Promise in Darkness

A sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California

Sept 18, 2022

Genesis 12:1-9, Genesis 15:1-6

Introduction

Look toward the heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them. 

That is God’s instruction to Abram in the story we’ll hear today.  God is reminding him that he will be a blessing and that his descendants will be more numerous than the stars. 

I don’t know what you know of your family trees. The generations between Abram and us are full of interesting stories. I’m related to at least one cattle rustler, some Nantucket whalers, a few Mormon converts from Denmark, lots of English, Scottish, and Irish peasants, and one ancestor who was beheaded in Luther’s Germany in 1601 for being a Calvinist. 

I wonder what these ancestors would make of me. 

And as little as I understand about the lives of my ancestors, it is even harder to imagine the lives of my future potential descendants. 

Look toward the heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them.

It is hard to believe Abram imagined us, here today, at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California in 2022, with our cell phones, covid vaccines, and contact lenses, when he was counting the stars. And yet, here we are—a part of that inheritance, we are his blessing. 

In you, all the families of the earth will be blessed. 

Think of the people who built this church. They weren’t founding a congregation just for their own lifetime. In the last 168 years, Calvary faithful have built and maintained 3 different church buildings. More than that, you and your ancestors in faith have taught, sang, cooked, prayed, studied, served, supported, and enjoyed the life of faith as Calvary in the church and in the community. Think of the baptisms, weddings, funerals held in this room. The tears shed and the laughter shared. We are the inheritors of what they have built. 

When they looked toward heaven and counted the stars—they saw you, even if they couldn’t have predicted female preachers, live-streaming worship, or paying your pledge with a credit card. 

As a congregation, we are called to look toward heaven and count the stars as Abram was. We are called to follow God into unknown territory as Abram was. Let us worship this day in joy and hope. 

This morning, we’ve heard both accounts when Abram has heard the promise of God for his descendants to inherit the land, to have more descendants than he could count. 

In the first version, he’s told to leave his home country, and his father’s house, and everything he knows, and travel to the land that God will show him. He’s told God will bless him, and make his name great so he will be a blessing.

The way for his name to be great, back in those days, was to have many children, and watch them have many children too. And childless Abram and Sarai would love to have many children. Even one, at this point, would be great.

So Abram goes. He and his wife pack up the camels and head out. The promise is enough. He doesn’t question it. He just goes. Abram has faith enough for all of us. At that moment, at least. He has a few other moments where he seems to forget it.

Like when he asks about his heir. “Remember God how my name is supposed to be great? How’s that going to work if Eliazar of Damascus is my heir?

I’m not sure why God gives him the promise twice, but I’d like to think it’s because God knows us well enough to know we need encouraging, and reassurance, and maybe sometimes a gentle reminder.

God’s faithfulness needs no renewal. Human faithfulness to God needs constant renewal.

We need to hear the promise again. And again. And then again.

So this time, God directs Abram to look to the heavens and try to count the stars, if he is able.

The promise is given a tangible marker, something more than words. All Abram has to do is look to the heavens. It’s such a comforting thing to me, the idea that all I need to do is go outside and look up to the stars and be reminded.

I can’t see as many stars living in the city as I can when I’m at my family’s lake cabin or when I’m in the mountains. But looking at the stars is one of my favorite things to do.

While it is sometimes terrifying to be reminded of the vastness of the universe, it’s also somehow comforting to know that in a universe this immense, God still cares for us. As the psalmist writes in Psalm 8:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Looking at the stars is a reminder of the promise God gave to our ancestor, Abram. We are, sitting here, thousands of years after the promise, a tangible proof of the promise.

We are the descendants of Abram. We are numbered among the stars, signs of God’s promise being fulfilled. Looking at the stars is also a reminder that we are not the entire universe. We are just one piece of the promise.

 

We often, I think, believe that if we had a clear sign about what God wanted us to do, then our faith would be stronger, that we’d have more courage to do what God is calling us to do. This story of Abram reminds us that even if God speaks directly to us, and even when God gives us clear direction and clear promise, we are still people who need constant renewal.

The promise is good news, of course. Having your name made great to be a blessing. Ancestors more numerous than the stars. What’s not to like?

The problem with stars is that you can’t see them during the day, when the sun is shining and all is well and happy.

“During the day it is hard to remember that all the stars in the sky are out there all the time, even when I am too blinded by the sun to see them”
Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark

Darkness is a part of the Promise. If you want to see the sign, it requires darkness.

About 16 years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Middle East. I got to ride a camel  to the top of Mt Sinai, or most of the way up, at least. It was an experience I hope I remember forever. Thick blackness all around. The sounds of camels, disembodied voices talking in the dark around me. My camel, who I named Lucy, had an Egyptian to guide us up the mountain, so all I had to do was look up at the heavens. The stars seemed so close and bright, I thought I could touch them, if I but stretched out my hand a little.

After a while the trail becomes too steep and narrow for camels, we hiked up the rest of the way. In the dark. And we figured out it was easier to walk without our flashlight. Because the light did illuminate a particular patch of ground, but it blinded us to everything beyond that small circle.

Rose Cousins is one of my favorite musicians. She has a beautiful voice and is a powerful song writer. She has a song about Darkness that includes this line: 

“To take a light into the dark is to know the light. To know the dark, go into the dark.”

It was such rare advice, to hear her sing that we needed to go into the dark to know the dark. We most often talk about “a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it”. I much prefer that image. Embracing the darkness is not often encouraged.

