Father Abraham

There is a children’s song that, although I never learned it in my childhood, I did learn it here at Saint Mark’s.  The song is called “Father Abraham.”  The song is very simple, and it is mostly a nonsense song.  Its theology-quotient is low, but its fun-quotient is high, since it involves lots of bodily movement, spinning around, and flopping down on the floor.  It’s a big hit with kids.  Every verse of the song goes like this:

Father Abraham had many sons;
Many sons had Father Abraham.
I am one of them, and so are you;
So let’s all praise the Lord!

The song has often been a feature of Vacation Bible School and Summer Choir Camp.  If you don’t know it, I can teach it to you at Coffee Hour.

And it is true, according to the biblical record, that Abraham, the father of our faith, did, indeed have many sons.  But more often than any of the others, we remember the only son born to Abraham by his wife Sarah: that was Isaac, the son he nearly sacrificed when God put him to the test.  Isaac was the fulfillment of a promise that God made to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of heaven, and that those descendants would inhabit a great swath of land that stretched from Egypt, up across the Red Sea, through current-day Saudi Arabia, and into Iraq, encompassing Israel, Palestine, parts of what are now Syria, and all of Jordan, and Lebanon.  But for much of his life Father Abraham did not have many sons; he had no children at all, and certainly no sons of his own.  He and Sarah were childless.  And God’s promise, whispered, I suppose, into Abraham’s ear at various intervals, or spoken to him in dreams, must have seemed far-fetched to say the least.

You’d have to think that in Abraham’s time it was never very difficult to look up at night and gaze in wonder at the twinkling starlight.  There were no lit-up cities, no street lights, none of the urban light pollution that makes it difficult for us to find much wonder in the sky when we look up at it from Locust Street at night.  I assume the night sky was a familiar wonder to Abraham’s eyes.

So you have these two phenomena: the whispering voice of God in Abraham’s ear, and the twinkling, brilliant, starry night sky.  And one night the two things come together, as the voice of God wakes Abraham from his sleep to repeat the promise.  Abraham had only recently returned from a daring rescue of his nephew, Lot, and his family, who had been taken prisoner in a skirmish amongst local warring factions.  And God speaks to Abraham, late one night in a vision: "Do not be afraid, Abram I am your shield; your reward shall be very great."  But Abram (who has not yet been given the new version of his name by God) said, "O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless…”

The visions are not new to Abraham, and the promise is not new, and actually, maybe it’s all getting a bit old to him.  Maybe he is beginning to think that he would prefer his sleep to these visions that have led him only to have strained relations with his wife, who still has never carried a pregnancy to term.

And maybe it is not God who is speaking to him at all?  Maybe Abraham begins to reconsider.  Maybe the experience of having to go and rescue his nephew called into question just how serious was the commitment of the LORD who spoke to him in visions to the protection and longevity of his family and ancestral line.  Maybe this voice that spoke to him was not the voice of God at all.  And maybe God was not really God.  Maybe there was no God, at least not one making the kinds of claims that were made in the whispered conversations that took place in Abraham’s visions.

Was he sleep-walking that night when he found himself outside?  Or did the vision or the voice wake him as God called him to come outside?  Was there anything different about the stars that night?  Was there a meteor shower?  There is no suggestion in the scripture that there was: no mention of a miracle or wondrous event: just the stars shining brightly as they did every night.  Abraham had seen it all before.  But something happened that night that was not miraculous or wondrous.  It was, however momentous; because underneath that twinkling canopy of galactic light Abraham came to what one scholar has called “a new awareness that God really is God.”[i]

The point of the children’s song is not to remember Isaac, who was spared sacrifice at his father Abraham’s hand; and it is not to remember the other sons of Abraham who were born of other mothers.  The point of the song is to remember that we are the sons and daughters of Abraham; that we are his children, and the inheritors of God’s promise to him; and to remind us that God really is God.

But to say this is not to say enough, because it sounds like a claim to distant lands in the Middle East that already have quite enough people fighting over them.  To say that we are the inheritors of God’s promise to Abraham, is, rather, to say that we are the inheritors of the relationship – the covenant relationship, in which we are chosen by God.

