Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Abraham is in the middle of a deep and terrifying darkness.
The last thing he remembers was watching the sun go down, staining the whole earth as red as the land on which his sacrifice is resting. He’s watching the sun go down, and he’s exhausted from the work of slaughtering and preparing the animals, of keeping the vultures off of them, and then—suddenly—everything is dark. Not the darkness of night, with moon and stars. But the deep and terrifying pitch darkness that makes your eyeballs hurt.
Darkness seems like the least likely place to encounter God. God is far better known for being in places of light—burning bushes, pillars of fire, and so on. But into that absolute darkness, the voice of God speaks. And it speaks words that were left out of the reading you just heard. In the midst of that deep and terrifying darkness, the voice of God says:
“Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years.”
This is a very different conversation than the one Abraham just had with God, the one conducted under the light of countless stars, the one where God promised Abraham descendants just as numberless. In this conversation, God tells Abraham, among other things, that those descendants will be slaves.
This is the word of God that comes to Abraham in darkness: it promises the children that Abraham longs for, but also predicts their suffering.
After this, Abraham sees a smoking pot pass between the pieces of animal that he had prepared: a sign that God accepted his sacrifice.
And I can’t help but wonder whether there was in Abraham, that pillar of faith and father of nations, just a little part of him that went, “Oh, crap.”
Following God is not all it’s sometimes cracked up to be. And if there was any moment when Abraham knew it, it was that then.
I had an “oh crap” moment a few weeks ago at a wellness retreat hosted by the synod. The theme of the retreat was Sabbath-keeping, and in the middle of one of the great conversations that we had about keeping the Sabbath, this question started to bang on the inside of my skull. People were talking about Sabbath as a time of joy and rest and rejuvenation, and the question that kept boiling up inside me was, “Great, fine, but who’s going to help me deal with all the stuff that I feel when I’m not working?”
Let me be clear here: I’m not sharing this with you to make you feel guilty, not at all. I am already beginning to love you, and there has not been one single moment so far that I do not feel called to be your pastor. There is profound joy in this work.
But there is also a lot of sadness, because I’ve moved away from my family and friends, and this place is new, and holy crap, it turns out that they didn’t teach me everything I need to know about how to be a pastor in seminary. So there are times in this work when I don’t know what I’m doing, and there are times when I know exactly what to do but not how to do it, and the support system I usually use to work through those questions and all the feelings that come with them is far away.
I trust that this will eventually get better. It just takes time. But in the meantime, there is darkness. Not the deep, frightening darkness of Abraham, but a foggy grayness that weighs down and prevents me from seeing more than a few days of my life at a time.
But I have a couple of convictions here. First, I’m pretty sure God doesn’t want an offering of the burned-up, burned-out husk of myself. Second, I’m also pretty sure that when I started this pastor gig, Jesus didn’t promise me a reasonable work-life balance or a thriving social life or that I would double attendance at Trinity in my first year or any of the things that I really want. I’m pretty sure the promise I got was that God would be with me.
Because even though things are gray right now, I trust that this work is bigger than myself, and bigger than my sense of how things are going in this narrow little window known as my point of view. I trust that God has bigger plans than the ones I can see right now. And I pray that I can stay faithful to those plans, and that God can fill in the gaps.
That’s what happened to Abraham. In the darkness, God painted him a picture of what the future was going to look like, and it probably wasn’t what Abraham had envisioned when God first promised him land and descendants. Yes, he would have both, but the descendants would be enslaved for generations, and the land he was to inherit he wouldn’t actually see in his lifetime.
Sitting in the darkness, hearing about God’s plan, I wonder if Abraham had an “oh crap” moment of realizing that the covenant that God was setting before him was not about giving Abraham what he wanted. It was not deal that went, “If you believe in me, I will grant your wishes.” It is an offer consisting of: “If you let me, I will make you part of my plan to bless the world.”
And the thing about being part of God’s plan to bless the world is that you’re not always going to like it. In fact, Jesus spends quite a lot of time on this concept with the people who follow him. He tells them that, to follow him, they have to sell all their stuff and give the money to the poor. He tells them that those who want to keep their life are going to lose it, and vice versa. He tells them that the last will be first and the first will be last. In fact, he’s literally in the middle of that line when the Pharisees show up and tell him to run, because Herod wants to kill him.
In fact, the only comfort that really seems available to people who want to follow this Jesus guy is: that Jesus is with them. And is leading the way.
Unlike most of us, Jesus knows what God’s broader vision looks like. He knows that the cross is waiting at the end of the road to Jerusalem. He’s already made the decision to walk there anyway. When the Pharisees interrupt his journey to let him know that, oh, by the way, death might be lurking just ahead, I imagine that Jesus responds with a tone of voice that says, “You’re just realizing this now?”
But then he breaks his irony with a cry of deep compassion. “How long I’ve wanted to gather you as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings,” he says, “and yet you were not willing.” It’s as though Jesus, for a moment, is speaking with God’s own mouth. “How often I’ve wanted to protect you and shelter you, to love you with a mother’s fierce and comforting love, to keep you safe and watch over you, but you didn’t want me,” says Jesus, with his words full of God’s own heartbreak.
And in this moment, this moment where Jesus is offered the chance to turn off his course, the fullness of God’s presence overcomes his own sense of self-preservation, and he cries out to the city that’s going to kill him, not with anger or blame, but with the gut-wrenching love of a mother who’s watching her children go astray.
Jesus keeps walking toward Jerusalem, knowing that the cross is waiting.
We live in a culture of investment. A culture that encourages us to only give when we expect to get back more. A culture that’s interested in self-preservation, that rewards winners, that ignores losers.
It is tempting, in that kind of world, to look at our lives and all that they are made up of as assets to be carefully invested and stringently managed. It is tempting to demand to know the whole structure of God’s investment scheme before getting involved.
But we worship a God who was actually pretty bad at investment. This is an all-in kind of God, a God who poured God’s very self into the world to walk among us, to heal us, to tell us the good news, and to hang on the cross and die for us. We worship a God who sacrificed everything, everything, everything for is, for the sake of gathering us under those holy wings, spread wide enough to cover the world.
In this season of turning, may God turn us from investment to sacrificial living: where all our living, and all our giving, is rooted in the reality of what God first gave us.