A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 15:1-21; Philippians 3:17-4:1
His name is Abram. Remember that, please. He is not Abraham. Not yet anyway. To call him Abraham would mean we were getting ahead of the story, and that is not a good thing to do, not if we’re going to come even close to understanding what is going on here. So, let’s not do that… get ahead of ourselves, that is.
So please, if you will, call him Abram.
Still, you are no doubt aware that it won’t be too long into this strange journey of faith and not-knowing, this blind pilgrimage that took the old man Abram and his not-much-younger wife Sarai into foreign lands not their own, that God will choose to change his name. Actually, adjust would probably say it better. God adjusted his name by adding a breathing sound to Abram and he became Abraham.
But not now and not yet.
In the story we read earlier, he is still going by the name given him by his father. He is Abram, and it is important for us to remember that, if for no other reason than we need to be aware that Abram and God are still in the process of getting used to each other.
So please, if you will, call him Abram.
Why? Well, this is still fairly close to the beginning of the story and Abram has yet to put his full trust in the Lord. A clue about the uncertainty of their relationship is that, as God comes to Abram in a vision, God still has to tell the old man not to be afraid. There will come a point in time, when God appears to him, that Abraham – and at that point he will indeed be Abraham – will not be surprised to be visited by the Almighty. There will be no need for fear because, over time, they develop a personal relationship based on trust and faith. In fact, there will come a point when Abraham won’t be surprised at all when God comes calling. He comes to expect it, maybe even looks forward to it.
But not here, not in the story we read earlier, and not yet. Abram is still moving from suspicion to belief,1 slowly and surely. Where we are in the story there’s still some doubt involved. And for good reason. At the very least, we can only imagine, it is still disconcerting to have God come to you, especially when God’s presence is accompanied by a “deep and terrifying darkness.” Even if it is in a vision, such things can tear your world apart, taking you from that which is familiar – your home and your family – and telling you to pack up and go wherever God is to lead you. Deep and terrifying indeed.
But Abram has done it, has followed the voice of God. Still, that doesn’t mean he has fully bought into everything God is telling him. Not yet.
It may not be true for everyone here today, – in fact, I’m certain it isn’t – but I think I can assure you that every week, when we gather here in this place for worship, there is someone – someone – who finds himself or herself at that place in life when he or she is in the process of moving from suspicion to belief. Is that true of you? It can be a painful time, and slow in the making, even slower in the enduring of it. But then again, it can be exciting too. When you’re moving from suspicion to belief you’re discovering new things, accepting possibilities you’ve never seen before, trusting in ways you never thought possible, and venturing into areas of understanding you never believed would ever come your way.
It’s not unlike those days when you first decide you’re going to get into better physical condition. You ratchet down your eating habits, you cut out the sugars and the unnecessary breads, you take to the treadmill and lift a few weights, maybe walk a few miles each day. What happens? At the outset of it all you discover muscles you didn’t know you had. They’re barking at you like the neighbor’s dog, telling you they aren’t very happy about being waked up after a long hibernation. But you stay with it, and gradually those sore muscles get toned up a bit and one day you wake up feeling better and stronger, encouraged to keep it up. When you put on your clothes you realize they fit better. There’s a spring in your step and an energy in your bones that you haven’t noticed in a long, long time, and it suddenly comes to you: all the effort and work is worth it.
Maybe you’ve been letting your spiritual muscles lie dormant for awhile, and then God comes to you in a way you haven’t experienced in a long time… maybe ever. You may not be able to explain how or why or even when, but God comes to you and encourages you to limber up those spiritual muscles. You begin to exercise your faith, and find yourself moving from suspicion to belief in such a way that you are getting stronger and better.
But still, the questions come. The questions always come, don’t they? But you know what, it is good for the questions to come, because, when it comes to faith, asking questions is like exercising. You stretch your spiritual muscles, work them in a way you’ve not done before, and even though you might not receive all the answers you’re looking for, your clothes fit better and you know in your heart that your relationship with God is stronger for the effort. And, it is good for the questions to come, if for no other reason than this is how it happened with that old man named Abram. And if it happened to Abram, then surely it is good for it to happen to you too.
“I am your shield,” the Lord says to Abram; “your reward shall be very great.” And that’s when the questions begin. You see, to this point, all Abram can see is the backside of a camel, and all he can taste is the sand in his teeth. And the only home he knows is a tent, a tent that he pitches each day on a portion of land that does not belong to him but is in the possession of someone else. All Abram can see is the long road ahead with no real destination in sight.
And all Abram can hear is Sarai’s complaining. Oh, all in all she’s been a pretty good sport about all this. Not many wives would have gone with their husbands under such strange and suspicious circumstances. But still, if you think Abram’s got questions, he’s got nothing on Sarai. “How much longer are we going to do this, Abram?” “How many times does God promise you things, Abram, before you start to wonder if what God tells you is really true?” “Why must we endure all this, Abram?” “Where are we going next, Abram?” “What’s going on, Abram?” “Are we there yet, Abram?”
