Genesis 15:1-12; Luke 13:31-35
March 6, 2016
Listen to this quote and think about who might have written it and when. “Our earth is degenerate in the latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common. Children no longer obey their parents. Everyone wants to write a book, and the end of the world is evidently approaching.” Does this sound like some Christian doomsday prophecy preachers? Every few years another one writes a book. Or maybe a commentary on our current election cycle. We know that Socrates and others made similar observations about the impending collapse of Greek and Roman culture over 2,000 years ago. This was quoted from an Assyrian clay tablet dated to 2800 BCE, 4800 years ago – closer to Abraham than to us. (Chicago Tribune December 9, 2012 quoted by Christian Century, January 9, 2013, p. 9)
Rather than dismissing our present anxieties by comparing them to ancient anxieties, I want to ask, how can we keep believing God has a redemptive plan when generation after generation sees so much doom?
Whom do you trust when the dark spaces in life seem interminable?
What do you hear when you listen for God in the dark, interminable spaces of life? Many spiritual giants through the generations have faced what St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the soul. I expect some of you have had experiences you think of in the same way.
When you heard the story in Genesis 15, did you think, “That’s strange?” At that time, when two nomadic chieftains made a treaty, they each brought an animal which they cut in two and holding bloody hands walked between the halves of the animals before offering half of each animal as a sacrifice to each of their patron gods. When our English translations of the Hebrew Scriptures say “made a covenant,” the literal translation would usually be “cut a covenant.”
In the Bible fire and smoke are often signs of God’s presence. Here the smoking fire pot and flaming torch that pass between the halves of the animals signify that God alone is responsible for keeping the covenant with Abram.
Though Abram does nothing to show he was responsible for the covenant, verse 6 says, “He believed the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” This may be the most important single line in the entire Bible.
About 1400 years after Abram, the prophet Habakkuk (2:4) made it the core of God’s expectations of all people, “The righteous will live by their faith.” The New Testament traces the Gospel to this seed in Romans 1:17; 4:3; Galatians 3:6,11; Hebrews 10:38; James 2:23.
The usual English translations say Abram “believed the Lord.” We tend to use “believe” to mean agreeing that something is true. So we speak of believing in God as meaning we believe God is real. But Genesis makes an entirely different point that could probably be better translated “Abram trusted the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
Abram trusted God’s covenant promise of descendants and land, even though both seemed impossible. Abram and Sari were well beyond childbearing years. They were landless nomads among hostile people who were not about to give them any land. The rest of Genesis records how Abram and his immediate descendants repeatedly do things that seem to interfere with the covenant, but God fulfills it anyway with Isaac’s birth, and five centuries later Joshua led Israel into the Promised Land.
God reminded Abram that God brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give him the land where he was then an alien (v. 7). He had to live in the space between Ur and Canaan. The Ten Commandments open (Exodus 20:2) with God reminding Israel that God had brought them out of Egypt and slavery to bring them into the Promised Land and freedom. For 40 years in the wilderness they lived in the space between Egypt and Canaan, between slavery and freedom.
Hebrews 11:9-11 explains that Abraham could live in this in between space by looking forward to a city with foundations whose architect and builder is God.
During Lent we follow Jesus in the space between his ministry in Galilee and his crucifixion in Jerusalem. Luke 13:31-35 comes as Jesus had been going through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”32He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
We compare a destructive person in charge of something vulnerable to a fox in the hen house. Jesus gives the fox and the hen a surprising, distinctly Hebrew twist. To call someone a fox was not so much about their cunning but a contemptuous way of saying they were unimportant and insignificant. So Jesus was saying that Herod, whose interest was immediate power was not significant enough to keep him from his long-term mission in Jerusalem.
Then Jesus compared himself to a hen gathering her brood to protect them, but the chicks of Jerusalem insisted on exposing themselves to danger. Like prophets before him, Jesus did not waver from going to Jerusalem and the cross. What seemed like defeat was the path to ultimate victory. Herod the fox lost, and Jesus the hen won.
Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem (vv. 34-35) was inner anguished musing, not a speech to an audience. He quoted Psalm 118:26, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” connecting Israel’s ancient hope with his Triumphal Entry and his redemptive passion. In this space with Jesus, God’s redemptive plan for all humanity was suspended between anticipation and fulfillment.
What do we hear when we listen for God in the interminable, dark spaces of life?
God says, “Trust me, however dark or long the space.”
Some time ago I watched a program on Public TV about Chinese Jade. One piece was about 4-5 feet high and 2-3 feet in diameter. It was intricately carved with scenes of people in nature in elegant details that were visible not only on the outside but through a latticework of passages and windows that went all the way through. The history of this piece was that when it was found the Emperor commissioned the premiere jade carver in China to create a work suitable for the Imperial Palace. The carver began his work, and when his son was old enough he taught him not only jade carving but also the design for this special piece. The jade carver and his son also taught his grandson. Eventually the original jade carver died, but his son and grandson passed both the skills and vision for this very special piece of jade to his great-grandson. Shortly before the original jade carver’s grandson died, he and the great-grandson presented the finished carving to the great-grandson of the Emperor who had commissioned the work. He received it with great pomp and gratitude, exclaiming, “This is exactly what we in the Palace have been expecting for four generations!”