24 September 2017
It is the custom in our country that when a business is about to complete a transaction which involves borrowing large amounts of money, the principal partner in the company receiving the loan is asked for their personal guarantee. This is although all the conditions have been agreed to and written in expensive legal language, every detail accounted for in the contract, and the contract having been signed. A friend of mine, who was borrowing 12 million dollars, said it concentrates the mind wonderfully when it's not just your company's but your own and your family's assets which you are putting on the line. You find out very quickly if you really want to do this or are just playing around - Pig and hen stuff. For bacon and eggs the hen contributes but the pig is committed.
Even when legally everything is tied up, at the end it is a person's own reputation and commitment which concludes the deal. The pledge of good faith which really means something.
Today's powerful story from the Old Testament has that sort of divine commitment within it.
You have to wonder what Abram's wife thought of him?
Picture the scene.
Abram was 75, and his wife ten years younger.
Abram says to Sarai, "Pack your bags, dear, we're going on a journey."
"Where? " she answers.
"Don't know", says Abram.
"By what route?"
"Not too sure of that either", he answers.
"Ah, now, that I can answer." says Abram with relief, "We are going to a new land, where there will be plenty of room for our children and our children's children."
"Abram," says Sarah, with the air of one explaining something to a complete idiot, "we haven't got any children."
"Hmm" says Abram, "No, we haven't. not yet, but we will have. God's spoken to me."
Abram had committed himself to the journey - a journey of hope, looking for life for his children.
But wait - no children, and they have just had a battle in which Abram won back his nephew Lot who had been taken captive Its been a hard journey.
The questions arise. Is it really what he should be doing? A time of crisis is approaching.
You can hear Sarai saying "Abram. Do you know where we are heading? Why don't you stop and ask for directions?"
Abram has a vision of a conversation with God.
God's promise that Abran will be great comes again to him. Then Abram points out "But I still have no children, my slave Eliezer is my heir. What am I doing all this for?".
"No" says God, " that's not the way I am going to work. Not the pragmatic solution which you have come up with.
Abram, look up. Look up at the stars and count them if you can. - that's how many descendants you will have from your own child."
Abram was given a bigger vision . The question of his own child recedes into a tiny part of the enormous whole God is pointing to. We are told he trusted God.
Our small visions are taken, shaken and made God sized so we can continue our journeys. We get bogged down when we focus down, we become shortsighted and miss the bigger picture and our part in it.
Then something rather odd happened. An old covenant cutting ritual was enacted. Solicitor's offices nowadays aren't equipped with the odd heifer, goat, ram, turtledove or pigeon for those big contracts, but Abram did as he was told. He obtained the animals and cut them in half and lay them in two rows with half on each side and waited, for instructions.
A covenant was about to be made. Covenants in those days had blessings and curses. Today they have advantages and penalties. He waited.
Maybe God would tell him to walk between the pieces to show his loyalty? Maybe Abram would have to bear the curse if the promises could not be kept. Nothing happens - he waits and waits.
The vultures start circling.. Abram drives them off. And he waits some more. As night approaches, he is still waiting. .......Nothing.
As the daylight fades, the fears he had fought off during the day crowd in. We are told that "A deep and terrifying darkness descended on him."
The darkness of doubt, "am I doing the right thing? Am I deluding myself? How can I know I am right?" The deep and terrifying darkness of the longing to know - to be sure.
"I have moved my family to go to a place I don't know, following a promise I may have imagined."
Through the darkness he sees a light. A smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, weaving between the carcasses.
The presence of God is here making a promise.
"To your descendants I give this land".
This ritual is clarified by the curses attached to a Sefire treaty, from the 8th century BCE: "Just as this calf is cut in two, so may Mati'el [one of the kings involved in this treaty] be cut in two, and may his nobles be cut in two."
In Abram's vision, he saw God promising the land for him. It was an unconditional treaty /covenant. God reaching out to Abram and Sarai giving a personal guarantee that God was with them and it was God who would bear the curse if the covenant was not fulfilled. God?s own self on the line.
The early church writings use this imagery, which everyone would have understood, of the old covenant cutting ritual, when they talk about Christ's life and death on the cross.
"Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree." is applied to Christ at his crucifixion. This gives us the clue that there is a promise being made and it is made for us.
The promise that the violence and hatred and all that which separates humans from God and from each other will end. It is Christ who has put himself on the line.
In the reading from Luke, Jesus, the descendant of Abram, turns his face to walk the journey to Jerusalem. He knew that his destination was dangerous and he was walking into death, but he still travelled on. He looks with compassion on the City of Jerusalem and its people whom he had tried to gather into safety and life. The place that claims god's presence but where those who come to bring life have so often been killed.
With deep sadness Jesus walks between the broken parts of the world, cutting a new covenant with us. Asking us to trust this God who will do anything to be in relationship with his people.
Jesus himself is God's personal guarantee that God's ownself is for us. Rather scarily, he invites us to travel on the way with him.
In our own dark nights may each of us discover that the covenant God made - that he would never leave us - still holds.
As we wrestle with the uncertainties and anxieties of our own lives, may we have our eyes open to the God who comes in the terrifying darkness with his guaranteed promise in Jesus of a love that never ends
With thanks to Anne Gordon [UK] [Abram Sarai Dialogue]and the images of deep darkness PRCL-L listserv
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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