Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
With the advent of streaming services like Netflix and digital video recorders, we now have available more video content than we could watch in a lifetime, even if we never slept and watched twenty-four hours a day for the rest of our lives. Laurie and I enjoy the guilty pleasure of watching some of these shows, especially BBC productions like the Endeavor detective series. Sometimes we will have a couple of different shows that we watch, but we forget what happened since the last time we saw that particular series. So we appreciate the recaps that are so common now – “previously …” Oh yeah, now I remember!
Most Sundays, I feel like the lectionary needs a recap, because we are so often dropped into the middle of the story with no context for where we’ve been or where we’re going. In fact, you may not realize it, but there are two different lectionary cycles for the Hebrew scriptures, what we commonly call the Old Testament. Track 0ne is a relatively straightforward reading beginning in Genesis and going through the Old Testament books in the order we find them in our bibles along with a corresponding Psalm. It is meant to give more context to the Hebrew scriptures because you hear the stories as they unfold, week to week.
Track 2 is the more traditional way lectionaries have been formulated since the middle ages, where the Hebrew scripture reading has been chosen to correspond to the Gospel reading of the day. The general idea is that if Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets, then we should hear those parts of the Jewish story that correspond to what Jesus is fulfilling. Therefore, the Hebrew scripture reading jumps around from week to week and you generally don’t get the context. This year we are using Track Two in our lectionary readings, the one that jumps around.
So that brings us to the story of Abram in Genesis chapter 15. Previously … we know that Abram hears God call him to leave his home and go to a land that God would give him:
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
And remarkably, the scripture tells us very simply, “so Abram went.” That’s it – no questions, no conditions, and apparently no doubts. Abram simply goes. Abram was seventy-five years old when he leaves with his wife Sarai and all of his possessions and servants and animals. Their travels are filled with ups and downs, challenges and confrontations, but through it all they find that God is taking care of them. Finally, they make it to their destination and God pays Abram another visit, which is our reading for today.
God reaffirms the promise God made to Abram earlier telling him, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But this time Abram questions God’s promise and says,
“You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to Abram, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” God brought Abram outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then God said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”
Sometimes trusting God comes pretty easy, especially when things are going well in our lives. You hear something in church about how much God loves you and you think yeah, God must love me because most things in my life are going pretty well. I have my health, I’m paying my bills, my family is doing well, so trusting God is almost an afterthought.
But what about those times in our lives, and all of us have them, when things aren’t going so well? How do we trust God in those times? Maybe you’ve prayed for a better job, or for your child’s situation in school to improve, or for your health or the health of a loved one to improve, only to find out the cancer has returned. Where is God when things are not going well and how do we trust and find peace in those times?
It is interesting to see God’s response when Abram questions the promise. God doesn’t get mad or frustrated or dissolve the covenant God has made with Abram. No, God gently summons Abram’s attention beyond himself and takes him outside and shows him the universe that God has made and reaffirms God’s promise. In the midst of difficulty and when things look like God is absent, as hard as it might be, redirect your vision, look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them, Abram.
And then comes one of the seminal verses in the entire bible: And Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Abram trusted God and therefore God’s promise is a byproduct of that trust. And God conferred righteousness on Abram. If I trust someone, it doesn’t matter what they promise me or commit to do, I believe they will do it – because I trust them. I give you $20 and you say you’ll pay me back – I don’t give it a second thought – because I trust you. So I confer righteousness on you – I have a right or trustworthy relationship with you.
Just so you know, Abram and Sarai won’t have that promised child for another fourteen years, when Abram is almost 100 years old. So I’m pretty sure that Abram continued to have his doubts and question God, just like we do. And I wonder how many times in those fourteen years Abram had to go back outside and look up at the stars and begin counting, just to remind himself of God’s promise.
Sometimes it’s easier to trust God when things are going our way. But our relationship with God is only really tested when life gets difficult. It’s hard to trust God in those times. And if you’re in one of those difficult places in your life right now – go outside on a clear night – and look to the heavens – and begin to count the stars – and remember – God always keeps God’s promises – and in Jesus, we see how far God will go to prove God’s great love for us and everyone!