Just a few nights ago, Jackson, Carter, and I went out star hunting. That’s something we love to do: go and find a great view of the night sky with no ambient light around. We cruise the dirt roads of the county looking for a good clearing where it’s safe to pull over and look. I still haven’t found the perfect spot but we’ve found a few where the view is absolutely amazing.
Away from here, up at our house in North Carolina, the stars are even more spectacular. There, you can see parts of the Milky Way and make out the fullness of constellations. Here, it’s hard to make out some constellations because of how dim some of those stars are. But up there, you can see them in all their glory.
And yet, it’s still not as grand as I’ve seen the night sky in the middle of nowhere out west. There, even farther from any source of ambient light, the night sky is a spectacular show of glimmering light.
Jackson, Carter, and I love to be amazed and mesmerized by the stars.
When we arrived home from our star hunting, Jackson and I were talking about light years. He’s a very smart and inquisitive kid. The conversation had shifted to light years from heat lightening, which he looked up on wikipedia while I drove home. The heat lightening show that night was equally spectacular and we both wondered what caused it.
As we talked about light years, I told him what I had learned in my astronomy class back in college all those years ago and never forgotten. If a star is two thousand light years away, that means the light you see on a particular night was generated by that star two thousand years ago. I’m a history buff so I think of it in those terms: when the star first generated that light, Jesus walked the earth, the Roman Empire was the big kid on the block, the Chinese were making all sorts of scientific discoveries, and the Mayans were on the decline in this hemisphere.
The world has changed much in 2000 years. We both felt ourselves awestruck by this fact.
I remembered a verse from one of my favorite Psalms, number 8, which says in part, “When I look up at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (8:3-4)
Up in the heavens, some stars are five to seven thousand light years away. And back then, when they first generated their light, Father Abraham, the subject of our study today, probably walked the earth. For all God’s glory and power, God was mindful of Abraham, called Abram at first, and cared for him. And when God solidified God’s promise to Abram through a covenant, God used the night sky to make his point.
That’s our story this morning as we continue our sermon series on beginnings. Hear now the covenant God made with Abram found in Genesis 15:1-11 and 17-18.
In the beginning, God created. At the outset of our sermon series, we looked at how the Bible begins, not with the creation of the Israelites but with the creation of everything that’s ever been known and will be known by us humans.
Then we looked at the beginning of different cultures and languages, found in the story of the Tower of Babel, which requires that we learn to hear the voice of God in our conversations with each other, leading and guiding us along the way. If we’re good about that, prayerful about our plans, God will show us the direction we should go.
Then we backed up a bit to look at the first covenant in the Bible, that with Noah, and how God makes promises, binding himself to us, in a profound way that demonstrates God’s unconditional love for us.
God creates. God leads us. God promises to us. That’s the point of the first three stories.
And today’s story binds all those threads together.
This is the story of the creation of the Israelite people. It takes fourteen preceding chapters to get here, but this is it. The beginning not only of the Israelites but the origin story of Jews, Christians, and Muslims around the world, some 4.3 billion in total.
God leads us.
God is leading Abram. Before this chapter, God has made promises to Abram, promises yet unfulfilled. God is telling Abram where to go, that God will provide an heir, and teaching Abram about who God is and who Abram is in light of God.
God promises to us.
Here, God promises. God makes astounding promises. The three p’s are the easy way to remember this: prosperity, progeny, and property. God will make Abram and his decedents prosperous, which is astounding because he’s a goat herder. God will give Abram an heir and make his people more numerous than the stars of the sky, which is astounding because Abram is of advanced age and has no direct decedent to be his heir. God will give Abram land, which is astounding because Abram is a nomad and other people occupy the land God will give him (people, by the way, Ken did a great job pronouncing!).
God creates, leads, and promises, in astounding ways. God promises prosperity, progeny, and property. To make the point, God directs Abram to the night sky. Should we so direct ourselves, allowing awe and wonder to overtake us, we will get a glimpse of Abram’s experience with God.
And we, today, have the experience of knowing that God keeps God’s promises.
Thousands of years later, we see the fulfillment of these promises. In 2020, it’s estimated that 53.18 percent of the world’s population belong to one of the Abrahamic faiths, that 4.3 billion persons number I quoted a second ago. Over half the world is a descendant of Abraham; not necessarily of the blood line, but in inheriting a faith that Abraham began.
