“And he believed God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness.” That’ll preach, as they say. But we get to that lovely reckoning only after what appears at first to be a low point in God and Abram’s turbulent history. This scene has an important, even vital, message for you and me.
“Abram believed God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness,” is a celebration of the dynamic, active love that transcends actions, a love that is rooted in the very core, the heart, of both God and God’s people. So much had happened in Abram’s life, so much water had passed under the bridge between Abram and God, that Abram’s belief in God’s promise was the hard-fought victory that comes only after a lifetime of ceaseless effort. Just as a speck of grit irritating an oyster will slowly accrue layers of scar tissue to form a pearl, Abram’s belief in God’s promise came out of the deepest, most inexpressible longing of Abram’s heart.
When Abram and Sarai first step onto the stage in Genesis chapter twelve, God makes a promise: “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.”
After that promise, though, fifteen years will pass for Abram and Sarai, years of wandering, years of famine, years in exile among the Egyptians, and years of no sign of any descendants. And fifteen years of silence from God.
So that when at last God speaks again to Abram, repeating the promise from years earlier, the scene that follows shows us the powerful, the dynamic, the living relationship that God desires with you and me.
“Some time later, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision. He said, ‘Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you, your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord, what can you give me, seeing that I shall die childless?’
Descendants! You promised me descendants!
Like so many of us, Abram has been wanting and hoping for things that have not happened, and maybe will not happen. Not for years. Not for decades. Maybe, not ever.
And mostly we internalize this longing. We don’t talk about it. We don’t put it into words with our spouses, our co-workers, our friends, and we certainly don’t talk about it with God. But how do we live our lives always with one ear trained for the voice and the message we have been longing to hear?
Abram shows us. He shows us to name our deepest needs before God. To be specific. To cry out with unashamed urgency and to wrestle all night if that’s what we need. A healthy faith, one that is living and active and life-giving, is a faith that dares to plunge beneath surface politeness and tend to the roots of relationship with God. When you and I name our vaguely defined longing, when we show God where it hurts, we are affirming before God and to our own hearts the limitless nature of God’s holy love.
When Abram cries out, “Words are not enough! Show me!”
God says, “Look toward the heavens and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your descendants be.”
“And Abram believed him, and it was accounted to him as righteousness.” God has given Abram the gift of a nightly visual aid, a tangible reminder of the promise. Every night, Abram can step outside his tent, raise his eyes to the cosmos, and be pleasantly amazed all over again.
God understands how weary and skeptical Abram is of God’s promises that have not yet quenched the longing of his heart, because God seals the promise of descendants and a land of their own with an extraordinary gesture. God – represented here by the fire-pot and the torch – passes between the sacrificed animals that Abram had cut in two. To make a covenant in the ancient world, animals were cut in half, and the one making the commitment walked down the middle between the animals. It symbolized that if you did not fulfill your part of the covenant, you were to die in the same manner as the animals.
God has promised to make a people and a land – and He is staking on this covenant his very life. He ritually commits to die rather than forsake the promise.
The sacraments of Baptism and of Holy Communion are birthed in this cradle. A sign of water and earth confirming the Word of God. This is what we must cling to, this is what we must remember. God answers the struggles and longings within us in so very many ways. If we hold out for the thunderclap and the booming voice from above, we might well miss the still, small voice. We might miss the voice of God that comes to us by another road. We might miss the voice of God that comes in a powerful ritual gesture. We must wrestle and lament, pray and trust, even as we go through every moment of our lives, so that we hear God in all the many ways that God speaks to you and to me.
God shows Abram the stars as a visible illustration of the promises that He has made to him. And he passes between the pieces to ritually stake his life on the covenant promise. This is extraordinary. This is unheard-of. This upends every practice and custom. And this introduces to you and to me the idea that when we regularly wrestle with God, when we keep the lines of communication open, our prayers might well be answered in the most unexpected of ways. God the Creator of the Universe has just assumed the place of the vassal, the servant, for the assurance of God’s people. All God’s people. To all God’s people for all time.
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem, the Holy City, the home of the Temple of his own faith, and uttered the lament of a broken heart: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! The city that kills its prophets and stones those sent to it. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings!” Jesus’ trust in God the Creator calls to mind Abram’s trust in the God of the Promise. He knows in his anguished heart that his death that is to come will free the children over whom he now weeps.
On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus took the cup and gave thanks over it, saying: Drink of this cup, all of you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins.
When Jesus says those words after the Passover meal, he is also saying: ‘Long ago God the Father, God my Father, said to your father, Abram, “I promise unto death.” Now, I am here to die. Not only that you might be redeemed from your sins, but that you could know that there is no power in all the universe that can prevent your receiving the blessings that God has promised to you, because I have sealed these promises with my blood, my life-force, my whole self.’
Listen. God is speaking.