3/17/2019 Sermon: “Trust Fall”

This week, we’re continuing to talk about trust. “All About Trust.”

Rappelling in the Adirondacks. CN – 2002.

In a previous life, I took groups of high school kids to the Adirondacks in upstate New York.  After some hiking, they would rappel down the side of a 200-foot cliff… bouncing down the rock-face attached to a rope tied off at the top.

First, they had to learn to trust the leaders.  And obey the leaders!  The leaders would show them the trees and rocks where they had tied the ropes.

The leaders would show them how to harness themselves to the ropes and how everything worked.  They learned how to talk to each other, because somebody on the ground was holding the other end of another rope for safety. They only thing left to do is lean back and do a controlled drop.  Could you do that?

The issue of trust is all around us, in countless ways. Out on the road, you have to trust that other drivers will do what you expect them to do, right?  And the list goes on.

Jesus at Gethsemane – stained glass at the Cleveland Museum of Art. CN – 2015

During Lent, we have a lot of readings about commitment, and travel, and trust.  The Gospel readings describe the things that happen while Jesus is traveling toward Jerusalem.  He’s made a faith commitment to you and me.  God the Father trusts him to come through – for you and me.  This is not an easy thing.  And God knows that it’s not an easy thing he is asking us to do, to trust Jesus and what he is going to do in Jerusalem.  But the journey actually began 2,000 years before that.

After this, Abram had a vision and heard the Lord say to him, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I will shield you from danger and give you a great reward.”

But Abram answered, “Sovereign Lord, what good will your reward do me, since I have no children? My only heir is Eliezer of Damascus.  You have given me no children, and one of my slaves will inherit my property.”

Then he heard the Lord speaking to him again: “This slave Eliezer will not inherit your property; your own son will be your heir.” The Lord took him outside and said, “Look at the sky and try to count the stars; you will have as many descendants as that.”

Abram put his trust in the Lord, and because of this the Lord was pleased with him and accepted him.

Then the Lord said to him, “I am the Lord, who led you out of Ur in Babylonia, to give you this land as your own.”

But Abram asked, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that it will be mine?”

He answered, “Bring me a cow, a goat, and a ram, each of them three years old, and a dove and a pigeon.” Abram brought the animals to God, cut them in half, and placed the halves opposite each other in two rows; but he did not cut up the birds. Vultures came down on the bodies, but Abram drove them off.

When the sun was going down, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and fear and terror came over him. When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch suddenly appeared and passed between the pieces of the animals. Then and there the Lord made a covenant with Abram. He said, “I promise to give your descendants all this land from the border of Egypt to the Euphrates River…” (Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18)

The Old Testament story you heard a few minutes ago is about a trust relationship between God and Abram.  This story happens before God changed his name to Abraham (Genesis 17:5).  Abram means something like, “exalted father,” and Abraham means, “father of a multitude.”

Bedouin tents near Jericho, Palestine. CN – 2011

2000 years before Christ, Abram was a wandering nomad living in what is now Iraq.  There are still nomadic people living in that part of the world.  They live in structures we would think of as tents (that can be very large) and might move with the seasons to take advantage of water and pasture for animals.  Sometimes, they stay in a place for a few years.

God has been speaking to Abram for a long time, promising land and a big family and now years later, Abram still has no land of his own, and still has no children.  In other words, he has no future, unless God steps in.  Children and land mean salvation to Abram.  He packed everything up and moved, just as God told him to, and he’s waiting, waiting, waiting.  Looking at his watch and waiting.

Now, it seems like this will never happen.  God makes the promise one more time: “Look at the sky and try to count the stars; you will have as many descendants as that.”

Palestinian shepherd near Jericho, Palestine. CN – 2001.

But there are still many more years to go in the story before Isaac comes along.  And many miles to go before he gets to the land God had promised.

This is one of the old Hebrew stories that explains how Abraham became the father of the Hebrew people (and our spiritual ancestor).  He was following God’s directions, which might have made no sense to him at the time.  He had to give himself to God and trust, and so do we. Say to God, “I trust you.”  Their relationship is based on promises for the future.

Abraham and God have a covenant between them.  The idea of covenant goes back thousands of years.  Covenants describe relationship and they are one of the main reasons we are here.  Think about the promises, the covenants, that are made in this room.

Some are obvious: baptism, marriage, church membership.  Hundreds, or maybe thousands, of people have stood in this room and made vows of one kind or another.  But the main promise that brings us here and makes us what we are is the promise God makes to us through Christ.  Many people don’t realize that being a Christian is not about how good we can make ourselves; it’s about believing that God has already done that for us in Christ.  When we believe in God, when we trust in God, understanding that it’s God who saves us, that’s when we begin to change into the kind of people we should be.  It’s God who does that, not us.