And those faiths have prospered. Sometimes, those faiths have prospered by evil means. All three faiths are guilty of that. But all three faiths have added richly to the world’s tradition. Without Judaism, for example, we would not have the Bible, the best selling and most consequential book in human history. Without Christianity, we would not have the rich tradition of higher education that forms most of us. And without Islam, we would not have the fields of astronomy nor the significant advancements in mathematics that have allowed our understanding of the universe to progress so far. God kept the promise of prosperity.
All those faiths also have progeny. 4.3 billion people might be more than the number of stars the naked eye could view on the clearest of nights with the least amount of ambient light possible. But that number is only those who are currently living and adhere to these faiths. If we were to consider all the people who have claimed one of these faiths since their inception at least five thousand years ago, that number would grow exponentially. God kept the promise of progeny.
The question of property is a bit more complicated and gets politically dicey in a hurry when considering the modern state of Israel. All three faiths have claim to property in the Levant. But, God fulfilled this promise through Abraham’s sons, then when the land was lost and the people enslaved, God restored the land first through Moses and then through Joshua. When the land was lost to the Assyrians and Babylonians in the exile, God restored the land again through Ezra and Nehemiah. God kept the promise of property.
Staring up at the night sky and considering these promises of prosperity, progeny, and property, we see how God fulfilled God’s promises. The stars are a sign and seal that God will always fulfill God’s promises.
Abram, however, knew none of that.
There was no history of God fulfilling God’s promises for Abram to consider. There’s no evidence he knew anything of the covenant with Noah. God has spoken to Abram before this, making promises to Abram, but here in chapter 15 God takes those promises and makes them even grander. God had promised prosperity, but now it will go beyond Abram’s dreams. God had promised an heir, but now there will be billions of heirs. God had promised some land, but now it will be larger.
God had made promises and they only become grander here in chapter 15.
At this point, Abram would be right to think of God as a used car salesman: overpromising and underdelivering. Well, underdelivering is being nice. God keeps ramping up the promises but has delivered nothing. There’s no fulfillment; nothing Abram can see. He’s not wrong for doubting at the start of our scripture this morning. His main concern is an heir, someone to pass down his modest, lower middle class, wealth. That’s all he wants. God, provide me what you promised, Abram is saying; just what you promised. I’m getting old. The likelihood of having a child is diminishing with each day. Just give me what you promised.
But no, God says, your vision is too small. Look at all I will give you!
It’s reasonable to think that Abram wouldn’t believe God at this point. God’s been promising for a while and God has yet to deliver. The human penchant is for distrust. We are naturally distrustful at the start. It’s just how we enter relationships, contracts, encounters, and the like. Evolutionary scientists would say this is a healthy skepticism born of survival of the fittest.
So Abram would be naturally skeptical when God promises. And by now, much time has passed and that skepticism should turn into outright disbelief that this God who overpromises would ever deliver.
Any of us, faced with someone promising us something and then, while failing to deliver, ramps up the promises, would turn to disbelief and distrust. Perhaps we can think of relationships like that in our lives. But at least those relationships are tactile: we can see them and hear them. Imagine it’s God who keeps making you promises, and you, without a history to go upon, with no knowledge of how God has kept promises in the past, are somehow supposed to keep believing that this God will actually come through?
At least, that’s what Abram does. The key to this scripture is verse 6a: “And [Abram] believed the LORD…” For all the reasons to doubt, for the lack of history to go on, for all the ramping up of the promises, Abram still chooses to believe; still chooses to trust.
And that, that choice, is the beginning of faith in the Bible.
Our faith often rests on history: we have a personal history of how God has provided and pulled through and can testify to that. Our families have the same history. Our church has that history. Our tradition has that history. We can read the Bible and see how God has fulfilled promises.
And faith resting on history is challenging enough. But Abram chooses a faith that is deeper, that is more profound, that is even more challenging: a faith that rests on almost nothing.
No history. No grounding. No guarantee. Nothing except Abram’s willful choice to believe against all odds, against good sense, against the human impulse to distrust, against all the reasons to abandon God.
That is tremendous faith. A childlike faith as Jesus says it. And it’s why, in Hebrews, the author holds up Abraham as the exemplar of faith, the person we can look to second only to Jesus for the example of what it means to have faith.
