This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Genesis 11:27 - 12:9
Sermon Theme: The LORD calls his people to claim all nations for his kingdom.
Contemporary Need: Current materialism and consumerism sap our missionary zeal.
Sermon prepared by Dr. Sidney Greidanus, professor of preaching emeritus, Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan. This sermon and other sermons from Dr. Greidanus can also be found in his book: Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ From Genesis, 2007, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. This sermon was reprinted by permission of the publisher, all rights reserved.
Congregation of the LORD Jesus Christ,
Have you ever been to Europe and seen the many beautiful cathedrals there? People who see them are impressed by their sheer size. Generation after generation worked on these monuments; sometimes for hundreds of years. It is clear what was central for these people: the worship of God. Life revolved around the Christian religion. The cathedral was the highest building in town; it was also located in the center of town. People were baptized there, worshipped there, confessed their sins there, married there, and were buried there. Worship of God in the cathedral was the focus of their lives.
But what are the highest buildings in our cities today? Not churches but the high-rises of banks and multinational corporations. And these towering high rises also reveal what is considered important in our society. You see, a shift has taken place in modern culture. Life is no longer centered on God and his church. The center has shifted to banks and multinational corporations, the sponsors of materialism and consumerism.
Under the pressure of materialism, many churches in Europe have already collapsed. It is sad to see churches turned into warehouses, stores, sometimes even into apartments. The question arises, Could this happen to churches in Canada and the United States? Has the virus of materialism and consumerism also infected us to such an extent that we are no longer on fire for the church, for outreach, for missions? Are we perhaps more interested in seeking to live the good life than in seeking the kingdom of God?
Throughout its history the church has led a precarious existence. In the beginning God created his good kingdom on earth. God made Adam and Eve in his image to worship and obey God alone and no other creature. But Adam and Eve followed the advice of Satan and evil snuck into that harmonious world. Sin spread rapidly through the generations and totally spoiled God’s good design. It got so bad that God said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created…, for I am sorry that I have made them” (Gen. 6:7). God sent a great flood that cleaned the earth of all evildoers.
But God saved righteous Noah and his family. Notice, now God’s church is down to one family. God seeks to make a new start with Noah to spread his good kingdom across this world. And things looked promising indeed. The first thing Noah did when he came out of the ark was to build an altar to the LORD and offer burnt offerings (Gen. 8: 20). He dedicated this cleaned earth to God and his service.
But soon sin became rampant again. Just before our text, in Genesis 11, the author sketches a massive rebellion against God. Instead of spreading across the world, the people said, verse 4, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” They wanted to make a name for themselves. Again human sin jeopardized God’s good kingdom. God put down this human rebellion by confusing their language and scattering them “over the face of the whole earth”. The rebels were defeated, but there seemed to be nothing left of the kingdom of God.
To re-establish his kingdom on earth God makes a new start with a third person: First Adam, then Noah, and now Abram. Abram is an extremely unlikely candidate for this task of re-establishing God’s kingdom on earth. In Genesis 11 we read Abram’s family tree, but there is something very unusual about it. The writer tells us not only that Abram’s father is Terah and his wife is Sarai. He adds in verse 30, “Now Sarai was barren”. And for good measure he adds, “she had no children”. You see how the writer emphasizes that this is the end of the line. Abram has no future at all. “Sarai was barren; she had no children.” Noah, at least, had three sons and three daughters in law. Abram has no children. He can contribute absolutely nothing to the new start for God’s kingdom on earth. Another precarious beginning.
Abram is an unlikely candidate not only because he is childless but also because he worships idols. Of Noah we read that he was a righteous man. Of Abram we read in Joshua 24: 2, “Long ago your ancestors--Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor--lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.” John Calvin writes, “He [Abram] was plunged in the filth of idolatry; and now God freely stretches forth his hand to bring back the wanderer” (Genesis I, 343). Abram is not at all deserving. And yet, God uses him to continue his church and extend his kingdom on earth. God’s call of the idolater Abram is pure grace.
