Big Sky Country
As long as I can remember I have been fascinated with the night sky. There is a deep, dark mystery to it that I feel like I have been trying to solve since I was a child. Whether I was camping or just standing out in the backyard, I found myself drawn to the great expanse above. My favorite spot back home in Georgia was Berry College. It’s the largest college campus in the world at just over 25,000 acres and my father’s uncle lived there when I was a kid. There are acres of open, unlit fields there that beg to be sat in under the great curtain of night.
Even there in that great open, unlit space, the low altitude and the haze of the atmosphere made it hard to see stars in the same way we can here. Here, removed from larger cities and metropolitan areas and at a higher altitude, you can see so much more. One of my favorite things since moving here is simply to sit on the front porch of the parsonage at night and stare up at the sky. Even with the few street lights that are out, I can see so much more of the night sky than I have ever been able to in the past.
I found out this week that there is an exercise that you can with a toilet tissue tube that is supposed to allow you to count the stars. It goes something like this:
View a portion of the sky through a tube and count all of the stars that you can see. Keep the tube fixed and do not move it in order to increase the number of stars visible. Fainter stars can be better observed by using averted vision. That is, don’t focus your eye directly ahead, but focus slightly to one side of the place you want to observe. Repeat this counting procedure for several areas of the sky selected at random) say eight areas halfway up in the sky at each of the compass points N, NE, E, etc., and one-point overhead. Total up all the stars counted in all nine areas. Once you do this there is a formula you plug the numbers into (it’s math, I’m not going to pretend to understand it) and voila, you have an estimate of the number of stars in the sky.
Counting Ancient Stars
I’m fairly certain that Abram did not have a toilet tissue tube or the mathematics and physics to come up with this method. But I imagine that after his conversation with God in Genesis 15, he must have gone outside and looked up into the night. “1-2-3-4-5” and so on as much as he had an idea of numbers before giving up. Behind this counting however, I would think Abram held on tightly to a promise, the promise that God made him in a vision beneath the stars.
You see this promise is not a promise made lightly. As God and Abram speak in this vision God makes the promise, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as your possession.” But Abram is uncertain. He and Sarai are childless with no prospects in the immediate future. Abram expresses these doubts saying, “Lord God, how do I know that I will actually possess it?” Then, God acts on his promise in an unexpected way.
“Bring me a three-year-old female calf, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a dove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He took all of these animals, split them in half, and laid the halves facing each other, but he didn’t split the birds. 11 When vultures swooped down on the carcasses, Abram waved them off. 12 After the sun set, Abram slept deeply. A terrifying and deep darkness settled over him.
13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Have no doubt that your descendants will live as immigrants in a land that isn’t their own, where they will be oppressed slaves for four hundred years. 14 But after I punish the nation they serve, they will leave it with great wealth. 15 As for you, you will join your ancestors in peace and be buried after a good long life. 16 The fourth generation will return here since the Amorites’ wrongdoing won’t have reached its peak until then.”
17 After the sun had set and darkness had deepened, a smoking vessel with a fiery flame passed between the split-open animals. 18 That day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram: “To your descendants I give this land, from Egypt’s river to the great Euphrates, 19 together with the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” – Genesis 15:9-21
This type of covenant was common in the ancient world. The way it worked is that a lesser ruler would enter into a covenant to serve a greater ruler by walking through the midst of the split animals. What you were saying by ‘cutting a covenant’ is that you will serve the greater ruler under penalty of being torn in half like the animals that you have walked through.
But God turns the covenant on its head. Instead of having the lesser Abram walk through it, God, in the form of a smoking vessel, goes through the animals and cuts the covenant with Abram. It is a guarantee from the Creator of the universe that the covenant will be upheld with Abram lest God be torn in half.
For every star he counted, I think Abram must have been reminded of the powerful promise God made. But even holding onto the promise, sometimes despair and fear that the promise will go unfulfilled can lead to a place of despondence. For Abram, that promise was becoming a burden. We come to Genesis 17 and God says to Abram,
“I am El Shaddai. Walk with me and be trustworthy. I will make a covenant between us and I will give you many, many descendants…But me, my covenant is with you; you will be the ancestor of many nations. And because I have made you the ancestor of many nations, your name will no longer be Abram but Abraham. I will make you very fertile. I will produce nations from you, and kings will come from you. I will set up my covenant with you and your descendants after you in every generation as an enduring covenant. I will be your God and your descendants’ God after you. I will give you and your descendants the land in which you are immigrants, the whole land of Canaan, as an enduring possession. And I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:1-8
Abram experiences God in a new way and the covenant is renewed between God and man, the man who was Abram, now Abraham. But Abraham wasn’t so sure and he says as much to God,
Abraham fell on his face and laughed. He said to himself, ‘Can a 100-year-old man become a father, or Sarah, a 90-year-old woman, have a child?’ To God Abraham said, “If only you would accept Ishmael!” – Genesis 17:17-18
There is a doubt behind this response from Abraham and reasonable doubt at that. He and Sarai/Sarah are well past the age of bearing children. There is no reason to believe that a biological heir will be born to them or anyone else at this stage of life. For Abraham and Sarah, that is a devastating thought. You see, in the ancient world having children was a form of living beyond this life into the next life; as long as one had descendants then one’s story could be told to the next generation. As your name carries on so does your legacy and in a way so do you.
