The entire Christmas story has one focus—one affirmation—that’s constantly kept before us “Jesus is the Son of God.”

  • The Annunciation to Mary by the angel Gabriel is that she will bear a son who will be the child of God.
  • Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, whose own child leaps in her womb as a greeting to the one who is God’s Son.
  • Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem to, in part, fulfill the ancient prediction that the Son of God would be born in the City of David.
  • An angel approached the shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks by night—proclaiming the birth of the Son of God who is to be found, wrapped in swaddling cloths, and lying in a manger.
  • The Feast of the Epiphany today, concludes the Christmas season with the story of the visit of the Magi, the coming of the Wisemen to the Bethlehem to worship the Son of God and to present him with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

And next week, we will hear the Gospel of the Baptism of Jesus. He went to his Cousin John, the Baptizer, to be baptized in the Jordan River. The text says

  • . . 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavenstorn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;*with you I am well pleased.’ -­‐-­‐Mark 1:10-­‐11

The whole story has but this one theme – one message: Jesus is the child of God.

Now we could rest content with that—leave the story right there. A beautiful tale it is—burned into our hearts and minds by the biblical texts and the melodies of the carols.

But we’ll be completely remiss if we don’t pause to write ourselves into the Christmas story. Although it’s all about Jesus—Jesus is all about us. The purpose of the Incarnation of God—the enfleshment of God among us human beings—is to sanctify our humanity.

Jesus is the child of God.

You and I are children of God.

Isaiah the prophet wrote about us many years before Jesus:

  • I have called you by name. (43:1)
  • You are precious in my sight, honored, and I love you. (43:4)

The Epistle to the Galatians put it even more clearly:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying “Abba, Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (4:4-­‐7)

Henri Nouwen was one of the more insightful spiritual persons of the twentieth century. In his beautiful little book, Life of the Beloved, he reminds us that the same words spoken about Jesus at his baptism are spoken of us: You are my Son, theBeloved; with you I am well pleased.

Nouwen wrote:

We are the Beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children, and friends loved or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives. That’s the truth I want you to claim for yourself. That’s the truth spoken by the voice that says, “You are my Beloved.” (p. 36-37)

Baptism is the outward and visible sign, through water and the mark of the cross, of the inward and spiritual grace that we are God’s heirs. Jesus is the child/the Beloved of God. I am a child/loved by God. You are a child of God/beloved of God.

And that brings us to the greater realization that if you and I are children of God, loved by God, so is everyone else! This is the great Dream of God – that we all recognize that we have the same father—the same mother—the same divine source.

As Bishop Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, once said: “More important than being my brother’s keeper is being my brother’s brother.”

All of us on this planet are brothers and sisters. The Dream of God is that it makes no difference what religious tradition we might follow . . . Moslem, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, nativist, atheist . . . God loves us all, and we are to do no less. All the other divisions: nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, class – all of these disappear in the eyes of God—so should they disappear in our eyes as well.

Jesus is the child of God.

You and I are children of God.

All people are children of God!

Owen Adam, “You are God’s son, the Beloved. With you God is well pleased.”


Prophet Jesus

It’s tough being a prophet—a spokesperson for God. In our world we’d probably call prophets press secretaries or publicists. These jobs are difficult because the messages they’re called to speak aren’t their own. And sometimes the messages are unpopular or even offensive.

Moses was visiting a burning bush that wasn’t being burned up—and God spoke to him out of the bush. “Moses, I’ve got a job for you to do. Go down into Egypt and tell ole Pharaoh to let my people go.” Well, Moses wasn’t born yesterday—he was wise enough to know that this message wasn’t going to go down well with Pharaoh, so he tried to get out of this prophet thing. “God, I don’t speak well. I get tongue tied. Send someone else.” But in the end, God prevailed, and Moses headed off to do his bidding.

Amos is another example. He was from the southern kingdom of Judah, and was called by God to go to the northern kingdom of Israel to prophesy there. He was in the chapel in Bethel saying things like this:

Woe to you who are rushing headlong to disaster!

  Catastrophe is just around the corner!

Woe to those who live in luxury

  and expect everyone else to serve them!

Woe to those who live only for today,

  indifferent to the fate of others!

Woe to the playboys, the playgirls,

  who think life is a party held just for them! (Amos 6:3-4)

Then Amaziah, the head priest, confronted Amos.

Seer, be on your way! Get out of here and go back to Judah where you came from! Do your preaching there. But no more preaching at Bethel! Don’t show your face here again. This is the king’s sanctuary. This is a royal shrine.

