Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18
Good morning, here now to begin the second full week of Lent. A season of resolutions for many of us: fish on Fridays, or restraint at the dessert table--sometimes like New Year’s Resolutions, but framed for us in this season at least in part with particularity by the Invitation to a Holy Lent that we hear on Ash Wednesday: by self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.
Perhaps for some of us Lent every year a season with a particular pattern of attention, or perhaps we vary our practice and observance from year to year. But simply to say a word of encouragement, with a prayer that this is a season that will be in all ways spiritually rich and meaningful for you, a time of renewal, re-commitment in our Christian discipleship on this road once again toward the Sunday of Easter.
A stop along the way today. The reading from Genesis this morning is one of the watershed passages in all the narrative of scripture. The German Biblical theologians gave us a fun word heilsgeschicte (I love to say that: heilsgeschicte), the holy story, the sacred thread, the divine plot that runs continuously and with direction and intention from the burst of light in creation in the first chapter of Genesis to the great culmination when in the 21st chapter of the Revelation to St. John the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven, like a bride coming to meet her bridegroom, and the New Heaven and New Earth that is where we’re all headed. Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.
All the different stories--history, biography, theological and philosophical reflection, songs and prayers, poetry, mystic visions—revealed as one story. All the tangled paths leading to the one destination. And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”
And now this moment as we have heard it again this morning, this strange conversation, a dramatic, almost Shakespearean dialogue. . Adam and Eve and Noah and all the rest serving as a kind of prelude and overature. Now the curtain rises, Act One, Scene One. God and Abraham.
There is something I try to say at some point in just about every baptism—often at the time of the anointing with aromatic chrism right after the baptism has taken place. Most of you will have heard me refer to it briefly when I recall the story of the Prophet Samuel as he discovers and anoints David the Son of Jesse, the boy God has revealed to him as Israel’s future king. And I say that what Samuel said to David in that moment is what we would say to the child or adult being baptized: “God has a great plan for your life.”
Something like that for Abraham here. God says, I have a plan for you, and for those who come after you, your descendants. And it’s a big plan. A plan greater than anything you could possibly imagine. Not just about your work and household, or about who besides some guy named Eliezar of Damascus, is going to inherit these tents and herds when you die. That’s only the beginning. There is so much more. I have a plan for the whole world and for all of history, that is going to begin with you, with you and me together, here and now. To be revealed in its fullness not now, but in the future. And so here: Look toward heaven and count the stars; look at all the land stretching between the great rivers. A new nation and people to spring from you, a holy nation and a holy people. Nations will stream to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawning. My promise to you, Abraham. Today. A promise of good news, that you will be the instrument and vehicle for my blessing, for all nations and peoples. Let’s shake hands on it.
And then this very strange contract ritual of the ancient Near East. When we were kids we used to say, “cross my heart and hope to die.” In the ancient world it was in some places a custom to seal a contract by slaughtering an animal of the herd, cutting it into pieces, and then to say, “if I break my word, let the same thing that just happened to this animal happen also to me.” And here in Abram’s vision it is God himself who comes down to seal the promise. Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your shield. You can trust me. I promise.
In all the complex unfolding of human history, we might say, in all the cosmic history since the universe was born, this turning point. God chooses to act not by a thunderbolt of force, but in relationship and in love, making himself vulnerable, in relationship with this one man. Making himself vulnerable. Such a strange and beautiful thing for God to do. Not because he has to, but because he wants to. Just for love. By making a promise. If you will be faithful to me, I will be faithful to you. As if to say, “my life, my great plan for all the world, is as much in your hands now as your life and your plans are in mine.”
In just a few weeks we’ll have on our church calendar the Feast of the Annunciation, the reminder of the story so beautifully represented in the first panel of the Clara Miller Burd Nativity Window here in what we should call our South Transept. God speaks first, with a plan and a promise, and then it’s up to her. That one girl. It was up to her. Just as in the story from Genesis it was up to Abraham. And with the whole universe in the balance, she takes a breath, Mary, and then she answers: Let it be, as you have said. Let it be. We have a deal.
Like Abraham. As if out in the vast distance of this pre-historic expanse, we can see from this place in the desert a procession of patriarchs and kings and prophets all the way, all the way, to the Cross.
Which is when the promise is fulfilled, when the plan is accomplished. The gospel genealogies agree, in Luke 3:34 and Matthew 1:2. Not only agree, but insist with a crucial theological emphasis, that Jesus was himself a descendant of Abraham. Perhaps better to give that an upper-case “D.” Or all caps: not “a descendant,” but THE DESCENDANT. God blessing the world and reconciling the world to himself. Keeping his promise. Which is his promise not just to Abraham, but for us. You and me. So the words of the Prophet, “he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes we are healed.”
You can trust me Abraham to be faithful to my word to the very end.
And to see in this Lent that we also are standing there, in the shadow of the Cross, to inherit the promise so long ago spoken the Abraham. Part of the scene. Knowing that we were there, that we are there, as we approach the Holy Table this morning, and as we live and journey through this Lent: stars in the sky, grains of sand along the seashore. God had us in mind then, has us in mind now. Put your trust in me—which is his invitation this morning. Put your trust in me, and I will be faithful to you.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.