This season of lent, begun just a week and a half ago, brings us to consider our own wandering in the wilderness. In these #40Days we are invited to consider our season of wilderness living, just as we took a look at Christ’s time in the wilderness last week. When we find ourselves in the wilderness, we must ask ourselves, upon what, or whom, will we place our trust for strength, hope, and a call to move forward.
Like the Israelites leaving Egypt, striving and yearning for a better life, we know that every day is not a day of extreme joy and happiness. There are seasons and times of wilderness wandering, even for those who are living faithfully in accordance with God’s will. These seasons can be challenging, frustrating, and exhausting. Some times our seasons of wilderness are short; the wandering is quickly passed by with regained direction and a sense of guided control. Yet, other times of wandering seem like they last forever. I will not be so bold as to proclaim knowledge of all seasons of wilderness experienced by those present in this room or this community. Yet, I think each season of wilderness wandering brings with it some similarities from which we can find common strength and common hope.
And, be we so fortunate to find a renewed sense of direction and guided control, we must not lose sight of that which brought us through the wilderness once more.
Our text today provides a story of wilderness living. Abram, that is, Abraham before his name change, isn’t lost in the desert space like Christ, and he isn’t travelling through the barren land of south Israel like our ancestors who departed Egypt. But he is living in a wilderness of his own.
A few chapters earlier, as chapter 12 of Genesis begins, Abram is called by God to leave his country and his family to inherit a new land. He is promised to be the father of a great nation, and is promised that his life will be a blessing to many generations to come. Abram, having received that call, went henceforth as God had desired. He did question God’s call, at least, not according to our biblical recollection.
Chapters 12, 13, and 14 tell us the stories of Abram and Lot. As chapter 13 ends, Lot leaves Abram in Canaan, and God there once more reassures Abram of the promise of the land to be given to his offspring. God speaks, “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.”
Chapter 14 brings us the tales of Lot’s captivity and rescue. Abram, having heard of Lot’s captivity, took a gathering of men and rescued Lot. Having returned with Lot, we find today’s scripture, beginning in the first verse of Chapter 15. The verse begins, “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision …”
To be clear, Abram isn’t in a barren desert, and he isn’t wandering without food or water. He is in the comfort of his home, with his wife Sarai, with the recently rescued son of his brother, Lot, and with the spoils of war having returned with the goods, women, and people he helped to rescue.
Even with all these things at hand, Abram is experiencing his own internal wilderness. Let us define his wilderness.
Abram was promised now some time ago to be granted by God descendants upon descendants. He was promised by God a new land, a land in which his descendants would be many – too many to count. Abram was 75 years old when that promise was first made. In his time travelling since that first calling, Abram has been reassured that the land he was promised is still there, and that his descendants are still sure to be great in number.
But let us not be confused. Let us not think that Abram was without doubt in his trust of God. Let us not think that, having been old in age as it were when he was first called, and that as time passed, Abram is less assured of God’s plans today than he was when he was first called. If you are unsure of Abram’s lack of assurance, we need only read the first three verses of today’s scripture.
God speaks and makes a promise once more to Abram. The Lord says, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
We have witnessed Abram’s assurance in the past. Even in his initial calling, a calling that required he leave his family, his homeland, his comforts, friends, and faith community, Abram offered no hesitation. He abided in the Lord without question or objection. He offered trust and obeyed.
But times have changed. In verse 2, following God’s reassurance that he will be receiving a great reward from the Lord, Abram offers a rebuttal. Abram speaks in verses 2 and 3, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus. You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”
Abram’s assurance from God was that his descendants would be too numerous to count and that his many descendants would occupy a new and promised land.
Yet, Abram knew that for his descendants to be many, he must first have one. He writes off as an heir a child born of slavery, who he would have considered his property. Abram’s calling by God to leave his homeland, to abandon his family and friends, to traverse a great distance from the comforts of life, these seemed like an easy task to undertake knowing that he was leaving them because of a promise to receive a great blessing from God.
Erik Erikson, a famed and well published psychologist, says that as adults reach their eldest years, they enter a phase in which they mentally debate the productivity of their lives. Erikson describes this eighth and final stage of psychological development as the stage of Ego integrity vs despair. In this stage, we as elder adults reflect back on our successes and failures in life. We either identify our lives as having been productive and thus define ourselves as having lived a successful life, or we see our lives as unproductive, and we feel guilt and remorse for unaccomplished goals. In this latter occasion, life seems to be incomplete and we find ourselves feeling a lack of closure.
Abram had been so eager to obey the Lord in his initial call, that to see Abram offering any hesitation in accepting God’s promise in this text should causes us pause. Abram is reflecting back and wondering if he has failed to complete the task God has called him to and promised him. Abram is questioning whether he has lived productively and faithfully. God has promised descendants and a land for them to inherit. But none of this is possible if Abram is unable to produce a single heir.