But Amos stood up to Amaziah:

I never set out to be a prophet, never had plans to be a prophet. I raised cattle and I pruned trees for a living. Then God took me off the farm and said, “Go preach to my people Israel.”

So listen to God’s Word. You tell me, “Don’t preach to Israel. Don’t say anything against the king and his court.” But here’s what God is telling you:

Your wife will become a harlot in town.

Your children will be killed.

Your land will be auctioned off.

You will die homeless and friendless.

And Israel will be hauled off to exile, far from home. (Amos 7:12-17)

See what I mean? Prophets aren’t generally popular. They’re frequently ridiculed, threatened, run out of town, even killed.

And so it was that Jesus went home to Nazareth and to the synagogue where he read from the prophet Isaiah. At first they seemed to be proud of their hometown boy who’d been making a name for himself. And they wanted him to do some miracles like he’d done over in Capernaum. 

“You should take care of us first. We’re your people. Put Nazareth back on the map again,” they said.

Then Jesus said, 

But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

The point is that God is the God of all people, not just the folk in Nazareth, or Galilee, or even Israel. Foreigners and immigrants fall within God’s care and qualify for God’s grace like the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. And that’s when the hometown people got angry.

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

What gets lost or drowned out in the news cycle and the political battles of our time on the right and the left is the voice of God’s spokespersons—the prophetic voices. It’s often not a popular message, because it’s not about scoring points, winning elections, or getting rich. It’s about love—God’s love for the weak, the poor, the broken, the refugees, the hungry, the prisoners, the sick, the addicted, the lost ones—as well as God’s love for the those of us who are doing OK at the moment. 

How do we know what love looks and sounds like? St. Paul, wrote about it in Chapter 13 of his First Letter to the Corinthians. I would venture to say that many people think Paul wrote it for a wedding, since it’s read in about 90% of all Christian weddings. But that’s not the case—Paul wrote I Corinthians 13 in the middle of a big church fight where factions were battling over control of the church in Corinth. So he laid out these ground rules for how to disagree and to fight—with love.

Here’s a paraphrase:

Love never gives up.

Love cares as much for others as for self.

Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.

Love doesn’t strut,

Doesn’t have a swelled head,

Doesn’t force itself on others,

Isn’t always “me first,”

Doesn’t fly off the handle,

Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,

Doesn’t revel when others grovel,

Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,

Puts up with anything,

Trusts God always,

Always looks for the best,

Never looks back,

But keeps going to the end.

Love is the message of the prophets. It’s the message that Jesus brought to his hometown. It’s a message that’s often rejected—even crucified. And yet, “Faith, hope, and love abide. These three. But the greatest of these is love.”


BLACKFACE

I had a phone call the other day from a friend who’s now serving as an interim priest in a parish in another diocese. My colleague called asking for a consult on a matter that had come up in the congregation. In preparation for producing a parish profile in their search for a new rector, some folk were going through historical records and came across a photograph of a number of people in blackface. After some more digging, they discovered that the parish, in the first half of the 20thCentury, put on annual minstrel shows as fundraisers. What to do with this history of entertainment that demeaned and made fun of Black people?

And of course, this comes to light in the middle of Black History month and in a week where the news cycle was all about revelations of public figures with a past history of using blackface.

First of all, let’s be absolutely clear that we need to condemn and renounce the denigration of others and to do so in the harshest terms. Racist thinking, racist language, racist actions, Ku Klux Klan dress—even when intended to be in jest—are nothing short of hurtful, hateful, and mean in their effects. And let’s also be certain to denounce such behaviors when they’re directed at others as well: Hispanics, Asians, Moslems, Jews, Native Americans and so on. 

Beyond parish minstrel shows, the church as a whole has a lot to answer for. I point to Crusades and pogroms and holocaust. There were Inquisitions, burnings at the stake, witch trials. Slavery, Jim Crow, and lynchings were all supported, in part, by at least some Christians. 

The problem is that at too many times and on too many occasions we have forgotten that God is love and that we are called to love God, love our neighbors, love even our enemies. 

My second thought is that we also need to be careful here with our condemnations lest we violate one of Christianity’s core values—the value of repentance. It seems to me that this is a teachable moment and today’s Epistle from First Corinthians 15 provides us with the text. It reads:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them–though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. (I Corinthians 15:3-11)

St. Paul had been present, maybe even a participant, in the stoning of St. Stephen. He was on the road to Damascus, on the way to persecute the Church in Syria, when he encountered Jesus and was converted. As he said, “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

This isn’t the first time that the Bible presents us with flawed people who went on to become major figures in our faith story. Moses was a murderer and on the lamb from the law when God called him to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt. David, the shepherd boy, became king and was an adulterer and committed murder. Matthew, writing to justify Jesus’ genealogy as a descendent of Abraham, includes four tainted women among Jesus’ ancestors. 