It would be a bit before Abraham saw the beginnings of this fulfillment. It comes through first in the birth of his son Isaac, but only after Abraham’s faith has faltered and he has fathered a child, Ishmael, with his servant, trying himself to create an heir out of impatience with God.
And Abraham, of course, would not live to see the complete fulfillment of these promises. He died more prosperous, in the land, with his heir, but he would never know the fullness of God’s design and the fullness of God’s promises kept as we do.
So, even for all the reasons to doubt and distrust, even for all the reasons to abandon God, he chose trust, he chose faith.
And that’s the example for us this morning.
Most of us have faith. The task for those of us who have faith is not to gain faith but, rather, to use Abraham to examine our own faith.
Consider the foundation of your faith: does it need signs and fulfillment, a history, to remain? All of our faiths are challenged at times. The question is: if given reason to question that history and doubt all that you’ve known, will your faith remain?
Consider your vision: Abram’s was too small. He just wanted an heir. God wanted to do far greater things through him. Without faith, Abram would have sired Ishmael and be forgotten to history. With faith, God was able to do far greater things. Does your faith allow for God to broaden your horizons, or are you stuck with a narrow focus, only praying for God to provide exactly as you want?
Consider your cares and concerns. Maybe they are personal and close to home. Maybe they are for our community. Maybe they are for our country. Do you really trust that God will provide? Do you really trust that God will move for peace and justice?
Consider your prayer life. Do you regularly hear from God? Do you understand how God is calling you? As with the Tower of Babel sermon, do you listen for the voice of God through your planning and conversations with others? Are you prepared to live into whatever God’s call is on your life, regardless of age and stage of life? God has a call on us from the youngest to the oldest and from the healthiest to the most ill. Do you believe that?
Consider the promises God has made to you. Do you know what they are? Do you believe that God will fulfill them, even if it’s been a long time, even if you’ve been asking forever, even if you may not live to see the fullness of that provision?
And if you don’t have faith this morning, consider this question: have you been trying to reason your way into faith and always failed to do so? That’s normal. Faith is unreasonable. Faith is irrational. No one can be convinced to be a person of faith by reason. It’s an affair of the heart and soul, one that must be grounded in this simple statement of faith that Abraham knew, even if he didn’t articulate it: God is who he says he is. Belief in that premise is the ultimate grounding of faith.
For when all else has passed away, our personal histories and our memories of God’s faithfulness, Abraham’s faith gives us the example, for this is all that remains:
God is who he says he is.
God is creator and provides.
God makes promises and keeps them.
The foundation of our faith must rest ultimately in that word: God is who he says he is.
Is that the foundation for your faith?
The difference between our typical faith, and I include myself in that, and the faith of Abraham comes through in examining our current circumstances, even this moment in Eastman and Dodge County. God has made promises to all of us of peace and justice. There’s little evidence right now that such is true. To believe that God really is redeeming our current moment, that God will use this current time to bring about a peace that will last and a justice that will never fail as we say at communion, requires the faith of Abraham. We can’t base that faith in history, we can’t base it in God having done it before, we can’t base it in our narrow-minded visions of just wanting ourselves and our families to know peace and justice; we have to base it on nothing except this: that we believe God is who he says he is.
Even if our country succumbs to further unrest and violence, even if things get worse before they get better, a faith grounded in the belief that God is who he says he is will find reason to hope. Because if God says he is peace, peace will prevail. If God says he is justice, justice will be known. If God says he redeems the evils we see around us, redemption will be known.
That’s all we have to go on. It’s unreasonable, it’s irrational, it’s prone to doubt, but it’s true.
God is who he says he is.
At the end of the day, that’s all Abram had to go on. He made a choice, to believe that this God, this God he didn’t really know, this God who kept making promises and failed to deliver, this God who kept making those promises all the more grand every time he mentioned them, that this God is who he said he is. That is all Abram had to go on. And that’s the choice, and thus example, Abram sets for us.
Because, at the end of the day, that’s all our faith can really rest on: believing that God is who he says he is. Personal history can be questioned and full of doubt, growing up in faith doesn’t mean keeping the faith. We have all known doubt, we will all know doubt again, even severe doubt that challenges everything we believe.
And in those moments, all we can do is do what Abraham did: rest our faith in the belief that God is who he says he is. And thus God will do as God said he will do.
God is a promise keeper because God has integrity.
God is who he says he is.
And thus God can always be trusted.
Do you believe it?
How’s your faith?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.