Presented on The Lutheran Hour on October 13, 2019
By Pastor Ryan Tinetti, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Genesis 15
A reading from Genesis 15:
"After these things the Word of the Lord came to Abraham in a vision: 'Fear not, Abram, I am your shield. Your reward shall be very great.' But Abram said, 'Oh Lord God, what will You give me, for I continue childless and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?' And Abram said, 'Behold, You've given me no offspring and a member of my household will be my heir.' 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.' And He brought him outside and said, 'Look toward heaven and number the stars if you're able to number them.' Then He said to him, 'So shall your offspring be.' And he believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness. 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.'
"But he said, 'Oh Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?' He said to him, 'Bring Me a heifer, three years old; a female goat, three years old; a ram three, years old; a turtle dove, and a young pigeon.' 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, and when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram and behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. 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 400 years, but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.'
"'As for yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace. You shall be buried in a good old age, and they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.' When the sun had gone down, and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day, the Lord made a covenant with Abraham."
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God, our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times, and he wrote a book earlier this year called The Second Mountain. In this book, David Brooks, he tells a story of a friend of his, a guy named Casey. Casey was going through a job interview, just your regular old job interview, getting asked all the regular old boilerplate questions along the way, but at the end of this interview, the interviewer says to him, says to Casey, "Do you have any questions for me?" I mean, this is pretty standard practice.
Casey says, "Yeah, as a matter of fact, I do."
When he asks his question, the interviewer immediately bursts into tears. You say, "Okay, what was the question?" Well, Casey leans in real close and looks her deeply in the eyes, and he asks her, he says to her, "What would you do if you weren't afraid? What would you do if you weren't afraid?" Immediately, the tears start streaming down her face. Apparently, she wouldn't work human resources at that company or something. I don't know. But it's a worthwhile question for all of us to ponder because the truth is that fear is an ever-present reality in our lives, isn't it? For many of us, if not for most of us, it can dictate sometimes the way that we make decisions, the way that we act in relationships, even the way that we believe or don't believe in God. And so this is an important question for us to consider. What would we do if we weren't afraid? It comes to mind when we hear today's reading from the book of Genesis, the story in Genesis 15. We see that Abram can relate, because when we find him here, Abram is afraid—not for the usual reasons that you might be afraid, either. He's not afraid because of financial troubles. He's not afraid because of things that go bump in the night. He's not even afraid because of death, at least not directly. No, Abram is afraid because God had made a promise. God had told him, "Abram, I will make of you a great nation, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." In other words, God promised Abram a vast and sprawling family dynasty, and this dynasty would be the source of blessing for all the world.
You say, "Okay, that sounds pretty good, so why would he be afraid of that?" Well, see, the only problem is that Abram at this point still has no kids and not to put too fine a point on it, he wasn't getting any younger. He's approaching 100 years old. How in the world could his offspring be the source of the world's blessing if that offspring doesn't even exist, right? So Abram's afraid. He is afraid that God's promise won't come true. He is afraid that this crazy adventure he's been on, with him leaving his home in Ur and traveling to a foreign land, that all of this is going to be for nothing, and now he's looking to some foreigner who's going to end up being his heir. Yes, Abram is afraid.
And so we see that God decides to take Abram on a little field trip. When I was in elementary school, my favorite field trip was always to the planetarium. You remember the planetarium? We'd go to the planetarium. We'd lean back in our chairs. We'd look up at the ceiling, and we would see the starry sky in all of its glory, and we'd wonder at the vastness of creation. Well, God does Abram one better here. He takes him out under the night sky, and He says to him, "All right, Abram, check it out. You think that you can number these stars? Well, guess what? That's what the number of your descendants is going to be like."
Do you ever look up at the night sky out in the country or from a mountainside? I mean, there's millions, billions maybe, but of course the Lord's point here is not the exact number, right? The point is that He is going to keep His promise to Abram. Abram believes and God counts that faith as righteousness. No more reason to fear. End of story, right? Wrong.
