On a Mission from God
Twelfth Sunday After Trinity
The Rev. Edward W. Fowler
Genesis 12, 17
On a Mission From God
To get to Tajikistan, you go to Kyrgyzstan and hang a right. I went to a town called Kurgen Teppa in southern Tajikistan, in the mountains about 50 miles from the border with Afghanistan.
In this town, I met an American missionary named Nat. I asked him how things were. Even by the standards of Central Asia, Tajikistan is a stink hole.
It’s the poorest country in the region, not incidentally because after the Iron Curtain fell in 1991 the Tajiks had a civil war that lasted almost a decade.
By the time I arrived a decade later things had settled some, but Nat said that locally the violence had just changed colors. The boss of the cement factory outside town had his gang of thugs and the boss of the aluminum factory on the other side of town had his gang of thugs.
What’s more, the town was on the drug runners’ route from Afghanistan north to Moscow. The drug thugs were the worst thugs. Nat said the few local people fortunate enough to own cars always kept one eye glued to the rear-view mirror.
Their cars were old junkers that didn’t scoot too fast and the drivers knew that if they spotted a big black Mercedes roaring up from behind it was a thug car and the thugs would run them right off the road, just for sport.
Again, this is in the mountains. Getting run off the road means something worse than a flat tire.
So I asked Nat if he’d ever had a run-in with any of these bad boys. He said he had, just one. He was in his old van, which barely ran, stopped at a red light in town. The big black Mercedes was right behind him. The light changed and Nat let out the clutch and crept into the intersection. Not fast enough.
The thugs rammed him. Knocked him out into the middle of the intersection. He was sitting there trying to restart his engine when they pulled up alongside him. They were laughing at him and taunting him. “Follow us,” they said. “We’ll take you to a place where you can get your car fixed.”
“So what did you do?” I asked Nat.
He said, “I rebuked them.”
“You rebuked them?”
“I rebuked them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now I had been to Nat’s apartment. He lived in one of those old Soviet-style apartment blocks that look like the last place standing after a nuclear world war. I had met his three little stairsteps and his pregnant wife Brenda.
And now he was telling me that when a carload of killers rammed his car his response was to rebuke them. Now, Nat was a nice, normal-looking guy, about six feet, athletic build. He didn’t have a crazed look in his eye or any stories about hearing voices.
I said, “Nat, was that smart?”
Nat said, “Somebody’s got to take a stand against evil.”
Somebody’s got to take a stand against evil. This is faith and courage on what seems to me a superhuman scale, missionary zeal I can only describe as Pauline.
But as awed as you or I might be, others would ask: What makes Nat think he has a right to be there?
When God called Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldees He called him to the work of a missionary. The Genesis story takes a turn with Abraham. God commands him, as He had commanded Adam and Noah, to be fruitful and multiply. Abraham’s son Isaac and his grandson Jacob will hear the same charge.
But Yahweh’s movement in history now adds a dimension. No longer are His people to stop at reproducing. Now they move into the realm of representing. God has designated a man and his descendants as divine delegates to the nations.
This God who claims to be Lord of all – not merely of the Canaanites or the Egyptians or one of the many groups of Mesopotamians, but of all – has set apart a people with whom He makes covenant and whom He commissions with the work of making Him known.
At the Tower of Babel, God dispersed the peoples. With Abraham, He begins the ingathering of the scattered nations. The Lord of all will not abandon any.
So, meet Abraham the missionary, called by God to this estimable vocation. And that’s where the trouble begins.
Called by God? Well, aren’t you special? In fact, Abraham was not special. Just as Paul was not. Just as Nat was not. In the same vein, just as you and I are not – for we too are called by God, if not to the foreign mission field.
Beloved, we are the elect of God . . . but election does not imply elitism. As with all the others, we find nothing special about Abraham at the time of his call. What will distinguish him, as well as Paul, and Nat and so many others, is the way God uses him.
And, yes, the faithfulness of his response following his call.
