Count the Stars: A Sermon on Genesis 15: 1-11 and 17-18

Preached at United Reformed Church of Clifton on Sunday, September 20, 2020 To hear this sermon preached follow this link. The sermon begins at 10:15 mark.

When I was in college I attended a retreat at a camp in the mountains of Colorado. After dark one night, a group of us stumbled down a trail that followed the bottom of a ravine. Trees grew high over us so that we could not see the sky, and although the air was fresh and the temperature pleasant, it still felt like walking through a dark tunnel. At the bottom of the ravine, the trail opened up on a meadow filled with mountain daisies with lavender petals and bright, yellow stamens. The sky expanded from horizon to horizon and was filled with thousands of stars. It was as though the skies and the meadow reflected each other—stars above, flowers below. In that open meadow, our souls expanded to take in the beauty and wonder of our great Creator.

In our scripture lesson this morning, Abraham has a similar experience. It begins with Abraham in a dark place, brooding in the night over promises that had been long delayed.

When Abraham was 75 years old, God spoke to him, gave him a command, and gave him a promise:

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12: 1-3)

This is part of God’s big story.  In order to redeem us he chose one couple to be the ones through whom the blessing of Jesus would come to all the earth.  This is an audacious plan, but “in typical divine fashion—the Lord chose the most unlikely couple—an aging, childless couple—to become the ancestors of a priestly, blessing nation.” (Rolf Jacobson, Working Preacher March 17, 2019) Who would even think about starting a family at the age of 75? But as I Corinthians 1:28-29 says,

God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

If this promise is going to come true, it won’t be Abraham and Sarah’s doing, but God’s.

And so Abraham took God at God’s word, left his family, and traveled on. But now five or six years later, Abraham and Sarah still have no children and Abraham is brooding in his tent, wondering if God has forgotten him. 

In the midst of this brooding God shows up. In verse 1 it says “the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.” Now what you need to realize is the “word of the Lord” and “vision” are both associated with God’s revelation to the prophets. So for example Hosea 1:1 begins with these words, “The word of the Lord that came to Hosea” and Ezekiel 1: 1 begins with “as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.” So when God speaks to Abraham by a “word” and by a “vision” this is more than a private communique to Abraham as a person; rather it is a divine revelation to Abraham as a prophet.  So although God’s words to Abraham will give him a personal assurance, they also have greater implications for God’s plan of salvation.

When God speaks to Abraham in this vision he says, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield and your reward shall be very great.”  In interpreting this verse Rolf Jacobson says,

The words “do not be afraid” (al-tira’ in Hebrew) comprise a stock phrase meaning, “You are about to hear good news.” The choice to translate the Hebrew term sakar as “reward” is not ideal. The best way to translate the phrase would be, “What you will receive will be very great.” To put it all together: “Good news, Abram! You are going to get something totally awesome!” (Working Preacher, March 17, 2019)

But Abraham isn’t buying it; instead he complains to God.  Basically he says, “What can you give me?  I don’t need more stuff.  I’m already a wealthy man and I thank you for that.  But God I can’t become a great nation unless you give me a child.  Right now, a slave, the man who is the steward of my house, is going to be my heir. Are you going to keep your promise or not?”

Now it might seem that Abraham’s complaint shows a lack of faith in God.  We might think that Abraham just needs to suck it up and to trust God without questioning.  But in actuality, Abraham’s complaint shows just how much faith he has in God.  Rolf Jacobson notes,

when we complain, we cry out to God in the belief that God can and perhaps even will respond to our cries, our wants, our needs, our desires. God has the power and ability to respond. To complain to God is to have faith that God is faithful both to the creation and to the divine promises. (Working Preacher, March 17, 2019)

Even more importantly, Abraham’s complaint does not come solely from his own wants. Abraham is not some child who is pouting because he didn’t get his way.  Rather, his complaint is grounded in God’s promise.  Abraham has the audacity and faith to believe that God will keep his word. 

What is at stake is not only Abraham’s future but also the future of all the world.  Without the promised child there will no chosen people, no King David, no prophets, no Messiah and no blessing for all the world.   “God,” Abraham says, “you promised that all the world would be blessed through my descendants. Are you going to keep your word?” 

In response to Abraham’s complaint God does two things: he broadens Abraham’s perspective and God pledged God’s very own life to fulfill his promise.

