The 2nd Sunday in Lent (C)
In the Name of him whose promises can always be relied upon, Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Promises, promises... It’s a phrase that I am sure many of us have heard before – a phrase reflecting our cynicism about the reliability of a person who makes a promise. For example, when George Stephanopoulos was serving as Bill Clinton’s senior White House advisor, he was once asked whether Clinton was going to keep a particular campaign pledge: “The President,” Stephanopoulos replied, “has kept all of the promises he intended to keep.” Promises, promises…
And it is not only in politics that we have this cynicism. For example, I remember how one time I promised my children that we were going to go to Disney World. I was going to buy a three-day pass for all of us, and we were going to have a great time. We, and especially they, were really looking forward to it. Unfortunately, circumstances in my life changed, and I just was not able to afford it. Needless to say, my children were extremely disappointed and I was also angry at myself and feeling guilty for not being able to deliver on my promise. Promises, promises…
I can go on and on about promises that are not kept. A product that we purchase does not perform nearly as well as had been advertised. A company fails to deliver the service that it had promised. Deadlines are not kept. Relationship promises – such as what a husband and wife promise to each other in marriage – are sometimes broken as circumstances and desires change. The same is often true for people’s relationship with God and his church – as many fail to keep the promises made at baptism and at confirmation to be faithful in putting God first in their lives.
Promises, promises… It seems that everywhere we look, promises are broken. Sometimes we are the victims of broken promises, and at other times we are the promise breakers. In the midst of all this, is there anyone whose promises can be absolutely relied upon?
That was the situation that Abram was facing in today’s first reading. He had been the recipient of great promises from God. The LORD had first spoken to him in Genesis 12:1-3, where he had promised him that “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (Gen. 12:2) After he had journeyed to Canaan, the LORD again appeared to Abram and promised him that “To your offspring I will give this land.” (Gen. 12:7) And then God reaffirmed that promise a chapter later when he told Abram that “all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted.” (Gen. 13:15-16)
These were indeed great promises. But in today’s first reading, ten long years had passed. Abram was now eighty-five years old, and his wife Sarai was seventy-five. And Abram could not help but notice that his life lacked a crucial component that was necessary for him to become the father of the “great nation” that God had promised to make of him. He had no son, no heir, no one to whom to pass on any inheritance.
And so when the LORD speaks to him in today’s first reading, Abram finally dares to bring up this problem. As he says; “O LORD God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” (Gen. 15:3-4) In other words, Abram is saying “Promises, promises…!”
But then the LORD says to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” Then he 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.” (Gen. 15:4-5) In other words, “I will keep my promises to you – you can count on it!”
And in response, we hear that “(Abram) believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Gen. 15:6) This is the pivotal verse of today’s first reading – and indeed it is one of the most important passages of the entire Bible! Despite all the appearances to the contrary, Abram continued to believe that God would keep his promises to him – and his trust pleased God! It was not anything that Abram “did” that made him deserve God’s approval – it was simply that he continued to have faith in God’s promises.
The rest of today’s first reading describes how God made a covenant with Abram to solemnly affirm that he would keep his promise to bless him, give him the land, and provide him with many descendants. In a traditional Near Eastern covenant ceremony, animal sacrifice played an important part. Covenants were not simply “made” or agreed upon. Participating parties didn’t just exchange handshakes and fountain pens and go home satisfied. A binding covenant had to be sealed with blood.
And so, at God’s direction, Abram brought a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon – and cut the animals in two. And when the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch (which are symbols for God’s presence) passed between the pieces of the sacrifices. You see, in human-to-human covenants of that day, it was typical for both of the covenanting parties to walk between the sacrifices, declaring in effect; “May it happen to me as to these animals if I do not keep the promises that have been made.”
But in today’s reading, we note that only God makes this “covenant walk”. The point is that the commitment for God to keep his promises is entirely unilateral – it is entirely God’s responsibility! Abram did not have to do anything except to believe that God would do for him what he had said.
The same is true for us! We do not have to “do” anything to earn God’s blessings and to participate in an everlasting covenant with him. All that we have to “do” is to believe that God will keep his promises to bless us! Faith – and faith alone – is all that is necessary for us to have a “right relationship” with God!
Through Jesus Christ, God promises to always love us. He promises to forgive us. He promises to bless us. He promises to always be with us, through whatever we may have to go through in life, come what may. And at the end when we die, he promises even to raise us from death and give us eternal life.
This does not mean, however, that we have a perfect understanding of how God is going to fulfill his promises or when. Abram himself did not fully understand the way God was going to bless him. Since his wife Sarai was not able to conceive, in the next chapter immediately after the events in today’s first reading he took an Egyptian slave-girl named Hagar to be his concubine so that he could have a child by her – and she bore him a son named Ishmael. Abram still did not understand the full extent of God’s promise – that God would give him an heir through his wife Sarai – an heir who would be named Isaac.
Only thirteen long years later – when Abram was almost one hundred years old and Sarai was ninety – did he finally have a son by her. That is when he finally was given the name of “Abraham” (meaning “Father of a multitude”) and Sarai was given the name of “Sarah” (meaning “Princess”).
In many ways, we are just like Abram was when we don’t see God’s promises being fulfilled in our lives and in our world. We may still believe, but we do often get discouraged – and sometimes– like Abram – we may even try to take matters into our own hands to help God’s promises come true. But God will fulfill his promises in his own way, and in his own time, and in a way that will be a blessing for us and for many others. May God help us to believe this, even when we can’t see it.
Through Jesus Christ, may we know that God is always working to accomplish all that he has promised to us and to all people. As St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians: “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ whom we proclaimed among you…was not “Yes and No”; but in him it is always “Yes.” For in him every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.” (2 Cor. 1:19-20)
Promises, promises…! Our promises to each other may often be broken. But the promises of God can absolutely be relied upon – because they do not depend upon our own efforts, but solely upon God himself! And when we believe God’s “Yes” through Jesus Christ, and stake our lives upon it – that is when God is well pleased with us. That is when he is delighted to call us his righteous people, just as he did for Abram.
Promises, promises…! Thanks be to God for all of his wonderful promises, which he gives to us through Jesus Christ our Lord! Amen!
George R. Karres,
Pella Lutheran Church
418 W. Main Street
Sidney, MT 59270