After all of these things, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.
The nature of reading the great stories of the scriptures, especially the big, epic tales of the Old Testament, in public worship is that we inevitably telescope them; we omit big chunks, and focus in on some of the vignettes.
But these famous words, in Genesis 15, come at the end of a long story.
Abram has been called by God – at the start of Genesis 12
“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
A call, to follow, to go, not knowing where it would lead, and two promised – one, that he would be the father of a great nation, and two, that through him all of the families of the earth would be blessed.
So he has set out; he’s accumulated great wealth, many servants, many animals. He’s fled from famine into Egypt, where he tricked the Pharaoh and became even more wealthy; he’s been victorious in a great battle to reclaim his nephew Lot from his captors.
He has been, in every imaginable respect, a spectacular success; a dominate figure of his age, wealthy, respected, victorious.
And after all of these things, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision.
As far as we can tell, this was just the third time in his life that Abram had heard God speak. A call, long ago, that he had obeyed and followed; a promise, when he first looked out over the land of Canaan that his descendants would possess the land, and now, near the end of his life, one more conversation.
Which, if I might digress just for a moment, is one of the dangers of the way that we just read selected snippets of the story. A question that is often asked – I often get it from the kids in scripture class, and I’m sure all of us have asked it at some point – is how come God seemed to speak to people so much in the past, but we, mostly, don’t have the same experience?
But the truth is that God being represented as clearly speaking to an individual is very much the exception in the Old testament scripture. A few individuals; Moses, Abraham, and the Prophets; and even for them, far from all the time. And while the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was that we, the community of faith, will hear the guidance of God, still the gift of prophecy, of speaking the words of God, is singled out as the exception. Most people’s experience of hearing God is far more nuanced, far more ambiguous than that.
Even a great saint (and I can use the word in its Catholic sense now as well) like Mother Theresa, described her experience of God’s call in terms of a single command to go and serve, followed by forty years of silence.
We are consistently encouraged in the scriptures to pray and to seek God’s guidance and wisdom; but nowhere are we encouraged to wait for or expect a vision or voice from heaven. They happen, there is no doubt; but they are the exception in contrast to the life lived in faithfulness to what we have seen and heard.
But to come back to Abram: he hears God here in a vision, saying something really very odd:
“Don’t be afraid, Abram… your reward will be very great”
“Don’t be afraid….” That’s an odd way to start, because Abram has just won a great victory, and is praised by all around him; really not a man in a situation to be afraid. And as for a great reward, why, Abram already has everything that the world can offer him, wealth far beyond his needs.
He has everything except for the one thing that is now impossible; a child to leave it all to. And so his reply to God is bitter.
“What can you give me? You have failed to give me a child; a slave, the son of my wife’s maidservant, will be my heir.” Abram and Sarai are too old to have children; they know it; the one thing they really want is now beyond them. A career of success, wealth, victory, is meaningless; in Abram’s eyes his whole life is a tragedy, not a triumph.
I’m guessing that most of us recognise that emotion, that sense of existential crisis, that nagging feeling that for all we have, all the material, all the relationships, all the influence, there is some deep question about what it all means and whether it is all worth anything in the end. And I’m sure that sometimes all of us have found in that angst a bitterness towards God, as if we want to cry out – or perhaps do cry out – “all this is all very well, but it’s not the point”
I believe that it is for all of us who have ever felt that way, that God replies to Abram, to say “No. You see only what you see, you know only what you know. You look at all you have gained in your life and see nothing, no meaning, no future: but I remember my promise to you. I see, I know, more.”
Notice that there is no anger in God’s reply, no criticism of Abram’s bitterness, Abram’s sadness; God does not berate him for lack of faith, for all that Abram says, and all that Abram sees, is true. No, God does not blame Abram for having lost his sense of the promise that God had made so long ago – after all, Abram has actually gone out of his way to make it possible for the letter of God’s promise to be kept, through Ishmael, son of Abraham by Hagar. Abraham has made sense of God’s promise, the only possible sense he could make, even though it is a sense that brings him no joy.
God does not blame Abram – God repeats the promise. “Count the stars, if you can. So will your descendants be.”
And in an act of faith as great as that of leaving Ur so many years before, Abram believes God. And it was reckoned to him as righteousness. The choice of belief – the decision to trust in the promise of God, a promise given in the midst of angst, was counted as an act of righteousness.
God’s first call and promise had been given many years before; perhaps it had faded, perhaps Abram had come to wonder what it all meant. He’d been through a lot in his life, good and bad, but wondered, in the end, what it meant, what his memory of God’s promise really added up to. So like us.
But in his moment of questioning, his existential crisis, he makes a choice. He will believe the God he remembers, the God who he feels draw close to him in a vision, the God who made promises that seem impossible.
He makes the choice to believe. And not only is that reckoned as faith, counted as righteousness, but he will also be fortunate enough to see it become truth.
We are here because of that act of faith. Let’s learn from it.