Perhaps one of the most extraordinary statements in all of scripture is found in the twelfth chapter of Genesis. The Lord appears to Abram and says, “Go. Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” But that’s not the extraordinary part. Here it comes. Are you ready?
“So Abram went…” Truly, truly extraordinary. “So Abram went…” And not alone! Sarai went with him.
How many of you are from these parts, have never lived anywhere else? You’re Arkansas born, you’re Arkansas bred, and when you die you’ll be Arkansas dead. Any of you? Well, what if, after worship today, you get home, after having a bite of lunch settle down in front of the TV with the newspaper on your lap, maybe turn on the golf tournament, and just as you’re about to doze off (and you will doze off because God made Sunday afternoons for naps and nothing will encourage you to do so like a golf tournament on TV), and you hear a voice saying to you, “Go. Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
What would you do? If you’re married, would you share that vision with your spouse? (Uh, honey, you’re not going to believe what just happened.)Would you expect your husband or your wife to buy into it as well? What would you do?
My guess is, you’d start asking questions, and no doubt leading the list would be the very same one Abram asked the Lord. The first part of the question is, “What will you give me?” It’s a natural question since God brought it up first. God used the word reward. “Your reward shall be very great.”
Oh? Then what will you give me as my reward? What can you give me that I don’t have already? More slaves and more camels? Abram says, I have all those. Don’t think that when he left his native land Abram just took off as God commanded, and that it was just the old man and his wife. No, he took some family (remember his nephew Lot?) and he took his servants and all his belongings. It would have been quite an entourage, so it’s doubtful that Abram expected God to increase his possessions.
“What will you give me? What will be this reward that you speak of?” How about the one thing Abram doesn’t have? How about descendants? “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”
And if you think Abram had questions before… well, they really start now! “How can that be? I’ve already lived beyond the apportioned three-score-and-ten years, and my wife is not that much younger than I. How can you possibly promise me such a thing when it’s not biologically possible?”
It’s a good and logical question. Abram is old and Sarai’s biological clock hasn’t just slowed down, it’s stopped altogether, dried up and blown away with the sands of time. But just when circumstances seem to be impossible, God has a way of taking us by the hand and leading us outside the boundaries of our limited understanding. In Abram’s case, God simply tells him to step outside and look up.
When I was a boy, we only had three channels to watch on TV. In the summer, all the programs were re-runs anyway, so watching television didn’t hold much interest for me. I would be an adult before video games came along. What was there for a boy to do, especially on summer nights when “the living is easy”? I would spend many a night outside, lying in the cool grass, staring up at the stars. We lived outside of town and there wasn’t any ambient city light to get in the way, no pollution to speak of that would clog my vision. The sky was clear and the stars brilliant. As I would try to locate the Big Dipper and other constellations, I would often think of Abram stepping outside his tent at the urging of God and looking up.
“What will you give me?” he wants to know. “What will be my reward?”
“To you and your descendants, I give you the sky, the sky that goes on forever and ever.”
“But how will I know?” That’s the second part of the question Abram asks of God. “How will I know?”
Perhaps the most significant thing at this point in the story is not the question Abram put to God but the one he didn’t. He doesn’t ask when God is going to reward him and make him happy and fulfilled. He doesn’t hold his hand out, expecting instant gratification. He trusts in God’s timing and says, “When the time does come, how will I know?”
In response to Abram’s question, God asks for a sacrifice. It’s not that he doesn’t trust Abram to be faithful to him. The old man has hit the road because of God’s asking him to do it. But maybe the Lord simply wants Abram to reaffirm, by means of sacrifice, the relationship between the two. And once the sacrifice is completed, God patiently explains to Abram once again that new life will come to Sarai and she will bear a son.
Look up, God tells Abram, look up and let those twinkling stars in the sky be a sign that when God makes a promise, God always comes through. “What will you give me… and how will I know?”
Maybe that’s what you and I need to do… look up, that is. Maybe we’ve been spending too much time of late looking down. As we move from place to place, and the days, the years, the decades just roll on by, we spend too much time staring at our shoes. Do you think that maybe now is the time for us to start looking up? And when was the last time you asked what God would give you? When was the last time you asked God for some reassurance of his devotion to you? Maybe it’s time indeed for you to look up, but if you do, one thing God might just ask of you in response is patience, the patience to wait for his answer.
It would be the better part of a quarter-century before the promise finally came through for this aged couple. Why? Consider once again the stars in the sky, and think of this: those stars God showed Abram thousands of years ago? Well guess what… the light sent by those stars, when Abram stood gazing at them, has yet to reach earth.2
That’s how patient God can be, and it shows how really small we are. How patient are you? The next time you ask God, “What will you give me… and how will I know?” you best be prepared to wait. God can be very patient, you see, for patience is a part of the journey.
Teach us such patience, O Lord, so that when you come calling, not only will we ask the right questions, but we will be willing to wait for the answer. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1Kenyatta R. Gilbert, Feasting On the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 51.
2Kae Evensen, The Christian Century, February 23, 2010, p. 24.