Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
1 After these events, the LORD’s word came to Abram in a vision, “Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your protector. Your reward will be very great.”
2 But Abram said, “LORD God, what can you possibly give me, since I still have no children? The head of my household is Eliezer, a man from Damascus.” 3 He continued, “Since you haven’t given me any children, the head of my household will be my heir.”
4 The LORD’s word came immediately to him, “This man will not be your heir. Your heir will definitely be your very own biological child.” 5 Then he brought Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them. He continued, “This is how many children you will have.” 6 Abram trusted the LORD, and the LORD recognized Abram’s high moral character.
7 He said to Abram, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as your possession.”
8 But Abram said, “LORD God, how do I know that I will actually possess it?”
9 He said, “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.
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. (CEB).
Last Sunday was Saint Valentine’s Day. It was also the 20th anniversary of me answering my call to ministry. During the week leading up to February 14, 1996, God had been in my head. I mean, God had been pounding away at me, but I wasn’t quite sure why. Or, maybe I didn’t want to know. But, refusing to be ignored, God got through to me that day. I knew God wanted me to go into ministry of some kind, and I said “Yes.”
Actually, it was more like an exasperated, “Alright, God, I’ll do it!” But it meant the same thing. I started the ordination candidacy process, and underwent all of the stuff that requires. I had psychological evaluations done, because anyone going into ministry must be crazy. I moved to Durham, North Carolina so I could attend seminary and get my required master’s degree, which made great financial sense. I could have started at about $80,000 a year with my bachelor’s degree. Instead, I started at $27,500 with my master’s degree.
I went where I was assigned for my first ministry appointment. After two years, I was moved to my second ministry appointment. Three years later, I moved to my third ministry appointment. Three years after that, I moved to my fourth ministry appointment. Four years later, I moved here.
But it wasn’t only me. My family moved with me. Kara is now ten years old, in her fifth home. She’s in 5th grade in her fourth school, in her 3rd school district. My wife had to give up starting her master’s degree twice. The first one would have been free from Indiana State. The second one would have been at IPFW up in Fort Wayne. My family and I have given up a lot for the sake of serving the church; not all of it willingly. Some of it, downright grudgingly.
My relationship with God has been fairly straightforward. God called me to ministry, so I went into ministry. The church provided an appointment for ministry, so we went. Again. And again. And again. And again.
And there were times I asked God what in the world was happening. Why was I put at a church with a pastor who bullied people and almost drove me out of the ministry? Why was I put at a church where some people in the congregation seemed to find enjoyment in complaining against and beating up their pastor over Every Little Thing?
Why did we have to move away from a place we loved, a place we considered home, a place where we thought all three of our kids would graduate from high school, a place where we were essentially promised a long-term appointment? (I know United Methodist pastors are appointed for one year at a time, but that’s how they sold it to us).
Through all of those events, I could only hope that God would take care of us and meet our needs despite the cost to our hearts, our sanity, and our souls. We tried to be faithful. And yet, all of these things, all of these attempts to follow faithfully, led to what I thought was a crisis of faith. It’s ironic, don’t you think, that following God could lead to questioning God? That’s what we usually define as faithlessness, isn’t it?
I guess I had forgotten about Abram and Sarai.
Abram’s relationship with God was also straightforward. God spoke, Abram listened. God told him to get up, leave his home in Haran, and go. So Abram went and settled in Canaan. At the Oaks of Moreh, God promised to give Abram and his children land. So Abram built an altar to God. He believed God and began to worship, invoking the name of the Lord. And he travelled on, making his way to Egypt and back up to the Negeb and to Bethel.
Again, God promised Abram, telling him to look up. All the land Abram saw, God would give to his offspring. God would make his offspring like the dust of the earth. If a person could count the dust of the earth, then they could count Abram’s offspring. He was told to get up and walk through the land God promised to give. So Abram got up and walked.
Abram rescued his nephew, Lot, and received a blessing from Melchizedek—the king of Salem and priest of God Most High—and Abram gave Melchizedek a tithe of the spoils.
