My sermon today springs from the Old Testament lectionary for a couple of weeks ago. When I came upon it, Genesis 15 spoke to me that day in a way I had not heard it speaking to me before. It is still speaking today, and it is urging me to share with you what it is saying to me. This sermon is born out of an inner meeting between where I have been in recent months and a text that goes back nearly 4000 years to the time of the biblical Patriarchs…Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Working on the Genesis text kept pointing me to a favorite New Testament text: 1 John 3:1-3:
“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”
Genesis 15 is printed in your Bulletin, you may want to keep an eye on it during this morning’s sermon. And I have two recommendations to make about listening to it:
Some of Genesis 15 sounds garbled and repetitive and mysterious. It comes from a very early time in biblical history, and completely understanding all its details is probably impossible. It is an excellent example that Genesis is a written compilation of several strands of originally oral traditions. The final editors tried to weave as many of those strands of tradition together into a single narrative as possible, but they didn’t care as much as we would that it all flow smoothly.
One other thing: the lectionary omits several key verses in the middle and at the end of the narrative. I will let you know when that is about to happen.
Settle back and listen. Suspend your 21st-century prejudice that everything worth knowing is logically ordered and that all important messages can be reduced to “talking points.” You can’t do that with Genesis 15:1-21 and really get what it is saying to me, or to you either.
15:1After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ 2But Abram said, ‘O LORD God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ 3And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ 4But the word of the LORD came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ 5(The LORD) brought (Abram) outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to (Abram), ‘So shall your descendants be.’ 6And (Abram) believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.
7 Then (the LORD) said to (Abram), ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ 8But (Abram) said, ‘O LORD God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ 9He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ 10(Abram) brought (the LORD) all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. 13Then the LORD said to Abram, ‘Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; 14but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions. 15As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.’
17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’
A little historical background: Abram/Abraham is the man to whom God made promises that are foundational to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He and his wife, Sarai/Sarah, started the family that became the people of Israel. They lived around 1800 years before Christ, before the Common Era. They are important because to them God promised the land of Canaan–the Bible’s “promised land,” now more or less modern Israel–and God also promised offspring to populate that land, which seemed impossible at the time because they were in their late 70’s and hadn’t had children in their many years together.
There are four major sections to this passage as it stands in Genesis 15:
1) In verses 1-6 Abram remembers God’s earlier promise of children to him and Sarai, and lays out his doubts regarding the reliability of that promise. In response, God takes Abram outside, shows him the starry heavens, and tells him that counting his heirs will be like counting the stars: impossible. Verse 6, “And (Abram) believed the LORD; and the LORD counted it to him as righteousness,” is key to later Christian understanding that righteousness before God depends upon belief–upon faith–not upon works. (Check out Romans 4:9 and Galatians 3:6, the history of the Reformation.)
2) Verses 7-11 tell us that God next promises land to Abram. And when Abram expresses doubt about that promise, God tells him to slay several kinds of animals, to cut the land animals in half, and to arrange all them in a certain way on the ground. We are not sure exactly what all that means, but it seems to reflect some ancient sacrificial rituals. Clearly, it is supposed to prove to Abram that he can trust God’s promise of land. Abram has to drive away birds of prey that threaten to carry off and/or eat the animals and birds he has sacrificed.
3) Verses 12-16 tell us that Abram next falls into a “deep sleep”, and that a “deep and terrifying darkness descend(s) upon him”. In those depths God tells Abram that his descendants whom God has promised, they who will live in the land God has promised, will be slaves in a foreign land for four generations/centuries before they get there. This will, of course, be the time of slavery in Egypt, from which Israel was finally delivered under Moses’ leadership around 1250 B.C. It is this passage–the passage about the difficult route to the promises–that the lectionary choosers decided to omit, for reasons I can only call dishonest.
4) Finally, verses 17-21 begin by saying the sun now goes down (showing that the deep darkness in the previous verses is not just about nighttime). That night, God makes a covenant–a sacred agreement and relationship with Abram– and repeats the promise of land, a promise that is not only about geography (where it will be), but about adversaries as well–about the people who will stand in the way of the fulfillment of the promise. It’s why I read the names of the nations listed there.
Whew! That’s a lot! The sermon must almost be over. But hang on, stay with me, let me make my point, speak the word I hear. Let me pass that word on to you, here and now, today.
This passage, this ancient story that many faiths believe sets them apart as a people chosen by God to serve humanity in God’s name…why does it speak to me, saying, “Preach it, Brother!”?
It’s because of my age. Last month I celebrated my 70th birthday, the beginning of my decade during which Abram was first called by God.
A year ago, in my own “deep and terrifying darkness”, on the eve of my 69th birthday, I left the lucrative and prestigious position I held at the time, a position that felt at odds with what I needed to be doing now in my life. That night of my leaving I was terrified that I would never again be able to accept myself, having given up so much, so publicly. And as I looked ahead, any notion about what I thought I might do in my life as a fully-retired person were vague. I lacked both clarity and confidence.
During the past twelve months I have gradually, with a great deal of personal and professional help, found my way toward a new land, a place of promise for me. I am still on the journey, but the direction feels right. I am just not “there” yet. Perhaps I never will be.
I knew when I left that position that I wanted to give more time to writing for people outside the church, for a wider readership than is readily available through congregations. Therefore, working to become a better writer remains the “vocational goal” of my retirement. I also wanted to spend time and energy with my wife and family, to sing more, to serve in some community-wide activities, and to reach out to others in ways I could not while holding down an ongoing job.
