Not very many heroes of epic novels or movies get to stay in one location. Odysseus, Lawrence of Arabia, Huck Finn, Frodo, Marlow, Dante, Dorothy, Nemo, even the quirky family from Little Miss Sunshine! All of these characters go on a journey. Their journeys may be long or short, traumatic or hilarious, sacrificial or selfish. For each character, the journey is an important, transformative experience, as important, if not more important, than the goal itself.
Journeys are important because they get us out of our normal rhythms. When on a journey, you do not come home and crash in front of the TV every day, or have the same conversations with your same neighbors day after day. When you’re on a journey, you don’t even have to show up for work in the morning. There are no cubicles, reports, or emails on a journey. A journey bursts us from the constraints of our routines and obligations and opens us to new experiences and new sense of our own identity. During a journey we find out if we are flexible or rigid; adventurous or timid; brave or fearful.
Perhaps this is why, throughout God’s history with his people, as soon as he calls us, he sends us on a journey.
You might have noticed over the last few weeks, that in our lectionary we have begun hearing the stories of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. Genesis is full of stories of people on the move, doing God’s work. Today, we hear the story of Abram, the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. His faith in God would establish the three largest religions in history.
When I went back to Genesis to remind myself of Abram’s story, I had thought I would find out some backstory. I wanted to know whether Abram and God had any previous encounters, whether they had several conversations before our passage today. Surely, God had been slowly preparing Abram for the life-changing encounter they have in today’s passage.
But it turns out that Genesis tells us nothing about Abram’s personal history with God. The only information Genesis reveals about Abram before our passage today is that he was the son of Terah, a descendent of Noah and that Abram had a wife named Sarai and a nephew named Lot.
This lack of information makes Abram’s willingness to leave his home and journey off to the great unknown even more powerful. Abram does not argue with God, he simply packs up his things and goes. However, if you read the text carefully, you’ll learn that Abram does not follow God’s directions perfectly. God tells Abram to leave his kindred behind, and instead Abram takes his nephew Lot with him. Even now, we get a sense that Abram is not a complete pushover and that his relationship with God will not be a simple one.
This ambiguity-this not quite so obedient obedience-is a great introduction to Abram’s journey and the rest of Genesis, really. God does not choose cookie cutter people to do his work. You do not have to be sweet and passive and perfect to do God’s work. In fact, I can’t think of one character in Genesis who is unblemished in some way. To follow God, all you have to be willing to do is to hear God out and then take a risk.
And what a risk Abram took!
Imagine-Abram had no context-no Bible stories, no history of God’s faithfulness on which to draw when he made the decision to follow God. All he had was a family story about his great, great, great, great, great-grandfather Noah and how God preserved his family in the midst of an incredible flood.
But Abram is able to take this family history, and this incredible personal experience of God, and use them to give him the courage to break out of his routine, to burst out of the confines of how he perceived himself, his family and his culture and take a risk to go on what will be an incredible journey.
God promises Abram land and blessings, but for God, the land was not the point. For God, I think, it was important to send Abram on a journey so that as Abram traveled, Abram could learn to trust God more and more. I don’t want to spoil anything, since we’ll talk more about Abram’s journey the next couple of weeks, but Abram encounters all kinds of crazy challenges and abundant blessings as he journeys with God. Abram learns about himself and what it means to have faith in God by journeying away from his ordinary, day-to-day, life. Abram even gets a new name-Abraham-to mark God’s role in his life.
What would God need to do to break us out of our routines? I shudder to think how I would react if God told me to hand over my laptop, my closet full of clothes, and my nice rented house and go wander across the country. I don’t think I would be as amenable as Abram. I think I would ask lots of whiny questions, like: How am I going to eat? What do you want me to do? What should I pack? Could I at least have a GPS?
God may not call us to literally leave home like he called Abram, but he still does call us to go on a journey of faith with him. Thinking of our lives as a journey rather than a series of responsibilities gives us a framework to understand our lives in a new way. A relationship with God is never static. As we experience each new day of our life, God calls us to journey along with him and to keep our eyes open for what he is doing in the world and how we might fit into that activity. Occasionally, following God’s journey for us may lead us to do something radical-to travel somewhere we’ve never been, or to talk to someone who has nothing in common with us. God’s journey may lead us to fight for the disenfranchised or to care for the poor. God’s journey may lead us toward forgiving someone or even reconciling others in conflict.
Wherever our journey leads us, we can be sure that we will encounter many adventures along the way. And those adventures will stretch us and shape us into the people God has dreamed we can be. Thanks be to God.