Updated: Aug 8, 2022
Genesis 15:1-6; Luke 12:32-40
I’d like to spend some time with the first lesson that Luke Harris read from Genesis because it becomes the foundational text many centuries after it was written for Paul as he unfolds the gospel of grace in his New Testament epistles. That sixth verse, “Abram [trusted God], and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15:6)” is a fountain of Christian theology, but I want to step further back and provide some context for this lesson.
Imagine with me, if you would, as Abram wakes up in the morning and looks out over his large herds of sheep and camel. He watches in the morning dark as his many servants go about starting the day: feeding the animals, stoking fires for cooking, sweeping out tents. Abram sits still in the chill of the early morning, his old joints aching with arthritis as he feels his age. His wife Sarai is still sleeping, and Abram starts to review the decades of work that have gotten him to this place: traveling with his father from Ur of the Chaldeans in Babylonia to Haran; leaving his father’s family and everything he knew in Haran to follow God’s call to Canaan with Sarai; fleeing to Egypt to escape famine and seeing the wonders of Pharaoh’s Egypt; settling into Canaan with his nephew Lot; breaking hard ground and seeing his flocks and servants flourish…so much sweat and toil and heartbreak to get here, to this very place. Abram has finally arrived at the place of his deepest hopes, but he feels death calling him. All this work and he will soon be dead. Abram has no son to inherit his hard-earned wealth. His legacy will die with him. Everything he has worked for will be forgotten and dismantled. “My God,” Abram thinks to himself, “all this work and nothing to show for it but death.”
And here is where God shows up in our lesson today with an audacious and powerful promise. God speaks, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
"Do not be afraid."
This is the through-line of our lessons this Sunday, because that is the exact phrase that Jesus gives his disciples in our gospel lesson. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus tells them, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” In order to understand this fear – to make it accessible for us in our own time – and also to understand the audacity and power of God’s response, imagine with me some parallel examples of the kind of fear Abram experiences in today’s context.
Imagine with me an Emergency Room doctor: more than a decade of training to save lives: pre-med and med school and residency. So much sacrifice and training – a lifetime of work – and yet there are so many preventable deaths: motorcyclists without helmets, children left unattended, drunken gunshot wounds and bar fights over nothing. “My God,” she thinks to herself, “all this work and nothing to show for it but stupidity and death.”
“Do not be afraid,” God tells the doctor, “I am your shield.” Just like Abraham.
Imagine with me a parent. Physical, emotional, and financial sacrifices to nourish and care for his children. A new job, a new city, a new home, a new school district. Everything is channeled into his calling to care for his children. But college is so expensive, and poor decisions are so easily made; life altering decisions. What if something happens? What if some drunk driver isn’t paying attention? “My God,” he thinks to himself, “all of this work and I can’t control even the smallest things that could lead to death.”
“Do not be afraid,” God tells the parent, “I am your shield.”
Imagine with me a soldier who enlists to protect and defend the innocent, his nation, his values. Mind numbing training and so much risk, only to be confronted with dizzying complexity and cycles of cruelty and violence that most of us can’t imagine. “My God,” he thinks to himself, “evil is everywhere, and it is so powerful.”
“Do not be afraid,” God tells the soldier, “I am your shield.”
Imagine with me a high achieving high school senior who has heard since middle school that “grades matter in high school.” She takes practice SAT tests for months, sacrifices summers to internships and community service, signs up for a dozen AP courses. She studies every night for hours for subjects she doesn’t like for teachers who sometimes jerk her around with shifting expectations. She has to get “straight As” if she wants to get into the college that her parents attended. She hears the way her parents talk about her to their friends. Will they still be proud of her if she can’t pull this off? Will they still love her? “My God,” she thinks to herself, “Why am I doing this? What does any of this matter? Why do I bother?”
“Do not be afraid,” God tells the child, “I am your shield.”
In each of these examples, we are confronted with the reality that our lives are finite and our resources are scarce: this is the reality of being a creature. We cannot escape this kind of fear as human beings. “Fear,” is a workable synonym for what we Christians call “Sin,” and we experience this kind of fear before we have memory: fear of food scarcity, darkness, and cold; fear of abandonment and pain. The world responds to our fear by offering us comfort and security. Every politician for millennia has promised some form of comfort and security: warmer blankets, more benefits, more wealth, high walls, larger guns, better healthcare.
