As we have done throughout previous Lenten and Advent seasons, we are again blogging through the Lectionary readings in this Lenten season. This year, however, due to our travels in Central Asia, we have asked a number of guests to blog for us. These guests are individuals who are influential in our lives and work. We’re honored to share this space with them-and with you–in this season of reflection.
We are honored to once again have Rev. Neal Locke guest blogging for us. Neal and I met 15 years ago as students at Oral Roberts University. I am thankful that all these years later I can still call him my friend. (And, can say that we both successfully graduated.)
Neal, his wife, Amy, and three children, Grady, Abby, and Jonah live in El Paso, Texas, where Neal is the Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church.
A reading from the book of Genesis.
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 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, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’
— Genesis 15:17-20
The “pieces” referred to in this passage are pieces of animals sliced in half—not an appealing thought to our modern sensibilities, but part of an important ritual in antiquity. The ritual would go something like this: Two powerful and wealthy men (as displayed by their ability to sacrifice several large and expensive animals) would make promises to one another. The sliced, equal halves of the animals represented the equal status and commitment of the men making the promise. It is also possible that the cleaved animals served as a veiled threat of the fate awaiting anyone who broke such a promise. The two men would then pass through the animals, representing a shared and irrevocable journey.
But something is missing in this ritual as performed in Genesis 15:17-20. And that something is Abram. This is a completely one-sided covenant, for it would be impossible for God and Abram to make a covenant together as equals. Instead, God makes the journey through the halved animals on his own, as a “smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch.” This is the first of many times in the Bible that God manifests himself as fire (burning bush, pillar of fire, pentecost, etc.). It is a reminder to us today that God’s covenant to us, his people, is not something that we can earn, or to which we can even contribute anything of worth. Our salvation is something God undertakes alone, for our benefit.
The promise is certainly a good one. God promises Abram descendants and land—two things that an elderly nomad would have no right to expect or even hope for apart from God’s grace. But this promise is perhaps not without cost. Earlier in the chapter, in verse 12, “a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.” We are not told exactly what terrified Abram in his sleep. Perhaps it was a vision of the future in which his offspring would be aliens, slaves and oppressed. But when I look at the land which God promises Abram—land in the Middle East that has seen tremendous bloodshed and violence throughout recorded history right down to the present day—I cannot help but wondering if this is the terrifying vision Abram sees.
God’s promises are good, and God is faithful to keep them, but sometimes the road is long and fraught with seemingly insurmountable enemies. Again, we must remember the nature of the covenant: God does not ask us to surmount the insurmountable. That’s his job. Abram’s job was simply to be obedient, and bring the animals for the sacrifice. When we are obedient to God’s calling, when we sacrifice our time, talents, and resources to answer his call, God goes before us as a flaming torch to guide our way.