Unfulfilled Promises and the Righteousness of God

A sermon on Genesis 15. This is the end result of my Grief Lectionary post for week 2 of this year’s Narrative Lectionary, now published at Disrupt Worship Project. You can read the commentary here, but it’s not necessary for understanding what follows.

 I want you to think, if you can, way back to New Year’s Day 2020. I know, it seems like 8 million years ago. What did you hope for? What promises did you think would be fulfilled by God and the people in your life this year? What long held dreams did you think would become reality this year?

For my part, I had modest hopes, still in the first year of widowhood, but I hoped for less grief this year than last, a weekend away with friends and without children, a trip or maybe even two to Alaska to see my family.

You can easily guess how those hopes panned out, and I’m guessing it’s same for your hopes and dreams. Almost no promises have been fulfilled this year, even to ourselves. Because of that, the promises of God can also feel distant and hard to believe.

Well today’s scripture story is here to remind you that if you struggle with grief from hopes and promises unfulfilled, you are in good company with our spiritual ancestors. If you have trouble believing in the faithfulness of God, you have role models for that trouble in Abram and Sarai. 

In chapter 12 of Genesis, they are given a covenant promise by their God, Go from your home, God tells them, the place and the people you have always known, and I will give you a new land, which will be filled with a host of descendants. Even though you are already old, you will be the parents of many. Believing their God, Abram and Sarai set out on this unknown journey with hopes of children and a new home.

Yet, when we meet them three chapters and however many years after God called them out of their comfort and away from their family home, a grief has settled over them. It shows privately in Abram’s anger and cynicism, when he talks to his God. And worse, it shows publicly in the couple’s continued infertility. The serpent’s question from last week’s text must have echoed in Abram and Sarai’s hearts year by year as they remain childless. “Did God really say…?”

Perhaps you are someone who understands this particular grief, having had your own struggles with fertility. You are part of a long lineage of those who have prayed for their own miracle births, maybe even trusted that children were part of God’s intention for them, and those prayers and promises remain unfulfilled .

I’m so glad that the Narrative Lectionary gives us this text as the one for the Abraham story, because it allows us to pause in the hardest part of Abram and Sarai’s journey, and not rush too quickly to the fulfillment. We can push back against God’s consistent refrain, Do not be afraid. We can lament with Abram the unfulfilled promises of our lives, telling God this is not how we thought our lives would turn out, that this is not what we thought God promised us. 

We can notice that God does not rebuke Abraham’s seeming lack of faith or his sorrow at still being childless. God does not say to his follower, “Oh you of little faith” as Jesus sometimes said to his. Instead God listens with compassion, and clarifies the promise already made. “Your very own son shall be your heir.”

But God seems to know that just proclaiming this promise will not be enough for his doubting friend. So, God calls Abram forth again, this time from the confines of his tent to look at the wide and sparkling sky above him. “Look toward heaven and number the stars, if you are able” God says. I imagine Abram gives God a look at that point, and God gestures again toward the sky. “Go ahead, count them. I’ll wait”. 

When he eventually loses track and gives up counting, God renews the promise a second time. “So shall your descendants be.” God gives Abram a visual assist for keeping the faith. I like to imagine that the next time Abram was doubting God’s promise, worrying himself over having no heir late into the night, that he would step outside his tent walls and remember this moment. Perhaps it became a regular ritual for Abram and his wife as they waited the long years before Isaac’s birth. Perhaps they would call to each other as God has called to them that night, “step outside and look at the sky”. Perhaps they would say that sacred promise aloud to one another as they star-gazed: “So shall our descendants be.”

What rituals might we have to guide us through our dark nights of doubting God’s promises? What refrains can we repeat to each other to renew our faith when the waiting gets long?

One of those rituals is certainly communion, as we hear Jesus’ promises week after week of a new covenant, sealed by his own body and blood. “This is for you” we tell each other, every time we commune. We pronounce the blessing regularly over our children using their names, “Child of God, you are marked with the sign of the cross and sealed with the Holy Spirit forever.”

We proclaim each week when we bless you that God’s face is shining on you, whether you can feel it in the moment or not, that God’s favor rests upon you, that God’s peace has settled over you. 

What else do you need? I invite you to take time to talk to God about what you need and what you feel this week. As God did for Abram, God opens space for our grief over unfulfilled promises. God holds Their tongue as Abram and we express our despair, our anger and our doubt. And when we have nothing left to say, God speaks the promise again. 

The text calls the renewal of Abram’s faith in this moment righteousness, but it is unclear whether the righteousness is Abram’s or God’s. I like to think it’s the latter. “Abram believed the LORD, and Abram reckoned it to Them as righteousness.” It is righteousness not only that we believe God when They promise, but it is righteousness that God holds and honors Abram’s grief and anger, and gives him a new sign, a new tool to increase his faith. A right relationship with God allows for our doubt, our anger, and our grief, expressed to a God who meets us with compassion and gives what we need to believe again. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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