Blessing and Lament
Have you ever had something you really needed to tell someone, but the person you needed to tell wasn’t around or wasn’t listening? And then, when they finally did show up, when they finally were listening, you just kind of unloaded on them?
That’s Abram in our first reading from the book of Genesis this morning. Let’s go back to the beginning.
In the beginning, we are told, God created the heavens and the earth. And it was good. In fact God blessed creation and said it was very good. But it didn’t take long before things started to unravel. You know the story about Adam and Eve in the garden. Then Cain murders his brother Abel. Violence spreads. There are wars, there is a flood, there is that incident with Noah and his sons, there is the tower of Babel. It’s not looking good.
And so God decides that an intervention is needed. An intervention to put things right. And so God chooses Abram as the one through whom God will begin the long process of making things right again, the one through whom God’s blessing will be restored to creation, and to humanity, which is now divided into warring tribes and nations.
In Chapter 12 of Genesis, the intervention begins. God appears to Abram and says to him, “Go to the land that I will show you.” God makes three promises to Abram. First, that he will have children, that he will become the father of many descendants. Second, that God will give Abram the land to which he is being sent. And third, that through Abram and his descendants, all the peoples of the earth will be blessed.
Now of those three promises, which one do you think mattered the most to Abram and his wife Sarai? If you guessed children, you’d probably be right. Because after all, if there were no offspring, who would live in the promised land, and through whom would all the nations be blessed? Besides, having children, well that’s something that hits home. It’s personal. Not being able to have children hurts. Not just back then. It still hurts today.
In the years that follow, many things go well for Abram. He becomes wealthy. He is victorious in battles, defeating local kings in order to rescue his nephew Lot. He is able to settle in the land that was promised. But still he and Sarai have no children. And that hurts. To make matters worse, the God that promised children to Abram, the same God who used to appear regularly and speak to him, that God seems to have disappeared. Does God’s absence, does God’s silence mean that the promise isn’t to be believed anymore?
Finally, years later, at the beginning of today’s reading, God shows up. “Don’t be afraid Abram, everything is going to be great!” Finally, God is listening. And Abram doesn’t hold back. He goes to the place of his deepest hurt and lets God have it.
“You promised me children. We walked halfway around the world for you. And I continue childless. You have given me nothing.”
Have you ever done that? Have you ever had something you really wanted to say to someone, and it all just came out as soon as that someone was listening? Have you ever unloaded on a friend or a spouse from a place of deep hurt when they finally showed up after being away for a while? Or perhaps you’ve been on the other end. Maybe you were the one who was on the receiving end of a complaint or accusation that came from a place of deep pain. It’s not a comfortable place to be. I know that when it’s happened to me, my first instinct is to withdraw. To be on the defensive. Or sometimes, to strike back in my own defence.
But God doesn’t do any of that. Our God is a God of compassion and mercy. God welcomes Abram’s lament. God doesn’t withdraw, God doesn’t get defensive, God doesn’t respond by reminding Abram of his failings. God welcomes our lament, even when that lament takes the form of accusing God of failing to deliver on what God has promised.
In fact, instead of being defensive, God doubles-down on the promise. God brings Abram outside and says, “Look towards heaven and count the stars if you are able.” Then God says to him, “so shall your descendants be.”
We need to be able to lament. It is an essential component of our spiritual toolkit. This week has been a week of lament. The plane crash in Ethiopia. The horrific shootings at the mosques in New Zealand. We are angry, we mourn and grieve. Life is hard and unfair. Life is full of delays and disappointments, we have places of deep hurt within us. And when we are hurting, God invites us to lament. To complain, to accuse, to get angry, to emote. Because when we do, we take our problems and we make them God’s problems. And we do more than that. In our very act of lament we remind ourselves that God is listening and that God will respond, despite appearances to the contrary, despite present circumstances. And we remind God that there are promises we are counting on that have yet to be fulfilled.
God responds to Abram’s lament by reaffirming and even expanding on the promise. Abram believes, and trusts God. But God isn’t finished yet. God wants to demonstrate to Abram in no uncertain terms how far he is willing to go in order to keep his promises.
So God cuts a deal with Abram. He instructs Abram to bring some animals and to lay them in a row and cut them in half. When it is dark a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch pass between the two halves of each animal. We are told that on that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram.
So what’s that all about?
A covenant is an agreement or a deal, like a peace treaty made by two warring kings. In this case, God is making a deal with Abram. It’s a bit different though because this deal is one-sided. Only God, in the form of the flaming torch passes between the pieces of animal. In this covenant, it is God who undertakes to fulfill the promises made to Abram, without demanding anything in return. And why all the dead animals? The animals symbolize the fact that this deal is made with one’s life. In effect it’s saying that if I don’t live up to my commitments under this covenant, may I be slain and die like these animals.
How far is God willing to go to fulfill the promises made to Abram? God is willing to die.
Now, of the three promises made to Abram, children, land and the promise of a blessing to all nations, I get that the promise which was most important to Abram was the promise of children. But which of these promises is most important to you?
For me, well, I’m not one of Abram’s direct descendants. And I’m not so fussed about the land. But I do care about God’s promise to bless all the families, all the peoples, all the nations of the earth. I do care about this good creation, it grieves me that so much has gone wrong. I lament the tragic events of this past week, the hatred and violence that divides humanity and causes such suffering. I long for God to bless all the nations of the earth and put things right. I long for us to be restored to right relationship with God, to know that God adopts us as his children. I want God to be able to look upon us once more and say “this is very good.”
Many thousands of years after Abram, God did indeed choose one of Abram’s descendants to be the one through whom God would bless all the nations. We meet him in today’s gospel reading. He’s on a mission. He is healing people, and casting out demons, liberating people from the forces that oppress them. But that doesn’t seem to be enough for humanity. Despite his good works, Jesus is opposed and rejected. Some people come up to warn him, “Get away from here, for Herod the king wants to kill you.” It would be easy for Jesus to become frustrated, to give up on the mission, to turn aside.
How far will Jesus, the son of God, the one in whom we believe God to be fully present, how far is he willing to go to fulfill his mission to bring blessing to all the peoples of the earth, to restore us to right relationship with God, to show us that God looks upon us as his children, to remind us that God sees us as good. How far is he willing to go so that we would know all that to be true?
How far is God willing to go? He’s willing to go the distance that was promised in the covenant to Abraham. He will die, and be raised again, in order that God’s mission to bless the nations might be fulfilled and that gospel of blessing proclaimed.
There is determination, a courage and a defiance in the message Jesus sends to Herod, “Go and tell that jackal for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” The third day refers to Jesus’ upcoming death and resurrection, which he himself will proclaim as a new covenant. How far is Jesus willing to go to fulfill God’s promise to bless all the nations of the earth? He will go to Jerusalem, he will be put to death and on the third day he will rise again.
Homily Yr C Lent 2, March 17 2019, St. Albans
Readings: Gen 15.1-12,17-18; Ps 27; Phil 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-35