Monday, August 12, 2019

Sermon: "In God We Trust", Genesis 15:1-6/Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 (August 11, 2019)


Our first reading today is one of the more astounding stories in the Bible. I don’t mean because of the number of descendants that God promises Abram (although that IS incredible) and I don’t mean because of the prospect of an elderly couple having a child in their old age (although that IS inconceivable). No, the reason this passage is so astounding is because of what God’s doing here: God is entering into a covenant relationship with humanity.

Now, this might not seem particularly astounding to you at first but consider this: a covenant is an agreement between two parties for their MUTUAL benefit. Sometimes, one party benefits more than the other, but they both get something out of it. The all-powerful Lord has no need for a covenant with us; there’s nothing we can offer that God is lacking. There’s no strategic reason for God to willingly become beholden to us. And yet, the Lord chooses to put Godself in exactly that situation, because God wants to be in relationship with us. So, God covenants to be our faithful God, and in return, we covenant to be God’s faithful people. In this agreement lies the basis of our faith, our religion, and our identity.

Let’s be honest with ourselves here: we definitely got the better end of this deal. Because God is faithful, we know that we can always rely on God to keep God’s promises (unlike humankind, which is notoriously fickle with allegiances). However, there is a sort of snag in this arrangement: contrary to our assumptions, we don’t always get to benefit directly from the promises that God makes to us. Consider Abraham—as God had promised, his wife gave birth to a son, but that was only a tiny fraction of the Abrahamic covenant. He never got to see his descendants be as numerous as the stars. He never got to live in the land that was promised to him later in the chapter.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that this is, more often than not, the real nature of God’s best promises. They’re less “instant gratification” and more “long, loooooong-term planning”. As Christians, we know the patience required as generations go by without seeing Christ’s return. The Jewish people had to wait centuries for the coming of the Messiah (and modern Jews are still waiting). The Israelites of the Jewish diaspora were in exile for so long that they struggled to maintain their community identity. And of course, God’s covenant with Abraham wasn’t fulfilled in its entirety until Joshua brought the Israelites into the Promised Land at the end of the Exodus (which, by itself, took 40 years from start to finish).

But Abraham seemed willing to accept that this is just how it works, and readily submitted to God’s methods without knowing how or when God’s promises would ultimately be fulfilled. Hebrews 11 reminds us that Abraham dutifully followed God’s commands without question, “not knowing where he was going…[and] stayed for a time in the land he had been promised as in a foreign land, living in tents…”[1] He “saw and greeted” God’s promises from a distance, knowing that he’d never benefit from them. “He looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”[2] In other words…it didn’t matter to him that he didn’t get to be the direct beneficiary of God’s promises; it was enough for him to know that God would be faithful, in God’s own time.

This obedient acceptance of God’s long-term planning seems to be a lost art today. As we all know, our modern culture is one of instant gratification (and no, I’m not just talking about Millennials and Generation Z). Because of technological advancements, we expect to have access to information immediately, to have food delivered in 15 minutes or less, to watch any movie or TV show with the press of a button. In and of itself, this mentality isn’t necessarily bad. But although we may not like to admit it, how often have these expectations bled into our attitudes toward how God ought to work? How many times have you prayed and become frustrated when you didn’t receive a clear answer within 24 hours? (Doesn’t God check email?) How many times have you engaged in ministry and felt like God wasn’t present at all? (It’s not like God has somewhere better to be.) How many times have you gone outside of your comfort zone to invite others to church, only to have the community stay the same size year after year? (God doesn’t seem to be pulling God’s weight...) No matter what you read in Scripture, these sorts of things can be enough to make you question God’s faithfulness.

These feelings of being let down by God are bad enough, but the consequences that these emotions lead to are far worse. When we believe we’ve been let down by God, we feel justified in dropping the ball on OUR part of the covenant. Now, I don’t know about you, but my parents always taught me that if I made a commitment, I needed to see it all the way through (believe me, there was many a club, sport, and music lesson that I limped through sullenly because of this family policy). A covenant is a commitment, so why should it be okay for us to abandon our commitment to God, just because we’re not seeing the results we want? Why have we forgotten what Abraham and our early spiritual ancestors seemed to understand so easily?

