Genesis 15: 1-6
2nd Sunday in Lent, Year C
It was a cold night, as most nights are in the desert. Abram the Hebrew just rescued his nephew Lot from his kidnappers, and he has dealt mercifully with the kidnappers. It is normal for the winner in skirmishes in this time to take prizes and make slaves of the captured men. Abram does not. His act of mercy is a mandate from his God. For his mercy, he has received a blessing from King Melchizidek. Things are feeling pretty good, on this cold night in the desert. It’s the kind of night that makes the stars seem closer and brighter.
And then the Word of the Lord comes to Abram. The Scripture says that God says “Do not be afraid”. We see that phrase a lot when we read the Old Testament Prophets, (like Isaiah and Jeremiah, Amos and Micah). We here the Angels Gabriel begin with this phrase when he comes to Mary. But here, in the Pentateuch, (the first five books of the Bible, the section the Jews call the Torah), this is the only time this phrase appears. The phrase is a signal that what is about to be said is very important.
And what God says is this; “Do not be afraid. I am your shield, your reward shall be very great.”
In all of the translations I read in preparation for this sermon, Abram’s response has a certain tone of “yeah, right.” Verse two even begins in most of them with the word “but”. So, on this dark and starry night, after this righteous act done in the name of God, Abram actually does have some doubt, after all. But it is important to note that the only “person” he expresses this to is God himself.
And God doesn’t get mad. He doesn’t get defensive, he doesn’t punish Abram.
He answers Abram’s concern, saying, “Abram, the arrangement you’ve made for your lands will be unnecessary. You will have an heir from your own body.”
God takes Abram outside, and points to the clear stars, and says; “Can you count these? Can you move them? No? Well, just as sure as these stars are, so is my promise to you. Just as many as these stars are, so will be the descendants from your own body.”
And Abram says “I believe.” He doesn’t say “I have faith”. He says, I believe”.
He says “I believe” based on a voice in a vision. By our 21st Century standards, his belief is based on something that a few weeks of anti-psychotic drugs will “fix”. In our time, visions and voices are more the territory of the David Koreshes and the Charles Mansons than they are the experience of the divine. It is harder for us to believe in this experience of God than it was for Abram. But that is particular to our time; that is a wrestling match that others who have read this story over the past 3-4 thousand years haven’t worried about.
Abram believes, and three religious faiths are born out of his belief; Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Between the Jews, the Muslims and us Christians, we really do number as the stars in the sky, just as was promised.
Now here is the question I am led to ask. It is a question of faith versus belief. Is it faith if Abram believes what God says? If God is the one who was there before there was anything, if God is the creator, redeemer and sustainer, is it faith to believe what God says? Or, for Abram, was it not a statement of certainty to say to God, “I believe that you will do what you say.”, in the same way that we can say with certainty that water is wet?
The author of Hebrews tells us in the eleventh chapter that that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” That passage as a whole begins a discussion based on this very bit of Genesis. I would tell you that it is very easy to have faith in God, because God will do what God promises. God has done what God promised. Our problems occur when we don’t often understand or comprehend what God is promising. Our mistake is when we try to figure out God’s will with our all too human impatient attitudes and incomplete understanding. We have seen God, or at least heard enough to know that God can be counted on.
Perhaps, then, isn’t faith the act of trusting that the other people around us will act according to God’s will? If you turn it inward, is not faith the belief that what we do is God’s will, too? Isn’t faith perhaps the trusting of other people, that they will do what God wants?
Paul tells us over and over again what we know, as Christians, about God. We Christians know God through Jesus. Looking at how Jesus acted, what he said while he was with us on earth, is how we know what God is like. From Paul we know what love in Christ is like, we hear it almost every time we go to a wedding.
You know it as 1 Corinthians 13, verse 4; “Love is patient, love is kind. . . Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” Paul sees Jesus, and knows God. Therefore, we know that God is patient, God is kind, God is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
As Christians, we are called to mirror God in Christ, to be examples of their brand of behavior for the people we meet.
During this time of Lent, we are called to repair, to grow, and to connect. To repair broken relationships, to grow closer to God, and to connect to what is best about ourselves in God and each other.
Our mission is to serve Christ and to show God’s love in every facet of our lives. We believe in God, but we have faith in God’s church, we have faith that we are God’s church. Notice the distinction between belief and faith. We believe in God. God is solid, unchangeable, we believe that like we believe that snow is cold. We have incontrovertible evidence. God exists whether we see the evidence of it or not, whether we choose to believe it or not. What faith does is impel us to act as if we believe in each other and in God’s access to each of the people around us. Faith also is the willingness to forgive each other when that faith is misplaced.
When we reflect Jesus Christ, and therefore reflect God, we allow ourselves to extend our faith to those around us. It is what makes forgiveness possible. It’s when we are patient and kind, it’s when we aren’t envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
Make no mistake—even the most saintly of those among us, the models of the faith that we can all think of, fall short, from time to time. Even the people whose spirits are most connected to God have to work through the obstructions of being human. We can’t avoid being envious or boastful or arrogant or rude at times. Even the best of us occasionally fail to be patient or kind. That is true for all of us.
This is where God’s forgiveness comes in, and that is also where we can know we are in God, doing God’s will—it’s when we forgive each other and ourselves the way God forgives us. Can we eat with “prostitutes and tax collectors” the way Jesus did? Can we say to the people who have disappointed, hurt, or angered us “Go and sin no more”? Can we say to the people who habitually make us crazy, “I forgive you as God has forgiven both of us?” We know as clearly as there are stars in the sky that God forgives us. We believe. It is certain. And let us, ourselves, have faith that we can be what God expects of us. It allows us the strength to open up to one another. It allows us to live in community with those around us. It helps us trust one another. It helps us say, with conviction, “I believe”. “We believe.” Then we can truly be comforted.
I pray that my words have been the Lord’s intention, Amen.