Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 21, 2016

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 Commentary

It’s fairly easy to trust God to keep God’s promises when things are going well. But when things don’t go well, even Jesus’ most faithful followers sometimes wonder how God will ever keep God’s promises. It’s at those difficult times that trust is a particularly precious gift.

The Abram whom God told to leave his home has been by turns faithful and faithless, bold and cowardly along the way. Yet God has apparently remained silent ever since issuing that command. What’s more, while God also promised to make Abram and Sarai into a great nation, God hasn’t yet given them even one child. So it’s easy to imagine Abram and Sarai longing for God to say something to them to help keep them going. Yet they learn that all too often, God seems silent, inactive and, thus, inattentive.

So it’s not surprising Abram is skeptical when God finally breaks God’s silence. He has a hard time believing God’s new but now also so very old promise. God has promised to give Abram many descendants. But Abram has concluded there will be no diapers to change, not even one teenager to teach to drive. He has deduced God’s call from infertility was just a cruel hoax.

And since God hasn’t kept God’s promise to him, Abram has again taken things into his own hands. He has updated his will to make his servant his heir. Abram has adopted someone to share his very great reward with. After all, that’s the logical way. Sometimes God takes what seems too long to keep God’s promises. So it’s tempting to occasionally assume we must take matters into our own hands, whether it’s financially, relationally or even spiritually.

As a result, God speaks again to dubious Abram. “Since you’ve made a household servant your heir, you’re going to have to change your will,” God basically tells him. “You will have a biological son who will inherit everything.” God then does what’s perhaps an odd thing. “Look up,” God tells Abram. “How many stars can you count?” In Abram’s day, that might have taken him the rest of his life – and longer.
Yet while it’s probably dazzling, that abundance of stars doesn’t change anything. In fact, God won’t give Abram and Sarai any “offspring” for another 25 years.

So what turns Abram from a fearful skeptic into someone who verse 6 says “believes” God? His newfound belief that God is God can only be a great gift from God. The God who makes the promise of countless children to Abram is the God who also makes that promise believable to him. The God who later raises Jesus Christ to life is the same God who raises Abram’s dying faith to life.

But it would have shocked Genesis’ original audience to learn that God, as Genesis’ narrator says, graciously credits that faith to Abram as “righteousness.” To be “credited” refers to putting money into someone else’s account. Yet “righteousness” is a more elusive concept. Citizens of the 21st century might argue being righteous is basically being a nice person. But to be righteous in our text’s sense is to trust the future God has planned enough to quit trying to control our present. It’s easy to assume our present shapes our future. So when the present becomes problematic, we worry about our future. Christians’ faith sometimes shrinks in the face of loneliness, fear and grief that seem stronger than God. Faith sometimes wilts in the hothouse of illness and financial uncertainty that appears to dictate our future.

Yet to be righteous means to trust that God, not our present or past ultimately controls our future. To be righteous is to, as the Heidelberg Catechism states, “have good confidence [for our future] in our faithful God and Father.” Yet God does all the “heavy lifting” when it comes to such confidence in God. God doesn’t just give Abram faith. God also graciously views his faithful reception of that gift as fulfilling obligations to God.

Yet such righteousness is usually only the result of God’s persistent work. It’s important to be patient with sometimes-fragile faith because it generally takes a long time to become completely confident in God. Look at the Abram whom the Scriptures call a “man of faith.” He finally believes God’s promise to give him many descendants. Yet he can’t yet fully believe God will give his descendants the land of Canaan.

So Abram asks for some kind of guarantee that God will keep that promise too. As a result, in what one scholar calls Abram’s “dread and marvelous darkness,” God graciously gives him a sneak preview of coming attractions.
God warns Abram that his descendants will be slaves and foreigners in a country that will abuse them. Yet God also promises that within 500 years they’ll return to the very place where Abram now sleeps. God even promises to eventually, in fact, give Abram’s descendants a large part of what we now call the Middle East.

Then, in one of the oddest passages in all of Scripture, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch somehow walks between the animals Abram has cut in pieces. Whatever else that strange gesture means, it confirms God will keep God’s promises to Abram. So this strange ceremony is kind of like a solemn handshake or signature at the bottom of a contract. It guarantees God will give Abram not just countless descendants, but also plenty of good land for them to live on and in.

In verse 6 Genesis reports Abram believed God’s promise to give him many descendants. But Genesis doesn’t say if, even after everything God has done and said, Abram believes God’s promise to give those descendants all of Canaan. In fact, his subsequent actions show Abram has a hard time continuing to believe God will give Sarah and him children. So this “man of faith” still doesn’t have complete confidence in God for his future.

God, after all, hasn’t kept God’s promises as promptly as Abram would have liked. When God promised Abram and Sarai a bunch of children, they probably expected a houseful of them right away. But all they got was just one child: Isaac.  Only much later would there be more descendants. It took millennia for God to give Abram as many children as the stars he could count. God is, in fact, still adding “stars” to Abram’s family constellation.

This offers Genesis 15’s preacher and teachers an opportunity to reflect on what are God’s most precious promises. Perhaps it’s God promise to never abandon God’s people. Or to be the God of the children of Christians. Or to bend every knee in worship of Jesus Christ. Or to establish God’s control over the whole creation. Doesn’t the fulfillment of those precious promises sometimes seem almost hopelessly delayed, if not just plain dead? Even Christians sometimes feel like we walk through various crises all alone. God’s people’s baptized children turn their backs on God. Whole swaths of the world stubbornly resist Christ’s lordship.

Perhaps the Holy Spirit can use of Genesis 15’s rather “open” end to help cultivate trust in the face of such delays. It ends, after all, not neatly with Abram’s response, but with God’s promises. So the end of our text directs our focus away from Abraham and towards the living God. Trust that draws from human effort or example quickly goes bankrupt. The only way for trust to flourish is to keep its eyes firmly fixed on God, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

That’s why it can be so appropriate to end worship services by celebrating the Lord’s Supper. It’s not just that this sacrament, like God’s stroll through the animal pieces, visibly confirms God will keep God’s promises. It’s also that it ends worship by pointing worshipers not towards our own efforts, but towards the living God.

Communion reminds worshipers that hope for the future rests not in more sophisticated medicine, convincing children to turn back to God or better mission techniques. Hope rests on nothing less than the Jesus Christ whose life, death and resurrection we remember at the Lord’s Table.

The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper points worshipers to the God who keeps all God’s promises through Jesus Christ. After all, the God who gave life to the dead Jesus can certainly give life to dying people and dead faith, even if it takes a long time.

Illustration Idea

In his book, Harry Emerson Fosdick: Preacher, Pastor, Prophet, Robert Moats Miller quotes Fosdick as saying there are “three sorts of folk. There are the utter disbelievers. They will have none of religion. It is to them superstition and credulity, and God is as much a myth as the devils of an African witch doctor. But there are not many such. There are the great believers, who have grown up into a luminous and convincing life with God like St. Theresa who said that in her heart she had an experience so beautiful that one drop of it, falling on hell, would turn it into Paradise. But there are not many such. Between these two groups are the mass of [people]. They are not utter disbelievers and they are not glorious believers. Their faith is hesitant, uncertain, unsatisfying, sporadic. ‘Lord,’ they say, ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’”


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