Genesis 15:1-18a (NIV)
After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”
2 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”
6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
7 He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”
8 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
9 So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”
10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.
12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. 13 Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”
17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land”
Nobody likes to wait. We are always in a hurry. We know what we want and we want it now.
If you go to the dentist’s office, they don’t let you right in. They make you wait. And the dentist knows you don’t want to wait, so they make a special room just for waiting. They call that room — appropriately — a waiting room. And because the dentist and the staff know that people don’t like waiting, they try to make that room as bearable as possible by filling it with magazines, books, and televisions.
Yet I still get anxious sitting there. I don’t like to have my teeth cleaned or worse, to be drilled. But for some reason, I would rather be back in that chair than in the waiting room. So when they do call me back for my examination, and possibly some shots and drilling, I am always like, “Finally,” because evidently I am in a hurry to get poked and prodded with needles.
This past week I saw a video from a college baseball game in North Carolina that was delayed because of the weather conditions. Nobody likes a weather delay. Usually delays in baseball come as a result of the rain. This one was actually a snow delay. The players got tired of waiting, so they made the most of their time and had a snowball fight. I wouldn’t want to be standing opposite of the pitcher that can throw a 90 mph fastball. Ouch!
If you go to a busy restaurant you sometimes have to put your name on a list just to get a seat. That list is called the “wait” in restaurant jargon. An interesting bit of information (interesting to me, anyway) is that you go from being on the wait to being waited on by a waiter. The waiter takes your order and you wait on your food to come. I am really surprised that anyone goes out to eat these days with our strong aversion to waiting! Perhaps that is why fast food is so popular today.
Our society is all about instant gratification, instant results, instant service, and I assure you that it is only getting worse. I even got a little frustrated recently by my new LED light bulbs because they are not “instant on” bulbs. It takes a fraction of a second before they turn on, and that bothers me.
My friends, it is my belief that this hyper-busy, instantaneous society is not good for us. It isn’t good for our stress levels and it isn’t good for our spiritual lives. No, I believe that being a follower of Jesus will mean that sometimes we will have to wait.
Isaiah 40:31 is a passage that comes to mind when I think about waiting. And I tend to think in King James language: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”
This word from the prophet Isaiah comes at a very particular time in the history of Israel. If you look at the beginning of this chapter you will find another well-known verse, made popular by Handel’s Messiah: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.”
This word of waiting and comfort comes from Isaiah to the Israelites after 70 years of exile, 70 years of living in a foreign land as captives. Waiting was nothing new to the Israelites. They have been waiting for their warfare to end, waiting for their pardon.
We have a strange passage today from Genesis, which is good, because I like strange passages. They engage a creative part of my mind as I am forced to ask myself, “What does this mean?” I also think that I have some sociological interests in digging into these passages that are, to be honest, quite disgusting. But they are in the Bible for a reason, and I want to try to discern together what we can learn about God and ourselves through animal mutilation.
In Genesis 15 we find this man named Abram. I am just going to call him Abraham because his name is later changed from Abram to Abraham and that is how we usually refer to the man. If I don’t just decide to call him Abraham right up front, well, I’ll probably slip up throughout the message and call him Abraham anyway.
Our scripture tells us that God speaks to Abraham through a vision and Abraham takes the opportunity to change the focus of the conversation pretty quickly. Abraham says, Hey, remember that heir that you promised me and Sarah? Still waiting on that, God. I’ve got a pretty good thing going. I’ve got sheep, I’ve got goats, I’ve got land. And I’m not getting any younger. I’m not going to be around forever. And who gets all of this when I die? Eliezer of Damascus? That guy’s kind of a punk. (Paraphrasing a bit.)
If you remember, God had promised Abraham an heir a few chapters earlier in Genesis 12 when God said “I will make you a great nation.” Genesis 12 tells us that Abraham was 75 at the time.
We aren’t told in chapter 15 just how old Abraham is, but in the next chapter we are told that he was 86 when Ishmael was born. If we jump ahead to Genesis 21, we find that Abraham was 100 years old when Isaac was born. So I really don’t blame Abraham for being a little anxious in the midst of all of that waiting. Twenty five years pass from the time God originally makes this promise to Abraham until Isaac is born.
Let’s look at God’s response to Abraham. God doesn’t get angry and respond like I would. I would be like, “I told you I would do it, now stop asking! Gosh!” No, God reassures Abraham and repeats his promise: Your offspring will be as numerous as the stars of the sky.
As much as we don’t like to wait on little things like dentists, restaurants, baseball games and LED lights, we probably all can also relate with Abraham’s frustration in waiting on something really important to us. Some of us know what it is like to wait for a child to be born. Some of us know what it is like to wait on a medication to make a difference. Some know what it is like to wait by the phone for that job offer or an invitation for a second date. And all too often, those things never come. Sometimes we just want to cry out to God, “What are you waiting for?!”
