Sermon 02-16-2020: “New Year’s Resolution #5: Travel More”

Sermon Text: Genesis 11:27-12:9

[Explain that God later renames Abram and Sarai “Abraham and Sarah.” I’ll be referring to them as Abraham and Sarah throughout this sermon.]

In today’s scripture Abraham travels from Ur of the Chaldeans—present-day Iraq—up to a place called Haran—present-day Turkey—and down through Syria to a city in Canaan, the “Promised Land,” called Negeb, which is in the south of present-day Israel. If airplanes existed back then, the shortest route from Ur of the Chaldeans to Canaan would be due west. But you couldn’t travel by land that way because you’d have to cross the Arabian Desert. So you had to go around the desert, which is why Abraham’s family traveled northwest to Haran, and then southwest to Negeb. 

I want us to notice chapter 11, verse 31: “they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan [in other words, they intended to go to Canaan] but when they came to Haran, they settled there.” They intended to go to Canaan, but they stopped halfway, in Haran. Why?

We’re not told why Abraham’s family set our for Canaan in the first place… at least not until elsewhere in the Bible, in the New Testament, in Acts 7:2-3.

If you have your Bibles—and you should—turn over to Acts 7:2-3. This is Stephen’s speech before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, before he became the first martyr in church history: 

Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia [Mesopotamia is the same as “Ur of the Chaldeans”] before he lived in Haran, and said to him, “Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.”

Okay, so Stephen seems to be referring to Genesis 12:1, except he’s saying that Abraham got this call before he settled in Haran, while he was still living in his homeland of Ur of the Chaldeans.

So… Is Stephen wrong or is this a contradiction in the Bible? Neither! Stephen’s words in Acts help us answer the question, “Why did Abraham’s family head out for Canaan in chapter 11, verse 31: because Abraham already received the call from God. So verse 1 of chapter 12 is a flashback to what happened before chapter 11, verse 31. Indeed, if you look at the footnote of the ESV on chapter 12, verse 1, it says that you could translate it, “Now the Lord had said”—because it was something that God told Abraham in the past. Indeed, that’s the way the NIV, the NLT, and the King James translate it. Abraham’s call took place before his family was in Haran.

Why would the author of Genesis tell the story in this confusing way? One commentator explained that the author wanted to close the book on the brief story of Terah, Abraham’s father, so he could start fresh with the far more important story of Abraham in chapter 12, verse 1—which is going to take many more chapters to tell.

But my point in emphasizing the timeline is this: Abraham received the call from God to “go to the land I will show you.” And God obviously gave him enough information to know that he was supposed to head toward Canaan.

So Abraham knew, in other words, that Haran was not where God was ultimately calling him to live or stay for very long. He was only halfway to to the place God was calling him to go. Abraham knew that! As I’ve explained, we piece this together from Stephen’s words in Acts 7:2 and Genesis 11:31. But for whatever reason Abraham settled there, in Haran… for at least years… until his father died.

I don’t know whether Abraham’s stopping in Haran represented a lack of obedience to God’s call or not. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time Abraham proved to be unfaithful to God’s call. But to his credit, as soon as his father died, he continued on his journey. 

But I want us to think for a moment about how strong the temptation to stay in Haran must have been. After all, we know that while he was there, Abraham made a lot of money—verse 5 of chapter 12 makes that clear.

And you might say, “Well, sure… Abraham was enjoying great prosperity in Haran. But God was promising him so much more in Canaan: ‘I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.’” 

Yes, that’s what God promised him. But he had to actually believe God’s promise, you know? In order to receive all that God promised, he needed to take some very risky steps of faith! And that’s the hard part, isn’t it? Because Abraham needed to leave behind a sure thing—success and comfort and prosperity in Haran—for that scary, unknown, uncertain thing in the future: the fulfillment of God’s promise.

What would we do if we were Abraham? 

“Here in Haran, we’re doing very well for ourselves. Our business is prospering; we’re making money; we’re getting rich. By all outward signs, God is blessing us and we’re enjoying worldly success.” How strong would the temptation be to say, “God, I’m just going to stay here. I’m good. You’re blessing me enough right here. I’m comfortable right here. I’m happy enough right here. I know you promised me so much more than this. But I’m doing just fine now”? It would be one thing if Abraham were destitute, living hand to mouth, unable to make ends meet. Then he would have nothing left to lose by leaving Haran. But as it is, when he left Haran, he had a lot to lose.

“Haran” is nothing less than the temptation with which worldly success tempts us. Haran is what happens when we get comfortable, complacent… Haran is what happens when we lose our sense of mission, when we lose our sense of urgency. Haran is what happens when we “settle” for less than what God has for us, when we say, “This is good enough.” It’s not what you want, Lord, but it’s good enough.

