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PUTTING IT ALL ON THE LINE

FEBRUARY 28, 2010
2 SUNDAY IN LENT
ND

GENESIS 15:1-18

Focus: The miracle of conversion and the majestic glory of God’s willingness to sacrifice
everything for those whom he loves.

Introductory Comments

What ingredients do you need to have a nation? Think about that for a moment. What
ingredients would you need? There are two that I can think of. Are there others? Sure. But
without these two ingredients no nation can exist.

The first ingredient is people. You must have people to populate the nation. They live in the
nation, they support the nation, they govern the nation. No people, no nation.

The second major ingredient is land, a place for the people to live, to work, to play, and to thrive.
If you lack people, there is no nation. No land, no nation.

This is a text about the establishment of a nation. Specifically, this is a text about the nation that
God will create through those whom he has called into a covenantal relationship.

And these two important ingredients are the main concerns of this text. The first six verses
address the issue of the people who will populate the nation. The remaining verses address the
matter of the land.

There are two participants in this part of the story of Genesis. The first is Abram who, back in
chapter 12, was called by God to leave his home country and his people:

[1] 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.”

And so Abram left, doing what the Lord had commanded, having received from God promises
that his would be a family through which all of the families of the earth would be blessed, and
that he would possess the land of Canaan, that is, the two ingredients which comprise a nation.

Now we fast forward to chapter 15, verse 1. Between then and now, Genesis recounts various
events from Abrams life, including additional promises from God that Abram would have
offspring “as the dust of the earth,” meaning, more than anyone could count, and that he would
possess the land from whence a great nation would come.

But now we arrive at chapter 15. Abram and Sarai have no children. And they have not been

Copyright © 2010 by Christopher Donald Drew
given the land yet as a possession.

Exposition

Verses 1-6

[1] 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.” [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, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a
member of my household will be my heir.” [4] And behold, the word of the Lord came to
him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” [5] And he
brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able
to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” [6] And he believed
the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

Notice the difference in Abram’s response this time? Before, when God first called him, Abram
up and went. This time, his response is more pointed. Abram basically says to the Lord, “Hey,
look, you promised this but I haven’t received any offspring at all. In fact, I’ve already made a
modification to the will naming Eliezer my sole heir.” Abram knew that he would not live
forever. But he’s also acting in character. Those who are in the Sunday morning Bible 101 class
will know what I’m talking about. Abram has this tendency of trying to work things out on his
own when it seems to him as if God isn’t moving quickly enough. Near the end of chapter 12,
when traveling though Egypt, Abram passes his wife Sarai off as his sister, implying that God
was unable to protect him. Here, with no heir, Abram is again protecting himself, making
provisions for the future of his estate, his belongings, his stuff, as if God will not fulfill His
promises.

But God comes right back at Abram saying, more or less in a rebuke, “Go back to the lawyer and
change your will back. I’ve told you that you’re going to have a son who will be your heir.”
God then tells Abram to look to the stars and to try and count them. A daunting task for anyone
who has had the opportunity to look at a moonless night sky without any light pollution. So
many stars! And God tells Abram, “That’s how the numbers of your offspring will be – more
than can be counted.”

And then this stunning verse: “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as
righteousness.” This is a crucial verse in scripture for multiple reasons. First, what has
happened that suddenly causes the somewhat acerbic Abram to suddenly shift from wondering if
God would deliver on his promise for a son to believing it without any problem? Was it simply
the vision of the night sky? I doubt it. People see wonderful things all the time and still doubt
the existence of God. In Matthew 28:16-20, the risen Lord Jesus Christ appears to his disciples
and Matthew records that, even in the presence of the resurrected body of Jesus, “Some
doubted.” No, I’m with Walter Bruggeman and others who suggest that here, in verse 6, a
miracle has taken place, the miracle of faith. Abram’s unbelieving heart has, by God, been
converted to faith in God.

Copyright © 2010 by Christopher Donald Drew
This is how faith comes, as a gift from God. This verse, then, is crucially important in the New
Testament. It’s quoted four times, three times by Paul in Romans 4:3, 22, and Galatians 3:5, and
again by James 2:3. Before, when Abram left at the command of God, he obeyed and did what
was commanded. Here, Abram can do nothing, save believe in the promise of God. We are not
conditioned to do these things. We’re far more like the Abram who tried passing off his wife as
a sister to protect himself from harm. We’re far more like Abram in that we collect wealth and
take great care to secure ourselves in this life and our posterity from the probate court.

