on the faith of Abraham
A sermon on Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18 by Jill Friebel, 4 March 2007
Last week Nathan drew our attention to what Lent and the Catechumenate are attempting to do in our lives. They are not focussed on what we know or what we don't know so much as about our formation. This means more about who we really are and who we are becoming. For example someone can talk a lot about what it means to follow Christ but when you get to know them, what they say and what they do don't match up. You can be left feeling rather puzzled by it and begin to wonder if the problem is you. So Lent and the Catechumenate is about us sharing our stories of what is really happening for us. This is what the examen is about. It is not intended for you to critique yourself, or judge yourself. It is an exercise in simply noticing what happens for you during the day. For example you may say you believe and trust in God, but when you reflect on the day's events you begin to notice that you feel anxious a lot. That will be a clue that your anxiety is stronger than your trust in God at that point or over that issue. You can then talk to God about it and share it with others.
During this time of Lent we also listen to the foundational stories of our ancestors in the faith. After all, they were human just like us and struggled with the same sorts things, and by listening to their stories we can find inspiration and guidance and help.
Tonight we heard a snippet of Abraham's story, the foundational member of all believers. The main point in the passage tonight is that Abraham believed God even though all the evidence was to the contrary. God appears to Abraham in a vision and says "Do not be afraid" knowing full well he was very afraid. God reassures him of his care and protection of him. Abraham then brings up his greatest fear. God had promised him earlier that he would become the father of many nations but still he doesn't even have one heir. He had almost become resigned to the fact that his heir would be his servant. God reassures Abraham that he will have an heir that comes from his own body. Immediately Abraham took the LORD's word on trust, and for that the LORD regarded him as a good man…
But Abraham said, "Lord GOD, how can I know for sure that this land is mine to keep?" Then the Lord "Okay, I'll go through the ritual of a binding promise. On pain of death, you'll have my word. You go and set up what is customary for the ceremony." So the next day they "cut" the covenant in just the same way that anyone made a covenant during that time. Some animals were butchered and cut in half and laid out on the ground with a pathway through the halves. The one making the promises which was God in this case would walk through the carcasses while the other witnessed it. This was a way of saying that if the one promising didn't keep their word may they become like the animals butchered on the ground. Thus the covenant was sealed with blood of the animals. But there was no explanation given of how this would all happen.
Now you would hope that after this things would run reasonably smoothly and to time. But they didn't. A brief overview of some of the complications that arose bear this out. For starters, the years continued to roll past and Sarah remained barren. She attributed this to God who she believed chose not to give her children. So she decides to take things into her own hands and sends her servant Hagar into Abraham to conceive a child for her and become a surrogate mother. This was acceptable in those days and could have been justified in her mind that this was what God had in mind all along. It was not until this child named Ishmael was 13 that Abraham learns from God that the covenant promise will be realized through Sarah. The covenant "cut" stated that the heir would come from his body –not necessarily from Sarah. Thus the story of Hagar sets human natural efforts in contrast with divine interventions. Ishmael is the product of human will and cannot be the one through whom God will fulfil his purpose. The later birth of Isaac is an act of God and illustrates that salvation comes only by divine grace.
But the whole affair causes strife and tension in the family and what about poor Hagar who is a victim of circumstances in all this? When Hagar became pregnant her status is changed as she is the potential mother of a first-born male child and Sarah experiences a loss of her status as a wife. Sarah has miscalculated and she gains permission from Abraham to make her handmaid suffer, whereupon Hagar runs away into the desert. There in her desperate state God appears to her and tells her that she is bearing a son who will be named Ishmael which means ‘God hears', and that she will have many offspring. Hagar is the only woman in the Bible who has a face to face encounter with God and who gives God a name. She calls him "El-roi" - the "God who sees". She returns to the tents of Abraham and Sarah in obedience to God, and gives birth to Abraham's first son. When Abraham calls the child by the name Ishmael, already revealed only to Hagar, she "knows" in her deepest being that God indeed heard her and saw her in her great need and came to her aid. Now she is no longer just a slave in the household but has pre-eminent status: she is now Um Ishmael, the mother of Ishmael. It took her courage to go back and live under Sarah knowing full well there would be plenty of trouble for her.
Eventually Sarah does conceive well after her child-bearing years are behind her and Isaac is born – the child of the promise. But Isaac's name means "he laughs", and it is not referring to joy but the laughter of disbelief and suspicion of Sarah when she heard that she would conceive in her old age. The name carries a constant judgement on the lack of faith of his parents - one of those moments for Abraham when the doubt was stronger than the trust. Abraham is now split between the love for both his sons and faces conflict in the household. But God reaches into this situation and works it out fairly for each on. Each one had to trust in the promise and act on it. They were called to take difficult steps trusting that God would be just.
Abraham is severely tested when God asks him to sacrifice Isaac –the child of the promise. He could not be certain and had to learnt to live in the darkness of not knowing if it would work out in face of conflicting evidence.
Even at the end of his life he is still an alien and stranger in the land he was promised. The only piece he owned was Sarah's grave plot and he had paid and exorbitant price for it.
Abraham's story comes right after the account of The Tower of Babel. The first divine words to Abraham were not promise but command."Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you." Then the promise follows "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…. and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." This promise recalls the tower builders of Babel, who trusted only themselves and were determined to make their own name. They said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."
Abraham appears on the scene without any marks of distinction right on the heels of other humans full of their own confidence and egos. He is not said to be righteous at this point, nor is he said to be holy. He will become great because of the two divine gifts he will receive. One becoming a great nation and two becoming a channel of blessing. The promise reverses the logic of the tower builders who wanted to stay together in one place but Abraham must first leave his birthplace before his name can become great. The reason for divine favour on Abraham is mysterious, and there is no explanation as to how a single nation can bless all the clans of the earth.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that it was by faith that Abraham obeyed when he set out not knowing where he was going, it was by faith he stayed in a foreign land living in tents. He did this for he looked forward to the city that had foundations and whose architect and builder is God. Therefore from this one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born. The promise of the seed was finally fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, through whom all the nations of the world are blessed. Remember the covenant God cut with Abraham with the blood of the animals, Jesus has given us a new covenant and this time with his blood. We are sharing in the blessing of Abraham's faith tonight, we are children of the promise. This blessing can continue to flow onto others through us as we trust God like Abraham our foundational member. We are called to act in obedience not really being able to prove for certain if it will work out in the end, but trusting in the word and work of God through Jesus. We have more evidence than Abraham ever had! Let us encourage each other to trust in God to heal and help and guide us that we will also be a blessing to everyone we meet.