Monday, October 19, 2020

“Count the Stars” - September 20, 2020

Text: Genesis 15:1-6

For the last 26 weeks – exactly half a year – we have not had any in-person gatherings.  No worship, no committee meetings, no Bible Studies or Sunday School classes – although we did have an official work day in August.  For the first time in 6 months, we are gathering in person, at least some of us are.  Preaching primarily to a camera over these past months has been a weird experience, although it feels pretty normal, pretty routine now.  But this – speaking not only to those who are at home, gathering on Zoom, but to those who are here, in person – this is weird.   Different and really good.

One of the difficult things about this pandemic is the uncertainty of it all.  How long will this last?  When will things be sort of normal?  How much different will normal be?   Or, is normal an outdated idea?  How is this going to affect us all in the long run?  Is this going to change the way we do church?  There are just an awful lot of things we do not know.

We all live with uncertainty.  It is the unknowing, the living without good answers, that can get to us.  It certainly got to Abram and Sarai.

Last Sunday we looked at creation and the fall, in Genesis chapters 2 and 3.  In Genesis 12, Abram and Sarai enter the picture.  God says to Abram, you don’t really know me, but I want you to leave your country and your kindred and go to a land that I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation.

And Abram and Sarai go.  They go to a place they do not know.  They are unsure where they are heading.  And they don’t really have a history with this God who is leading them.  It is a leap of faith.  They arrive in the place God has for them, but it’s not easy.  There are triumphs along with serious setbacks.  In a time of famine they have to go to Egypt.  Abram’s nephew Lot made the journey with them, but there are squabbles with Lot and disputes over grazing land.  Because of these disputes Lot and Abram they decide to separate, with Lot settling to the east and Abram to the west.

And then God says to Abram, look out in the distance, north and south and east and west.  All of this I will give to your descendants forever.  They will be like grains of sand they shall be so numerous.

But here’s the thing: Abram and Sarai had no children.  Before they even left Ur of the Chaldees, it was notable that they did not have a child.  They had been in this land that God had shown them, living among the Canaanites now, for some years.  Still no child.  But God repeats this promise that they would be parents of a great nation, parents of a multitude.

It is one struggle, one mishap after another.  Lot gets caught up in the middle of a war between adversarial kings and is taken prisoner, and Abram has to go into battle with his household and his allies in order to free his nephew.

And in our scripture this morning, God speaks yet again.  God says, “Do not be afraid.  I am your shield.  Your reward shall be very great.”

It is a little unusual.  Abram was not afraid of enemies.  He had just overcome enemies in battle and rescued Lot.  But God says, “I will be your shield.  You reward shall be very great.”

Abram was not interested in the shield part nearly as much as the reward part.  He says, “God, can you be a little more specific?  This reward part – I’d like to talk about that.”

God said, “Do not be afraid,” and it is clear that Abram was feeling anxiety.  But it was not about safety and security so much.  Abram is thinking, “I don’t really need a shield, what I need is a family.  I need descendants.  At this point, a guy that works for me, a servant, Eliezer of Damascus – he is as close as I have to an heir.”

Now you may notice that descendants are a huge deal in the Old Testament.  You can find page after page of genealogies.  Why was this so important?

We need to understand that people did not talk about eternity then.  They way that you were part of eternity was through your descendants.  Your children were the way that you lived on.  And so descendants were crucial.  Abram was becoming rich with flocks and fields and gold, but that did not matter.  To be truly rich one needed children.  Descendants in a sense made the other blessings of life durable and lasting.

God replied to Abram, “Eliezer of Damascus will not be your heir.  Your very own child, your own flesh shall be your heir.  Count the stars if you can.  So shall your descendants be.”

In the face of continuing anxiety and uncertainty, God says to Abram, “Count the Stars.”  The stars were a kind of symbol of God’s promise.  (And I have to say, I the stars of the sky are a more appealing metaphor than grains of sand.)

You know, we have those clear nights when you can see the stars, but there is too much light for us to really see the stars very well.  If you go way out to a place far from activity, far from homes and traffic and far from towns and cities, you can really see the stars.  Go camping in the Badlands and look up at night and it is completely different than looking into the sky in Ames.

But a few weeks back, after the Derecho had hit, we went outside one night.  We didn’t have any power.  Nobody around did.  No house lights.  No street lights.  There was no traffic.  It was still.  We went outside and looked up and we could see the stars so clearly.  We pointed out the Big Dipper and we looked at this amazing sky just full of stars.

I think about Abram and Sarai.  Of how they had said yes to God and traveled in faith to an unknown destination, an unknown future.  At this point, we are all in that boat.

Some by choice – I think of new students who have come to Ames, to this new place, filled with so many unknowns.  But even if you have lived here for a long time, we are now in this new place, this new situation, and not very much is certain.  It’s not just college students who have moved to Ames for their first semester.  It’s all students.  High school and middle school and elementary students who are trying to navigate online school.  And some who will go to school in person tomorrow for the first time – or later in the week for the first time, depending on what group you are in in the hybrid learning model.

Think about parents.  And teachers.  Nobody signed up for this pandemic, and life right now is filled with stress and nothing is certain.

Most of us do not handle uncertainty very well.  Many of us do all we can to minimize, if not eliminate, the unforeseen.  I admit that I want to know what is going on and I want a certain amount of control.

When we go on a trip, I have it mapped out in advance.  Even with GPS, I usually consult the map.  If we have to make a purchase, whether it is a vacuum cleaner or toaster oven, I consult Consumer Reports.  If we are buying a car, I read reviews for weeks.

There are students who don’t like to sign up for a class unless they have a scouting report on the professor and expect to get a decent grade.

But for all our trying to control things, life just cannot be controlled.  For all our efforts to minimize risks and figure out the future and manage what is coming down the road, we can’t do it.  The unexpected always comes into play.

Abram and Sarai had faced uncertainty.  And they will continue to face uncertainty.  And in uncertain times, we are faced with this question of trust.  To move forward in a time of uncertainty requires trust.  Did they trust, could they trust the God who had led them thus far?

“‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.  So shall your descendants be.’ And Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”

This is a well-known verse that is cited in several places in the New Testament.  “The Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”  

We live in a time of anxiety, but then, what time has not been a time of anxiety?  We have to deal with the gulf between the future that we hope for and the unfulfilled reality of the moment.  All of that is magnified, perhaps, in this time of pandemic.  But from the time of Abram and Sarai on to today, there has always been this disconnect between the world as it is and the world that we hope for.  We want things to be right and hope and pray and maybe believe they will be, but it’s not yet.

In such a time, Abram believed God’s promise.  He trusted God.  And God reckoned it, or counted it as righteousness.  The good news is that when we cannot have complete trust, when our faith is yet imperfect, God takes the trust that we can muster and counts it as righteousness.  Righteousness it not so much about what we do; it is more about what God does within our relationship with God to make things right.

God’s promise is that even though we cannot necessarily see how we will get from here to there, God will see us through.

God says to us, “Count the stars.”  Count the stars and know that we can trust in the love and grace and goodness of God.  Amen.

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