Sunday, February 24, 2013

Waiting (Lenten 2)

Preached at Steinbach Mennonite Church
Sunday, 24 February, 2013
Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18
God’s Covenant with Abram
15 After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”
2 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
7 He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” 8 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?” 9 So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”
10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. …..
17 When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. 18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”

The theme for Lent is: Ashamed No More—an awareness of the way in which God gives us new life that moves beyond the shame that we feel in our lives. Shame can be a powerful tool for social control in various societies. But in our culture shame is most often a negative thing that can paralyze us with a sense of unworthiness in spite of anything good that God has done in us. Our theme presses us to move beyond the shame that we feel into our identity as God’s children.
The theme for today within the larger theme is: We will take courage and wait on the Lord. The conference material suggests the theme of waiting:
Wait on the Lord? The childless couple waits in pain and shamed loneliness. Wait on the Lord? The abused spouse waits in fear for liberation. Wait on the Lord? The angry young man waits for justice to be done. Barrenness, adversity, patience, and trust dominate these readings.

I want to think of waiting in a different way before thinking of the most difficult situations. I suspect that all of us share a particular experience of waiting. Let me describe it through the testimony that one of our members gave on joining the church here. (I don’t know if you will recognize your words here, or if my memory has reshaped it too much!) He said something like this: “I remember one service after we started attending here when I could tell that the Holy Spirit was here. There was a kind of tingling in the air, and I looked around to see if anyone else felt it.” My own experience of such moments is that they are followed by a time of waiting—God comes to us so clearly, and then we live in a time of waiting for another such experience.

One of my colleagues told us recently about his own experience. He said that when he started teaching at Providence many years ago, God went away. He doesn’t know why. Then after several years of what we might call spiritual dryness (that time in which we pray, but the words bounce off the ceiling) God came back. He recalled the moment when he was sitting in our chapel. He doesn’t know what the chapel was about, but he recalled how a clear sense of God’s presence filled the room, whether or not anyone else noticed it.

We may spend years in such times, waiting for God to show up. We can call this waiting “spiritual dryness”, and we may think it is a bad thing. I want to look at the Scripture this morning and try to see what part waiting plays in our lives.

Genesis 15 and Context
In Genesis 11, Terah and his son Abram go from what today is Iraq-Iran to what today is Syria. In chapter 12 God called Abram and Sarai to leave Syria and trek across country to the Promised Land (“the land that I will show you”). In chapters 12 and 13 they move around some more, down to Egypt and back. Chapter 14 pictures some of the struggles the family had as it tried to establish itself in the Promised Land.

Then in our passage, which we will return to shortly, God renews the promise of becoming a great nation, first made in chapter 12. In the next chapter Abram has his first child, to Sarai’s servant, Hagar. Ishmael is born. In chapter 17, God renews his promise and changes Abram and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah (the names we usually remember them by). As a sign of the promise God institutes the covenant of circumcision.

Chapters 18 and 19 show the renewal of the promise (again!), and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, with the saving of Lot (Abraham’s nephew) and his family. Chapter 20 has further wanderings around the desert—remember, they were a nomadic people, and finally in chapter 21 Isaac, the son of the promise, is born.

Note the time frame: It appears that about 11 years passed between chapters 12 and 15, so there were 11 years of waiting until Ishmael was born, and Ishmael did not fulfill the promise! Finally 14 years later Isaac, the son of the promise, was born. And even then the full promise took several generations more to come true. No wonder the writer of Hebrews describes Abraham and Sarah’s experience with these words (Hebews 11): “13 [They] were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” They were still waiting for the full promise when they died. Abraham’s experience was one of waiting—11 years for one son, and 14 more until the other, and still waiting when he died. In between the long wait there were these ecstatic experiences of God’s presence, profound and powerful.

