For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 8 – Genesis 15:1-6 (Related)
The cycle of stories about Abraham and Sarah contains two profoundly important conversations between God and Abraham, here and in Gen 18, where Abraham intercedes for the city of Sodom. In both cases Abraham appears a bit cheeky, if we’re honest, in the way he speaks to God. Whilst these conversations have been seen as authenticating holy boldness, is there more to them?
This conversation begins, though, with God, not Abraham. He tells Abraham not to be afraid, which raises the question of what or whom he might be afraid of. He has just rescued Lot, and perhaps fears a counter-attack and retribution from Lot’s enemies. But as the conversation progresses, it becomes clear that God is addressing a much deeper fear. However, he begins by describing himself as Abraham’s shield and reward. The shield is a protective piece of armour, set between the attackers and the victim: God sets himself between Abraham and all that would harm him. As for the great reward, there’s the rub, which allows Abraham to voice his real complaint. In spite of God’s promise three chapters earlier, he has still not given Abraham a son and heir. So Abraham responds by saying (and I paraphrase) ‘It’s all very well that you plan to reward me, but you haven’t given me the one thing which I really need to make any sense of my life. It’s not that I’m not grateful, but without a son everything you give me will end up being left to my servant. So thanks, but when are you going to reward me with the very thing you promised but have not done?’
For many people there is that One Thing. For Christians who believe in a God who answers prayer, the dilemma is made even more difficult. They simply can’t put it down to ‘life stinks’ or bad luck or whatever. God has promised, but he hasn’t followed through. For many couples it is the same issue, that of childlessness. For some people if goes back even further: they long to find Mr or Miss Right but it just hasn’t happened. Many struggle with chronic health conditions, or unfulfilling work, or … You can fill in the blanks yourself, and maybe you can even fill in your own blank. Many do what Abraham feared, and go to the grave with unfulfilled promises. These are real pastoral issues for so many people.
This passage offers no false hope, but does, I think, make a couple of important points for those struggling with unfulfilled hopes and shattered dreams. The first, which will seem harsh, is to ask exactly what is it that God has promised? Sometimes we struggle because God hasn’t done what we would like, but when we think about it, he has never promised to. If I spend my days in unfulfilled longing for a Ferrari and a holiday cottage in Provence, I need to ask myself the question ‘When exactly did God promise me those things?’ Unanswered wishful thinking can be as painful as unanswered prayer, but it is not the same. God has not necessarily promised me all the things I would like him to have promised.
The second, though, is more positive. This is not just wishful thinking on Abraham’s part. He can look back to the day when God specifically said to him that he would make him into a great nation. He promised! So where is it? I’ve not even got one son, let alone a nation! It’s an audacious thing to say to God, but the response is for God to restate the promise in even more detail. Your nation will not come from Eliezer of Damascus – it will come from your own natural offspring. And when I say ‘nation’, I mean this many! Look at the stars above and the sands beneath your feet. That’s what I promised, and here and now I make that promise to you again.
Of course Abraham had to wait for this reiteration of the original promise to come to pass, and in the meantime he tried to make it happen himself, and had to hear the promise a third time, around 25 years after he first heard it. We are impatient creatures compared to God, and so many of our unanswered prayers are not because God has said ‘No’ but because he has said ‘Not yet!’ But if you have some Big Issue, and are sure that God has spoken to you and has promised, it’s OK to ask him to remake the promise to you, and to ask for confident patience as you wait for him to act.