The Lord brought Abraham outside and said, “Look toward the heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then God said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And Abraham believed the Lord.
When Lauren and I first moved here, we spent our first couple of nights out on the roads, exploring. We needed to find our way around this unknown town. So away we went, taking different roads, this way and that, just to see where we would end up. Along the way, we discovered wonderful things – like how beautiful the Owatonna Power Plant sign is against the summer sky and how it only takes about 3 minutes or so to get from our house all the way over to Blast Ice Cream. We also discovered strange things like how the fairgrounds seem to the Bermuda Triangle of Owatonna. No matter which way you turn, it always seems like you are entering the fairgrounds and you can never find a way out.
But one of our greatest discoveries was way out East on Rose street. If you drive out far enough, eventually you will leave behind all of the trees and houses and suddenly the sky opens up like a huge midnight blue canvas. And scattered across it as far and as deep as the eye can see is nothing but stars. We had forgotten what it was like to see a blanket of stars dancing up above you. There is something simply stunning about a diamond-studded sky in the middle of the open fields.
It was that very same image –a tapestry of stars – that God used to make a promise to Abraham so many years ago. Years earlier, God had come to Abraham and Sarah at the ripe and fertile ages of 75 and 65 to inform them that their long-awaited dreams were coming true – they would soon be parents and they would have their very own land on which to live.
The problem is it didn’t happen for Abraham and Sarah. Month after month, year after year, and they were still childless. Imagine the pain; imagine the heartbreak. Imagine how furious they would be with God for getting their hopes up like that. No wonder Abraham does not hesitate to confront God when God shows up again in our text for today. “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless.” These are bold words to take up with the Lord, but God doesn’t seem phased by them. God doesn’t even get angry at Abraham for being so angry at God. Instead, God simply takes the opportunity to re-promise to Abraham that he will have both descendants and land.
The Lord takes Abraham by the hand and leads him outside and simply says, “Look up. Count the stars. If you can. As many stars in the sky, so shall your descendants be.” And then, the story says, Abraham believed. Just like that. One field trip to the backyard and old-man Abraham believed God’s promises again.
It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Believing. God takes Abraham outside, points his eyes to the sky and suddenly Abraham is a believer? But is it really that easy?
Whenever I hear people talking about having faith and believing in God, it always sounds like a simple question with a simple answer: Either you believe in God or you don’t. Either you have faith or you don’t. It always sounds so decisive and certain. To say you believe in God sounds like you have to be certain about God. One of our confirmation students often asks, “How can I believe in God when I have never seen God?” How can I be certain?
And that question of faith: do you believe or not? can seem so threatening, can’t it? As Protestants, we are pretty good at using that word believe to hold power over people. It never ceases to amaze me at how often I will hear someone say, “God love is free, unconditional, it is a gift…..as long as you believe.” Well now, wait a minute. Suddenly that free gift doesn’t sound so free. In fact, it sounds like a lot of work. Because believing can be so hard some days.
It’s like that time Lauren and I received a notice in the mail telling us that we had won two free plane tickets to anywhere in the world. All we had to do is show up at the company’s office around 2pm on a Friday and sit in on a presentation. Naturally, it was a time-share company that proceeded to press us to buy and invest in their time-share. Suddenly, those free tickets weren’t so free.
As long as you believe, people say. God’s love is free, and unconditional as long as you believe. So, just believe. Just accept it. It’s as simple as that.
But faith is so much more complicated than that. Some days, I believe in God and Jesus the Christ so much, just about everything moves me to tears. Other days, I struggle to believe in myself, let alone God, and I just want to stay in bed. It’s hard to believe in God, isn’t it?
If we read a little further in our text, we’ll see that it was hard for Abraham too, even after confessing his belief in God and God’s promises. In Abraham’s very next breath, he is back interrogating God again. Doubting and wondering yet again about whether any of these promises are really true. “O Lord, how will I know that I really will possess this land that you promise me?” Abraham asks.
Abraham believed but the doubt returns. It seems that’s how faith is. Solid one minute; then like quick sand the next. One moment you feel strong and confident in your faith. The next, the questions and doubts weigh heavy on your shoulders.
Which makes me think that this word believe has become distorted over the years. At least in the world of faith and religion. Every week, we stand up and confess our faith in the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed. The word Creed comes from the latin word Credo – which means to believe. Yet, I know people, faithful, God-believing Christians who cross their fingers during certain parts of the creed. Why? Because they just can’t in good conscious say that they believe Jesus was born of a virgin. Or that he rose from the dead. In fact, I myself, in the past, have been lead to not say certain parts of the Creed because I just couldn’t say that I truly believed them. They didn’t make sense in my head. I couldn’t be certain they were true. They didn’t seem rational.
And that is where the problem lies. Since when did believing in something mean certainty? When did it mean knowing something to be absolutely true in your head? You see, to believe something isn’t to know for certain. It’s to trust it. Even when there is no evidence to prove it. That word Creed, Credo, is, as I said, usually translated to believe, but it can also mean to give one’s heart to. That is to say, I give my heart to this when my head can’t make any sense of it. I like that translation much better – I give my heart to God the Father, almighty Creator of heaven and earth. I give my heart to Jesus Christ. And I give my heart to the Holy Spirit.
To believe in something, to give your heart to something does not mean you can’t have doubts about it. In fact, faith and doubt go hand in hand, I think. A life of faith will produce questions of doubt. And questions of doubt will help produce a life of faith. Faith is not something you get once and then have forever. It is fluid and ever evolving. It changes throughout one’s life. Which is why we say the creed together and not individually. So that when one of us can’t believe part of it, someone else can and says it for us, believing it for us until we can believe it ourselves. Together, we say the Creeds for the littlest one’s among us, like Brady, one of the newest stars to appear in Abraham’s eye, until they can give their hearts to it themselves.
Abraham gave his heart to God, but he still had many questions. And God kept answering them by restating his promise to Abraham, over and over again, in different ways – you will have descendants and you will have land. At the end of the text, God responds to Abraham most recent question through a covenant ceremony. It is a ceremony that says, “If I don’t keep my promise, then let me be like these animals. Cut in half.” It is the ancient version of “Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.” But the one who makes the promises was not Abraham. It was God, symbolized by a smoking pot and a flaming torch. God makes the promises to Abraham without requiring anything from Abraham in return. God crossed God’s heart and hoped to die if God did not keep these promises to Abraham. These promises of offspring and land. As it turns out, Abraham’s faith is not part of the equation. God makes the promises, seals the covenant. Abraham is simply the one to whom they are made.
It was many years later before Abraham finally had any children with Sarah. He continued to spend the long nights by the window, looking up and wondering, “How long, O Lord?” But, if Abraham were here today, I can guarantee that he would not be looking up. Instead, he would be looking out. Out at all of you. All of you stars from that nighttime sky thousands of years ago that have finally fallen right down to earth and into these very pews. He would see nothing but you, the descendants of Abraham, the very promises of God in flesh and blood.
And with a tear in his eye and a smile on his face, he would say, “Well, what do you know. The promises of God are true after all. Every one of them.” Amen.