Trust the covenant

Sally Oakes's picture

Read Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18.

Yitta Schwartz, aged 93, died a couple weeks ago. She left 15 children, 200 grandchildren, and enough great-grandchildren to number over 2,000. She had actually given birth to 18 children, but two were killed in the Holocaust and one in an accident here in the US.

Mrs. Schwartz was of the ultra-orthodox Chasidic Jewish sect. One of the beliefs of the Jewish people is that your immortality lies with your heirs.

The Schwartz family had been put in a concentration camp and when they managed to emigrate to the US, they saw their proliferation as a thumb in the eye to the Nazis. But Mrs. Schwartz is immortalized more than 2,215 times. 2,215 descendants.

Now, when my husband and I go to visit his family in Idaho every summer, one of the things we love to do is to look into the night sky. I think we can see every star God created. I couldn’t begin to be able to count that many stars. I’d lose count. And even more humbling is the knowledge that there are billions more that I’m not able to see.

God promised Abram that his descendents would be like the stars in the sky. In that culture and time, children were more than someone to love and care for. They represented your relationship with God. Before we thought of salvation as eternal life, our father in faith, Abram (later Abraham), connected it with having children. Having children — and land — represented a healthy relationship with God.

One gets a sense of an intimate relationship between the two: The Lord saying to Abram, “Do not be afraid; I have a great reward for you,” and Abram asking, “But what could it be? I continue to be childless; you’ve not given me any children.”

At that point, God brought him outside and showed him the sky. One commenter said she could almost see God leading Abram by the hand. God promises Abram descendants, more than the stars he could count. It’s as if God is telling Abram; yes, I will keep my promise.

This kind of conversation, “direct and immediate,” as Walter Brueggemann says, is “a means whereby the power and summons of promise are irreversibly embedded in the life of Israel, the promise to Abraham becomes a central datum for the way in which Yahweh will continue to be related to Israel.” That language works well for scholars and theologians, but maybe a simpler way to put it is, “God keeps his promises.” Trust God’s word. Trust the covenant.

God says, “Don’t be afraid. I am near.“ I enjoy sun-catchers. Many of them have sayings llike, “God is good – all the time,” or “God Keeps His Promises,” or “F.R.O.G.” None of these little sayings would make a very good grade on a systematic theology paper in seminary, but every one of them is true.

They serve as reminders that God will do what he says and that he will not leave us abandoned or without hope.

There are some who might dismiss this as simplistic, or not recognizing how difficult it is for us to really understand God, that he’s too big for us to know and so forth. I suppose they’re right. I also recognize that going to someone right now in Haiti or Chile and quoting, “God is good — all the time,” does not begin to address the depth of the human need and nor does it address the depth of God’s relationship with his people. I get that.

It’s just that when God spoke to Abram out under the stars that night, he was promising not just to provide children to old people, but he was promising hope for the future. “Do not be afraid, Abram. Come, let’s go count stars.” God was giving something for Abram to go on. And in this Scripture reading God is giving us something to go on — for in the future, when the going gets really tough, we have in our memory bank the knowledge of God’s promise.

And our response is to step out in faith into a future we do not know and often cannot imagine. Our response is to believe and to trust that God is already there waiting for us and to know that the future does not belong to earthquakes, terrorists, disease, and poverty, but that the future belongs to God. The future does not belong to either ours or our loved ones’ illnesses, strife, and financial worries, but it belongs to God.

Abram and Sarai wanted children. At the time, they thought they needed descendents for their own posterity. What was underneath that, however, is representative of God’s people. They needed an assurance that God would be there in the end, which is world without end.

We cannot now name all their descendants.

As the Schwartz family’s proliferation is a thumb in the eye of the Nazis, so is the outcome of our trust in God a thumb in the eye of all that is evil.

Trust the covenant.

Sally Oakes is pastor of Bethany United Methodist Church, 607 Rivers Road, Fayetteville, GA 30214. Phone: 770-964-6999 or 770-964-6992, or e-mail bethanymnc@bellsouth.net.

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