Don’t Die in Harran – Genesis 11:31-32
By: Alistair Brown
I entered a golf tournament and something unusual happened. I scored well on the first hole, just as good on the second hole, very good on the third hole, and so it went on. I have no idea how, but my ball soared off each tee, landed in the fairway and my shots to the green found the short grass and one or two putts later were in the hole. This does not happen for me! But it did that day.
My miracle golf continued on each of the first nine holes. The others in my group were very impressed. Then we got to the tenth tee. I wondered if my game would continue at heights of brilliance or plummet to mediocrity. Out came the driver, the ball sailed into the distance and landed in a good place. I strode up that fairway confident this tournament was mine to win.
And then the siren sounded. When a siren sounds across a golf course it means electronic equipment has detected lightning in the area. I looked up. Dark, ominous clouds were right over us. A storm was about to break, and the siren was the command to clear the course immediately. Golfers have no choice at a moment like that. I marked where my ball lay, jumped in the cart and got to the clubhouse with my playing companions as the whole storm broke. Rain poured down, thunder crashed, and streaks of lightning flashed across the sky.
Every player was now inside, and all we could do was wait to see if the storm would pass. It could be an hour; it could be several hours. Then I overheard the competition officials discussing what to do next. If the rain continued the course might flood, or by the time the rain stopped it could be too dark to play. If they were not able to restart the tournament, they said, they would count only each person’s score for the first nine holes. My brain raced. Inside my head I was saying, “You mean, you’d count only my brilliant nine holes! Yes, yes, oh please yes! I like that! Just give me the trophy now.”
What happened next? What happened next was that the thunder, lightning, and rain all stopped, the sun came out, we all went out to play the rest of our rounds, and I had the worst imaginable scores for my remaining holes. It wasn’t mediocrity; it was much worse than that. Trophy? No trophy.
At the end, all I could think was: “If only I had been able to stop at the half way point….”
Today – from Genesis – we have a story of someone stopping at a half-way point.
31 Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Harran, they settled there.
32 Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Harran.
Terah took his whole family and set off for…? Canaan. That’s clear – Canaan was the destination. Scholars are not wholly sure where Ur of the Chaldeans was, but probably in southern Iraq. If that is correct, Harran was much too far to the north to be on the direct route to Canaan. So why did Terah go there?
He probably had one of two reasons. Perhaps he had both:
1) Harran may have been Terah’s ancient family home. Even though he had never lived there, Terah would know the culture and customs of Harran would be familiar. It would be an easy place in which to settle. He would be comfortable.
2) Harran was a commercial center, and therefore a place where he could make money. It would be financially advantageous for him and his family. In Harran he would prosper.
Comfort and finance probably controlled his decision. He was going to Canaan but stopped at Harran. And it wasn’t a pause; we’re told he “settled there.”
People debate about whether Terah was wandering on his own initiative, or had some sense of a call of God to go to Canaan.
- Some say ‘No’ – because Terah’s religion involved idolatry, and there is no sign he knew the Lord.
- Some say ‘Yes,’ that no matter Terah’s religious background, God was behind his move away from Ur, and the evidence is that as soon as Terah had died, Abram got the call to complete the journey (Gen 12:1). It’s as if the father failed and God moved on from the father to the son to get his plan done.
No-one can know for sure what was in Terah’s heart and how much he had heard from God. But what we do know is that Terah meant to go to Canaan but stopped short at Harran and eventually died while still there.
We also know that every Christian is called by God and none of us should ever stop short of all God wants for our lives. So, today we will explore why we often get stuck short of all God wants by asking the question: When do people stop short of doing everything God asks?
1) When they feel they’ve done enough.
Terah travelled at least 730 miles to Harran. That journey would not have been easy if Terah had been on his own. But he wasn’t on his own. He was moving his whole household.
Ask any parents of a brand new baby what it’s like to go on a trip, even for just a few days, and they’ll groan. “Whatever we need can be multiplied at least four times for our baby. There is so much stuff and so much work.”
