Year C Lent 2
Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18
Honesty and Trust
If someone came to the Rectory telling me that they hear the voice of God, I must admit that I would think the worst. Just as if someone approached you telling you that they had conversations with the almighty then we might feel a little disturbed. This is not the kind of person we want to sit next to on the bus….
BUT - imagine what it would be like if we could talk to God freely and hear his voice! Imagine how it would be if we shared such an intimate relationship with God that we were able to sit and chat and be chatted to in return.
That’s the kind of relationship that we are told Abram (he’s not yet Abraham in the passage we heard this morning, his change of name by divine deed poll comes later on) had with God. It’s almost chatty, and at times is quite forthright and perhaps even a little bit cheeky. If we know the story of Sodom and Gomorra we would know that Abram negotiated with God that the Lord would spare the city if a certain number of righteous people could be found – and Abraham pushes his luck – and he knocks God down, we can imagine with a bit of a glint in his eye, and with God responding with a kind of humorous exasperation – to one righteous man.
That is not to say that Abraham forgets his place: when God seems to ask for the sacrifice of Isaac, on whom all the fulfilment of God’s promises hangs, Abraham prepares the altar. But the ability to whinge at God, or even to question God, is one that Christian piety has rather bred out of us. And this is the relationship that Abram had with God – a freedom, and openness, a relaxed attitude. It didn’t distract from the worship, the awe and the respect he showed to God, but there was an ease about it that is inspiring and wonderful.
And this relationship is made possible by Abram’s honesty, by the fact that when God promises a reward to Abram in a vision Abram doesn’t grovel, he doesn’t worship, he doesn’t fall down – he responds to God with complete candour. “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue to be childless…”
Abram tells God what really matters – he doesn’t beat around the bush (that doesn’t come until Moses!). Abram let’s God know his deepest longing – no fluff, no diversions, straight to the point. I don’t know about you but when I pray I sometimes fall into the trap of ‘O Lord you are so great and wonderful, and if you could just do this or this…’ Worship becomes a way of twisting God’s arm. Sometimes prayer becomes a shopping list, or a bargaining session – well Lord if you’ll just do this then I promise I will do this, and if you’ll just do this then I will etc etc’;
And God responds to Abram’s honesty by making a promise, that if Abram will trust then this deepest desire will be fulfilled – more than that, Abram’s descendents will be as numerous as the stars in the sky… And Abrams’ response – this is perhaps the most amazing part of the story – verse 6 of Chapter 15 of Genesis ‘…he believed the Lord: and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.’ The enormous compassion of God in responding to what Abram desperately wants is matched only by Abram’s trust that God will deliver it. God sees his trust and “reckons it to him as righteousness”
This relationship is one of mutual trust, one of giving, of listening, of responding. And to show just how solemn this trust is we have a ritual that was considered one of the most binding and important symbols of a contract that was possible in those days. By cutting animals in half and walking between them a person was saying that they would keep their half of a contract, they would be bound to their promise, or allow themselves to be slaughtered like the animals they walked between.
And God passes through these carcasses in the form of a flaming torch and a smoking fire pot. God is the one who makes this binding agreement, to give Abram the land which was to become Israel. God responds to Abram’s trust and to his faith and to his honesty by piling on love, by graciously giving to Abram all he could long for.
This is one of the Covenants that God makes with his people throughout scripture. And covenants or Testaments as some old translations call them, are solemn and binding agreements of trust and loyalty.
We don’t use the term covenant very often these days – and the power of the word has become dimmed. We cannot, however, overestimate the power of the seriousness of God’s covenants with human beings though – in fact, as you may have noticed the Christian Bible is divided into two broad ‘Covenants’ – the Old Testament and the New. As Christians we believe that God has made a promise to us – a promise of love and care – His covenant with humanity.
A little while ago I went away with a couple of members of the Bourn congregation to Belfast, we went to a Conference about worship – within it we were reminded that the first covenant (which is summed up in the Jewish faith) was a two way covenant – that in return for God’s blessing, human beings were to act in a way that returned God’s faithfulness, which was epitomised by the law. Of course, we are told in the writings of Paul and much of what Jesus says, that this law was too difficult to keep and was instead fulfilled and superceeded by Christ – when through the breaking of his body shedding of his blood he brought in a New Covenant. This Covenant was and is a one way covenant, one in which God offers forgiveness freely and openly through the death of Christ, and all we need to is to accept it. There are no conditions upon this promise, it is freely given and freely to be received. The New Covenant is one of grace and mercy and love and forgiveness and blessing – promised by God to any who ask. We need to be honest about our own sin and ask God’s forgiveness, that’s it.
But that honesty is the basis for a relationship of trust with God. If we trust God enough to confess our own sinfulness and lack of faith God will respond to that trust. Apparently, this willingness on the part of God to accept our trust in him as the equivalent of actual goodness is an abiding characteristic of God. We see it over and over again, not least in Jesus’ response to the penitent thief on the cross.
So we have these themes of trust and of honesty. In our relationship with God one begets the other. If we will be open with God then God can be open with us. God will not turn his back on us; he will always give us the benefit of the doubt, no matter how inadequate our trust feels.
And God will respond – we may not hear his voice, or see visions, or feel led to cut up animals – but our faith will grown and our closeness to God and to other Christians will grow. And if we learn to listen we will hear the voice of God – through the Bible, in the traditions of the Church, through the teaching and words of fellow Christians, and sometimes in the blinding insight that seems to come from out of nowhere. God will speak to us in so many little ways – and as we grow in faith we will learn to hear him more and more.
And so let’s begin by being honest with God about what we long for, and by being honest about our lack of faith and our need for God’s help. Just as God does not laugh at Abram’s longing for an heir, so he does not laugh at our needs and desires. But their fulfilment will be his doing, not ours. Abram has the extraordinary and terrifying privilege of seeing the signs of God as he commits himself to his promise.
Now if we ask if God is still willing to keep his promises to us, we only have to remember that we have seen the Son of God allow himself to be slaughtered like Abram’s animals to fulfil that promise. May we all learn to trust in that promise more and more.