Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 17, 2019
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 Commentary
This is one of the great seminal passages of Scripture, on a par with Genesis 1, Psalm 23, and John 3:16 in importance for both Jews and Christians. But what a mixture it is, filled with peculiar ancient inheritance customs (adopting a slave to become your heir), divine promises that still shape international politics today (the Land is given to Abraham’s children in perpetuity), doctrines that are central to the Christian Gospel (faith is credited as righteousness), and mysterious ceremonies (a smoking pot and a fiery torch passing between pieces of butchered animals).
At the heart of it all is this business of covenant—God’s promises and Abraham’s response of faith—that runs right down the spine of the Bible and forms the basis of God’s dealing with humanity. Fascinatingly, Abraham’s vaunted faith is not exactly steady. He begins with an almost sarcastic question in response to God gracious introduction and promise of great reward. Even after he believes God and it is credited to him as righteousness, his faith is riddled with questions and doubt and he demands proof that God will really do what God has promised.
In this sense, Abraham is just like us as we journey along in this Lenten season, believing but questioning, trusting but doubting, looking for certainty in the darkness. The only certainty is the God who always initiates, who always responds, who always keeps his promises, who is present in the darkness, whose grace is at the heart of the covenant. As Paul so precisely put it, we are saved by grace through faith—the prepositions being absolutely crucial in the doctrine.
Rather than make some random comments on this homiletically lush text, I’ll just give you a sermon from my past, entitled, “Questioning God in the Darkness.” Hopefully, it will suggest some fruitful angles into this text.
Parts of this story are so bizarre that we can’t related to them at all. You and I have never cut up animals and arranged their bloody body parts in a row, for example. (We’d be arrested on charges of cruelty to animals if we did.) But for all its strangeness, this is a story many of us can relate to very easily. We know what it’s like to begin a walk with God, as Abram did. (This sermon was part of a series on Abraham, focusing on having a personal walk with God.) We’ve heard God’s call to believe his promises and leave our life in a sinful world and walk with him as pilgrims in a foreign land.
In the beginning our walk with God was sweetness and light. Oh yes, there were times when we strayed from the path of obedience and faith, under the pressure of circumstances, as Abram did in Egypt (Genesis 12). But God was merciful, led us out of the trouble we had caused for ourselves, and brought us back home to himself. We have faced major choices along the way (Genesis 13), and we’ve had conflict with the world (Genesis 14), but God has blessed every step of the way. By and large, walking with God has been good.
But then came the darkness. After years of walking by faith in the promises of God, you have discovered that they haven’t come true. You have not seen the kind of results the Word of God promises. You’ve gotten sick, or lost a loved one, or faced financial ruin, or seen your children walk away from the Lord. And you began to struggle with your faith. You question God in the darkness. What can even God do in this impossible situation? How can I be sure that God will do what he has promised?
That’s where Abram is in his walk with God in Genesis 15. With God’s blessing he has just won an astounding victory against a much larger army in Genesis 14. Here God comes to him with words of assurance. “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” What you’ve just experienced, I will do again. You can expect me to reward you handsomely in the future.
What a wonderful word from God! But Abram is struggling with his faith. So, he responds not with a “That’s great! Thanks a lot, God!”, but with a question, a sad, despairing, almost bitter question. “What can you give me since I remain childless….” It’s not an unbelieving question; he does call God, “Sovereign Lord.” He believes God is in charge of his life, but he’s struggling to believe that God can do what he has promised.
At the age of 75, Abram first heard the promises of God about a wonderful future filled with blessings. But now the future looms as empty as Sarah’s womb. Without children, there is no future for Abram, and no future for those great promises God had made. God has repeated those promises at least 3 times now, but it has been years since Abram’s walk with God began and he’s not getting any younger—probably 85 by now. What is the likelihood that I will have a son? And without that, God, what can you give me that will matter?
Abram is questioning the Word of God, the very Word on which he had staked his life before this, because he has come against a thick and impenetrable darkness. His life is simply out of sync with the promises of God and he can’t see how God can possibly do anything about it. In fact, Abram is about to take the future into his own hands. Maybe I’ll adopt Eliezer, a servant in my household, to be my heir, and to take care of me in the future. Since you haven’t kept your promise, Sovereign Lord, maybe I’ll have to take care of myself. What can you give me since I remain childless in spite of your promise to give me a family?
What does God do when our faith questions him in the darkness? He calls us to faith by repeating his promise. He says, “This man, this slave, will not be your heir, but a son coming from our own body will be your heir.” Then he takes Abram outside into the dark of night and points to the heavens and says, “Count the stars, if you can. That’s how many your offspring will be.” Rather than being angry with Abram’s question, God reassures him that the promise will come true. And he adds an object lesson, something Abram can see—thousands of points of light in the darkness that symbolize his descendants.
And Abram got it. “Abram believed God and he credited it to him as righteousness. That, of course, is repeated by Paul in Romans as proof of his great doctrine of justification by faith alone. Abram was not a righteous. Think, for example, of what he did with his wife in Egypt. But he believed God’s promise and God credited that faith to him as righteousness.
