At that time the Canaanites were in the Land
Our text is the call of God to Abram to leave his family behind and come to the land of Canaan. The text tells us that he "set out for the land of Canaan." The text goes on to say that Abram traveled through this same land. Then we come to the statement, "At that time the Canaanites were in the land." Duh, who did we think was going to be in the land of Canaan, the Egyptians? Doesn't it seem like the Holy Spirit is needlessly repeating Himself? Isn't telling us the Canaanites were in the land of Canaan an OVERstatement?
In fact, it is a gross UNDERstatement. It is like finding this sentence in US history: "And General George F. Custer traveled to Little Big Horn. At that time the Indians were in the land." The Indians were not just in the land, they covered the land, controlled the land, ruled the land. And so it was with the Canaanites. Abram came into this land with a large household, but it was nothing compared to the Canaanites. They were everywhere. That's the point the text is trying to get across. Abram traveled virtually the entire north-south distance of the land of Canaan, and found that getting the land of Canaan was not going to be easy at all. The land was filled with Canaanites who would not be fond of losing it.
The Canaanite being in the land is hardship. It's fear. It's impossible, but it is salvation. Abram was caught up in the sins and unbelief of the people and family that surrounded him. Out of sheer grace, the Lord came to Abram and called him out of that situation. But he is called from family and friends to foreigners. From the relative comfort of the city to the harshness of the country. From a stable home life, to the life of a nomad. From being at peace with those around him to being at war.
This my friends is the Christian life. The Lord found us in the sinful land of unbelief, just where He found Abram. Out of sheer grace, not because of anything we've done, not because we're better than those around us, but only because of grace our Lord called us out of sin, unbelief, and certain damnation. But, make no mistakes about it. We too have been called from being at peace with those around us to being at war. The Canaanites are in our land too. Their religion is not our religion. Their way of life is not our way of life. Their god is not our God. God has promised the whole earth is ours, our inheritance. He has said that we rule it. But it no more looks or feels like we own or rule this earth than it looked or felt like Abram ruled and owned the land of Canaan.
Everywhere Abram looked his faith and religion were tested. On that hill they sacrificed babies, in this place they preached about a goddess, over there the city was devoted to an idol. And you don't think Abram was tempted to despair and give in just like us? Although our Lord has promised us the world everywhere we look our faith and religion is tested. People still sacrifice babies today. The goddess is still worshiped today, and cities are built around the idols of money, power, sex, or fun. The Canaanites are in our land too, and it seems they're winning. How much better it would be to move off into the wilderness build a community apart from the Canaanites. God could have done that with Abraham, but He didn't.
God calls His people to difficult situations where they are surrounded by Canaanites to bless them. The Lord tells Abram that He will make him a great nation, a great name, a blessing to all people. The Lord's promises to Christians are no less amazing. He tells us in I Peter that we are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a special people. He puts His own great and holy name on us every Sunday in the Benediction. He tells us that we are the salt that preserves the earth and the light of the world.
However, we feel unworthy, unable, and incapable, and friends, we are unworthy, unable, and incapable just like Abram. If you read on in Genesis, you know what a mess Abram made of things. He shows himself to be a sinner, prone to the very sins that he was called away from. Doesn't that describe us? We aren't exactly bright and shinning lights and savory salt among our Canaanites. The same sins found in them are found among us. We are no better than they, and so the Canaanites being in the land makes us afraid, makes us want to runaway to find peace in our own private world.
Abram felt this too. Right after we read that the Canaanites were in the land, the text says, "The Lord appeared to Abram and said, 'To your offspring I will give this land.'" Abram had looked around him and seen how many, how powerful the Canaanites were, and he had looked at himself and saw how weak and sinful he was, and concluded like we do, it's hopeless. That's why the Lord appears to Abram and says what He does.
Be clear on what the Lord says. He takes Abram back to Eden and ahead to Christ. In Eden, the Lord had made the first Gospel promise telling fallen Adam and Eve that He would send the Seed of the women to crush the devil that they were powerless to crush. Here the Lord says to Abram, "To your seed I will give you this land." He says for the sake of Christ I will give you this land. Don't believe me? Read Galatians 3:16, "The promises were spoken to Abraham and his seed. It doesn't say 'to seeds' meaning many people, but 'to your seed' meaning one person, Christ." Abram is promised the land based on Christ's power, Christ's holiness, Christ's merit.
