Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The faith in the waiting

“But he said, "O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?"”  Genesis 15:8

Abram had learned to wait.  God had spoken to him powerfully, when he was a man in the prime of life, living in the great Mesopotamian city of Ur.  "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.[1]  And he had gone, following this strange God and his lavish promises. God told him of an abundant land.  He promised wealth.  And most poignantly, he told of a multitude of descendants.  Abram would be the father of a great nation. 

God had spoken to him once more, when his protégé, Lot had set off to make his own way in the world.  Again, there were the same promises, the assurance that God would be faithful.  That was decades ago, though.  Abram amassed cattle and slaves, he dabbled in politics, he became an elder statesman among the tribes of the Palestinian desert. He’d just been through a rather fierce battle, which has a way of clarifying your perspective, I’m told.  But still there were no children.

And Abram was tired of waiting. 

God appeared to him in a vision, and again God leads with the big promises: “I am your shield.  Your reward shall be very great.”  But this time, Abram is ready for Him.  He jumps in before God has a chance to repeat the promises to politely and respectfully decline God’s offer.  It’s actually the first time that Abram addresses God.  All these years he has listened and obeyed, and now he speaks, cries out really.  “The bonds of restraint are broken, a commentator writes, and the patriarch bares the bitterness of his soul in a brief, poignant outburst bordering on utter despair.[2]

“O Lord God,” he says, “what can you give me, as I shall die childless.”  He gathers himself again, and then announces his plan, a second best option.   “But it will soon be that time.   I’ve made out the will, and Eliezer of Damascus will be heir. He’s my best servant, he’ll know how to manage things properly.  I owe him something for all those years of faithfulness.”
But God won’t let Abram go.  No, God says, “your own son will be your heir.  Let me show you what I mean.”  And then God shows Abram the starry sky at night, all those stars you can only see out in the desert, with no trees and electric lights to get in the way.  “Your own son will be your heir, and your offspring will be as many as the stars in the sky.  “And Abram believed,” the narrator tells us, “and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 

At least he believed the first part of the promise, the one about all the offspring.  In the morning, when the sun rose and the vision faded, he was left with a question: “how will I know?”  I have believed before, I’ve wandered and waited.  I want something more, a little skin on this promise. 

And so the Lord tells Abram to do something very strange.  It’s probably illegal in Fairfax County, but it was even strange by ancient Near Eastern standards, so strange that the narrator records all the details of it.  God told him to slay several of his livestock at the prime of life: a heifer, a she-goat, a ram, a turtledove and a young pigeon.  And he cut the animals in half, and laid them over against each other, a path between the halves.  It’s a costly offering, even for a prominent herdsman like Abram.  And it was hard work to prepare it this way.  You try cutting a three year old heifer in half with a bronze knife, and see how long it takes you.  This is like telling a farmer to set one of his tractors on fire, bidding an artist to slash one of her canvasses, running a checkbook through the shredder.  God has required something valuable of him, and Abram gives it freely, and then he waits to see what will happen.

And, surprise, nothing happens—not for a good while anyway.  Abram sits there, alongside those bloody carcasses all day.  Their bodies start to swell and stink in the desert heat.  The vultures start to swoop down, and Abram has to chase them away.  He waits all day for God to do something about this offering he has so carefully prepared.  More waiting: all day, from early morning until “a dread and great darkness” came upon him.  Was it the darkness of doubt, a feeling that all was lost, that he had followed God to the end of the world, and now God had slipped away, never to return?

But in the midst of the dread and great darkness, God does appear.  Like so many other things in this story, it is a strange appearance: a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passing between the animal carcasses.  Blood, and smoke and fire and darkness: I’m sure the depth psychologists would have a field day with all that.  But we know these symbols, don’t we?  We know that this is how God show himself.  Isn’t this the cloud by day and fire by night that would guide Abram’s descendants through the wilderness on the way back to this land?  Isn’t this the light that appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai, the blaze of glory that surrounded Jesus when he was transfigured, the flames that came down and rested on the apostles’ heads on the Day of Pentecost? 

As the smoke and fire passed between the carcasses, the narrator tells us, God made a covenant with Abram: a solemn agreement, the deepest pledge. When Abram had seen this, he knew that God would keep His word. 

But what did Abram see?  How did he know that this was a true covenant?  What made this sign different, confirming his faith and giving him hope for the future?  Of course, the narrator is far too wise to tell us exactly what Abram saw.  It was a dream after all, and you know what it’s like to see in dreams: you never see just one thing, do you?   And you know more than you can see. 

Did he see, as the rabbis thought, the long history of his descendants—their great moments of glory and their bitter sufferings?  Did he see the temple and the land flowing with milk and honey?  Jesus, you might remember, turned to his critics once and said,Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad.[3]" Was Jesus talking about this moment, when God made the promise that could only be truly answered by coming among us, and shedding His own blood, so that the blessings promised to Abram could truly reach to every nation, and all the world would know the promise of His love?[4] 

Did old Abram see us that day?   Did he see us as we continue in our struggles of faith, clinging fast to God’s promises, putting our trust in what we cannot see but believe He will bring to pass.  We too, are Abram’s offspring, numbered as stars in the heavens.  There is only one covenant, one great solemn promise that God has made to humanity.  It was made first there in the desert, with one man in the smoke between the beasts.  It was made new by the One who said, “this is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many for the remission of sins.[5]  But it is the same covenant, the same God who holds before us the possibility of a holy and glorious life with Him, but who calls us to sacrifice and obedience and steadfastness along the way.

Perhaps you think that the Old Testament is rather bloody and dark and bizarre; and this story could give you plenty of evidence in that direction.  But I think that it’s really all about the living the faith now, being an heir of the covenant.  It’s about holding fast to God’s promises: which are certain, but for which we must often wait far longer than we would prefer.   The faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting[6].”  That’s what T. S. Eliot wrote in the Four Quartets, and it’s the great lesson that Abraham our first father in the faith still teaches us.

I cannot promise you that God will give you every blessing you want.  I don’t know that he will take away your pain, or help you find a job, or discover a clear answer to that doubt that troubles you over and over again.  I can promise you that in the end, all will be glory.  There will be a new heavens and a new earth, a place where God is at home with His own, and all pain and sorrow pass away: the whole family of Abraham will be gathered together in their true and everlasting homeland. 

I know this is true because, like old Abraham in the night, I’ve seen a glimpse of it.  I’ve seen it here, as God’s people gather to share in the beginnings of that great feast, in those rays of light that shine out now as they will shine one day more fully.  I’ve heard the beginnings of the songs we will chant there, tasted that the Lord is good.  And that vision sustains me, as I know it does so many of you, as it sustained the old patriarch when he saw it flashing between those beasts so many centuries ago.

But for now, we must wait, as Abram waited before us.  Sometimes in the dark, sometimes in the light. And “the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.” 

[1] Genesis 12:1
[2] Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis.  Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 113.
[3] John 8:56
[4] c.f. Reno, R.  Genesis.  Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible., 162-163.
[5] Matthew 26:28
[6] Four Quartets, East Coker, III

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