February 24, 2013
Lent 2, Year C
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the beginning of the Bible, Genesis, God created the heavens and the earth. Toward the end of the first chapter, he got around to making human beings – “in our image” God said. At the end of the chapter, God looked around at everything he had made, “and look, behold, it was very good.”
Then things became more complex. Human beings wanted to become like God, and they upset the harmony, the life of communion and intimacy with God. Exiled from Eden, Cain killed his brother Abel, and the mistrust, enmity, and pain intensified. As things got messier, more corrupt and violent, God, grieved and heartbroken and also angry, decided to start again. He sent a flood to wipe out his creatures, but saved righteous Noah and his family.
The problem: as soon as the flood waters receded, the old problems emerged. Punishment had not worked. God adapted. We could say: God repented. He determined to stay in relationship with humanity no matter what. He chose to renew his relationship with humanity through Abraham, and he came to Abraham who was living in Haran, what is now southern Turkey, just north of the Syrian border. He called Abraham and Sarah to go on a journey into the unknown. God is always asking people to move, to go to new places.
God promised Abraham and Sarah that he would bless them, make them into a great nation, a blessing to all the families of the earth. Abraham and Sarah did not have any children. Abraham was in his 70s. It seemed impossible to them that they could have children, but they began their journey of hope.
In today’s reading from Genesis, God appeared once again to Abraham. It was years after the initial promise, and Abraham and Sarah were still childless; Abraham was in his upper 80s, and they’ve made some mistakes along the way. They’ve not always trusted God. Why should they continue to trust him? Today’s scene shows us a crisis of trust, of faith.
God’s first word, “Fear not.” Then God renewed his promise of a great reward. If I were Abraham, I’d think, “Of course, I’m frightened, anxious about my future, separated from my home and people. I have no heir. It doesn’t appear things are going to change. I can’t believe that you’re still promising me a reward.” And Abraham said as much, protesting that God had not delivered.
God responded by doubling down on his promise. He assured Abraham: “Look to the night skies, and number the stars. You can’t count them all. Those are your descendants. Your family will be enormous beyond your imagining.” The promise got bigger, even more outlandish.
Then the most remarkable moment. Abraham didn’t complain or object, but rather choose to believe. He repented. He renewed his commitment to God, to orient his life around God’s promise, even though the promise appeared ludicrous. A wife well past menopause. No Cialis. Despite what appeared to be a dim chance, Abraham turned away from his own understanding of reality and accepted God’s framing of reality. He would let God be in control and embrace the mystery, the uncertainty. Abraham would have to wait another dozen years to father Isaac with Sarah.
Abraham became the model of faith and righteousness, but not because he was perfect. He and Sarah had their doubts and failures. Yet they desired a right relationship with God. They cared about their relationship with God and worked on it. The righteous sin, fall away, doubt, mistrust, but then turn back to God, and renew their relationship with him. The righteous give and receive forgiveness and work for reconciliation.
Abraham’s relationship with God is not unlike our relationship with God. Anyone who seeks God, gives room for God, can look in the mirror and say, “Look at that righteous dude.” We can think of ourselves as righteous. Not perfect. Not always trusting. Not always on great terms with everyone. But most of us desire, at least parts of us desire, right relationship with God and other people. We desire reconciliation.
Besides recognizing ourselves as righteous, let’s also appreciate the great gift of faith we’ve been given. Last week, at our Wednesday evening program, the discussion really helped me to appreciate how fortunate anyone is to have God as part of their lives, to be able to trust in something other than ourselves.
How would we orient or organize our lives without God? I could be a moralist, make everything a matter of right and wrong, good and bad, and I regret sometimes Christianity gets diminished to that, or to dogmatism, believing all the right things, instead of being about love and relationship, about trust and commitment and hope.
I could order my life according to capitalism, or socialism, or liberalism, or conservatism, or humanism, or hedonism, or materialism, or individualism, or skepticism, or any of hundreds of other isms.[i] Instead, following Jesus, we choose to try to trust God, to hope in the future, and to hold to that even when things here and now seem bleak and dark.
For Paul, this conversation between God and Abraham is super important. Paul pointed out that Abraham’s faith is not only based upon the goodness we experience in this world, but more. It’s faith based upon God’s promise in spite of the way things are here and now, that things will be better than we can imagine or comprehend. God will overcome all the horror and pain and difficulties of the here and now and make life new.
Abraham showed us that faith has nothing to do with doctrine, but a way of life, a life disposed to openness to God, to receiving God, to giving to God, rather than trying to control and arrange the world, rather than trying to satisfy ourselves. Faith is about being willing to journey into the unknown and to look for God in the people we encounter and be grateful for God’s presence there. Faith is about doing our best, risking and making mistakes, and finding opportunity even in our troubles.
Human beings don’t always live with that kind of faith, but we do at times. Lent is about turning to that kind of faith, renewing it in our lives. Sometimes I get a bit resentful and grim about Lent, all this focus on repentance, that we “have to” repent and change things. But that’s not a helpful or true way to look at it. Let’s flip it; re-frame it. It’s not obligation and burden. It’s good fortune that I am part of community that turns my attention back to truth north, that helps me, and expect me, to re-orient my life in God.
Imagine someone who can’t repent. Imagine someone who has nowhere to turn for renewal. Imagine someone who has to construct their own purpose and identity and belonging. Imagine someone who has little sense of acceptance as they are. Imagine someone who feels they have to prove their worth.
Here’s the good news. Following Jesus means we repeatedly get to turn back to God and find ourselves again in him, renew our sense of belonging to him, being cherished by him. As Christians, our identity involves the changing of our hearts and minds, of growing and learning, of adventure into the unknown, but sure of God’s presence and care, being taken under his wing. It’s re-ordering our lives and trusting in God’s promise of love no matter what. We’re fortunate: we get to repent.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Lane Davenport
[i] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, John Knox Press (1982), p. 145, compares trusting God to trusting isms. I derived much of the Abraham material from his commentary on Genesis 15, pp. 140-150