Imagine this scene. The two tribes came together on the edge of the desert earlier in the day. Negotiations over water rights at the oasis had been conducted over many months. And now the time had arrived for the covenant ceremony that would seal the deal.
Tents are off-loaded from camels and pitched on the periphery of a giant fire ring. Servants return with firewood obtained from a passing caravan. Numerous pots and baking ovens, attended by many hands, cook a festive meal.
As the sun begins to sink in the western sky, members of both tribes gather around the fire ring and begin the feast. Wine flows freely. Musical instruments are brought out and dancers appear. Then story-tellers regale the crowd with tales from the glorious histories of the two clans.
Fresh wood is tossed onto the fire to provide more light for the main event, and to ward off the chill of the night air.
The two tribal chiefs stare at each other with hard eyes across the fire ring. Then slowly they approach – each leading an unblemished animal from his flock. They draw out their knives and slaughter the beasts in the ritual manner that has been followed through the ages. Then they cut the animals in half, pulling the halves apart, the entrails strung between them and steaming in the cold.
There, in the midst of the mess of blood and gore, with blood still covering their hands and dripping from their knives, the chiefs grasp right hands. And in the hearing of their tribes, they recount the terms of their agreement — and they swear an oath that they and their offspring shall honor the covenant that they’ve made. If anyone should renege or violate the deal – may it be to him just as it was to the slain beasts among whose guts they now stand.
What I’ve just described is a contract-signingceremony that today might take place in a law office, a corporate headquarters, a bank, an embassy, or a capitol building. About the only thing remaining from four-thousand years ago is the handshake.
But what I’ve invited you to imagine is not at all unlike the covenant ceremony between God and Abram that is described in the fifteenth chapter of Genesis.
The background to this event was Abram’s anxiety about not having a child. On God’s word and promise, Abram had left his childhood home in Ur of the Chaldees (modern-day Iraq) and traveled to what he thought was the Promised Land. He and his wife, Sarah, now approaching their senior years, are childless – and the child-bearing years are behind them.
But childlessness was far more serious in ancient times than just sorrow over having no descendants. As Janice Scott has written:
The only way people could survive at all was to grow their own food and hunt their own food. Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers before they settled and became peasant farmers, and it seems from the Bible stories that Abraham was a bit of both. He was sometimes settled and sometimes nomadic. In that harsh environment anyone who was unable to feed himself was doomed, and more than anything else people needed land on which to grow food. But they also needed people to work the land, hence they needed offspring. Land and seed were the two great necessities for survival. The bigger the family, especially if they were sons, the more chance you had of surviving.(Scott, Janice B.: Sermon entitled Promises, Promises)
So here is Abram/Abraham. (The Bible has two names for the same person; probably because there were two different authors working with slightly different traditions.)
Abraham is a long way from home, and although he’s living in the Promised Land, it’s owned and controlled by others. He’s just a guest. Now he’s getting old and has no sons to help feed himself and Sarah. He’s starting to panic — and he’s beginning to question whether he’d heard God correctly in the first place. No land and no seed. What’s he to make of that?
So Abraham stands for us all. Haven’t we heard the promises, too?
- God so loves the world . . .
- Jesus loves me, this I know . . .
- Everything works for good for those who love God . . .
- Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, Our Lord.
God promises some form of “land and seed” for each one of us . . . and yet . . . when we look around, landless and seedless, we begin to wonder if we heard correctly. And there’s doubt and angst. As Frederick Buechner has written:
Sometimes God makes himself known by his presence, sometimes by his absence, and for both faith and unfaith the absence of God is dark and menacing.(Buechner, Frederick: from The Faces of Jesus)
We imagine that the voice of God came to Abraham, promising land and offspring in a booming voice from heaven. Our text says that the word of the Lord came to Abraham, and “(God) brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’”
But what if the voice came to Abraham in the same way that God speaks to us, in our thoughts and our imaginations? We think that we know God’s will, God’s intentions, God’s promises . . . but without some external confirmation, there’s at least a chance that we’re just listening to ourselves – hearing our own voices. Abraham, too, is perhaps wondering if he’d gotten the land and seed thing wrong. So he asks for external confirmation – a sign.
O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess (the Promised Land)? (And how will I know that I will have descendants as numerous as the stars)?
So Abraham wanted it all in writing. He wanted the covenant between himself and God, ratified in the time-honored way of his community — amidst the slaughtered animals and the blood and the mess.
God said to Abram, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Abram brought all these and cut all of them except the birds in two, laying each half over against the other . . . .
Then as the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abraham, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. But while he was asleep, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between the pieces.
Fire in the Hebrew Scriptures points to the presence of God. (Burning bush; pillar of fire). So the covenant, the promise, is ratified as both Abraham and God met in the carnage. Except that it’s all in Abraham’s dream. He had fallen asleep!
God still acts in much the same way today. He speaks to us through our hearts and minds and dreams and through other people and through the Bible and in a host of other ways. But being human, we tend to doubt whether we’ve heard God at all, or if we’ve heard God correctly. Some say that there is no God — that everything we think we hear — comes from ourselves — from our own inner being. But where can we find God except in our own inner being? That’s where God is.
The risk is that we’ve got it wrong, and God hasn’t spoken to us at all. But Abraham took that risk. Jesus is heading for Jerusalem, (Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets.) Jesus is also risking that he has heard God rightly.
To follow him . . . to walk in the way of the cross . . . is to walk with him in uncertainty. And yet it’s the only way to walk with God.
“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”