Anxiety, Monotheism, and the Story of Abraham

February 24th, 2013

Preacher: The Rev Doyt Conn


Genesis 15:1-12,17-18

(After these things) The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the LORD came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Then he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”

We start off the Old Testament reading today in a swirl of anxiety.  The story of Abraham begins with the phrase “After these things,” which indicates to us a lack of clarity around something that has just happened, and a measure of uncertainty about how to move forward.  “After these things” is our equivalent to, “What was that all about?”

Maybe you have had a “What’s that all about?” moment in your life. I have.  Abraham certainly has, as we see here today. Something just happened to him and he doesn’t know how to reconcile it with the God he believes in. His anxiety goes up as he finds himself caught between the god that is easy to manage and the god that is indeed the One Great God, the Great I AM.

The point I hope to make this morning is that even though it is not always easy to wrap our minds around the meaning and purpose of the one Great, Most High God, a powerful, singular, monotheistic God, doing so liberates us from the anxiety wrought by comparison and the need for control.

To understand how all of this works we need to understand Abraham which is where we begin this morning.

Abraham lived about 4000 years ago. Scripture calls him both a Hebrew and a wandering Aramean, which was a man from what is today Northern Syria.  He was born in Ur, which would be found in modern day Iraq, and moved to Haran, which is in modern day Turkey.

Archaeologists claim Abraham grew up worshipping the moon god, Nanna. This was the prominent god in both lower Mesopotamia, where Ur was located, and in upper Mesopotamia, where Haran was located.  The names of people in Abraham’s life, Terah his father, Laban his nephew, and Sarah his wife all contain elements that reveal allegiance to the moon god. (Hamilton, Genesis 1:363)

The modern anthropological mind might conclude based on our knowledge of evolution, that Abraham’s experience with the moon god developed into a bigger, broader vision of a greater deity that came to be the monotheistic God, the Great I AM that we know.  The analogy might be that the moon god was the seed that grew into the tree of the Great I AM.

But what this conclusion ignores is that while trees come from seeds, so to do seeds come from trees. Which leaves us with a chicken and an egg issue, asking which came first, the tree or the seed; that is which came first – monotheism or polytheism?

Now you may be wondering, “Does this question really matter? Which came first monotheism or polytheism?” And I’d answer, “not only does it matter, but it is critical for understanding God, our place in creation, and how we manage the swirl of our lives.”

GK Chesterton suggests in his book The Everlasting Man, “There is very good ground for suspecting that religion did not originally come from some detail that was forgotten because it was too small to trace” (p. 82)…  as if there was a forgotten god, that led to a god, that led to a god, that led to a god, that became the moon god, that then became the Great I AM.  That is the evolutionary model.

But, Chesterton argues a different point of view. He claims the tree was first, but too big for the mind to easily manage, so humans parsed the one Great God down into many little gods, no bigger than seeds that they could carry in their pockets. And with time they forgot or simply ignored or reduced in significance the majestic tree under which they sat.

The anthropological evidence defends this point of view. When the mythologies of ancient people are unwound they reflect a monotheistic core. Two examples are noted in The Everlasting Man: The American Indian cosmology was built upon the singular Great Spirit, and the Aborigines of Australia had as the source of their mythology the great Atahocan.

Here is why the question, “Which came first monotheism the tree or polytheism the seed?” matters. If the seed came first, then we are the stewards, the agents, the creators, if you will, of the Great I AM, and thus responsible for the “hows” and the “whys” of what happens around us. And while this is mostly good, it sometimes causes us great anxiety particularly when the “hows” don’t happen, and the “whys” are unanswerable. If, on the other hand, the tree came first, then we can rest more easily in the reality that we are but part of some greater plan; a plan, made and known by God, the Great I AM.

Which brings us back to Abraham, the moon god, and leaving his father’s house. God called Abraham away from Haran as a way of freeing him from the pocket size gods that he managed as a way of managing his life.

God called him out of a self-centered world, into the world centered on God. And God promised this would be a blessing.

“Leave your country and your people and your father’s house, and go to the land I will show you.  I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you.”

This was God’s invitation to Abraham and it is the same invitation that God makes to you and to me.  It is a Lenten invitation to empty our pockets of the little god’s, the little idol’s in our lives that we spend so much time managing in an effort to manage the “hows” and the “whys” of the world around us.

So Abraham left his father’s house and he traveled to Canaan, and then on to Egypt where he accumulated great wealth. Upon his return to Canaan he and his nephew Lot went their separate ways.

In the land where Lot settled war broke out, and Abraham rushed to his aid, freeing him from the kings of Babylon.

All of the leaders of the land of Canaan were grateful, a sentiment which I imagine gave Abraham considerable status if not pride in the way he managed the “hows” and the “whys” of the world around him. Then came his wake up call, the source of his anxiety that we see in the scripture today.

A shadowy, mysterious figure appeared, a strange man who seemed to hold sway over everyone and everything in the land that Abraham thought that God had promised him.  His name was Melchizedek and he was known as the priest of the Most High God, and the king of Peace.

And in his presence all Abraham could do was bow down and give him one tenth of all the treasure he collected from the defeated kings of Babylon.

And it was this encounter, this encounter with Melchizedek that caused Abraham to ask the anxious question: “What was that all about?” It was this encounter, which indicates to us a lack of clarity around what happened with Melchizedek and a measure of uncertainty about how Abraham was to move forward.  Was this his land or not? What happened to God’s promise?

Where was the blessing? Who was Melchizedek and where did this leave Abraham?

“What was that all about?”

And by the very nature of these questions we know that somewhere along the way Abraham stopped looking at the tree and started filling his pockets with seeds from the ground, just as his father Terah had done, and as Terah’s father before him had done, and so on back into the recesses of time. It is easier, after all, for the mind to manage a god in the pocket, a little pet god, if you will, that our imagination can control.

But the Great I AM is not tame, and certainly not our pet, and in no way can fit in our pocket. This God, The God, the only God doesn’t exist to give us what we want, when we want it, the way we want it.

God will give to Melchizedek what God gives to Melchizedek, and God will give to Abraham what God gives to Abraham, and God will give to you and me, what God gives to you and me.

God is at the center. God is in control. And while that is a reality that doesn’t answer the “hows” and the “whys” of the world around us, and while that is a reality that doesn’t answer Abraham’s question, “What was that Melchizedek thing all about?” It is the reality, and knowing this, whether we believe it or not, can liberate us from the anxiety wrought by comparison and the need for control.

God is in charge. God is God, and God has a plan and we are included, and that alone is the greatest blessing and indeed the blessing that God bestows upon us.