And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament

And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament

by Fleming Rutledge

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Sixty superlative sermons on familiar Old Testament texts.

Many Christian preachers today largely neglect the Old Testament in their sermons, focusing instead on the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ teachings and activities. As Fleming Rutledge points out, however, when the New Testament is disconnected from the context of the Old Testament, it is like a house with no foundation, a plant with no roots, or a pump with no well.

In this powerful collection of sixty sermons on the Old Testament, Rutledge expounds on a number of familiar Old Testament passages featuring Abraham, Samuel, David, Elijah, Job, Jonah, and many other larger-than-life figures. Applying these texts to contemporary life and Christian theology, she highlights the ways in which their multivocal messages can be heard in all their diversity while still proclaiming univocally, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802866066
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 11/28/2011
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 421
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 5.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Fleming Rutledge is an Episcopal priest now engaged in a nationwide ministry of preaching and teaching. Her best-selling books have been widely acclaimed across denominational boundaries and have established her reputation as one of America's finest preachers.

Read an Excerpt

And God Spoke to Abraham

By Fleming Rutledge

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Fleming Rutledge
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6606-6

Chapter One

The Lord Spoke to Abraham

This sermon was preached in October 2009 at a prominent mainline Protestant church in the South.

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. And 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. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves." So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife.... (Genesis 12:1-5)

There's a column in The Wall Street Journal every Saturday called "Houses of Worship." The author of last week's column, "Revelation Revised," is Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University. Listen carefully to the first two sentences of the professor's article:

Any claim of revelation is preposterous. It presumes that God exists, that God speaks, and that all is not lost when human beings translate that speech into ordinary language.

Now this is a remarkable statement for at least three reasons. First of all, it is obviously an in-your-face challenge to classical Christianity. Second, it's a perfect definition of biblical revelation — although I'm not sure the author meant it that way. And third, it expresses the doubts of a lot of people who sit in pews in mainline churches today. There are people who come to church — some of you are here today — holding various religious views but not really believing that God speaks and certainly not believing that human beings have translated God's speech into ordinary language. There have been people like that in my own family. They supported the church with their attendance and contributions even though they did not really believe in the basic tenets of the Christian faith. The result of this has been a great capitulation on the part of many preachers who don't want to risk alienating significant numbers of their flock.

But not all preachers. Will Willimon, who held forth for many years in the pulpit of the Duke Chapel, recently wrote that the Christian faith depends upon three words from the first chapter of Genesis. Can you guess what those three words are?

"And God said ..."

It's not too strong a statement to say that the entire structure of Christianity stands or falls on that foundation: "And God said ..." If we believe that, then everything else follows from it.

But "any claim of revelation is preposterous"! And what was it that God said, anyway? "And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light." But science has shown us that that couldn't have happened, right? So we fall back on the idea that this is a beautiful myth that arose out of the storytelling imagination of some very gifted and spiritual human beings.

Actually, the creation story is amyth, in the sense that amyth is a pictorial way of expressing a fundamental truth — in this case, the truth that God created the world by his Word. That's not what the history-of-religion people have in mind, though. A lot of them, and a lot of biblical scholars also, read and teach Scripture as though it was produced by human initiative out of human religious imagination. A lot of big-name speakers show up regularly at big-name churches to teach that God has evolved out of our understanding of God. What sort of god is that? The Old Testament prophets would have said it was an idol. Maybe the atheists are on the right track in thinking that a god projected out of human wishes isn't God at all.

On the other hand, the book of Genesis says that God was there before there was anybody to imagine a God. That's what it says. Look, we don't have to believe what Genesis says, but why do we want to make it say something it clearly does not say?

In the mainline churches today, there is a theological problem. Those who think that maybe God not only exists but has actually said something are often written off as fundamentalists. The opinion-makers miss no opportunity to suggest that it's only the unenlightened people in the "Bible churches" that believe such things. So what are our choices? Do we have to give up believing in a God who speaks in order to be up-to-date?

This morning we have heard a reading that sets the whole Judeo-Christian story in motion. Actually, that's too feeble a way to put it. Listen to what a Jewish scholar says about the story of Abraham leaving home. "It is an event of universal significance, produc[ing] far-reaching consequences for [hu]mankind as a whole, and constituting a major turning-point in human history." How does this uniquely consequential story begin? It begins with these words: "The Lord spoke to Abraham."

