Notables in the Kingdom of Heaven

Speaker: John McLarty

Audio Recording:

Texts: Genesis 12:1-9. Revelation 7:1-9

One of my favorite pictures from my vacation features Oliver and Violet Morrow. In the photo you can’t see their faces. They are squatting on a sandy stream bed. Violet is watching sand pour through the fingers of her left hand. Oliver is probing the sand with his right forefinger. Surrounding them, seen in the photo only as ankles and legs sprouting up out of sandals and tennis shoes, are adults listening to a lecture about how wind moves sand and creates something called lag deposits.

There were fifteen people in the group. We ranged in age from 8 to 82. We came from Seattle and Georgia, Texas and British Columbia. Now that tour is over and I begin the remembering and story-telling part of vacation, I realize there were notable people among us. There was the geologist, Elyse’s dad, who was our instructor for the week. Robert, the chef, who turned out astonishing food. Perhaps the meal that will remain most famous was his quinoa-stuffed avocados and gazpacho soup and quesadillas. Not bad for camp food! Bruce asked theological questions. Alisa poked fun at everyone with zero malice and flamboyant confidence. James who saw every difficulty as the perfect training for his planned ascent of Half Dome later this summer. Kevin was the stealth manager. He noticed needs before they happened and took care of them before anyone noticed. Tom told jokes. Bryan was the master interviewer, getting everyone to talk. Doug was another expert in the kitchen and had tales to entertain us for hours if we asked the right questions. Charlene managed to be completely engaged with the geology lectures and completely aware of her children ”at the same time!!! How?? And the kids, Oliver and Violet. Usually they were at the center of our circle as the professor was explaining some mystery or curiosity in the rocks. And on this occasion, playing with sand they recreated with their hands the precise geological process Gerry was describing.

When I was telling my wife and daughter about our trip and how important this person and that person was to the experience, they pointed out the obvious: Everyone on the trip was essential. Whether they were loud or quiet, cooks or jokesters, each person added something special to the mix. Which brings us to our texts for today.

The LORD said to Abram, “Leave your country and relatives and your father’s house. Head out for a land I will show your. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great. You will be a blessing. I will bless people who bless you and curse anyone who curses you. In you all families of the earth will be blessed.”
So Abram left, in obedience to the divine word. His nephew, Lot, went him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed out of Haran.
Abram took his wife Sarah, and Lot, his brother’s son, and all the wealth they had accumulated and all the people who had joined their household while they were in Haran. The company set off for the land of Canaan and eventually arrived there.
Abram passed through the land to the place called Shechem on the plain of Moreh. Canaanites lived in the land, then. The LORD appeared to Abram, and said, “Unto your descendants I will give this land.” And Abram built an altar to the God who had appeared to him. From there Abram headed to a mountain east of the town of Bethel and pitched his tent there. (This place was between Bethel on the west and Hai on the east.) Here again, Abram built an altar to the LORD, and called upon the name of the LORD. From this place Abram moved on, always heading south. Genesis 12:1-9

For thousands of years people have been telling and retelling “The Story of Abraham.” We remember his bravery in leaving his home town and striking out into the unknown. We celebrate the courage he demonstrated that time when he led his 318 commandos on a daring rescue of the people of Sodom after they had been captured by a coalition of five kings. We groan at his cowardly failure to honor his wife. We squirm uncomfortably at the story of the sacrifice of his son. We feel Abraham’s grief when his wife Sarah dies and he buys his first piece of real estate, the Cave of Machpelah.

Like nearly all of the story of Abraham, this would make a perfect movie.

When Sarah was 127 years old, she died at Kiriath-Arba (now called Hebron) in the land of Canaan. There Abraham mourned and wept for her. Then, leaving her body, he said to the Hittite elders,
“Here I am, a stranger and a foreigner among you. Please sell me a piece of land so I can give my wife a proper burial.”
The Hittites replied to Abraham, “Listen, my lord, you are an honored prince among us. Choose the finest of our tombs and bury her there. No one here will refuse to help you in this way.”
Then Abraham bowed low before the Hittites and said, “Since you are willing to help me in this way, be so kind as to ask Ephron son of Zohar to let me buy his cave at Machpelah, down at the end of his field. I will pay the full price in the presence of witnesses, so I will have a permanent burial place for my family.”
Ephron was sitting there among the others, and he answered Abraham as the others listened, speaking publicly before all the Hittite elders of the town. “No, my lord,” he said to Abraham, “please listen to me. I will give you the field and the cave. Here in the presence of my people, I give it to you. Go and bury your dead.”
Abraham again bowed low before the citizens of the land, and he replied to Ephron as everyone listened. “No, listen to me. I will buy it from you. Let me pay the full price for the field so I can bury my dead there.”
Ephron answered Abraham, “My lord, please listen to me. The land is worth 400 pieces of silver, but what is that between friends? Go ahead and bury your dead.”
So Abraham agreed to Ephron’s price and paid the amount he had suggested–400 pieces of silver, weighed according to the market standard. The Hittite elders witnessed the transaction. So Abraham bought the plot of land belonging to Ephron at Machpelah, near Mamre. This included the field itself, the cave that was in it, and all the surrounding trees. It was transferred to Abraham as his permanent possession in the presence of the Hittite elders at the city gate. Then Abraham buried his wife, Sarah, there in Canaan, in the cave of Machpelah, near Mamre (also called Hebron). So the field and the cave were transferred from the Hittites to Abraham for use as a permanent burial place. Genesis 23

