The Place of Promise
God is great, and we are small.
I think that’s the best way to start as we open up here in Genesis Chapter 12.
Last fall we did a sermon series on Genesis Chapters 1 to 11, and today, at the start of this fall, we begin a new series by just picking up where we left off last year. And the best way to do a little review of Chapters 1–11 and catch us back up to speed here in Chapter 12 is for us to remember, I think, one of the clearest things we learned in the first part of Genesis — and it’s that God is great, and we are small.
Catching Back Up to Speed
God is the creator, sustainer, protecter, and ruler of everything that is, and he made it all not because he needed to, but because he wanted to — and that includes us. God created Adam and Eve — a man and a woman like us — in his image. The Bible says that we as humans were just dust until God formed us and breathed into us the breath of life, and then gave us a mission and purpose, under his authority:
Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth with my glory. And all this is yours, all of it, except don’t eat from that tree, because if you eat from that tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, you will die. (see Genesis 1:28; 2:15–17)
But as we know, Adam and Eve ate from the tree anyway. They fell for Satan’s lie, they rejected God’s law, and with their disobedience they brought a curse upon the whole created world. Everything was ruined, and it would have been ruined beyond repair had not God shown grace, and in the midst of sin’s curse, God spoke of a humanity’s future redemption. He said:
There will be an offspring of woman who will come and crush the head of the serpent. (see Genesis 3:15)
That was the flicker of hope that continued to burn while everything else was smothered by the curse of sin. Cain and Abel came next, the sons of Adam and Eve. But then Cain killed Abel, which means, right away, it did not look good for this hoped-for, skull-crushing offspring that God’s promised.
But then God gave another son to Adam and Eve named Seth, and from Seth came a whole line of possible saviors leading up to Noah, and if not for Noah as this flicker of hope, everything would have been lost — because literally it was. The world was so evil that God brought judgment on all of humanity. And by that I mean he killed everybody, except for Noah and his family.
Noah had three sons were Shem, Ham, and Japheth, and from these three sons came all the nations of the earth. We see that in Genesis Chapter 10. Every human is related because we can all trace our lineage back to these three men, but then there was this separation that happened at the Tower of Babel. Some of these descendants grouped together and rebelled against God — rather than multiply, like God said, they consolidated to “make a name” for themselves, and by doing that they become the epitome of religious rebellion and self-worship in the Bible. And because of their rebellion, God brought judgment again. God subverted their plans, confused their language, and scattered them across the earth. That’s Genesis Chapter 11, and then Chapter 11 ends with a second list of Shem’s descendants which leads us down to a man named Terah in Genesis 11:26, and Terah has a son named Abram.
And here’s where the story begins to take a little more focus, and we just read it.
Abram is out in Ur of the Chaldeans, and he marries a woman name Sarai, and we’re told, right away, that she was barren and had no child (11:30). And then Terah moved his family, including Abram and his wife, and his grandson, Lot, toward Canaan, the text says, but then they decided to settle in Haran, which was still up in Mesopotamia (see 11:31). And so that’s where they are when Chapter 11 ends.
And then, when Chapter 12 opens, the very first thing we read is that God speaks.
And this is a really important because the last time God spoke was earlier in Chapter 11 when God spoke a curse on Babel. And should seriously assume by now — based upon what we’ve seen about humans in these first 11 chapters — we should assume that every time God comes to speak to man, he must be coming to speak more about the curse. In light of human sinfulness, we should think that.
And yet here in Genesis Chapter 12, verse 1, the God who is great speaks to man who is small, and he speaks a blessing.
God gives Abram a promise of blessing, and it’s the exact opposite of Babel. At Babel, man tried to make a name for himself and God brought a curse. And here with Abram, God brings a blessing and promises to make him a name. And this promise becomes the key to the rest of the Old Testament.
The Most Pivotal Part
And really, this section at the end of Chapter 11 and the beginning of Chapter 12 is the most pivotal section in the entire Bible. And I don’t think that’s an overstatement. I’m saying that very carefully. What we read here in God’s promise of blessing to Abram ties together Genesis 1–11 and all the chapters that come after it in the entire Bible. True story.
And so for this morning, the plan is for us to look closer at God’s promise here, and in particular, I want to look closer at the promise of a place — because land and place is a big part of this.
