This sermon was offered for the First United Presbyterian Church in Troy, NY on April 27, 2014. Scripture readings were Genesis 15 and John 20: 19-31.
I offered this sermon keeping in mind that this congregation has been waiting for their new pastor, Rev. Gusti Newquist to arrive after the Lenten Season, which she officially does this week and they begin their new ministry together next Sunday. Gusti was in worship today and so we were able to co-officiate at the Table together and to share the joy of a new beginning for this congregation!
Portions of this sermon were first preached in February 2013.
Do you remember what it was like to be a little child and afraid of the dark?
I can remember that fear.
Sometimes at night I would be afraid to put my feet over the side of the bed—the monster hiding underneath might eat them I thought.
When I got old enough to be left home alone, I would sometimes be afraid. Even though he never left my side, I’d put a leash on our golden retriever Jake (just to make sure!) and make him walk all around the house with me for company and protection when I was a teenager and my parents were out for the night.
Even as adults—sometimes we are afraid of the dark aren’t we?
Two years ago I was visiting a high-conflict area in Colombia staying as a guest in a Pastor’s home. My childhood fears of the dark came back to me, even though I knew I was in a protected zone in a house that was full of love and hospitality. One night I woke up and needed the bathroom, but the bathroom was an outhouse, many yards away from the house. I lay in bed a full hour debating my options before I finally worked up the nerve to go outside with my flashlight.
The darkness can be scary sometimes no matter who you are.
This primal human fear is even recorded in the Bible. We are the not the first ones to have our fears play out at night—to think that something beyond ourselves is happening when the sun has set and the moon is in the sky. In today’s reading Abraham has just had another conversation with God, another time when God has promised Abraham all sorts of things. This time Abraham has been told by God what for a man in his time should be the best news ever! God says,
“Abraham—look up at the night sky.
Do you see all those stars?
Can you even count them?
See how many stars there are!
That’s how many descendants you will have!”
Now for some of us this would keep us up all night! That many children and grandchildren! That’s a lot of mouths to feed! Maybe that’s why Abraham was tormented in the night!
Or maybe it was this:
The gravity and the seriousness of the situation facing him.
After God tells Abraham about his plan—all of the descendants; God instructs Abraham to prepare himself for an ancient ritual—the ritual of sealing a covenant. Abraham gathers up some animals—a cow, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon. He cuts each animal in half, right down the middle and lays them out on the ground—creating a path in-between the halves of the animals.
In the time of Abraham, once you make a covenant you walk with the other person you made it with along the path lined by the halves of the animals. It is a public sign to the community of your solemn promises to each other. The unspoken threat is that if either side breaks the covenant—then you end up like one of the animals.
It doesn’t even have to be dark at night at that point to be afraid!
But Abraham has a problem. He’s got his covenant but has no one to walk the gauntlet between the animals with him. And from the text we can see that Abraham waited a while for God to show up to walk with him. Because vultures sniffed out the dead animals and descended upon them.
It is a sad and a grim picture of Abraham.
Waiting for God among dead animals while trying to dodge hungry vultures.
And the original reason for this covenant that God is making with Abraham about his decedents? It is because God hasn’t fully delivered on the first promise three chapters earlier. Abraham is not yet in the land God has promised him. God has changed the promise from land to children and a few chapters later God will change the covenant again.
And Abraham by this point in his life is pushing 80 years old.
And God still hasn’t shown up.
And so the day draws to a close.
It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun does it?
Maybe it’s hard for us to relate to Abraham and the customs and behaviors that guided his life. Let me say, I hope and pray thiscustom is hard for us to relate to! No more covenants with cut-up dead animals!
But we can relate to the feeling Abraham had that day as he waited for God and God didn’t show up. That feeling that the day is over, and yet your problems are still not solved and will still be there when you wake up in the morning.
The person you were waiting for has not shown up.
The job you thought for sure you would get has not materialized.
The family member you believed with all your heart would never let you down just has.
Or the body that never failed you is now starting to and you cannot predict what will come next.
Or you just open the newspaper or turn on the TV or read the news online and you wonder to yourself how can people move forward amid the incredible heartache and trauma that is offered up to us as an unending parade day-after-day-after-day?
Ever feel like that?
Ever feel like not just a person has abandoned you—but that even God has? Or ever wondered like the disciples did so many thousands of years ago—if Jesus really was dead or alive? If everything they had spent their lives for was just a dream, a hoax, or was it really a reality? Or felt like staying locked up in a room was a better way to live life?
The writers of Genesis tell us that in the midst of his desolation and his incredible fear, Abraham falls asleep at the end of the day, next to the dead animals. In his deep sleep he is terrified. And then God comes and speaks to him—and tells Abraham that yes, he will have decedents but they will suffer, they will be slaves and be oppressed for 400 hundred years. But eventually they will get back to their land and eventually they will prosper. But Abraham will not have to live this reality. He will die in peace when he has lived a good long life. After all of this God does finally pass through the covenant-gauntlet…in the form of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch.
But not before Abraham has been tormented.
One of my favorite commentatorswrites on this passage that what Abraham lived through—that night of searing darkness, loneliness and isolation is like those moments in life that we all have, when something terrible happens, or a series of terrible things happen and we feel like God has walked away from us. We have a covenant with God, a covenant we expect to be followed—that God will love and care for us. So where is God when bad things happen? When terrible things happen? And Abraham’s moment is like the moments so many live with for so much of the time, moments of depression or hurt, whether it is situational or long-term, that rob of us of the ability to function or carry out our day-to-day lives.
Last Sunday with great joy we celebrated Easter Sunday—that day that reminds us that death is no more, pain is no more, that life is different and changed because Jesus is risen.
Next Sunday with incredible joy you and Gusti will celebrate you first Sunday of worship together—what I expect to be many, many years of Sundays and worship to come!
I am not here today to say anything is wrong with joy—but what I am here to offer from our two scripture readings is the truth which is just as powerful as the truth of our faith about joy, new life and Resurrection—that there are also moments in life of fear, of wondering, of waiting longer than we think we can take, moments when hope seems dim. That’s what happened to Abraham that night. That’s the emotional place of complete and total desperation and desolation the disciples were in after the death of Jesus.
Did they learn in those moments to trust God, even though God wasn’t showing up in the ways they most needed God to? Or did Abraham and later the disciples, learn to let go, even though the loneliness and the abandonment was still there and still giving them pause even as they struggled through times of incredible personal adversity to follow God?
We do not completely know.
I suspect it was a bit more of the latter, that they each in their own ways just figured out how to function with the uncertainties that life kept dishing out. Just as the joy of this Eastertide season, the gift of Resurrection is a mystery—it is also sometimes in our lives an incredibly mysterious gift that healing arrives, sadness begins to abate, the fog lifts, plants push through the ground hardened by a long winter to unfurl their stems and leaves and flowers once again in the spring.
The mystery encompasses us once again.
The Easter Season is here.
The new beginning this congregation has been waiting for is here.
God never leaves us, even when the path goes in a different way than we expected or planned for it to go.
Love encircles us once again.
We are made new.
 Carl Wilton. Lectionary Preaching Workbook: Cycle C. Lima, OH: CSS Publishing, 2006. p. 125.
Images in this post:
Photograph of First United’s sanctuary is (c) Shannan Vance-Ocampo from their More Light Sunday 2014, images of scripture are from the Wikipedia Creative Commons.