With more time on my hands, I could easily become obsessed with genealogy. But I’m at least sensible enough to avoid going down that rabbit hole. Purchasing a subscription to ancestry.com would be like opening Pandora’s box for me. I’d never get any sleep. I’d be up all night delving into the never-ending genealogical black hole, determined to see just how far back I could go in finding my ancestors. Found those ancestors from when the Magna Carta was signed? That’s nothing! Let’s go for the Norman Conquest!
The most I’ve done is send a packaged tube of saliva off to 23andMe. Modern genetic science is incredible, isn’t it? After a couple of weeks, a computer-generated map had the bulk of my DNA located right in the heart of France.
It’s an odd fascination we humans have with ancestry, isn’t it? We’re awfully preoccupied with where we came from. Whether it’s finding that famous king or queen in your family tree or seeing how your surname has morphed ever-so-gradually over time, there’s some mysterious human obsession with lineage and the history of one’s own family. Is that obsession itself genetic?
Maybe some of us are less interested in where we came from than in where we’re headed. Are my genes really that good, or will I be prone to cancer, dementia, and a long, lingering illness that ultimately ends my life? The possibilities for worry are endless. I don’t need to name them for you.
There’s an innate human desire to imagine our biological connection to future generations, as well as to our past. Call it pride, but maybe it’s really just a practical concern about survival and a hope that something of ourselves can live on after we leave this earth.
This is Abram’s great fear, isn’t it? When God’s word comes to Abram in a vision, God first acknowledges that Abram is scared. Can we blame Abram? He’s legitimately worried about the future of his family. He and his wife Sarai are really too old to produce children, and his property and bloodline are all at stake. Family ties were sacred in ancient Israel, and perhaps that’s exactly why Abram nervously laughed when God later announced that Sarai would conceive. Abram thought it was a preposterous idea at his ripe old age and yet, at the same time, he couldn’t bear the thought of not having an heir.
When God’s word comes to Abram and tells him that his reward shall be very great and urges him not to be afraid, Abram has every right to be scared of a future without any children. He’s already put a lot on the line for God, and God’s promise of innumerable heirs is still a pipedream at this point in the story.
Abram has uprooted his family from Haran and moved to a strange place. He’s experienced a sojourn in Egypt to avoid a famine. He’s gone into battle against invading nations who threatened his kin. It’s an epic story. Abram’s vision from God in chapter 15 is, in fact, the third time that God has said to him that he will make a great nation of his descendants. And guess what? Abram still has no heir. Things aren’t looking so hot.
I don’t know about you, but I’m on Abram’s side when he verbally takes God to task and challenges God to honor his promise. It’s hard not to sympathize with Abram after all he’s been through in following God’s call. And so, Abram lays it all out there. He reminds God of his promise and he specifically notes how that promise has not yet been fulfilled. And God’s response must be more than frustrating. It’s yet another rephrasing of the same assurance God has made all along: look at all those stars in the night sky, uncountable in number. Your descendants will be just as numerous.
Given the circumstances, is that really reassuring news to Abram? It’s not until several chapters later in the Book of Genesis that Abram’s wife does indeed conceive a child. But after God promises him descendants as copious as the stars in the night sky and without a biological child in sight, Abram suddenly ceases his questions and we are told that he believed the LORD. Can you believe it? He believed the LORD. For this, Abram is considered righteous.
Now, I think a modern reaction is to turn on Abram. Abram, you chickened out! Why didn’t you stand up for what you had been promised? Why didn’t you wait to believe until you saw the delicate head of your firstborn child? Don’t we want to cry out and defend him: Abram, make God deliver on his word!
Abram is kind of like the spiritual forefather of the modern person of faith, isn’t he? He’s still putting trust in a God who often seems not to deliver on promises, at least immediately or in any form that resembles the expectation. And the modern skeptic is waiting in the wings to point this out. Oh, you foolish believer! Look around, can’t you see your naïve and superstitious ways? Show me the proof. The proof is in the pudding.