Sure, we claim to have faith even in the face of difficulty; many of us even base our whole identities around this fact…but do we TRUST God? What is faith without trust? There’s a story about a daredevil called “The Great Blondin” who made a name for himself in the mid-nineteenth century by crossing a tightrope suspended over Niagara Falls. The story goes that during one of his performances, he asked the crowd whether they believed that he could cross the rope while pushing a wheelbarrow. The crowd enthusiastically cheered, having seen him perform far more complex stunts before. Such a thing would be simple for the Great Blondin! They had absolute faith in him! He waited until the crowd quieted down, and then asked with a twinkle in his eye, “So who volunteers to ride in the wheelbarrow?” Needless to say, there were few takers.

Faith may be wonderful, the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…” but it’s meaningless without trust. Faith is a feeling; a state of being, an internal choice. By itself, it doesn’t require much risk. Trust, on the other hand, is what happens when we’re willing to put our money where our mouth is, so to speak. It’s the point at which we let our faith make us vulnerable, where we truly and willingly put our lives in God’s hands, regardless of what will happen. Faith without trust stays put, never changes, never grows. Faith without trust is safe…but empty. We live in a time where many of us feel let down by God, for a multitude of different reasons—maybe we fear that our livelihood is threatened; maybe we believe that our needs are being ignored; maybe we feel like the kingdom of God is impossible to achieve. When this happens, we cling to our faith in God, but, consciously or sub-consciously, we shift our TRUST from God back onto ourselves. That’s a recipe for disaster.

If we claim to have faith in God, but we place our trust in human beings and institutions, we’re abandoning our half of the covenant. In promising to be God’s people, we promise to trust God, no matter what. We promise to place our trust not in ourselves, not in what benefits us the most, not in our understanding of the plan, but in God’s goodness and faithfulness. It shouldn’t be a difficult thing to do—God is constantly motivating us and reassuring us, fulfilling smaller promises here and there, reminding us of God’s history of trustworthiness, to keep us going in the face of the unknown. To keep us going even when we don’t get to see the end of those “big promises”. God gives us plenty of evidence that the story isn’t over yet!

But of course, trust is easy in principle; difficult in practice. Because sometimes, trust means putting ourselves second and recognizing that we won’t necessarily “win”. Remember, God loves you…but God also loves the generations that will come after you, your enemies, and all the entire rest of creation, too. Sometimes, we need to trust that it’s NOT about us…but that whatever God’s plan turns out to be, it will be better than anything we could possibly imagine.

There’s a quote that’s been making the rounds on social media for quite some time now. It says, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” It’s been attributed to many different people; I can’t quite track down who said it first. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe this is a lesson that God needs us to understand, one that we keep resisting. Maybe we need to trust that when God asks us to plant trees, it’s not necessarily for us, but it’s so that we might be a part of something bigger, something better, than ourselves. The heavenly country that Abraham’s descendants sought. Maybe we should trust that when we don’t see results from following God, it doesn’t mean that God is letting us down; it means that God has something better in mind. Something that we may not get to see, but something that’s worth working towards anyway.

Trust the vision that God offers you, even if it’s not what you expect or want, even if you won’t get to see it fulfilled. God covenanted centuries ago to never let you down; I don’t imagine God has any plans to start now. It’s okay to start small—sometimes, a single act of unconditional trust can lead to a lifetime of covenantal relationships. Abraham made a single choice, to uproot his life in order to obey God’s command, and it opened up a path before him and his descendants that we’re still travelling today. Just take one step at a time; put one foot in front of the other…knowing that wherever we are is where God needs us to be.

Can you see the heavenly country from this distance, the one of which God is the architect and builder and you the laborer? Can you greet it joyfully, not because you’ll get to inhabit it, but because you rejoice for those who will? Don’t just take a leap of faith, take a leap of trust. Jump in God’s wheelbarrow and see where it takes you. Whether or not you get to see the results, I promise that it will be well worth it—if you can’t trust me, trust God. Amen.


[1] Hebrews 11:8-9, NRSV.
[2] Hebrews 11:10, NRSV.

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