Sermon Series: Family Stories
Sermon: “Waiting on a Promise”
July 13, 2008
We never should have known his name. He should have been like the rest of his contemporaries… shadowy, anonymous figures from thousands of years in the past… unimaginable, utterly foreign, even, if we think about it, barbaric. He wore roughly woven garments and animal pelts. He wandered, a nomad, with the other members of his clan—wives, concubines, slaves, animals. He took these animals, from time to time, and ritually slaughtered them, presenting their parts as a burnt offering to his god, a god not acknowledged, at that time, by most of the known world. Nothing about him distinguished him from the other thousands of men who walked the earth when he did, with the exception of one crucial detail: that little-known and little-worshipped god took an interest in him, singled him out, and made him a promise of blessing. We should never even have known his name. He should have vanished like mist from the Susquehanna River at dawn. Instead, fully half of the human beings now living on this planet, more than three billion souls, consider themselves to be his spiritual (and, in some cases, actual) offspring. Instead of his being relegated forever to the thick darkness of the irretrievable past, he is very much alive, very much in our midst. We remember him. We invoke his name. We call ourselves “Children of Abraham.”
He literally wanders into the narrative of beginnings, Genesis, and at the moment he enters, the story changes radically. Before Abraham comes on the scene it is a book of deep myth and wild ancient tales, just-so stories recounting God’s relationship with human beings writ large: God creates. Human beings mess up God’s creation. Floodwaters rise and towers fall. God copes with the disappointment, sadder and wiser, and decides to make of one man and his family a special project. Before Abraham, Genesis gives us stories that answer children’s questions such as, Where did we come from? How did we get languages? Why do people get married? At his entrance, these are set aside for the particularity of one family, a family saga that rivals anything on television, scripted or reality. Abraham enters the narrative of Genesis and the story gets interesting, because we know these people. .
We meet him when his name is still Abram… a name meaning, “father of people”… and when we meet him, he is already the age of a grandfather or great-grandfather. But he is no father, he has no children. As often is the case in the bible, the blame is pinned on the woman. His wife, Sarai, is barren, we are told, she has no children. And immediately after we learn this, we hear God make the promise. It is a three-fold promise: land, descendants, and a name that is a blessing. And it is a promise that comes with a command: Get up and go. Leave behind everything and everyone you know. God orders Abram and all his retinue on a journey of unknown destination. In light of what we know about Sarai, God promises the impossible.
No sooner does God promise the impossible than the promise is put in jeopardy. Sarai and Abram are traveling in Egypt, and he does about the least chivalrous thing imaginable: in order to avoid being killed for his beautiful wife, he persuades her that they should travel masquerading as brother and sister, an arrangement that almost guarantees her abduction by the next powerful man they meet. The beautiful Sarai is taken into the Pharaoh’s harem. But God, having made a promise, is determined to protect that promise, and so lets Pharaoh know (by means of plague and pestilence) that something is amiss. Pharaoh is a smart guy, and soon Sarai and Abram are reunited. Abram, interestingly, comes out of the story richer—he gets a payoff of more flocks, more personnel.
Their story continues in this vein for a time. God reiterates the promise, but no child is forthcoming. Abram’s nephew is taken captive in a local war, and Abram takes a contingent of several hundred men to rescue him, suddenly a geriatric war hero. He has a strange encounter with a king named Melchizedek. All the while, the promise languishes in the background of the story. Abram and Sarai are still waiting. Until today, until this passage. And we begin to get a sense of how these things work with God.
“Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield.” God begins with a word of encouragement. Which is a good thing, because Abram has been waiting a long time for this promise to materialize. And Abram replies to God in the tones and cadences of an old friend. “But God,” he says. O Lord God. What will you give me again? My days are unrelentingly childless. I have chosen my favorite slave, Eliezar of Damascus… he doesn’t really have the right coloring and his people tend to be a bit chubby. But O Lord God. He is my child, best I can tell. He is my heir, unless something else happens. What will you give me again?
God in reply takes Abram by the hand, figuratively speaking. God tips Abram’s chin up so that he can see more than the desert sands and the odd scorpion scuttling by beneath his robes. It must be night, because God has taken Abram star-gazing. This would be a kind of star-gazing none of us can imagine. We are like my mother, who, because she was a near-sighted child, and had no eyeglasses, thought for years that “stars” were a kind of metaphor for how pretty the sky was. Someone finally put a pair of glasses on her when she was about 13, and, even from the streets of South Philly, the heavens exploded for her, into wonder and beauty, greater than she’d ever imagined.
