Our journey through the desert

Peter Seal, 21 February 2016

Genesis 15: 1–12, 17–18; Luke 13: 31–35

The man known here as Abram is the subject of our reading from Genesis. He’s portrayed as being in a state of turmoil. We see him wrestling with his own inner doubts about the future course of his life. This is something we can all identify with. Each one of us at various times will have agonised within ourselves as to how the rest of our lives might develop – especially when major decisions have to be made.

Today’s reading is real because it’s so honest. Here we see Abram, the towering founding figure of a future people, nervous and insecure! We hear the voice of God making every effort to reassure him: ‘Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ These words could be said to a fearful child and not be out of place. But they don’t have any effect in calming Abram’s fears. And yet he is the person who has come down in history as the wonderful example of someone who trusts in God.

Abram reveals what is really on his mind: ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless?’ He is desperate and repeats his complaint: ‘You have given me no offspring’. Again God tries to reassure, using the language of a patient and loving adult dealing with a child. He says, ‘No one but your very own issue shall be heir’.

Even this is not enough. The child in Abram will not be comforted by words. We can identify with this – those times when words have meant nothing; even good, carefully chosen and kind words can feel empty.

God tries something different. It’s the middle of the night. Abram is standing under the dome of the desert sky. Here the true glory of the stars can be seen. Just imagine the beauty of that night. And the Lord says, ‘Abram, look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them’. Abram puts his head back and gazes upwards. And the majesty of the night sky has a calming effect on his worries about the future. God says, ‘You see how many stars there are; so shall your descendants be’.

For a moment Abram is reassured. We hear that ‘He believed the Lord’. God continues to bolster Abram’s still-fragile trust: ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans’. It’s as though God is appealing to Abram’s past confidence in his own decisions and actions. Perhaps God suggests that the younger Abram would not have behaved like this.

Isn’t it true that sometimes advancing years can rob us of our earlier easy certainties about our ability to handle our lives? Easy certainties and quick judgements tend to go with youth and lack of experience.

Once again reassurance fails. It’s not enough for Abram to hear that God has promised him the land he’s standing on. He wants guarantees: ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ There is no direct response from God. This may be because it’s simply not given to us to know the future in the way Abram wants … and indeed each of us so often wants.

What happens next is that God moves Abram beyond words, beyond arguments, beyond his fevered efforts to think the problem through. Abram moves into ritual, into acting out his fears by offering them to God, the one from whom he cannot extract the certainties his – and our – fearful humanity longs for.

Abram lays out the sacrifice: ‘A heifer … a female goat … a ram … a turtledove … a young pigeon’. Birds of prey swoop down, symbolic of Abram’s own dark, brooding doubts and fear. The scarlet fire of the day’s desert sun dies away. Darkness sweeps over Abram, taking him into troubled sleep. We read, ‘A deep, terrifying darkness descended upon him’.

Experience tells us that there are some inner voices that cannot be quieted by words of comfort; there are some demons that will not go away until we have allowed them to work their will on us. Fear, guilt, anxiety, depression, sorrow are all part of this. We encounter all these, and more, at different times in our journey through the desert.

Like Abram, we do receive grace from God, but we still have to wrestle with the demons. The grace does not banish the demons. But it gives us enough strength to battle with them.

Like Abram, we do receive grace from God, but we still have to wrestle with the demons.

Lent is a desert time – a time when, like Abram, we can bring to God, in stark honesty, the big and most important things on our minds and in our hearts. The good thing about the desert is that God is there with us. We heard last week how ‘Jesus was led by the Spirit in the desert’, and how he had to be there for 40 days (which simply means a long time).

The main purpose of Lent is to prepare for Easter – to prepare for our celebration of the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We need to fix our long-distance seeing on that supreme event.

And we cannot leave Abram in the desert. At the age of 99 – in other words, when he was an old man – God spoke to him again, saying: ‘You are to be the father of many nations’. Abram bowed down before the Lord as he heard him saying, ‘Your name will no longer be Abram but Abraham’ (Abram means ‘high father’; Abraham means ‘father of many’).

As for Abram’s wife Sarai, she is to be called Sarah. Sarai means ‘mockery’ but Sarah means ‘princess’. And they had a child, and he was called Isaac, which means ‘he laughs’.

Abram became Abraham. He was a man for whom life went on changing.

At the end of the day we sleep, as he did. Sometimes, like him, we encounter deep and terrifying darkness. But again, as it was for him, we always rise to begin a new day and to the discovery of further journeying.