32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 39 “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
1 After these things the word of God came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4 But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Six verses. In the first reading today from Genesis 15, it only takes six verses for Abram to move from near despair to a model of faith. At first we heard that Abram—or Abraham as he is later to be named—is not just questioning God’s promise; he comes to God in protest. I imagine him shaking his fist toward the sky, saying, “You told us that we would have many descendants. You told Sarah and me that we would have a child. But you have given us no offspring.” But then in verse 6 everything seems to have changed. It says, “He believed God; and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
Just like that. From protest to faith in just a few lines. I’m intrigued by this because this kind of thing is not usually such an easy process in my experience. If you also find yourself drawn to Abraham’s apparently radical spiritual transformation, then you’re in good company. Verse 6 is one of the most often quoted in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul and the writer of Hebrews, for example, were inspired by this story of faith. They see in Abraham and Sarah faithful models for us and, more than that, a description of how God relates to the world. The story of Abraham and Sarah is the story of a struggle to trust in a promise from God when surrounded by evidence against the promise. That was the challenge they faced for many long years as it is told in the first book of the Bible. Hebrews picks up on their story because it was often the same challenged faced by the early Christian church who looked for the return of Christ and an end to suffering and persecution. And now I believe it is one of the central concerns for the church of today. That is, how can we believe in God’s intended future for us and the world when there is so much reason to give in to cynicism and fear? How and why will we continue to trust the promise that God is making things right in the world? Open the newspaper and read about new instances of violence and war, abuse of the earth, hatred toward others—even hatred expressed by people who claim Christianity. With all of this going on, how can we hold firm to a faith in the God of Abraham and Sarah, our God of justice and kindness and loving promise?
That’s why it matters to me to come back to Genesis and ask, “what changed for Abraham?” How did he come to such faith?
By the time we get to chapter 15, Abraham and Sarah had been living with the promise for a while. They had already been in relationship with God. But without seeing any progress, the power of the promise was wearing off. At least Abraham started to imagine it all happening in a different way. He supposed that a slave in his household would become his heir. Now, personally, I don’t see what would have been wrong with that, as the Bible includes all kinds of diverse family arrangements, though I don’t know whether Eliezer himself had been consulted.
I guess the difference is that God had promised something else. God had given a specific promise about their future. Nevertheless, in his attempt to make the promise more believable, Abraham changed it. He was willing to accept something different. He was starting to trust his own plans and strategies in place of the One who had made the promise.
This, of course, is a temptation for the church of today, too. It is for all of us. Even in well-intentioned and virtuous work, we might start to believe that it’s all up to us and that God is not involved in the process. We settle for only what we can do instead of looking for what God is doing. We accept something other than what has been promised, namely God’s active presence in the world.
I once took a week-long class on prayer practices. We studied lectio divina and labyrinths and spent a lot of time in silence. We engaged in body prayer and creative, artistic prayer practices. And on the last day, our instructor offered us another way of praying. He said, “Start a project that you know you could not do on your own, where you need to rely on others. You’ll be reminded that life is not all up to you or within your control.”
It’s a great reminder for the church. A life of prayer is a life that is open to God’s work beyond our work. A congregation’s life should include bold goals that could never be accomplished all on our own. Yes, our plans and strategies and methods matter, but they should include the expectation that God is taking the initiative in creating a new future.
There’s no question that in Genesis 15, Abraham’s faith in God’s promised future was wavering. He tried his best with what existed in the present, while also coming to God in protest. And in direct response to his shaky faith, God gave him a sign. Now who wouldn’t want a sign from God? Desire for signs is a recurrent theme in pastoral conversations I have. It would not be unusual for me in any given week to hear someone say something like, “I believe in heaven; I just wish I had a sign that my mother is okay,” or “I’m struggling with my career path; I’d love a sign to show me which way to go,” or “I’ve been praying for my son’s illness for years; where’s the sign that God is listening?” A sign, it seems to us, would offer some rational confirmation that God is worthy of our trust.
However, that’s not the kind of sign that God gave Abraham. God did not give him a concrete proof that the promise would be fulfilled. God did not offer a logical argument to persuade him into believing. Instead, God told him to look up at the stars. “Count the stars, if you are able,” God said to Abraham. “So shall your descendants be.”
It reminds me of Psalm 8: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, what are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them, human beings that you should care for them? Yet you have made them little less than divine; with glory and honor you crown them.”
The awe that we feel in looking up at the night sky is the awe that Abraham and Sarah came to embrace in God’s loving promise for them. The same God who could create such a majestic display could certainly create a new future for their family and the whole people of God. The stars were not an intellectual proof, but they served as a reminder that God is God.
Abraham and Sarah were no different than us. Their faith was not simply one of peaceful, pious acceptance. They had questions and doubts both before and after Genesis chapter 15. As theologian Frederick Buechner has said, if you were to tap them or any other biblical figure on the shoulder at any point in their faith journeys to ask what it felt like to be chosen and called by God, you’d likely be surprised by the answer. I would guess that’s true for anyone you think of as especially faithful—from a grandparent to Mother Theresa. But for all these ancestors in the faith, along the way, the God who made them a promise then also created for them a trust in the promise when they needed it. Even faith is a gift from God, not something we do ourselves. And though Abraham and Sarah did not see the complete fulfillment of the promise, as has always been the case for people of faith, it was still a promise they could live by. The rest of scripture and the church’s experience throughout the centuries affirm that this is the model for our lives of faith—never perfect but still an essential source of hope against despair, of trust against fear.
In the remaining weeks of summer, I hope you have many opportunities to look up at the night sky and remember that God is God. More than that, if you happen to be struggling in your life of faith today, worried for your future, wondering if God is truly at work in the world around us, then I invite you to consider the meal we celebrate at this table to be the sign that you need. As you receive bread and wine, hear again that the One who speaks to us a promise is worthy of being trusted and is present for you. Taste and see that God is good.
As a community of faith that spans across generations, we eat and drink until the promise of God’s dream for the world is fulfilled. We pray for faith. We trust that the One who created the universe hears our prayers and is ready to open for us a new future. Thanks be to God.
With special appreciation for Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on the Genesis passage from the Interpretation series (John Knox Press, 1982).