But there are times when we can’t trust that way. Repetitions of God’s promises and even visible signs of God’s faithfulness leave us in the dark. And we continue to question God. So did Abram. Even though he trusted when God repeated the first covenant promise about a son, he wasn’t so sure when God repeated the second promise about the land.
That’s not unusual. Faith waxes and wanes. We can trust God in one area of life, and struggle in another. Indeed, sometimes moments of great faith are followed by times of doubt. So, when God repeats the second promise of the land, Abram responds with a question we know all too well. “How can I be sure? How can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
He hasn’t lost his faith. Again he calls God, ”Sovereign Lord.” But he isn’t sure he can trust God with this matter of the land. It’s bigger than an heir. It’s huge, a whole land. Abram has been in the land for 10 years now and he is still just a visitor, living in tents here and there. And he is surrounded by people who already possessed the land. The end of this chapter lists 10 different nations living in Canaan at the time. In view of all that, “How can I be sure that you will give me this land?”
How does God respond? With a bizarre command. “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.” Those were the four kinds of sacrificial animals in Israel. Abram obeys and, for some unexplained reason, cuts the larger animals in half, and arranges their bloody carcasses in 2 rows, with the dove on one side and the young pigeon on the other. Why did Abram do that? What on earth does this strange ritual have to do with knowing for sure that God will keep his promises?
Things get even murkier, as God sends an even deeper darkness. “Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him.” But, as was the case on Mt. Sinai, God was in the darkness and spoke to Abram out of the darkness. I won’t go very far into the promises of verses 13-16 because the Lectionary skips over them. Suffice it to say that God make specific promises about Abram’s future and the future of his descendants. In the darkness, God is saying, “I have a plan for your future. The road that stretches before into the darkness is all laid out by God.” The darkness is ruled not by the forces of darkness and evil and chaos and chance, but by Yahweh, the Sovereign Lord. He will keep his promise to those who walk with him in faith.
Here’s how we can be sure. “When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces of the animals.” What on earth? Well, the firepot and torch represented God himself, as on Mt. Sinai where God was in the smoke and fire and darkness. Why did God pass between the pieces of sacrificial animals? The next verse explains. “On that day God made, or cut, a covenant with Abram….”
That made instant sense to Abram, because it was common practice in that ancient world. When two parties wanted to enter into a covenant, an unbreakable agreement, with each other, they would kill sacrificial animals and arrange them as Abram did. Then they would walk together down their corridor of carcasses, their boulevard of blood, as a way of swearing that they would be faithful to each other. It was like signing an iron clad contract, bristling with clauses specifying penalties for non-compliance and non-performance.
This strange ceremony was saying in effect, “May God do to me what I have done to these animals if I don’t keep my promises.” The marvelous thing here is that only one of the covenant partners walked through the boulevard of blood. It was God alone who swore he would keep his promises, on pain of death. May I be sacrificed like an animal if I do not keep my promises to you.
How can we be sure God will keep his promises in this darkness in which we now find ourselves? The Bible says, God has cut a covenant with us. But he did that in a stronger way than he did with Abram. Think of the thick and dreadful darkness that enveloped Calvary at noon that awful Friday. Think of God’s only Son being sacrificed on the cross.
God didn’t just symbolically pass through a corridor of carcasses, walking untouched down a boulevard of blood to prove his faithfulness. No, the Lamb of God offered his own body as a sacrifice, shed his own blood, subjected himself to the blazing fire of God’s justice, as a guarantee that God will keep all his promises to the children of Abram, who trust God as Abram did.
God didn’t just swear to keep his promises on pain of death. He died so that we could know for sure that he will keep his promises no matter how dark it may get in our lives. Heaven and earth may pass away, but the Word of the Lord stands forever. You can stake your life on it. God did.
At a large prayer summit, the guest speaker gave an illustration of Genesis 15:6. Rev. Juan Luis Ortiz was from Argentina. When he came to the United States and saw all the sales coupons in the paper, he didn’t believe the promises made on them. “It’s a trick,” he said to his wife. “It won’t work.” But then he went to a pizza place. The man in front of him ordered a large pizza with three items, and it was $12.75. Ortiz ordered the same thing. But when the man got his pizza, he got 2 pizzas for $12.75, while Ortiz got only one. Why? The man had a two for one coupon. And said Ortiz in a heavy Argentinian accent, “The light went on. And I believed.” I said to my wife, “Those coupons are true. We have to trust them and use them.” Then Ortiz held up his Bible at the prayer summit and said, “This is God’s coupon book, filled with great and precious promises.”
Covenant ceremonies involving the shedding of blood were well known among the Native Americans in the olden days. I’ll never forget a scene from the movie, “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Wales, played by Clint Eastwood, is being pursued all over the west by a gang of renegade soldiers. His life is further complicated by the threat of attack by band of Indians. But Eastwood rides directly into the Native camp and with steely coolness challenges the chief to make peace with him. The chief is impressed with Eastwood’s bravery and agrees to peace. They seal the deal by taking out their knives, slicing across their palms, and clasping hands, thus mingling their blood and making the peace sure. Their blood was central to the covenant of peace between them.
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