See, because right after this, God decides it's time to make a covenant with Abram. If old Abe thought that he had reason to fear before, well, that fear is about to increase like the number of stars in the sky. See, in ancient parlance, you don't actually make a covenant. Instead, what you do is you cut a covenant. That's the literal Hebrew phrase. You kāraf berît. You cut a covenant. The reason for this way of speaking was actually pretty straightforward. See, when two people or two parties were going to cut a covenant with one another, the standard practice was to take several animals and to cut them in half. I mean, it was a bloody affair. But that wasn't all. After they butchered the animals, they laid them out in a row with sort of an aisle in between the two halves. Then the two parties, they would walk the aisle together, like they're being married, and in a sense they are, right? Their fates are now joined together.
As they made their oaths to one another, with the blood of the slaughtered animals still fresh, they'd say to each other, "May it be so to me if I do not keep the terms of this covenant. May it be so to me if I don't keep the terms of this covenant." In other words, may I end up like this butchered Bessie over here, this butchered cow.
Well, there's one more important footnote when it comes to the covenant. You always read the fine print, right? That's just good life advice. See, when you make this covenant, when you cut this covenant, you're not just obliging yourself to keep it. You would be obliging all of your descendants, too. If you fail to keep the covenant, that isn't just bad for you, it's bad for all of them, too. These stipulations are like the ones from a credit card company, only even more exacting if you can imagine that. Because justice will be done. Once the covenant has been cut, it will be kept, one way or another.
I want you to imagine with me now, imagine Abram with the knives, carving up these animals. Before, he was afraid that God wouldn't keep His promise, but now, now as he's splitting that goat and heifer and ram into two, and he's setting them out two by two, the blood spilling on the ground, now Abram's got much more reason for fear, because now he's got to wonder if he and if all of his descendants after him can keep up their own end of the bargain. But here's where things really get strange. I know what you're thinking. Aren't these already strange enough? Well, listen, Abram questions God, and God in response says, "Let's cut a covenant." So Abram gathers up the animals, cuts them in two, sets them out, all according to custom, so far so good. What we expect next is for Abram and the Lord to walk the aisle and for Abraham to make that fearful oath I mentioned a moment ago, "May this happen to me if I don't keep the covenant." That's what we expect, but that's not what happens. What happens is that Abram finishes up his butchering job, right? Then he's evidently tuckered from all of his hard work because he immediately passes right out. He just falls into a deep sleep, just like Adam did when God took the rib from his side. You remember that in Genesis 2? Then when night falls and Abram's still snoozing like a baby, suddenly a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch pass between the animals. Well, what's this all about? These are emblems of God's presence. God Himself is going down the bloody aisle. Then the Scripture says this, it says, "On that day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram."
Now, you may have noticed that something is missing there, or more to the point, that someone is missing. Abram himself didn't walk the aisle. He didn't make that fearful oath, "May this happen to me if I don't keep the covenant." He didn't oblige himself and his descendants. Instead, God singlehandedly cuts the covenant on both of their behalves. It's like the Lord is co-signing on His own promise. He Himself is ensuring that the covenant will be kept. Even more than that, He's taking on Himself the responsibility if this covenant isn't kept.
Imagine this time, Abram, when he finally comes out of his slumber, picture him rubbing the crusties out of his eyes, right? He's looking around confused at first because the animals are all gone, and the blood is all dried on the ground. Suddenly, he realizes that the covenant has already been cut for him. While he was sleeping, the work was done on his behalf. It is finished. He need not fear.
But even that is not the end of the story, not by a long shot. I mean, if you know your Scriptures, you know that Abram did not, in fact, keep the covenant. We'll actually hear in the next coming weeks that not long after this planetary field trip with the Lord, Abram was hedging his bets by having a child with Hagar, his wife's servant. Abram's descendants, they definitely didn't fare any better than he did. Accounts of their fickle, faithless ways take up most of the pages of what we call the Old Testament. That's why in the fullness of time the bill finally came due.
One of Abram's descendants was going to have to foot it in full. But He'd be no ordinary Israelite, this One, because you recall that God Himself promised to uphold both ends of the deal, right? Our Lord Jesus was born of a virgin, born of Abram's distant descendant, Mary, in order that He might be both the Son of God and the Son of Abram, so that God might be both just and the justifier of the One who has faith like Abram.
