One of the great wonders that we can readily, easily partake in, is to look up at the stars in the night sky. Living out west gave us a chance to really enjoy since we could drive a short distance away from town and be in absolute darkness if we wanted. But even here, if you wander away from town a little way, maybe to a field in one of the state or national parks in the area, you can look up into the night sky and see the wonder of the cosmos. And if you catch it on a moonless night, where there are few to no lights around, the sky opens into a vats panorama of light that is truly a divine work of art.
But also, an incredibly deceptive work of art. When we look at all those stars, they seem to be very close together, packed almost so densely that they look, in some cases, like they are on top of one another. For instance, our closest neighboring star, Proxima Centauri, is over 24 trillion miles from earth, a little over four light years away. It would take more than 137,000 years for us to travel from here to there. Even when stars are close together, they aren’t that close, not by our standards. They must stay millions of miles away from each other or they would be drawn into each other’s gravity and either become one star or create one heck of an explosion. Because of their brightness and the nature of light traveling through space, we can see billions and billions of them that will never be anywhere close to us or each other but they look it because of the vast space between them. In between them is the void, a virtual emptiness free of matter, total vacuum. This void covers vast stretches of the universe, filling in the space between stars, planets, debris, and dark matter. There is literally nothing there, even down to the molecular level where scientists estimate that there is only 1 molecule of hydrogen – the simplest of all elements – per cubic meter.
The vast isolation of space has been used in film and literature – 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gravity, Sunshine, to name a few – all illustrate in one way or another the feeling of nothingness that exists in the vacuum of space and the human response (usually bad) to the experience. For the characters in these movies, their greatest fear is being exposed to the cold, empty vacuum of space – frozen, oxygenless nothing – and dying away from everything and everyone they love. I believe that emptiness may be an expression of the ultimate loss of everything that we as human beings hold dear. Now imagine that loss, take that vast, void of nothing, and stuff it inside the heart of a person. This is where we find Abram at the beginning of our passage today.
When we are first introduced to Abram in Genesis 12, it is the beginning of a calling to follow a God he did not know to a land far from his own. Abram and his family are Chaldean, from the town of Ur some six hundred miles east of Canaan on the Persian Gulf. They move with Terah, his father, first to Haran just north of the Euphrates River and then Abram receives a call. “Leave, your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.” So, at seventy-five years old, Abram hears and answers the call of a god he does not yet know, apparently believing the promises this god is making. Notice there are three promises here: I will lead you to a new land; I will make of you a great nation; and I will make your name respected.
By the time we come to chapter 15 of Genesis, two of these three things have come to pass. God have made Abram respected figure in his land. Abram has wealth enough to be a formidable man with an army who goes to war against kings to rescue his nephew Lot. Abram is blessed “by El Elyon” through the king Melchizedek of Salem (most likely Jerusalem), who is himself a well-respected priest-king in the region. Abram and Sarai were blessed with much of what El Elyon/God had promised them but there was one thing that had not yet come to pass. As we begin chapter 15, the word of the Lord comes to Abram in a vision and says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Abram is beginning to doubt. While he is wealthy and respected and honored among men as a great man, one promise is lacking.
For the people of Abram’s time, a male heir to inherit what you had was an essential part of life. To not have one meant passing it on to a servant or potentially someone outside the family. For Abram, this person was looking more and more like his servant Eliezer, who was Abram’s head of household or the person who managed the day to day affairs in Abram’s fields and flocks. By now, Abram was most likely well into his eighties and the prospect for he and Sarai to even have a child seemed beyond far-fetched. Abram in his distress, frustration, and fear lashes out at God, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” In other words, “God, I kept my end of the bargain. I left Haran and came to Canaan, followed you, trusted you, worshiped you, and when I am dead and gone, I have nothing to show for it, no legacy in the form of offspring to leave it to.” The barrenness, the emptiness, is at the heart of Abram’s outrage. God has promised, but not delivered and now Abram is left without the promise of future generations much less a great nation.
And God pulls him aside and says, “Look at the stars. Count them if you can. You can’t because they a more numerous than you can conceive of and so shall your descendants be.” Then God does something drastic. He cuts a covenant with Abram. He has Abram cut several animals in half and place the halves opposite one another. In ancient days, this was how people made a covenant; they would have the person of lesser rank walk between the halved carcasses saying in essence, “May I be cut in half like these animals if I fail to uphold this covenant.” Abram lays out the animals and then something unexpected happens in this vision. “When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.” The pot and the torch are symbols of God. It is God, the eternal being, making a mortal man’s promise to Abram that Abram will be the father of a great nation.
Today we are talking about imitation. So, what are we imitating from this story? “And he believed the Lord;” Abram’s faith that God will do what he said he will do. How can God speak into the barrenness and emptiness of our lives when they feel empty? With a promise, a promise that he will provide for us what we need. We are a people of promise called to live lives of promise. As stars are tiny spots of light on a canvas of darkness, emptiness, the void of space, Christians, in imitation of Jesus, are tiny spots of light in a culture that is at times, in darkness, each one a child of promise, given the promise of reconciliation to God through the Way of Jesus. When we live in imitation of our forefathers who acted in and on faith, we live as imitators of the promise. The writer of Hebrews said,
11 And we want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, 12 so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. 13 When God made a promise to Abraham, because he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, 14 saying, “I will surely bless you and multiply you.” 15 And thus Abraham, having patiently endured, obtained the promise.
We are called to be imitators of this kind of faith, to patiently endure and obtain the promise of God for our lives. Be blessed by this promise and multiply in discipleship that the message of the Way of Jesus may be imitated in a world in need of light.
Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.
Bruggemann, Walter. Genesis: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.
Jacobson, Rolf. Commentary on Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18. 02 2019. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4001 (accessed 12 03, 2019).
von Rad, Gerhard. Genesis. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972.
 Genesis 12:1-2
 Genesis 14:19-20
 Genesis 15:1
 Genesis 15:3
 Genesis 15:17
 Hebrews 5:11-15