The whole Bible is based on the claim that God has spoken. Now the ruling classes in our mainline churches don't generally say outright that this claim is preposterous. That would be going too far. We still read the Bible in church and theoretically hold it in high esteem. But what happens is that we read the Bible anthropologically — the Greek word anthropos meaning "humanity," and theos meaning "God." The way that we wiggle out of the claim that God speaks is to read the Bible anthropologically instead of theologically.

What does that mean?

Here's an example of a theological reading. A theologically oriented Old Testament scholar says this about Genesis 12: "[God] is the subject of the first verb at the beginning of the first statement and is thus the subject of the entire subsequent sacred history." God is the subject of the verb. In other words, it's not the more or less elevated religious notions of human beings that make biblical history; it's God who makes biblical history.

But we don't like this, so we've changed the subject of the verb. The story of Abraham has become an anthropological story. In today's versions, God no longer speaks. Abraham thinks that God speaks. There was a TV series on Genesis a few years ago, and hardly anyone noticed thatGod was not the subject. Only the very alert and biblically oriented viewers were aware that it was all about the human authors, their religious ideas, their concepts of a God who existed because they had thoughts about him. In a video version of the story of Abraham, when the voice of God speaks, it's actually the voice of the actor who plays the part of Abraham. Do you see what I mean? Without our realizing what was happening, the speaking, acting, procreating God was removed from the story and was replaced by human religious sensibility, or spirituality if you will. Our spirituality becomes the main subject, and God becomes the object.

There will always be those who prefer the story of the human search for God. But that's quite different from the biblical story of the God who came searching for us. The opening chapter in the saga of that search is right here — "God spoke to Abraham."

Now we always want to think that Abraham was chosen because he was a great man of faith: God saw him being faithful and approved of him and chose him. But that's not what happened at all. The biblical account tells us only two things about Abraham and Sarah before God spoke: (1) Abraham was the son of Terah, and (2) Sarah was barren. That's no way to begin a story! This couple is going to become the father and mother of all humanity! We want to know more about them! But this is not a story about a couple. This is a story about the living God.

Let's see if we can get this. We've been talking about "and God said ..." Well, what did he say? Did he say he was going to send another flood to kill all the ungodly people? Noooo ... we already heard that one. This is a new chapter. God told Abraham something that sounds very simple but isn't. He said, "Leave home and go to a place that I, God, will show you." Now I'm sure most of you have heard it explained that it was almost inconceivably more difficult for a man of ancient times to leave his roots than it would be for a young man today, when all young people are expected to leave home. For a man of Abraham's time it was nothing short of crazy to set out from home for no economic reason, just because God said so.

But there was a promise attached to the command of God:

"I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great ... and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves." (vv. 2-3)

This isn't primarily a promise to Abraham at all. It's a universal promise, a promise reaching to the ends of the earth and to the end of time as we know it. The offspring of this one man Abraham will be blessed by God, and through those offspring all other families who will ever live will be blessed by God. This is the promise that Abraham lived on for the rest of his life. But isn't this rather odd, to say the least, that an elderly man and an elderly, infertile wife should be promised gazillions of descendants? Have we really thought about this? Why did God choose Abraham for this unique role? Why not someone younger? Someone who already had a child or two? And by the way, remember that after this first call from God, Abraham and Sarah continued to be childless for decades. There was absolutely nothing concrete to show for their long, long waiting.

The reason for this is that God is demonstrating the power of his promise. This is not a story about human potential. This is a story about what God did in the life of a man and woman who had no human potential — that's the whole point. As they say in the African-American community, this is a story about a God who makes a way out of no way. That is the way the story of redemption begins: with a God who promises to do what is humanly impossible. Only God can do what Paul the apostle said: the God of Abraham "raises the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist" (Rom. 4:17). God promises that he will make Abraham's name great. It is the power of God and no other power that makes this no-name couple famous over the millennia. They would have been lost in the dust of Mesopotamia for all these thousands of years if God in his majestic purpose had not caused them to be revered today as Father Abraham and Mother Sarah.