You remember how Jesus cut what we call the new covenant. Sometimes we call it the New Testament. On the night when He was betrayed, He promised that the bread that is His body would be broken, and that the wine which is His blood would be poured out. No sooner does He make this promise as He finds himself in the Garden of Gethsemane. What about the disciples? What are they doing? Where are they? Well, like Abram before them, they are snoozing like babies. They are sound asleep. Christ Jesus walked the aisle alone for you and for me. He singlehandedly offered Himself up to keep God's promise and to suffer our punishment in our place. With the covenant kept, the stipulation satisfied, He says in a word that rings through heaven and through history, "It is finished! It is finished!"
You and I, we don't have to fear. We needn't fear that God will fail to keep His promise. No, He has fulfilled His Word. Heaven and earth will pass away before the promise of your Savior falls through. You needn't fear your own failures either, that you won't keep up your end of the bargain. Look, already Christ has kept up your end of the bargain on your behalf. As often as you fail, and as often as you fall, you receive the fruits of his new covenant on your tongue and in your heart for the forgiveness of your sins. What else is there left to fear?
That takes us back to the question that we started with, the question that David Brooks asks, "What would you do if you weren't afraid?" Well, it's a good question. It's one worth pondering, but I wonder if maybe in view of this truth of who God is and what He has already done for you and me, maybe we need to restate the question a little bit. Put it this way: what will you do since you need not fear? What will you do since you need not fear? How would that change the way that you live in your relationships, in your vocations, and just in your everyday life? Because like Abram, you are justified in Christ already. You belong to a faithful Savior who has taken care of your past, your present, and your future. He's taken away the source of fear. Now you live simply and solely by faith.
Maybe you've heard Martin Luther's definition of faith before. He said that faith is a living, daring confidence in God's grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it 1,000 times. Faith, by this definition, is faith unafraid. It's trust in the Lord of love, whose perfect love casts out all fear, leaves no room for it, see? You and I, we don't have to be afraid any longer. Not that we won't ever have good cause for fear or that we'll ever totally shake it in this life. It's something that we're going to have to deal with it until our Lord comes again or until He takes us home. Even still, in the midst of all of these things that would make you and me afraid, we can venture, we can risk, and we can rest in the all-availing compassion of our Lord Jesus, the One who says, "It is finished!"
It's just like the hymn tells us, "Take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife. Though these all be gone, our victory has been won. The kingdom, ours remaineth." Let me ask you once more, what will you do since you need not fear? Amen.
Reflections for October 13, 2019
Title: Faith Unafraid
Mark Eischer: Now here's our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. It is my delight to welcome back to the studio, my good friend, the Rev. Dr. Jason Broge.
Mike Zeigler: We talked about Genesis 15 and Abram and his fear. What stood out to you in that conversation that we just shared for the podcast, "Speaking of Jesus"?
Jason Broge: What was interesting about that conversation for me is we had, in the room, a number of different generations represented or different stages of life, I should say. We had a couple of us who have kids. We had one young woman who was just getting ready to get married, and we had another young man who has no kids and is married, had been married for a couple of years. For me, it was just kind of fun to have the conversation, to have a space created where we could share how God meets us in the midst of kind of the everyday fears that are part of life.
Mike Zeigler: I like how you said He meets us where we're at, not where we were or where we're going to be, but where we're at. And that was one thing that stood out to me in Pastor Tinetti's sermon. We call him Pastor Tinetti, but he's our friend. We were all classmates together in seminary almost 15 years ago now.
Jason Broge: Don't say things like that.
Mike Zeigler: Okay. It's scary. Maybe it was just as much in the tone of his delivery, as he walked through the story of Abram, and the Lord gave me this sense that the God of Abram, is my God through Jesus, and He's meeting me where I'm at and walking with me just like He walked with Abram.
Mike Zeigler: What stood out to you in Ryan's sermon?
Jason Broge: One thing about the whole passage is honestly the way that Tinetti broke it down, and we had the opportunity to walk with him through this passage of Genesis, brought back some strange memories I wasn't expecting, and I found myself really connecting with the story of Abram in a different way, and I'm remembering the fear of not being able to have children. I have four children now, but there were a number of years where we struggled with infertility, and we didn't think we'd be able to have any, and it was a real fear.
