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Sunday, 7 August 2016

Credited as Righteousness

Genesis 15 (abridged...) After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”
He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between [the sacrificed animals]. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,

I'd like, in engaging in this little piece, to refer you back to a piece I previously wrote, called "In a Pagan Place". As the thing I wrote there certainly applies here. Not least as this passage from Genesis was the basis of a lot  of that.

Abram here is a stranger in an alien place. He has left his home and family and is in the company of strangers.  Leaving behind intertextuality for a moment, it is clear that his mind is disturbed. He's clearly a man to whom family means a lot - he's just spent chapter 14 rescuing his  nephew Lot from evil king Kerdolaomer of Elam. He's not an avaricious man, and he's a religious one,  because he gives 10% of his winnings from that battle to Melchizedek the priest-king of Salem.

But he has no children. And in a culture which apparently doesn't think much of the hope of an afterlife - children are your future. There's that line from last week's reading from Ecclesiastes - where he says what's the point of working for riches when you don't know what will happen to them when you die? At least, one hope is that you bequeath to your children.

So he's fretting. He's maybe feeling hopeless, empty. And God comes to Abram and says - do not be afraid. I will be your shield and great reward. And Abram's an honest bloke and all, so he replies well thanks, Lord. But that's not as good as having children, is it?

I like the honesty. At this point Abram should be grovelling with gratitude at  being told the Lord is his great reward. Instead, he says yes - but what about where I'm gonna leave all this money I just won? Thanks for all the being a shield and very great reward - but I actually wanted a baby.

Wanting a child. So deeply engrained into us that it is literally - and I don't often say "literally", this being a oasis of fuzzy thinking - in our DNA. And I don't often say " in our DNA." This being, as best as I can manage, a cliché-free zone. So deep a part of our human nature that it can override so many of our other human desires. Abram, I think, would have swapped all his gold and possibly even God being his great reward, to be a father.

It's so part of our nature - that's why, with questions of family and children, with the whys and hows - with our inbuilt assumptions that people want, and can have, children - we're normally best to ask no questions, make no assumptions, and listen graciously if we are called to.

The Lord has a plan for Abram. And it's beyond one line of inheritance, one stack of gold. He takes him outside, and Abram sees the stars - and God says, this is what your descendants will be like.

And Abram believed God's promise. And the Lord reckoned it to him "as righteousness".

And on that one short passage, so much of Paul's theology of salvation was founded. All of Romans 4 - as St Paul is working out how God's promises are given to Jews and Gentiles - comes from this one idea that when Abram believed the Lord, he was treated as righteous because of it. Galatians 3 - Paul rejects the idea that male Gentiles can only become proper Christians by having certain - ahem - modifications made, and all Christians should follow the Jewish food and ritual laws? Why? Because when Abram was credited as right with God, this happened because he believed, not because of him following the right ritual actions or eating the right food.

So God takes Abram and scares the wits out of him in this dark, pagan place. The darkness falls like death in that lonely place, but Abram sees God's light in the darkness and receives a promise that the Lord will keep.

Because Abram has faith God treats him as righteous. And Abram through Sarai his wife and through Hagar went on to have two sons who would become the ancestors of many nations.

But through the example of Abram's faith his inheritance was much wider than genetic children. God's love could not be constrained by human inheritance. Abram believed the Lord - and it was credited to him as righteousness. In that dark place, that eerie place, that place where the difference between the Lord and humanity was so stark. Here is a human being up against the wildness of the world - and the Lord transcends that wildness and speaks to Abram and makes promises.

And so God may seem far off, unspeakably distant, incomprehensible, all powerful. We may try to put God into many different boxes. Or we may chain him through liturgies, tame him through leading services in chinos. Domesticate him with simplistic hymns, and weigh him down with tea lights and pebbles. But God breaks all those boxes. God rejects our attempts at domestication, because God is the wild, eternal, unstoppable Being beneath all being. But awesome, unthinkable, unchainable as God is - God listens to a prayer spoken in terror or fear, breaks down all barriers to come to us and count us as right with God.

The sacrifices cut in half in that awesome place were not what brought Abram close to God. That was another sacrifice - made once and for all - many years later. They were just an image of what was to come - a shadow of the true sacrifice. God came close to Abram in that wild place. Came close to us in Jesus. Comes close to us through the Spirit. And says - "my nearness to you is not because you are good enough - because you're plainly not. It's because I love you enough. Only trust in me. And I will count you as good enough, because that's what Jesus makes you."

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