We’re going to talk a lot about the “Abrahamic promise” in this series, because it’s actually repeated three more times in Genesis — in Chapter 15, 17, and 22 — and so we’re going to talk a lot more about this, but for today, I just want to focus on the place that God promises, and when we do, I think there are three practical lessons we learn. [These are the sermon points.]
- God demands of us hard, easy things.
- God always wants our faith.
- God always calls us out.
And just a heads up: I’ve tried to say these very practically, but there is a lot of Bible density we need to work through here, and so I just want you to know, we need to go a little deep today. Let’s pray.
[Father, we believe as the psalmist says it, that the unfolding of your word gives light. There is wonder in the details. And so I ask, this morning, that your Holy Spirit would open our eyes to receive what you have for us. In Jesus’s name, amen.]
#1. God demands of us hard, easy things.
This is the first thing we read in Genesis 12:1,
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
So we see right away that the idea of place is central to God’s promise to Abraham, and actually before God makes the promise, he gives a command. God comes to Abram and he tells him to leave from and go to — leave from one place and go to another place. And Abram knows the first part but he doesn’t know the second. Notice that again in verse 1.
God says “go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house.” So Abram knows what he’s leaving — he’s leaving everything that he has ever known. God basically says Leave from everything you’ve ever known and go out by yourself. Abram hears that. He knows what he’s leaving (that’s the first part), but he doesn’t know where he’s going (that’s second part).
God just says go to the land that I will show you — and that’s it. God doesn’t tell him where that is. God just says go and I will show you . . . eventually . . . at some point.
Leave from everything you have ever known and go by yourself to a place that I’m going to show you.
[Look, that’s hard.]
The Promise of Blessing
But then, after verse 1, we read the amazing promise of blessing in verse 2. That is when God says:
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 . . . and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.
And so we need to make sense here of the connection between verse 1 and verses 2–3. On one hand, in verse 1, God is asking Abram to do a hard thing. And yet, in verses 2 and 3, God promises Abram the kind of blessing that really should blow our minds. We can miss it because we’re so familiar with this story. But Abram is already an old man. He’s seventy-five years old, and he has no children — because his wife is barren (that’s one of the first things we read in this story!) And yet God tells Abram that he is going to make him a great nation.
And that just seems unbelievable. It seems too good to be true. There must be some fine print somewhere, right? I mean, what does Abram have to pay for this promise? What’s the catch? What does Abram have to do for this promise to come true?
He doesn’t have to do anything. Just go. Just leave from and go to. Answer God’s call. We’re talking about faith here. Just trust God. Believe God. Rely on God.
[And look, that’s easy.]
Because of God
See, at ground-zero, when we’re shoulder to shoulder with Abram, God’s calling here, the command in verse 1, it just seems hard. God is calling Abram to hard things (and we’ll see more of that). This is hard.
But then when we step back and we look at the promise, and we remember the God who makes the promise, and we know that he’s real, and that he’s great and we’re small, and that Abram doesn’t have to do anything but trust him — this is easy.
God is asking a hard, easy thing.
And the apostle Paul in the New Testament picks up on this. He points back to Abram and says, Hey, this is faith. It’s means you don’t do anything. You don’t work, but you just trust God who justifies the ungodly (see Romans 4:4–5).
So Abram, here in Genesis, and in the Old and New Testaments, he becomes the example of faith.
Which means the focus really isn’t the hard thing that Abram is called to, but it’s that he answers the call. We see that in verse 4. After God has come to Abram and told him to leave from and go to, and then made this amazing promise, we read in verse 4: “So Abram went, as the Lord has told him.”
And the point is that Abram has faith in God. He does trust God. He believes God. He relies on God. That’s what we’re supposed to see here. But then it’s even more than that.
The focus is not supposed to stay at: Wow, look at Abram’s faith and this hard calling that he answers! It goes deeper than that. The real wonder is: Wow, who must this God be for Abram to answer this call? What is it about this God who speaks to Abram that compels Abram to leave everything and go to a place he doesn’t even know? Who must this God be?
In the Bible it always comes back to this question. Because the Bible is meant to teach us about God. He’s the main character, and everyone else is supporting cast, including Abram.
Okay, the second thing we learn is that…
#2. God always wants our faith.
And we need to really dig into the passage to see this.
For these first few verses, Abram doesn’t know where he’s going, he just knows who told him to go, and so he does, and then it’s a little later, in verses 5–9, that we start seeing some details in the geography. That’s when names of these places start to appear, and they’re really important. There are no throwaway words here, but they’re actually communicating something significant in the Bible’s storyline.
