(RCL C) Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18
The Second Sunday in Lent. In the great sweep of the Biblical story of salvation history again and again God reaches out to enter into covenant with his people. A deep union and unity of commitment and care. Adam and Eve in the Garden. Noah under the rainbow after the flood. A theme our Old Testament readings through this season return to again and again.
And here this morning in this most intense and personal way with Abram. The ceremony in Genesis 15 is fascinating. God makes this incredible promise, that Abram is to be the father of a great nation, God’s own people, and as numerous as the stars across the night sky. And Abram’s response—we might translate as something like: “that all sounds great, but I need to get it in writing.”
Susy and I have these friends from our church many years ago in State College, Gary and Laura Knoppers. She is a great Milton scholar and he is one of the foremost experts in the languages and cultures of the ancient Near East. And I remember Gary telling me long ago about this ancient form of a contract ceremony, with great formality, as in the completion of a treaty between two kings. The cutting up of these symbolic animals, and then making the pledge while standing in the midst of them. What it means is, “if I break my promise, if I don’t keep up my end of this contract, may what happened to these animals happen to me.”
So Abram with the King of the Universe, the Master of All Creation: “I’m not just going to take your word for it: cross your heart; put your hand on the Bible and swear.” A little odd, at least it seems to me. I mean, this is God we’re talking about, after all. But I think the whole scene plays out for us here in a way to emphasize dramatically the seriousness of God’s commitment. No matter what would come, year after year, generation after generation. We are his people and sheep of his pasture, and we’ve got that in writing! His sure and certain pledge. Absolutely to be trusted, world without end.
We notice that Abram doesn’t promise to do anything in return, in this contract, treaty, covenant. All free gift. But simply to trust. As St. Paul would write in the fourth and fifth chapters of Romans: “The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” And Paul says, “ . . . the words ‘it was reckoned to him’ were written not for his sake alone”—that is, not only for Abraham—“but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
This of course the heart of Paul’s gospel affirmation and renewed in later writers like St. Augustine and Martin Luther, and the heart of the great theological renewal in the era of the Reformation: “justification by faith.” The great mystery of the cross, to say that there is nothing we could ever do by our own hard work to repair the brokenness between God and our humanity, but that God himself would act once and for all, and as we in faith would unite ourselves to him in that action we would be made a part of the new life of a restored creation. In the Cross, his free gift of grace. As we remember Sunday by Sunday through all of our lives, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.
A great story in any case to hear again in Lent, along this journey toward Jerusalem and Holy Week. This existential encounter, Abraham and God, and the word of promise, hope, commitment, love. All about healing and forgiveness and renewal. For us. In our lives. When Abram looked up into that starry sky, we were there.
In the New York Times a few weeks ago there was this story about a couple who were celebrating their marriage. The story was that they had been high school sweethearts, but then had drifted apart after high school, and then college, career, moving from one part of the country to another. I think she was in New York City and he was in Texas or something. And then, fifteen years or so after their high school graduation, they reconnect. Where else? On Facebook. Friends of friends, in the vast web of social networking.
They read each other’s updates, make a few comments, exchange an e-mail or two. Turns out both had been in relationships over these years, but that at the moment both were unattached. Many months go by. And then, a business trip, and he was going to be in New York for a few days, and they decide to meet for lunch. And the story was, well that by the end of that lunch all the intervening years had slipped away, and in the distance the sound of wedding bells. He said something like, “I looked at her across the table, and I realized that I had been in love with her all these years, that I had never stopped loving her, but that somehow all that had been hidden. Until that moment. And there it was again.”
It’s a story that I think is a good story for us for Lent. As we hear week by week these stories of the ancient covenant, and as we would in this season be reminded of the one who first loved us. That we would be refreshed in that memory. From the days of Abraham long ago, to this day, this morning. Our first love, alive in us, renewed, restored. “Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven, to earth come down.” Which is again the heart of this season. His journey from the Manger to the Cross. All for us.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.