We have the luxury of looking at this as a story of the distant past and knowing the rest of the story but Abraham did not. He has given up everything to follow this new God to a new land: his home, his country, his tribe, his extended family, all left behind in Ur to answer a call that promised to make of Abraham a great nation, to make his name respected, and make him a blessing.
Yet, Abraham still has doubts until Sarah bears the child of promise, Issac. Chapter fifteen is therefore an exercise in trust. As Walter Brueggemann writes,
“The test…asks whether Abraham can, in fact, trust. And it asks if Yahweh can, in fact, be trusted. It is faith which permits Abraham to trust and God to be trusted.”
What does this covenant story mean to us?
Last week we talked about how we live the story by remembering about God. Remembering that we are part of a covenant relationship with the God who created the very fabric of all existence. Remembering that this covenant is one that was made, broken, and then remade in the very beginning. Remembering that we are a living, breathing extension of that covenant as it was remade in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and ties us, or grafts us as Paul says, to the covenant made with Israel.
This week the issue is not just about the covenant being made but can we trust in the covenant and more importantly in the one making the covenant. What does that trust look like?
Luke 3 offers a glimpse of what it doesn’t look like as John the Baptist confronts the Pharisees. In the Message Bible the story is translated in a forceful way:
When crowds of people came out for baptism because it was the popular thing to do, John exploded: “Brood of snakes! What do you think you’re doing slithering down here to the river? Do you think a little water on your snakeskins is going to deflect God’s judgment? It’s your life that must change, not your skin. And don’t think you can pull rank by claiming Abraham as ‘father.’ Being a child of Abraham is neither here nor there—children of Abraham are a dime a dozen. God can make children from stones if he wants. What counts is your life. Is it green and blossoming? Because if it’s deadwood, it goes on the fire.” – Luke 3:7-9 (MSG)
John is saying to them, your lineage, your association with the religion of Abraham, your history, are not enough make you children of God. These things are meaningless without trust in God. It was not Abraham’s tribe or family or calling or anything else that made him righteous. As the writer of Hebrews notes,
“By an act of faith, Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. When he left he had no idea where he was going. By an act of faith he lived in the country promised him, lived as a stranger camping in tents. Isaac and Jacob did the same, living under the same promise. Abraham did it by keeping his eye on an unseen city with real, eternal foundations—the City designed and built by God.” – Hebrews 11:8-10 (MSG)
Abraham was counted righteous and blessed by God for nothing more or less than having faith and trust enough in God to believe the promises made to him. It wasn’t that Abraham did everything right, because as we look at his story, he certainly didn’t. It was that Abraham believed, ever when it didn’t make sense, even when he didn’t feel like, even when he had all but given up on God and the plan for a land of descendants, Abraham still had faith enough to be ‘counted as righteousness.’
For us, we are going to have times in our lives that we are called to things that seem to be greater than what we can handle. We may be called to things that feel like the exact opposite of who we are and what we feel we able to do. So was Abraham. And so were countless others who are a part of the biblical narrative and countless more in the time after the written story was finished.
But where the written story ends, the living story begins and we are a part of that living story. We not only are called to remember the covenant but to live it out by faith. If you go back to the rest of the chapter in Hebrews, every person in the chapter is someone who shared in the story of redemption and restoration and did so by faith, by trusting that what they experienced of God was real and personal and true in their lives. They are all considered to be great men and women in the story because of their faith.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus comes across a Roman officer grief stricken over the illness of his servant. Jesus offers to come and heal him but he says to Jesus quite simply, “I don’t want to put you to all that trouble. Just give the order and my servant will be fine.” In other words, I don’t need anything other than your word and I believe, I have faith, I trust that my servant will be healed. Jesus marvels at the man and who does liken his faith to?
“I’ve yet to come across this kind of simple trust in Israel, the very people who are supposed to know all about God and how he works. This man is the vanguard of many outsiders who will soon be coming from all directions—streaming in from the east, pouring in from the west, sitting down at God’s kingdom banquet alongside Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then those who grew up ‘in the faith’ but had no faith will find themselves out in the cold, outsiders to grace and wondering what happened.” – Matthew 8:10-12
This man has the faith of the patriarchs. This man believes as Abraham did. This man is a man of faith and trust. His faith is based in the relationship he has with Jesus, in the fact that if Jesus said so, it’s good enough for him.
But is it good enough for us? If we hear the call, if we are given the promise, if we find ourselves in the place of decision before God to hear and follow or to doubt and hold back in reservation and fear, what do we do with our faith, our belief, our trust? Let us be a people who say, “Just say the word Jesus, and I know it will be fine. Just say the word.”
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
 Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (p.150) Westminster/John Knox Press. 2010