But if this is the way God uses those He calls, let us pray long and hard before we raise our hand and say with Isaiah, “Here I am! Send me” (6:8). For He is not one god among many but God of all. He sends his elect to all the nations. And the nations can be decidedly inhospitable.
So, no, election is not elitism, not even spiritual elitism. God beckons us not according to our merits – think again of Paul, that sworn enemy and zealous persecutor of our Lord’s church – but according to His purposes. Those who oppose the missionary enterprise won’t make the charge of elitism stick..
Well, then, religion is a private matter. You should keep it to yourself.
But should we? The God of the Bible, in fact, makes it the most public of matters. He commands His people to sing out the good news in all the lands until, our voices failing, we have nothing left but a croak.
And it’s not just us. Another people is descended from Abraham, the Arabs, and their religion is Islam, the second most populous on earth. The Muslims are striving to establish a worldwide caliphate, bringing all the nations into subjection to the god they call Allah.
So the two greatest religions on earth in terms of numbers contend that faith must be lived out loud, in front of God and everyone. And some still rumble on about how religion should be a private thing. How very odd.
Well, then, Christian mission is imperialism. Where do you get off telling others what they should believe and how they should live? Don’t you know about the diseases missionaries have spread, the innocents who were happy in their island paradises until Christians came along and filled them up with shame and guilt?
Missionaries did introduce diseases when they ventured outside the Western world. When the sun never set on the Union Jack, English missionaries carried abroad illnesses for which the natives had no immunities – as did the seamen and soldiers and explorers and scientists and merchants with whom they sailed. Those diseases would catch a ride with anybody, regardless of spiritual status.
In his epic novel “Hawaii,” James A. Michener tells a tale, based in fact, of several missionary couples from New England who set out for the tropical isles. In Michener’s telling, the missionaries come off as foolish and heavy-handed.
They persist in wearing their long underwear and confining clothes in the tropical heat and in eating dried apples shipped from home rather than the luscious, nutritious local fruits and vegetables. They rail against the native custom of swimming, surfing and dancing in the altogether.
Hovering on a cloud of racial and moral superiority, they force-feed their religion to a culture at a far remove from Western modes of thought and ethical paradigms and the clash of cultures produces tragic results.
They even do their best to discredit the native idols. They are, after all, Christian missionaries.
One of Michener’s characters tells the missionaries, “You love the Hawaiians as potential Christians, but you despise them as people. I am proud to say that I have come to exactly the opposite conclusion, and it is therefore appropriate that I should be expelled from a mission where love is not.”
Whatever the facts – and some have been called into question by the research of others – the narrative glides lightly over some inconvenient truths. For one, the joyous, unrepressed islanders practiced human sacrifice. The missionaries – the real ones – strove to end it
This is the standard secular critique of the missionary enterprise. William Carey, the great 19th-century English missionary to India, translated the Bible into six languages and portions of it into 29 others.
He watched his youngest child die at age 5 and his wife go insane in a hostile climate and forbidding culture, the cost of communicating the life-saving gospel of Jesus Christ to previously unreached multitudes.
Still, he comes under fire as a cultural imperialist bent on imposing a European religion on Easterners content in their ancient ways. As one American woman asked a missionary candidate soon to deploy to a distant land, “Aren’t they happy with their own religion?”
Carey founded a publishing house and a college and published grammars, dictionaries, works on horticulture and volumes of Hindu poetry.
We might add in passing that he worked tirelessly to persuade the Indian government to criminalize infanticide and suttee, a practice grounded in a Sanskrit word for “good woman” or “chaste wife.”
When a man died, his fellow villagers tied his widow, now without means of support and a burden on the community, to his funeral pyre and immolated her alive with his body.
This is a chapter in the Carey biography sometimes overlooked.
The gospel story must begin with mankind’s need for the gospel. Without it, we have no story to tell. Adam sinned. Because we are descended from him, we bear inherited sin. Because he is the federal head of the human race, we carry imputed sin.
