Wednesday, January 20th, 2016 – St. Olaf Chapel sermon on “Promise” and Genesis 15

You can watch this sermon here.

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”

2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4 But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

7 Then he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” 8 But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” 9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. 

17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”

There are many ways to do it.

You can look someone in the eye and shake their hand.

You can link pinkies with another hand that is not your own.

You can cross your heart and hope to die, stink a needle in your eye.

All these and many more, I’m sure, as ways to say – I promise.

As a parent, I find myself making promises all the time. Some short-term – I will play that game with you as soon as I get home, son. I promise. And some long-term – Oh, my boy, I am so sorry you were scared. I will never leave you alone like that again. I promise.

There is something about making a promise. In doing so, you put yourself on the line. And so often, you can’t just speak it. You have to do something to show it. To seal it. You have to put something on the line to show that you really mean what you say. It might be your reputation, or your finances, or the health of your eye. But more often than not, the thing that is really on the line, the burden that you the promise-maker bear, is your relationship with the one to whom you make promises.

And the question remains: will that be that enough to trust you, the one who makes the promise?

In our reading for today, Abraham has a hard time trusting God and the promises God has made to him. And why wouldn’t he?

Some of you will remember the story. 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. And through their offspring, the whole world would be blessed through them. That was the promise that God made to Abraham and Sarah.

The problem is that it wasn’t happening for them. 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 descendants and land and blessing.

To do so, the Lord takes Abraham by the hand and leads him outside into the night and simply says, “Look up. Count the stars. If you can. As many stars in the sky, so shall your descendants be.” If you have ever walked back to your dorm or driven out into the country late at night, then there is a good chance you saw what Abraham did. The sky broad and clear like a huge midnight blue canvas. And scattered across it as far and as deep as the eye can see is nothing but stars. It wasn’t until I was a student here that I really started to see that part of creation – a blanket of stars dancing up above you. There is something simply stunning about a diamond-studded sky. And that’s what Abraham saw. Each star as one of the descendants that God promised to him.

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.

But it didn’t last long. Did you catch that?

After promising him offspring, God promises Abraham land. And immediately Abraham said, “O Lord God, how am I to believe that one too?”

 And *poof* his belief was gone again.

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, doubt and fear creep up like kudzu taking over a forest, blocking out any stars in the sky.

God knew that Abraham was serious and God needed to do something more. God could not keeping speaking the promise – God needed to show it.

“Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon,” God said. And so Abraham did. And God didn’t’ have to tell Abraham want to do with them next – Abraham already knew.

This was the rite of promise making – this was how you crossed your heart and hoped to die back in Abram’s day. You cut everything but the birds in two and laid them side-by-side. And then after you made your promises, then you, the promise-maker, walk in-between the dead animals, as if to say, “Let me be like these creatures, if I fail to keep my word.”

I suspect that Abraham imagined that he was the one for whom this bloody path of promise-making had been set out. That God had made God’s promises and now it was time for Abram to make some of his own. To promise to be faithful to God, I suppose.

But imagine Abraham’s surprise when before he could walk anywhere, Abraham saw a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch pass between the animals with no one there holding either one – it was just the smoking pot and torch floating between these pieces of meat. Smoke and fire – God’s favorite calling cards[1].

God was the one making the walk! This rite of promise-making was not for Abraham, but for God. God sealed God’s spoken promise to Abraham by showing Abraham the promise.

In other words, God looked Abraham in the eye, shook his hand and said, “Abraham, I promise.” God has taken God’s mighty pinky and curled it around Abraham’s arthritic one, locking in God’s word. God has crossed God’s heart and hoped to die if this promise is not true. Or in the words of one Old Testament scholar, God has staked God’s very one life on this promise.[2]

Notice that God did not prove anything to Abraham. God did not give him any hard evidence of proof. God simply re-promised to him. As one preacher has said, God is not present in the world as evidence. God is present in the world as the one who makes promises.[3]

And that was enough for Abraham. At least for that moment, anyways. Abraham believed God, even though Abraham’s belief was not part of the equation. You see that is the beauty of a promise. You do not have to believe in it for it to be true. The truth and the fulfillment of the promise all rests on the one who makes promises.

Throughout Scripture God continues to make promises. Promises meant for you and for me.

A promise that God will be your God, and you will be God’s people. Always. A promise that nothing can separate you from the love of God. Nothing. A promise of grace and forgiveness when you have failed to be the good creation that you are. A promise that there is life beyond this life and there is nothing to fear in the face of death.

Is that enough for you to trust in the one who makes those promises? Maybe. Or maybe not. It might just take some time for you. It did for Abraham.

In fact, it was many years later before Abraham finally had any children with Sarah. 24 years to be exact. Until then, I imagine Abraham continued to spend the long nights by the window, looking up at that star-lit sky and wondering, “How long, O Lord?”

But, if Abraham were standing up here with me today, I would bet 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.

You are the children of the promise. The children of faith. You are the children of Abraham and Sarah.

And so if God’s promises made to Abraham so long ago are true, then I am willing to go out on a limb and say that God’s promises for you are true as well. I promise.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor,

[2] Terence Fretheim, The New Interpreters Bible, Vol. 1, under section for Genesis 15.

[3] Tom Long,


2 comments on “Wednesday, January 20th, 2016 – St. Olaf Chapel sermon on “Promise” and Genesis 15

  1. Tim says:

    Once again John, your message was thought provoking and encouraging. The second to the last paragraph says it all. I’m God’s Kid.

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