The lectionary for the season after Pentecost gives us 2 options for the first reading, the Old or First Testament lesson. One option is called semi-continuous and provides an overview of the stories and texts of the Old Testament, so that, if you came to church every Sunday every summer, over the three years you would get something of a sense of the entire testament. The other option hews more closely to the lectionary of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. In this option, texts from the Old Testament were selected for their relevance to the Gospel reading of the day.
Over the years, I’ve gone back and forth between the two options. Each has its positive and negative aspects. The semi-continuous lectionary provides an opportunity to preach on the stories of the Old Testament, to follow them through, or to offer a series of sermons on one of the prophetic books, for example. But they can also be jarringly different from the other readings.
We’ve been following the second option this year, hearing readings that are connected to the Gospel texts. That allows for a more coherent liturgy of the word, but it also tempts us to read those texts through the eyes of the New Testament and Christianity, and prevents us from remembering that they were originally and remain sacred texts of Judaism that deserve being read and interpreted on their own. This second option also extracts the reading from the context in which they appear. So, for example, this is the third reading we’ve had over the last month from the Abraham narrative (Genesis 12-25), but today’s reading takes us back before the other two we heard.
We are provided with the initial verses of a larger story that includes a covenantal ceremony enacting the promise God made and Abraham’s faithful response, so our focus should be on the interchange between God and Abraham (called Abram here before being renamed by God later in the text). God comes to Abram in a vision and reminds him of the promise God had made long before, to make of his offspring a great nation.
In response, Abram expresses his doubt. It has been many years since that promise. Abram and Sarai are old; she is past the age of child-bearing, so Abram has made alternative plans; a slave will be his heir. So God takes Abram out and shows him the sky: “toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”
The text continues: “And he believed the Lord and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” There’s ambiguity in the original here—it’s not clear who reckoned it to whom as righteousness, although the tradition has always taken it as translated in our text. And that’s the way St. Paul interpreted it as well. This verse was one of his proof texts for justification by faith apart from the law because this precedes Abram’s circumcising of the men of his household. The key thing here for us is Abram’s trust in God’s promise. While we will see him continuing to question God about the promise of offspring, for now at least, Abraham believed.
That’s what matters to the author of Hebrews as well. In this poetic, powerful passage, we are presented with a litany of those who have gone before us, the great cloud of witnesses. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called; by faith he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised. But suddenly the author shifts. Again, we are given a misleading translation. In the Greek, it reads, “By faith Sarah received the power of procreation, even though she was too old.
Abraham and Sarah, whether directly through their stories or refracted through the views of the author of Hebrews, may seem quite removed from our own lives and experiences. The model of a couple whose experiences are set millennia ago seem hardly relevant in our time of cultural and political conflict, mass shootings, the coming global climate catastrophe. What has the faith of Abraham and Sarah to do with us?
I would like to lift out several important elements in their stories and in Hebrews’ appropriation of their story. First, trusting in God’s promises. When God called Abraham, God promised to give him land and to make of him a mighty nation. Those promises are reiterated throughout the story of Abraham and Sarah, but the fact of the matter is, when Abraham died, he had two sons: Isaac, the favored one, and Ishmael, who with his mother Hagar, had been sent away. And Abraham even to his death, remained a stranger and a foreigner. The only land he legally possessed at his death was the burial plot he purchased for Sarah.
Abraham did not meekly and quietly trust in God’s promises. He challenged God—we see that here, but we see it even more in other stories. In the appearance of God to him at Mamre, which was read a few weeks ago, he again challenged God about Sarah’s lack of children, and both he and Sarah laughed when God promised she would become pregnant. He also challenged God in connection with the destruction of Sodom, bargaining with God on the number of righteous people whose presence in the city might prevent its destruction.
This is not a blind, unthinking faith. This is not a faith that closes itself off from the realities of the world around us. When the author of Hebrews writes, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” he is not asking us to believe in spite of all evidence to the contrary. He is not setting faith over against reason or science, or historical evidence. Instead, he is pointing us toward the deeper meaning and purpose of it all, reminding us of where our true allegiance should lie, where we should find confidence and hope to carry on. “We are strangers and foreigners here.”
This is also the message of the gospel. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
I know we struggle with our faith. We often aren’t sure what we believe, whether we believe. We may often feel that God is so far away from us, the distance so great, that even if we wanted, we couldn’t be certain of God’s existence, or God’s care for us. I sometimes have people come to me, whether as newcomers or people who have been at Grace for years, decades even, and tell me that they aren’t sure why they come to church, they aren’t sure whether any of it means anything or makes sense. Sometimes it seems, we aren’t just strangers and foreigners here, we are strangers and foreigners to God and to the church.
But God doesn’t view us that way. God continues to be present, even when we lack the certainty of a vision, or the certainty of faith. God continues to promise God’s love and care for us, even when we are wandering far from home. As we wander, as we seek, even if we aren’t quite certain what we are seeking, God continues to call us.
It is God’s good pleasure to give us God’s kingdom. May we have the courage to follow that call even when it becomes faint, and have the faith to trust in God’s promises. Even when our faith fails us and we falter on the way, God will remain faithful to us.