We see it first, in verse 5, that Abram came to the land of Canaan, which is where he had already been headed. Back in Chapter 11, his father, Terah, started in that direction from Ur of the Chaldeans, but didn’t get very far. He ended up settling in Haran, which is still up in Mesopotamia. The land of Canaan is southwest of that.
So it appears that when Abram sets out on his journey to somewhere, because God told him to, he just decided to continue the journey his father already started toward Canaan. And then when he comes into Canaan, that’s when God comes to him and speaks again, and says in verse 7, “To your offspring I will give this land.” And it’s in that moment that the land of Canaan became “the Promised Land.” God promised that land.
Where Abram Is From
And there is something really amazing here I want us to see here.
It is a big deal in the Bible that Abram is called to leave Ur of the Chaldeans (where his family is from) and then comes to the land of Canaan which God promises him and his offspring. I mean, the main thing the Bible tells us at first is where Abram is from.
And all throughout the rest of Scripture, where Abram is from is important. It’s important that we know, and remember, that God called Abram from Ur of the Chaldeans. We even see it at the very end of Old Testament history, in Nehemiah 9:7. The people of God look back at their history and this is what they say:
You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham.
And then also in the New Testament, in Stephen’s speech in the Book of Acts, in Chapter 7. Stephen highlights that when God called Abram in Genesis 12, he called him from the land of the Chaldeans (Acts 7:4). Okay, so why does this matter? Why the attention to Ur of the Chaldeans?
Why is it important that Abram was called out of the Chaldeans?
Okay, so we’ve got to dig here. But the reason starts with what Ur of Chaldeans is.
What Is “Ur of the Chaldeans”?
So think back to Genesis 3. After Adam and Eve sin, they are exiled out of the Garden of Eden. We read in Chapter 3, verse 24 that God drove them out “east of the Garden of Eden.” And then a chapter later after Cain killed Abel, God sent him away, and the Bible says he settled even more “east of Eden” (4:16). And then later in Chapter 10, we see that Shem’s descendants were located in the “hill country of the east” (10:30) — and that’s where all the stuff with the Tower of Babel went down in Chapter 11 (11:2).
And this place, where Shem’s descendants are, in the east, this is the area called Ur of the Chaldeans. This is where Abram is from. (Actually, later on in the Book of Joshua, Joshua says that Abram was from Ur of the Chaldeans, east of the Euphrates River, [quote] — where “they served other gods” (24:2) — which confirms what we might assume.
Ur of Chaldeans wasn’t just out in the east, far from Jerusalem — I mean the Garden of Eden — but the people who lived out there were pagans. They did not worship God. Which means, already, right here in Genesis, this area is associated with exile and idolatry. This place was far from God and they did not worship him.
We’re supposed to read this story and know that when God called Abram, he called him out of that. And there’s more.
Yeah, It’s Babylon
Later in the Bible this area of the Chaldeans is where we find the city of Babylon.
Babylon, in the book of Isaiah, is called the “pomp of the Chaldeans” (13:19), and other times in Scripture Babylon and Chaldea are basically synonyms (see Isaiah 48:20). And this is important because Babylon — especially in the Bible’s prophetic books, and even in the Book of Revelation — Babylon is known as the great enemy of God’s people.
Historically, Babylon is the foreign power that came in from the east, and destroyed Jerusalem, and then took the people of God captive back to Babylon. God’s people were exiled east of Jerusalem, in Babylon. And that’s why we see that all the promises of salvation later in the Old Testament, in books like Isaiah, are promises that God will bring his people out of Babylon back into the Promised Land.
In other words, the salvation that the prophets talked about — the display of God’s steadfast love to his people — is that God will again call his people out of Ur of Chaldeans and to the land of Canaan that he promised.
Proof After Proof
So then, later generations of God’s people, when they hear the promise of God’s salvation, they’re supposed to look back at the story of Abraham and say: God did it before, he will do it again. And just like Abraham trusted God, we can trust God. Look what God did!
See here’s thing thing: all these details about the geography; every time the names of these places are mentioned, they are mentioned for our faith — because God always wants our faith. That’s the point. All the details of these places fit together into this beautiful tapestry that’s meant to give reason after reason and proof after proof that this God can be trusted. This God keeps his word. This God is faithful.
And God always wants us to know that. Whatever it is you’re going through, whatever it is that you will go through, with absolute certainty I can tell you: God always wants your faith.
