Genesis is a book of origin stories, especially the first 11 chapters. These are stories not primarily about HOW things happened in the past (although we read them that way because we have a scientific worldview), but WHY things are the way they are right now. Why do we feel so connected to one another and the earth? Why is bearing children so hard for women? Why do men dominate society? Why are there different people groups with different languages in the world? These chapters contain the stories of Cain and Abel, the great flood and Noah and the ark, and the Tower of Babel. They are stories about the history of all people.
But then in chapter 12, the Bible begins to focus in on the history of just some people. In chapter 12 we meet a couple named Abram and Sarai, whom we know better as Abraham and Sarah. They are the ancestors of the Christians, the Jews, and the Muslims. And they are remembered in our tradition as the father and mother of faith. Their story represents all of our stories. And it sets the stage for everything that happens throughout the rest of the Old Testament. It all begins here.
In Genesis chapter 12, Abram and Sarai are living as part of Abram’s family tribe in the land of Haran. Abram is 75 and Sarai is 65 and they have no children. But one day they hear the voice of God saying to them:
“Get going out from your land, and from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.
My heart’s desire is to make you into a great nation, to bless you,
to make your name great so that you may be a blessing.
My desire is to bless those who bless you, but whoever curses you I will curse,
and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
This is how it begins. With one childless couple, called by God to leave what is familiar and safe for the promise of something better. God promises them a large family of descendants and a land to live in, but the path to receiving it is to leave what they know and follow God to something they don’t yet know. And so they do. In chapters 12, 13 and 14, they have series of adventures. This morning’s story in chapter 15 begins 10 years after Abram and Sarai initially follow God into the unknown. They still have no children and no land, so you can understand why Abram is a little frustrated. So let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the word and wisdom of God:
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision saying,
“Do not fear, Abram.
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”
But Abram said, “My Lord God, what will You give me, since I am living without children, and the heir of my household is Eliezer of Damascus?” Then Abram said, “Look! You have given me no descendants, so a house-born servant is my heir.”
Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him saying, “This one will not be your heir, but in fact, one who will come from your own body will be your heir. God took Abram outside and said, “Look up now, at the sky, and count the stars—if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.”
Then Abram believed in the Lord and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Then God said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans, in order to give you this land to inherit it.”
So Abram said, “My Lord God, how will I know that I will inherit it?”
Then God said to him, “Bring Me a three year old young cow, a three year old she-goat, a three year old ram, a turtle-dove and a young bird.” So Abram brought all these to God and cut them in half, and put each piece opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds. Then birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, but Abram drove them away. When the sun was about to set and a deep sleep fell on Abram, behold, terror of great darkness was falling upon him! Then God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will be enslaved and oppressed 400 years. But I am going to judge the nation that they will serve. Afterward they will go out with many possessions. But you, you will come to your fathers in peace. You will be buried at a good old age. Then in the fourth generation they will return here—for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”
When the sun set and it became dark, behold, there was a smoking firepot and a fiery torch that passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram, saying, “I give this land to your descendants, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates River: the Kenite, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Raphaites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”Genesis 15: 1-21
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
This story is full of ancient rituals and symbols that we don’t fully understand. However they are meaningful and so this morning I will explain a few of them. But mostly I want us to ask, “Why does this story matter, and what does it tell us about how to live now today?” So let’s take it bit by bit.
First God shows up and reiterates God’s intention to bless Abram, saying, “I am your shield and your very great reward.” To which Abram understandably responds with some skepticism: “What else are you going to give me when you haven’t yet give me the first things you promised? I don’t have any children so everything I have will be left to my servant.” We have other ancient records confirming that when there were no natural children, property could be left to a servant who had been born in the household. This is what Abram says he’s going to do. God promised a large family but that hasn’t materialized, so Abram’s going to figure out how to manage it his own way. But God says, “No, that’s not what’s going to happen. You will have an heir that comes from your own body, a biological child, not a servant.” In a vision God shows Abram a sky full of stars and promises that his descendants will be more numerous than those stars. And here we come to the crux of this whole first section: verse 6 which says Abram believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.
Abram believed God, not only a cognitive agreement, but an attitude of trust. An active trust, just like we talk about the word faith in the New Testament. Without concrete proof, without a scientific explanation of how it will happen, Abram actively chooses to take God at God’s word. And this is confirmation of Abram’s righteousness.
This is faith. This is our model for what it means to trust God. Abram accepts the reality of a good future that is in God’s hands. Abram is not blind to reality. He knows he’s 85 years old and childless and living as a stranger in the land. But he is willing to see past his present reality, to trust that the way things are right now is not the way that things will always be, that the God who initially led him out of the familiar is still leading him and still has a plan.
In the second part of the story Abram asks God about the second part of God’s promise. They’ve already talked about the promise of family, but what about the promise of land? Abram still doesn’t have any land, so he asks God how he will know that he is going to possess the land. Through another vision and a strange ritual involving cut-up animals, God again confirms the promise, using the words “Know this for certain.” God then relates some of what will happen to Abram’s descendants, alluding to their captivity in Egypt and the eventual power of Israel under King Solomon. Essentially God tells Abram, “I’m going to fulfill my promise, but you won’t live to see it. I’m making a promise to you, but it’s not for you; it’s for your descendants.”
Which is not really what we want to hear from God. We want to receive our promises, and preferably not just at some point in our lifetime, but right now. Instead sometimes what happens is that God makes a promise to us, but not for us. We don’t always get what we want. God’s promises are certain, but we may not get to see them. They may be for future generations and not for ours. And it may get worse before it gets better. Abram’s descendants would experience 400 years of oppression, and then more difficulties, before they finally possessed the land God promised way back in the day. The invitation of the life of faith, of the life of trusting God, is to let that be enough for us. Can we let it be enough for us to trust that God’s promises will come true even if they don’t come true for us? Can we let it be enough to trust that sometimes things get worse before they get better? Will we continue to trust that God is good if we don’t get what we want? Will we continue to work for justice if we see things getting worse before they get better? Will we continue to live as people of the resurrection when it seems like death keeps winning? This is the invitation and the challenge of faith.
It is not easy, but as God promises at the beginning of this story, we receive a very great reward. This is not the prosperity gospel. This is not the promise of health and wealth in exchange for following Jesus. However, there is no other way to access the promises of God, to live into the promises of God, except by faith. In order to receive the benefits of the promise, we must trust that the promise is true. That’s the point of this story. The only thing you need to know about the cut up animals and the smoking fire pot and the torch that pass between the animals is that God is the only one who makes a promise here. God offers this promise freely to Abram. Abram doesn’t do anything to earn it. Abram doesn’t participate in this covenant. He doesn’t walk between the animals, which was the sign of participating in the covenant. Only the symbols of God do that. In this story, God puts Godself on the line to say, “I will do what I said I would do. And if I don’t may I be cut up like these animals.” Only God does that. This is a free gift to Abram. But he will only actually experience the gift if he trusts he has received it.
It is our trust that activates our experience of following God. Christianity is not designed to be a mental exercise. Ultimately there is no benefit in passively debating, endlessly questioning, obsessively researching. You will always find conflicting evidence. There will always be another side to the story. In the end, we must each actively choose whether to trust God’s promises or not. As spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah we too are blessed to be a blessing to others. God is forever calling us out of our familiar land to a land that God will show us. And in Jesus we see God putting Godself on the line to confirm the promise. Our response, the foundation of our life, is trust. Once we trust that God is who God says God is and that God’s promises will come true even if it’s not how and when we would like, all of the rest of our actions flow from there. Only through trust can we begin to really receive all that God has for us. Through trust, through faith, we access God’s abundant life. Amen.