Ancestor or Descendent? March 4, 2007
Delivered by Jim Eby at Summit Presbyterian Church Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
This is such a rich passage, and so appropriate as we use this Lenten period to examine our life style and our lives, our stewardship of gifts entrusted to us, and the depth of our discipleship. This passage invites us to judge ourselves by asking the question: “Do we act more like an ancestor, or more like a descendent?”
In the 18th century, Queen Anne elevated the Duke of Marlborough to peerage in recognition of his great service to the English crown on the field of battle. He was of lowly origin and the story is told that one of the attendants at court decided to make fun of him one day. He walked over to the Duke and said: “Your Grace, whose descendent are you?” Marlborough answered: “Sir, I am not a descendent, I am an ancestor.”
Abram had been promised, way back at the beginning of his journey with God, that God would make of him a great nation, that God would bless him and make his name great so he would be a blessing to all the families on the earth. At the age of 75, Abram began the journey from Haran to the place where God would lead. He left with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot and all their possessions and journeyed to the land of Canaan. And when he got there, he heard God promise, “To your descendants I will give this land.”
But there was a famine in the land, just as there was a famine of the descendants of Abram, and so they went to Egypt where there was at least food. But still no children. It’s awfully difficult to be an ancestor when there are no children. So Abram adopted the son of a slave.
But that wasn’t what God had in mind. One evening, in a vision, God appeared and reaffirmed the original promise that had been made. God said, “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” That was the beginning statement in the passage we just read.
We can identify with Abram’s quick response, can’t we? “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” You’ve promised me children, and I don’t have any yet. Now you promise me land, and the Canaanites are still living on it. It just doesn’t seem possible, God. My faith is stretched to the limit. I left my native land, my parents, my security. I have had to live in Egypt during a famine. I have traveled in obedience to your call and your promise. But time is running out. I’m not a young man any more. How can I be sure this will be mine, this promise of children and a home land? Lord, give me some proof – a sign of some kind. You have made a covenant with me, you have made a promise that I have not earned and do not deserve. But how can I be sure that my hope in your promise is not just wishful thinking?”
Abram had the promise, the covenant, but he needed something more, some physical sign. Even the parent of our faith faltered, at times, just as we do. And God, with a love that would not let Abram go any more than God will let us go, God gave Abram that experience, that vision of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch which represented God and passed between the split carcasses of the cow and the goat and the ram. In those days, when a covenant was made between two people, they would kill an animal and split it in two, stand between the two haves and make their vows to each other. The symbolism, the imagery was clear. It communicated the promise, “If I do not keep covenant, if I do not fulfill the vows I have made with you, may I be split open dead, destroyed, like the remains of this animal.”
It seems a bit gruesome, doesn’t it? But then you have to admit that the imagery is impressive. It makes a real impact.
Did you pick up the unusual thing about Abram’s vision? Usually both parties of the covenant walked between the pieces of the slaughtered animal, binding themselves to faithfulness to each other. But in Abram’s vision, only God passed between the pieces. Only God took that oath of faithfulness. And the covenant was offered to Abram out of God’s love, out of God’s caring – and all Abram had to do was accept it, use it, and live in the love, in the peace, the shalom that God intended. Out of infinite love, God answered Abram’s question: “...how can I know these promises of children and land will be mine?”
God comes down to walk on the earth with Abram, and reveals the divine nature to Abram. “You want to know who I am? I am God who keeps promises and whose promises are guaranteed!” What God announces to Abram, God does. And in that smoky, primitive ritual that takes place in a vision, God declares: “I am the God of covenant. I am the faithful God.”
And Abram became an ancestor. He had descendants that began with Ishmael and Isaac, and continue down to this very day, even to the next child we baptize, who will be declared to be child of the covenant, the covenant made with Abram which God continues to keep to this very day. When we participate in the sacrament of baptism, when we remember our own baptism, we hear the covenant promise of God, “I will be your God; you will be my people. You are my beloved.”
That’s the gospel. That’s the good news. God keeps covenant, even when it seems impossible. And part of the wonder is that we don’t have to understand how God will accomplish it. But we do have to accept that gospel statement and move on in the pilgrimage of the descendants of Abraham, a pilgrimage that is headed for the promised land, for the kingdom coming. And we have to allow ourselves to be claimed and named in spite of ourselves.
I don’t know about you – but that’s hard for me to deal with sometimes. I want to be an ancestor, not a descendent. I want to be in control of my life. I want to seek my life, not lose it. I want it to be rational and definable and measurable. I want an answer to my question: “...how can I know it will be mine? This promise of a kingdom coming – this abundant life that is not dependent on material acquisitions?”
And God comes in answer to our question. God comes in the vision which binds us together and binds us to God. God comes inviting us to live as children of God, inviting us to live as disciples, as students of our Lord and Savior. And in that living, in that obedient response to God’s call to live a life of love, we find the answer to our questions. And lo and behold, we become more than descendants. We, like the Duke of Marlborough, do become ancestors as well.
What kind of ancestor will you be? I have a challenge for you. This week, remember the words that are spoken just after the water is placed on the head of the person baptized: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called Children of God. And we are!”
Remember those words as you meet other children of God. And treat each of them as valuable and valued gifts God has given you. For they are part of God’s answer to your question: “...how can I know it will be mine?”
God of Abraham and Sarah, help us to be honest in our doubts and searching with our questions. Help us search for the answers you provide. Help us hear and see and know your love and then help us respond in faithfulness. In the name of our risen Lord we ask it. Amen.