I heard a story about a man washing windows outside a large office building. When he reached the fifteenth floor, he slipped on the scaffolding that supported him on the side of the building, and just managed to catch a very tenuous hold of a piece of robe that dangled below the scaffold. He hung there suspended, his grip growing increasingly weak, when someone inside the building spotted him, broke a window, and grabbed hold of him until help arrived. Now it could be said that at the moment of his rescue, the window washer had a choice to make. He could either have caught the hand of his rescuer, or he could have chosen to plummet to his death on the street below. Not surprisingly, he chose the hand of rescue when it was offered. I tell this story of the window washer in order to put the Genesis story of Abraham in context.
One of the common interpretations of God’s call to Abraham to travel to a far country suggests that Abraham’s left behind all that was familiar, said a sad farewell to his extended family, and went on a quest. We think of Abraham taking on great risks and taking this journey into the unknown. But the reality of it all is that Abraham was just as much at the end of his rope as the window washer was.
Abraham was called to depart from his country, his family, even his father’s house to an unspecified land which God would show him. It sounds like the heart–rending pictures of late nineteenth century immigrants coming by the thousands to travel to unknown and much misunderstood America, they were just faces in the crowd on Ellis Island in New York harbor, frightened, wondering what their new lives had in store for them. It is a natural way to look at Abraham’s call, but not entirely on the mark unless we recall that for most of those immigrants – as for the window washer – their choice was one made in desperation, as a last hope for their lives, but it really wasn’t that way for Abraham.
To begin with, consider the fact that Abraham was a nomad. His people were wandering shepherds. They weren’t really settled people at all. They didn’t have “a country” in the sense that we do. Abraham’s father, Terah, had already died – as reported in Genesis Chapter 11. That makes the call to leave his father’s homestead seem to be a little less traumatic, doesn’t it? What was left there to hold Abraham?
Consider also that Abraham’s father had moved the family from a country called Ur to one called Haran, even though he had been intending to get to the land called Canaan – so their settlement in Haran was really temporary to begin with. And consider the fact that Abraham was 75 when he answered God’s call to go to a new country. Hardly a youth responding to the appeal of adventure in a new country! More like a tired old fellow with not many more steps left. And finally – perhaps most importantly – consider the fact that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, had no child” (Genesis 11:30). So they had no heirs.
Exactly what was Abraham leaving behind when he answered God’s call? A dead father, in a land to which he had no great attachment, and no children, no heirs. God had managed to single out a dead–end family living on the edge of oblivion to offer to them a call to go to a new land, a new start. Sarah’s barrenness was perhaps the most visible reminder of what was by then an obvious dead—end for Abraham and Sarah. Here was a family destined for extinction. Like the window washer with a slipping grip and a life flashing before his eyes, humanly speaking at that moment there was no future, no possibility, no hope. It was just such a family which God singled out for a call, not some brave, responsive, forward–thinking hero, but a dusty, tired Abraham. What other choice did he have, but to sit down and die? God provided for Abraham not only the choice to follow the path of faith which lead to new life, but God’s promise to Abraham encompasses all of humanity. So much so that Abraham’s offspring would be more than the stars that glitter in the sky. Like Abraham the rescue of the window washer is a rescue of more than the one person. Were the rescue not offered, had the window washer fallen and died, the repercussions would have extended to the company that had employed him, the family that had loved him, the wife and children – if he had any- who would now have to learn to live without him, and beyond.
The rescue of this Abraham who had no living father and no hope of a son salvaged more than a family of nomadic shepherds in ancient Palestine. God promised this old man not only that he would have a son, but more, that he would become father of a great nation, and even more, that he would be a name that would serve as a blessing to every family on earth. That’s a pretty good stretch in just four verses – from childless nomad to a blessing for humanity!
If we look the biblical story of humanity up to his point what do we have? In only twelve short chapters we have read about the disobedience in the garden, the murder of Abel by his brother Cain; people were so wicked that God caused a Great Flood, the confusion at the tower of Babel. Stories, one after another of human tragedy. But God invents a future, a future through this family Abraham and Sarah that heretofore showed no sign of promise.
What do we learn from this story? Most importantly, I think, we learn that dead ends are places where God begins to make highways of hope. In this story of Abraham God does not say to those of us who are dangling from our last inch of rope, “Come on pull yourself up” God’s work is always a sort of resurrection.
We don’t know very much about Abraham’s life before God reached out to him, but we do know that his future did not look promising. What Abraham did have on his side was the fact that he was willing to have his life filled with the promises of God.
I don’t suspect that too many of us would relate to Abraham. But more likely we can relate to the window washer. Just one misstep step and we are dangling on to the end of a very short rope. And someone reaches out and grabbed us out of harms way.
We are doubly blessed. Because we know of God’s love not only as a misty promise of land and descendants as many as all the stars, but we also have the blessing of knowing God through the saving love of Jesus Christ. It is ultimately the hand of Jesus that reaches out to save you. The hand that was nailed, pierced, crucified is extended to you today and forever. The promise God makes through Abraham is completed in Jesus Christ and it is there for you. It costs you nothing and all you have to do is reach out and grab it. I pray you will. Amen
Pastor Tom Knoll