In our lesson from Genesis, we hear the second half of a story. The first part, which we heard last week, is more familiar which Abraham welcomes three strangers, prepares a feast for them, and hears a promise God to which Sarah laughs.[i] Here we continue as three guests move on, and God and Abraham have a serious after-dinner conversation, one-on-one. Many translations, including the one we use, say Abraham is standing before God as in previous visits. Some scholars point out, remarkably and uncomfortably, that God is standing before Abraham.[ii] It’s a shocking reversal of power, position, relationship and an unusual conversation.
Abraham asks God repeatedly about destroying a wicked city if there are some righteous in it. “Will you really destroy a wicked city even if there are 50 righteous in it? Or 40, or 20, or 10? You are the Judge, won’t you do justice?” Abraham as it were stands up to God or stands with God in considering the nature of justice and mercy. As in other stories of Abraham, I’m amazed and grateful that God push or say “That’s inappropriate.” God listens, engages, lets Abraham poke, prod, and push.
Paul Borgman writes Abraham is not changing God’s mind but rather is learning to relate further with God. Abraham is engaging a serious conversation, thinking about others and the ramifications of justice and mercy. God invites this speaking more like equals in standing before Abraham. It’s like when we grow up to engage our parents as fellow adults.[iii] We learn to have a different kind of conversation.
Unlike many biblical characters, God visits Abraham seven times. From the first visit of “Go from your land and people to a place I will show you” to the last of “Take your son, your only son, … and offer him” there is a progression.[iv]During the first few only God speaks.[v] Then Abraham speaks up with his fear, frustration, and anger: You haven’t given me the son you promised![vi] This time Abraham goes further to question God about others. God invites Abraham to slowly grow and change.
From what? Remember the beginning of Genesis. Adam and Eve ate the fruit from a fear of missing out, of not knowing what others know, and of a desire to control. Their son Cain went further killing his brother because he could not handle being number two. The people of Babel built a tower so that they would be seen and known. Like them and us, Abraham had the human tendency to “self-preservation and self-promotion.”[vii]
In Abraham we see an adult whom God calls and forms over many years. Today’s story shows Abraham focused beyond himself to engage God about justice for others. In this visit, God is perhaps more like the satisfied coach or parent who sees growth amid limited understanding and readiness for further invitations. God is a patient teacher, aware both Abraham’s of limited understanding and slow shifts from self-promotion to justice and mercy, from self-preservation to humble service.
It’s good news that God forms us not all at once but over and over, indeed over a lifetime. As we Brothers say, the intensive training as a beginner is both a novitiate of a couple years but also for life. God’s call is “Progressive, because God’s voice will come to us in the future ever new, calling us to fresh opportunities, and bringing gifts beyond what we know now,” and when we take vows for life, “it inaugurates a lifetime of developing response.” [viii]
A disciple asked Jesus: “Teach us to pray.” I wonder how Abraham would say God taught him to pray. Abraham might say he slowly learned to voice his fear and frustration, his longing and desire, to attend to and be authentic about his experience. That’s been my experience, and I expect I’ll be working on this all my life. I imagine Abraham might also say he learned to pray for others, to ask for justice, to lament the suffering around us. We keep learning to pray all our lives, stepping backward and forward, slowly becoming, ever relying on God. “Give us this day our daily bread.” We need God, and God responds with gracious provision.
Where are you in life? What is changing for you or seems new? A change in role or circumstance, something being added or taken away or invitation to let go? These changes in our life are part of what prompt us to pray. Pray as you can, as already know how, as you do. Perhaps God is inviting you to pray something more. Perhaps God is standing before you inviting a further way to pray yourself or a further way to pray for others.
Pray your life from your needs, your moment. Steadfast and generous, God keeps calling and graciously engaging. God is more than the friend at midnight who will answer our call. Like a heavenly parent, God gives good gifts, indeed gives God’s own self in the Holy Spirit to be with us fully. God holds us with what we know and what we don’t. Like Abraham, God invites us in ever developing relationship, a life of learning to pray.
[i] Genesis 18:1-15
[ii] Paul Borgman (2001) Genesis: The Story We Haven’t Heard. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 80.
[iii] Borgman, 82.
[iv] Genesis 12:1; 22:2
[v] Genesis 12:1-3; 12:7-8; 13:14-18;
[vi] Genesis 15:1-21
[vii] Borgman, 102
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