Our promises come to us as well only for Christ's sake. The Lord has appeared to us no less than He did to Abram. He has appeared to us in the Waters of Baptism, in the Words of our Absolution, and in the Bread and Wine of Communion saying, "For the sake of Christ I will bless you and keep you. For Christ's sake all of my promises to you are 'yes' and 'amen'. For the sake of Christ this land, this world, and the kingdom to come are yours even though you are surrounded by Canaanites and are still fallen sinners.
But it will never feel or look any different than it does now. Just as the Canaanites were in the land and Abram was a sinner till the day he died, so it is for us. That's why we can't go by how we feel or the way things look, but by what God says. In the Epistle reading. St. Paul tells us, "God calls things that are not as though they were." God calls Abram the owner of the land of Canaan though he wasn't. God calls Abram saint though he was a sinner. This is the way of God. He calls Baptismal water, a life-giving water rich in grace. He calls the Absolution spoken on earth valid and certain in heaven. He calls the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion His Body and Blood, and that is what they are. And with you, He calls you a saint even though you are painfully aware that you're still a sinner. He calls you alive even though you feel death at work in you. He calls you an heir of heaven and earth even though you look and feel disinherited from both. What God calls a thing that is what it really is.
But there's more to this text than blessing for Abram. God calls him into Canaan to bless the Canaanites too. God says, "You will be a blessing." And, "All people on earth will be blessed through you." Now we can't understand what is being said unless we jump ahead again to Galatians where the Lord tells us what He's really saying here. Galatians 3:8 says, "The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the Gospel in advance to Abraham saying, "All nations will be blessed through you." When Abram goes into the land of Canaan with Christ the Seed, he is bringing the Gospel to them. This is how it is for us too. The Lord didn't put us in this land of Canaan to punish us, or just to bless us, but so that we might bless them with the Gospel.
How does Abram do that in this text? He builds an altar and calls on the name of the Lord. What Abram does is what you people have done here. He built a church, gathered people around the promises of God in Christ, and proclaimed those promises. When Scripture says Abram "Called on the name of the Lord," it doesn't just mean he prayed; it also means he preached that name. In the land of Canaan, surrounded by Canaanites, surrounded by the false religion, Abram and his household built an altar to the true God and had church services.
God's people have followed this pattern right here in Austin: God's people moved from Lee county and built St. Paul. They moved into the area of the Canaanites and promptly built and altar in their midst. They began not just praying but proclaiming the startling truth that God's saves sinners by grace through faith in Christ without works. Of course, the town kept growing and pretty soon God's people were moving into another Canaanite area. These, people, you people, then built Trinity. Once more the saving Name of God was called on in prayer and preached in proclamation. But it didn't stop here. Soon God's people moved into more distant Canaanite land and there was need for another altar, another church, and Redeemer was built. Though the Canaanite were in the land, the Gospel was too.
What may be hard to see, yet is crucial for understanding how the Lord works, is that the Canaanites being in the land has everything to do with God's people being brought to the point of erecting churches and calling on the name of the Lord. We first see this in Genesis 4. There the people of God were waiting for the Promised Seed, were waiting for Christ. Eve had thought Cain was Him. When he killed Able she knew better. Then she has Seth and says that God has given her another seed in place of Abel. Seth has a son. But he proved to be just another mortal, not the Promised Seed, so he is named Enosh which means mortal. Chapter 4 closes with this sentence, "Then men began to call upon the name of the Lord."
The same thing happens in our text. Abram is called into the dismal land of Canaan, surrounded by Canaanites. The full weight of this only comes home to Abram once he has traveled the land of Canaan. Then the text tells us Abram built an altar and called on the name of the Lord. Once it is clear that the situation is too big, too difficult, too impossible for him, Abram is turned to the Lord which results in the Lord's saving name being proclaimed in the midst of the Canaanites.
So it is with us. We feel the Canaanites pressing us on every side. We feel like the holy, precious, profound promises of God are in danger. We feel like the Canaanites might win; we might fall away. Being in such dire straights we are led to despair of ourselves, our holiness, our power, our ability, and so we call on the name of the Lord. If we were not so pressed, if we did not feel our sins, feel our danger from the surrounding Canaanites, we wouldn't be led to build our churches and gather in prayer and proclamation. But we are pressed and so we do pray and we do proclaim which leads to God's saving name going out and salvation coming to the Canaanites. So while it is an understatement to say "and the Canaanites were in the land." We also underestimate the glorious things God does with this fact. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lent II (2-24-02) Genesis 12:1-8