The promise was outrageous from the beginning. Abraham is an old man, 75 years old. His wife Sarah is 65. They have no children, and at their age, no hope of having any. They are nomadic people with no land to call their own.
Then suddenly one day God appears to Abraham with an amazing message. “Go from your country and your relatives to the land that I will show you,” God says. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
A less faithful person might have laughed at the ridiculousness of God’s promise. But Abraham does not laugh, does not ask questions. Abraham obeys, and at age 75 ventures off into the unknown.
It’s exciting at first, full of hope and promise. Abraham and Sarah see lands they had never dreamed of seeing. They travel to Canaan, to Egypt, and to many other places – going wherever God leads them. They amass wealth beyond their imaginings.
But now it has been 10 years since God first appeared to them with the promise of offspring and land. Abraham is 85; Sarah 75. They are in a strange land, far from home and friends. They still have no children; no land to call their own.
Abraham is old and tired. The once-shiny dream of God’s promise is old and tired, too.
So perhaps it is understandable that Abraham seems a little dubious when God appears to him again.
“Don’t be afraid,” God says, knowing, of course, that Abraham is afraid. Afraid that the past 10 years of wandering have been for nothing. Afraid that he is coming to the end of his life with nothing to show for it.
To Abraham, God’s promises are beginning to sound a bit hollow. How can he and Sarah become parents of a great nation or a blessing to all the families of the earth when it looks like their own family will not even last into the next generation?
God has promised the future, but Abraham is mired in the present. He can imagine no way from the barrenness of today to the promised fruitfulness of tomorrow.
Ultimately, this is not a question about fertility or real estate. It is a question of trust. Can God be trusted? Are God’s promises reliable?
Abraham’s age-old questions are our questions, too.
Lent is the season when we recognize the inevitable times of barrenness and wilderness in our lives.
We all face times when we are mired in the present. Maybe we are mired in grief at the death of someone we love or the end of a relationship, or worries about a job or our financial future.
Maybe we are mired in addiction or patterns of destructive behavior, or worries about someone we love who is in that situation. Maybe we are mired in illness or loneliness, or depression and despair.
Whatever the circumstances of our own wilderness, we find it difficult to imagine a path from the despair of the barren present to a better, more fruitful future.
It is at those times that we ask these questions:
How can we maintain hope while living in a barren land?
Can we continue to trust God when we feel drained of hope, inspiration, and energy?
Can we be faithful to God in trying circumstances?
Can we believe that God is faithful to us, remembers and cares for us?
Can God be trusted?
These are the questions that Abraham is asking when he says accusingly to God, “You have given me no offspring, and a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”
God responds by taking Abraham into the night, and saying, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.”
Abraham wants to believe God, but the anxiety lingers. And so when God points to the land that will one day be Abraham’s, he responds by saying, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
God is not angry at Abraham’s questions and lingering doubts – perhaps because God knows being human means that faith and doubt are always intertwined.
And so God answers Abraham’s question by directing him to enter into a strange and grotesque ritual. God orders him to slaughter animals, cutting them in half. Abraham works in the hot desert sun, obeying God’s command, fighting off the vultures that are attracted to the dead animals.
When the sun goes down, Abraham falls into a deep sleep. While he is sleeping, a pot of smoking fire and a flaming torch – symbols of God – pass between the animal carcasses.
And God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising that his descendants will someday possess the land.
It is tempting to skip over this bizarre and bloody ritual. Even biblical scholars admit that they do not understand the symbolism of the different animals. What they do know is that this kind of ritual was common in making treaties and agreements in the ancient near East.
The person who passes between the animal carcasses is in effect saying, “May the same thing happen to me that happened to these animals if I do not keep my word.”
Notice who makes this promise. Not Abraham. He has prepared the animals for the ritual, but then he falls asleep.
The one who makes the promise is God.
The covenant that God makes with Abraham is more than just a relationship between the old man and God. It is a divine obligation. God’s own self will be cursed if the obligation is not kept to Abraham and his descendants forever.
This ritual gives us insight into God’s. God is not free to abandon us because God has chosen to be bound to God’s people in a covenant that lasts forever.
God is telling Abraham – and us – that the promise of salvation is reliable because it does not rest on the quality of our relationship with God.
The promise of salvation is secure because God is not free to abandon it. God has bound the divine self into the promise of salvation.
Ultimately, God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah does come true. It takes a while – Abraham is 100 and Sarah is 90 when their son Isaac is born. Neither they nor Isaac live to see the promise of the land come true, but their descendents do.
In the intervening years between the ritual we heard described today and the birth of Isaac, Abraham and Sarah still had their moments of doubt.
They, like all faithful people, still experienced times of terror when God seems absent. Even those who believe the promise of salvation live through barren times when faith wanes.
What Abraham and Sarah come to understand is that we are creatures of hope even in situations that seem hopeless.
We are called to remember that we are people of God’s promise and the God of mercy, grace, and compassion will have the last word.
Our challenge, like that of Abraham and Sarah, is to believe that all this is so, in spite of frequent and impressive evidence that suggests the contrary.