Commentary on Genesis 12:1-4a
The story of immigration is the story of God’s encounter with ordinary people in ways that lead to the fulfillment of God’s sovereign will; and the story of the immigrant is a story about the providence of God. In Genesis 12:1-4a God meets Abram when Abram is at a crucial point in his life. His father Terah took the family from their homeland of Ur with the intention of settling in Canaan. For reasons that are not clear, the family settled in Haran, where Terah died. The writer takes time to report that Abram is 75 years old, his wife Sarai is barren, and his orphan nephew Lot is with him. At that point in Abram’s life, he received a command from God – a strange command – that came with a promise: “Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth will find blessing in you.”
God had a purpose in calling Abram and this purpose was interwoven with God’s ultimate plan for all humanity. Abram is but a small part of God’s ultimate plan. In Genesis 1-11 God created the perfect world where there was balance and harmony; but Adam and Eve disobeyed and destroyed God’s perfect creation. Over and over God attempted to preserve creation. Those whom God called were not open to God. They allowed sin to creep in, altering their relationship with God. God found a new way by moving from the general to the specific and chose Abram. God’s choice of Abram was purely God’s choice. Abram was open to God’s will and responded to God in faith. Although God did not give him any detail, Abram was willing to trust God and obey God’s command.
There are several lessons that can be gleaned from God’s call to Abram. First, with the command “to go to the land I will show you”, God was making the divine claim that “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it…” (Psalm 24). Similar claim is made in Psalm 121, where God affirms that He is the “maker of heaven and earth” the one who watches over the vulnerable traveler and keeps them safe. It is therefore strange to consider how people claim parts of God’s world as theirs, and set it apart with imaginary lines, borders, walls, gates and armed guards, all to separate the human family and prevent entry to the desperate migrant seeking refuge. God in the Psalm and by the command to Abram offers a counter-narrative that rings through the words of Rev. Maltbie Davenport Babcock: “This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget. That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” God is the creator and ruler of all the Earth, including humanity, and has a purpose in everything. God’s call and sending of Abram suggests God’s sovereignty and ownership of all of creation.
Sometimes God is calling us from situations that leave us no choice but to follow because there may be no future for us where we are. There are also times when God’s call is a disruption. Yet, God’s call – as strange as it may be – leads us into God’s purpose and will. At 75 years old, there was not much that Abram could do. His wife’s barren state erased every prospect of him being a father, let alone a father of nations. His status as a refugee, in a strange land with no connection, offered him no hope. Yet, to Abram God said, “I will make you a great nation; all people on the earth would be blessed through you.” In the first promise, God offered Abram a future where there was none. In the second, God declared that his promise is far reaching – the blessing of God is for all humanity. Abram therefore will be a conduit of the blessings of God. Through him, God’s blessing will reach the nations of the world, and God’s ultimate plan will unfold. God has a way of fulfilling his promise despite human’s sinful nature and the challenges we face in life.
Abram was open to God’s plan, obedient to God’s command, and trusted the promises of God. When we are open to God, we discover a future that we never dreamed possible. It is clear from the unfolding story of the life of Abram that his journey with God was not a neat or perfect experience, but it ultimately led to the fulfillment of God’s purpose. Despite his obedience to God, Abram experienced moments of doubt when he felt that the fulfillment of the promise was impossible. In those moments he took things in his own hands and acted outside of God’s will. Yet, God was true to his promises. God’s commitment to Abram was stronger than Abram’s failings. At the heart of his failings was a common human notion that God acts according to human standards. This is also true of Nicodemus who, in the Gospel lesson (John 3:1-17), resisted being open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. His thinking was that the Spirit could only act in set patterns. But Jesus tells him that, like the wind, the Spirit “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” The Spirit moves in directions, through situations and people we least expect. We cannot contain the Spirit, nor can we condition how God chooses to fulfill God’s will.
My life is a testament to such movement of God. I am from Liberia in West Africa. In January of 1989, my life was filled with hopes and dreams, except that I was dreaming of a future that would never come. I was a young seminarian bursting with aspirations, vigor and enthusiasm. In January, I was called as Associate Pastor of a growing congregation and was on a fast track to living my dream. I had met the woman I would marry, and life was everything that I dreamed it would be. By December, there were rumors of an incursion of a rebel force in Northeastern Liberia. The news said the rebels were making their way to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. I braced myself for what would come by storing enough food and everything needed for what I thought would be a military coup d’état lasting a month, at most. But, by August of 1990, I was displaced in my own country with nothing to hope for. What I thought would be a coup d’état became a civil war which lasted 11 years. Several times I came face to face with death, but God had a greater purpose for my life. By September of 1990, by God’s grace, I was able to leave Liberia on a Nigerian military ship and became a refugee in neighboring Sierra Leone. I came to the United States in 1992 as a refugee with only the suit on my back. That same year, I planted the first African Immigrant congregation of the Delaware-Maryland Synod, ELCA and served as the pastor for 23 years. The congregation has been serving the community in Baltimore for more than 25 years and was instrumental in helping Liberians settling in the Baltimore area. Today I serve an ELCA congregation in South central Pennsylvania. I have worked in the Baltimore City Jail School helping with the rehabilitation of young men in the prison system. Never in my wildest dreams, did I think that I would be in this part of the world, at this time, doing what I am doing. When the future I had envisioned was destroyed, God created for me a new one. When my homeland was ravaged by war, God made for me a new home. God placed me in a new place where I could continue to live out my dream in a new way. I believe that God delivered me and led me to central Pennsylvania so that my life may be a testament to God’s steadfast love, divine providence, and grace. It is God who has led and continues to lead me, despite me.
In this season of Lent, may the Holy Spirit open your eyes to Her workings in your life and lead you to trust God’s plan for you. Know that there is no life without a purpose and that God is in control. God can create for you a new future, where there seems to be none. Put your trust in God and find your hope in God’s promises.
The Rev. Titus Dormeyan Clarke
St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church Carlisle, PA