Let’s keep in mind that our story is set some 500 to 600 years before Christ set foot on the earth. Scientific developments were rare, and the study of reproduction was certainly not as advanced as our studies today. For Abram to still be without child, in that time, would have only been understood to be the fault of the man in the sexual relationship. So imagine, Abram is called by God, and he answers yes without question. Yet years later, time has passed, God has continued to assure Abram of a promise, yet Abram seems to be unfulfilling on his end of the promise.
At what point in your attempt to answer your calling, do you stop and reflect and wonder, have I been a failure to the Lord. At what point in your everyday living, in the exhaustion and busyness that life feeds you, do you start to wonder if you have failed God at keeping up your end of the promise to be faithful?
Abram’s response, “What will you give me, O Lord God, for I remain childless,” can perhaps be best understood as a belief that he, Abram, did not think himself worthy of the calling of God. In his reflection back on life, he saw himself as unproductive, and thought his life a failure.
God hears his hesitation, and God offers him reassurance. God speaks in this vision, “No one but your very own issues shall be your heir.” God takes Abram outside and points him toward the heavens. “Count the stars, if you can. So many shall be your descendants.”
In this moment, any pondering of failure on Abram’s behalf seems to disperse. Verse 6 says, “He believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
What changed; how does one go from disbelief in God’s promise to assurance of God?
Dr. Walter Brueggemann, a well known Old Testament scholar, offers in his commentary on this text that the change in Abram’s mindset shows a change in his understanding of God. He says, “[Abram] has permitted God to be not a hypothesis about the future, but the voice around which his life is organized.”[i]
In other words, God is not someone who makes promises hoping that they may come true, but that in our faithfulness to God, all of God’s promises will come true.
Abram, who had looked at his past of barrenness as a wilderness in which he was trapped, shifts his understanding of God, such that the fear of life-long barrenness is no longer understood to be a place of eternal dwelling, but is simply a place out of which God will work a miracle of new life.
And in the promise of God to Abram – in this reassurance that from Abram will be many blessed generations – we too have a promise that there is no barrenness, or wilderness, or lost wandering out of which God can not and will not save us.
The Lord reckoned the belief of Abram as righteousness. Notice in this affirmation of God, Abram is described as being righteous not because of any act that has taken place – there is no statement of Abram doing anything here. Abram is simply found to be righteous because of his newfound faith. Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert, associate professor of homiletics here in DC at Howard Divinity, says that, “Righteousness is seen as the theological upshot rewarding one’s human faithfulness.”[ii] God’s revelation to us is not in hopes that we will have the knowledge that or the knowledge about God, but simply that we may have knowledge of God.
So how do we, we who may be experiencing the same type of wilderness wandering as Abram, find for ourselves this type of hope and faith in God?
This is not the only time in our scriptural foundation that we find one filled with the knowledge of God.
In Matthew 16:15-17, we find the disciple Peter, out of nowhere, exclaim and define Christ, saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Where did this exclamation and conversion in knowledge come from?
Christ responds to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
The revelation of Abram, like that of Peter, comes not from an event, or the convincing of others of faith – these transformations in their lives come only from the love of God. They are responses to God’s present grace to acknowledge God’s beckoning desire for our faithfulness.
Dr. Brueggemann again offers, “Faith responds to an already given grace. The faith is not simply an embrace of the goodness which meets us in the world, but a reception of the goodness of God promised in spite of the way the world is.”
The love of God – our calling to have faith in the love of God – is not offered to us because we live in a world of peace and hope. You know as well as I do, these are not the first characteristics used to describe our world today. In contrast, the love of God is offered to us to free us from a world in which captivity and oppression are rampant. Not just captivity in a prisoner of war sense, but captivity to the sinful desires and worldly commercialism that would invite us to have faith only in our own productivity. But it is these chains – these shackles of materialism and lust, of disease and brokenness, of barrenness and doubt – it is these perceived failures from which our faith in God can set us free.
Think of how many times Christ speaks those words, “your faith has made you free.” To the lame and the leper; to the blind and the bleeding; to the widowed and lost; to the broken and confused; time and time again Christ offers them healing, and claims that it is their faith in God to bring hope in the hopelessness, to bring peace in the calamity, to hang on to a promise in the midst of wilderness … it is their faith in God that has set them free.
In this season of our own penitence and wilderness, in these #40Days, it is our invitation to once more reflect. We are not called to reflect on our failures as a sign of our uselessness; we are not called to see our wanderings as a sign of our inability to receive direction. We are called to reflect on the promise of God to lead us, to guide us, to strengthen us, to motivate us, to heal us, to move us, to renew us – we are called to prepare ourselves to make that profession of faith in God, the profession that Christ is risen, that statement of faith that we can follow not because we are prepared, or equipped, or ready … but because God has created and called us.
God has claimed us. And God promises us, not a great land like he promised Abram, but of a future, and a hope, of eternal life.
May we be a people of faith, reliant upon God to carry us through. And may we see our promise in God not as some hypothetical possibility, but in Christ Jesus our Lord, see God’s voice as the declaration of our life, our call, and our future.