Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Power of a Promise (Gen 15:1-12, 17-18)

(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Sunday Worship on Feb 21, 2016, Lent II)


“More to Life”

The old man—75 to be exact—tosses about in his tent. It is midnight. He is exhausted. But he cannot sleep. Something stirs restlessly within him, and from the unplumbable depths of his heart arises a stubborn question. “Why did I leave the comfort of the city, my family, my home, to come alone out here in the wilderness with my wife? Out here where the only thing I can call home is this lonely grove of oak trees?” Slowly his heart rewinds several months back, and he hears himself speaking the last words he spoke to his father: “I can’t say why I’m leaving. Not exactly. Only that I know there is more to life.” How vague those words sound now. “More to life”? What more? Did he think he would make a difference in this vast wilderness? That he would be anything other than a nuisance to the locals who stare at him the way they do a lost a sheep?

“More to life”? More worry, perhaps. More restless nights. Because not only are he and his wife wandering in the wilderness, they are a wilderness unto themselves: they are barren, unable to have children. That was bad enough anywhere, but out here where hardly anyone knew them, it was a life-threatening prospect. Who would look after them in the twilight of their life? Who would watch the livestock, barter with the cagey locals? Who would bury them?

As these doubts waft past him, one after the other, a strange whistle plays around the edge of his tent. A wild animal, perhaps? He sits up, stumbles to the tent’s entrance, and peers outside. Nothing. But he keeps looking. And a cool breeze brushes his fevered head, whispering an inscrutable consolation. His eyes come to rest on the dark horizon. Stars upon stars, their light gently kissing the sand around him.

He has no idea that thousands of years from now, his story will lie at the roots of millions of people’s faith. He does not know that his family will survive in this foreign land—much less grow. He has no inkling that his wandering, that this very moment, will inspire millions to put their trust in the elusive call that we call “God.” All he knows is the promise of the blanket of stars above him, the promise that there must be “more to life” and he must be a part of that “more.” All he knows is the promise that makes him restless, the promise that came out of nowhere and sent him wandering into the wilderness, into God knows where.

And so after a minute of looking at the stars—or it could have been an hour, as he completely lost track of time—he returns inside his tent. And what happens next is a bit of a blur. All he can remember, years later, is the vision of a flame. It could have been outside the tent; it could have been inside his heart. Wherever it was, he knew what it meant. It meant that the embers of life were white hot. It meant that here on this journey he was not alone. It meant that whatever goes on inside the name of God was going on inside his life, that whatever was getting promised by the name of God was getting promised in his journey through the wilderness.

Promise on Promise:
Nothing but God’s Word

I’ll confess that sometimes my imagination runs away with itself. So if this retelling of today’s scripture strikes you as a bit fanciful, feel free to strike it from your memory. But do allow me to pause for just one more moment on the words that inspired it, for I believe these words are fraught with faith and heavy with hope. I believe that in these words is contained the entire story of Abram, the entire story of Israel, and perhaps even the entire story of our faith. In verses five and six, the narrator says this: “[The Lord] brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward the sky and count the stars, if you are able.’ And he trusted the Lord.”

Just before this point in the story, there’s a funny dialogue between Abram and God. Abram essentially says, “How can I trust your promise?” And God essentially responds, “I promise you can trust my promise.” In other words, God just repeats the promise, layers promise upon promise. In the end, Abram is no closer to certainty than he was before. All he has is God’s word. For the more cynical among us, this should raise some eyebrows, if not red flags. How is God any different here than the shady used car salesman who has nothing more than hearsay to back his claims?

“The Lord Brought Him Outside…”

But everything changes for Abram when God “brought him outside” and showed him the stars. Then Abram trusted God. Why exactly? How did those stars relieve his doubts? We don’t know. But I’d wager that it’s precisely at this moment that Abram’s experience mirrors ours. Our lives, like Abram’s, are driven by a promise, whether we recognize it or not—an underlying sense that there is “more to life” than where we are right now, a deep desire for a goodness that we do not yet know.[1] And our lives, like Abram’s, are riddled with doubt. Has our sense of promise led us astray? Was it wrong to start a family when we did? Was it bad timing to make the move when we did?

And it’s at these moments of doubt, I believe, that we are led to see a sign that reassures us. God brings Abram outside and asks him to count the stars, if he can. And so God brings each of us outside, or inside, to reflect on the divine promises we have followed. God brings the single mother inside to look over her sleeping child and asks her to measure the worth of those breaths, if she can. God brings the unmotivated man into the presence of others who awaken a sleeping passion within him and asks him to calculate the worth of his own smile, if he can. God brings the teenager into an inspiring teacher’s classroom and asks her to imagine the future, if she can.

And what about us? What about you? What divine promise has been inspiring your life—perhaps even unbeknownst to you? Has God taken you outside, or inside, to look at the stars or the sand or something in which you can see the infinite depths of possibility? I remember such a moment in my own life. In a time when I doubted the path I was on, God brought me into the company of a certain friend, and asked me see myself reflected in the eyes of this companion. I saw a better person than I expected to see, a person unjaded and unencumbered by insecurity. I saw the promise of a “me” who could bless others even, or especially, through his own brokenness and weakness.

The God Who Promises

The word “promise” literally means “to send forward,” and I think it’s hard to find a better word to describe God. God is a God of promise, a God of possibilities, a God of things that do not yet exist (cf. 1 Cor 1:28). God is a God who “sends [us] forward” into a future that we cannot foresee. God’s promise is no certainty, no easy-odds bet. It is a push, a prompt, a provocation, that propels us beyond the boundary of ourselves and into the untamable wilderness of other people’s lives.

This God of promise cuts a curious and perhaps unexpected figure in the book of Genesis. We see God saying a lot—from the words that stir creation into its colorful existence, to the promises that are made to Abram, Isaac, and Jacob—but not doing much. Which isn’t to say that God doesn’t do things. It’s only to say something, I think, about how God does things. It’s only to say something about the way God moves about in our world, the sort of power God exercises.

God’s power is not the power of a strong arm, of coercion and compulsion; it’s not the kind of power that turns us into pawns, that belittles our sufferings and our trials. God’s power is quite the opposite. The gospel of Abram’s story is the same gospel of Jesus Christ. Its good news is the power of a promise, a word, a call, an invitation, a power that empowers rather than overpowers, that animates us into the fullness of life, of living for others and blessing their lives. The good news of Abram and Israel is none other than the good news of Jesus: it is the good news of a promise, a God of promise, a God whose word of unconditional affection and encouragement transforms our wilderness difficulties into redeeming possibilities.


O God who lives among us,
Whose promise takes on our own flesh,
And the flesh of those around us:
When we doubt the path
On which you have sent us forward,
Bring us outside, inside, wherever—
To look upon the goodness
Toward which your promise points desiringly.
Be known among us.
In the name of the promise who took on flesh fully: Christ Jesus. Amen.


[1] It is a theological idea within biblical and Christian tradition that God’s promise is the inspiration of our desire. If we mine our desire deeply enough, we will find that it is one and the same with God’s desire. E.g., Rom 8:26. In later Christian tradition, see Anselm’s “Prayer to Christ”: “Give me what you have made me want…. I praise and thank you for the desire that you have inspired…. Perfect what you have begun, and grant me what you have made me long for.”

No comments:

Post a Comment