Many times in my pastoral ministry, and in the various lay ministries in which I served in the 20 or so years before being ordained, I have encountered those who carry deep concern over a supposed lack of faithfulness to God, or a lack of faith in God. Such concerns are usually connected to a particular person having doubts, or questioning God and God’s keeping of promises. These people often are quite reticent to ask their questions, because they have either been taught at some point, or have just picked up somewhere along their faith journey, the idea that to have questions about God, or to entertain doubts from time to time about whether or not God is really going to be true to God’s promises, somehow disqualifies or disconnects that person, the doubter, from ever fully experiencing God’s blessings. There might even be some of you sitting here today who either are thinking, or have thought, the same thing, and to you I commend the story of Abram and Sarai.
Abram is nothing if not a mix of faith and doubts.
God has called him and made certain promises
- That he’d receive a land of promise
- That he’d become the father of many nations
- That all the world would be blessed through his offspring
And yet, years into the relationship with God, by all normal, reasonable measures, God’s falling down on the job. And Abram doesn’t hide his questions.
God comes, and as is most often the case when God, or a messenger of God shows up, the first thing God says is: “Don’t be afraid.” And, especially in this case, I think we can read that as God saying: “I’ve got ya. It’s gonna be alright. I’m gonna keep my promises.”
And then God says something astounding. God says: “Abram, I’m your shield.” Now, that might just mean shield, as in protection and guard, but there’s another possibility. You see, the Hebrew language is built on root words made up of consonants alone to which, in later written version, vowels were added. And this produces some ambiguity in the meanings of words. Like in this case, the same root translated as “shield” here, is also the root for the words “garden” and “enclosure.” So God, who has promised to take Abram, and give him a land of promise flowing with milk and honey wherein his descendants will become a great nation, might very well be saying: “Don’t be afraid, Abram, I’m your garden, your promised land. I’m the place wherein you’re meant to dwell securely.” And that changes everything, doesn’t it? We’re no longer looking to a place for security, but to God!
- We may be wandering
- We may be feeling lost
- We may be doubting
- We may be wondering when, or how, or even if God is going to be true to God’s promises,
and all the while, we may be looking in the wrong place! Maybe the promise of God isn’t somewhere out there in an unknown, and as yet unrealized time and place. Maybe the promise of God is right here, right now, as our lives are hidden in Christ.
Paul warns the Philippian church against being too focused on earthly things, for our citizenship is in heaven. He tells us to stand firm in the Lord, not with, or alongside of, or in any other position, but in the Lord who is our shield, our garden, our enclosure…
As we began our Lenten journey together on Ash Wednesday, we considered the importance of the Lenten disciplines – fasting, prayer, and almsgiving – and we talked about how these disciplines help us to regain some sense of what normal life for a disciple of Jesus ought to look like. Many use these days leading to the keeping of the Great Three Days of our Lord’s death and resurrection as a time of particular and intentional repentance, and, in fact, for some of us, we may be in need of a radical change in the direction or pattern of our lives. But our answer, in the end, our shield, our enclosure, our promised land, is not found in our own efforts, but in and through the saving grace, and mercy, and love of the One who is, himself, our garden, our safe dwelling…
You also heard me preach recently about God’s central desire, as we see repeatedly throughout the Scriptures, for God to be our God, and for us to be God’s people. But time and time again we turn away from God, as individuals, and as a people. We reject the ways of God, the ways of peace, and the ways of self-sacrifice for the sake of the other, the ways of welcome and inclusion, and we try to do things our own way. And we hear God’s reaction to our continual struggle against the ways of God in the voice of our Savior, in today’s Gospel reading from Luke 13: “How I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
And a big part of that unwillingness is manifest in our doubts, and fears, and unfaithfulness. Like Abram, even after God comes time and time again, and renews God’s promises, and tells us to wait faithfully until God decides it’s the right time to act, we want to take matters into our own hands, as Abram and Sarai do right after this encounter with God, cooking up a plan for Abram to impregnate one of Sarai’s servant girls in order to help God along in keeping the promise of an heir.
But we’ve really got to note what happens in this story, here in Genesis 15, and we’ve really got to let the message come through and take root in us.
God comes to Abram in the night, and renews the promise that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars, but Abram pushes back because he and his wife are old, and he just can’t see a way through this situation. The only heir he sees presently is a slave in his household. And so God directs Abram to set up a covenant ceremony, a ceremony that looks really strange and nasty and bloody to us, because, well, it was! All these animals are slaughtered, and cut in half, and laid out opposite one another to create a sort of aisle through which the covenant makers would pass and make their promises – the idea of this type of ceremony being that, if anyone breaks the covenant they make, they’ll end up just like these animals, slaughtered!
This is serious stuff!
And the common thing that would happen at this point is that both parties would pass between the carcasses and make their promises, but because God knocks Abram out and passes through alone, only God’s life is on the line! If the covenant is broken, Abram is secure, because God made the covenant alone, so only God’s life is on the line!…
And, though I just said “if” the covenant is broken, of course, the covenant is broken, and continues to be, repeatedly. Only, not by the One who made it, but by God’s covenant partners, the descendants of Abraham, including me and you. We have all fallen short of the glory of God. We have all, in some form or another, broken faith with God and with our neighbors. And when the One who put his life on the line in this covenant came in the flesh, you know what we did with him. We killed him! We slaughtered him!
Only, God has turned, even our bloodthirst, over on us, and has made his own blood the blood of a new and everlasting covenant by which, in spite of our doubts, and fears, and unfaithfulness, we are all saved by the One who covers us under the merciful protection of his wings. Amen.