I have said “no” to inquiries about returning to my familiar world of regular pastoring and moderating; I no longer have the patience for that. I have been willing to preach when invited (thank you!), and to moderate a Presbytery Committee. That’s enough for me.
I feel like Abram in his old age: I’ve heard a promise, but I am not sure whether it is God who has spoken the promise…nor even, if God is behind it, that God will back it up. Does new promise in my life even now come from me, or from God? So I question and I doubt.
But now and again something forces me to walk outside on a clear, moonless night. I look up, survey the stars, and try to count the blessings all around me.
And on really good days, days I feel the most empowered, I know that who I am and who God calls me to be must in fact be one and the same me. Then I am most confident and courageous to move ahead.
There have been rough days in my journey, and I am certain that as I age, there are more ahead. That’s inevitable. No dream, no promise, no hope of any consequence is ever fulfilled without adversity and challenge, either for ourselves or for those whom we love. That’s my experience, and our family’s. Which is the reason I consider the lectionary’s omission of verses 13 through 16 unconscionable and misleading: you can’t get there from here without experiencing some bondage, without traversing alien territory, without sacrifice.
And I must confess: I am not as faithful as Abram at sacrificing. I am unsure how much risk I can tolerate. Perhaps my unwillingness to make real sacrifices has kept me from achieving all I hoped I might after one year. I am still not a paid and published author. I have to work harder and to dig deeper to do that, and even then it might not happen.
Can I follow the example of Abram, whose sacrifice of animals and birds prepared the way for God to seal the promises with and for him? When Abram heard God’s promises to him, he gave the best of his herds and flocks to God. Then, after hearing the news that his heirs’ road to freedom would be centuries-long and circuitous, Abram watched as smoke and fire passed between the bloody pieces of flesh on the ground. God “cut a covenant” (as the scriptures say) between the creator and the creature, between divinity and humanity. God makes a solemn covenant, “You will get there; you will achieve the goal you and I have set out to get to together; I will shield you from those who stand between you and the promised land, and I will reward you. It’s a deal. It’s my promise. Count on me.”
Now if all of this is only about Abram ’way back then, it’s of no use to any of us. If it’s only about me, it’s of no use to you.
So let me approach conclusion with a question and a challenge: what promise is God holding out in front of, ahead of, you? And what steps are you taking to accept it, to achieve that promise?
Those questions take on different forms depending upon where we are in life, but they are always before the faithful, at all stages of life. “What is God promising you? What are you doing to claim that promise?
If you are young, I hope your future is a enormous field of dreams and promises. How great to be alive! But your challenge is to be able to distinguish between God’s gracious promises, and our society’s commercial enticements. The trick is to find the promise that is for you, and to go for it. There is a half-truth going around: that all of us can be anything you want to be. Maybe we can be, but we cannot be happy until we dig deep enough into ourselves and look far enough into the heavens to discover who God is creating us to be. Because that’s where the promises God has made to us specifically are fulfilled. And it’s not enough to look around to see what pays the most or offers the best security if it is not what expresses the gifts that God has given us.
Middle-aged? The promises are still there, but they tend to be tarnished, and often seem impossibly out of reach. Love doesn’t feel like the romantic fantasies of the movies; financial success is tenuous and sometimes costs more than it seems to be worth; your progeny are not one-of-a-kind wunderkinds; your parents are not aging gracefully and are increasingly difficult for you; the right people aren’t always elected and when they are, they often disappoint. You still have your hopes and dreams, but the time-frame for achieving them is half of what it once was and you are not nearly half-way there.
And if you are old, like me, your feeling about promises ahead are a mix of this world and, maybe, the next. Just about every day another piece of our body hurts; we don’t remember things like we used to, nor react to them with the sure-footed-ness we once had. And what if our money runs out before we do? The world seems to be passing us by, and we are not sure we want to catch up. If we have a serious illness or disability we wonder how long we will have to endure the pain and the struggle. We are caught between hoping we live a long time and hoping we die before life gets too much to bear. The promises in this life get fewer in number; if we are lucky, the lure of blessing in a life to come takes their place. But maybe not.
The Abram and Sarai story is so compelling because it happens in their old age, that life-stage when it is hardest to hear and accept and follow up on promises for happiness and fulfillment in this life in this world. Yet here they are, a childless elderly couple on Medicare and Social Security, spending their days trekking back and forth between Egypt and Canaan in search of a homeland for the family they are no doubt spending their nights trying to start!
They do all that, that public moving from here to there, and that very private coming together, because they know that the promises they are pursuing are not just for themselves alone right now, but for the future. No, they are promises ordained by God to be blessings for the world for generations to come. Abram and Sarai hurt, no doubt; but they move. As long as they can move something, anything, they have a promise from God to work on and to make true, to come to be.
And you do, too. How do I know? Because you are here. You can still move. If you couldn’t get here at all, under at least some part of your own power, even with help…maybe not.If you are here, then God still has outstanding promises for you to accept and live out. Not only in a life to come, for those promises are always for all of us at any age, but for your life in the here and now.
Listen for what God is calling you to do and to be, and then, fully accepting whatever limitations you feel you have, give everything to God and go for it! You will be surprised! You will be surprised by how much energy you have to make the journey God is calling you to make, and by how far you travel. And the reason I believe that, is because it is working for me, and I trust it will continue to work for me, in one way or another, until God’s promises are fully realized in the promised kingdom ahead of us all.
Beloved, beloved….we are God’s children now….but it does not yet appear what we shall be.