Monday, February 22, 2016

Believe an Unbelievable Promise

February 21, 2016 – The Second Sunday in Lent
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
In case you haven’t noticed, there are two penitential seasons upon us: the forty days of Lent and the four-hundred days of an election season. Both bring me to my knees. The Alabama primary is just nine days away, but, of course, we all know that this cycle of endless political blustering won’t stop there. I don’t know if you’re still paying attention, but you can count me among the disillusioned masses who flipped the channel back to SportsCenter a long time ago. Sure, I’m still willing and eager to participate in the political process by exercising my right to vote, but, for the most part, I’ve stopped paying attention. I learned a long time ago not to put any faith in the words uttered in a stump speech or shouted on stage at a debate. After all, what is the promise of a politician really worth?

Getting elected is all about making promises that you can’t keep, and staying elected is all about convincing everyone that not keeping them is someone else’s fault. There are websites out there that track the broken promises of elected officials, but who cares? Shouldn’t we expect those grandiose claims made on the campaign trail to fizzle into nothing? I don’t know who is more to blame: the politicians who make those ridiculous promises or the voters who convince themselves that this time their favorite candidate might actually keep them.

But, of all the ridiculous promises that I’ve heard over the last few months, none is as crazy or as far-fetched as the promise God made to Abram in today’s reading from Genesis: “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able …[that’s how numerous] your descendants [shall] be.” Even in the twenty-first century, with all of our advancements in fertility treatments, to say to an 85-year-old man whose 75-year-old wife had never been able to conceive, “You’re going to be a father,” is patently ridiculous. But that’s exactly what God said. And what’s even more preposterous is that Abram believed it.

This little story—this nighttime encounter when God spoke to Abram—becomes the bedrock upon which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all built. God had blessed this wandering herdsman from Mesopotamia. His wealth was exceedingly great, but still something was missing—something that kept him up at night. And, on one of those sleepless nights, God came to Abram and said, “What’s wrong, Abram? Why are you worried? I’ll take care of you. Your reward will be great.” But to Abram that sounded like the promise of more wealth, and the thought of running out of money wasn’t what kept him up. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful,” Abram replied, “but what will you give me? For I am childless, and I have no one to carry my name into the future. At this point, a slave born in my house will be my heir.” And God said to that 85-year-old man, “No, Abram. This man will not be your heir. I will give you a child—your very own son—and he will be your heir.”

“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them…So shall your descendants be.” And, despite the odds, despite the absolute impossibility of what the Lord had said to him, Abram believed it, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. Abram’s faith changed who he was in God’s eyes. No longer was he a man without a future. He had become the one through whom God’s promises would come true. And, even though he hadn’t yet conceived a child, he was already the father of God’s people. When God made a promise too huge to believe, Abram believed it anyway, and that act of believing the unbelievable became the faith that binds the people of God to the one who can make the impossible possible.

But Abram’s faithfulness is only half of the story. There’s another part—the strange part at the end—the part with the animal carcasses and the flaming torch and the smoking fire pot. Sure, Abram’s willingness to believe God is remarkable, but even more incredible is God’s willingness to put his reputation on the line, and, in that dramatic and strange vision, God did exactly that.

“How will I know,” Abram asked God, “that this land you have promised me will be mine?” Abram might have believed God, but he wanted some verification, too. Unlike the promise of an heir, the promise of the land would not be fulfilled for several generations (as the verses our lesson omitted today make clear). So this request for a sign wasn’t just for Abram and his wife but also for their descendants—a sign that throughout the generations God would not forget his promise. So God told Abram to prepare a heifer and a she-goat and a ram and a turtledove and two pigeons and lay the carcasses out upon some rocks. And, after Abram had fallen into a deep sleep, the Lord appeared to him in a vision and made a covenant with him. An ancient custom for two parties wishing to seal an unbreakable promise between them involved slaughtering some animals and laying them out upon some rocks and then passing between them as a way of saying, “May the same fate happen to me if I break my word.” In Abram’s vision, the flaming torch and the smoking fire pot were God himself. God had passed between those rocks. In so doing, God had declared to Abram, “If I break my promise, may I be as dead as these hunks of meat.”

Now, that’s a pretty silly thing to think about—God ending up like a side of beef—but the risk to God was real. In this covenant, God put his very identity on the line. God is, by definition, the faithful one. If God makes and seals a promise but doesn’t keep it, our very understanding of who God is unravels completely. If God were to be unfaithful, God might as well be dead. So, when God made these ridiculous promises to Abram, it wasn’t just Abram’s faithfulness that was being put to the test. God’s faithfulness was on trial, too.

But why would God do that? God didn’t need to. There are countless people in countless cultures with countless so-called divinities who have told stories about human beings believing something about a particular god. But when does one of those gods ever stake its reputation—its very existence—on the fulfillment of a promise? God wasn’t merely making a promise to Abram. He was enacting a covenant with him—a two-way relationship that depended upon mutual faithfulness. This covenant invited something more than awe and wonder. It inspired trust—the kind of trust that exists between two lifelong friends. In this covenant, Abram belonged to God, and God likewise belonged to Abram and his descendants forever.
Our God is faithful. Our God makes the impossible possible. And, even more amazing than that, our God chooses to have a real, meaningful relationship with God’s people—with us. In order for that to happen, God chooses to be vulnerable—to allow us the freedom of knowing that, if God ever broke his promises, we would be justified in deserting him. But God never does break his promises, and, thus, we are invited time after time to believe in him. In the story of Jesus Christ, God reveals yet again that his love has no limits—that his faithfulness never comes to an end. In the cross, God shows that he is willing to put himself on the line in order to convey to us that his love can never be broken. God is making a ridiculous promise to you. He is promising to love you no matter what. He is promising that there is nothing you can do to separate yourself from that love. That kind of love from God is unbelievable but true. Will you believe it? Will you believe that God loves you that much?

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