So our own Holy Scriptures teach us that we can move beyond the flaws and sins that populate our past. Paul wrote, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.”

Many of us have things in our own pasts that we’re not proud of—things we’d rather not see the light of day. And when or if they do come to light, are we to be condemned forever? No! There is always God’s grace. It’s not the cheap grace that Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to. It’s not the “Oh, I’m sorry,” and then let’s move on like some of my children like to get away with. Or the completely non-apologetic, “I’m sorry that you took offence at what I did.” Grace, the gift of forgiveness, is costly. It requires effort—dying to sinful ways in order to discover new life.

Real grace comes after repentance, turning away from bad behavior and adopting better behavior, what we refer to as amendment of life. 

This isn’t intended as a prescription for what should be done with public figures when their past sins are made public. But the recent revelations about sins (sexual and racial in nature), do raise these questions. Have the perpetrators given up their past behaviors? Are they open and honest? Have they made amends and worked to address the hurt and damage they’ve caused?

And why do we focus on certain sins and not others like avarice and greed? Why is something that happened 30 or 40 or more years ago drawing so much lightning when current behavior and policies do damage to millions? 

Our faith calls us to avoid simplistic analysis and conclusions. We always hold in tension the condemnation of sin and forgiveness of sin–renunciation of evil and redemption—the tension between being accountable and the gift of grace. 

The danger is that careful analysis is always at risk in the world of Tweets and other social media—a world where yesterday’s news is drowned out by today’s—and where everything is judged based upon who can claim victory and not on what is the common good.

The gift that we, the Church, bring to the world is that we’ve been dealing with sin for a long time. Reconciliation of Penitents is our business. The God of Love has called us to it and has shown it to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 

The specifics are carefully prescribed in the promises we made at Baptism.

  1. Trust in God the Father.
  2. Trust in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
  3. Trust in God the Holy Spirit.
  4. Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.
  5. Persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.
  6. Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
  7. Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.
  8. Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

May the grace of God, the love of God, and the peace of God be with you always! 

Amen.


Sermon on the Plain

Just about everyone has heard of the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. It’s three chapters long, and it begins with the familiar Beatitudes or Blessings.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

And so on.

Our Gospel for today is Saint Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. They aren’t as familiar as Matthew’s and, in some ways, they’re more basic and earthy. 

For example:

Matthew    “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . .”

Luke           “Blessed are you who are poor . . . .”

                                                                      or

Matthew    “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . .”

Luke            “Blessed are you who are hungry . . . .”

Which is it? The poor “in spirit” or just “the poor”?  “Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” or “You who are hungry”?

Some folk might look at these texts and ask, “Who got it right, Matthew or Luke?” What did Jesus really say?” Matthew says that the sermon was preached from a mountain with the crowds gathered below. Luke has Jesus standing on a plain with the people gathered around him. Matthew has nine Beatitudes while Luke has just four. And those four are followed and matched by four “woe’s” or warnings.

But rather than ask about which is the correct version of the sermon, I like to imagine that Matthew and Luke are both right. According to them, Jesus’ public ministry lasted for a whole year. In the course of that year, he would have preached in many places and to numerous audiences. And the message would have been adapted, depending upon who he was speaking to.

In 1943, Psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper on human motivation in which he said that there is a hierarchy of needs. At the base we all need to have enough food and shelter and safety—before we’re free to focus on higher needs like love, esteem, and self-actualization. If Jesus was speaking to a crowd of poor and hungry people, he would have had a different message than if his audience was a group of middle or upper income folk. Some people are just flat out hungry while others hunger for righteousness and meaning. Both need to be fed, but in different ways. The first group needs a meal while the second might benefit from spiritual introspection. 

Too often we tend to paint the world in binary or dualistic ways: good/bad, right/wrong, spiritual/material—when the reality is a lot more complicated. This is all a way of saying that Matthew’s Beatitudes and Luke’s Beatitudes focus on different people with different realities. The Good News is that He speaks to us all—and he starts where we are—with our level of need.

Those who come in for heavy warning are the ones who deny that they have any need. In Luke’s original telling, the four Beatitudes are all together, then they’re followed by the four woes. Let’s listen again to the passage, but this time I’m going to change the order, so that you can more clearly hear how each blessing is matched to a warning.

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation. 

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, 
for you will be filled. 

“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry. 

“Blessed are you who weep now, 
for you will laugh.

 “Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep. 