Now listen to the rest of Paul's words concerning Abraham:

He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead because he was about a hundred years old, or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb.... He grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.... (Rom. 4:19-21)

What God had promised. What is the power of a promise? President Obama has discovered that promises are easy to make but hard to keep. That is the reality that all politicians have to face when the campaigns are over. Have you had the experience of wanting to promise something and then being unable to do it because you didn't have the ability to follow through? Imagine being able to promise your friend with cancer that she will be healed. Imagine being able to promise a hard-working jobless man that you will definitely be able to find him a good position so that he can support his family. Imagine being able to tell a child with a drug-ridden mother and an absent father in a poverty-stricken neighborhood that he will have a brilliant future. Imagine being able to promise a person with early Alzheimer's that the disease will get better instead of worse. We want to make promises to people, and sometimes we want to make them so much that we do make them, and then we fail because we can't follow through.

This is the reason that it matters so much that God actually speaks. Preposterous it may be, humanly speaking. But here are the words that the church lives by: "God is able to do what he has promised." In spite of all the deconstructionists and the skeptics and the scoffers, there is something about the Word of God in the Bible that eludes the mall. There is a mysterious life in the Scriptures that renews God's people generation after generation.

How can this be?

It's because God is real, and he is our God, and he speaks the Word of life, and his Spirit cannot be quenched, and he — God alone — is able to keep his promises of blessing and redemption and abundance and righteousness and fullness of joy and eternal life in his presence.


"Adam, Where Are You?"

June 1985 Genesis 2–3

This sermon should be read in tandem with the following one, "Dust to Dust."

John Milton begins his epic poem Paradise Lost with a prayer to the Holy Spirit. Let us pray:

Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste Brought Death into the world, and all our woe, With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat, Sing, Heavenly Muse.... Instruct me, for Thou know'st: Thou from the first Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread Dove-like satst brooding on the vast abyss And mad'st it pregnant: what in me is dark Illumine, what is low raise and support; That to the height of this great argument I may assert eternal Providence, And justify the ways of God to men.

Is there anybody, anywhere, who thinks that the world is just fine the way it is? Is there anyone who can take a look around and feel satisfied with life? I guess there are such people. "Optimism," said Voltaire's Candide, "is a mania for maintaining that all is well when things are going badly." Robert Browning wrote, "God's in his heaven — all's right with the world." Browning certainly did not entirely believe these sentiments, but the fact that they are his best-known lines probably testifies to the fact that people often prefer to block out the grim realities of life.

The Bible never does this. If the Bible were being written today, it would all be there. The natural disasters would be there — drought in Ethiopia, fires in California, tornadoes in Pennsylvania, cyclones in Bangladesh. The violence would be there — murder in Mamaroneck, rape on the West Side, stun guns in the police precinct. Greed and deceit would be there, both in its low-life, petty-thievery form and in its high-life, corporate form. All the nasty little secrets of the human heart would be there — the adulteries, the jealousies, the deceptions, the compulsions, the failures. And all the irrational, arbitrary, meaningless evil in the world would be there, too — the massacre of innocents, the starving of babies, the extermination of populations. Instead of saying with Dr. Pangloss that this is the best of all possible worlds, the Bible reader might be more likely to protest with Ivan Karamazov that "It's not God that I don't accept — it's the world created by Him I don't and cannot accept."

The Bible begins with "the world created by Him"; chapter 1 ends this way: "and God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good." By chapter 11, at the end of the primeval history, we have seen fratricide, corruption, flood, arrogance, greed, lying, strife, and violence. What happened? What went wrong?

In between Genesis 1 and the rest of the Bible comes Genesis 3. The third chapter of Genesis: How are we to describe it; how can we even begin to do justice to it? This is the undisputed monarch of the world's myths, whether you believe in it or not.

It's generally agreed by all but the most extreme fundamentalist scholars that there should be no simplistic split between myth and history. Many people use the word myth to mean simply "something that's not true." But there's a far more serious way of understanding myth. In the words of the noted philosopher Paul Ricoeur, "myth tries to get at the enigma of human existence." C. S. Lewis in the last volume of his space trilogy (That Hideous Strength) intends to show that the King Arthur cycle of myths tells what is really true about the destiny of England. Myth, then, rather than being "not really true," means the opposite: myth is charged with a special seriousness and significance.

