ADOTS Morning Prayer: 15 January 2021
A Reflection on Genesis 15
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Twice before, God had spoken promises to Abram, and Abram had responded with obedience and worship. In Ur of the Chaldees:
Genesis 12:1–4 (ESV): 12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.
This was God’s promise when first he called Abram. Later, when Abram and Lot separated:
Genesis 13:14–18 (ESV): 14 The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, 15 for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. 17 Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” 18 So Abram moved his tent and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron, and there he built an altar to the Lord.
The third time is the charm, or so they say. That’s what we have in today’s lesson, the third appearance of God to Abram, the third repetition of the promise, just after Abram’s rescue of Lot:
Genesis 15:1 (ESV): 15 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
But now, Abram’s response is different than before, more questioning than acquiescent. I might paraphrase it this way:
“O Lord, you keep promising me great things, people and land and now a very great reward, but I’ve seen nothing of it yet. I have just turned down a great reward for the sake of your honor. I’m still traveling from place to place in this foreign land as an alien. And not only do I not have a people, I don’t even have a single heir. So, what exactly is it that you’ll give me” (cf Gen 15:2-3)?
Then, once again the Lord repeats the promise, this time addressing the heart of Abram’s concern: “your very own son shall be your heir” and your offspring — from him — will be like the stars of the heavens (cf Gen 15:4-5). And that, for reasons known to Abram and God alone, is precisely what Abram needed to hear. Abram’s response is profound and reverberates through the whole of Scripture:
Genesis 15:6 (ESV): 6 And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
Abram believed the Lord. He had not, in that moment, learned any new facts about the Lord; he had not given mental assent to any new theological doctrines. But, for some reason, in that moment he grew to trust the Lord in a way that he had perhaps not done before. That is the essence of what it meant for Abram to believe — the essence of what it means for any of us to believe: to trust in the character and promises of God. It is in that trust that righteousness obtains.
Paul makes much of this event in Romans; read the whole of Romans 4 in which Paul argues against a righteousness based upon fidelity to the Law, specifically fidelity to the outward Jewish boundary markers such as circumcision. Abram’s righteousness preceded the Law by four centuries; it was not obedience to the Law, but trust in the character of God that was counted as Abram’s righteousness. Likewise, it is trust — belief, faith — in Jesus Christ that is counted for our righteousness in the present moment:
Romans 5:1–2 (ESV): 5 Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
James takes this same verse from Genesis 15 and walks a different path with it: not opposite Paul, as it often asserted, but parallel. James insists that an Abram-like trust in the character of God will necessarily produce God-like character in the one with such faith, evidenced by works of mercy, and that if it does not, then no living faith is truly present, no righteousness obtains.
James 2:18–24 (ESV): 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Paul and James are refuting equal and opposite errors: Paul that one’s works — specifically circumcision, Sabbath keeping, and dietary restrictions — obtain to righteousness, and James that faith which does not result in works of charity obtains to righteousness. The synthesis of the two arguments goes something like this. To try to work your way into God’s favor because you do not trust his character and his gracious gift in Christ is futile. Likewise, to claim to trust God without becoming like Christ is false.
So, Abram believed the Lord and it was counted to him as righteousness. But then Abram’s dialogue with the Lord took an unexpected turn: I believe you, but how will I know (cf Gen 15:8)? Abram wanted — needed — something more than a voice or a vision, something substantial, something tangible. It is then that the Lord cuts a formal covenant with Abram in a bloody ancient near eastern ratification rite involving the dismemberment of various animals:
Genesis 15:9–11 (ESV): 9 [The Lord] said to [Abram], “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 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half. 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
Genesis 15:17–21 (ESV): 17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, 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 offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”
This sealed matters between God and Abram. Their relationship is no longer like a man and a woman living together, but like a man and a woman bound together in the covenant of holy matrimony; at last, in this ceremony, God has put a ring on it. This is Abram’s faith sealed tangibly by God.
The Twelve, and the others who followed Jesus, were not unlike Abram. Jesus had made some grandiose claims and extravagant promises; just read John 14-17.
John 14:1–3 (ESV): 14 “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
John 14:12–14 (ESV): 12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”
John 14:15–19 (ESV): 15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.
18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.“
This is just a sampling. For three years Jesus had been hinting and pointing toward these things; now he speaks more directly. Thomas, Philip, Judas (not Iscariot) didn’t understand. The others didn’t either, but these three were brave enough to speak up. I suspect two questions were foremost in their minds: What does this mean? and How do we know? Like Abram, they needed something tangible, something to seal the deal — a rite of covenant and remembrance.
Matthew 26:26–28 (ESV): 26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
God sealed the covenant with Abram with the broken bodies of animals and their shed blood. That was Abram’s touchstone going forward, his anchor in moments of doubt — the surety of God’s promise. Jesus sealed the new covenant with all who would believe in him, in perpetuity, through his broken body and shed blood, made real to us in this meal, the Holy Eucharist, in which and through which he is present to us. This is the tangible seal, sign, and Sacrament of the covenant, our touchstone going forward, our anchor in moments of doubt — the surety of Jesus’ promises. There is more, of course, just as God gave other signs to Abram. We enter the covenant through baptism. We are sealed in the covenant through the Holy Spirit. Yes, but it is this meal that is the ongoing, repeatable Sacrament of the New Covenant, the tangible reminder of and the yes to the promises of God made to us in Christ Jesus.
We believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. We trust in his character and promises, and that trust is counted to us as righteousness. And we are sustained in that trust by the rite of covenant he has given us, this meal, this feast of his Body and Blood through which he is present with us and by which he heals and nourishes us. It is his proclamation to us and our proclamation to the world, just as St. Paul wrote:
1 Corinthians 11:23–26 (ESV): 23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.