Let’s look at this particular experience, with dead animals and a smoking firepot. Strange stuff, the sort of thing to make us wonder why we read the OT! Look again at verses 7 to 12 and 17 and 18. This scene was not nearly as strange to Abraham as it is to us. The creatures used (heifer, goat, ram, dove, and pigeon) are the same animals used in the various sacrifices described in Leviticus 1 to 7: Sacrificing these creatures was understood in that culture as part of the most solemn ceremonies. This particular way of sacrificing them—cutting them in half and laying the halves apart on the ground—was also well understood. Jeremiah 34 pictures a similar ceremony:
17 Therefore, this is what the Lord says: You have not obeyed me; you have not proclaimed freedom to your own people. So I now proclaim ‘freedom’ for you, declares the Lord—‘freedom’ to fall by the sword, plague and famine. I will make you abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth. 18 Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. 19 The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, 20 I will deliver into the hands of their enemies who seek their lives. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals.

You see the idea. This was a form of covenant ceremony known throughout the region. Two kings would cut these animals apart, recite the covenant they were making with each other as they walked between the severed halves lying on the ground, and then say: “May God do to me as we have done to these animals if I ever break this covenant!” But look again at Genesis 15. God knew well that Abraham could not keep this covenant, and that if God and Abraham both passed between the severed halves, Abraham would be signing his death warrant. So God cast Abraham into a deep sleep and passed between the pieces alone, signifying that when Abraham or his descendants broke the covenant, the punishment of death would fall on God alone. Do you see what this points to? Here in Genesis 15 God points Abraham to something beyond his knowledge, to the cross!

What About Us?
This brings us back to the present, to our time of waiting—often we lead (in Henry David Thoreau’s words) “lives of quiet desperation”. About a month ago we had our day of prayer at Providence. I joined the seminary community for the morning, which was structured around restoring our first love, that is: what do we do when we are “spiritually dry”? How do we recover a sense of God’s presence overwhelming and delighting us? I mentioned my colleague’s experience earlier. He told us that morning that he believes God gives us spiritual dryness, the waiting of our lives, for our benefit. The early church fathers saw spiritual ecstasy as dangerous, and they saw spiritual dryness as the cure. What St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul” was not bad, in their view, but was a good gift from God to help us grow.

You get the idea from an analogy my brother-in-law gave me some years ago. He was a grain farmer in Indiana, and I had asked him if the lack of rain that summer worried him. He said, “Actually, it’s good. Once the corn has really taken root, we like it to get pretty dry so that the roots go down deep looking for water. Regular rains mean that the roots stay close to the surface, and then a windstorm comes along and knocks the whole crop flat and you lose everything. We like it to get pretty dry so that the roots go deep!” That describes Abraham’s life. He had occasional experiences of God’s presence, powerful and profound; but he spent most of his life waiting and wondering if the promise would ever be fulfilled, if he would ever have a son. That’s what we do too. Waiting is good. Waiting gives us strength as we follow Christ faithfully. Waiting nourishes our growth, like a young child learning to walk as her parents take their hands away, even if that means that she falls over.

One Thing More
We started with these questions from the conference materials: Wait on the Lord? The childless couple waits in pain and shamed loneliness. Wait on the Lord? The abused spouse waits in fear for liberation. Wait on the Lord? The angry young man waits for justice to be done. Barrenness, adversity, patience, and trust dominate these readings.”

I have argued that the waiting we do in our daily lives is good for us. Is waiting for justice and release also good? An African American poet wrote:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Is waiting for justice, waiting in hope, a “dream deferred”, a case of “justice delayed, justice denied”? It can be. We work to do what is right and to help those trapped by the evils of our world. You see, the waiting that Abraham was doing was waiting for God to show up, like my colleague. While we wait, we work to deal with injustice and to make peace in our world. We make sure as far as it depends on us that peace and justice rule in our lives and in the places where we live. And we wait.

As we wait, we know that God will show up; but he comes on his schedule, not ours. Notice that Abraham does experience God’s presence, powerful and profound. So I make one last point. Seek God while you wait. You and I need God’s presence as much as Abraham did. We may have to wait years. I waited for 34 years between two such experiences—from age 24 in Zimbabwe to age 58 here in Steinbach. Neither time could I have predicted that God would show up as he did; but God comes to you and to me when he knows the time is right.

Meanwhile we wait. We wait, and as we wait, we do what God wants us to do. We pray and we read the Scriptures and we serve and we live faithfully with each other. And as we wait, we grow, sending our roots down deeper and deeper, searching for the living water of God’s presence. And God comes. God always comes!

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