A sermon, based on Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18, preached with the people Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday in Lent, March 17, 2019
God called Abram and Sarai to leave their land, to forsake their past and their present, to go forth into an unknown future to an unspecified place that would be revealed; emboldened by a stupendous promise that they would be progenitors of a mighty nation of descendants.(1)
Throughout their travels, to Canaan, then to Egypt and back, throughout their trials and tribulations, famine in the land and familial strife, finally amassing wealth,(2) still they had no child. It is difficult, nay, impossible to be the forebears of a great nation of descendants without the first child.
This brings us to today where we find Abram in dialogue with God; the pathos and passion of which is a wonderful model of prayer, surely, for Lent and for any time.
“Do not be afraid,(3) Abram,” God declares, “your reward will be great.” But this grand announcement stirs in Abram no happiness, only sorrow. “O God, you’ve given me no child, and my only heir is a slave of my household, Eliezer of Damascus!” Abram might well have said, shouted, “O God, I have kept my word to you, but you have not kept your word to me!”
This is honest prayer poured out, gushing forth from the bottomless depths of a heartsick soul in the anguish of expectations broken and hope unfulfilled.
This is the humble prayer that in the face of disappointment and discouragement, nevertheless, calls out, cries out, complains to God, still trusting, somehow, that God is present, that God can and will answer.
God does answer, magnifying the initial promise: “Look toward heaven, count the stars; as numerous shall your descendants be.” Then God makes a covenant with Abram, in accord with ancient practice, taking sacrificial animals, cutting them in two. And, symbolized by the “smoking fire pot and flaming torch,” God passes between them, so to say, “If my word of promise is not kept, may I die as these beasts of sacrifice.”
As it turned out, Abram and Sarai would be renamed by God, Abraham and Sarah,(4) that renaming signaling the coming fulfillment of the promise, and Sarah would give birth to a son, Isaac.(5)
God kept the divine promise and, thus, did not die.
But, according to our Christian story, God chose to die. For this, we never sorrow. We only always rejoice.
For pray we might and do for things of this life. For health and wealth. For peace and safety. Sometimes our prayers are answered as we desire. Sometimes not. Yet we believe that God’s greatest promise is that we live forever. Not in this world. For immortality, life everlasting in this flesh, is not our destiny, but rather spiritual life in the eternality of God’s existence, God’s person and presence.
And for that promise to be fulfilled, God did die in Jesus Christ crucified.
And for this, again, we sorrow not and only rejoice.
(1) Genesis 12.1-4
(2) Genesis 13.2
(3) God, preparing to liberate the people Israel from Babylonian Captivity, said, “Do not be afraid” (Isaiah 41.10). God, calling Jeremiah, a young boy, to be a prophet, said, “Do not be afraid” (Jeremiah 1.8). God sent that angel Gabriel to announce the coming birth of Jesus, saying, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1.30). Whenever God says, “Do not be afraid,” it means good news is coming!
(4) Genesis 17.5, 15-16
(5) Genesis 21.1-3
God Shows Abram the Stars, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872). Note: Schnorr depicts that moment when God directed Abram, “Look toward and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15.5).
Crucifixion (1880), Thomas Cowperthwait Eakins (1844-1916)