Year C, Pentecost 9 Genesis 15: 1-6 & Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Before we entered the adoption process, I spent six years going through fertility treatments. When you are trying to get pregnant, there is a lot of waiting involved. After I gave up on that and we started the adoption process—that was a whole new waiting game. The adoption process as a whole took about two years. After we brought Joshua home, there were 4 more months until the adoption papers came through and he was officially ours. That was a total of 8 years of waiting for my husband and me. During that time, there were a lot of desperate prayers, angry outbursts, and times of hopelessness. The thing about waiting is that it usually involves a loss of control. Because if you were in control, you probably wouldn’t be waiting.
But the waiting I experienced, really doesn’t compare to the waiting that Sarah and Abraham experienced. They waited about 25 years from the first time God promised them children until the day when Sarah gave birth to Isaac. In our reading for today, we hear of the third time that God made this promise to Abraham. We don’t know how many years have passed since the 1st time, but let’s assume it’s been awhile. We can tell from Abraham’s response to God’s greeting that he’s not delighted about how things are going.
Notice that God doesn’t bring up the promise of future children. He simply says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward will be very great.” It’s not clear what Abraham is afraid of at this time. He just took part in a military battle and some commentators hypothesize that Abraham is still afraid that the enemy he just defeated will return.
It’s hard to say as he and Sarah have been through quite a bit since Abraham first heard the promise. They left their homeland as God instructed them in chapter 12. They survived a famine and a run in with the pharaoh. Most recently he had fought a battle and saved his nephew Lot who had been taken captive. Clearly, he hadn’t been twiddling his thumbs while he waited. Yet despite all that he had been through, all that he had accomplished, he was not satisfied. God had promised that he would make him a great nation and how could be possibly birth a nation if his wife could not birth a son. He had amassed great wealth and land, but there would be no son to leave all of this to.
So when God told him not to be afraid, he argued with God. He told God that without a child he would have to leave everything he had to a slave. God replied with another promise—that he would give him a son who would be his heir. Then God did something interesting. He brought him outside. Often in the Old Testament, God is perceived as this otherworldly being who cannot be seen or touched– only heard. But in Genesis, God is very human like. In the Garden of Eden, he strolled through the garden and made clothing for Adam and Eve. He wrestled with Jacob. Here, God seems to be standing right next to Abraham in his home and then walks with him outside and points to the sky. I love this image of God accompanying someone from a place of light and warmth into the dark and showing him part of God’s own creation.
|Photo by Yong Chuan Tan|
Once God does this, he makes the promise again. Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars. This time, Abraham believes. Why? Abraham asked God to give him something… presumably a sign. God didn’t give him that. He didn’t even give him any more information. He didn’t give him a timeline or provide a persuasive argument or pep talk. Nope. God repeated the promise and showed him the stars. Why would that give Abraham the faith he needed to continue to believe in this promise that had yet to be fulfilled?
Our reading from Hebrews says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews then goes on to use Abraham as the ultimate example of faith. It was by faith that he was able to obey God and leave his home for an unknown land. It was by faith that he could believe that even at the age of 75 (which was when God first made the promise) that Sarah would conceive a child. God never gave him proof. He didn’t give him a sign. Instead, God showed him a revelation, the stars….a reminder of what God is capable of. And so Abraham believed.
Did that mean that suddenly Abraham became free from doubt and worry? No. Only a few verses later, Abraham was arguing with God again. A few verses after that, we read: “As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abraham, and a terrifying darkness descended upon him.” Remember when God first showed him the stars? It was night. Now we read that the sun is setting. It sounds like Abraham and God have been talking and arguing for at least 12 hours. Then, after all of that, there was still a terrifying darkness.
Faith may be about assurance and conviction. But it’s also about fear, anguish and lots of long conversations with God. After this terrifying darkness descended, God continued to talk and he made a covenant with Abraham. There in the dark, he made another promise. I would like to tell you that did it for Abraham….from there on out he believed and never doubted. Alas no. There were more missteps, more questions. He even had a child with a slave of his house because he and Sarah needed to take control of God’s promise.
However, through it all, Abraham never gave up on God. He continued to obey God, continued to serve God. He still struggled with the promise, but he never lost that kernel of hope. His faith wasn’t a roaring flame. It was more like that pilot light on the stove that never quite goes out. That is what got him through the years of waiting.
And here’s the thing about waiting. Waiting in hope is not wasted time. While I waited for a baby, I started writing about my experience. I created wonderful fodder for future sermons. I got into yoga. I applied to St. John’s to be the rector. I am not sure that would have happened if things had gone according to plan and I had two children by 2010. Maybe it would have, but I can’t be sure. I made progress in those 8 years. So did Abraham. Abraham and Sarah built a foundation for the nation that they would one day birth.
I struggle with this definition of faith from Hebrews. I worry it makes it seem that if your prayers aren’t answered, then that means you must not have enough faith. Don’t assume that if your prayers aren’t answered, it means that you don’t have enough faith or hope. Don’t doubt your faith because you lack conviction and assurance. That’s not what faith is. Faith is about never giving up even when everything in life is telling you that it’s time to give up. Faith is what happens in the waiting…what we do when the prayer goes unanswered. Faith is a never ending conversation with God that sometimes happens in terrifying darkness. Faith is knowing that even in the darkness, the stars still shine and God wants you to see them and know that not only did he create these stars, but he stands with you in the midst of that creation.