the height of its power with an empire covering much of Southern Mesopatamia. The city would have had a population of about quarter of a million – about twice the size of Thanet’s population today. It’s culture was dominated by worship of the moon and even today you can visit the remains of a Ziggurat built there at this time, which was about 30m high and had a temple to the moon God, ‘Sin’ at its top.
Abraham grew up in this cosmopolitan place, but for some reason his family left Ur – possibly fleeing from a foreign invasion or possibly because of the call of God. They planned to go to Canaan, but ended up in Haran, a similar size city with another temple to Sin, the moon god, but far to the North West of Ur. Here the family settled, in what would have felt a bit like a home from home.
That is a bit of what we can glean about Abraham’s background. But why does he matter? Why is he probably the only person from that time period you have ever heard of? What was special about this man from Ur? Why does he matter for us living 4,000 years later!
To answer that question, we need to look at both the Big Picture of how Abraham fits into the story of the Bible and the Small Picture of his own life and how he is an example for us to follow. But lets start with the big picture.
Big Picture: New People of Promise – God’s Plan for History
If you have watched an action film, then you may have noticed that there is a set pattern to how the films begin.
They usually start off with an exciting action sequence that whets your appetite for the action that is to follow, sets some of the key themes and feel of the movie, but most importantly draws you into the film before you get too bored.
However, after the opening action sequence, there is usually a less exciting scene that sets up the plot or the story. This scene is really important to help you understand what is going on in the rest of the film.
So, in a James Bond film, there is usually an exciting and dramatic opening action sequence and then we have James Bond meeting with ‘M’ to talk about the mission that he needs to carry out. It’s not exciting, but it is crucial to understand what is going on.
Well, the Bible is a bit like that. The first 11 chapters of Genesis are spectacular action packed setting up some of the big themes of the whole Bible, there’s God’s creation, the dramatic fall of man from the Garden of Eden, the first murder and a flood that nearly wipes everything out. This is all big dramatic stuff.
Then we have this section about Abram. But this section is really important if we want to grasp what is going on in the rest of the Bible. It sets up the story ready for us to follow.
Let me briefly show you how.
A story of promise fulfilled
Firstly, note that God promises Abram that he is going to make him into a great nation. This is a crucial idea and much of the rest of the story of the Old Testament is how this nation that is descended from Abram is going to become great.
Firstly, to be a great nation you need to have lots of people. This gets off to a slow start. Abram’s wife is barren he cannot have children! But, much of the focus of the rest of Abram’s story is about how God provides him with one son!
By the end of Genesis, the family has grown. There are now 72, but this is still a long way from being nation sized!
However, at the start of Exodus we are told that now this family has become people sized. But they are in the wrong place.
Place / Land:
Secondly, a nation needs a place to be or a land to live on.
In this passage God makes clear to Abraham that the land of Canaan would belong to his descendants. But at this point it is already full of other people. How will this be?
- Abram makes a start to a claim by pitching his tent in the hills and building altars.
- By the end of Genesis they have burial plots in the land, but the people are living in Egypt.
- But, God leads them out of Egypt and through the wilderness under Moses and eventually in to the promised land led by Joshua.
- But then they are hardly a great nation, they are constantly oppressed by surrounding peoples, until eventually a monarchy under David is established and they truly become a great nation.
- But, as well as people and place God gives this great nation, a purpose. They are to be a blessing for all nations.
- In the Old Testament this is meant to happen, because they are unique in having received God’s Law. By showing the rest of the world how God wants them to live, they are to be an example that brings blessing to the world. A light to the nations as Isaiah puts it.
- Yet, the people keep turning away from God and ignoring his commands. They are no better than anyone else.
- Until Jesus comes, a descendant of Abraham and David, Jesus is the greater king of God’s people, who through his death and resurrection brings hope and life for all nations and creates a new people from all nations, not just the literal descendants of Abraham. A people who bring blessing to the world as they live for Christ in the world.
So, these words to Abraham, are words that help us to understand the plot of the whole Bible, to see God’s great plan. A plan that worked through a n historic nation, but ultimately led to Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
But, there are two more things to say about the big picture.
A story of blessing not curse
Firstly, it is a story of blessing not curse.
In a way Genesis 1-11 has been dominated by judgement and curse:
Adam is kicked out of the garden of Eden and barred from the tree of life.
