Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 | Philippians 3:17-4:1 | Luke 13:31-35
O Lord God, how am I to know?
Does Abram’s prayer sound familiar to you? Do you ever find yourself saying or thinking these words? Do you sometimes feel embarrassed or ashamed even to ask them?
O Lord God, how am I to know?
For myself, I find these words of Abram often rise in me—only to be squelched by a terrible, pious embarrassment: asking God ‘how will I know’ seems rather unfaithful, even presumptuous, doesn’t it?I suspect, however, that this morning’s scene between Abram and God continues, preserved by scriptural tradition, because it cuts against the grain of a worldly approach to the Holy.
There is something of Abram in each of us—the raw pagan, the worldling, the creature drawn always back to its own immediate sense of satisfaction; the human being that both senses and refuses God’s presence and grace simply because they so often defy our assumptions and expectations. It is easy enough for us to forget that Abram was no devout keeper of Torah, nor a formally trained Christian catechumen. Abram and Sarai walk this path for the first time, and we allfollow the grooves left by their feet. Not all trackless wastes are in trackless wilderness.
It is appropriate, then, that we sit here with Abram as we settle into the wilderness journey of Lent. God has called us out, to go into a land we do not know, to seek promises we do not fully comprehend. Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you […]so that you will be ablessing.Just as God called Abram to begin the project of blessing, healing, and reconciliation to God through one humble body, so too this call continues in each of us: go, that I might make you a blessing.
This morning, we find him in his tent at night, despairing that he does not have an heir. Meaning and identity for him were necessarily stored up in land, land that he hoped to pass on to his children. Together with the waring of kings in the previous chapter, the capture of his nephew, Lot, and the alienation he and Sarai must have surely felt wandering as strangers, Abram has serious cause to wonder at the outlandish promise of God. Can this god create life even where I see there is none? Can I trust this hidden god?
Here, in the Lenten wilderness, we are asked to recall that God has promised us life; and if we cannot hear that promise, we are invited to listen deeply for the voice that utters it. There are plenty of competing claims made on each of us—out in the world and within ourselves—that give us cause fearfully to doubt God’s promise, that cause us to wonder whether God’s will is working at all. We have each of us our own version of O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless […] You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.We may be grieving the loss of a loved one. We may be living with a terminal diagnosis, or groaning with our overburdened planet. We may find it nearly impossible to see God’s activity in the midst of war, economic tyranny, and racially charged violence. Maybe our faith community has voted, because of our identity, to exclude us from its sacramental life.
In the face of all that confronts us as lost, dead, barren, or forsaken—in the world outside and in the universe within our hearts—God bids us change our perspective. But the word of the Lord came to him. […] He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able.”God brings a confused and despairing Abram out of his tent—away from what little familiarity follows him in the wilderness—and directs his gaze to the impossible. God invites us to hold the impossible in our hearts, to take in the vast, intimidating infinite and know it is drenchedin God’s purpose and love.
To trust, let alone comprehend the “unchangeable truth” of God’s word,we must follow or Lord beyond the limiting confines of our wilderness tent—whatever that might mean for each of us as individuals, but particularly as Christ’s body, the Church.
O Lord God, how am I to know?
Go outside your tent.
God and Abram then enact a covenant we have all inherited through our baptism. The ceremony is by our standards perhaps a little over-the-top, more than a little grotesque. Certainly, we feel a dissonance with this act—we simply do not verify promises to each other in this way anymore; but we will miss something profound if we let this macabre ceremony simply pass by us. This Ancient Near Eastern custom of “cutting a covenant” is loaded with a simple message. The parties involved cut livestock in two and, in order of rank, pass between the pieces, as if to say, “if either of us prove unfaithful and break these promises, see what will become of the unfaithful party.” It is forebodingly hyperbolic in its symbolism, and I suspect Abram was keenly sensitive to the implications of such symbolism as he waited for God, the superior party, to pass between the pieces.
What follows should astonish us; I imagine it was well beyond the tent of all of Abram’s cultural, interpersonal, and religious experience and expectation. Thisgod not only passes through ahead of Abram, but also passes through again in Abram’s place, assuming fullresponsibility for the covenant’s fulfilment. Because Abram believed; because Abram trusted. In trusting, God promises that our failure will not nullify or revoke the divine purpose; but we have to trust. God promises to take on our failures, but that is not the end. God shows us a path in the desert, a road to a love that is willing to die to show us that God’s love is the only true reality for which we were made. If we follow the One who leads us down this different course, we will find ourselves justified not because of what we have accomplished, but because we have trusted.
This may be one of the more difficult horizons toward which Lent beckons us: to know that we are that desired of God, loved as a matter of pure gift; and to learn to love in the same way, that we might never again wonder if our neighbor or our enemy or our own self deserves love. We may not understand or perceive it yet, but just as Jesus dismissed the world’s mounting threats and continued His divine work of reconciliation, so Christ continues today, tomorrow, and the third day. Do we receive this mystery like Abram? Or do we hear it with the cynical ears of Jesus’ urbane contemporaries?
O Lord God, how will I know?
Steer your eye even to the cross and trust, even there, the power of God for salvation. Three women found an empty tomb: it is, even there. Even here. Even now. Let us begin together, dear friends in Christ, that holy work of taking our gaze outside the tent to behold in all that God would have us receive; to see through the desolation of the cross and trust, wholeheartedly, that there is αναστασις, resurrection, on the other side.
Genesis 15:4a, 5.
From the Collect for the Second Sunday in Lent, The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 218. O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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