So Shall Your Descendants Be

A Homily for the Second Sunday in Lent

Texts: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who conforms us to his glory. Amen.

What made Abram so special?

This wandering Aramean frequently gets a one-on-one audience with the Almighty. Why?

Three chapters before today’s lection, the Lord calls to Abram, telling him to take his nephew and his wife and move across the barren desert to Canaan. God pledges, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great….”

Shortly thereafter, Abram – having left Canaan for Egypt to avoid a famine and fearful for his own life – gives his wife Sarai to Pharaoh. Abram didn’t even make it a full chapter before he decided to sell someone out to save his own skin; he’s not exactly a stand-up guy. Nevertheless, Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem, delivers God’s blessing to Abram. Today, as we read, the Lord again appears to Abram and promises that Abram and Sarai, who are aging rapidly, childless, and anxious about their legacy, will produce a family that outnumbers the stars in the heavens.

abrahmic covenant

This blessing reassured, Abram and Sarai settle down, trust in the Lord, and live happily ever after.

Just kidding.

No, taking matters into their own hands to produce a child by any means necessary, they immediately conspire to sexually abuse one of their slaves who gives birth, and the unhappy couple continues to mistreat Hagar so severely that she takes the child and runs. I really cannot stress enough that Abram and Sarai are not the heroes of this story.

And yet again, after such abusive behavior, the Lord appears and renews the covenant to bless Abram with a large family that shall be a blessing to the world. The Lord gives the couple new names – Abraham and Sarah – and pledges that kings will come from this family.

Abraham’s response – is to laugh. “I’m a hundred. Sarah is ninety-nine. Good one, God. But hey, I do have this illegitimate child somewhere out in the desert if you wanna use him…” Such faith. We’re only five chapters in to this story; Abram has three times held an audience with God, and he’s still scoffing at God’s promises. No matter what today’s reading says, I don’t see a lot of faith in any of Abram’s actions.

“No,” the Lord says. “You and Sarah will have kids. Don’t worry about Ishmael. I’ll take care of him. I’ll bless him, too. It’s not his fault you’re a dead-beat dad.”

Lo and behold, God remained faithful. Sarah gave birth to Isaac, and Abraham finally believed – eh, some of the time. He did try to sell Sarah to another king…

So again, what makes Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants so special? Why, out of all the people in the world, did God choose to bless the world through this incredibly dysfunctional family? What sets them apart? Their good deeds? Their faith? No. Nothing. If any of us were to pick someone to establish an eternal covenant with, it would probably be someone braver, better, kinder, more trusting, and more trustworthy than either Abraham or Sarah.

And it’s not like the family ever gets better. Isaac also gives his wife away, and to the same king as dear old dad – like father, like son. Abraham’s grandsons Jacob and Esau lie to and steal from each other. Jacob’s sons sell one of their brothers into slavery. Generations later, we end up with Moses, who has a violent temper. While the Lord is renewing the covenant, Aaron – brother of the great liberator and the high priest! – immediately leads the people into idolatry.

A few centuries after that, when the family finally does beget a few kings, things somehow get even worse. Saul goes mad chasing after power. David arranges a murder to cover up his own sexual abuse. Solomon conscripts his subjects into forced labor to build up his palace. And then civil war divides the family. Most of the long-promised kings commit atrocities, abuse the poor, and worship idols.

What is it that makes this whole, extensive, unstable family so special? What merit do they have, that the Lord would choose them?

What makes us so special? What merit do we have, that the Lord would take notice of us?

There is absolutely nothing about Abraham or Moses or David or Peter or me or you that makes any of us special – except for God’s grace. God, ever-faithful, is the hero of the story, not Abram. The Lord chose Abram for reasons unfathomable, and through Abraham’s family, God blesses the entire world. God chose Abram because God favors the lowly.

In Baptism, we are adopted into this flawed family – not because we are worthy but because the Lord is merciful, and through God’s loving kindness, we are incorporated into this glorious promise to bless the world.

Things don’t get easier once we are chosen by God. Divine promises didn’t reassure Abram, and a divinely-appointed name change didn’t make Abraham or his family better. Their heirs faced slavery, conquest, deportation, and exile. Along came the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The Temple went up in flames. Things got so bad that they cried out for an anointed savior to overthrow their oppressors. Then came the Greeks and the Romans. And even as we follow the long-awaited Messiah to Zion, we know we will see our Lord lifted high upon this lynching tree, this torturous symbol of oppression.

Who among us would choose this as the way to redeem a fallen world? What hope of blessing is there in any of this?

This covenant is nonsense in the eyes of this world. Would any of you pick someone as unfaithful as Abram, as power-hungry as David? Were it up to me, I wouldn’t send Simon Peter or some young nerd named Andrew to be blessings. If left up to us, servants as we so often are of our own all-consuming appetites, this whole project would end in destruction. But if we stand fast in the Lord, relying on Christ and the glory of his resurrection, he will transform our humiliation into new life. It is only by God’s grace that Abram or Jacob or the Church can be a blessing to the world.

Look to this font, then, and remember that you have been grafted into God’s covenant. Look to these waters and remember that you have been adopted by our Heavenly Father. Look to this Sacrament and remember that you are a member of Christ. Remember who you are. And let us go be a blessing to the world.

Amen.

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