We’re like that, in this world of light-pollution. We can’t imagine the number and variety and depth of the stars that Abram saw when his chin was tipped up, like a little child receiving a peck on the forehead from his grandfather. He was the Hubble Telescope. God showed him all this, pried open a little place in Abram’s mind and heart to let this splendor in, and said, There. It will be a little like that. And Abram’s now-opened heart and mind softened just a bit, and a tear glistened in the corner of his eye, and he believed. He believed.
I am God, God reminded Abram. I am God. Remember what I like? And Abram did remember that God liked the sacrifices of those animals he possessed in such abundance, and so, when it was morning again, the old man went about the quiet, bloody business of slaughtering them. He laid them on the ground, the halves across from one another, except for the birds. He ran back and forth, flapping his arms, so that vultures would not take the feast for themselves.
In the ancient world, when one made a covenant, a solemn promise, one bound it by symbols that spoke loudly of life and death. In fact, in the Hebrew, the idiom is not “to make a covenant,” but rather, “to cut a covenant.” The severed animals invoke a wish, much along the lines of “cross my heard, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” Those taking part in the solemn vow would walk between the pieces of the animals, saying, in effect, may this happen to me if I violate this covenant. My word is good.
But it was not Abram who walked between these animals. It was God. Once again, the day ended, and what would have been a dark night grew still darker—thick, terrible darkness, the kind that causes dread to seep into the heart, because we fear nothingness more than anything. Abram fell into the darkness, into a deep sleep, which God made even more terrifying by dire predictions. You will have your children, God said, but it will not go easy for them. You say a slave is your heir? All your heirs will be slaves. They will be slaves, but it will be my good pleasure to free them after a time. And they will be even richer than you are now. But sleep, child. Sleep, because there is something I must do.
Here’s what the text of Genesis says: “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.” [Gen 15:17]. It was God. It was God who walked through the severed animal gauntlet. It was God who said, in effect, may this happen to me if I violate this covenant, if my word is not good. A God who expresses a willingness to die…Why does that sound so familiar?
And yet… and yet… even then, the promise is not fulfilled. This passage does not end with Sarai giving birth… she does not give birth ‘til another dozen or twenty years have elapsed. The passage ends much as it begins: Abram and Sarai are still waiting on that promise.
But something has changed, something has shifted. Abram has learned what it is to continue to be in relationship with God when things are not going as planned.
First, God is present to speak words of comfort and consolation. When we are lost, when we are baffled and sore and cannot imagine why it is God has allowed us into whatever tangled situation we are in, then it is a good time to listen for God’s words of comfort. In my life they came to me through Psalm 147: “The Lord heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Yes. I heard those words, and even though I was still bleeding and battered, something told me I could trust them.
Then, God is there to reiterate the promise. It’s always good to try to re-examine whatever it was we thought God had guaranteed us. In Abram’s case, there has been no misunderstanding. But sometimes in life, there is. Back in June my daughter sang a Woody Guthrie song on Children’s Sunday, a song called “God’s Promise.” The song begins by God clarifying what has not been promised.
I didn't promise you skies painted blue
Not all colored flowers all your days through
I didn't promise you, sun with no rain
Joys without sorrows, peace without pain.
All that I promise is strength for this day,
Rest for my worker, and light on your way.
I give you truth when you need it, my help from above,
Undying friendship, my unfailing love.
Strength, rest, light, truth, help, friendship and love… In the gospel according to Woody, these fall within the category of irrevocables, non-negotiables. We can count on these.
Finally, God promises something extraordinary, something I think we can safely say no other god promises. God lays God’s life on the table. God walks the covenant line. Greater love has no man or woman or child or God, than this: I will keep my promise, or I will no longer be God.
When we are waiting on a promise to materialize, God surprises us, sometimes, by clueing us into something: it’s not the promise that is so important, it’s the relationship. Abram, disappointed, bones creaking, vigor vanishing even faster than his credulity where God is concerned, nevertheless stays in relationship with God. He stays connected. He talks to God as an old friend. He allows himself to hear God’s words of comfort. He allows himself to trust that this crazy God who lays the divine life on the line might just be trustworthy. We can do those things. We can stay in relationship with God, listening for those words of comfort. We can continue to listen hard. We can remember the floating, fiery presence of God, walking the covenant line, and we can trust that this God will go to any lengths to stay close to us. Thanks be to God. Thanks be to God. Amen.