There are some phrases in the Christian language that have the potential to bother me. One of those phrases is “In God’s time.” We usually use this phrase to answer the difficult questions that people ask about faith and why certain things happen or don’t happen. I hear people use that phrase when someone dies at an early age. I hear that phrase when people don’t get a raise, new job, or that second date. “In God’s time,” they say.
I do believe that God has a “time” for some things. But I don’t believe that everything is dictated by God’s timetable. I don’t think an infant child dies because God thought it was the child’s time and I don’t think that you didn’t get a second date with someone because God didn’t think it was the right time. It could be that you had bad breath and talked about your ex-girlfriend or boyfriend too much on the first date. I think that the phrase is used too often and it can be abused. That being said, I do believe God has a time for the fulfillment of his promises.
I think that Romans 8 gives some very challenging and very inspirational teachings on waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises. In this passage, the Apostle Paul talks about a number of things that just aren’t the way we would want them to be, and he describes them as “groaning.” He talks about how creation itself, the earth, the water, the atmosphere, the animals and vegetative life, groan for the day when God will set things right. Our bodies, with all of their aches and pains, sicknesses, hunger, blindness, lameness, and other disabilities groan for the day when we will be healed. And even the Holy Spirit within us groans. That flicker of the divine knows that our souls are weary and need rest. And the Spirit groans on our behalf. We wait. We wait for the renewal of our minds, the renewal of our spirits, and the renewal of the world in which we live.
But we wait with the assurance of God’s promises. Romans 8:31, “What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?”
Many people will lift verse six out of our text for this morning as an important verse in the development of the doctrine of salvation by grace. The verse says: “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”
I believe that this verse is indeed an Old Testament precursor to our modern-day soteriology. But I also believe that verse serves another important function. It shows that faith and doubt are not complete opposites and can coexist.
Just before this statement about Abraham’s faith is made, God reiterates his promise to Abraham that his descendants will be many. That is what Abraham is said to have believed. God then goes and makes Abraham another promise in verse seven. “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” Now look at verse 8, “But Abram said, ‘Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?’”
Immediately after Abraham makes this confession of faith, stating that he believes God will give him, an 86-year-old man, children, he questions God’s promise to give him the land. “Prove it to me,” says Abraham.
Again, God does not get angry. God has patience as the man who was just said to have been a man of faith shows a little bit of doubt.
So God invited Abraham to bring a heifer, a female goat, a ram, three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear tree (are you still awake?) and place them on the ground. God instructed Abraham to cut the large animals in two, right down the middle.
I find it interesting that God then made Abraham wait some more. Scavenger birds came and Abraham had to chase them away. He waited until the sun went down and God made Abraham go into a deep sleep. While Abraham was in this deep sleep, God spoke to him about his descendants going down into Egypt and coming out again, eventually taking possession of the Promised Land. They will be well off, and Abraham will die peacefully.
The next part of this vision is the strangest of them all. Abraham then sees a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch pass between the animal carcasses.
The meaning of this vision isn’t all that clear even to this day. Some people translate “smoking fire pot” as “furnace.” Others believe it was the kind of a pot that was used for the burning of incense during religious rituals. But the flaming torch is clearly an image that any Hebrew, young or old, would associate with God. When this story was told in the years following the Exodus from Egypt, they would have remembered that God spoke to Moses in a burning bush and that God led their people by night with a pillar of fire as they wandered through the wilderness. Fire gives off light which makes it a lot easier to see and therefore understand.
So all Hebrew people would have known that this torch and smoking furnace that passed through those severed animal carcasses represented God.
When we read through the Old Testament we find a number of times when God makes covenants with his people. A covenant is a holy contract, agreement, or promise. Most of the time when the Old Testament says that God made a covenant, the literal translation is that God “cut a covenant” with his people. It is a Hebrew idiom that doesn’t make much sense to us today, which is why we simply say that God made a covenant.
The reason the Bible says that God cut a covenant is because of an ancient practice that would take place between two parties when a covenant was being agreed upon. The people making the covenant would cut animals in half and walk between the severed carcasses. Sound familiar? The people who walked between the torn bodies of the animals agreed to a penalty of breaking the covenant and they would say, “If I do not keep the covenant, may I end up as these animals are now.”
Notice who or what walks between the animal halves in Abraham’s vision. God is saying that if he does not keep his promises to Abraham, may he, God himself, be torn in two like these animals. Verse 18a says, “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram.” Literally, it says “the Lord cut a covenant with Abram.”
Nobody likes to wait. As we wait, we groan. Our bodies are deteriorating, our spirits suffer, and the world around us seems to be falling apart at times. And like Abraham, we may wonder when God is going to act and do the things he has promised. Wondering and asking these questions doesn’t show a lack of faith. It just shows that you are human.
When our groaning leaves us to feel all alone in this cold, dark world, may we remember that our God is a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch who warms us and shines his light upon us. May we wait with patience — with the patience that God showed Abraham, and trust that the Lord will see his promises through.