But it’s hard to trust.   It’s hard to lean back on the rope with God.  Most of the time, trusting does against our human nature.  Abram has been traveling and God has been slow to act.  Will God keep promises?

God answers the question by way of a strange ceremony, a ritual.  Abram makes an animal sacrifice, and God passes between the pieces in the form of fire and smoke.  The ritual is how God makes an oath to Abram that the promise of land and children will be kept.  In these ancient times, one of the meanings of a sacrifice like this was to seal a treaty, as if to say, “May I become like these animals if I don’t keep my promise to you.”  Abram was doing his part, and the burden is on God to come through for Abram: to save Abram, to give Abram a future.

God will come through on the promise not because he and Abram are great friends.  They don’t have a close relationship like God did with Moses.  God will save Abram simply because that’s what God promised to do.  God’s specialty is working miracles in impossible situations. Read more about Abram in case you think you’re a lost cause.

Like so many Bible people, Abram/Abraham is not exactly a perfect guy.  As you find out later in his story, he is “morally flexible.”  His family life is dysfunctional.  He is not even a religious type (like David or Moses).  He is… ordinary.

What makes him a hero?  He simply trusts.  And God counts his faith as righteousness, that is, being right with God.  That’s what makes his story so important.

Likewise, God does not expect perfection from any of us.  To be righteous, or acceptable to God, to be right with God, all Abram has to do is believe – and start walking. Throughout the entire bible, this is how salvation works.  Salvation happens not because Abram, or anybody else, is a good person.  Salvation happens when we depend on God, step out, and let God come through for us.  Then God does extraordinary things with ordinary people.

Can we just throw ourselves onto God and trust that God will be there for us?  I say that there is no other way.  Our relationship with God doesn’t work unless we can completely trust God.  Our life as a church is stagnant unless there are ways we step out in faith.  The people of God are always going from point A to point B somehow. Always moving into a future.

Think about communion for a moment.  Each time we have the Lord’s Supper, I say something that might pass you by. “This is my body, given/broken for you.  This is my blood of the new covenant.”  Jesus is the sacrifice that seals the promise.  What is God’s promise in Jesus Christ? To save us, to give us a future. In Christ, our sin dies on the cross and Christ comes out of the tomb alive.  In Christ, God makes a covenant with us.  All we have to do is believe.  Make a commitment.  Say yes to God.

Palestinian shepherd, not far from Jerusalem. CN – 2011.

A few more things to know about Abram…  Abram was not young (75) when her first heard the promise, and neither is his wife Sarah. And the years went by. Time and human age seem to make no difference to God.  After more than 20 years went by, God finally says, okay, next year, you’ll have a son and we’ll get started with the nation building.  The story says that Abraham fell on his face laughing (Genesis 17).  Sarah heard it from outside the tent and she started to laugh (Genesis 18).  And God didn’t care. God sees things differently.  God sees with the eyes of possibility – and God had a promise to keep no matter what Abraham or Sarah thought.

Abram doesn’t just have doubts. In the night, “fear and terror came over him.”  (v.12)  Is that when you find your mind going to things that keep you awake, maybe terrified?  Maybe you need to move to a window, or a the porch, or the yard (if it’s not too cold) and look up.

The Lord took him outside and said, “Look at the sky and try to count the stars; you will have as many descendants as that.”

Look at the sky.  Try to count the stars.  One of the best times for God to speak to us is when we are looking at the sky…  If we have believed in the living Jesus, those descendants include us!  And like Abram, our job is to leave the past behind and create a legacy of descendants, to leave behind us people who believe.  People whose lives are changed through faith in the living Christ.

Abram put his trust in the Lord, and because of this the Lord was pleased with him and accepted him.

The temptation is strong to be nothing more than a civic group, a group of good people.  We come together to believe, to trust God together, letting the Spirit of God change us into the people God needs us to be.  This is how God is pleased.  It starts with faith.  When we believe, God just may do something we thought was impossible.

Let’s say the mission together.

Our mission is to make the love of God real in our community and world with what we have, through what we say, and by what we do.

Prayer

Lord, you are the God of Abraham, and Jesus Christ, and the Congregational Church in Wellington, Ohio.  You have always been and always will be.  We may not be able to comprehend everything you are, but that does not stop us from believing you are with us.  We trust you.

O God, this Lent, remind us of our covenant with you, our promises to you to be your people.  Find ways to remind us of who we are and whom we belong to.  Help us believe, in spite of what the world tells us, in spite of what we see and hear.  Help us learn to trust you more.  Help us remember that our faith is not based on the promises we make to you, but in the promises you’ve made to us.  We believe; help our unbelief.  Through Jesus, we pray.  Amen.