In chapter 12:1 we read of God’s call: “The LORD had said to Abram, ’Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you’”. God wants Abram to break completely with his past and make a new start with God. “Leave your country!”
Today we can hardly imagine how difficult it must have been for Abram to leave his country. We live in a nation of immigrants. Our parents or grandparents traveled across oceans to settle in this new country. Today we also live in a highly mobile society. But in ancient times people stayed in their country: that was familiar territory; there was their livelihood; there they had a measure of security; their roots went down deeper than we’ll ever know. Yet God requires that Abram leave all that behind, and more. Each of the three requests in vs.1 is more difficult. “Leave your country.” Very difficult. “And your people”, that is your relatives. Even more difficult. “And your father’s household”. Almost impossible. How could the LORD ask Abram to leave his father’s house? That is his very identity. He is Abram ben Terah--son of Terah. His father’s house is his house; his father’s goods are his goods, his father’s gods are his gods. Yet the LORD commands him, “Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household.”
In verses 2-3 God encourages Abram by promising three different blessings. God first tells Abram what great things he has in mind for him personally. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you: I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing”. The people at Babel had said, “Let us make a name for ourselves.” God says, “I will make your name great.” Abram’s greatness will be totally God’s work, God’s grace.
Next in vs. 3, God extends the blessing from Abram personally to his contemporaries: “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse”. And finally God extends the blessing from Abram to all nations: “And all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” This is an amazing climax. God promises to use this one man to bless all nations on the earth. Notice, God’s call of Abram has a universal design: “All peoples on earth”. God is not giving up on his creation. He will yet spread his kingdom to all nations of the earth.
But meanwhile Abram has received God’s impossible call, “Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you”. “To the land I will show you” raises the conflict even further. Nothing is certain here. Abram does not even know his destination. This is no emigration to the riches of the United States or Canada. Abram is asked to walk blindly with God to an unknown land. What will he do?
Verse 4 gives us an astonishing answer: “So Abram left, as the LORD had told him”. If I had been Abram, I would have wanted to think this over at least for a few nights; wouldn’t you? I would have wanted to talk it over with my wife and also with relatives and friends. But Abram apparently leaves his entire past without raising any questions or objections and, as far as we can tell, without so much as checking with Sarai. “So Abram left, as the LORD had told him.” He shows unquestioning trust in the LORD and obeys him immediately.
How can Abram leave his country, his people and his father’s house just like this? Later the author of Hebrews 11 will use this as an illustration of what true faith is like: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going.” Abram the idol worshipper now has true faith, complete trust in the LORD, the only true God.
So Abram gathers all his worldly possessions and sets out for the land God will show him. The writer spends very little time on the long, arduous journey--over 400 miles with flocks and herds. All he records at the end of verse 5 is that “they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.” That part of the journey isn’t all that important. What is important is what happens once Abram arrives in the land of Canaan. Here the writer slows the pace of the story and records the details.
If you check a map you will see that Abram passes through the land of Canaan from north to south. Verse 6 tells us that “Abram travelled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem.” Shechem was considered the very centre of the land of Canaan. Here was a famous Canaanite shrine, “the great tree of Moreh”, probably a soothsayers tree where the Canaanites sought to hear the oracles from their gods (Gen. 35: 4; Judges 9:37).
The writer adds ominously, “At that time the Canaanites were in the land.” The Canaanites were the descendants of Canaan, the grandson whom Noah had cursed. (Gen. 9: 25). What a tremendous letdown for Abram. Here he has come all this way, blindly trusting the LORD, and now he finds a land already occupied. And not only is the land occupied, it is occupied by the accursed Canaanites. Will he begin to doubt now? Will he turn around and go back to his homeland?
But precisely at that spot in the midst of the land of the Canaanites, the LORD appears to Abram and says, verse 7, “To your offspring I will give this land”-- this land of the Canaanites.