And so we need to see Adam and Eve not so much as historical individuals, but rather, as primal representatives of humanity. The story of what happened to them is not a past fact having occurred at an identifiable moment in time (unlike the story of Jesus, who "suffered under Pontius Pilate"). Rather, the narrator is speaking of a primeval happening beyond the realm of our experience. The story is told not as propositional truth, not as doctrine, but as a story — as, in fact, all the Bible is a story, not a series of propositions. The myth of Adam and Eve, like other myth, is drama "because what it wants to express is already a drama."


Excerpted from And God Spoke to Abraham by Fleming Rutledge Copyright © 2011 by Fleming Rutledge. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xii

Introduction 1

The Lord Spoke to Abraham Genesis 12:1-5 27

"Adam, Where Are You?" Genesis 2-3 33

Dust to Dust Genesis 3:19 41

The Bloody Passageway Genesis 15:1-18 48

Entertaining Angels Unawares Genesis 18:1-16 54

The Future of God Genesis 22:1-14 61

Does God Need a Name? Exodus 3:1-6 69

A Way Out of No Way: An Easter Sermon Exodus 12-14 77

A Shield for the Bull-Worshipers Exodus 32-33:6 83

The Burden of This People Numbers 11 89

To Know the Living God Deuteronomy 4:6-8 95

"Whatever Works for You" Deuteronomy 4:5-20 103

Who Redefines God? Deuteronomy 4:39; 26:5-10 110

The Terrors of Grace Judges 6:21-23; Psalm 111:10 117

The God Who Calls, the Child Who Responds 1 Samuel 3:10 124

Three Sermons About Elijah

Elijah Standing before the Lord 1 Kings 17:17-24 131

The Little Church in the Wilderness 1 Kings 17 138

The Power That Gives Up Power 1 Kings 19:1-18 146

The Radical Freedom of God 2 Kings 5:1-15 152

What Job Saw Job 42:1-6 160

The God of Hurricanes Psalms 29, 104; Job 38:1-42:6 167

Seeing Sin as God Sees It Psalm 51 175

Whose Righteousness? Psalm 118; Ezekiel 21 180

Adding Up Psalm 130 188

Discerning the Mighty Acts of God Psalm 145:4; Deuteronomy 26:6-11 196

The Man in the Bed Ecclesiastes; 1 Samuel 16:7 203

Love against the Odds Selections from the Song of Songs 210

Last Month of the Year: A Christmas Sermon Isaiah 8:20-22-9:1-2 219

Four Sermons on Isaiah 28

God's Alien Work in the World Isaiah 28:21; Psalm 88 225

Gods Right and Left Hands Isaiah 28 233

God's Alien Work in the Church Isaiah 28:14-22 237

Rising Up against the Grave Isaiah 28:14-22 243

Most Trusted, Most Powerful Name in News Isaiah 29:9-20 250

The Subject of the Verb Isaiah 40-55 259

A New Thing Isaiah 40-55 267

"Spirituality" or Holy Spirit? Isaiah 32:12-20; 44:1-6; Psalm 104 276

A God Not to Believe in Isaiah 40, 43 284

On the Palms of God's Hands Isaiah 49 292

The Father Who Does Not Devour Isaiah 53:3-6 299

O Beulah Land! Isaiah 62:1-5; Job 2:13; 40:15 304

God's Justice Is a Verb Jeremiah 9:23-24 311

The Lord of the Dance Jeremiah 31:10-14; Psalm 30:11-12; Lamentations 5:15-16 317

Jeremiah and the Human Dilemma Jeremiah 15:15-18; 17:5-10; 31:27-31 325

Beyond Hope Jeremiah 33:1-3; Romans 4:16-18 332

The Evolutionary Ladder Ezekiel 1:2 8; 2:1-7; 3:1-3, 10-11; 36:14-36 338

Nothing More True Ezekiel 37; John 11 345

Patriotism and Prophets Ezekiel 2:3-7; Amos 3:2; 7:14; Zephaniah 3:8-20 352

But If Not Daniel 1-3 359

The Apocalyptic Man Daniel 5 369

Prophet of Amazing Grace Hosea 3:1-6:6 378

What Is the Source? Amos 5:21-24; 8:11-12 385

Blessed Are the Poor Amos 5:11-15; 8:4-8; 22:24 394

Nineveh "R" Us Jonah 4:1-11; Daniel 9:3-19 403

The God of Small Things: St. Bede and the Evangelical Faith Zechariah 4:1-10 408

The Bottom of the Night Malachi 3:2-3; 4:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-13 415

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