The first ingredient of the nation is promised, the people, and Abram believed, and his faith was
accounted to him as righteousness, as living in conformity with God’s commands.

What about the second ingredient, then, the land?

Verses 7-8

[7] And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out 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?”

Notice how Abram, having believed, is just one verse later skeptical again? Oh how we are like
Abram!

And now we get to the description of a bizarre scene, with blood, dead animal carcasses, strange
visions.

Verses 9-11

[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] 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.

Abram engages in the messy, bloody work of preparing animals by cutting them in half and then
placing the halves on opposite sides. And there they sat, likely long enough in the day that the
putrefying carcasses began attracting the vultures. But Abram patiently waits, and drives the
birds off, preserving his work for what is to happen next.

Verses 12-16

[12] As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and
great darkness fell upon him. [13] Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that
your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and
they will be afflicted for four hundred years. [14] But I will bring judgment on the nation
that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. [15] As for
yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. [16]

Copyright © 2010 by Christopher Donald Drew
And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is
not yet complete.”

Verses 17-18

And then, this happened:

[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…

You would be right in wondering what the heck is going on here. Why these animals arrayed in
this fashion? And what’s with the smoking fire pot and flaming torch passing between the
pieces?

Much ink has been spilt interpreting this text, but there is one interpretation that I think does the
best job of explaining this. This is a ritual implementation of a covenant God is making with
Abram. The pieces of split up, dead animal carcasses represent the end state of the one who
breaks the covenant. The one making the covenant would walk between the halves of the
carcasses, attesting that if he didn’t keep up his end of the promise, he would take on the same
fate at the dead animals. The smoke and fire are both manifestations of God’s divine presence,
so that it is God himself who is passing through these dead animals.

If this interpretation is correct, and I think it is, then this should cause us to wonder, as I’m sure
Abram may have perhaps wondered, Does this mean that God dies if the promises aren’t
fulfilled? Can God die? Abram wouldn’t have considered that a possibility at all, I suppose. And
so because God cannot die, for Abram this would mean assurance that the promise of the land
and the heir would be a lead-pipe lock. It was going to happen. God is a God that keeps
promises. God is so good.

Doctrine

What can we take away from this text, then? I would say there are three things.

First – Faith is a gift of grace from God.

We’re incapable of belief without it. Walter Bruggeman, who I mentioned earlier, compared the
miraculous faith of Abram in verse 6 with Peter’s correct identification of Jesus as the Christ.
Do you remember what Jesus said in reply? Matthew records Jesus’ response in 16:17, “Blessed
are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who
is in heaven.

The eyes of faith are opened by God. Both faith and the righteousness of faith are gifts. The one
does not lead to another. God is the beginning of faith and the object of faith.

Copyright © 2010 by Christopher Donald Drew
Second – God is a God of kept promises.

He keeps His even when we don’t keep ours. That’s tremendously good news. After this
encounter with God, Abram and his wife Sarai would end up laughing multiple times at the idea
that God would given them a son in their advanced age. Later, the two would go so far as to
force the issue by producing a son through Hagar, Ishmael. Despite these lapses, God remains
faithful to Abram and his house. We’re not different, are we? We are baptized into Christ’s
death and resurrection, saved permanently and eternally from the punishment we deserve due to
our rebellion, and yet God steadfastly refuses to give up on us and leave us for dead. He grants
us His gift of faith, and he gracious accords us a righteousness we don’t deserve, so that he can
be with us.

Why?

You would only undertake such steadfast promise-keeping if you passionately love the one who
keeps going astray.

Third – God Passionately Loves His People

In fact, we know the full extent of that love. This text from Genesis points to it, ever so subtly.
Abram viewed God’s promise as a lead-pipe lock because God cannot die, right? But we are a
wicked people. The disease of sin is persistent. Yet God loves us so much that he was willing to
undergo the punishment associated with the breaking of a covenant. Specifically, he took on the
punishment we deserved for breaking our promises. He did this by making his beloved Son the
curse, by becoming a curse, for our sake, out of his love for us. That is why Paul writes to the
Galatians 3:13-14:

[13] Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is
written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— [14] so that in Christ Jesus the
blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised
Spirit through faith.

That’s how much God loves you, church, he loves you so much that he would even suffer death
for you. God never would have made the unilateral promise we read about here in Genesis 15:1-
18 unless he was absolutely willing to take the punishment. And he did, for you, though his Son,
Jesus Christ. For God so loved the world. Amen.

Copyright © 2010 by Christopher Donald Drew