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” 

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

It’s not that Jesus is out to condemn or wishes woe on anyone. We’re all in need. When we recognize that fact, then we’re open to God and to our friends and neighbors. We place ourselves in peril only when we think that we don’t need anybody, that we’ve got it all together, that we’re not vulnerable. 

That’s why, week after week, we have a confession. I admit, it’s not my favorite thing to do. But serves as a humbling reminder that we aren’t all that we might like ourselves to be. There is enough poverty and emptiness in us that God still has room to work. 

May you be blessed.


Those of you of a certain age will remember Flip Wilson. Wilson was an African-American comedian who had his own television variety show in the early 1970’s. His most memorable character was a woman. Wilson would appear, wearing a dress and high heels, as Geraldine, who never took responsibility for her outrageous behavior. Her refrain: “The devil made me do it.”

In one memorable skit, Geraldine went out and bought an expensive dress. When she later modeled the garment, she was told that when she was tempted to buy it, she should have resisted by saying, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” To which Geraldine replied, “That‘s exactly what I said, and the Devil told me it looked very nice from the back.”

That’s how we frequently deal with the idea of Devil, Satan, or the evil one . . . with jokes and humor. We portray him as a ridiculous-looking figure in a red suit, horns, and a pointy tail. Is there, however something serious about Satan and his tempting?

The Gospel claims that Jesus was tempted for forty days. This comes to us out the context of the forty years that the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness and the forty days that Elijah sojourned in the wilderness. The symbolism suggests a long period of struggle and discernment of what it meant to be a people or a person of God. It represents a time of growing in knowledge and understanding of his calling. 

This time of temptation, testing, is lifelong – revisited latter on, for example, when Peter tried to divert Jesus from going to Jerusalem and Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan,” and even at the end of his life, in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he wrestled with the question of whether to “drink the cup” that was before him.

Jesus’ Temptation in the Wilderness wasn’t a literal, onetime event but a metaphor for his whole life. Jesus’ wrestled, he sweat bloody tears the scripture says, struggling to comprehend his calling to be Messiah, the anointed one of God. 

Take a look at the wilderness temptations.

  • Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 

Here we have a starving man who was tempted to use his powers to take care of himself, his own needs – before anything else. It was the same temptation as in the garden of Gethsemane. Save your own skin or stay here and wait for the soldiers to come and arrest you. 

  • Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’

This was a temptation for Jesus to presume upon his privileged relationship with God in order to draw attention to himself—to show off! “Get all eyes focused on you. Be better than everyone else. Be faster, stronger, meaner, prettier, smarter, something more than others. Life is all about you.” 

And the final temptation:

  • The devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Ah, here it is! Power! It’s all yours if you’ll just worship the false god. How often is that our temptation, too? Worship the god of greed, worship the god of wealth, worship the god of empire and the god of profit without conscience. Worship the god of “I’ve got mine—forget everyone else!” “Listen to me,” says the serpent, “and you’ll be like God.” “You can be your own god!”

You know, the question before us is always the same. There aren’t three temptations here – there’s really only one. “Ignore the common good. Take care of yourself. Claim your power.”

And Jesus said, “No!”

The Rev. Tom Ehrich says that power comes in many forms:

. . . as money, but also power over other people’s lives, power to demand special treatment, power to change the rules, power to exploit other people’s labor, power to compel obedience in even the smallest things – people crave it, covet it, kill for it.

Those who portray Jesus as a pleasant companion on life’s journey, the perfect big brother who has our back but doesn’t demand much, or (see him as) the partisan who joins our battles for power should look harder at Jesus standing on a high mountain and spurning all the power that this world has to offer.

Has there ever been a more radical and discomfiting sight than Jesus saying No to the very thing most of us want? What kind of God is it who walks with us and talks with us and leads us home but rejects our heart’s desire, who declares humanity’s primary life-quest (for power as) meaningless?

No king who claimed a throne and built a cathedral next door would tolerate a bishop telling him his royal trappings were nonsense. No wealthy set would remain in a church that taught humility, serious tithing, radical leveling. 

I wonder if we realize how radical Jesus was in the wilderness. And how radically different our lives would need to become if we wanted to follow him. It’s hard to hitch our wagons to a Savior whose path isn’t leading to what we want.[1]

 His path is the way of the cross. 

This is the Lenten task—to realign our lives in keeping with the way of Jesus—to get ourselves turned around and straightened out. To examine our ways and our priorities in light of what Jesus—not Satan—would have them be.

Amen.


[1]Tom Erich, in a Meditation in Morning Walk Media entitled, What, No Power?, March 10, 2011.

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.”