I hope I am not violating any copyright or trademark protections with my title. I suppose I could have called it “real covenant hope.” Or I could have said “Covenant Promise.” But I believe I describe God Almighty’s covenant with Abraham correctly as being one of hope.
The story from Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 is very important to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is a pivotal event. Everything we know of God’s faithfulness turns from here. St. Paul and James both refer to the text, “Abram believed the LORD and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Paul says Abram was justified by faith. James says he was justified by his work of faith. Hebrews 11:8-19 describes Abraham’s faith in God’s promises. Jesus celebrates Zacchaeus by saying, “He too is a child of Abraham.” Paul says Abraham is the father of all who have faith in God. (Romans 4:16)
Abraham, through faith, has more descendants than any of his contemporaries. He is righteous because of his faith. But is he truly faithful? I think Sarah would argue with that. Before this story Abraham has already allowed Sarah to be taken into Pharaoh’s house as one of his wives. Later, Abraham will do the same thing with another king. The next chapter in Genesis is the story of Hagar who is an Egyptian slave whom Abraham acquired from his treacherous behavior with Pharaoh. She gives birth to an heir for Abraham and is sent away after Isaac is born.
Faith Is Difficult
What can be said about the life of Abram or Abraham? The first thing we can see, if we are not being judgmental of him, is that faith is difficult. Some people think having faith is a way of avoiding reality. But truthfully, faith is the way we face reality. We accept life as it is. But we don’t accept it because it is the way it should be. Through the eyes of faith, we seek to do and to be better than we are. Faithful people are not trying to play a comparison game with other people.
One friend who is an atheist demonstrates this well. He acknowledges my being a “man of faith,” as he calls it, is something he never encountered in his life. He does not consider himself superior or more clear-headed than me. I don’t think myself that way toward him. Neither of us has so much doubt in our position that we think the other needs to be persuaded to adopt his way.
People of faith often think it is our job to persuade and convert someone else. It is not. Conversion is God’s job. Our job is to help converts and seekers to be disciples. Conversion experiences are the work of the Holy Spirit. Some people thought of themselves as righteous children of Abraham and condemned Zacchaeus and subsequently Jesus by association. Could these people have converted Zacchaeus? No. But Jesus declares him a child of Abraham too. His conversion was already accomplished.
God declares Abram righteous because he believes the promise. His faithfulness is constantly tested. Unlike Jesus being tested in the wilderness, he sometimes fails. His failures are spectacular and obvious to everyone including Abram.
Hope With Risk
Failure is the risk of doing anything. Martin Luther, who coined the phrase “sin boldly,” acknowledged failure is the risk of faith. Being faithful for the Great Reformer, meant wrestling with doubts and second-guessing as well as opposition. Because it is risky to be faithful. Of all the preaching and teaching involved concerning the sacrifice of Isaac, only the writer of Hebrews says Abraham knew he was risking the promise in being obedient to the command. Abraham says, “the LORD will provide.” Hebrews takes that to mean Abraham believed God could raise Isaac from the dead. It does not necessarily mean he knew God would do that. The risk remained.
The feels of doubt that come with the risk is normal. We ask ourselves if we are doing the right thing sometimes. St. Paul was sent to preach the gospel to the non-Jewish world. Luke tells us he was given clear commands to do it. Paul did not do it immediately. He may have harbored doubts still. The risk was enormous. Anything and everything could have gone wrong. Paul could have been deluded. He was risking preaching a false gospel. He risked complete rejection from friends and the early church leaders. But he did it eventually. How?
Paul tested and confirmed what he was doing by prayer. Luke describes this in Acts 22. Paul says he spent three years “in Arabia” preparing himself to understand the gospel of Christ better. He didn’t just take his first idea and run with it. But, once he understood, it he still went to the synagogues first. He tried it his way to see if that would work. When that failed, he confirmed what he was supposed to be doing. But he worked through his doubts.
Paul decided to “stick his neck out” and risk rejection to be faithful. He discusses how everything almost failed in Antioch in chapter 2 of his letter to the Galatians. But he knew it was right to carryout this ministry to the Gentiles and decided to rebuke Peter publicly for hypocrisy. When all is said and done, the gospel is about reconciliation and hope for the world.
Abraham had that hope in God’s promise to make his descendants as many as the stars he could see. But even by counting all the stars he could see we know he could not count all the stars. We know we cannot count them all with the tools we use to see them. Our present era demonstrates two things to us. The first is we cannot count all the stars within a single lifetime. We can’t see them all yet. And the second is no matter how many there are the number is not infinite. We simply cannot fathom how great God’s vision is. But we follow that vision by faith. And we have hope because of it.