The Promise to Abram
The Old Testament can be difficult to read. It’s not always easy to understand what is happening and why and how it’s important for me and my salvation. Take today’s Scripture lesson, for example. We hear of Abram’s family—several names (strange names) packed into a few verses, a family tree that requires some concentration to follow, and some travelling. What does it all mean? And what does it have to do with Advent and Jesus and me?
One good way to better understand the Old Testament is to view a common thread that ties the whole thing together—all 39 books. The common thread is “The Promise.” At the beginning of the Bible we hear the history of how God created the world and humans to be wonderful and happy and in perfect harmony with God. Then sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, and the human race found itself suddenly separated from God, a separation that is passed down from generation to generation. But God immediately made a promise to restore the harmony between God and mankind when he said to the devil, “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) A bit of a cryptic promise, to be sure, but still a promise to bring God and people back together. From that third chapter of Genesis until the end of Malachi, all the history and prophecy and poetry is somehow attached to that one thread, the promise that makes every part of the Old Testament relevant.
Today we find ourselves in the first book of the Bible, twelve chapters in. But we are at a significant point in the history of the promise. The promise that began so cryptically now takes on some more definition. God said to Abram, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Let’s see how this was such a significant point in the history of the promise.
The first eleven chapters of the Bible, of Genesis, give the history of humanity after creation. After God gave the promise the first time, maybe we’d expect humanity to be so grateful for the promise of reconciliation with God that they would behave. But the opposite is true. Adam and Eve’s son Cain murdered his brother Abel. Cain’s descendants become notoriously wicked. The whole world became so wicked that God sent the flood to destroy every living thing except what was on the ark. Even then, after practically starting over with Noah and his family, they prove to be wicked at heart as well, and the human race continues to spiral downward, disobeying God and serving their own interests. It’s not a flattering history for us, the human race.
But here, at the end of chapter 11, the focus shifts. In the midst of the wickedness of humanity, the Bible starts telling the history of one family in particular—the family of Abram (God would later change his name to Abraham). To give us a hint that this family is going to be important, the Bible takes the time to give us the family tree: Abram’s father was Terah, his brothers were Haran and Nahor, his wife Sarai (before God changed her name to Sarah), Abram’s sister-in-law (and niece) Milcah, and his nephew Lot.
Why does the Bible change the focus from the history of all people to the history of this one family? Remember that one thread. The Old Testament is the history of The Promise. And sure enough, after introducing this family, the Bible records that God repeated The Promise to Abram. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” It’s the same promise that was spoken in chapter 3 in the Garden of Eden to Adam and Eve. It’s still a little cryptic, but now God starts to reveal more details. This Savior who would come to bring mankind and God back together would be a descendant of this man, Abram. Christ would come from this family.
It’s the last line of this promise that grabs our attention and tells us that this is the same promise as Genesis 3. “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The promised Savior is for all people. The promised Savior would come from Abram’s family. All people will be blessed through Abram. This, then, helps explain why God would be so good to Abram. “I will make you into a great nation…I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.” It wasn’t because Abram was less wicked than the rest of the world. He was born with the same inclination to sin in his heart as anyone else. Rather, God promised to be so good to him because he would now be carrying Christ. He was now an ancestor of Jesus. He was carrying the Savior of the world in the form of The Promise. Abram was carrying Christ. So the Bible focuses in on his family to show how God was going to make sure that promise was kept.
From this point in the Bible until today, the history of the world has not changed much. The human race continues to live according to its natural wickedness, a wickedness that is storing up God’s judgment and wrath. But in contrast to that judgment, in the midst of the world’s wickedness, there is mercy. God makes sure that the Christ is always being carried in this world, so that he may bring people back to God. Christ is no longer carried in the body of a person, like Abram, the ancestor of Christ. He is now carried by his Word and Sacraments, which have been entrusted to his church on earth. You see, God now promises to bless us, his faithful followers on earth, his church. That’s not because we are less wicked. We are born with the same inclination to sin in our hearts as anyone else. Rather, God promises to be good to us because we are now carrying Christ. We carry him in the means of grace. We carry him so that all people will be blessed by him who reconciles all people to God.
“All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The focus of the Old Testament narrows to this one family, but Abram’s family is not the only one that gets the benefit of the promise. All people would be blessed. That was the Promise. Actually, it still is the Promise. Jesus has already been born, but “all peoples” means people today too. That means you! While the history of the Bible starts talking about this one family in particular, it is still all about God’s promise to you. The promise is no longer that a Savior will come, but that a Savior has come and that the work of this Savior directly benefits you. He promises that it applies to you.
So what are we trying to do here this Advent? Why are we gathering here on Wednesday nights, listening to Old Testament history? Well, because the Old Testament is all about The Promise, and we are preparing for Christmas, the day God kept The Promise. The preparation that God wants from us this Advent is simple—he wants us to believe. Believe the promise that from this one man, Abram, all people are blessed. And that includes you and me. The preparation God wants from us is simple—he wants us to believe and he wants us to be blessed. And we are blessed! The descendant of Abram, Jesus Christ, has removed your sins that separated you from God, giving you instead the same status he has—child of God, just like Adam and Eve were first created to be. That is the blessing we receive whenever we listen to The Promise.
And that’s what we’ve done tonight. We listen to Old Testament history, because it contains the promise that applies to you. May that Word of God, that promise, work in you even more the faith and the blessing that makes you ready for Christmas.