God calls back
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Philippians 3:17-4:1
I selected the title for today’s sermon before we talked about today’s texts at Brown Bag Bible Exploration on Tuesday. After that conversation, I thought of a better title, “God Keeps Calling.” Or maybe “God Calls Back.”
Our Old Testament lesson is the second of several conversations God has with Abram, who in the next conversation receives the name “Abraham.”
The first time God spoke to Abram, Abe was 75 years old. He’d already travelled a long way from Ur up to Haran. At Haran, God said this to Abram,
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
And Abram went. Just like that. He didn’t say a word. He took his wife, his nephew and lots and lots of livestock and people. Abram was a wealthy, prominent man. [If you missed the pun, ask me later.]
Then, in today’s reading God speaks to Abram again, this time in a vision and they have a conversation. God is in initiating a covenant with Abram. And covenants need some explanation. They’re like modern contracts, but with a few significant differences. God sets the terms of the covenant and informs Abram of its terms. Abram doesn’t get to negotiate in this case. One could say God imposes the covenant on Abram, though God promises to bless Abram. It’s a good covenant for Abram, but it’s sort of “I know what’s good for you, and here it is, Abe.” Then there’s this odd scene that got us asking a lot of questions Tuesday, “What’s up with the animals being cut in half and a fire pot passing between the pieces?” This part of the covenant ritual can be thought of as a self-curse. It is as though God is saying, “If I do not keep the promises of this covenant, may I be treated as these animals are.” It’s a sign of God’s deep, passionate commitment—and we do not have any modern analog to this. The closest thing we have to this conditional self-curse is that one party can sue another party for breach of contract.
My favorite part of this conversation between God and Abram is the ways that God reassures Abram. It starts off with God telling Abram that he’ll have a great reward, but Abram quickly points out he hasn’t had any children of his own. Then God “brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them….So shall your descendants be.” I didn’t plan this, but what a great passage to hear the Sunday after I preached about the wonders of astronomy. God shows Abram that his descendants will be beyond counting, as the stars are in the night sky. Stars are reminders and signs of the blessing of children. That’s why I’m wearing the blue stole today, officially, the color for Lent is purple, but today’s Old Testament lesson reminds us to look up and try to count the blessings that God showers down on us every day. All the time.
It’s this passage that is the root of the custom of having Jewish weddings outdoors. So there’s nothing to separate those gathered to support the couple getting married from the blessing of God above. Later on, when Jewish weddings were held outdoors on village market days, when it was crowded, it was hard to tell who was at the wedding and who was just shopping, so the custom became to build a canopy, called a “huppah” that the participants in the wedding could gather under. The cover of the canopy was flimsy fabric, not a solid roof. The huppah wouldn’t shield the couple from God’s blessing. The huppah also represented the home the family would reside in.
The next sentence is really, really important: “And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Or “Because he put his trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to him as merit.” [Jewish Publishing Society] or “And he believed! Believed God! God declared him ‘Set-Right-with-God.’” [The Message]
Abraham is the model, the archtype of faith, standing under the starry sky, he believed that God would make a great nation of him. And God gave him credit for being righteous. In this case “righteous” is a legal term that can mean “innocent.”
Repeatedly in the New Testament, this passage, and Abraham’s faith, are referred to. To Paul, it is very important that Christians understand that this righteousness that was credited to Abram was a free, gracious gift from God. Abram’s willingness to believe and trust God really set him apart from all the other pioneers of faith. Paul writes about this passage to the Romans and Galatians; Peter preaches about it in Acts; and the author of Hebrews also uses it to explain how we are able to appropriate the status of righteousness or innocence that God first extended to Abram, then made universal through his son Jesus the Christ.
If you’re Abram this is the best day of your life. So far. You’ve received the gift of complete acceptance from the Living God.
So it’s kind of odd, I think that the very next thing that happens is God tells Abe that he will possess the land he has come to…and Abe responds “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” And the whole covenant ratification with the animals cut in half and the fire pot happens next. All a way of reassuring Abram.
God speaks to Abram and gives more depth to the covenant two more times. In the 17th chapter of Genesis, when God first appears, Abram falls on his face, which is a posture of worship. God changes his name to Abraham, and tells him again that his descendants will be numerous, but this time, God tell Abraham that his wife, whose name is no Sarah will have a son. At this point Abraham falls on his face in laughter. I love to point this part of the story out. Worship and laughter are thisclose together! At this point Abraham is 99 years old and Sarah is 90.
In the next chapter of Genesis, three men appear to Abraham, and it’s not exactly clear who they. They’re the Lord, or they’re messengers of the Lord, or one of them is the Lord, whoever they are, they tell Abraham that his wife, Sarah will have a baby, when Sarah heard this she laughed to herself. The Lord asked Abraham why Sarah had laughed, the Lord asked, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” “But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh…’” But the Lord said, “Oh yes, you did…”
Laughter and faith are sidebyside. Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? And the Lord, maker of heaven and earth is arguing with a 90 year old woman, like two kids on a playground. “You laughed!” “Nuh-uh!” “Yah huh!”
It turns out that nothing is too wonderful for God. And Sarah has a son and names him Isaac, which is Hebrew for “Laughter.”
Nothing is too wonderful for God. Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi, a group of people who were very dear to him, you can feel the love her felt for them and the joy he brought them as you read his letter to them. He reminded them to stand firm in Christ, remembering that Christ is not only the path we are to walk, but also our ultimate destination and hope. What a strong message: “our citizenship is in heaven.” And God sent Christ to transform us, so stand firm in the hope we are to claim from a loving creator who has given us stories of faith, and models of faith for guidance and inspiration.
And the first of these, Abraham, the one who is seen as a patriarch by all three monotheistic religions was someone whom God called, and called again, and reassured and reminded and led and praised. Abraham’s a model of not only faith, but of teachability. A man who heard and listened to God, trusted, asked, believed, worshipped and laughed. A human being who lived a full life and kept moving and changing, because that’s what following the Living God is all about. Amen.