Then, we arrive at our text. “After these events, the LORD’s word came to Abram in a vision, ‘Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your protector. Your reward will be very great.’” (CEB).
But this time, Abram has questions. His response to God can no longer be silent obedience. He’s done everything prior to this moment without hesitation. But there’s still a serious flaw in the promise that Abram can no longer ignore. So he asks God, “…what can you possibly give me since I still have no children? The head of my household is Eliezer of Damascus. Since you haven’t given me any children, the head of my household will be my heir.”
It’s as if Abram is asking, God, what’s the point of making this promise? You keep promising me descendants and land where they’ll live, but I’ve got nothing.
God’s response is an invitation to go stargazing. “Your heir will definitely be your very own biological child… Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them… This is how many children you will have.” (CEB). According to NASA, there are around one billion trillion stars in the observable universe. That’s a 1, followed by 21 zeros. It’s a lot of stars. And that corresponds to a lot of offspring. Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
But what in the world does that mean? The Hebrew word we translate as believed can also mean trusted. The word righteousness has to do with acting appropriately in our relationship with God. Then, the term reckoned means that something has been declared correct, like a sacrifice that is properly offered in an acceptable manner. Essentially, God declared Abram’s trust to be appropriate and acceptable.
Then God says, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as your possession.” (CEB). This might have been one line too much. I laughed because in my head I imagined some shady salesman saying, Hey, it’s me. I’m the guy who sold you that perfect vacation package to beautiful downtown Detroit. Jimmy Hoffa liked it so much he took up permanent residence. Trust me. You’re gonna have a kid. I guarantee it.
Immediately after God reckons Abram’s trust as righteousness, Abram asks another question. Yeah, about that. How do I know that I will actually possess it?
This is a person of faith—God confirmed faith—asking this question. It’s a curious thing because we would normally assume a person who questions God like this to be an example of a person who lacks faith. When we have questions for God, when we feel doubt and anxiety, when we have misgivings and uncertainty, when we’re troubled by frustration and disappointment we call it a faith crisis, meaning we think our faith is faltering.
We think of faith in terms of unquestioning obedience. Perfect submission. Silent acceptance. Humble acquiescence. After all, that’s the way Abram had acted up until this point. He did everything God asked of him. He went everywhere God told him to Go.
And yet, ironically, it’s his constant attempts at faithfulness that drive him to ask questions that seem less than faithful. But I think we can learn from Abram even here. I think his questions are properly defined as faithfulness. We’re the ones who have redefined faithfulness improperly.
Sometimes faithfulness means we struggle with God. In fact, I believe our faith requires the struggle. God gave Jacob the name Israel for a reason. Do you recall what Israel means? One who struggles with God. It can also mean God struggles. It’s as if God knew the very foundation of this relationship between humans and God would be one of unease. Faithfulness is a struggle: God’s struggle with putting up with us, and our struggle with following the sometimes strange ways of God.
Read any part of the Old Testament, and you’ll find people—even models of faithfulness—asking questions of God, seeking more information, just like Abram. Or read the Psalms. How many of us have never asked God the simple questions, Why or How? Sometimes that’s what faithfulness looks like.
When Abram asked God, “How will I know that I’ll possess it?” he wasn’t doubting God. Abram asked because he truly believed God could do exactly what God promised. Abram believed God, but he couldn’t see how God would accomplish it. So he questions God about the matter.
Lent gives us an opportunity to think about the meaning of God’s claim upon us, God’s offer of grace, forgiveness, and abundant life, and our response to God. Following isn’t always easy. Faithfulness isn’t always laying down to die unquestioningly on someone else’s altar. Abram’s faithfulness—and God’s confirmation of Abram’s belief and righteousness—reminds us that we’re allowed to struggle.
We’re allowed to ask God questions. We’re allowed to seek answers to the issues we cannot keep silent within our hearts. What kind of relationship would we have with God if we couldn’t speak honestly of our struggles?
The thing is, our attempts at faithfulness will inevitably lead to struggle and questions. But I believe it’s through the struggle with God that we grow.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.