Abram’s response to God’s promise of this land is profound. As soon as he hears that this is the land God will give his offspring, “he built an altar there to the LORD [Yahweh, the Hebrew name], who had appeared to him.” In the very center of the land of Canaan, within view of the Canaanite shrine, Abram erects the first altar to the LORD, Yahweh. Then he moves further south to Bethel. And again, verse 8b, “he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD [Yahweh].” Then he continues traveling south to the Negev. And if you check the last verse of chapter 13, you will see that in Hebron too, near the great trees of Mamre (another Canaanite shrine), Abram built an altar to the LORD.
Building altars to the LORD! Why does the author emphasize that Abram built altars to the LORD? A Jewish commentator has noted the fact that Abram is never portrayed as building altars outside the Promised Land; he always builds altars in the Promised Land. What is the significance of Abram building altars to the LORD only in the Promised Land? And that at strategic locations such as Shechem, Bethel, Hebron?
You remember from Genesis 8 Noah’s first act when he stepped from the ark? He built an altar to the LORD. With it, he dedicated this cleansed earth to the worship of the LORD. But human sin led again to the worship of human might (the tower of Babel) and the worship of other false gods.
Now Abram is in the land God promised to his offspring, Israel. Abram sees the Canaanites worshipping their false gods at the sacred shrines. And within sight of these shrines he builds altars to the only true God, the LORD. In other words, Abram claims this land for the LORD. At key locations, we might say, he raises the LORD’s flag of ownership: This is the LORD’s country! This is where the LORD is King!
By building altars to the LORD, Abram dedicates this land to the worship and service of the LORD; in this land the LORD will be worshipped and obeyed. John Calvin writes perceptively, Abram “endeavoured, as much as in him lay, to dedicate to God, every part of the land to which he had access, and perfumed it with the odour of faith” (Genesis I, 357).
As Israel later heard this story about father Abram, the message must have been obvious to them. They were about to try to conquer the land of Canaan under Joshua. But like their fathers before them, they still feared the mighty Canaanites and their powerful gods. Their fathers had refused to enter the land. Now forty years later, the next generation is at the edge of the Promised Land waiting for orders to attack the Canaanites. In that setting this story about father Abram told them clearly; The LORD calls us to claim the Promised Land for the LORD, for his kingdom.
But in calling Israel to claim the land of Canaan for God’s kingdom, God has a universal design. Remember verse 3, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you”. God has the whole earth in mind. The land of Canaan is only a small start. It’s like the liberation of Europe in 1945. The allied forces tried to free Europe from the occupation of an evil power. But liberation did not come to all of Europe at once. It started on D-day with a beach in Normandy. And from that beach freedom spread throughout Europe.
Just so, Canaan would be the beachhead from which the kingdom of God would spread throughout this land. Abram was the first to build altars to the LORD in this land. Later God commanded King Solomon to build a temple to the LORD in the capital city of Jerusalem. Just outside the temple was a huge altar where Israel was to bring its sacrifices. The Promised Land is God’s country. At the temple God’s law would be proclaimed. Israel was to worship the LORD in this land, praise his name, obey his commands. Israel was to reveal in its national life the justice and peace of the kingdom of God. It was to show the reality of God’s kingdom in Canaan--not for its own sake but for the sake of the whole world.
Unfortunately, Israel failed to manifest the justice and peace of God’s kingdom. So the LORD banished the people into exile--back to Babylon where Abram had come from. It looked as if the kingdom of God collapsed once again. But God made a new start with Abram’s son, God’s own Son, Jesus Christ.
In the New Testament we read that Jesus came preaching, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near…” (Mark 1:15). Jesus showed the reality of God’s kingdom by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising the dead, casting out demons. When some people accused Jesus of casting out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, Jesus said, “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20). Jesus’ mission was again to establish a beachhead on earth for the kingdom of God. From that beachhead the justice and peace of God’s kingdom was to spread into all the earth.
