Travelling On a Promise

TRAVELLING ON A PROMISE: Gen 15:1-12, 17 –18: Phil 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

Traveling in faith means traveling on a promise that hasn’t yet been completely fulfilled. If it had been, if we had already arrived at our ultimate destination, then we wouldn’t need faith any more. Because we would see with our eyes the completion of what we had previously only hoped for and towards which we had walked in trust and in hope.

The famous concert pianist with the international career no longer needs to practice in faith and in hope that one day all the effort will pay off. Because it is clear that it already has. When a project is realized, the building is finished, the war is won, then the need for faith disappears. Faith that something will happen or will come into being now no longer makes sense in relation to this particular project.  Who can doubt what is plainly evident to all? There it is. Just open you eyes and look at it. Take it in. The achieved reality is visible.

Most of our life, however,  we are traveling towards something rather than triumphantly resting on our laurels and accomplishments . Part of what that means is that we struggle with questions, frustrations and doubts about the destination at which we haven’t yet arrived. That is why we need faith in the promises that draw us forward  – because we don’t yet see the fulfillment for which we yearn. We may catch glimpses of the realization of promise that serve to sustain our hopes, but the empirical evidence is not all in. The future is not yet. That was true for Abraham, true for the Psalmist, true for Jesus and St. Paul. It is also true for us.

But without faith in a future that we can’t yet see, we wouldn’t travel very far. People without hope stop making plans for the future. They shrivel up and die. Or they abandon themselves to the grabbing whatever is immediately available in the moment. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die – which is about where we are a society. We don’t plan very much for the future. Because we doubt that it will amount to very much or that we will live to see it. Nor are we much motivated on the whole by convictions of some future life beyond the one defined and limited by biology and present brain activity. Let call it the “Après moi, le déluge”mentality.

We can imagine the future and we don’t’ want to be part of it.

For the children of Abraham, hope for the future is tied to covenant promise. We are people of the covenant. Beyond the bills that we pay and the contracts that we sign, our life is structured by covenants that look to the long-term future. Marriage, baptism, communion, weekly worship that keep us focused on the ultimate reality of God’s purposes for us and  the universe God loved into creation. We can catch glimpses and be  strengthened in our faith in God promises and ultimate purpose in concrete, particular, tangible sacramental moments.

What is it that keeps Abraham moving, journeying?  God’s Promise of land,  and  descendents to fill it. But how do we live within the promise of God when we can’t see its fulfillment or even obvious progress in the right direction? That is Abraham’s problem. In human terms, this covenant promise thing isn’t working out so well.

“The word of God has came to Abram in a vision: “Don’t be afraid, Abram. I’m your shield. Your reward will be grand!” That’s nice, he thinks. But Abram said, “God, Master, what use are your gifts as long as I’m childless and Eliezer of Damascus is going to inherit everything?” Abram continued, “See, you’ve given me no children, and now a mere house servant is going to get it all.” Let’s call it the Downton Abbey  problem.  Then God’s Message came: “Don’t worry, he won’t be your heir; a son from your body will be your heir.” 

Then God took him outside and said, “Look at the sky. Count the stars. Can you do it? Count your descendants! You’re going to have a big family, Abram!” And he believed! Believed God! God declared him “Set-Right-with-God.” God continued, “I’m the same God who brought you from Ur of the Chaldees and gave you this land to own.” Abram said, “Master God, how am I to know this, that it will all be mine?” Abraham wants to know how he can hold on to this promise through all of life’s discouragements. How can his faith remain strong? How can it be nourished?

And then the story goes weird on us. We don’t quite know what to do with this animal sacrifice stuff. Abraham receives instructions about finding a three year old heifer, goat, and ram, cutting them in half and putting them on a altar along with a dove and a young pigeon. We wonder how this is supposed to answer Abraham’s question about faith. He waits. It gets dark, and Abraham is filled with a sense of foreboding as he falls into a heavy sleep. God speaks to him again in a dream. And then, suddenly, fire strikes the altar and consumes the animal sacrifices that Abraham has brought to God. And Abraham hears God’s covenant promise of land for the promised descendents. They shall not be wandering nomads but are promised a place of their own, a land in which to grow and to flourish as a people.

What sort of answer is THAT? What is going on here, we wonder with the mysterious fire that descends from heaven to consume the assembled sacrifices?  The answer is worship. Worship is the context in which the divine fire descends and is experienced. That is the sign for Abraham that God’s promises are true and can be relied upon. That is what the story is telling us. The divine fire that strikes the altar he has prepared is enough for Abraham. It is a sufficiently powerful sign, one that seems real enough to him for him to keep walking in hope and in faith.

And that is what counts for God. Faith in God’s promise, faith in God’s good will and ultimate purpose and the chance to be part of it.  Such is the righteousness that God wants. In ways that we do not completely understand, God’s promise is made real to Abraham in worship.

