The Lonely Covenant - thrive UMC Official Blog

The Lonely Covenant


I’ve been having this experience lately, which I think at least a few of you could probably relate to.  As I’ve been watching so much of what’s going on in our world and culture, I’ve had this sort of Jiminy-Cricket type voice that keeps going off in my head saying: ‘uh, I’m not sure that’s true.’

Have any of you had that feeling lately?  Maybe while you’re watching the news?

Like I keep seeing stuff pop up about millennials, who are, depending on who you listen to -either the laziest, most entitled generation to ever be birthed into an already ego-centric nation, or they are the most communally-minded, service oriented, and spiritually woke demographic to ever every grace God’s green earth. And either way, I see and hear that stuff and go: uh, I’m not sure that that’s true.

And I don’t even have to give any examples about politics and social issues, do I?  I don’t care who you are, or where you stand, that voice of disbelief speaks up, right?

But for me, and especially over the last few weeks, it’s gotten worse and it’s gotten weird.  Like I’d be listening to the radio, and Katie Perry, with Will Ferrell will come on singing “Don’t be afraid to catch feels; ride drop-top and chase thrills…’ and I’d turn the station: ‘I’m not sure that’s true.’ Just as a blanket sentiment.  That’s not true. Click. (Which, by the  way, my car stereo is so old that it still has buttons that click when you press them.)

Or when I went out to get the mail and I’d see these advertisements with coupons to places like Burger King and that World Market store, and that voice clicks on again.  ‘I’m not sure that’s true.’

Or when I came home after a late meeting this week and found Kristen on the couch watching a new Netflix series about Anne of Green Gables, where there’s all of this pre-pubescent girl drama going on, that voice ticked on again: ‘I’m not sure that’s true.’

Which is kinda dumb, right?  Because, in the first place, it’s obviously a TV show, based off of an old work of fiction. So it’s not even making any direct claims to being true.  And in the second place, hey; yes!  There absolutely are real people who act just like that.  So stop being so crazy, subconscious!  But that was my response: ‘nope, I don’t think that’s true.’

To be honest, I wasn’t really even paying attention to that little voice at all –I’d just hear it, then redirect and move on. It just became a part of my interior, mental routine.  Which, by the way, is probably the most troubling part of the whole thing, where I walk through so much of my own life going: ‘eh, I don’t think that’s true,’ and hardly even notice it.

But as I was reading this passage we have for today, that same voice was just going: ‘read it again.’  So I’d read it again; and that Jiminy Cricket voice would go: ‘read it again.’ And this went on and on, for what felt like, to be honest, way too many times this week.  And I’d start out with this reading most mornings this last week, and in terms of sermon topics, I was coming up with about nothing.  Because it’s just a weird passage.  And by the time Thursday rolled around, I was totally second-guessing even picking it as a part of this series. But then all of a sudden it clicked.  And no kidding, at about 1 a.m. Friday morning, it hit me all sorts of truth, right in the feels. And I had to get out of bed and write it down, so I could tell all of you about it today.

So anyway, we’re going to read this passage, acknowledging that it’s weird, and foreign, and packaged in a way that’s hard for our 21st century spirits to digest.  We’re picking up today in the 15th chapter of Genesis. We’re right in the middle of the story of this guy named Abram who marks the very beginning of the tradition that we still claim to be a part of today.  And he lived a long time ago, but we remember him because he’s the first guy we know of who had a real, living relationship with God.  And today we’re going to read about how they made their relationship work.

It says this:

15 After these events, the Lord’s word came to Abram in a vision, “Don’t be afraid, Abram. I am your protector.[a] Your reward will be very great.”

But Abram said, “Lord God, what can you possibly give me, since I still have no children? The head of my household is Eliezer, a man from Damascus.”[b] He continued, “Since you haven’t given me any children, the head of my household will be my heir.”

So starts off with Abram being afraid.  And we know this because, for the first time in the Bible, God comes in and says: ‘Do not be afraid.’ It’s the most often-repeated divine command or suggestion found in the whole Bible.  Those words are found in the bible more than 50 separate times.  But it’s also a cue, so whenever you hear that in a passage, you should pay attention –because it probably means someone in the story should have put on their brown pants that day.