So here we have Abram asking the same question. It really gave me a moment to kind of pause and think about God's faithfulness. God kept that covenant to Abram in a bigger way than Abram realized, in a way that I sit here now in this studio as a baptized child of God—baptized into the promises of God that Christ earned for me when he lived that sacrifice out in a very different way.
Mike Zeigler: Paid the bill as Ryan said. The day was coming when the family would have to pay and thank God One did.
Jason Broge: Yes.
Mike Zeigler: We hear God say that Abram is justified. He's, righteous, in the right with God, through faith. He's also still struggling with doubt and fear. How do you talk about that relationship in God's people between fear and faith, between doubt and trust?
Jason Broge: The human creature doesn't stay in that state of doubt perpetually. They either confirm their original belief in a stronger way that answers the doubt, or they reject that belief for some new belief. So whenever you have a doubt, one belief is going to get stronger, and one belief is going to get weaker, or you're going to less believe something.
Mike Zeigler: Maybe you could say that doubt is a sign. Doubt or fear can be signs that you care, that you're invested, that if you didn't have any doubts or fears, it would be a sign of apathy.
Jason Broge: I think the key here for this, is where Abram turns in the midst of doubt, in the midst of the fear. So he takes those fears and he puts them to God, the one Person who can answer them, and he doesn't try to hide them from himself. He doesn't try to pretend like they're not there. He is left where we all are left at the end of the day, trusting God. His faith is there and that's the thing. It's the faith in God. It's that is, in fact, not even something Abram is creating it himself, that is credited to him as righteousness.
Mike Zeigler: How do these insights shape the way you approach mentoring other Christians or coaching other Christians through these periods of doubt and faith in the struggle?
Jason Broge: When someone comes to me with a doubt, there was a time when I immediately wanted to open up every resource and just overwhelm someone with "Well, that's just the wrong, that's just a silly sort of idea. Maybe even a dumb question for you to ask because obviously blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."
Mike Zeigler: You're assuming that doubt always comes from ignorance.
Jason Broge: Yes.
Mike Zeigler: You just don't have enough knowledge, so let me fix that, but a different approach here.
Jason Broge: But now the way I look at it these days, it's much more of beginning with, "Thank you for asking that question." I'm thinking of the man saying, "I believe, helped me with my unbelief." Jesus doesn't not heal the guy until he's got it all figured out. He joins him in the process. In the midst of that man's doubts. He helps him with his unbelief, and I think we're called to do something similar, to walk with people in their doubt, in the midst of their doubt, not necessarily thinking, we've got to provide an answer right now in these next five minutes, but through that relationship, accepting them where they're at, having multiple opportunities to be there with them, pray with them and, yes, when appropriate, provide some answers to questions, but when necessary, say, "You know what, I don't know the answer to that question yet, but let's go through this together." I want to have that person come a little closer and walk with them and explore the answers, trusting in God to lead us through that path.
Mike Zeigler: How is it similar, and maybe different, when it comes to talking with someone who's outside of the household of faith?
Jason Broge: If I meet somebody and they're like, "I just don't want have anything to do with Christians at all." Then I think I probably have a responsibility to start by just kind of building the relationship where they're at. But if someone who's outside of the faith says, "Hey, I don't understand why Christians believe X." Well then, I'm really in the same place as I would be with a person who is a Christian, in the sense that I need you to accept you where you're at, walk with you through this process and these questions that you have.
When someone's going through a doubt, we want to control the experience and the process and it's about what we have to say instead of accepting the person where they're at. Look at what God does with Abram. This isn't the last doubt Abram's going to have. Abram is going to wrestle with doubt continuously, and God's going to meet him and walk through that process. And the God of the universe, in this moment, the One who said, "Count the stars," already knows this about Abram, already knows Abram's going to have these struggles, knows that Sarai is struggling with these same sorts of things and won't necessarily be running to Him for the answers, but accepts Abram and walks with him through it. Literally, shows up in this fire and comes between the carcasses, sends His Son to go through those same experiences with people who are continuously doubting Him. I think as Christians, we're called to do that with other people.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Your Hand, O Lord, in Days of Old" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)