Promises, promises, promises
I once knew a couple—let’s call them Fred and Sue—who had long-standing issues. Fred was a US Air Force officer who had met Sue in a bar in the Philippines. Fred loved Sue deeply, but in his heart of hearts he wondered whether Sue loved him for himself, or just for the things—the life, the luxuries—that he provided her.
Sue loved Fred deeply, as well. But she was very frustrated with him. Fred had been promising her for many years that he would get out of the military and they would settle in one place and begin a family. And yet, here she was, still packing all their belongings every two years and following him all over the globe. They had lived in Germany, Turkey, Spain, Guam, Iceland, and—even worse—Nebraska.
Can you imagine the scene that occurred every time Fred got new orders? I imagine Fred asking Sue, “Don’t you trust me?” and Sue screaming back, “Promises, promises, promises!”
This is exactly the scene that I imagine was happening in our Old Testament lesson for today. I imagine God instructing Abram, “Trust me,” and Abram yelling back, “WHEN will you do what you’ve promised to do?” Promises, promises, promises!
You see, when God had introduced himself to Abram, several chapters before today’s lesson, Abram was already 75 years old, and his wife Sarai wasn’t much younger. Abram and Sarai had one big complaint in life. They were childless in an age when family was everything: respectability, social security, immortality.
God had promised to give Abram offspring and land, and then had told Abram to move to a place that God would reveal along the way. And Abram had obeyed. The couple had started out in what is now Iraq, had gone to what is now southeast Turkey, then to Egypt (where God made them exceedingly rich), and finally God had sent them to what is now Israel.
This had been a major response to God’s promise. Abram had left everything he had known, everything he had worked for, and all measure of control in his life, to follow God’s direction. And when the couple had gotten to where God had sent them, they were a lot older, but they still didn’t have a child, or land of their own. Promises, promises, promises!
Now, WE know what God was up to. God was making Abram and Sarai the center of his plan of salvation for all of creation. God was making this childless couple the parents of all who know and love God—the parents of all of us here, today. But Abram didn’t know that. He must have been very impatient for God to deliver on his promise.
When today’s Old Testament lesson begins, God was making the second of what eventually would be five reiterations of his promise to Abram. 25 or so years had passed and thousands of miles since God had first made his promise. When God revealed himself to Abram this time, what was Abram’s response? Not, “Hello God, thank you for making me an exceedingly rich person.” Not “Hello God, thank you for my long life.” Not even, “Hello God.” What came from Abram’s lips was, “What will you give me?” Then Abram confessed that he had arranged for one of his servants, Eliezer of Damascus, to be his heir.
Old Testament names reveal significant information. In Hebrew, the servant’s name sounds very much like the word for “son of my possessions.” By this we learn the motive behind Abram’s complaint. You see, God had given Abram enough wealth to be taken care of in his old age. What Abram was worried about was the possessions that God had given him.
Notice that God didn’t get upset with Abram. Apparently we can demand what we want from God, and we do! God’s response was to reassure Abram of his promise, and then to take the old man outside for an astronomy lesson. Pointing to the uncountable stars in the sky, God promised Abram that he would have as many heirs as all the stars.
Did you know that there are, at present, over 2 billion Christians, 1.2 billion Muslims, and 15 million Jews, all of whom count Abram as their father? God is abundantly fulfilling his promise. However, astronomers guess that there are between 10 and 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, so God is not done delivering on his promise to Abram.
But God wasn’t really giving Abram an astronomy lesson, or a math lesson, either. The text says,
And [Abram] believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
These surely are among the most comforting words in all the Old Testament. Martin Luther made much of these words, pointing out that Abram hadn’t DONE anything, EXCEPT to believe God.
But then, as now, there is a lot involved in believing in God. We have to believe that there IS a God, we have to believe that God pays attention to us, we have believe that God is worthy of our trust.
Or do we?
The great preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, once told students at Duke University that trust—belief—is not about anybody but ourselves. Trust isn’t about the other person. Instead, trust requires that we follow a course of action WILLING TO ACCEPT THE CONSEQUENCES IF WE ARE WRONG. Trust is all about us.
Abram had hedged his trust in God’s promise by arranging for Eliezer to be his heir. So Abram had trusted in God only a little bit, but God had counted Abram’s belief as righteousness.
But God answered Abram’s question in a new way: God sealed his promise with a liturgy that means this:
What I promised you, I will give you in such abundance you can’t even begin to count the gift. And I, myself, will be the sacrifice to ensure that my promise is kept.
Promises, promises, promises: Bonded! Assured! Guaranteed!
Did you know that, on the day that God came to Abram in today’s Old Testament lesson, Abram was in Salem, the place that we call Jerusalem today? Jerusalem was the very place that Christ Jesus—a direct descendant of Abram—was heading, as we heard in our Gospel lesson, to be the sacrifice for us all. God keeps God’s promises.
Now you might say, “OK, Jo. This is a nice story—comforting, even. God made Abram a big promise, and Abram believed in God only a little bit, which was enough, and God kept his promise to Abram. What does all this have to do with us today?
Hasn’t God made a big promise to each of us? God has promised each of us eternal life. John 3:16 says:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Do you believe this, even just a little bit? Do you trust this promise, even just a little bit? If so, God counts your belief as righteousness.
As a sign of God’s promise, God’s covenant to us, we have our own liturgy, that God’s son Christ Jesus gave us. What God is saying to us through our liturgy is this:
What I promised you, I will give you in such abundance you can’t even begin to count the gift. And I, myself, am the sacrifice to ensure that my promise is kept.
Promises, promises, promises.