The history of covenant people, a history that includes Jews, Christians and Muslims, begins with a short paragraph: Genesis 12:1-3.
The first utterance of the Lord to Abram is a barked imperative, “Go!” With similar simplicity, Genesis 12:4 reports, “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.”
Geographically speaking, Abram’s journey was a life-long sojourn, first from Mesopotamia (the land between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris), then to Haran (northwest into Syria), then to the environs of the Jordan and then to Egypt.
Abram – later renamed Abraham – and his wife Sarai/Sarah were, as Peter C. Phan observed, the first migrants in biblical history.
Their lives are encapsulated in the ancient confession, “A wandering Aramean was my father” (Deuteronomy 26:5).
The story of Jesus, especially Luke’s version, is animated by echoes and shadows of the migrations of covenant people from Abraham and Sarah, to Moses, Miriam and Aaron, to the Israelites who remigrated to Canaan, and, then, the exiles from Jerusalem who were forced to sojourn in Babylon in the sixth century before the Common Era and then some who were repatriated to Jerusalem by the decree of Cyrus the Great.
Two aspects of Luke’s telling of the Jesus story capture the motif of migration. First is the high drama of his journey to Jerusalem. “And he set his face toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).
In the wake of what Matthew, Mark and Luke describe as the Transfiguration, the resolve of Jesus to be in Jerusalem for Passover, Luke creates 10 chapters of tension, uncertainty and resolve. The phrase “set his face” is a certain echo from Isaiah 50:7, where the Suffering Servant says, “I set my face like flint.”
More provocative is the parable of the loving father in Luke 15, part of a triad (or quartet) of parables that underscore the importance of seeking the lost.
After brief stories about a shepherd seeking a lost sheep and woman seeking a lost coin, the stories shift to “a father who had two sons.”
The younger son demands his inheritance and departs “for the far country” where his identity is tested.
In the face of hardships, the younger son returns home with the hope to find employment in his father’s estate. His hopes, however, are overturned when the loving father repatriates him as a son and not the prodigal.
It is the gospel.
As I reflectively prepared – again – for a Lenten journey that we embarked on last week, I sought to be open to the manifold ways the stories of Scripture identify, underscore and illuminate my identity as part of a pilgrim people, strangers in a foreign land, sojourners, resident aliens, who are in all circumstances called to hope.
Go! “Go to a land that I will show you,” the Lord said to Abram. He went. Will we?
Go! “Go to Egypt,” the Lord said to Jacob and his clan in the drama that unfolds in Genesis 37-50. They went. Will we?
Go! “Go into the wilderness and, then, on to Canaan,” the Lord said to Moses, Miriam and Aaron. They went. Will we?
Go! “Go back to Jerusalem,” the Lord said through the edict of Cyrus the Great. Many went. Will we?
Lent is more than remembering the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem. It gathers up all of the threads of the covenant promise, important to Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Lent begins with Abram/Abraham. It is the deep story of the migration of covenant people over 1,500 years, according to the Hebrew Bible.
It is the story of how the personal pilgrimage of Jesus of Nazareth, confessed to be the Christ, was on the move to illuminate the truth of the Reign of God.
It is the story of the birth and growth of the church that spans another 2,000 years.
It is the contemporary challenge of the church.
Go! In the language of Matthew 28, “Go. Make disciples. Baptize. Teach.”
Lent is about a journey to the far country.
We live in the far country.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a weekly “Lenten Lectionary” series for Lent 2020. Each week, we will have an article reflecting on the lectionary texts for the forthcoming Sunday. Previous articles in the series were:
Lenten Lectionary | Are You Angry When Your Cheese is Moved? | Terrell Carter
Lenten Lectionary | Journeying with Jesus into the Wilderness | Merianna Harrelson
Professor emeritus of religion in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He served as chair of the department of religion from 2000-2021.