After his death and resurrection, Jesus mandated his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28: 19). Did you notice the parallel with God’s command to Abram? God had said to Abram, “Go to a land I will show you.” Jesus says to his disciples, “Go and make disciples of all nations” -- go to the ends of the earth! God’s design to save all nations is being fulfilled.
There is a further parallel: as God gave Abram the difficult assignment, “Leave your country, your people, and your father’s house”, so Jesus tells his disciples, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10: 37-39).
You see, our King, Jesus Christ, is inviting us to be part of his mission. And it’s a difficult mission: we have to lose our own life with its self-interests and instead focus our life totally on the worship of God; we have to dedicate our life totally to the service of God and his kingdom; building altars to the LORD around the world; raising the flag of God’s kingdom in strategic places; planting churches, Christian schools, and other Christian organizations--reclaiming this world, its people and institutions, for God. It’s a difficult mission, and the opposition of secularism and materialism is fierce.
If we tried to build God’s kingdom on earth in our own strength, we would fail miserably. But remember, God enabled Abram to fulfill his calling by pronouncing on him a threefold blessing. Jesus does even more: In his Sermon on the Mount, he pronounces a ninefold blessing on his people: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled…”(Matthew 5: 3-6). “Nine times, “Blessed are those”. We work not in our own strength but under God’s call and blessing.
Still you may wonder, Why should I get involved in this tough mission? Why should I not live for a good time? Why should I not join our society of pleasure seekers? Why not serve the gods of this age: materialism and consumerism?
The reason why not is simple: the gods of this age lead to death. Whereas service of the true God leads to life--a wonderful, satisfying, and meaningful life. For it puts our lives in the service of something far greater than our personal desires, far greater even than company profits or the national interest; it puts our lives in the service of the kingdom of God which is breaking into this world. We can be co-workers with Christ.
Moreover, joining this mission will place us on the winning side. For this mission, difficult though it is, will succeed. In the book of Revelation, John records a glimpse of this final triumph when he heard the new song being sung in heaven after Jesus’ ascension: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Rev. 5: 9-10)
That is where the story of God’s call of Abram will end: people from every tribe, language and nation serving the LORD as priests and reigning on the earth.
And we may be part of this unfolding drama. Jesus himself invites us to be part of this history God is making in the world. Jesus tells us not to get distracted by false gods such as money: “You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6: 24). Instead, Jesus invites us to take up our cross and to serve God alone; to serve God in everything we do; to build altars to the LORD in our community and around the world; to raise the flag of God’s kingdom everywhere; to get involved in spreading on earth the justice and peace of God’s kingdom. That is God’s calling for Christians. Accepting that calling will give our lives a single focus and fill them with meaning, both now and for eternity. Amen.
Suggested Order of Worship
GOD GATHERS US FOR WORSHIP
Call to Worship: Psalm 95: 6-7
Silent Prayer concluded with: “He is Lord” PsH 633
Votum: “Our help is in the name of the LORD who made the heavens and the earth.”
Prayer for God’s Greeting: “May grace, mercy and peace be ours from God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen!”
Hymn: “Now With Joyful Exaltation” PsH 95
SERVICE OF RECONCILIATION
Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 130: 7-8
God’s Will for our Lives: Exodus 20: 1-17
Hymn: “When We Walk With The Lord” PsH 548
WE HEAR THE WORD
Hymn: “”Break Now the Bread Of Life” PsH 282
Scripture Reading: Genesis 11:27-12:9
Sermon: “Building Altars to the LORD”
Prayer: Father, we thank you that you have promised to build your kingdom. You began it so long ago with Father Abram and you have fulfilled it in your Son, Jesus Christ. We thank you that you have called us to be a part of this! May we serve you completely by grace through faith in Him! May we also build our altars for you—dedicating every area of life for the coming of your Kingdom! Bless us by your Spirit! In Jesus name we pray, Amen.
WE REPOND TO SERVE
Hymn: “Christ Shall Have Dominion” PsH 541
Prayer for God’s Blessing: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all! Amen!
Doxology: “Now Blessed Be The Lord Our God” PsH 630