If we’ve been paying close attention to Abram’s story up until this point, we definitely wouldn’t be surprised he’s afraid.  Last week we saw him almost starve to death in a famine and then almost get murdered by the Egyptians.  So, of course, he decides to sell his wife off (and only by a miracle got her back).  And then in the passages we skipped over we see that once Abram gets rich, quarrels end up breaking out in his family, so he and Lot part ways.  And then there was a big war, and Abram had to turn around and rescue Lot, who was his nephew –the closest thing he has to a son.  And here, we remember that Abraham only ever left his home to receive a new one, and to start a nation.  But here he is, nearly ten years later: still without a home.  He’s still living as an immigrant in a very dangerous, foreign land.  He’s old and getting older.  And he still doesn’t have any children.  And all of this is after he’s already met this protector god, right?

So, yeah, says Abram, ‘don’t be afraid’ –that’s easy for you to say, God.  And oh, you tell me, hey: ‘your reward will be great!’ –so where is it?  Where is this reward?  You told me to leave, and I left.  And so far, it hasn’t gone so well.  At one point or another, I’ve lost just about everything I’ve ever had out here, and almost died on 3 separate occasions. And for what?  I’ve been doing this for a land it turns out won’t even go to me, but it goes to my descendants, of whom, let me remind you, I have exactly zero right now! So all my stuff has to go to Eliezer!  What possible reward or blessing could I hope for when my life so far is still so… barren?

Have you ever felt like that before?  Have you ever felt like maybe your life is barren? By about the 10th time, I read through that and went: there it is.  That’s the true story.

But picking back up in the reading, God says this:

The Lord’s word came immediately to him, “This man will not be your heir. Your heir will definitely be your very own biological child.” Then he brought Abram outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars if you think you can count them.” He continued, “This is how many children you will have.” Abram trusted the Lord, and the Lord recognized Abram’s high moral character.

He said to Abram, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as your possession.”

But Abram said, “Lord God, how do I know that I will actually possess it?”

So again, God is all promises: ‘Oh Abram, your future family is going to be like numbering the stars.’  And then  it says Abram trusted the LORD, and the Lord recognized Abram’s high moral character. (Hold that thought; we’ll get back to it again later.) And in other English translations it says ‘And Abram believed, and it was counted as righteousness.’

But the story goes on: God talks again about the land he’s going to give to Abram and his decedents, to which Abram asks the all-important question: how will I know?  First he trusts; but then also he asks ‘how can I know?’ How can I know that these things you say are actually going to happen?  How do I know that you’re actually going to do what you say you’re going to do, God? Because let’s be honest, so far we have to consider the evidence.  Let’s look at our relationship and our history up until this point and ask the question –would you keep going on like this blindly?

Here’s how God responds:

He said, “Bring me a three-year-old female calf, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a dove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He took all of these animals, split them in half, and laid the halves facing each other, but he didn’t split the birds. 11 When vultures swooped down on the carcasses, Abram waved them off. 12 After the sun set, Abram slept deeply. A terrifying and deep darkness settled over him.

Now, I don’t usually make it this blunt, but here’s the part you really need to pay attention to.  Is everyone with me here?  Can we see where Abram is coming from with his mixed bag of trust and disappointment?  Here’s what happens next  –it’s the totally obvious thing: they get some animals, kill them, and chop their carcasses into two pieces.  Of course.

Of course it doesn’t explain this because everyone everywhere just knew it back then; but what’s happening here is they’re literally ‘cutting a deal.’ What they used to do in the old days around the Mediterranean, and even I read as far as India- is when two people wanted to make a deal or a promise, they would first agree to terms.  And then, once they agreed to terms, they would slaughter some animals, cut them in two pieces, and then walk between the divided animal, while they’re holding hands.  And then, at the end, they would likely exchange their pledges and vows.  Finally, they would cook up the animals, and sit down and share a meal together.

It sounds crazy, right –until you realize we still have this exact same practice still today, over 4,000 years later –except without the animal carcasses.  Think of it –where else do you know of an instance where two people join hands, walk between two divided parts, exchange vows and then eat together?

At a wedding, right?  Because that’s where our wedding ceremonies came from –weddings are one of the most important covenants we’ll make in our entire lives.  In a wedding you have the groom’s side and the bride’s side, and then by the end of the ceremony, you have only one family: the two sides become one. And that ‘atonement’ –that ‘at-one-ment’- is celebrated with a feast.  Now we still do this today because there’s a lot of practical wisdom in this, isn’t there?  Meals are naturally unifying, peace-making events.

