The divine covenant sets God’s believing servants on a journey through struggles and restraints toward a promised land and the city of the Passion.
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Lent is a season when Christians return to roots and seek renewal of basic commitments that guide and inform their life’s journey. The reading from the Torah returns to the ancestor who is celebrated for his faith commitment, Abraham (or Abram, as this passage calls him).
The story of Abraham in Genesis is divided into four unequal parts, the last three parts opened by the words “After these things…” (15:1; 22:1; 22:20). The first part (Genesis 12-14) is sprinkled with brief promises that Abram’s descendants will receive the land, but mainly it shows the ancestor acquiring wealth, which is the first step in his being blessed. After he has become a man of substance, the issue arises of his heir, and the longest section of the story (chapters 15-21) presents various twists and turns about how Abraham will (finally) get a proper heir of his own by his main wife Sarah. The third part, which is a single episode, tests Abraham’s faithfulness to God by requiring the sacrifice of the heir, just acquired through great difficulties (22:1-19). And the last part of the Abraham story is about proper duties of an old family head before his death (22:20-25:11).
Our reading, which is the beginning of part two of the whole story, has two scenes. Each scene has the following sequence: God states a promise, Abraham (as I will call him here) then raises some doubt about the promise, and God makes some dramatic demonstration that reiterates the promise in the most extravagant terms.
The first scene opens the topic of Abraham’s own son as his heir. The problem here is that Abraham’s wife is barren, and the best Abraham can expect is that the manager of his estate will be his adopted son and heir. God’s reply is to insist that “no one but your very own issue shall be your heir” (verse 4, NRSV). This promise is enhanced by showing Abraham all the stars of the heavens and insisting that as innumerable as they are, so will Abraham’s offspring be innumerable. This is the point at which the deliberate and impressive statement is made by the narrator, “And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (verse 6, NRSV. The New Jerusalem Bible: “Abram put his faith in Yahweh and this was reckoned to him as uprightness.”; New Jewish Publication Society Version: “And because he put his trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to his merit.”)
The second scene is the most solemn statement in the Hebrew scriptures of the promise of the land to Abraham’s descendants. The opening words are similar to the opening of the Ten Commandments uttered at Mount Sinai and insist that God will give “you (Abram)” this land to possess. Abraham says, How can I be sure of this? and he is given instructions for a formal covenant ritual — a rather awesome and scary procedure. Sacrificial animals are cut in two and the halves laid opposite each other to form a corridor. Between these parts the covenant maker walks with the implied commitment, “If I do not fulfill my promise, may I be slaughtered like these animals.” (The ritual was used by Jerusalem leaders in a promise to free their slaves in the last days of the kingdom, Jeremiah 34:17-20.) Here, remarkably, it is God who passes between the animal parts, represented by the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch. This is an absolute commitment by God, and God only. Abraham does not pass between the parts. The solemnity and awesomeness of the whole scene is emphasized by Abraham falling into a “deep sleep” and being surrounded by “a deep and terrifying darkness” (verse 12). This shields Abraham from a direct face-to-face with God — which later generations knew was forbidden.
The scene is concluded by the narrator’s simple statement of its significance: “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land…’” (15:18).
And with that statement, many ages of faith and struggle for the land were initiated.
If the Abraham scene was dark and fearsome, the Psalm reading declares that God is the light and salvation of the one who trusts.
This psalm follows a liturgical sequence: the first part (verses 1-6) is an emphatic statement of confidence in God’s protection for the speaker (God is Abraham’s “shield,” Gen. 15:1), followed by an intense prayer that God hear, not abandon, and protect the speaker from enemies and false witnesses (verses 7-13). Before entering the battle and struggle, the speaker makes a remarkable declaration of faith in God (the first part); then, as troubles threaten, the speaker “seeks” God, appeals for help, and expects to be shown a “level path” out of distress and abuse by enemies (the second part).
The last verse of the psalm is spoken by a presiding voice overseeing the whole scene: “Wait for the Lord; / be strong, and let your heart take courage; / wait for the Lord!”
The Epistle reading has an ending very similar to the conclusion of the psalm: “stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved (ones)” (4:1, NRSV). And as the psalm makes clear that there are enemies and false witnesses in the background, Paul reminds the Philippians of others around them who are not of the faith, who, indeed, live with their bellies as their gods and whose shameful conduct is their cause of boasting (their “glory”). Paul speaks sadly, “even with tears,” of such folks. Most powerfully of all, he calls such people “enemies of the cross” (verse 18).
What a striking phrase! Enemies of the cross. As the rest of the passage shows, these are not people who are outside and are not affected by the gospel message; they are people who have heard the message, seem to have accepted it, but who have in fact rejected it by their behavior? There apparently were such immoral Christians around the church in Corinth (see I Corinthians 5:9-13). Paul had probably told the Philippians about those Corinthians who claimed to follow Christ but fed their bellies and indulged their lusts under the motto “All things are lawful to me” (I Corinthians 6:12). Opposed to this, Paul recommends that they “live according to the example you have in us” (verse 17). That example itself is from the Lord. Earlier in this letter, Paul had already exhorted them: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…who emptied himself…and became obedient to the point of death…” (Philippians 2:5-8).
The Gospel reading is from that large middle section of the Gospel According to Luke which represents Jesus as on his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem (9:51, where “he set his face to go to Jerusalem,” to 19:28, where he begins the Palm Sunday entry into the city). Much of this “journey narrative” is devoted to teachings of Jesus that prepare and train the disciples.
In our passage, Jerusalem is the center of attention, and a key issue is the right time to go to Jerusalem. The passage begins with what must be a friendly approach by the Pharisees(!). They warn Jesus to get away from Herod Antipas (one of the sons of the Great Herod of Jesus’ birth), lest the same thing happen to him that happened to John the Baptist. Jesus’ answer to Herod, through these concerned Pharisees, is a little curious. “I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work” (verse 32, NRSV).
We are not talking here about literal days. “Today” means the current time, “tomorrow” means a little longer into the future, and “the third day” means some critical time not far ahead when there will be a decisive change. Again, there is in Luke a sense of a heavenly script that is being followed; the time frame has been scripted, and Jesus enumerates the acts yet to be played out. The climax of the plot lies not far ahead, but it is not yet at hand.
But what will happen on “the third day,” when the kairos, the critical moment, arrives? Reaching Jerusalem, Jesus will go the way of all prophets. “[T]he next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” (verse 33). That solemn punch-line concludes the interchange with the Pharisees, which is reported only by Luke.
To this episode Luke adds the powerful lament over Jerusalem that is found also in the Gospel According to Matthew. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (13:34; Matthew 23:37). Jesus must go to Jerusalem because he is the prophet sent by the Lord to summon Jerusalem to a true and faithful response to God’s call. But here there is a fateful certainty of the outcome; Jerusalem will persist in its refusal, and the “prophet” will be killed.
The city will not again see Jesus until they cry, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (verse 35). This will happen at Palm Sunday (19:29-40), but there may also be an echo of that yet later time when Jerusalem has been destroyed and the true Israel is again led by its Lord on a journey returning from exile.
It is this Lord, who today, tomorrow, and the third day, walks toward Jerusalem – this Lord who is the Christian’s model in Lent.