And yet, as I hope you might see from our imaginary examples, even the most successful and well positioned of us in society – doctors, soldiers, parents, and high achieving students – are not immune to fear. In fact, the more we have, the more we have to fear losing. And yet, over and over and over again in scripture, God delivers this simple message of good news to the world: “Do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid,” Moses, or David, or Elijah. “Do not be afraid,” Peter or Paul. “Do not be afraid,” the angel Gabriel tells the virgin Mary. After his resurrection, when the disciples are locked in a room out of fear, Jesus’ first words to them are “Peace be with you; [Do not be afraid.] (Jn. 20:19)” The Irish poet John O’Donohue once wrote that the phrase “do not be afraid” appears in the bible 366 times: once for everyday of the year and once more for good measure. I was so taken by the beauty of this observation that I fact-checked it, and it does appear that Mr. O'Donohue may have taken some poetic license. One would have to stretch translations pretty far to get to the number 366; however, it is certain that “do not be afraid” is one of God’s most common refrains, and I like O’Donohue’s rendering of it. “Do not be afraid” is something we could all use to hear everyday of our lives.
But how? How can we be freed from the prison of fear into which we are born as humans?
The answer that scripture provides is faith. If “Sin” is a state of fear, then faith is a state of trust. In fact, the Greek word “to believe in” is equally translated as “to trust in” or “to have faith in.” Faith, trust, and belief are synonyms. And it is here that we can return to that foundational piece of Christian theology:
“Abram [trusted God], and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15:6)”
The world gave Abram no reason to trust that what God was saying was true. He was old; so was Sarai. Abram knew about the birds and the bees, and no human is capable of children past 80 years old. Nonetheless, God pointed him to the night sky and promised him more descendants than the stars.
Abram could not have imagined what God meant. Surely, Abram was thinking that he might have children and grandchildren and great grandchildren, and that did become true. But the deeper truth, the three great nations of the Abrahamic faiths – the kingdom of Israel, the nation of Islam, and the entire Catholic Church of Jesus Christ – would all be born from Abram’s simple act of faith in God. These children of faith, almost four billion of us in the world today, do indeed outnumber the visible stars in the night’s sky, even those stars visible with advanced telescopes. God delivers his promise in a way that Abram cannot imagine because human imaginations are too limited to free us from prison of fear itself.
Like the most elegant mathematical proofs, the good news that Jesus offers us is so simple: We are loved by God. Infinitely loved. And because of that love, we do not need to fear. Even death loses its sting because death is finite, whereas God’s love is infinite. Whether or not any of us trusts in the truth of Jesus’s claims, it is impossibly difficult to maintain that His claims are not good. Who among us would wish for something else?
The promises offered to us in scripture are so good that they cannot be believed empirically. Our finite brains cannot comprehend infinite love. We cannot “prove” these claims in the way that we "proof" objective phenomenon; this love that defies fear and death is a truth that is accessible through faith only, as Abraham models for us. To believe that we are loved, infinitely loved – to believe that there is more to this world than the visible cycle of death and scarcity – this is the kind of faith that Abram models for us when he looks at the night sky and trusts in God’s promise. The world gives us no reason to believe that we have access to infinite value, but God promises it to us anyway. We may not be able to see beyond the horizon of death and evil in this world, but we are capable trusting that God can see beyond it.
Jesus tells his disciples in today’s lesson from Luke, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Lk. 12:34)” It can be tempting to interpret “treasure” here in its most superficial and literal form as if Jesus is proposing a financial audit. There is good spiritual fruit to be born from examining how our money lines up with our values; however, "treasure" is such a rich and expansive word. This verse shouldn’t be limited to money. You may have heard the truism that "time = money." Working with this, couldn’t our “treasure” be our time? Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is, “How are we using our time?” How are we using our “one wild and precious life?” to use the famous words from poet Mary Oliver. How many seconds, minutes, days, weeks, even years of our lives are given over to fear of scarcity and death? And how many seconds of our lives do we trust in the possibility that there is goodness beyond the horizon of our sight that we cannot imagine? When the soldier returns from the horror of the battlefield and decides to have a child…that is an act of faith. When the doctor commits to swimming upstream against a torrent of unnecessary pain and death towards a better future…that is faith.
It has often occurred to me that believing in the transformation of bread into flesh and wine into blood is small peas compared to believing that every human being possesses infinite value and dignity. We can get so caught up in the mechanics of faith that we lose sight of its dynamic power to free us from fear and death. In a moment, each one of us will be invited to God’s altar. Whether you come forward to receive the body and blood of Jesus, or cross your arms to receive a blessing, or stay where you are in the pews, the invitation of today is to listen and hear that still small voice of God which is whispering to each one of us: “Do not be afraid. I am your shield. It is [God’s] good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” I hope we hear it, and I hope we give our lives over to it.