St Paul unites two persons in Romans 4 in a way that is slightly disconcerting to me. God and Abraham are connected in a way that betrays my personal apathy and challenges my desire to control. God, he says, the God of Abraham is a God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. This is unsurprising if one has read the Scriptures which begin with a story of God calling to objects that seem almost to animate themselves in their obedience to his voice. Light, without apparent source, illuminates into being. Waters, already present, separate into clouds and seas. Plants, fish, animals, us… all called into being by a word or set of words, each obediently existing from the moment God calls out.
J.R.R. Tolkien penned his version of this story in his little-read Silmarillion. Absolutely stunning in its effect, he writes about angels under divine supervision singing the world into being. Every divine messenger is sent with a musical purpose and yet one sings an alternate and over-arching tune. An independent creative calling out that results in catastrophe. Evil enters through this self-serving messenger. And of course, if you’ve seen Peter Jacksons films (or better yet read the books) you’ve seen these effects. Goblins and trolls roaming in mass armies out to destroy all that is good. Evil wizards battling and destruction being withstood by a small hopeless band of friends. Tolkien was a master of story and not least because he patterned his tales or myths as he called them after a true myth. He understood both the creative art of God and also the dangerous commitment to partnership God has made.Like Tolkien, St Paul also understood there to be a partnership between this God and his amazing abilities and people much less capable. This is what I find so disconcerting. Paul writes: In hope [Abraham] believed against hope that he should become the father of many nations as he had been told. Of course, Jews everywhere believe themselves to be descendants of this promise. Paul is alluding to much more than the creation of a nation however; he is alluding to the life of Abraham as a whole.
Abraham is the man who called into being that which did not exist. The partnership that I find so difficult is the one that has the God of creation choosing to speak and call out through a man. Things change when that man calls out. The story of Genesis again and again recounts Abrahams’ ability to pray, building altars at locations that will later be important. The prayers of Abraham become the history of his descendants as they live and work the land that he has consecrated for them.
It is too much to say that Abraham created—that word is used only of God. But he believed beyond what existed for what was promised. His actions followed through as he traveled around more like a nomad rather than the cultured sophisticate that would have come from a place like Ur. And somehow, and this is what troubles me, Abraham’s prayers had power. Maybe only because God inhabited them with his power but they changed the course of history. The land he dedicated has become one of the most historic and conflicted regions on earth… a clear sign of its importance. The zenith of Abraham’s ministry calling is found when he builds an altar outside of what is today Jerusalem and exhibits his willingness to sacrifice even his son for this God.
To those of us who are called much later in time than Abraham, prayer is still calling into being that which does not exist. It only works, of course, if we are actually calling into being what God has longed for. But something tells me that Abraham had a sense, a knack for understanding the mind of God seeking and finding what God desired for him to find.
St Paul’s realization is that the storyline of Scripture rests on God and his immense creative power, never even closely rivaled by a human and yet constantly partnering with them. It is through people like Abraham, weak and vacillating that He chooses to speak some of his most amazing words. The redemption of man was prayed into existence partly by Abraham who literally acted out the foreshadowing image of a father sacrificing a son on the same mountain that would one day see a divine reenactment.
So who knows what today should exist? It’s a remarkable question to ask ourselves since the story of one man who took God seriously changed the world. What would exist if we looked into the nothingness that is and envisioned the heart of God for our world. What unity? What beauty? What hope? What partnerships? What love? What ancient walls rebuilt? God is the Kingdom builder who calls redemptively to things that are broken. Yet He seems to wait for the sojourners like Abraham who will dwell in temporary fashion, here stopping, then going, always praying, always temporary, and always seeking a world that their eyes have yet to behold.
Intercession is a calling. More than prayer, it’s a driving heart cry. People echoing the heart of their God as He seeks to move in the midst of the world. Where they stop and pray, watch for later events, the consecrated earth will give birth again to the seedlings of faith. Who knows what might be if we once again listen to the heart of our Father and in our weakness echo his calling through prayer into the world He has placed us.