And the added symbolism was that –just as the two pieces of the carcass belong to one body, so are the two sides unified in their covenant.  To get a visual, the people walking hand-in-hand are like the spirit that gives the otherwise dead flesh life.  It’s all about the relationships.

So even today, we can get that.  But after they divide the carcasses up, and the stage is set for the covenant ritual to take place, what happens next in the story?

Instead of God and Abram walking down the aisle hand-in-hand, it says that vultures started swooping down on the carcasses.  And the sun goes down.  And Abram falls asleep.  Then it says “A terrifying and deep darkness settled over him.”

Abram set up a feast fit for a wedding, where he and God would be bound to one another from then until all time.  He gathered his animals from his own flocks and slaughtered them and laid them just so, setting the stage for the ceremony.  But where is God?  Where is his partner –the one who initiated this whole mess and even asked for the covenant in the first place?  Today is the day!  The time was six hours ago! Just when he was all ready to commit and settle down to a life with God, God doesn’t show up.

“A terrifying and deep darkness settled over him.”

Have any of you ever felt like God stood you up?  Or have any of you known someone, or been someone, who’s been stood up at the altar?  Most of you don’t know this about me, but I was there once.  I was all done up in my tux on a hot day in July, waiting for the woman who was supposed to be my bride.  But it got to be fifteen minutes before the wedding was supposed to start, and she wasn’t there.  The time for the wedding to begin rolled around, and still no sign.  Ten minutes after that, people start asking me: ‘Jeremy, what do you want to do?’ On the outside, I was trying to play it all cool, but on the inside, I was devastated.  Now, as it turned out, Kristen just had to pee, which I guess is a very complicated ordeal in a huge wedding dress, but still.  Panic.  Despair.  A regressive loop of self-loathing and everything anyone has ever said that’s terrible about me was playing on repeat.  Yeah, I’d say ‘a terrifying and deep darkness descending’ pretty much sums it up.

But Abram felt like he got stood up… by God!  And I bet some people here have their Jiminy Crickets going ‘true story. I lived that.’ How many of us have taken the risk, and put ourselves out there, and it seems like God just lets us hang?  That’s a true experience: it’s right in the Bible –starting at the very beginning, with the guy we call in retrospect ‘the father of faith.’  He sat in disappointment for 10 long years, and then fell asleep on his big day, alone.

And is there anything worse than feeling like God has stood you up?

But then the story goes on:

13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Have no doubt that your descendants will live as immigrants in a land that isn’t their own, where they will be oppressed slaves for four hundred years. 14 But after I punish the nation they serve, they will leave it with great wealth. 15 As for you, you will join your ancestors in peace and be buried after a good long life. 16 The fourth generation will return here since the Amorites’ wrongdoing won’t have reached its peak until then.”

17 After the sun had set and darkness had deepened, a smoking vessel with a fiery flame passed between the split-open animals. 18 That day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram: “To your descendants I give this land, from Egypt’s river to the great Euphrates, 19 together with the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”

Then, in the darkest hour of despair, after missing the ceremony he’d arranged, God speaks in the middle of the night —and tells Abram it’s all still going to happen.  But oh, by the way, before your offspring inherit the land I give them, your great, great grand-babies are going to be enslaved for 400 years.  But after that, totally cool.  God will make them rich and prosperous.  For a while.  I’m waiting until the Amorites get totally out of control! (By the way, I could talk about that single line for about an hour –oh, this passage is so crazy!)

But anyway, finally, way too late (at least from Abram’s perspective) when the darkness has gotten so deep that Abram has practically lost himself –get this- literally, a fiery, smoking clay oven shows up and passes between the animal parts, alone.  And it says “that day the LORD cut a covenant with Abram: ‘To your descendants I give this land, from Egypt’s river to the great Euphrates, together with the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Caananites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’”

Now, three quick things I want you to notice here: first of all, after all that’s said and done, God turns the tables on Abram, and it ends up that God completes the ceremony alone.  Abram was either asleep or too caught up in his despair to go with God, in God’s time, but God moves ahead regardless.  Just set with that for a while.  What would it say about a marriage if on the day of the wedding, only one partner walked up the aisle, and took the vows?  Is it wildly beautiful?  Or deeply tragic?  Or a little of both?