If we made a movie of this scene, the camera would zoom in on Abraham’s face. We would watch his eyes. We would feel his age and dignity in the long pauses in his speech. We would be moved by the gravitas in his voice. Abraham is the star of this movie.

But if we step back just a bit, we recognize that Abraham’s story is possible only because of the work of hundreds of supporting actors. There would be no Abraham story without Sarah and Lot and Bethuel and Hagar and Ishmael and Isaac and Eliezer and Ephron and the Hittite elders and the “souls they acquired in Haran.”

In the city of Haran, Abraham’s household enlarged dramatically. Abraham is the man of stature that he becomes in Palestine because he is the head of this enormous household. The stories of Abraham as a husband make sense only because of the women involved. Abraham the father does not exist apart from Ishmael and Isaac the sons. Abraham, the daring general, does not exist apart from the 318 commandos in his household. Abraham the generous uncle is shown off by the presence of his nephew, Lot.

We rightly celebrate Abraham and allow his virtues to inspire us and his failings to serve as cautionary tales. But if we shift our focus slightly to the left or right, other people in the story would take center stage and Abraham himself would become a supporting actor.

This interplay of heroes and ordinary people is vividly demonstrated in the book of Revelation. In the first three chapters of the book we are introduced to the  “church” the spiritual family of Abraham. And curiously there are no personalities featured, no stars in the telling of the story. Then in chapter six it appears the church is obliterated. It seems to disappear in a cloud of persecution. The prophet is deeply upset. Then the prophet is shown the divine perspective. An angel assures him that far from being obliterated the people of God number 144,000. Which sounds to us like a small number, but for the prophet would have been a very large number. The angel goes further. That 144,000 includes 12,000 from each tribe of Israel. This is astonishing because at the time John was writing, only three Jewish tribes were known to exist. The rest had disappeared from history hundreds of years earlier. But here they are. And not just one or two from each tribe, there are 12,000, a full representation, from each tribe.

This was good news for the prophet. God was going to finish the story of Abraham in grand fashion. The edifice of the kingdom of heaven would be grand and magnificent.

The prophet barely had time to absorb this information before the angel invites him to take a look. He has heard the number of faithful people, now he turns and sees them. Wow! The crowd is not a mere 144,000. The crowd of faithful people is so vast, it is beyond counting. John sees gadzillions, bizillions of people.

All through the Bible we read stories of individuals. Abraham. King David. Samuel. Deborah. Miriam. Moses. Mary. And finally, Jesus.

In the Book of Revelation, there are no heroic individuals. The mission of God is carried by “the uncountable people of God.”

In the most astonishing eclipse of the “hero ideal,” at the end of the book John writes that the reign of God, the throne of God, is now occupied by the numberless, nameless people of God. In the end, in the final, perfectly clear vision, every human becomes a hero. Everyone is shown to be indispensable to the grand edifice God is building through history.

A week ago Friday, I was hiking the Observation Point trail in Zion National Park. We stopped at about the half way point to admire the scenery. The cliffs around us were two thousand feet from valley floor to the top of the walls. Two thousand feet of rock. Petrified dunes. The largest accumulation of sand anywhere in the world, any time in history. Sitting there in a narrow side canyon, staring at the massive wall across from us I tried to wrap my mind around what I was seeing.

I remembered the scene at the beginning of week when Violet and Oliver were squatting at the center of our circle and Violet was letting sand drift down from her hands into a pile below. The sand was so fine that even in a very slight breeze, the Navajo Sand, the sand that comprises the glorious, magnificent walls of Zion—the Navajo Sand will be blown sideways by the least bit of breeze and the cone of sand that built beneath Violet’s hands showed a striking concentration of darker, heavier grains. The Navajo Sand is so fine, it is scarcely larger than dust.

Sitting there, admiring the massive walls of Zion, I thought of the work of all those tiny grains. On one hand we might consider each grain insignificant. But the walls cannot be built without them. These magnificent, spectacularly beautiful walls have been built by the consistent gathering of the tiniest of fragments of quartz.

In the grand edifice God is building through history, we might consider our part to be insignificant. We might imagine that it is the work of the great heroes that really matters. In fact, God cannot build his temple without us. And no matter how great or notable any particular individual is, the work of God is so large that every individual, seen from the requisite distance becomes a tiny fragment, a fragment whose greatest glory is its participation in the unspeakably grand edifice of God.

So let us be faithful.
Let us be humble.
Let us be bold.