Cain is sent into exile for murdering his brother.
The world is destroyed by a flood because of the wickedness of man.
Those building the tower of Babel are scattered and divided, because of their pride.
Now, as God comes to Abraham he says his intention is to reverse the situation. Now, God wants to bring blessing not curse, life not death.
The Bible is full of God’s judgement, which is a necessary consequence of human sin, but this passage shows us that God’s plan and purpose is to bring blessing on the world not curse.
A story of divine action not human achievement
Then this big picture shows us how the Bible history is different to the way normal human history is told. Notice in these verses, Abraham is not really asked to do anything other than start a journey with God, but God says five times, “I will….” emphasising that it is all about divine action not human achievement.
God promises Abraham that he will make his name great. Well in the previous chapter, the people of the earth came together to build a tower in order to make their name great:
“Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselve….” (Genesis 11:4)
God’s response to their proud ambition is to scatter them over the face of the earth. A great name does not come from achieving great things, but in trusting in God’s promises.
As you go through the Bible, again and again it tells us what God does for the sake of his people:
Joseph recognises that he was able to rescue Egypt and the world from famine, because of God’s providence.
Israel escape Egypt not because of any brilliance or strength on their own part, but because God acts to send plagues.
Jericho falls, because it is God that brings the walls crashing down.
David slays Goliath, not because he was a sharp shooter with a sling, but because he trust God to win the battle for him.
This is the gospel, for our salvation is based not on what we do, but on what God has done for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
So, these verses are a crucial point in the Big Picture of the Bible story. They give us the outline of the promises that will be fulfilled as the history of Israel unfolds and show us that this story’s ultimate aim is blessing not curse brought about by divine action not human achievement.
But there is also a small picture aspect for us. This is not just about the people of promise that God would create, but about a person of promise: Abraham and how he can be an example to us.
Small Picture: New Person of Promise
Let me briefly show you three things about Abram’s life.
A life resurrected – Gen. 11:27-32
Firstly, it was a life, resurrected. At the end of chapter 11 is a quick outline of Abram’s family. It is not a pretty picture.
There is incest, with his brother Nahor marrying his other brother’s daughter. In fact we later learn that Sarai is Abram’s half-sister!
There is also an emphasis on death. His brother Haran has died and tragically before his father, Terah. And all we are told about Terah is that he too died in the city of Haran.
Then we are also told, that Abram’s wife, Sarai is barren. She is unable to have children. Abram’s family line seems to be coming to a dead end.
Yet, too this dead end, God promises abundant life.
Paul puts it like this in Romans:
“Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead–since he was about a hundred years old–and that Sarah’s womb was also dead.” (Romans 14:18-19)
- Abram is an example to us, that no matter how much our life may feel like it has hit a dead end. No matter how much we have been hit by grief or are mired in messy family relationships, God can still call us to a new hope, a promise of abundant life. If only we like Abram can believe.
A life abandoned – Gen. 12:4-5
So, Abram is promise a life resurrected, but he is called to set out with God and that means abandoning things from his old life.
Abram had to leave the comfortable city life of Haran, his father, his old culture and people like him and head off to a new life in Canaan.
And he did, because he knew that the blessing God had to offer was worth far more than what he was called to abandon.
For us as well, Abram is our example. To follow God today may mean abandoning things that are important to us. Jesus says:
“For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:35)
- As we begin a new year, perhaps now is a good time to ask: “What do I need to abandon in order to take hold of God’s call on my life?”
A life embraced – Gen. 12:6-9
Abram has to abandon some important parts of his life, but he also embraces what God has promises. We see this in the verses about his journey through Canaan, which in itself is a celebration of what God is promising him.
He builds an altar in the midst of the Canaanites at Shechem, which was probably a religious sanctuary as a demonstration of his commitment not to the gods of the land, but to the true God of the universe.
This is a man who is embracing what God has called him to. As it says in Hebrews:
“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:8-10)
- So another question to ask as we consider Abram’s example is this: How are you embracing God’s call today? How are you showing to the world around that it is that which is driving your life?
This passage about God’s promises to Abram is crucial if we are to understand the big picture of the Bible story.
But, it also shows us a man like us, who although he lived 4,000 years ago is still a great example to us of the faith response we are called to as we respond to God’s call.