When God Calls the Barren to Life

The call of Abraham, or Abram as he is called at this point in the narrative, is one of the pivotal points of the Bible. It is the beginning of what would become the nation of Israel. It is a story that I have heard preached on both directly and referenced in other sermons.

I think the story of Abraham’s call is one that is easy to inspire us. Many of us have been there. We’ve heard the call of God to follow Him and we do, even if it isn’t always the safe or secure route. This could simply be found in coming to faith at all or in some event where you follow after God despite such a decision lacking a lot of security and safety. Maybe I’m wrong and many of us haven’t been there. I know I’ve been there a number of times in my life, so the passage resonates with me quite a bit. However, let’s look at it a little closer.

The call of Abraham takes place in Genesis 12:1-9. Here we have God talking to Abraham and asking him to leave his country and his father’s family and go to the land that God would show him. This request is conjoined to a number of promises of what God will do to Abraham and his descendants. God promises that Abraham will be made into a great nation (which would include both an heir and land), to make Abraham’s name great, and that he will be blessed.

Now it may be easy to nod our heads at these promises, but let us stop and think through this a bit. If we remember from the end of Genesis 11, Abraham and Sarah were barren. The promise of a great nation would indicate both children to make up a nation and land of which to build that nation upon. Abraham and Sarah were barren and unable to have children and were being called to leave whatever land they might possess (if they had any at all to begin with).

Walter Brueggemann in his commentary on Genesis from the Interpretation Commentary series really brings this intersection between the barrenness of Abraham and Sarah and the promise of God to the forefront. He even says that, “A proper reading of the Abraham-Sarah texts depends upon the vitality of the metaphor of barrenness. It announces that this family begins its life in a situation of irreparable hopelessness.”

I think this reality is so easy to forget as we go through the text. We know that this promise of a son to a barren couple is something God could only do, but I don’t know if we stay there quite enough. God is choosing to do something very unusual here. As Brueggemann later says, “Inexplicably, this God speaks his powerful word directly into a situation of barrenness. That is the ground of the good news. This God does not depend on any potentiality in the one addressed.”

This God chooses to make a nation out of a couple who could not make a nation through any natural means of their own. However, it is not limited to a physiological barrenness as Brueggemann connects the Abraham and Sarah story to the call of Jesus to follow Him.

Bruggemann considers the call of Abraham to be “a call to abandonment, renunciation, and relinquishment. It is a call for a dangerous departure from the presumed world of norms and security…The whole of the Abrahamic narrative is premised on this seeming contradiction: to stay in safety is to remain barren; to leave in risk is to have hope.” Due to this he equates it to Jesus’ words in Mark 8:35 “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” True life is found not in our own efforts and in the order of the world, but in accepting the promises and gifts of God even though that may put us on a quite strange and unexpected path.

Admittedly the talk of losing ones life or departing from norms and security is a tricky thing to unravel. Does it have any kind of blanket meaning? Does it mean that Christians shouldn’t buy homes, save money, or have tight-knit families as they’re means of security the world seeks after? I don’t think we can make a general assessment like that, it’s not that we can’t get called to such a journey, but more that it will vary from person to person. Even among the descendants of Abraham we have different challenges and situations, not simply rehashes of what God asked Abraham to do.

What this really comes down to is the fact that we are all barren. We are all in need of the life that God promises. This life is not something we have to earn through good deeds or good genetics, but we do have to choose to believe in it. Is this future that God offers real? Do we align ourselves with that future and how does that change what we put our trust and faith in?

As we all probably know, Abraham believed God and set out on his journey. What I find interesting in this is that the barrenness that God’s promise would have to do away with was not removed right away. Sarah’s barrenness continued for years after this. If it was one of the Christian movies produced today, I can’t help but feel that once Abraham wrestled through the decision to trust God and set off to the land that was promised, Sarah  would suddenly find out that she is pregnant.

The thing is even when we have faith, even when we’re actively chasing after the future God has presented in front of us we can still have barrenness be a part of that journey. We will still have times where we feel that God isn’t present. We will feel the pangs of loneliness as we feel we have no community to call our own. We will feel that we are wandering blindly to a destination and a future we don’t know. That barrenness lingers, but the question is do we follow the one who we believe gives life? The one who can create life in dry and barren places? Do we follow God on our own journey of faith that he calls us to, or do we stay where we are and try to make the best of it on our own? That is the question before us all, only each one of us knows what decision we will make to that invitation to that journey.

 

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