A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 20 March 2022 by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Reading for address: Genesis 15
Imagine you woke up this morning in a small town in Poland near the border with Ukraine. In the distance you can hear bombs falling and you wonder how many miles away they are from your home. On the road outside you can hear vehicles coming out of Ukraine with refugees and you look out of your window to see lorries heading back into Ukraine carrying weapons. You wonder would the promise your government has with Nato stand. If it came to it, would Poland be important enough to the US and the UK and Germany and France to go to war for you? You hope it would be… but you still lie in bed awake and try to asses how far away the explosions are.
Imagine you’re in London but you’re in a marriage that is not working. Your spouse doesn’t seem to care about the promises you both made to each other… Or imagine you have adopted a child with complex needs, you knew it would be hard but you had no idea they would destroy your furniture and be so relentless in their anger and pain. You wonder if you have what it takes to see it through.
Our Old Testament reading is about one simple question. It is simple but it unfolds to hold the whole of the Hebrew scriptures in one little story with one question at its heart. How much are promises worth to God?
For a question as weighty as that, it’s quite a small scale story. It’s just one no-name man in a subsistence farmer and his family in the late iron age. God calls Abram, later called Abraham to be his friend, to leave where he is settled and go to the land of Canaan which he promises will one day belong to his offspring. God promises Abram will become a great nation, that he will make his name great and that through him all the nations of earth will be blessed. This no-name guy will have a name and through his small existence God will reach blessing across the whole face of the earth.
All good, but then nothing happens. The clock is ticking. Ten years go by, and Abram and his wife are not getting any younger. You get the impression Abram doesn’t process his feelings about this. If you read the chapter before, his actions seem very insecure about his position in the world. Then, when God eventually appear again, God has barely said hello before Abram leaps into talking about this promise in quite a jumbled way.
“Fear Not Abram for I am your shield, your great reward”
“Oh Lord God” Abram responds “what about what you promised? It’s all going wrong. I don’t have an heir. Well, I do have an heir but the heir I do have is just one of my servants, Eliaser of Damascus.”
“Who is Eliazer of Damascus?” you may ask. “Exactly!” cries Abraham.
“Don’t worry” says God. “It will happen and it will be through you, through your body. It won’t be some distant servant.” God restates the promise but Abram is still left wondering. He left his home for God and now in the face of all this waiting can he trust God will come through for him?
We don’t know why God doesn’t act more quickly on this. God doesn’t offer him answers. Instead God offers him his hand.
Promises are broken for one of two reasons, either a person is unwilling to fulfil it; other things are now more important to them, Or, with the best will in the world, they just can’t do it. As humans we see both of these all the time. Marriages and adoptions and packs between nations fail with shattering consequences for the weaker party.
In the face of all this waiting, Abram needs to know two things, is God still willing and is God still able to fulfil his promise? God starts with the latter.
God leads Abram outside and says “look up at the heavens and count the stars if in deed you can count them.” You can sense there must have been a pause as Abram takes it all in.
I don’t know if you’ve ever got out on a clear night, far from city lights and looked up and marvelled at the astonishing magnificence of the Milky Way plastered across the sky. Is there anything more beautiful or more impressive than the cosmos spinning out light years away from where we are. It’s wonderful enough that just for a moment, you can lose yourself in it and forget all that worries you.
Then God joins the magnificent to the small saying “Abram, so shall your offspring be”
In Genesis 1 there is the lovely throw away line “He also made the stars” as if they’re the icing on the cake. So easy you could almost forget to mention it.
If God can make these magnificent balls of light so far away, surely he can make a little baby.
The creator God surely CAN keep his promises. So, Abram is left with the question, WILL God keep his promise?
The promise is not just being a great people with a great name but also that they will have somewhere secure to live. A promised land. Abram says “How can I know I’ll get it?”
God tells Abram to take some animals. This was a commonly used way to seal a deal. “OK Abram, Call your solicitor! Let’s put this in writing.”
Animals were not cheap, to be fair, neither are solicitors. Killing a bird wasn’t such a big deal but killing a young cow, a young goat and a young male sheep, 3 years old, just coming into their prime, showed real commitment to the cause.
The way deals were made in that time was that animals were killed then cut in two and both parties would walk through the animals.
