a sermon on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 for the Second Sunday in Lent
preached on February 24, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Last Sunday was the first Sunday in Lent—but perhaps more importantly to some people, it was the last night of the third season of the British drama Downton Abbey. For those of you who don’t know the show, it tells the story of the Crawley family, great lords and ladies of the English countryside, all centered around their beautiful estate, Downton Abbey. The story begins with the sinking of the Titanic—and with it the closest heirs for the Crawley family fortune, title, and home. In those days, none of Robert Crawley’s three daughters could inherit the estate, so the family soon learned that the home and title would be passed on to a middle-class lawyer from Manchester. I won’t give away any more of the plot, but the plight of the Crawleys seems much like that faced by Abram in our reading from Genesis today.
Abram, too, was lacking a direct heir—but he and his wife Sarai had no daughters or sons, and his heir was set to be a slave born in his house. By the time of our story today, God had offered him two promises of something more that he already was. First, God told the childless Abram:
I will make of you a great nation.
Then later, God promised Abram,
All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.
These first two times, Abram believed God right away and followed God’s instructions. Still, though, he was childless. God again came to him with words of promise.
Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.
But after all that he had been through, after two promises that seemed no closer to reality after all this time, after confrontations with kings and rulers in the land that God had supposedly given to him, Abram was much more skeptical:
O Lord God, what will you give me,
for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?
You have given me no offspring,
and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.
As the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey might say, at least it wasn’t going to be a solicitor from Manchester!
Abram’s frustration made sense. He had done everything that God had asked of him. He had left his home and his family to wander around the desert, following God’s promise of land and offspring. All he had to show for it was a still-barren wife, some unpleasant encounters with rulers who didn’t welcome an outsider’s claims on their land, and one brief blessing from Melchizedek, a priest of “God Most High” of ancient Canaan.
After Abram voiced his frustration with God’s timetable for fulfilling these promises, God didn’t leave him out in the cold. Instead, God took him outside and told him,
Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.
So shall your descendants be.
God didn’t offer him any new sort of word, and Abram didn’t have any sort of grand epiphany. Yet when God addressed Abram’s frustrations directly, something shifted. Abram finally understood the nature of this promise, and God finally got through to Abram. As scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it:
The new promise for his life is not any expectation of flesh and blood. Rather, [Abram] has come to rely on the promise speaker. He has now permitted God to be not a hypothesis about the future, but the voice around which his life is organized… He did not move from protest to confession by knowledge or by persuasion but by the power of God who reveals and causes [this] revelation to be accepted. The new pilgrimage of [Abram] is not grounded in the old flesh of [his wife Sarai] nor the tired bones of [Abram], but in the disclosing word of God. (Genesis, Interpretation Commentary Series, p. 144, 145)
In this third promise, then, God recognizes how Abram is changing in response to all these promises, so God names Abram as pleasing in God’s sight.
Even with this critical turning point, this is not the end of this moment of God’s promise with Abram. God again promised land to Abram, and Abram again asked for a simple sign to make everything clear. Once again God responded with honesty and hope, telling Abram in the verses we skipped in our reading that his descendants would face trials amidst their rejoicing, while still assuring him that his descendants would possess a great land stretching across much of today’s Middle East.
These extravagant promises and Abram’s trusting response set the stage for the rest of the incredible story of God’s people that unfolds throughout the Old Testament into the life of Jesus and all the way into the church today. While these promises may seem to be many thousands of miles and many millennia away from us—even more distant than the world of Downton Abbey!—they are actually still pretty important today. This promise of land to Abram and his descendants has shaped millennia of conflict over the land now known as the Holy Land to three religious traditions. The difficulty of many couples to have children is an unspoken challenge for many families in this day and age, even if we long emphasize a male heir quite as much as Abram or the Crawley family did. And we Christians often rightly wonder how these promises first given to Abram make sense in our own tradition. So as we approach these words of promise, we carry all this history and hope with us—even as we too long for a new way of promise and new life.
Ultimately, though, God’s promises to Abram were less about the promises themselves but about the new life that promises can bring. Abram took up a new path in embracing these promises, not in doing something good and right and true but in embracing God’s call to a new and different way of life that affirmed that he was a righteous, beloved child of God and invited him to trust God’s future above anything that might have made him question the uncertainty around him. When Abram trusted God and gave up his confidence in and reliance on his own way, he stepped fully into the possibility of what we Christians have later named as the new creation, where we too give up control and trust that God will do something new and better and greater in us and through us and even sometimes in spite of us.
Ultimately, then, these promises are for us too—not the explicit promise of land and descendants but rather the promise of new life where we are beloved children of God and can trust that God will journey with us all along the way. Lent is as good a time as any to trust God’s promises so fully, so deeply, that we emerge as God’s new people, loving as God loves, trusting as God trusts, and living in faith as God lives in faith. Lent is a good time to look back on these promises anew, to ask good questions of God, to look for better signs and seals of these promises in our lives and our world, so that our faith might be deepened and we might, with Abram, have the depth of our faith reaffirmed by none less than God. It is a good time to wonder what these promises look like in our own time and place, to think together about what it means, as Walter Brueggemann again puts it, “to trust God’s future and to live assured of that future even in the deathly present.”
Next week, we will begin a series of conversations about just that as we welcome our congregational consultant Bill Weisenbach to preach and give us an overview of the assessment and discernment process that is before us in the next few months. So this Lent is a good time to work on letting go of the things that keep us from the way of life that God intends, to release the ties that keep us bound to the past, to trust the promises of God for the future, and to listen for the new word of promise for today and tomorrow and beyond so that we can be open to the new way that is emerging before us.
So as we walk these Lenten days together, as we remember all the promises of God to Abram and sort out the promises of God for our own day and time, may we know the presence of God with us on this journey and keep walking in faith, hope, and love until all things—even us!—are made new. Lord, come quickly! Amen.