First, God broadens Abraham’s perspective.  It’s interesting to me that when this story begins, Abraham is in a confined space both physically and emotionally.  It is the middle of the night and Abraham is in his own tent brooding on his lack of a bright future.  He cannot see past the roof or the shadows outlining the entry flap to the tent. Emotionally, he is having a hard time glimpsing a promising future.

So the first thing that God does is take him outside and open his eyes to the greatness of God and the richness of God’s promise to him. Professor Kathryn Schifferdecker comments,

Outside, under the glory of the endless night sky, Abraham is able to believe what seemed impossible in the close confines of his tent. The God who created the heavens and scattered the stars in radiance across the sky is the same God who promises him that he will have a son and, indeed, descendants to rival the number of the stars. Under the glory of those countless stars, Abraham believes the Lord. He considers God trustworthy. He holds onto the promise despite all evidence to the contrary. (Working Preacher, September 20, 2020)

Perhaps we can learn something from Abraham.  Right now our world is dark and like Abraham we are literally confined to our homes.  Between Covid-19, partisan politics, and natural disasters our future looks bleak.  Add to that the personal struggles and doubts we face and it’s hard to believe.  Perhaps like Abraham we need to go outside, to look at the wonders of God’s creation and remind ourselves that God is bigger than our problems and faithful to his promises.

The second thing that God did was to pledge his very life to keep his promises.  In verses 7-11 and 17-18, we have this bizarre ritual that involves cutting animals in half, Abraham driving away the birds of prey who come to feast on the carcasses, and then a mysterious smoking fire pot and torch passing between the pieces. 

To my mind this seems more like dark magic than anything else.  And in a sense it is dark magic.  When ancient peoples wanted to seal a promise they would use this ritual and they themselves would walk between the two halves of the severed animals.  What they were doing was invoking a curse on themselves if they failed to keep their promise.  They were saying, “If I don’t keep my promise may I become like these dead animals who have been mutilated.” 

That may seem a bit bizarre to us, but let’s be honest we have some remnants of this in our own culture.  When I was a kid, if I wanted to guarantee that I would keep a promise, I would say, “Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.”  Did you ever say that? The implication was that if I didn’t keep my promise these awful things would happen to me.  

The interesting thing about this passage is that God is invoking a curse upon himself.  The smoking fire pot and the flaming torches represent God. They are reminiscent of the cloud and the pillar of fire that led the people through the wilderness in Exodus. Together they say that God himself is passing between the severed animal and that he is promising that he will become like these severed animal if he doesn’t keep his promise to Abraham.

The even more interesting thing is that this resonates with what God has done for us in Jesus. In Christ God takes our curse upon himself so that we might receive salvation. In Galatians 3:13-14 the Apostle Paul tells us

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

The truth of the matter is that we are the ones who break our promises to God; we are the ones who deserved to be cursed. But God puts God’s own life on the line for us.

Rolf Jacobson says,

The gospel in its most narrow and precise sense is an unconditional promise that requires the death of God. In the Old Testament, we see such a promise in the Lord’s commitment to Abram in Genesis 15.

This promise–Christians believe — ultimately led to the very death of the Son of God, Jesus. In order to be faithful to creation, to Abraham and Sarah’s descendants, and to the promises to David, the Creator ultimately took on human flesh, walked down the lonely path, and died. He did so that we might have life.
(Working Preacher, op cit)

So in these verse we have a hint of things that are to come.  We see that God is so unconditionally committed to saving our world, that he is willing to put his own life on the line. 


In conclusion.  Did God keep his promise to Abraham?  Yes, he did.  The Old Testament tells the story of how Abrahams descendants became a great nation and inherited the promised land.  This is the story we will be following from now until Christmas.

But even more importantly, the New Testament tells how God fulfilled his promises in Jesus Christ.  And that is the story we will be following from Christmas to Easter.  Romans 4:12 tells us that Abraham is the father not only to his physical descendants, but is also to his spiritual descendant. For Abraham is also the father of all who, like you and me follow, the example of Abraham’s trust in God.  And Galatians 3:27 & 19 adds, “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. For if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,heirs according to the promise.”

In the book of Revelation, the Apostle John see a vision of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10)

God promised Abraham descendants both physical and spiritual would be as countless as the star. And in Jesus Christ, at the end of all history that promise will be fulfilled. Thanks be to our promise-keeping God.

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