February 21st, 2016
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Some weeks I wonder if you think what I think when you first hear the texts for Sunday. This week, I thought, “Oh, good Lord. What the he[ck] do you want me to do with this?” I believe I made a George W. Bush face when I read them this week. I mean, seriously—flaming pot and a torch passing through the sliced carcasses of animals. First of all, why, and second of all, what’s the difference between a smoking fire pot and a torch? The Gospel feels random and the Epistle from Philippians requires a lot of background. It makes me want to give up and talk about Harry Potter or my vacation. And maybe some of you wish I would do that, too.
But take note: this is not the first time God has promised Abram descendants. Abram says today, “Ok, God, but I continue childless, and some relative is going to receive my inheritance.” Continue here is pretty harsh—I’m still childless. I’m still waiting. Neither Sarai nor I am getting any younger here, and it seems to me like the time for children has come and gone, and we still don’t have any, good Lord. So… Abram can be forgiven, I think, if he has a little faith crisis here.
And this isn’t the last time God promises Abram a child without delivering one. And still, he had to wait many years more for the child to come. But in the middle of this waiting God assures Abram of this promise: as the stars in the sky, so shall your descendants be. Billions upon billions, people without number.
John Calvin has as good an explanation of the sliced animals as any that I know. He says that this cutting of animals and laying them together again may have been a way to seal a pledge, like we would sign a contract today. And our lectionary texts also leaves out a section, in which the Lord also tells Abram that his descendants will be slaves for a long time in a foreign land, and that God will rescue from them and bring them to their home. Calvin says that the dead carcasses symbolize both human beings, subject to death, and the descendants of Abraham, subject to worse than death in their slavery, but yet, because God was there, a death that leads to life. Calvin says these is the hard servitude of Israel and its redemption, and also a mirror of the church, whereby the Church is created out of the dying, out of nothing, making a people out of no people, and raising the dead to life. As a contemporary praise song says, “God makes beautiful things, beautiful things out of dust. God makes beautiful things out of us.”
Calvin goes on to say that the smoking fire pot symbolizes the slavery in Egypt followed by the light of freedom, but also the obscurity of life’s circumstances, in which God may seem to be far away—I continue childless, Abram might say. But the torch is the light that breaks through obscurity, the word that gives life to the dead carcass. And for him, this too is a picture of the Church, that even as the “darkness of afflictions” threaten to overwhelm us, the light of God shines on us. God makes beautiful things, beautiful things out of dust. God makes beautiful things, beautiful things out of us. This is what happens when the living Word comes to dead flesh.
We may think we are far away from this cray night vision of an ancient wanderer. We may think that smoking bowls and flaming torches were things best left to our collegiate lives. But just a few days ago we received ashes on our brow and we heard the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” And there is the touch of the sacrament here,of baptism, which joins the living Word to our dying flesh, and promises to raise us in life, of the Holy Supper, in which the living Word comes to carry us through the darkness of our days.
If there is any connection of our texts from this Sunday, I think this is it—that although we feel like Abram, when we feel that God tarries and that God does not fulfill his promises to us, still the guiding light of God’s promise is sure. And more than that, trusting that God will act, we can also act. “Stand firm in the Lord,” Paul writes. And this is an interesting thing for him to say. The letter to the Philippians was written to the veterans of the Roman military. Philippi was a Roman colony where their soldiers received land and gold and most importantly, Roman citizenship after 20 years of fighting. Notice how Paul, however, reminds them now of their true allegiance, to Christ. It’s amazing to think about these soldiers, who lived and fought all over the world, who survived until they could get some land and a quiet life—how often their minds must have been set on earthly things. You wonder if maybe that life wasn’t enough, even the peaceable life and just reward of a retired soldier wasn’t enough. These were men and women who knew all about suffering, and indeed, underlying all of Philippians Paul talks about his own imprisonment and suffering. But Paul says to them to hold on and to have hope. Stand firm in the Lord, and expect transformation. When the darkness of our lives seems too impenetrable, stand firm in the Lord. Our guiding light has come, and has passed the through the dark, and he shines for us in resurrected life.
Jesus will not be turned aside from his purpose. So Herod means to kill him—Jesus also means to die. But not when Herod wants to do it, but when the time is right, when all the he must do is done. So he tells Jerusalem he will leave a little while—your house is left to you, he says, he tells them they are alone, in darkness without him. But he will make good on God’s promise. He will come to acclaim, and he will meet his death there. It is not far off now, the time is short, and in a short while on Palm Sunday, the light will pass through through crowds of people, shouting on either side. And at the cross, he will heal all the divisions of humankind as he stretches out his arms to all.
I think, though, the most marvellous aspect of these readings is the presence of Jesus himself, a human, but yet fully God, the living word joined to frail flesh. This is the beauty that we proclaim as a church, this is the light that guides us: that the living God joined dying flesh, and gave it life. Christ died that we may have life, and although it can seem like the promise is far off, it is etched on our souls in baptism, and our lives are with Christ Jesus. That light leads us out of our allegiances to the earth’s vain delights, and guides us to the rewards that God has, which are eternal and free and for us to enjoy even now. Our joy is that we have light in darkness. Amen.
Reverend John Flack