Terah’s family was not that young and of course he would not have had all the paraphernalia of a 21st century baby, but uprooting and moving a whole household over difficult terrain was a major exercise; expensive and exhausting. He got to Harran, said “That’s enough,” and settled there.
I was about eighteen or nineteen and not long a Christian when I got my first ever introduction in a church as a speaker. Vivian and I had both grown up in that church, and we’d been invited back to talk to the Sunday evening congregation. The senior deacon who introduced us finished his remarks with these words: “It is good to have two young people not yet stuck in a rut like we are”. I groaned as I heard the way that deacon described himself and his fellow church members. These people:
– Came to church every week.
– Gave faithfully to God’s work.
– Supported missions and ministry in several places.
– Lived decent lives.
I’d never thought of them as having a lively faith, but he was saying that inside there was a longing for more but they’d settled for what they had. It was enough.
Many feel they’ve come so far in following God, they can stop now. Discipleship is tough, and this is as far as they’re going. They’ve done enough.
2) When they feel they’ve had enough.
In other words, when they’re worn out, stressed out, weary.
It had been a busy Sunday and by the end of the evening service, I was worn out. But what a service that had been. We’d baptized a dozen people, and when I gave a call to commitment at the end of the service many more had come forward. It was a special God-moment, and the congregation was still buzzing as I left the crowds and found my way to my office. A moment later, a knock at the door and Alaine stepped in. Alaine was one of our gifted leaders, and she wanted just a moment to tell me about the baptism preparation class she’d led that afternoon with several more people wanting to take a big step with God. It had been a great time, and Alaine was thrilled to be helping them move forward in their faith.
She finished: “There are people preparing to be baptized, a dozen got baptized tonight, and look how many more came forward to commit to Jesus… You must be so excited!”
I paused. I knew I should enthuse with her but I couldn’t. Instead I burst into tears. I stood there, sobbing and sobbing. I couldn’t say a word.
Poor Alaine looked stunned. She thought I’d be thrilled but instead her pastor was crying. She gave me a gentle hug, and then left the room and closed the door behind her.
Five minutes later I was completely fine. For a moment I’d been overwhelmed, but all was good. However, for the first time but not the last time I realized that even good things can be stressful things.
Too many of those – plus all the negative or worrying things that come along as people are disappointed with us, or we let ourselves down – and we soon reach a point when we’ve had enough. It’s not about being unwilling to keep going; it’s about feeling unable to keep going.
I used to make a joke that I had reached a better place as a pastor when I thought of resigning only three times a day instead of the ten times a day it used to be. It was just a joke, but only just a joke.
We stop short because we feel we’ve had enough.
3) When they feel God is asking more of them than they can give.
Harry and Christine were church members. One was a lawyer and the other a counselor. Both were immensely talented, likeable and committed to God’s work. They were very interested in missionary work overseas, and often said it would only be a matter of a few years before they would go overseas as missionaries. Harry and Christine were great, the kind of church members pastors love to have.
Then they began to fall off the pedestal of perfection on which I’d put them.
- I asked them if someone could stay in their spare room for a couple of days, never doubting they’d say ‘yes’. They said ‘no’, with only a vague reason about not feeling completely comfortable about that.
- I invited them to take on a new role in the church. I knew they had time, but again the answer was ‘no’. It would ‘disturb the balance’ of their lives.
- And there were numerous small things. There wasn’t time, they were busy, that wasn’t quite their gift… Always reasons.
I am all for creating boundaries, but nothing I asked of Harry and Christine should have been difficult for people in their circumstances. Others were doing equivalent things all the time. They were not saying ‘no’ to one or two things; Harry and Christine now said ‘no’ to everything.
Then they relocated and bought a much bigger house and put a lot of money into that. Moving onwards and upwards in their careers became more and more important.
When I spoke to them about their call to missionary work, I learned the call was gone. Going overseas was no longer part of the plan. “To do that would be asking more of us than we could give,” they said.