After all, we know that we’re supposed to be sold out for Jesus, on fire for Jesus—that Jesus is supposed to be everything to us. What Abraham is called to do in today’s scripture, after all—“to leave country and kindred and your father’s house”—is nothing more than what Jesus calls all of us believers to do, for example, in Luke 14:26:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

Jesus isn’t telling us literally to hate the people closest to us. What he’s saying is, our love for Jesus—our loyalty to Jesus, our allegiance to Jesus—should be so great that, by comparison, our love for the people closest to us should look like hatred. To say that Jesus should be “number one” in our life is an understatement. Yes, he should be number one, but it’s not like “number two” is anywhere close to him—not career success, not family, not romantic relationships, not loyalty to country, not academic success… nothing comes close.

Do we act like that?

“Wait… God is calling me to talk to my coworkers or my classmates about Jesus? I can’t do that! No, Haran isn’t so bad, thank you very much! I’ll just stay here. I’ll just settle here.”

Listen, I know what it’s like to live in Haran… when I was a teenager, after my conversion, I became very active in youth group. My youth minister even let me lead Bible studies on Wednesday nights. And there was a college student at my church named Brian Davis who assisted in our youth group. Brian was—gasp!—a United Methodist, who himself became an ordained elder in our North Georgia Conference 15 years before I did. Brian died a few years ago. But Brian told me when I was 16 that he sensed that God was calling me into ministry of some kind. And I sensed it too. And I went home and told my parents. “I know what I want to do with my life.” And what followed was the most discouraging, deflating conversation imaginable: “Do you know how much a minister makes? Do you know how much Bill Bullard”—my church’s youth minister—“makes? Hardly anything. That’s no way to make a living, Brent. You have to be practical.”

My spirits were crushed. Sadly, their words planted a seed. And it would be 15 years before I would pursue that call. Don’t misunderstand: no regrets. God used that 15 years for my good. But still… I bought in to the idea that I needed to be practical. And think of my future… and think of my career… and think of how I might support my future wife and kids. For 15 years I was in Haran. I was living a life of compromise… and at least a part of me knew it!

I was in Haran. And the danger is, Haran can happen to any of us.

On May 20, 2000, pastor John Piper preached to 40,000 college students in Memphis, who had gathered there for the fourth annual “Passion” conference. He preached a sermon that has become known as the “seashells” sermon—or the “Don’t Waste Your Life” sermon. I’ll link to it on Facebook, but you can easily find the most famous seven minutes of the sermon. The Gospel Coalition website calls it, “The Seven Minutes that Moved a Generation.”

Piper begins the sermon by saying that he had recently done a funeral for two of his church members, Ruby Eliason and Laura Edwards, both were retired in their late-70s or early-80s. They had been serving as medical missionaries in Cameroon, in Africa. They died going over a mountain cliff when the brakes gave out on the bus they were traveling in. “Two lives,” he said, “driven by one great vision, spent in unheralded service to the perishing poor for the glory of Jesus Christ.” And he asked his audience of young people, “Was that a tragedy?” He asked it again. It wasn’t a rhetorical question. Until they finally shouted no.

“I’ll tell you what a tragedy is…” And then he read an excerpt of a recent article from Reader’s Digest, which described a couple named Bob and Penny, who retired young, in their 50s to Florida, and they now devoting all their days to their boat, to playing golf and softball, and to collecting seashells

The American Dream: a nice house, a nice car, a nice job, a nice family, a nice retirement, collecting shells as the last chapter before you stand before the Creator of the universe to give an account of what you did: “Here it is Lord — my shell collection! And I’ve got a nice swing, and look at my boat!”

“Don’t waste your life,” he pleads with his audience. “Don’t waste it.” Bob and Penny were wasting their lives in Haran.

What about our church? Are we in Haran?

[Describe the story of two young people at Hampton UMC, both of whom gave their lives to Christ after leaving the church in which they grew up—our church… Does it bother us that people have to leave our church to find Jesus?] It bothered me…

But our church was in Haran. We were doing okay. We were comfortable. We were paying our apportionments. We weren’t exactly making disciples of our young people—sold out for Jesus, on fire for Jesus—but we were making nice little churchgoers. I mean, inevitably they wandered away from church as soon as they got a driver’s license or graduated high school… but maybe they would come back. Some of them at least…. why were we okay with that? But we were okay with that because we were okay with being in Haran.

And Hampton United Methodist was hardly unique in this regard.

[A couple of weeks ago, I did the required year-end reports for our church… My problem is, i could learn to “settle” there.]

[Elisa’s experience at Florida Southern… She invited “sisters” from her sorority on a Campus Outreach retreat at Cocoa Beach, some of whom haven’t yet given their lives to Christ…] 

Leave a Reply