Created to Belong: A Promise in the Dark
September 18, 2016
Preaching: Brian Keepers
Text: Genesis 15:1-21
Movement 1: Setting the Stage
We have been created to belong. Hard-wired by God for connection and relationship. Created to belong to God, to one another, and to this world in which we live.
We talked about this last week when we heard the opening chapters of Genesis, where God creates the earth and the heavens. We saw that the very first act of God is an act of hospitality. God forms man and woman in his image, and makes room for them in the Garden. It’s a place of shalom...flourishing, wholeness, interconnectedness...the way the world is meant to be.
But it doesn’t stay that way. It isn’t long before tragedy strikes. Adam and Eve, deceived by the serpent, distrust God and rebel and shalom is disrupted. God seeks them out in their hiding, and in an incredible act of grace, God covers them in their shame. But there are consequences, and so they are expelled from the Garden, sent east of Eden with their bags packed.
Before the story gets better, I’m sorry to say it gets worse. There are two brothers—one named Cain and the other Able. Burning with jealousy, Cain kills Able and cries out, “Am I my brother’s keeper?’ as the blood of his own kin soaks into the ground.
Human civilization spreads and then more violence and darkness. Then a flood. A man named Noah and his family, and an ark full of animals bobbing on the surface of the water for forty days and forty nights.
God starts over. A world washed clean. But even after this new beginning, it is only a matter of time before human hearts, “prone to wander,” would once again “leave the God they love.” Next comes the building of a tower reaching up to heaven, another futile effort like in the Garden to become gods themselves.
It’s one tragedy piled onto another. This story is not going well. Is there any hope?
But God.... Two words. Such powerful words.
But God stays in the story. But God doesn’t abandon his creation or give up on us. But God acts. God pursues his creation and is determined to take the whole world back.
God calls a man and his wife, nomads, to be the father and mother of a people who would be a channel of blessing to all the families of the earth; a light to all the nations. Abram is his name...he would later become “Abraham.” And Sarai is her name...she would later become “Sarah.”
To Abraham and Sarah God comes, places a call on their lives and makes a promise. A three-fold promise: to give them land, blessing, and a family. Here is it is in Genesis chapter 12:
“Now the LORD said to Abram: ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
And Abraham and Sarah went. They pulled up their stakes and they went in faith. They bring along some relatives too—their nephew, Lot, and his family. And that ends up being a big mistake (which is probably no surprise). They go to Egypt, which is a whole other story in itself. And eventually they make it to the land of Canaan.
After having a family feud over who would get which parts of the Promise Land, Lot and Abraham agree to divide the land between their families. Abraham made the mistake of letting Lot pick first, and of course Lot chose the half that was fertile and lush around the Jordan River, leaving Abraham with the barren land to the west. You see, all of it was called “the Promise Land,” but some of it was more promising than others. And Abraham and Sarah got stuck with the less promising land.
But the next thing that happens is the worst of all. Chosen by God to be the father and mother of a great nation, Abraham and Sarah get the heartbreaking news that, after extensive medical tests, Sarah’s womb is as barren as the sorry land Lot had stuck them with.
They try to take matters into their own hands and Abraham names the child of one of his slaves as his heir. He needs to put somebody’s name on his will. Somebody needs to carry the family name forward. If God won’t follow through on his promise to give them children, they will do whatever it takes to make sure that there is an heir and thus a future.
But that doesn’t take away the heart ache or the disappointment. They were in their seventies when God first came to them and made the promise—to bless them with a land and offspring. Now many years have passed. How many? Hard to tell, but enough to bury the hopes and dreams they once carried. At some point you take the cards you’ve been dealt and you try to move on.
This is where our story picks up today. Hear the Word of the Lord from Genesis chapter 15. Read Scripture.
Movement 2: The Promise Affirmed
What do you do when someone you trust makes you a promise and doesn’t keep it? When someone gives you their word but doesn’t follow through?
What about when the one who made the promise is God?
This is the predicament in which Abraham and Sarah find themselves in this part of the story. God made a promise to them so long ago, but as far as their experience goes, God hasn’t done what he said he would do.
And then, years later, God appears to Abraham in a vision and reminds him of the promise. “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be great.”
You can’t blame Abraham for the way he responds to God here. Unfortunately, the Bible isn’t audible in the sense that we get the tone and emotion in the words on the page. We have to interpret that. So when Abram says, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me...” I highly doubt he is saying this in a sweet, pious tone.
No, I hear this as a lament, a complaint, spoken in a place of frustration and resignation, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue to be 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.”
In other words, “Lord GOD, you tell me not to fear? You tell me you are my shield and my reward will be great? You haven’t followed through on anything you promised. Why should I believe you now?”
I know what it’s like to feel this way. Do you? No, you can’t blame Abraham for his frustration, for the way he is guarding himself. When you’ve been hurt before, especially by God, you figure out how to keep your heart from being hurt again. Best just to keep the expectations low, to not dare to dream or hope. Then you won’t be disappointed, right?