Harry and Christine drifted away from the church. Last I heard they’d also drifted away from their faith. Very sad.
I never knew what happened deep in their hearts, but here is how it seemed to me. It wasn’t their time or service which had boundaries; it was their discipleship. And they could not move outside the boundaries they’d placed around their faith. Not even the call of God could move them outside the lines they had drawn around their Christian commitment.
Terah never reached Canaan. He stopped in Harran, lived there for many years, and finally “he died in Harran” (v.32). Harry and Christine and too many I’ve known have also died in their Harrans.
How can we be sure we will never do that? I know two truths that guarantee we will never die in our Harran.
1. Understand that Christianity is not a negotiated contract between us and God.
I will never forget the day I signed all the contract papers to buy my house. The memory is vivid. Not for the thrill of owning a wonderful home, but for the fifty different pieces of paper I had to sign! So many different clauses or agreements. I am not sure I ever knew what some of them were about, but I was pointed to a line, told to sign, and I did.
Contracts have terms to which we agree. Some are negotiated in advance and maybe we get an adjustment to suit our preferences. Other things may not be changeable, but we go ahead providing we think we can live with it.
But two things are true about all contracts:
1) If the terms become too difficult to live with you can renegotiate, or
2) If you can’t make the contract work for you, you can tear it up and walk away.
Christianity is not like that. Christianity is not a contract; it is total surrender of your life. Jesus said: “Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14: 33).
Commitment to Jesus is complete. It’s laying down your life. It’s following his call no matter where it takes us. It’s accepting his will no matter whether it’s for better or for worse. It’s about keeping going through every stage and circumstance of life until we draw our final breath in this world and first breath in the next.
It’s not something we try to see if it works out for us
It’s not for as long as it feels good.
It’s not a deal which can be renegotiated when we find it’s too tough.
It is giving over your life:
Giving everything we have and are and hope to become to Almighty God and saying, “Do with me according to your will and purpose.”
That’s not an elite standard of faith. That’s the only standard of faith Jesus considered viable. “Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”
A second truth follows from that:
2. The call of God is for his determination, not ours.
God’s plan for our lives:
Who we will share it with,
What we will do,
Where it is,
How long it is,
How hard it is,
How fruitful we will be,
…All of these things are God’s business.
Often ministry felt too demanding. Maybe people had hurt me, or frustrated me, or disappointed me. “It’s too much,” I’d tell myself. Then there would be a small voice which said, “Who said it would be easy? Who called you? Who decides when it’s all over?”
I’ve talked with many missionaries in hard places:
– One living in a house where the rats ran around inside, where there was no running water and no electricity, where the toilet was just a hole in the ground with a screen around it, where the only shower was a bucket of cold water hung on a pole, with a hose and shower head pushed into the bottom of the bucket.
– Another missionary in a place where babies died, where malnutrition and disease was destroying the next generation, and where those who tried to help never had the resources they needed to make a real difference.
– Where missionaries found the people they served took and took and took the material assistance they gave, and still wanted more, but showed no response at all to the gospel they shared.
– Where missionaries lived in homes scarred with bullet holes, where there was gunfire every night and often through the day, and where they knew that one day they could be caught in the crossfire.
These are just some of the many tough places missionaries serve.
These people are not especially brave. They are often discouraged and often frightened. But they are still there. Why? I have heard the answer many times. “Because God called me and he hasn’t called me away to anywhere else.”
God’s call – not our comfort, not the results we see, not the opposition we face, not even our weariness – that’s what determines our service.
Terah set out for Canaan but comfort, culture, or commercial interests meant he never got further than Harran. He stopped half way.
The call of God for us is not to a half marathon. It’s for the whole mileage. May there be nothing, ever, that causes us to quit. We must not be people stuck in a rut. We are the people who move forward as long as God gives us breath.
The call is to complete surrender, and the call continues as long as he determines.