But a lot of water has passed through the Red Sea in the meanwhile; a lot has changed.   And the covenant itself has changed: we are not waiting for God to deliver us to the much disputed land from the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates.  The new covenant of God’s love was sealed for us by the shedding of Jesus’ blood, not by animal sacrifice, as Abraham’s covenant was sealed.  And the new covenant is a promise of salvation that requires no real estate at all, but only faith that our lives are meant to be more than they sometimes appear to be, and that there is a hope for us that lies beyond the grave.

So much has changed, you might wonder why it is we Christians bother telling the Abraham story any more.  Isn’t it confusing to remind ourselves of a promise that we no longer expect to be fulfilled, and that we no longer wish to see fulfilled?  Isn’t it unhelpful to be reminded of the uncompromisingly patriarchal roots of our own religious tradition, now that we have grown into a religious tradition that requires no such patriarchy?

Yes, much has changed, including our view of the heavens, which is now so obscured by our own intensely bright lights.  God could wake me up in the middle of the night and call me outside, but he couldn’t show me much of the sky, unless he flew me to Montana.  And along with the view, perhaps we have lost the assurance of the nature of a covenant relationship – in which God makes a promise to us, his people.

And if you have lost the memory of what it means to be in a covenant relationship with God, then you have lost a great deal.  If your life is not guided by a promise made by God, then what is it that guides your life? 

And even if you have looked up and seen the stars twinkling in all their glory, if those stars have never signified anything to you, then you may not know whether God really is God.  And this, I suspect is the case for so many – not because the view of the night sky is now so much harder to appreciate, but perhaps as the view has gotten harder to see, and our lives have changed so much, so has faith in God become harder for some to come by.

Abraham needed to be shown that God really is God in order to believe in the covenant, in order to keep going on with his life in faith.  But God didn’t use a miracle or any other wonders and signs, he just let Abraham see something he had never seen before, in a view that was entirely familiar to him.

And we need to tell this story, because we pray that God still does the same thing for us, even though so much has changed.  God still lets us see something we have never seen before to assure us that God really is God.  And it is not God who has obscured the view and made it unfamiliar, it’s us who have done that, by allowing the complexity of our lives to crowd out the covenant of God’s love: his assurance that he has chosen us in love to be the inheritors of a promise.

For the most part we struggle to see the stars of the night sky.  And for the most part we cannot remember the covenant of God’s love.  And in so many ways, for so many of us, we cannot say for sure that God really is God.  And this is why we need a song as simple as a children’s nonsense song to remind us that our memories are linked somehow to the ancient vision of a man awakened from his sleep and called outside to tilt his head back, or maybe to lie down on the ground and just open his eyes as wide as he could, and behold the unfathomable expanse of God’s creation, and be shown that God really is God.

As long as the stars are shining, that assurance is meant for you and for me: God really is God, and he has chosen you and me to be his people.  Abraham needed to know it, and so do we; and the sign of this revelation has become no more dim over the years, though we have done much to obscure it.

Father Abraham had many sons and many daughters;

And you are one of them, and so am I;

And the world has changed so much;

And the covenant has changed, too, though it is still a covenant of love;

And that covenant was sealed by the blood of Jesus, who died for us on the Cross;

And he knew better than we do that Father Abraham had many sons and many daughters;

And you are one of them, and so am I;

And you are one of them, and so am I;

And you are one of them, and so am I;

Many sons, and many daughters had Father Abraham.

Do not be afraid, though there is much in the world to frighten us.  He is our shield, and our reward will be great, though for now it may be hard to see.

Look toward the heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.  See how many there are, and how brightly they shine with the singular purpose of showing us what we had not seen there before: that God really is God.  Yes, God really is God.

And he chose Abraham and all his descendants.

And Abraham had many sons and many daughters.  And you are one of them.  Thanks be to God!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

21 February 2016

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia


[i] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, in the Interpretation Series, John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1982, p. 143

Posted on February 22, 2016 .