God’s promises: A sermon on Genesis 15

13041435_1159982794033037_1825211134944730220_oBy the Rev. Anna Doherty

I can’t help but think, as we reflect on today’s Scripture readings, that if we understand our relationship with God…

to be identical to our relationships with other people….

Then we might come to find God chronically unreliable.

After all, God makes all these promises, throughout Scripture, and yet, our sense of those promises being fulfilled may be somewhat lacking…

If someone I knew made promises to me again and again, and then never kept them, I would start to doubt that person’s reliability…

I am sure you would feel the same.

Chronically disappointed expectations can sometimes lead to low expectations or no expectations at all.

And I know that this is how some people start to feel about God, or the whole exercise of faith in general.

Luckily, and importantly, the way in which God makes and fulfills God’s promises…and thus, how we understand our relationship to God…

…is actually quite different from our own limited human expectations and interactions.

Once we come to understand that, it changes everything.

It changes our relationship to God, our way of thinking about and noticing God in the world, and our expectations of what God is doing.

Today’s reading from Genesis is actually a wonderful example of this.

If you are familiar with the full arch of today’s story, then you know that three chapters before today’s reading from Genesis…

which translates into some ten years before the events of today’s reading…

God asks Abram to leave his homeland and take his household into the land of Canaan.

When God asks Abram to do this, God also makes a promise:

“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make our name great, and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.

Fast forward to today’s reading: ten years have passed with Abram and his family living as strangers in a strange land.

A lot of really difficult things have happened to Abram in the meantime.

His wife Sarai has, for a period of time, essentially been taken captive in Egypt.

Abram’s nephew Lot, has left the family fold in a huff, and then gets taken captive in Sodom and Gomorrah.

And Abram ends up fighting a war and giving away a tenth of his wealth in order to rescue his wayward nephew.

And, in the meantime, while other parts of Abram’s life are flourishing, the core of God’s promise to him goes unfulfilled—“I will make you into a great nation.”

Abram and Sarai have no children, and Abram just turned 86 years old…

and it is starting to look more and more like their legacy is going to stem from other people…

that there will be no nation of descendants from them.

So when God says to Abram in today’s reading, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your reward shall be very great.”

Abram is understandably skeptical.

He’s done basically everything God has asked him to do, trusted in God’s promise, and nothing has worked out quite the way he has been led to believe it would.

There is no nation, there is not even a single child.

And Abram calls God out on the fact that God’s promise a decade earlier, has, at its core, gone unfulfilled.

And God’s response is really interesting.

First, God doesn’t strike Abram down for expressing a sense of frustration and disappointment in God.

God actually seems to understand Abram’s disappointed expectations and seems willing to engage in them.

Second, God not only reissues God’s promise to Abram, but instead of simply making the same promise again, God actually magnifies it.

For all that God promised to make Abram a great nation, God’s promise goes beyond Abram’s own immediate family and offspring.

Instead, Abram’s descendants shall be so numerous, and in fact, as unquantifiable, as the stars in the night sky.

And Abram believes God’s promise, because not only has God reiterated all that God said before, but it seems that God has imagined an even greater future for Abram…

that even he himself could have conceived of.

Now, it takes another fifteen years for Abram and Sarai to have a child of their own.

God’s time is obviously different from human time, but God is doing things that are so incredible, that it takes a while, it seems, for God’s work to become fulfilled in human time and space.

The thing about God’s promises it seems, is that while they are always being fulfilled, they are not always fulfilled in the ways and times that we think they will be.

In fact, they may not even be fulfilled in ways that we will live to see.

Abram lives to be 175 years old. but even then, he doesn’t get to see his descendants as numerous as the stars in the night sky.

It takes generations, including slavery in Egypt and a 40 year Exodus in the wilderness for that to happen.

And if you know anything about the Exodus story, it is that during all those hard, long years, God’s people repeatedly doubt God’s fulfillment of God’s promises to them…

And yet, God not only fulfills those promises, but in ways too incredible to even be imagined by the recipients: manna from heaven, a land flowing with milk and honey, to name only a few…

For all of our disappointment in God and our wondering and doubts about what God is actually doing in our world…

God is working in our midst.

And God is working in ways so wonderful that sometimes we can’t even imagine it, or conceive that such a thing will be possible…

…and yet, God’s promises will come to fruition as certainly as the stars in the sky.

I am sure that some of us can look back at an earlier time in our life, and compare it to how things are now…

And we realize that such wonderful things have happened that we couldn’t even imagine it a decade or two ago.

Things are very far from perfect, but so much has changed and in ways that we couldn’t even have conceived of.

Our second reading from Hebrews today says that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

It doesn’t mean that God is not doing things, just because we cannot see them.

Sometimes we can’t see them because God’s work is so wonderful and magnificent that we can’t even imagine it yet.

Sometimes we can’t see them, because God’s work is being fulfilled in God’s time, and we may ourselves get glimpses of a vision that isn’t fully realized yet.

It doesn’t mean that God is not there, or that God has let us down, or that God is not working on our behalf.

I think this is really what Jesus means in his conversation with his disciples in today’s gospel, about the nature of waiting for the coming of God’s kingdom.

Jesus’ image of being on your guard for a kingdom that will come suddenly and unexpectedly, like a thief in the night…

can sometimes put us on edge.

It depends, I think, on your understanding of the work that God is doing.

Is God’s kingdom a place of judgement and fear, such that we need to sit up all night worrying about it…

or do we trust that God is doing God’s work in our midst, that God is bringing to fulfillment of all of God’s promises, even if we can’t yet fully see the end result of what God is doing?

If we live our lives with a kind of alert trust in God’s ongoing work on our behalf, then we will start to see God’s work all around us…

even when God’s promises are still on their way to being fulfilled, even when God’s kingdom is still on its way to being fully realized here on earth.

Even in the midst of our broken, often disappointing world, We get glimpses of God’s kingdom, of the fulfillment of God’s promises to us…

Even in the midst of conflict and pain, we see the fulfillment of God’s promises in moments of reconciliation and healing.

Even in the midst of acrimony and fear, we see God’s kingdom, in moments of love and compassion.

Even in the midst of doubt and disappointment, we see God’s promises being fulfilled in moments of joy and thanksgiving. I could go on and on.

God’s promises are being kept, in ways too wonderful for us to count or imagine.