Promises, Promises, What Can We Believe

March 17, 2019 (Lent 2)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Psalm 27

Luke 13:31-35

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

15:1 After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4 But the word of the LORD came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness. 7 Then he said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates….” (Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, NRSV)

Let us pray: God of infinite grace, you love us too much to leave us to ourselves, even though we do so much to protect ourselves from you and to find security apart from you. We know our resistance does not scare you off, and we rejoice that you will finish your work with us. Amen. 

Good morning.  The storms of Thursday evening served as a reminder for me and to me.  During the intense wind and rain, destruction, unrelenting non-discriminating power and randomness, the sun came up Friday morning.  Nikki sent out the beautiful picture of the Evening Sky after the storm and it showed the glory of the colors, purple, gray, silver, yellow, and many others.  It is both a cheesy yet beautiful metaphor for life and ministry.  Then I hear the reports of mass violence in of all places, Christchurch, New Zealand.  I have been there before, over 25 years ago.  It is a calm and peaceful city, with good people and not many guns…but today the violence surges and seems to win.  Which calls into question once again God’s promise, God’s Covenant, with Abram, us and all creation.

So, from where I stand the reminders are everywhere and yet unseen.  Fighting to burst forth from the cold, hard, dark, ground like the early buds of spring.  The words of God, “I am here, fear not.  I am with you, fear not.  This is my beloved son, in him I am well pleased, listen to him.”  So, I will try again today to listen…listen to and for the still small voice calling me, us, creation to trust and believe, and follow.

It begins with a promise: “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Promises, promises.  The Lord brought Abram outside and said, “Look toward heaven. Count the stars if you can.  This is how many descendants you will have.” But Abram was a doubting Thomas, like anyone would be at such an audacious promise. When he replies, “How will I know Lord?”

There are important nuanced differences between covenants and promises, differences that most of us do not catch.  Think about the different promises you have made in your life.   I promise I won’t tell anyone!  I promise I will clean my room.  I promise to pick up the dry cleaning on the way home.  I promise to write, or call, or stay in touch.  I promise to have and to hold from this day forward, till death do us part…”  Promises, Promises.  We all make them, and we make them for all sorts of situations and stations in life.  We also make promises to God when babies are baptized and couples are married, or the more desperate promises…God if you get me out of this, I promise I will… But a Covenant is different than a promise.

This week’s Old Testament lesson from Genesis 15 needs to be set in its context.[1]

We go back a few chapters to the end of Genesis 11, where we meet Abram and Sarai. God has created the world and called it good.  God has attended to Adam and Eve and the garden.  All of creation is teeming with life and God has commanded the people to “be fruitful and multiply.”  Yet, it seems that Sarai is the first person to be “childless.”[2]

According to the Genesis narrative God has a problem.  People are spread out all over, nations here and there, people speaking all kinds of languages, people could not understand each other, so God decides to fix it.  God chooses one people to become his people, a nation through which the Lord might bless all the other nations.[3]

So, in typical God-like fashion, God chooses the most unlikely way to bring about the divine future.  God chooses an aging, childless couple, to become originators of the people of God.

The Lord says to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[4]

And so, Abram and Sarai go.  They journeyed to the land.  They waited for a child.  Not just any child, but a promised child, who would become the first of their many descendants, who would in turn become a great nation.  A Promise because God said so.

Time passed. They went to Egypt. They came back. No child.

They worked and became wealthy. No child.

Their nephew Lot separated from them. Lot was captured. Lot was rescued.

And still, no child.  Promises, Promises…

And then, finally, the Lord broke the silence.

“Do Not be Afraid:” More Good News from the Lord[5]

Then we hear the first words of Genesis 15, “After these things” and after a great deal of time “the Lord spoke to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid.’”  And what was the good news the Lord spoke? “I am your shield; your reward will be very great.”  “Good news, Abram! You are going to get something awesome!”

This is a second promise from the Lord!  Promises, Promises…Well, Abram didn’t think so!

God responds by renewing the promise of many descendants.  In fact, God responds by expanding the promise!

Keeping promises is God’s business.

“And Abram trusted.”

Abram believed and trusted God’s promise.

The Lord evaluated Abram both his act of complaining in prayer and the reality that Abram trusted the divine promises and then the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness!

And then the Lord made a promise to Abram that is breathtaking in its magnitude, an incredible pledge.  A commitment that is so absolute that the Lord commits to die rather than break the promise.  When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.[6]   The ritual was literally the “cutting of a covenant.” To make a covenant in the ancient world, animals were cut in half, and then the one(s) making the covenantal commitment walked down the middle between the animals.  So, God cut the animals and passed between them as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch.  This was an ancient Near Eastern custom and the implication is that the individual making the covenant would be cut in two like the animals if the promise was not kept.  A relationship – a covenant – however — is not one-sided.  We have a role to fulfill.  God says, “I will take care of you. In return, you will worship me.”

So here we are thousands of years later with this covenant— I will be your God and you will be my people, I will take care of you and you will worship me.  God honored his covenant with Abram. God gave him, Isaac which led to descendants as numerous as the stars in the night sky, too many to count.  It did not always seem like God is honoring His end of the covenant.  There were times, years, decades where Abram wondered. But yet, God made a covenant and kept it.

And with us when I see storms and hear of violence, and suffering, and rage, I wonder about this covenant. 

I question! 

I doubt!

But then I look up at the sky, with stars too many to count, I see the dawn of a new day or a rainbow after a storm and…I know. I remember that God always, always, always, keeps His covenant and so we do our part. We worship God and we trust God and we remember…

Let us pray: Faithful God, deliver us from thinking that works will save us and grant us the faith to believe your audacious promises. Amen.


[1] Reverend Dr. Rolf Jacobson, Commentary on Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-19 Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St Paul. MN

[2] Ibid Genesis 11:30.

[3] Ibid “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6)

[4] Ibid (Genesis 12:1-3)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, Genesis 15:9-11, 1-18.