Abrams’s encounter with God was in our first lesson. I think most people would come to God just the way Abram did: blurting out a lot of questions.
As Genesis chapter 15 gets going, Abram has a number of questions for God. First of all: Who is going to be my heir? Abram wants to know. What will happen to my property and my household if I die without a proper heir, Abram asks because that’s how the custom for inheritance was in those days. Sarai and I are old, Abram worries, and so When will Sarai have a baby? Why doesn’t God deliver the outcome that we thought God had promised?
God cares about all those questions, according to the rest of Genesis 15 and the rest of scripture, but before answering any of them, something else happens first, and it’s in Genesis 15:5a: ”God brought him (Abram) outside and said, Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.”
Let’s stop at the moment that is in 15:5a. We’re used to rushing right past it, because 15:5b is famous. But when we rush that way I think we’re reading this passage in an historically and culturally coded way that is prone to a good deal of misperception. If we tarry in 15:5a for a bit, I think it has the potential to change our perception. It is really an amazing moment: ”God brought him (Abram) outside and said, Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.”
It is a Psalm 46 moment: Be still, and know that I am God. It is like the moment when Moses stands before the burning bush and hears that he is on holy ground. It is like Elijah at the mouth of the cave, when the sound of stillness speaks. Step outside, Abram, look where you are. You are under God’s canopy of stars, and you can’t even count them.
It is on one hand a cold and severe moment, because at the moment of stillness, none of our other questions have answers. In the desert darkness, everything is destabilized. And yet, look at those blazing stars: such beauty. Could it be that although we are a people of unclean ways, a hurried people, a self-absorbed people, yet God provides a threshold, a place to wait for God, under God’s canopy of creative love over all?
Well, let’s be honest. Nobody stops at 15:5a! No great theologian would stop there. No great religion is content with 15:5a. Fact is, you can’t be content with 15:5a, because it’s not about contentment. It is an unfinished and raw place. It is too cold out there under the desert sky, it is too forlorn. It won’t preach!
15:5b, on the other hand, is the stuff of legends. The claims of kingdoms can stand upon a verse like 15:5b. The rise and fall of armies and nations, the rise and fall of great religions, revel in a verse like 15:5b.
15:5b is when God says to Abram, “so shall your descendants be.” The stars are no longer the countless depths of mystery, threshold to the unknown. Now they are symbols of descendants, intelligible metaphors of promise expressed in particular ways—in human ways. The covenant is given. Abram’s descendants are the people of God. Everyone who wants to be close to God, claim your place in Abrams house, Abrams lineage. And the covenant will be yours. So goes the usual coded reading of Genesis 15. In the usual reading, 15:5b is the pay-off for the whole chapter.
And so it is that everything from 15:5b onward becomes a kind of treasure store that humans want to root through for answers and things to hold onto. Sky and stars, desert floor and lonely moment are pointing to a meaning that has to be something else, some resolution, some message, some plan…. and there it is in 15:5b: “so shall your descendants be.” And from there, we build whole systems of meaning and identity and claims that impinge on neighbors and enemies. Abram’s descendants, not Abimalech’s, or whoever’s. Our descendants, our people, our members, our adherents, our contributors become most important.
There’s an old joke: Picture the Last Supper, with Jesus in the middle and disciples on either side leaning in to hear him. What were the last words at the last supper? Everybody who wants in the picture, get on this side of the table. A whole lot of religion is rushing to be on one side of the table. I’m on the side where Jesus sits! It’s better over here! It’s like the T-shirt that says: Jesus loves everyone, but I’m his favorite. Or, my church is his favorite, or my religion is his favorite.
We read a lot into a phrase like “so shall your descendants be,” and we start to position ourselves. The house of Abram becomes our house. And the stars are up there to validate our house.
But if you keep reading in Genesis you find out pretty soon that it’s not like that. By chapter 16 Abram has at least one heir on the way. Sarai and Abram turn out to be very harsh slave-owners who throw out Hagar while she is pregnant with Ishmael, the heir of Abram. God hears Hagar in the wilderness and guards her safe return. Then in chapter 21 Abraham (his name got an upgrade by that point) has two heirs. Sarah and Abraham throw out Hagar again, and her plight in the wilderness becomes completely desperate. She lays down Ishmael under a bush, away from her, because she can no longer stand his cries of agony. Child and mother are about to die of thirst and hunger. Again God rescues them, and delivers a promise of blessing upon the lineage of Hagar and Ishmael.
There is a Womanist theologian named Delores Williams, whose book Sisters in the Wilderness taught me to read the rest of Genesis and scripture remembering 16 and 21, remembering Hagar and her oppression at the hands of Abram and Sarai, remembering that there is a moment in every covenant when desperation sets in, when abandonment and unfulfilled promise may cover the landscape and flood the skies. And remembering that the promise of descendants in not ours to define.
Genesis 15:5a can help us not to forget Hagar and Ishmael when we get to 15:5b and hear about descendants for Abram. To tarry at 15:5a might help us to hear others in scripture whose voices are on the margins, others who walk the lonely path of being outcast and suffering unfathomable grief.
A voice like that is in Luke 13 that we heard for our gospel today.
I would have gathered you, Jesus says in Luke’s telling, like a hen gathering her chicks, but alas you would not. You would not. It is a Hagar and Ishmael moment for Jesus. There he is, the very presence of God’s grace, lamenting not only our waywardness and rejection of God’s grace, but darkly anticipating the full extent of what he will suffer. Then the cold irony starts to open up in what Jesus says next. “Your house is left to you,” but “you will not see me until the time comes when you say, Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
In Genesis 15:5, Abram has no speaking part. He has no words in the next verse either. But in 15:6 there is the on-the-ground side of what was in 15:5. It says, “Abram believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Saint Paul picked that up in Romans, when he was trying to show that faith is a gift. The canopy of stars in 15:5a can remind us that the reckoning also is beyond our counting, like the stars. The silence of Abram under the stars seems to correspond with the absence and speechlessness that Jesus indicated would ensue until later encounter with his resurrected presence.
At the table of Holy Communion we take up the words Jesus indicated, singing “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” The church finds its voice, while still anticipating fuller sight. Speechless like Abram, yet we find our voice here. We step to the table with the communion of saints, and on the other side of the table there are ones from outside our frames. In a voice not ours alone--but fully our voice--“Blessed is the one” echoes off the silence between the stars, and faith again comes, a sheer gift uncountable. Amen.