Kathryn Schifferdecker is an Old Testament Professor at St Paul Lutheran Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. She has a quite wonderful opening to her commentary on this passage and writes:
“The stars of a Serengeti night are enough to take your breath away. I had the privilege of going on safari in Tanzania several years ago.
One of my most vivid memories of that trip is of staring into the sky with my husband in the middle of the night, no electric light obscuring our view. The dark velvet sky was simply blanketed with brilliant stars from horizon to horizon. An astronomer friend of ours told us later that we were staring into the center of our own galaxy, and indeed, over our heads was a wide band of milky white punctuated by countless stars, a part of the sky so dense with stars that there was no visible space between them.
(Schifferdecker adds) I like to imagine that it is this kind of night sky that Abraham sees in our reading for today. Abraham (who is still called Abram in this chapter) is doubting God’s promise given to him back in chapter 12, the three-fold promise of land, blessing, and many descendants.
It is this last part of the promise that is especially difficult to believe. It is impossible to be the ancestor of a “great nation” if you don’t have even one child. And Abraham and Sarah have no children. They are advanced in years — Abraham is 75 years old when he is first called by God in chapter 12, and the intervening years haven’t made him any younger. And Sarah is no spring chicken either; plus, she is barren.
So, when the LORD says in this reading, “Do not be afraid, Abram,” one can’t blame the old man for being frustrated. “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? … You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir”.
This is, of course, a perfectly reasonable response to what appears to be a broken promise. After all, as Paul later puts it, Abraham at this point is “as good as dead”. He has left home, family, and land in response to God’s outrageous call and promise. He has come to a new, unfamiliar land and now, it appears, his lineage will die there with him. God’s promises have not held true.”
Now, I have not been to Tanzania’s Serengeti but I have been to the grassland that extends from there through Kenya where it is known as the Masai Mara. The days are wonderful as you in all the animals and vegetation on display but the nights are truly magical as you discover the stars as they were meant to be seen. If Schifferdecker is correct in thinking that this must have been the night sky that God showed Abram to illustrate how vast his descendants would be, then Abram must have at a loss for words. Certainly there were no words recorded at this point in our reading although we are told he believed God and for that Abram was deemed righteous.
Just image what it would feel like to be in total darkness and as you saw brilliant stars too numerous to count you realized that this same future was what God was offering to you. The magic though is not to be found in the stars but in the ability to trust God and to believe that you will play a significant part in what happens to the future of the world. Even today we do the same thing when we play with our grandchild and build tents, use flashlights, and pretend we can see forever. We use that same imagination when we set out to do something for the first time and to do something for the 1,000th time…every time we set out we have the possibility of making a difference. Who knew when you were first married where your journey would lead? Yet you believed in the journey itself. You believed that because of that journey life, the life of the community in which you live, and perhaps even the world, in some small way, would be a better place because you could see a horizon that was always there calling you forward.
We know that to be true even when driving a car. If we focus on the road immediately in front of the hood of the car then we risk hitting other vehicles ahead of us because our narrow focus causes us to be blind to what is ahead. By lifting our eyes we see down the road and recognize danger before it affects us—and the little bit of ground between the car and that longer view is still noticed by our eyes and we do not miss anything immediately in front of us either. Yet our focus needs to be further along the road both for our safety but more importantly for the safety of those around us. It can be terribly hard to lift our eyes from what we think might be the threat immediately in front of us and to believe that the longer focus promises us a better journey, a better life. Yet that is just what Abram and Sara were asked to do. Theirs was a long journey and in many ways it was a very successful journey but to their minds there was one thing that could trip them up and that was not having an heir who would inherit their wealth and land. They anticipated a toddler running around their tent but the fullness of the promise made by God was on the horizon not in their lap. Of course not everyone is able to have a child and that is something that is very close to their heart. At the same time not everyone chooses to have a child as well. In that day though the absence of an heir, and it would be a male heir, meant that a person did not have a future on that distant horizon…there would be no one with whom they could share their possessions and the promises they had received. They needed a child and God’s suggestion that Abram and Sara’s offspring would be more numerous the stars must have been mind boggling.
This story is not asking us to put on rose-coloured glasses so that everything in our world looks rosy and fine. There will be ups and downs, gains and losses, steps forward and steps back, but in the fullness of time it is possible for Abram, Sara, you and me to be part of God’s plan and to change the world. On Friday night we heard the tragic news of the death of the American Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Idolized by many in the USA, Bader Ginsburg, or RBG as she was known in later years, was born to Jewish parents in Brooklyn and became a lawyer, professor, district judge and eventually was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton. Almost everything she did with her life was something that women were generally not supposed to do. After graduating top of her class at Harvard Law School no law firm would hire here…a woman. Her career, supported by her amazing husband, always required having a longer view. She did so much for so many, women especially, in the US that the impact of her decisions, writing and advocacy has benefitted women around the world. Just imagine if she had seen the fact that no one would initially hire her as the final word for her career and her life. She was liberal, yes, and many of her Supreme Court writings were as the minority view not that of the majority but there are few women who have contributed so much to justice and equality for other women. She is living proof of what can happen, even though you are less than five feet tall, if you keep focussed on the distant horizon and believe, believe in your very depths, that between today and that horizon you can bring about change and leave this world a richer and more God-like place.
You and I know what it is like to have promises broken, to have our hopes dashed and our fears multiplied. We know how easy it is to allow the barrenness of this day to suggest the bleakness of our future. Present reality can be a real downer. The question for us is whether or not that is where our story ends. Maybe we need to tell God just how frustrated we are. Maybe we need to lift our eyes to the horizon perhaps even to the stars. At the same time we all know of promises kept, of hope restored, of fears released. We often speak of the “good old days” and the reality is that the good old days were often not that good at all. Yet somehow in the midst of struggling through those bad old days we came to recognize that there was an essential goodness in our lives that spoke more clearly than the badness that would destroy us. So we made it through the rough times of unfulfilled promises and now find ourselves claiming them as the good old days. That is why we yet have hope in the midst of each and every new challenge and disappointment. We know hope prevailed and we believe that hope will prevail again.
So it is that God promised Abram and Abram trusted God. There was no evidence to convince Abram otherwise…all he had was trust in God. It was more than enough for the story did not end staring up into a star-filled sky. The story continued and Abram and Sara do have spiritual descendants, in what are known Biblically as the children of Israel, too numerous to count and there are over 60 of us gathered here as heirs of that promise by God to Abraham. As Craig Koester has said, “In this story, the promise is not held captive to the human imagination or human pragmatism of Abram. God says: ‘See the stars!’ God has taken Abram out of himself and by pointing to the stars has helped Abram to understand that the promise is not limited by either Abram’s ability OR by Abram’s lifetime.” The promise goes beyond Abram but it remains a promise to Abram.
Our reading is but 6 verses in length, yet it is really the cornerstone of the continuing narrative of God journeying with God’s people. Abraham’s family is our family and these thousands of years later we are part of a family too numerous to count, but also part of a family that is not afraid to step outside ourselves, to re-capture the excitement of the bigger picture, and to know that we not only live the promise every day but that the promise is renewed every day as well. We live by those promises in faith and we are not afraid, for we live in God’s world.