Reader: “Hear God’s promise. . .”
Response: “from the First Testament.”
Scripture: Genesis 15:1-18
Some time later, the Lord spoke to Abram in a vision and said to him, “Do not be afraid, Abram, for I will protect you, and your reward will be great.”
But Abram replied, “O Sovereign Lord, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son? Since you’ve given me no children, Eliezer of Damascus, a servant in my household, will inherit all my wealth. You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir.”
Then the Lord said to him, “No, your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir.” Then the Lord took Abram outside and said to him, “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!”
And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith.
Then the Lord told him, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as your possession.”
But Abram replied, “O Sovereign Lord, how can I be sure that I will actually possess it?”
The Lord told him, “Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” So Abram presented all these to him and killed them. Then he cut each animal down the middle and laid the halves side by side; he did not, however, cut the birds in half. Some vultures swooped down to eat the carcasses, but Abram chased them away.
As the sun was going down, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a terrifying darkness came down over him. Then the Lord said to Abram, “You can be sure that your descendants will be strangers in a foreign land, where they will be oppressed as slaves for 400 years. But I will punish the nation that enslaves them, and in the end they will come away with great wealth. (As for you, you will die in peace and be buried at a ripe old age.) After four generations your descendants will return here to this land, for the sins of the Amorites do not yet warrant their destruction.”
After the sun went down and darkness fell, Abram saw a smoking firepot and a flaming torch pass between the halves of the carcasses. So the Lord made a covenant with Abram that day and said, “I have given this land to your descendants, all the way from the border of Egypt to the great Euphrates River—
Reader: “The word of the Lord.”
Response: “Thanks be to God.”
Nothing in all of Scripture functions in a vacuum. As we draw closer and closer to celebrating the birth of the Savior, today’s reading takes us back in history to the time between the Fall and the Redemption. God had come to Abram earlier and revealed his plan to bless all the nations of the earth through Abram’s family. Though there was the promise, there was no family in the offing. This passage moves things ahead in God’s larger unfolding of history. In God’s time he gives Abram more specifics. (Have you noticed this pattern in your own life? Quite often it seems that God gives to us his plan in bits and pieces rather than unfolding the whole story all at once.) In this case, Abram calls God on his promise of blessing pointing out that he has no offspring, only a substitute heir. But again, God doesn’t reveal the whole only promising that Abram will have a son that he himself fathers. At this point, that was good enough for Abram and he believed God and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith. God then promised Abram the land for his family. Abram’s next question was logical. As one man, how can I possess it? Then he had what is, to us, a rather mysterious encounter with God. Having established a relationship with Abram, God took the initiative in ratifying the Covenant. Have you noticed in Scripture how often it is God who initiates? Abram followed God’s instruction concerning presenting and preparing the animals. Did you notice that vultures swooped down to eat the carcasses and Abram chased them away? This is symbolic of another attempt of the devil to short-circuit God’s plan of redemption. Think of the serpent in the Garden, Pharoah’s order to kill Jewish baby boys, King Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Jesus, the devil’s temptation of Jesus, the attempt of people in Jesus’ hometown to throw him off a cliff, or Peter’s attempt to talk Jesus out of going to the cross. The devil was and is relentless in his attempts to thwart God’s plan of redemption and restoration. As the sun set during a deep sleep, God told Abram history in advance. Then a very remarkable thing happened, God appeared as a flaming pot passing between the halves of the split animals. God is often portrayed in Scripture as fire, cleansing, holy, unapproachable. Here, God confirms his Covenant with Abram. The significance of the fire pot passing between the split animals makes this statement: “May I become like these animals if I break the covenant I have made.” It was a promise to Abram that did not depend on Abram’s faithfulness (or ours), but on God’s faithfulness to us. The result some 2,000 years later was the birth of a baby boy in Bethlehem, the singular hope of the world.
Music: “Mary’s Boy Child” Charlotte Church
Almighty God give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.
―Book of Common Prayer