Second thing I want you to notice about this last bit: God appears as a fiery clay oven.  Which is a little weird, right?  None of us, when we pray, imagine an oven, when we ask for blessings, do we?  But for the ancients, God appearing as this symbol means at least two things.  First of all, it looks like the Hebrew word here is referring to a specific kind of small, portable oven nomads would use while traveling, which was only big enough to cook flat-bread on.  It’s like one of those small Coleman kerosene grills.  You get a grill like that and it means you’re either going camping or you’re homeless.  So God might as well have carried Abram over the threshold of an RV.  That’s what their future would look like.  Second, this is a signal of a great inversion.  When everyone else did this covenant ceremony, they would have a fire going during the ceremony, as the witness.  So that if you broke the covenant, the power in the fire would get you.  But here, what’s ordinarily a passive witness becomes the sole covenant maker.  God is doing this.  Meanwhile, Abram was the witness.  The message here is either be passive in your own life, or you’d catch up Mr. Sad Clown.

Then finally, the third thing I want you to notice is that here God drops another surprise on Abram in this covenant.  It turns out that not only is God giving the land to Abram’s descendants, but guess what, buddy: I’m gonna throw in some neighbors too!  Remember those guys you just got in a fight with?  Yeah, I’m giving it to them too!  Have fun with that! And there’s tension here, just seeping through all of this, isn’t there?  Abram’s afraid, but also trusting, and at the same time a little bit skeptical.  And God is also very reassuring, and proud, and then startlingly absent. And God and Abram area also way deep in all of this together.  And yet, the each experience the most crucial moment in a state of alone-ness.  And if we know much about the story that follows, we know there’s an absolutely profound blessing, but a whole lot of the time it’s mixed.

And that’s the picture we have of faith.  That’s what it looks like, and what it feels like, to be in relationship with this strange, and wonderful, but also frightfully unpredictable god: that we’re never saved from the unknown.  Throughout this whole story Abram is afraid.  And all he wants in the midst of it is a little assurance.  Even the blessing of children is really just a cry for proof that Abram’s not alone in all of this.  The promise itself isn’t enough, but some deep part of himself demands to see it.  And to wrap his fingers around it.  Desperately he wants something to cling to.

And God says… ‘no.’  You’ve got my promise.  And more importantly, I’m here with you –and I’ll pull you through, just as I always have. But that’s it.  You want more than that, and I’ll send the Amorites your way.  See how you like that.

Brothers and sisters, this is the heart of the blessing that God gives to Abram and to his people from one generation to the next: the call to live into uncertainty.  The commitment is to live a life unsettled.

Remember how Abram trusted God, and it was counted as righteousness.  Jewish Theologian Abraham Heschel says the greatest virtue for the Jewish people was called ‘Yirah.’  Yirah is a Hebrew word that has two distinct meanings that are held in tension.  It means both ‘fear’ and ‘awe.’  So over and over again in the Hebrew Bible, which we call the Old Testament, the command is repeated: “Yirah the Lord.”  Should we be afraid of God?  Or should we be in awe of God?  The definitive answer according to that tradition is yes!  But awe is the better blessing.  Be in awe of God.  Awe leads to love and joy, while fear leads to skepticism and despair. So when God comes to Abram and says ‘do not be afraid’ in the midst of what feels like a war-torn, barren life, by denying Abram any tangible assurance other than his own presence, God calls Abram to choose.  Live in awe.  Or remain in fear. That part is up to Abram.  God will not live your life for you.  God will not hand you all the blessings you want, when you want them.  God will not satisfy all of your cravings for proof and for answers.  Instead, God calls us, always, instead to go deeper into mystery. God calls us out of, and into, the unknown.  And the promise is that God will sustain us (until we die –which could happen whenever), and that God will always surprise us.

So let’s live into the surprise.  May our spirits be turned, in the midst of all of our uncertainties, from fear into awe.  May we be open to the state of wonder where God works not only through pleasant blessings, but also through the experiences we call disappointments and disasters.  Because as we grow in awe, so too will we grow in courage and resilience.  And in this way, we’ll grow into our blessings, to become a blessing.  Not just for our own family, but for all of our neighbors.