By Cherie Dearth
Through this worship series, we are in the wilderness for 40 days, just like Jesus, for 40 years, like
the Israelites. It will feel like a long time. It is. We are on a journey of repentance (turning towards
God) and toward the new life of Easter or more accurately, Resurrection Day. The series theme is
based on Joel 2:12-13:
12“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart,
with fasting and weeping and mourning.” 13 Rend your heart and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love…
Return to Me with All Your Heart. That is what Lent is all about. Purposefully, thoughtfully, returning
your focus, your heart to the Lord. When the Bible says “your heart” it means your whole self, mind,
body, and soul. This week we will be looking at Abraham, one who tried to do what the Lord asked.
Sometimes he did it better than others, but in today’s passage he is having a crisis of faith. Even someone
who walks faithfully with the Lord has times when they have to return to the Lord. We will learn that it’s
okay to ask God the tough questions, especially in moments like that.
If you will turn in your Bibles starting at Genesis 15:1.
The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield, your very great reward.”
2 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless
and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said,
“You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son
who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said,
“Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said
to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
7 He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give
you this land to take possession of it.”
8 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
9 So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along
with a dove and a young pigeon.”
10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each
other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half.11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses,
but Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came
13 Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants
will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there.
14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great
possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age.
16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has
not yet reached its full measure.”
17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared
and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said,
“To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi[e] of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates—
1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 or 1024. One septillion in the American counting system, one
quadrillion in the European – it is rough estimate of just how many starts there might be in the universe,
give or take a million at any given moment. Actually, it is probably a huge underestimate. The straightforward
question of how many stars there are in the universe is a question that is beyond the most brilliant
astronomers and mathematicians of the 21st century, let alone one man of ancient times having a
conversation with God on a starry night.
Today, we turn our gaze upward, aspiring to imitate our Creator, the source of our promise, our dreams,
and our guiding star on our Lenten path.
Just as far as the stars are from us, God’s promise seems very far off from Abraham. He longs for something
closer and more concreate – the solid weight of feeling his child in his arms or the solid ground under his feet
in the place that he can finally call home. After all the years of following God, could it be that star gazing wa
s no longer enough? Maybe, with Abraham, we know we are in good company when we question and
impatiently demand that we see proof of God’s promises being kept.
Humans have been gazing at the stars for thousands of years. From the earliest civilizations, humans
looked to the sky for answers to all sorts of questions. People have marked the movements of planets
and stars with great enthusiasm, and sometimes, with great fear. Maybe if they looked up at the night
sky, they would find their place in the grand scheme of things. Or maybe, they believed that if they understood
this one thing, then all the rest of their questions would melt away. Life would make sense. The orderly
beauty of the night sky is undeniable. It is like a living dream.
When we look up at the night sky, we see the same stars that Abram did that night that he asked tough
questions of God, the same stars that the magi did as they read the sky in search of a new king who would
free his people, the same stars that made the psalmist break out in song and claim that God had a name for
each one of them (Psalm 147:4). What happens, though, when God and God’s promises seem as distant as
the stars themselves? What happens when a family who has prayed for years for a child asks with Abram,
“O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless?” What happens when someone loses a house,
a job, health care, and in the struggle to survive, asks: “O Lord, God, how am I to know that I shall have it?”
Certainty is elusive in the world in which we live. Each of us has family and friends that are waiting in the
dark for urgent prayers to be answered and God’s promise to come into fruition. Maybe it is even us. How
do we keep faith burning brightly in our hearts when the stars that are meant to guide us grow dim and cold?
Until this moment in Genesis, Abram has unquestioningly done everything that God had asked of him. He
left his homeland, built some altars, made some bad decisions, parted from some of his family, all the while
following God’s promises of land and descendants like a trail of blessings. As chapter 15 opens, however,
Abram has begun to question whether this promise of land and offspring will ever come to pass. It appears
Abram is willing to have faith up to a point, then the fulfillment of the promises of God become implausible.
That is precisely when the questions, confusion, fear, and obstinance set in.