Abraham obeys God’s instructions and prepares the sacrifice as he is told. Then mysterious fire descends from heaven. The fire of God’s presence provides the assurance that Abraham seeks. What happens serves to strengthen his faith God’s promise – the fulfillment of which he cannot see.  It that not what this story is telling us?

God speaks to Abraham when it is still thick darkness and nothing can be seen. But Abraham believes God anyway.  This is what faith looks like. This is what it means to be “Set-Right-with-God” to be righteous in God’s eyes. Abraham is not judged righteous for chopping up some animals and putting their carcasses on a stone altar – but because he believes God’s promises on the basis of an experience of ancient worship.

Animal sacrifice is what worship looked like in the ancient world – true in ancient Israel, true in Greece and Rome as well. In other parts of the world,  it got even stranger. We were not so far from that strange and alien world in the passage in 2 Samuel that Nancy read last week. As weird as it may seem to us, animal sacrifice is still central to worship in some parts of the world.

But the text says that what made Abraham righteous in God’s sight was not the killing of animals to propitiate whatever divine forces we imagine are out there so as to make them friendly towards us and guarantee a good harvest or whatever.

No, what impresses God, what God approves of is Abraham’s faith, his belief, his willingness to keep walking into a promised future that he couldn’t yet see because he trusts God to fulfill the covenant. Abraham responds to God’s gracious promise with faith. He trusts God trusts God to be God and that is the foundational reality of his life. Abraham has faith in the righteousness of God; he is convinced that God will make good on the words that have been spoken. So that is why God can use Abraham to be a blessing to the world and a willing participant and partner in God’s project for His creation.

So where do we find ourselves in this story about Abraham and God’s promises about an unseen future? Do we not look around as we get ready for an annual meeting and wonder about descendents? We have a magnificence estate, a worthy inheritance, we come from a long lineage, but we, too, suffer from Downton Abbey syndrome. Who is going to fall into the inheritance – if not our children?

So how is faith nourished and nurtured in the face of evidence that points away from the fulfillment of God’s promises?  That was Abrahams’ question and the struggle that we read in today’s Psalm as the Psalmist moves from a confident, but perhaps naïve and childish faith to one which has been tested and matured in the face of hardship. As in the case of Abraham, that progression to renewed faith on the far side of lament is tied to public worship in the temple. That is what keeps the psalmist going through the tough and challenging times when faith in God’s purposes is shaken.

So with our doubts and questions and uncertainties, we turn to next week and our communion service. All around us we hear people loudly telling others that they are “spiritual but not religious”. They don’t need any of this institutional church stuff to be close to God. A bit of private meditation or yoga does it for them. Well maybe. But I can’t help but wonder how deep such faith goes and what sort of testing it can endure.

In the Psalm we were listening to the words of someone who has been and still is in the grip of a life-threatening situation and who finds that, in reaching out to God, light breaks into his darkness, as it once did for Abraham so many years before. The Psalmist’s confident faith at the end of the Psalm is rooted not in the mystery of private feelings (about which nothing can be said). It is rooted and nurtured in the common life of the worshipping community. That is where security and faith to cope is found, faith that will aid and sustain him in the time of trial. ‘Spirituality without religion’ is popular today, but is often found inadequate, for we need ritual and community if our faith is not to die when it is tested.

This points us back to worship of the one true God, and to the communion service that we will celebrate together next Sunday. Obviously I am not going to go around this week collecting three-year-old animals and cutting them in half for the communion table. But the bread of life will be broken in half as a sacramental memorial of the ultimate sacrifice both offered and accepted by the Father in the Son, that sacrifice when the fire of heaven descended to earth in an unparalleled demonstration of divine power in weakness,  and resulted in the renewal of God’s covenant promise of a land for all of Abraham’s children – including (we dare say)  – Abraham’s children through Ishmael.

The empirical evidence is not all in. We walk by faith and not yet by sight. But the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” That is the covenant promise that sustained Abraham and Jesus as he set his face to what lay before him in Jerusalem and St. Paul in his missionary travels around the Mediterranean.

And it is what sustains us as we also turn out eyes to God’s Promised future. We don’t know all the details of how God’s future will be fulfilled.  Abraham didn’t know that either. Neither did Jesus or Paul, but they had seen enough to be able to believe and to walk in faith towards that which they could not yet see,  in the confidence that God is God and  is to be trusted as the ultimate Promise Keeper.

Just then some Pharisees came up and said, “Run for your life! Herod’s on the hunt. He’s out to kill you!” Jesus said, “Tell that fox that I’ve no time for him right now. Today and tomorrow I’m busy clearing out the demons and healing the sick; the third day I’m wrapping things up. Besides, it’s not proper for a prophet to come to a bad end outside Jerusalem. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killer of prophets,
abuser of the messengers of God! How often I’ve longed to gather your children,
gather your children like a hen,
Her brood safe under her wings—
but you refused and turned away!
And now it’s too late: You won’t see me again
until the day you say,
Blessed is he
who comes in
the name of God.’”