When it feels like we don’t know anything else, or when we can’t see anything else, we can be sure that God wants us to trust him.
And right now, as a church, this is what God is calling us to. God always wants our faith.
#3. God always calls us out.
And this is really the other side of the coin when it comes to faith, and we’ve already seen it in Genesis 12, but I just want to circle back to it.
It really does mean something that God is not just telling Abram to go, but he’s telling him to leave. God leads Abram to the Promised Land by calling him out of the Chaldeans. And that is something that God continues to do in Scripture.
In fact, we see just a little later in the Bible, in the Book of Exodus, that God calls the people of Israel to himself by calling them out of slavery in Egypt. And this really becomes the paradigm of God’s salvation in the Bible — God is always calling his people out. And again, we see this in the Book of Isaiah when God’s people were exiled in Babylon. When Isaiah comes and proclaims God’s salvation, he says, Isaiah 48:20,
“Go out from Babylon, flee from Chaldea, declare this with a shout of joy, proclaim it, send it out to the end of the earth; say, “The Lord has redeemed his servant Jacob!”
And then, in Isaiah 52:11, still speaking of God’s salvation out of Babylon, he says,
“Depart, depart, go out from there; touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her.”
And this is really fascinating because the apostle Paul picks up on this same theme in the New Testament. In the Book of Second Corinthians, Chapter 6, Paul is speaking to a morally compromised church and he’s describing our salvation — he’s talking about what it means to be God’s people, and what the gospel of Jesus has accomplished, and what it means to be holy — and Paul quotes from here in Isaiah to remind us that God’s calling on his people is always a calling out.
And then we see this in other places in the New Testament. For example, when it came to the Thessalonians, God called them to turn from idols (1 These 1:9). When it came to the Galatians, God called them to turn from their bondage to the law to freedom in Christ (Galatians 5:1). When it came to the Colossians, God called them out of darkness into the kingdom of his Son (Colossians 1:13).
This is something that shows up over and over again. We know that God calls his people out. Every time God calls us to himself, he is calling us to leave something else. We get that, right?
But still, as much as we might “get” that, it doesn’t mean like it. And a lot of times, we don’t.
Because the truth is, although we see this in the story of Abraham, and in the whole Bible, if we’re honest, a lot of times we want God, but we don’t to leave where we are. We want his promises, but we also want to stay in Ur. We want his blessing, but we’re happy in Babylon.
And so rather than leave, turn, and go out from here, we instead try to tack God onto what we already have going on. We would rather God accommodate to our values than for us to change anything ourselves. And just to be clear, so we know, that’s not the way it goes. God is always calling us out.
We’re All Exiles
And that’s a good thing. Because God calling us out, his wanting our faith, his asking of us hard, easy things — that is where his blessing is. That is how God brings us to the place where we have more of him. And that’s the hope.
In the Bible, this theme of place and land continues to the very last chapter, and what we see is that the theme transcends the literal Babylon and literal Jerusalem. Babylon actually becomes a symbol for this world that is opposed to God. And then Jerusalem becomes a symbol of the new world, called the new Jerusalem. And we see that the church — us — we are described as exiles in Babylon looking to the New Jerusalem.
And the Book of Hebrews explains this beautifully. Just like those who trusted God before us, we too, like right now, we are seeking homeland. We’re not home yet. Just like the people of God before us, as Hebrews 11:16 says, we “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (see Hebrews 11:14, 16). That is the Promised Land yet to come.
And here’s the amazing thing that we’re going to say a lot more about in this series. God didn’t just promise Abram, and us, a place, but he also promised a person who would take us there. In Genesis 12:3, God told Abram that in him, in his offspring, all the families of the earth will be blessed. So through Abram’s descendants, which becomes his descendant, God’s blessing come to us. And spoiler alert here: that promise is about Jesus.
God is great, and we are small — and the way God saves us is by becoming small like us. That is what Jesus did. Jesus is God become man. Jesus is God become an exile like us, in order to lead us home. That’s what we remember at this Table.
Because the way that Jesus leads us home is by going the cross. Jesus died on the cross in our place. He died for our sins. He took our punishment. And then on the third day he was raised from the dead and ascended to the Father’s right hand, from where he is making all things new.
And this bread and cup remind us of his death, and they point us to this hope.
If you’re here this morning, and you trust in Jesus, if he is you’re hope, we invite you to eat and drink with us.