The only antidote for the curse of sin and the death it imparts is faith in the finished, saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross. If we don’t tell them they’re sinners, they’ll die in their state of reprobation, condemned to eternal damnation.
The good news is not that mankind bears no guilt and shame. The good news is that God has intervened to save us from the disease of which they are the symptoms.
St. John speaks to us from his revelation: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
This is the project God inaugurates with Abraham in Genesis 12, calling him and commissioning him as mediator between the deity and His people – not only those called Jews, not only those of Abraham’s day, but all of God’s image-bearers of every age to come.
As He did in the day of Adam and the day of Noah, God will deal with His people on a covenant basis. He does not leave His own in doubt as to His standards and expectations.
When next we assemble, we will look more closely at His covenant with Abraham, and especially its expression in chapter 15, where God swears a self-maledictory oath. Stay tuned.
For now, I want to skip to the iteration of the Abrahamic Covenant in chapter 17. Yahweh says to His servant:
“As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.
“And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:4 NKJ).
The Hebrew Abram means “exalted father”; Abraham means “father of a multitude.” God changes his wife’s name from Sarai to Sarah, “princess” or “royal lady,” because “she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her” (17:16).
The emphasis here falls on the eternality of this covenant with Abraham. God’s other promises of land and blessing are still in view, to be sure. The land He promises His covenant people prefigures the eternal kingdom.
“Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession . . .” (17:8a). Nor is the third piece of the promise, the blessing, omitted: “. . . and I will be their God” (17:8b).
This is the first time the Bible uses the formula: “I shall be their God and they will be My people.”
But land and blessing are intimately wrapped up here in the everlasting character of the covenant, which takes precedence. As Israel’s disobedience increases, it will appear for a moment that Yahweh withdraws that blessing.
He will instruct His prophet Hosea to take a harlot for a wife, picturing Israel’s betrayal of her covenant Husband. He will command Hosea to name His firstborn Jezreel, meaning “God will scatter.” The second, a daughter, will be Lo-ruhamah – “not pitied.” And the third, another son, must be Lo-ammi – “not My people.”
What utter despair! Has God abandoned His covenant people?
Only the disobedient. Beyond the echo of the condemnation implied in the names of Hosea’s children we hear a reversal of the curse:
“Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And it shall come to pass In the place where it was said to them, `You are not My people,’ there it shall be said to them, `You are sons of the living God’” (Hosea 1:10).
We see again that the rebellion of His people never subverts God’s saving purpose. We see again that His love is never detached from His justice.
Peeking ahead again, we find a further fulfillment. St. Matthew begins the New Testament with the genealogy of our Lord Jesus Christ, tracing His line back to Abraham – for it is in Christ that the Abrahamic Covenant finds fulfillment.
Our key lies in the understanding that physical descent from Abraham never carried the power of salvation. The “sons of the living God” are not determined by race.
As John the Baptist will tell a group of stunned Pharisees and Sadducees, who are convinced it is their bloodline that guarantees their eternal security, “and do not think to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Matthew 3:9).
Outrage! But as it is today it always has been: Relation to Jesus Christ, the promised Seed of the woman who fulfills all of God’s covenants with His people, confers salvation. By faith, not by blood, was Abraham saved; by faith in God’s promises.
God’s covenant, even when He gave it to Abraham way back in Genesis, was and is an everlasting covenant. It always encompassed gentiles as well as Jews. He is God of all. This is the meaning of the covenant as set out in Genesis 17. Abraham is “father of many nations” not in a biological sense but in the sense of mediating covenant blessings to all the nations.
He is the first missionary.
Beloved, we are not Abraham; we are not Paul; we are not William Carey; we are not Nat. But we are called by God to the work of His mission. Make no mistake, ours is a consummately public religion.
After the call, we are not elite but we are elect – set apart by the way God uses us and the way we respond to His summons. May He get great glory from our labors in His vineyard. Amen.Posted on: August 14, 2016Ed Fowler