Sunday, March 13, 2016
Text: Genesis 15:1-18
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to drive at night. Even before my eyesight began any significant aging, I was not crazy about driving after the sun disappeared. Maybe it’s related to all those weary trips of my childhood when my father would drive late into the night to avoid the searing heat of the August days as we drove from southern California to Louisiana. Maybe it’s just that I don’t really enjoy the challenge of trying to find my way in the dark, especially when piloting a powerful machine along an unfamiliar and unlit highway.
The irony is that I may be a better driver after dark because I am more alert. Since I am less of sure of what is going on around me, I tend to pay more careful attention to conditions and surroundings. My eyes may get tired more quickly because I am exercising them to a fuller capacity, trying to see in the dark. It is a stressful situation, so I am always happy to come to my stopping place to await the morning’s light.
As we have been learning in this Lenten journey, darkness has its assets as well as its liabilities. It will not do to label the darkness bad and the light good. The very fact that darkness invites a heightened awareness and more careful reading of our surroundings is a valuable thing. There are lessons to be learned in the dark, lessons that may save our lives, literally as well as spiritually. There are also lessons that might help us lessen the load for others. Traveling in the dark can be a journey inward but it may also be a journey outward, one we share with others along the way.
Today’s Song of Praise tells us that “Some have fled from terror by night, hiding from bullets by day.” For them, darkness provides life-saving shelter. I had a different hymn in mind for today, but I kept thinking about the reality of refugees, those who leave home and everything they hold dear in hopes of finding a better life or of just saving their lives. I was thinking of this partly because some of the America for Christ offering goes to support American Baptist Immigration and Refugee Services. And I also remembered that we have some in our congregation who know first-hand what seeking refuge is like. Talk about traveling in the dark – to be uprooted and flee to God only knows what future, if any, has to be terrifying at the same time it may be fueled by hope.
On the other hand, Joan Chittister observes that “Darkness is a very spiritual thing.” She says, “Darkness, I have discovered, is the way we come to see. It creates the depressions that, once faced, teach us to trust. It gives us the sensitivity it takes to understand the depth of the pain in others. It seeds in us the humility it takes to learn to live gently with the rest of the universe. It opens us to new possibilities within ourselves” (Joan Chittister, “A Walk into the Dark,” 2-22-2016, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Does this ring true for you? Can you think of times when darkness has been your way to see? A place in which you’ve learned to trust? A time when you have cultivated compassion? A lesson you’ve learned about living? An opening to new possibilities? A life-saving opportunity?
There are many aspects of today’s text which we might explore, but I’m guessing our guides have chosen it because of what it teaches us about traveling in the dark. Abram here is confronted with both literal and metaphorical darkness. Neither is easily handled.
In the preceding chapter of Genesis, in a bit of convoluted military history, Abram, now a wealthy, powerful patriarch has won a great victory over an alliance of kingdoms that have conquered some other city-states and captured his nephew, Lot, with all his wealth. In an interesting footnote, the text says Abram’s successful military strategy is to divide his forces and attack the enemy under the cover of darkness – “He divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and routed them…” (Genesis 14:15). Darkness is their friend.
After the battle, when it comes time to divide up the spoils, the king of Sodom urges Abram to return his subjects to him but to keep all the goods. Abram refuses. He tells the king, “I have sworn to The Holy One, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, that I would not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, so that you might not say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ I will take nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me…” (Genesis 14:22-24).
Fresh from his victory and his righteous refusal of plunder, Abram finds himself alone before God. “Do not be afraid, Abram…” We hear the classic words, uttered so often when a human encounters the holy, even in a vision. “Do not be afraid.” That is so easy for the Holy One to say and so hard for humans to live into when face-to- face with the living God. It is an inherently frightening thing to encounter God, even when the word comes in a still small, voice. For the truth is that whenever we allow ourselves to explore deeply the realm of the holy, we are in unfamiliar territory. Holy ground is likely to be shaky ground for us. The invitation not to be afraid will increase anxiety at the same time it reassures. Who can explain such a mysterious paradox?
It is time for God and Abram to talk. Has Abram summoned God or has God come unbidden? The text doesn’t tell us, but the word is clear – “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Obviously there is a link to the events of the previous chapter. Abram was right to refuse plunder. God will take care of him, provide all that he needs. Abram believes God, but…there is this business of the heir. How can Abram be patriarch of a great people and inhabit the land of promise without an heir? The family tree will perish unless it bears some fruit, and, frankly, Abram and Sarai are beyond their prime, far beyond.
Haltingly, traveling in the dark, Abram decides to take God on. It is a measure of his great faith, his trust in God to keep God’s word, that emboldens him to question just when and how this promise will be fulfilled. God takes the old man outdoors to show him the midnight sky. “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them…So shall your descendants be.” Well, it’s a beautiful, powerful image. It moves Abram deeply but it doesn’t really answer his question. He is left to travel in the darkness. In fact, the text tells us that as he sleeps “deep and terrifying darkness” descends upon him. He really is in unfamiliar territory, questioning the Creator. This intimacy with God is not an easy place to find one’s self. Though driven by love, Aslan is no tame lion. And this fierce God is about to do a remarkable thing.
In the story God enacts an ancient ritual of covenant. In the original version of the ritual, the two parties entering into covenant would begin at opposite ends of a path between the split carcasses, walking toward each other, meeting in the middle and continuing to the other end as a means of sealing the covenant between them. The pledge they made was that they would be cut in half, like the sacrificial animals, if they failed to keep the covenant. But what is remarkable in this story is that it is God alone, in the form of the smoking pot and flaming torch, who walks the path, sealing the covenant.
In the end, it is not really a covenant that is created. God uses the ritual to show Abram how serious God is about keeping what God’s promises. God’s action is a gift of grace. God owes Abram nothing but God has said…and God will keep God’s word. In the end, still traveling in the dark, Abram accepts God’s word and comes to trust the promise. It is not a direct answer to his question and it is enough.
Traveling in the dark we find fear and blessing, terror and salvation. Richard Rohr writes, “God teaches the soul most profoundly through darkness–and not just light! We only need enough light to be able to trust the darkness. Trials and darkness teach us how to trust in a very practical way that a good God is guiding us. I don’t need to be perfectly certain before I take the next step. Now I can trust that even my mistakes will be used in my favor, if I allow them to be” (Richard Rohr, “Order, Disorder, Reorder,” 2-23-2016, cac.org).
So, here is the final word for today. God comes to Abram directly, according to the text. However, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes God needs us to act with God as agents of faith, hope and love. Sometimes God needs us to be trustworthy and keep promises of compassion and care on God’s behalf. Sometimes we must learn to walk in the darkness for ourselves so that we might also travel in the dark with others in need of a “friendly face,” a helping hand. Since we have each been a stranger, have had to find our way when the way was not clear, have had to learn to put our trust in the Holy One, we can also try to understand what it is like for others. There may be times when we feel we must travel the dark hills alone. Still, God says, “Do not be afraid, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” And, if it is so for us, is this not good news we can share, indeed live out, with others who also travel in the dark? Traveling in the dark is a journey inward and a journey outward.
“I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone” (Thomas Merton).