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)
2 thoughts on “A Promise Kept”
Loved this Paul!! As soon as I saw the title I wanted to read the sermon immediately. Why? Because it reminded me of one of the most important lessons my Mom taught me. She explained to me when I was about 7 that I always had to keep my promises. I remember asking her why that was so important. Her answer was simple “Because God always keeps his promises”. Ok I thought! That was good enough for me!! That said, it sure can be frustrating for our prayers to be answered. What I always love about this story…is that it proves to us that it is NEVER too late for a prayer / dream to come true!! We have to have faith!!
Much love & thanks!! By the way, I did my homework for your course this week!! Interesting questions!! Loved those too!!
Loretta, I shared with the Lenten prayer class members that I had sent the booklet to “our dearest friend in DC who is taking the course right along with us.” We had a good session today. Good and difficult questions about unanswered prayer and whether one can know definitively that one is praying, especially in petition for one’s self, in league with God’s will…
I am given to think that prayer, as with many (all!) things related to our relationship with God, is a mystery; something not wholly fathomable by and through human sense and reason and wisdom. And, in this realm of the mysterious, sometimes it is difficult, aye, impossible for the human eye to see how and when and where God fulfills the divine promises, which is to say that sometimes it is not possible to see or to know that that is so. And, as you say, I heartily agree, “We have to have faith!”