February 24, 2013 – Lent 2, God, Who Doesn’t Give Up
To listen to this sermon, click here: God Who Doesn’t Give Up
I never met my mother’s mother, because she died when my mother was a young bride. But in a very real way I do know her, because I have heard so many stories about her. I know that she was often sick so that she was supposed to be confined to her bed, but she never would obey the doctor, and when my mother and her brothers were teenagers she got up and taught them all how to dance the Charleston. I know that she and my grandfather had six children after she was told she couldn’t live through childbirth. I know that she was a tiny little Irish lady but a force to be reckoned with, that she locked the children out of the house every Saturday when she wanted to clean, that she hated sewing but made her children’s clothes anyway, and that her children adored her. I have heard a lot of different stories about my grandmother, but they all help me know who she is. I think when I meet her, at the end of things, I’ll recognize her right away.
People learn best through stories. Stories help us understand one another. Stories help us identify with people from other times and other places and other cultures. And telling our own stories helps us communicate who we are with other people. I think that the reason our minds understand story so well is that language, words, and storytelling is part of who God is, so that we are storytelling creatures because we are made in his image. I think that when God created the world he was telling a story, and that we are part of the story that he is telling. In the letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul uses a great phrase to describe our creation: it is usually translated to say we are God’s workmanship, but literally what it means is we are God’s poetry. And when Jesus came to be the ultimate revelation of the Father, he was called simply “the Word”. And so it just makes sense, because stories are so much a part of who we are, that God gave us the Bible, which is a book full of stories in which he communicates to us who he is. Whether we read about Abram and the strange vision he has with the dead animals and the torches, or about Jesus as he laments over Jerusalem, we read it as God’s story, and we come to it first with the same question – what is this story telling us about who he is? How does reading this story help us to understand better who our Father is?
The story that we read about Abram today is kind of a mysterious story. It’s actually part of a much larger story. God had called Abram to leave his homeland and his family behind, and he had promised Abram that in place of all that he had left behind, all his connections, all that had made Abram who he was up to that time – in place of that, God promised to give him a new life, to make him into a new nation. From Abram God was going to establish a people that would live under his own blessing, and he promised that in the end the whole earth would be blessed through the family of Abram. Where we join the story today in the fifteenth chapter of Genesis, the promise is many years old, and Abram has had no proof so far that God was going to keep his promises. Abram isn’t getting any younger, and instead of offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky, all he has to his name is a man who was born as a slave in his household. It’s not much of a nation. But then God renews his promise to Abram, and Abram trusts God, and the story tells us that God counted that trust as righteousness to Abram.
So first of all we see a God who isn’t just interested in giving orders. Instead, he calls Abram out to build a relationship with him. It matters to him that Abram trusts him. Just think about that for a moment – that it matters to God that his people believe him. And he is also a God who doesn’t mind being questioned. When Abram begs him for some proof, he doesn’t get angry; he doesn’t play the “because I said so” card, even though if anybody ought to be able to say that it would be God. But he doesn’t. Instead, he does something very human. He makes a covenant with Abram, a kind of contract. It’s the sort of contract the king of a great nation might make with the king of a lesser nation; there is a particular procedure for it. God has Abram bring all the proper offerings for the covenant: a heifer, and a goat, and a ram, and some birds, and Abram lays them all out in the proper order. And now, the ritual would normally proceed like this: the lesser king would have to walk between the slaughtered animals in the sight of the greater king. And what the lesser king would be saying to the greater king is this: if I do not honor you and keep faith with you, I give you the right to do to me as I have done to these animals. My life is forfeit to you if I do not keep this covenant.
But the twist in this story is that things don’t proceed like that. When the carcasses have been laid out, Abram falls into a deep sleep and he has a vision. And in the vision, Abram hears the voice of God renewing his promises, and then a smoking fire pot passes between the slaughtered carcasses. What has just happened is that God himself has pledged his own life as an assurance to Abram that the covenant would indeed be fulfilled. In effect, God was saying, if I do not keep my word, if I do not make you a great nation, if I do not bless the world through you, well then, my own life is forfeit. Before there was a nation, before there were any commandments to be obeyed, before there was obedience or disobedience, God put his life on the line as a pledge that he would keep his promises to his people – and through them, to the whole world.
And knowing that story, we can better understand the story in the gospel of Luke today. Jesus was heading towards Jerusalem. The whole second half of Luke’s gospel is about the journey to Jerusalem, and again and again Jesus has tried to prepare his disciples for what was going to happen there. He knew already that Jerusalem was the place he would die. Some of the Pharisees had come to warn him about Herod’s threats, but he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew he had to go to Jerusalem, because Jerusalem was the heart of that nation, Israel, that God had established from the descendants of Abram so many centuries before, the nation he had chosen to be his very own people. And as Israel had rebelled against God time after time, he had sent his prophets, to call his people back into relationship with him, and time after time they had been rejected and killed. But God never gave up on his people.
And it would be easy to point our fingers at Israel and to shake our heads at their hardness of heart and their foolishness and their wickedness, if we didn’t take a good long look at ourselves and remember those failings that trap us again and again, those things we promise ourselves we are done with forever and then find ourselves caught up in all over again, those small unkindnesses and vanities that we let slip day after day. And then we know that we are just the same, and that if the covenant had been made with us we would have failed just as miserably to keep our end of it. And then we bless our Father, along with faithless Israel, that he pledged himself to fulfill his promise of blessing to us all.
And that is why he sent the Son, who is God himself in the flesh, to fulfill that promise of blessing once and for all. Jesus came with the commitment of the Father, who loves us as his own life. And Jesus expressed the longing of the Father when he cried out in grief, “How many times I wanted to gather you to myself, as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not.” Every overture of love and of rebuke, of warning and punishment, had failed to bring them back to him. And so Jesus had come to fulfill the covenant he made with Abram, when he passed between the slaughtered carcasses of the beasts on that dark night so many, many years ago. When all else had failed God was fulfilling his promise with the pledge of his own life. Jesus knew that he was headed to his death. And he knew that it was his death that would fulfill all righteousness at last, and that nothing less than his own life would open the way finally for God to gather his people to himself.
In the end, the story of the journey to the cross and the story of Abram’s vision are one and the same. It is the story of who our God is, the God who has done all that needed to be done to give his blessing to the people he loves.