Abram is walking the quintessential human journey of faithfulness in God. If we are grounded in our faith
when we begin our journey, we too trust in the promises of God. If we keep walking on our journey and those
promises don’t seem to be any nearer, then we start questioning – our own faith, God’s faithfulness, the
possibility of our dreams, the hurt of human suffering, the fear that we were wrong to trust in the first place.
It is a painful place to be, sitting on the ground and staring up at a sky that seems as far away as we can imagine.
It is precisely this experience that is a catalyst, that is an igniter, for our growth in faithfulness, as it was
Abram’s. It is in the questioning that Abram learns to trust again. Lent, as we are learning or as we know,
is a transformation of the heart, of our whole selves. Question by question, Abram’s heart is being shaped
into a more trusting form. Perhaps that is something that we might need to learn or remember this Lent
as we explore our own wildernesses and dreams, as we count the stars. Our hearts are just as pliable
(and fragile) as Abram’s.
Recently, I came across this piece of wisdom online:
A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor.
An easy road never led to a beautiful destination.
An easy life never made a person of character.
You may feel that you have had enough character building experiences. However, one thing to remember
is that Abram was older than almost all of you when he had this encounter with God. Also, Abram sets a
familiar pattern for Lent and our cycle of faith, doubt, and finally trust.
In today’s Scripture we also see something that is important for us to understand in our own lives. It is the
part of Abram’s dream that says before God’s promises will be fulfilled (and they will be because God always
keeps God’s promises), there will be a time of struggle and hardship. It is tempting to skip over that piece.
Four hundred years is a long time to keep trusting, keep moving, keep following God through a land that is
not our own. But this is what this long season of Lent is about. We are given time in the wilderness to ask the
tough questions and learn to trust our heart to God’s heart, our steps to God’s pathway. The way may be long
and winding, but the God who set the stars in motion will guide us on our journey and travel it with us. And
perhaps the next time that we look up at the septillion stars, we might trust that God has put just one there
so that we might find our way home.
Do you have something that you are struggling with? Are you waiting for an answer? Are you concerned that
you have received an answer, and the answer is no? Are you having trouble seeing how what you are receiving
is better than what you asked for? Are you exhausted by character building experiences? Perhaps you have
something that you are worrying about, over which you have no control? Do you have something you need
to give over to God because it’s too much or too big for you. Do you need forgiveness? Do you need to forgive,
but it’s so hard. It hurts so much. This season of Lent, you have an opportunity to lay it all before the cross.
Give it to God. Whatever it might be that is blocking you from God, you can
lay them before the Lord in order to return to him.
Sometimes there are things that are getting in the way, from our side. I know that there were times when I
felt so bad about the things I was doing, I felt so guilty about them that I felt that I couldn’t even pray to God
about them or anything else. I felt like a hypocrite because I knew that I was continuing in this sinful activity
or mode of thought. Or maybe I was mad at God because I didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t feel
that it fair. I did not feel like I could talk to God while this was hanging over my head. These are exactly the
kinds of things that you can leave at the cross.
In your bulletin, you should have received a piece of paper with a star on it. Write down what you need to
present as an offering to God, something that you need to give over to God, to release that will help you to
return to God with all your heart. Afraid that someone else will see it and know? Write it in a code for yourself
and God. One thing for sure, God already knows about it and is waiting for you to come to him with it. So if
it’s in code, God will still understand. Maybe it’s something a problem, a concern, that you just need to let go
and turn it over to God. I say “just,” but it could be something that you have been worrying and stressing about
for years. It could be a problem you face or about a loved one. It could be about the state of the world or the
state of the church. Whatever it is write it down however you choose. Come and bring it on the cross. If you
feel that you can’t physically do it, give it to someone near you to bring it for you. Want time to think about
it? Have more than one thing to turn over to God? You will have an opportunity to participate in this practice
all through Lent. Do it before worship or after. You can even come in when the church is open during the week.
We will leave these offerings here all season as a visual reminder of how God is there with us through it all,
through the long waiting, when we’re hurting or when we don’t understand. It will remind us how God came
to us through Jesus Christ to remove the final barrier. It allows us to return to him.