Have you ever stopped off at a soft ice cream store … a yogurt store?
Sure you have … come on now, fess up!
You can have vanilla, of course, or chocolate, or one of several dozen other flavors … and if you want, if you’re really daring, you can swirl the flavors, both at the same time, into your cone, or into your dish.
Reading Genesis is a swirl of flavors … sweet and bitter, hopeful and disappointed … faithful and desperate …
Page after page of this remarkable book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse:
Life is up, life is down …
Life is good, life is sad …
Off track, on track …
Going somewhere, going nowhere at all.
Has anyone ever said that life was easy?
Our story this morning about Abram begins like this:
After these things,
After WHAT things?
Genesis 12 to 14 are a tangled mess of ups and downs.
Shining moments and wretched lies.
Family problems and hard decisions.
Wars and rumors of war.
Life is complicated.
After these things.
Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.
But nothing is easy!
Abram talks back to God.
God, I’ve heard all of your promises, but where are they?
I’m childless, so how can you talk about a future?
To whom shall I give my estate?
Where, O where are the promises?
Who hasn’t thought that now and then?
God takes Abram outside the tent.
It’s nighttime - the sky is clear.
Look up Abram … look up!
See the stars?
Can you count them?
That’s how many descendants you’re going to have.
And there’s going to be land for you and your descendents, lots of land.
There’s going to be many good things.
But not yet.
Some things have to wait.
Abram believed! That’s how the Bible puts it!
But Bible translation is tricky.
The New Revised Standard Version from which we read, puts it this way:
The LORD reckoned it [Abram’s faith] as righteousness.
The NIV is even bolder:
The LORD credited it to Abram as righteousness.
In other words, Abram did it right!
And God gives Abram an A+.
Abram passed the test!
But we have a problem here.
Is God in the business of giving out grades?
Does God tell us what to do?
And if we do it right, do we then go to heaven?
And if we do it poorly, then what?
And how do we know?
If life is a test, how do we know if we’re passing or failing?
I think we have a problem here.
How many people have gone crazy wondering if they were good enough to gain the approval of God?
And when things go bad, the questions burn deep in our souls.
If I had enough faith, this wouldn’t be happening to me.
I must be doing something wrong.
Is God punishing me?
And it only gets worse:
My child would be healed if I had enough faith.
My prayers would be answered if I could say the right words.
My life would be better if I had more faith.
That’s a problem, isn’t it!
As if the world of God depended on the quality and power of our faith.
A big problem in our culture.
Not that folks think a whole lot about God these days.
What folks DO think about is getting ahead, being successful, happy, and prosperous … making it through the economic downturn.
And there’s plenty of advice to go around.
A friend went into a book store the other day and asked the clerk, Where’s the self-help section?”
The clerk said, Find it yourself!
Lots of people believe that life is all about self-help.
That we’re alone in our journey.
That life depends on how we manage it, how we live it, the techniques we follow:
Say the right things.
Wear the right clothes.
Find the right partner.
Drive the right car.
Choose the right school.
Follow the right diet.
Own this, sell that.
The worst kinds of legalism.
Have you ever thought about it that way?
Worse than the worst tinpot preacher thundering away with hellfire and damnation.
If ya’ drink and cuss and play cards, ya’ go to hell.
So get right with God.
Fall on your knees.
Confess your sins.
And you’ll go to heaven.
But we are no longer a religious nation.
It’s no longer God demanding perfection of us, and threatening us with damnation if we mess up.
Our culture does this to us now.
Purveyors of advice have replaced the angry God of earlier generations.
The pulpits of the land are no longer in churches.
The pulpits of the land are found in advertising – just like the preachers of old – threat and the promise:
If you buy our cosmetics, you’ll look young … and if you don’t, you’ll look old! And who wants to look old?
If you follow this diet, you can be thin and sexy, and if you don’t, you’ll be fat and frumpy, and, of course, that would be wrong, wouldn’t it?
If you take our medicine, you’ll live longer, and you better talk to your doctor about it right away, and if you don’t, you’ll get sick, and you’ll die, and who wants do that?
If you buy my book, I’ll tell you my secrets and you’ll be successful, and if you don’t buy my book, you’re just another dummy, and shame on you!
We don’t have an angry God threatening us any more.
We’re doing it to ourselves, and we’re doing it better than ever.
And we are edgy, and we are angry.
I think some clarity here about the Bible can help.
Let’s get back to the text.
If one translation puts the burden to be good on Abram, another translation puts the burden on God!
God is the one who has to be good!
God is the one who seeks our approval!
God wants to win our heart!
God cannot command loyalty.
God cannot command love.
Anymore than you and I can do this to one another.
God can only WIN our loyalty.
God can only WIN our love.
And it’s not so easy for God to win our love.
What with all the sorrow and hardship and war and disappointment and earthquakes and tears.
Abram is sad and disappointed, so Abram questions God’s reliability.
We’ve done it, too, haven’t we?
Is God reliable?
That’s the question, isn’t it?
Abram says to God, I can’t live on promises alone; I need to know that I’m betting on the right horse!
With that, God asks Abram to prepare a ritual.
Animals cut in half.
Lay them down … a little pathway between.
The sun sets … things grow dark.
Abram falls into a deep sleep.
Abram, life isn’t easy.
There are no shortcuts, no tricks, no secrets!
No quick and simple pathways to anything.
There is hardship and danger for you.
But I, the LORD your God, am faithful.
I am righteous.
I stand by you.
I get you through.
I’m here for the long haul.
And then something even stranger:
A smoking pot – an incense burner.
A smoking pot and a flaming torch pass through the animals.
Sounds like a horror movie, right?
“Friday the 13th” or “Scream” …
What in the world is going on?
God puts God’s life on the line.
God says to Abram:
May I be cut in half if I fail to live up to my promises.
May I be dead like these animals if I fail to deliver!
This is how serious I am.
By day or by night, the smoking pot and the flaming torch!
God’s life on the line.
Cross my heart and hope to die.
This is how much I love you.
Life is complicated!
It was so for Abram.
It’s been that way forever, I don’t suppose it’s going to really change until the end of the age.
When things get hard … as things tend to do.
When life gets tough … as it often does.
Let’s have a long talk with Father Abram!
We’ll step out of our tent.
Look up to the stars.
And remember a strange ritual:
The smoking pot and the flaming torch.
God’s life on the line:
And then one strange day in Jerusalem,
On a hill called Calvary,
Christ on the cross!
This is how much I love you!
Don’t be afraid.
I am your shield.
And your reward will be great.
Amen and Amen!