Year C, Lent 2
I started the ordination process when I was 26. I had just finished my 3rd year in seminary, so things were a little backwards for me. Typically you enter the ordination process before going to seminary. Therefore, when they told me ordination was probably 2 years out (and that was only because the Bishop was supporting an expedited process), that seemed like forever. It wasn’t– but at age 26, it felt like forever. People kept telling me to be patient and that, “God’s time is not your time.” That was really annoying…because what can you possibly say to that when the vocation you are pursuing is one that expects that not only will you trust God, but also talk to other people about the importance of trusting God? I was told by a mentor that I needed to be careful that I never gave the impression (to anyone in authority) that I was in a hurry and certainly that I should not complain to anyone about how long it was taking. That turned out to be very good advice.
Thankfully God doesn’t have the same rules about complaining. Because if God did, Abraham would never have become the father of a nation and one of the fathers of our faith. Then again, he had more to complain about than I did. God had picked Abraham out of obscurity to be a leader. He had promised Abraham, that if he obeyed him, he would be given land and children. The piece about children was extra important to Abraham because by the time God called him, his wife Sarah was already considered barren, which means they were a bit on the older side. Despite their inability to conceive, God had promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the dust of the earth. Yet by the time we get to our reading for today, decades have passed since that initial promise—Abraham had done everything that God had asked of him— and he and his wife were still childless.
Thus, when God came to him and declared, “Do not be afraid…I am your shield; your reward shall be very great”—Abraham’s response was a little exasperated. Now, obviously, I wasn’t there, but I imagine Abraham reacting a bit like this:.
He essentially said, “You haven’t even come through on the first promise you gave me. I want a child!” God’s response is interesting. God didn’t say, “Look, your time isn’t the same as my time. You need to be patient.” He said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” He didn’t defend his promise or the lack of progress on that promise. He expanded the promise. He said to Abraham, this is bigger than you can possibly imagine. Forget the whole dust of the earth analogy I used before, now I want you to imagine the stars of the sky. That is how vast your progeny will be.
And you know what, that was all it took for Abraham. He believed. He still had some complaining to do—but he believed. Minutes later when God again promised him acquisition of land, Abraham asked him to give him some proof. It’s not that Abraham didn’t believe God’s promise. He did. But he needed something tangible.
That’s when things get a little weird in our reading. God asked Abraham for some animals that could be sacrificed. He asked Abraham to cut the animals in two and then Abraham fell asleep. When it was night, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between the two halves of each animal. After the smoking pot and flaming torch passed between the sacrificed animals, the Lord made his covenant with Abraham. Really, he affirmed the covenant that he had already made.
Let me break down the imagery of the smoking fire pot and flaming torch. First of all the Hebrew word translated to covenant means, “to cut.” Thus, cutting the animals in half symbolized creating/cutting the covenant. In this scene, the smoking pot and flaming torch symbolized the Lord and by passing through the cut animals, the Lord was showing Abraham that he was the one making the promise. By passing through these dead animals, God was deepening the promise by making it about life and death. One commentator (Rolf Jacobson) described this by giving God these words: “I pledge my very life as surety of this promise. If I fail to keep this promise, let me be slain just as the goat, the sheep and the ram were slain.” It’s hard to get more tangible than that.
Here’s the thing about God. God always keeps his promises. Sometimes it takes a little longer than we would hope. It would be many more years before Sarah would conceive her first born. And it would be even more years before God would make that ultimate sacrifice that he predicted that night with Abraham—sacrificing himself.
We are in the season of Lent. Every Sunday, Jesus comes a little closer to his death. While God did keep his promise with Abraham, God’s people did not hold up our end of the deal. We still could not commit to a relationship with God. But God never breaks promises and God never gives up on his children. His love is so deep and so wide, that God will do anything to redeem that love, even if it means dying on the cross. So despite the fact that God did not break his promise, God decided that the only way we could see his love was by sacrificing himself.
It’s ok to complain to God. Because if you are complaining, that means you are still talking. If you are still talking, that means that you still have hope. And as long you maintain that sliver of hope, God will find a way to break through and show you how deep and wide his love for you is. When God told Abraham to look at the sky and try to count the stars, he wasn’t just reminding him of the number of ancestors he would have. He was encouraging him to look outside of himself. So often, we can get caught up in our own worries (or the worries of those closest to us) that we forget to open our eyes wide enough to see the evidence of God’s love that is all around us.
During Lent we emphasize the importance of inner reflection and examination. That is important. But sometimes when we are doing that internal reflection, we are just talking to ourselves instead of talking to God, or more importantly, listening to God. God’s love is deep and wide. It lives within us and beyond us. If for some reason, you can’t feel God within you, look outside. Maybe, do something trite like watching the sun set over the water or gaze at the stars on a clear night or listen to a particularly powerful piece of music or maybe just take a deep breath and remember how lucky you are to be breathing when for so many, breathing is agony. Then when you have that experience, send me an e-mail or give me a call because I need reminders of God’s majesty and love as much as each of you. Hopefully, that is what we are for one another in the church, evidence of God’s love, a love that will never give up.
Rolf Jacobson from Working Preacher: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4001