Christ Lutheran Community Church
March 17, 2019 Worship Sermon "God's Promise"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17--4:1, ,Luke 13:31-35
The Lord said to Abram (or Abraham as he is called later in his life), “Don’t be afraid! I am your shield and I will reward you greatly.”
Abram had heard it before… years earlier, when God told him to leave his nice, comfortable home in Babylon, to leave all his friends and family, and go to a new land where God promised to give him property, prosperity, and most important of all, progeny. Way back then, God had told Abram that he would be the father of a great nation. Years had passed; Abram was still living as an alien in this new land. He’d acquired some wealth. But kids? Not a one.
In our world of six billion people, dying childless is not such a scourge. We’ve found other ways to create a legacy and pass on our inheritance. But in 2000BC, at the dawn of human civilization, having children, lots of them, was how a man or a woman lived on into the future. Not having children meant that all you had worked for would be wasted away.
So when God came back to Abram and repeated God’s promise from decades earlier, Abram was just a bit cynical. “What do you mean, ‘My reward will be great’? You promised me kids, and all I have are slaves.”
So God showed Abram all the stars in the heavens and promised that his children would be that numerous and we’re told that Abram believed and the Lord reckoned his belief as righteousness. That phrase, “The Lord reckoned his belief as righteousness,” is an important line. The Apostle Paul uses it to explain how faith in God is the most important thing, more important than sacrifices, more important than keeping yourself squeaky clean. Trust God, like Abram trusted God, and everything else will be okay.
What I love about this story in Genesis is that right after telling us how faithful Abram was, we see Abram questioning God. God says, “I’ll give you all this land,” and Abram, that bastion of faith, responds, “Yeah, I’ve heard that line before. Prove it!”
If Abram is the model of faith that the Bible tells us he is, then faith is not passive acquiescence. Faith is not turning off your brain and believing any old thing that you hear. Faith is wrestling with God. Questioning. Arguing.
Mother Theresa was considered one of the great saints of the last century; but after she died, people looked through her diary and discovered how often she questioned God, how often she felt like God was nowhere to be found. Sometimes, that’s what faith looks like: sometimes you feel like God is standing there right in front of you; and sometimes you wonder if it’s all a dream.
But God seems to understand our situation. Notice that God doesn’t get upset with Abram’s doubt. God doesn’t say, “Alright, that’s enough! I’ll find someone else to be the ancestor of the faith.” God engages with Abram in his struggle.
What happens next seems pretty bizarre to our modern eyes. Abram takes several animals, cuts them in half, and arranges them along a path. In 2000 BC, people would have understood what was going on. Back then, if two people were making an agreement with each other, there were no notary publics to witness the agreement. There was no system of courts that you could appeal to if the other party failed to live up to his promises. So when two people entered into a covenant, they would cut animals in two and walk between them as a way of saying, “This is what’s going to happen to me if I don’t do what I’m promising to do… or this is what’s going to happen to you, if you don’t keep your part of the covenant.”
So Abram prepares to enter this covenant with God. He cuts the animals in two and then he waits. He waits so long that the vultures start swooping in to grab the meat. Night falls and Abram sees something astounding. A smoking pot and a blazing torch appear in the darkness. The smoke and the torch pass down the path between all the animals.
There are a couple of very interesting details in this strange vision. First of all, the smoke and the flame are a foreshadowing of how God would appear to the people of Israel in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, when God led them out of slavery into freedom.
But more significant is the fact that only God passes between the animals. This is a one-sided covenant. This is God making a promise to Abram without requiring anything in return. God is saying, “I will fulfill my promise to you, even if it means being torn in two like these animals.”
But how can God be torn in two, you might ask, being good, skeptical descendents of Abram.
Fast forward 2000 years to Palestine in the time of the Roman Empire. It’s the same plot of land. Abram is gone, but his descendants are still there; so, yes, God has fulfilled at least part of the covenant. But these descendants of Abram are slaves to a foreign empire… a cruel empire that extracts heavy tribute and uses crucifixion to intimidate the masses into submission. A nation of slaves is probably not what Abram had in mind when he entered into the covenant. There are still some promises to keep.
And here comes Jesus, God’s anointed. Jesus is healing; he’s casting out demons; he’s eating with sinners as a sign of forgiveness. Is Jesus the one who will finally fulfill God’s promise to Abram?
There are some pretty powerful people working hard to make sure he doesn’t. Last week, we heard the devil try to seduce Jesus into turning away from God. This week, we hear that Herod, that puppet of Rome, is out to kill him.
When the Pharisees warn Jesus about Herod, Jesus calls him a fox and refuses to be turned from his mission. His mission is to save the children of Abram. If Herod is a fox, Jesus is a hen, who protects her children from the fox’s attack. She spreads her wings over them. The sharp teeth of the fox may sink into the hen’s back, but the children beneath her wings are safe. The hen may get torn apart, like the animals in Abram’s vision, but the chicks survive. Jesus is God fulfilling the promise to Abram, even if it means being torn apart in the process. And Herod does tear Jesus apart on the cross; but, even as this is happening, Jesus speaks words of forgiveness and healing to the children under his wings.
That was 2000 years ago. What about today? As I was visualizing Jesus spreading out his wings over Abram’s children, I couldn’t help but think of the parents in the mosques in New Zealand, who threw themselves over their children, even while the bullets tore into them. Or the people who tried to tackle the gunman, sacrificing their own lives in the process. No doubt, some chicks were saved by their willingness to throw themselves in front of the fox.
The people who tried to protect others in the mosque may not have been Christians, but their behavior was certainly Christ-like… far more Christ-like than the white supremacists who claim to be fighting for the survival of Christian Europe. Europe is not and never has been Christian. America is not and never has been Christian. Nations cannot be Christian. Our citizenship is in heaven. And certainly, anyone who claims to be a white supremacist is not a Christian. To cloak the Gospel of Jesus Christ in in such a stupid and shameful ideology is perhaps the greatest heresy in the history of the church.
The fox keeps trying to destroy God’s promise. So, we need the strong, loving wings of Jesus hovering over our world, from New Zealand to Upper Darby. And we, the people of this congregation, are called to be those wings. Fortunately, that doesn’t always mean shielding people from the kind of violence we saw in New Zealand. But every day, there are so many things we can do to protect the most vulnerable members of our community and we can do these things because we know that Jesus is protecting us. Jesus has brought us through the waters of baptism and our life is secure in him.
Christ Lutheran Community Church