St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Genesis 15.1-2, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17 – 4.1; Luke 13.31-35
Lent is a time of preparation, of waiting and trusting in the Lord. The lessons appointed for today have a lot to say about waiting and trusting in the Lord. As I was thinking about this sermon, I must confess, I was fighting depression. The weather this year has sorely tried our patience – you know it’s a bad when native South Dakotans complain! Reason tells us we have the promise of spring, but don’t we wish it were here. In the meantime, we slog through snow, slush, rain, and mud! I am reminded of the fervent prayer, “Give me patience, Lord; and give it to me NOW!”
Let’s look at a bit of background to our reading from Genesis 15. Genesis 12 recounts God’s call to Abram to leave Ur for “the land that I will show you.” God promised, “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” (Genesis 15.1-2; NRSV). Abram was 75 years old. Upon reaching the land of Canaan, the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12.7; NRSV). Abram built an altar. Sometime thereafter, a famine ensued, leading Abram to journey by stages toward the Negeb, and ultimately into Egypt. After the famine, Abram returned to the place he had built the alter, and again the Lord promised to bless Abram, making his offspring like the dust of the earth; if one could count the dust, Abram’s offspring could also be counted.
As our reading for today tells us, “The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, your reward shall be great’” (Genesis 15.1; NRSV). Some time had passed since God initially promised to make a great nation of Abram’s offspring, so Abram responded, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus. You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir” (Genesis 15.2-3). In other words, “Come on, God; if we are going to do some nation building hadn’t we best get started? Sarah and I are already well past our prime, and we are not getting any younger!” The Lord then promised Abram one of his own children would be his heir; the Lord called him outside, told him to look heavenward and to count the stars – thus would Abram’s descendants be. Remember, this was back in the days when one could see the Milky Way in all its glory – there was no air or light pollution. Abram believed, and “The Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15. 6; NRSV).
We then read the account of a rather strange covenant ceremony in which the Lord told Abram to prepare a heifer, a female goat, and a ram (each three years old) along with a pigeon and a turtle dove. The heifer, goat and ram were split in two and laid each half over against the other. As the birds of prey began to settle, Abram drove them away. At sundown, a deep sleep fell on Abram and he felt “a deep and terrifying darkness” descend upon him. When darkness fell, a smoking firepot and a flaming torch passed between the pieces thereby signifying a covenant promise: “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (Genesis 15.18; NRSV). The significance of this covenant ritual is set forth in Jeremiah 34.18-20. Ordinarily, both parties to the covenant would pass between the pieces attesting that the party who broke the covenant may be like the animals which had been killed and split asunder. In this covenant ritual with Abram, only the Lord, signified by the smoking firepot and the flaming torch, walked between the pieces. This may reflect God’s mercy in that Abram was not required to walk between the pieces, or it may have signified that this was a one-way covenant in which God would act toward Abram expecting nothing in return. At any rate, Abram was left waiting, though perhaps with greater assurance than before.
Psalm 27 begins, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid” (Vs. 1, BCP). These words reflect great trust in God, a calm assurance that God is the protector of the psalmist’s life. Yet this great trust appears to be shaken in verse 12: “Hide not your face from me, nor turn away your servant in displeasure” (BCP). As Stan Mast (https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/lent-2c/) observes, the psalm begins with “a magnificent confession of unshakeable trust in God” and moves to “a fearful prayer of lament;” it is as though verses 1-6 are “a Psalm of light, while verses 7-12 are a Psalm of darkness.” The psalm is filled with tension, but it is a tension reflected in our own life. This tension was also present in Abram’s life. Mast observes, as Christians we experience periods of light and darkness. Yet the psalmist does not end there, but further states, “What if I had not believed that I should see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living! O tarry and await the Lord’s pleasure; be strong, and he shall comfort your heart; wait patiently for the Lord” (Psalm 27.17-18). Abram had to wait patiently, but ultimately, God’s promise was fulfilled.
In Philippians, Paul invites the members of the Church of Philippi to imitate him rather than live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Paul reminds them their citizenship is in heaven, from whence they are “expecting a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,” who shall transform their bodies of humiliation that they might be conformed to the body of Christ’s glory. Paul exhorts them to stand firm in the Lord – to wait.
In the gospel reading, we encountered some Pharisees who came to Jesus and warned him: “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you” (Luke 13.31; NRSV). Jesus had previously been speaking of the coming of the kingdom of God. Were the Pharisees concerned to protect Jesus or did they simply wish that he would flee the region. I have my suspicions it was the latter. Jesus replied, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” (Luke 13.32-33; NRSV). Jerusalem was the center of political, economic, and religious power, and the authorities were intent on protecting that power. Herod may have been upset, he may have felt threatened, but Jesus continued his work of ushering in a new kingdom. From all indications, Jesus expected the coming of the kingdom was imminent. Previously, after telling the disciples “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised;” after telling them “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me;” Jesus further announced, “Truly I tell you there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God” (Luke 9.21-23, 27; NRSV). Perhaps Jesus was referring to his resurrection as the coming of the Kingdom of God. It’s a plausible interpretation, yet St. Paul and others understood the coming of the kingdom of God to be more than this – they expected the coming of the kingdom in its fullness.
We still await the fullness of the coming of the kingdom. Like Abram, we long for the fulfillment of the promise. We see the evil about us, and we cry for justice. With Habakkuk we pray, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen . . . Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise” (1.2a, 3b; NRSV). For now, as the psalmist notes, we must “tarry and await the Lord’s pleasure;” we must be strong, and . . . wait patiently for the Lord” knowing that as with Jerusalem, Jesus longs to gather us together as a hen gathers her chicks. Amen