Perhaps as a child you made a promise and said “Cross my heart and hope to die”. This is a more solemn version of that. By walking between the halves of the animals body you are saying, may this happen to me if I break this promise. I don’t know if you’ve ever got superglue on your fingers. Your commitment to be bonded to that superglue is now as strong as your commitment to the layers of skin on your fingers. Part of you will always be with this superglue. The animals being split says, half my life is now in one place and half is in another place. The breaking of the animals says my body will be broken in two rather than leave my commitment to this promise. It beats a handshake, doesn’t it?
So Abram gets the animals, he prepares them, cutting them in two and clearly he is expecting God to and him to walk down this path together.
But there is a surprise, two surprises.
The first is that there’s a delay. Abram has got the animals ready and then he sits down next to them to wait for God to act. An hour goes by then another. The day night turns into day and perhaps he goes to get a drink of water or some shade in his tent as the heat of the day rises. Abram has to keep an eye out to fight off the vultures who try to drag off the carcases. Where is God?
This is a question that is repeated over and over throughout the scriptures. Perhaps it’s a question Abram needed the courage to voice for his own circumstances. He has had to wait 10 years already since God promised he would become a great nation and it’ll be another 15 years before the baby is
born. He also needs to voice that for the rest of humanity and the rest of situations where God seems slow to come to our aid. The lectionary misses out v13 from our reading but it says “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and they will be enslaved and illtreated for 400 years.”
This passage was written down and compiled into the Hebrew canon at a time when Abraham’s descendants were in Exile. They have no idea how long their captivity will go on but the editors highlight that God predicted their last major enslavement in Egypt in the Exodus. Perhaps you are beleaguered at the moment. Perhaps you have waited a long time for God to answer your prayers for help. We don’t know why God does not come sooner. In fact, it’s written into the original iron age promise that God made with humanity through Abraham that God will not come so soon that we will be spared suffering. Again, God does not offer us answers but God does offer us his hand.
The other surprise is that the ritual, when it does come, is unilateral. When the sun had set on the second day, a blazing torch appeared. Fire is often a symbol of God’s presence, think of the burning bush or the fire in the Wilderness in the Exodus story. Abram falls into a deep sleep but the fire walks through the animals alone. God takes 100% of the responsibility for ensuring this friendship covenant is kept even if it comes to being torn in two.
Ultimately Abram and his children did not live up to this promise. They ebbed and flowed in their commitment to being friends with God. Perhaps you’ve done that too. Perhaps you’ve been sleepy in your faith for a while as you’ve got tired of waiting for God to show up.
God proved trustworthy for Abram. Even post holocaust, there are now around 16million Jewish people spread throughout the world today. Then there are those like me, a gentile adopted into his family. Over half the world claim Abraham as their spiritual ancestor.
God proved trustworthy for the Jewish people, bringing them through the 400 years of slavery in the Exodus, bringing them through the Exile and even the Holocaust.
But God also proved trustworthy for the entire world. This ritual of Abram’s was repeated.
A few thousand years later God appeared to another no-name who became the most famous woman who has ever lived. The voice of God said almost the same words “Greetings, do not fear. Through you God will bless many nations. All people will call you blessed.” Like Abram, Mary asked questions, asked for help to trust God.
In the face of all the broken promises in our world, the child that Mary, the descendant of Abram, bore grew and continues to hold out not answers but a hand of friendship and commitment.
Since the Iron Age, Abram and the whole of humanity have questioned whether God has the ability and the will, not break his promise to us.
The disciples were wondering this as things became more hostile with Jesus in Jerusalem. Jesus tells them to go and prepare a ritual. It’s a ritual that had obvious roots in a sheep being slaughtered in the Exodus but also goes back to our story with Abram. But Jesus tells them not to get animals but bread and wine. He held out the bread and said not, this time this is not a 3 year old calf and goat and male sheep but this is a 33 year old human being… this is me.
There was a story at the time about the goddess Artemis being present as someone was dying in battle. She said she had to go as a god cannot be close to those who are dying.
So great is our God’s commitment to this promise that God redoes the ritual with Abram, not with animals but with himself. Hands that flung stars into space…
Even if it means his body is torn in two. Even if it means the Trinity is almost torn in two. God is so bound to you that God will not let go.
If you worry that God cannot see through the promise to be your friend, look up at the stars and think about who made them. If you worry that God does not have the will to see through being a friend to you, come to church. We rehearse the iron age ritual God made with Abram every week.
I am so committed to friendship with you that I will not relent even to the point of being torn in two.
“This is my body, given for you.”
Hold up a wafer and snap it in two.