I recognize that “light” and “dark” can be troubling metaphors. In subtle ways, it plays out in the national wound of racism. When we value “light” and curse the “darkness”, it informs the way we see each other and the beautiful shades of skin that are on our bodies.

Also, my father was legally blind for much of my life, and visually, he knew darkness differently than I do. It would be problematic to equate the visual darkness of blindness to be a sign of being unaware or sinful.

It is wise to acknowledge the limit of the metaphor.

At the same time, it is the image we’re given in the story of Abram. And for him, darkness is a part of the Promise. To see the stars, he has to go into the dark.

A few verses later in chapter 15, after what we heard earlier, we’re told this:

“As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. Then the Lord said to Abram, ‘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; but I will bring judgement on the nation that they serve, and afterwards they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation….’ On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates….”

A deep and terrifying darkness descends upon Abram.

I’m sorry. I know some of you wish I had just stopped reading where the lectionary did, when everything seemed easy, when prosperity and good times were just down the road.

But the Promise is a complicated one.

Abram, the man with a future as bright as the stars in the night sky, descends into a deep and terrifying darkness.

And it is then, at that moment, when God spells out what is to come.

Human nature would tell God that this is a bad way to share the news with Abram. The poor man just descended into darkness.  I suspect had I been the person there with Abram, my tendency would have been to reassure him that things aren’t as bad as they seem. “I know it seems dark now, Abram, but the sun’ll come up tomorrow!”

God, instead, tells him, “know this for certain….
God is not messing around with this news.

Some of those stars in Abram’s sky will know darkness too. His descendants will live in exile in a foreign land.
Oppressed.
As slaves.

We are people who live in a world where bad things happen, where war and violence scatter people around the world. We live in a world where disease seems to cut promises short. We can’t keep the darkness out. Terrifying darkness descends on our lives.

And that’s when God speaks the Promise in new ways.

I take great comfort in that.

“To take a light into the dark is to know the light. To know the dark, go into the dark.”

And in the dark we will find God, speaking a word of promise to us. Specific promise of how through the middle of the pain, the adversity, the oppression and slavery in Egypt—through the middle of it all, God is working to redeem the darkness of our lives.

Dark is not a permanent location, though.

I sat on the top of Mt Sinai, in the dark morning hours, once we’d all climbed up and gathered on the edge of the mountain. We talked, we sat in silence, we waited.

Waiting in darkness was disorienting. We didn’t know what this mountain top looked like. We didn’t know how many other people were on the mountain with us. We knew others had been climbing in the night. We just didn’t know how many.

Waiting in the darkness was isolating. The stars were beautiful, i knew I wasn’t alone, but I also didn’t know just exactly who was there to help or where to go. The darkness didn’t have “pathway lights and well marked exit signs” to indicate a path to safety, should something happen.

And as we waited, dawn arrived. Slowly. Almost imperceptibly at first. I started to realize the darkness wasn’t as thick as it had been a few minutes before. I noticed I could see more than had been visible a few moments before.

Mt Sinai Sunrise, 2006

I started processing all of the visual clues as they came into focus with the rising of the sun. I saw the path. I was reminded I was not alone, both in the faces of my friends, but by looking out and discovering there were thousands of people from all over the world, perched there with me on God’s holy mountain. I had not been alone in the darkness, no matter how much it felt like I was.

We saw the sun rise. And as it did, the darkness moved to another corner of the world.

Sunrise from Mt Sinai, 2006

As far removed as we are from Abram’s dark night of the promise, there are generations of people to come after us. It is now our turn to count the stars, if we are able. What do we owe future generations so they will also be as numerous as the stars? What choices are we making today that will make their world, their lives, better? 

There’s an old proverb that states “a society grows great when old people plant trees under whose shade they will never sit”. 

Our journey of faith calls us to live into that proverb. As we have been the beneficiaries of so much from those who came before us, so too we work to create blessing for those who come after. 

Our faith calls us to keep the air, water, and earth clean and healthy. Our faith calls us to careful stewardship of the earth and her resources. Our faith demands we attend to our effect on the climate. 

Our faith calls us to invest in people, to make their lives better too.  

Counting the stars is also an act of hope. There is a lot of despair around us. People are rightly worried about the state of the world, the rise of authoritarian leaders, the danger to the planet’s health, the worries about our health after over 2 years of pandemic.  As I mentioned recently, despair is a legitimate feeling to experience, but it is only a way station where we pause, before we head back toward hope. 

Here’s some hope data to counteract the despair of our current news cycle. “Two hundred years ago, average life expectancy was less than thirty; today it is seventy-three. Back then, over 80 percent of the world lived in poverty; now, less than 10 percent does. Back then, only 10 percent of adults could read; today, more than 85 percent can.” (from What do We Owe the Future by William MacAskill)

We can thank the people who came before us for working on those problems. But our faith is what calls us to continue to address them for the people still to come. 

As people of faith, we are reminded that the Promise written in the stars is not one of prosperity and easy success, wealth, or fame. It is a Promise that no matter how terrifying and disorienting the darkness is, we are never alone through it. God speaks the Promise in new and different ways in all moments and situations of our lives, even in the proverbial darkness.

Abram doesn’t know how his story will play out at this point. We have the gift of hindsight to look back over the years from that moment of his terrifying darkness. He will have moments of brilliance and moments of boneheadedness. As will his descendants. As will we. And in and through it all, God speaks to us through the darkness so we will have hope that we will see the light.

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