But God doesn’t back down. God is serious about his promises. Not just speaking them to us, but showing us. God takes Abraham outside the confines of his tent and beneath the wide open expanse of the endless sky and says, “Look at the stars. And count them. So shall your descendents be.”
Movement 3: Learning to Trust in the Dark
One of the things that strikes me about this story is how much of it happens at night, in the dark. God first speaks to Abraham in a vision which happens at night. God takes Abraham outside and points up to the star-studded night sky. After God affirms the promise he causes Abraham to fall into a deep sleep in which a terrifying darkness descends upon him. And then God will later confirm his covenant with Abraham again in the evening, in the form of a flickering torch dancing across a pool of blood from animal carcases.
One way to hear this story is to pick up on the metaphor of night—those times in our lives when we can’t see a thing and we’re scared and the future looks uncertain or even empty. What St. John of the Cross would call “the dark night of the soul”—when our soul feels barren and empty as if God is far away or has even abandoned us.
It’s during these times—when we are scared or lost or waiting in the dark—that God has a way of showing up and affirming his promise. Don’t be afraid. I am your shield. I am with you and will do what I promised.
And God doesn’t just speak the promise. He shows us the promise. How? In many ways perhaps. But most often God shows us the promise in the sacraments—in the waters of baptism. In the bread and the cup. They are God’s way of drawing us out of the confines of our own darkness and fear and resignation and pointing up to the endless sky and saying “Look, this is to remind you that my promises are true. No matter how scared or uncertain or discouraged you feel—this reminds you that you belong to me. You belong to my Promise. I am with you. And my promises hold.”
Perhaps some of the dynamics involved in times when we feel let down by God may have to do with the way we understand God’s promises. When God says we belong to him and he is with us and has a future for us, I’ll be the first to admit that I want that to mean that my life will be struggle free and without disappointment. I want it to mean that God will just bless my plans and the script that I have written for my life.
But God never promised that. What he promises is that he will be our God, and we are his people. What he promises is that nothing will ever be able to separate us from his love in Christ. What he promises is that all things will eventually work together according to his purposes. What he promises is that he will be with us to the end, he will sustain us in every trial, and his grace will be sufficient for whatever we face. And in the end, all shall be made well.
Even after God affirms his promise to Abraham—to bless him with land and children—he doesn’t say anything about how it will be easy. In fact, he warns that it will be difficult and there will be hardship, but God will be with them.
God makes his promises to Abraham in the dark. And Abraham has to make a choice. Will he trust God, even when the promise seems so outrageous and beyond the scope of his imagination? Or will he hide in his place of self-protection and resignation?
Abraham chooses to trust God, even as he waits in the dark. “And he believed the LORD, and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” I actually like the way the Jewish Study Bible says it better, which is closer to the Hebrew: “And he put his trust in the LORD, He reckoned it to his merit” (italics added).
Because maybe the most important thing isn’t that we are able to believe God’s promises. Maybe it’s more important that we choose to trust God himself, even when his promises seem too much to believe. So beyond our believing. The older I get, and the longer I’ve followed Jesus, the more convinced I’ve become that faith is less about certainty and more about trusting and obeying God in the midst of uncertainty.
Abraham chooses to put his trust in God, when the promise seemed too big. Trust that wasn’t easy. Trust that didn’t suddenly mean that all his pain and apprehension and doubt was just vanquished. In fact, right after we’re told that Abraham put his trust in God, we see Abraham doubt God’s promise, “O LORD God, how shall I know that your promise is true?”
There’s something really important here about what it means to choose to trust God in the dark. Could it mean that faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive, that faith doesn’t preclude doubt? That the hospitality of God extends to make room for our doubts, mixed in with our faith, and that’s okay?
I love how Frederick Buechner says it: “If you don’t have doubts, you’re either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are ants in the pants of faith. They keep it alive and moving.”
Here’s another way to say it: faith is not the absence of doubt but the decision to trust God in spite of our doubts and fears. How did that man say it in the New Testament, when he asked Jesus to heal his child? I remember: “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Movement 4: Grasped by God’s Faithfulness
It’s what we see in Abraham, “Father Abraham,” who would become a model of authentic faith. Trusting God even when we have our doubts. I believe; help my unbelief.
Because maybe, in the end, the most important thing in this story—and in all of our stories—is not the size of our faith but the size of God’s faithfulness. Not the sturdiness of our belief but the steadiness of God’s covenant. This story ends with God passing through the carcass of animals in the form of a torch, a way of confirming God’s covenant with Abraham and his offspring.
The God who promises to be faithful to us even when we doubt and hide and struggle and worry and are faith-less. The God who has plans and a hopeful future that is more than we can understand or comprehend—the promise of a future that is bigger than any of us and pulls us outside of ourselves and into God’s hopeful future for the whole world.
This is where hope is found. Not in our faith but in God’s faithfulness. Not in our ability to hold onto God’s promises, but in God’s tenacious love that holds onto us. A love that whispers, “Keep trusting me.” A love that will never let us go. Not ever.
Not even in the dark.