Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
It is a primal story, an odd story, our story. Paul names it as a taproot gospel story. It is the story of Abraham. He and aging wife Sara have left home and family, risking everything on God. Still there is no child, no home, no sign of the future God has promised. Now the LORD appears in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abraham, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Abraham is the great-great grand-father of the faith. Abraham is the primal figure of faithfulness. When God promises Abraham safety and a future we expect Abraham to say “Yes, Lord”. But, no. Abraham questions God’s integrity: “O LORD God, what will you give me, for I continue childless … You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” Abraham puts God on the witness stand and pokes holes in God’s testimony. “Oh, really”, says Abraham, “and on what basis am I to trust your promise since there is no child yet? In case you hadn’t noticed, we are not getting any younger.” We expect the story about the progenitor of the faith to portray him as confident, sure, as - well - trusting. But it does not. It makes a point of noticing that Abraham struggles to trust in God’s promise of an improbably blessed future. All the evidence suggests that Abraham and Sara are not the beginning of a new people in whom “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). Everything points to them being the end of the line. Abraham and Sara are proto-types. They are proto-types for all those who follow their footsteps in the faith - in the trust - that God will birth a future out of barrenness. It turns out that it is proto-typical for believers to disbelieve.
Does God discard such disbelief and move on? Does God judge Abraham unworthy for such questioning? No. After Abraham’s daring questions God takes him outside and invites him to count the stars in the desert night sky. Have you ever been outside in the desert in the middle of the night? Do you know how many stars are in that sky? They are beyond counting. “So shall your descendants be” says God to Abraham. It is the same promise restated. God has not been deterred by Abraham’s incredulity. Except now there is also a sign - the stars. Somehow it is enough. Abraham believes the LORD. Is it because the LORD does not give up? Is it because the stars are - like a sacrament - a visible sign of an invisible reality? The text does not say. Who knows how faith comes to be? Faith is never the result of a prescription or a formula. There are no four steps to faith, no predictable processes, no secret techniques that lead to trust in the God who promises life when all that can be seen is certain death. Faith is not an achievement. It cannot be earned. Faith is always gift, pure gift. The text says it this way: “And Abraham believed the LORD.” That’s it. Nothing more. Abraham believed. “And”, says the text, “the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Righteousness. It means to be living faithfully in relationship. It means to be living rightly with God. It is what we mean to say to one another when, in response to an apology, we say: “It’s alright”. We are saying that the relationship has been put right, has been ‘right-wised’, made righteous. To live righteously with God is to trust in the promises of God. It is the reason that we long for the church - as a denomination, as a congregation - to receive the gift of faith in God’s promises. Without this gift we live out of deep anxiety about the future. Without faith in God’s capacity to keep the promise we give up on God, assuming that we are surely the end of the line. Then we live out of fear, grasping at straws, placing our trust in all sorts of idols that go by the name of the quick fix rather than by the name of the God we meet in Jesus Christ.
Yet Abraham is still not sure. God has reckoned Abraham’s faith as righteous. We expect Abraham to now demonstrate his heroic capacity to trust. Instead he asks: “O LORD God, how am I to know that I shall possess the land you promise?” Apparently this righteous faith is endlessly wrestling with God, struggling with the promise, sure one minute and unsure the next. Staring at the stars will not be enough. Is God exasperated by Abraham’s uncertainty? Apparently not. God instructs Abraham to bring “a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove and a young pigeon.” Then Abraham “cuts them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the animals in two. And when the birds prey came down on the carcasses, Abraham drove them away.” I told you. It is a primal story, an odd story. And it is our story. Listen. “As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abraham, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.” Abraham sinks into the depths of his fear of the future. Then, in the deep darkness, “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.” It is God passing between the severed animal carcasses. It is an ancient enactment of a deal being made. It is from such ceremonies that we inherit the phrase “cutting a deal”. In a deal between equal partners both pass between the severed animals as a way of promising to keep the covenant or else face the same fate. In a deal in which a strong party covenants with a weaker party it is the lesser party to the agreement that passes through the carcasses. But in this case it is the LORD God and only the LORD God who passes through. Here the stronger party to the agreement is the one who makes the solemn vow. Abraham does nothing, promises nothing, is not even asked to believe in order to receive the promise. The text says it simply: “On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abraham.” It is a binding agreement, a covenant, an oath duly witnessed, sealed and notarized. God has hereby sworn to provide a home for the promised, still unborn descendants of Abraham and Sara. The whole thing is promise upon promise. The story is all about trusting the promises of God.
When I was preparing to introduce you to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians this Lent I thought that we needed a better title than just “Galatians.” We needed something that captured the heart of the letter. I read and reread Galatians. Then, there it was. There in chapter four, verse twenty-eight: “Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac.” Children of the promise: named “Isaac.” It means “laughter,” a reminder of Sara’s chortling belly-laugh when she overhears the visitors promising a child to her barren womb (Genesis 18). Paul says that we are children of the promise made to Abraham and to Sara. Our lives are - our life together is - all gift, all gift of God. In Jesus Christ the primal covenant is fulfilled. In our baptism through death to life God’s incredible promise of newness is being kept. No matter the troubling diagnosis or problematic prognosis you have received from a
doctor or a parent or a culture of consumption or a persistent
voice within. The future - the world’s future, the church’s future, your future, my future - is no longer barren, bleak. Now tomorrow is fertile, promising. To live out of the promise of God is to live in response to God’s improbable goodness, to live out of amazing grace, to live not as a child of fear but as a child of gratitude. We no longer need to make up a future nor give up on the future. We are free to receive the future that God is, even now, creating. It is the future glimpsed here at the table where we participate in the great sacrament of thanksgiving (in Greek “eucharist”). A sacrament is an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” It means that, for those with eyes to see, the ancient covenant is made again here, the improbable promise is fulfilled again here, the children of laughter are born again here. Even you. Even me. This is gospel truth. Thank God.