It’s a point well taken. For those of us, like Abram, who are concerned about the security of our descendants and who consider ourselves descendants of Abram himself, trust in God’s promises might seem ludicrous indeed. Are we wrong-headed to be afraid that our own ancestors might drown in a natural disaster caused by receding coastlines? Is it idiocy to worry that our own relatives might be killed when shopping for groceries? Are we silly to fear that a reckless political leader with access to nuclear weapons might get angry enough to hit that red button? Sure, we can look at the night sky and try to number the stars and imagine an endless earthly future for our offspring and future relatives, but it’s hard to be assured of that promise. Sometimes, because of the havoc we have wreaked on our planet, it’s even hard to see the stars.
Why then, is Abram considered so righteous rather than foolish? Is it because he’s simple-minded and too trusting and therefore allows God to withhold the fulfillment of his promises while yet demanding obedience? Or does contemporary, post-Enlightenment skepticism have us in its grip?
I think that to see the root of Abram’s righteousness, we need to return to his conversation with God. Here we see that Abram argued and wrestled with God in conversation. Isn’t that worth something? It’s precisely because Abram cares enough about God’s promise and God’s perceived trustworthiness that he demands that God deliver on what he has said he would do. Abram’s pleading with God is evidence that Abram does indeed expect that God will fulfill his vow. Abram may argue with God. Abram may even accuse God of failing to honor his word, but it seems pretty clear that Abram assumes that God could do nothing other than keep his word. Abram may not see the evidence, but he’s convinced it will be revealed.
There is quite a bit of merit in that attitude, if you ask me. Isn’t it much easier and arguably less honorable to write God off by assuming that he isn’t trustworthy enough to keep his promises? Isn’t it just a lazy way of excusing a lack of trust in God or a turn to atheism? It seems to me much, much more difficult to engage in heated words with God, laying it all out there and naming the reward we expect to see because God has pledged a rich future to us, a future of believers as numerous as the stars of the sky who can still be around thousands of years later to have their own stormy conversations with God.
If we rightly call ourselves ancestors of Abram, then our genealogy should tell us something about our spiritual selves, about who we can be, and about our future and our descendants’ futures. Our spiritual DNA from Abram gives us permission to bring our questions to God. It sanctions a heart to heart conversation with God in which we name to him exactly what we believe he has promised and what our wildest hopes are based on that promise. Sure, we don’t have to win God over. But acknowledging our painful human inability to fully know the ways of God is part of what faith entails. Only in such a relational dialogue with God might we begin to see God’s offer of hope manifested in our lives in ways to which we were previously blind.
Faith isn’t unflinching acceptance of a blissful future. Faith is born in our laments before a God whom we dare to deem trustworthy. Faith is strengthened when we cry our eyes out in sorrow and anger before God because we can’t bear to hear about one more act of violence. Faith is present when we demand from God an answer to the long, slow suffering that seems to have no merciful end. Faith is present when we lie awake at night wondering if our children will ever survive into adulthood because we live as if natural resources are as plentiful as the stars of the sky. Faith is present when we are courageous enough to claim Christ’s victory over death as our shield when all seems darkness around us.
Make no mistake about it: this is hard. It’s much easier to give up and to dismiss any prospect that God has a better future in store for us and for our ancestors. No wonder so many choose this route and label the rest of us as simpletons.
But imagine this: if we only heeded our spiritual genealogy as intensely as we obsessed with our biological genealogy, we could learn a lesson or two from Abram. So, go for it: call God out on his promises. Demand that the hope that comes from Jesus, which we boldly hold in our hearts, can indeed be realized. This is our fervent prayer. Be brave and expect that God is faithful and utterly trustworthy, because he is. Go on and claim the righteousness of your heritage. Lift up your heads and look toward heaven and count the stars. Dare to believe that as countless as those twinkling stars are, so our descendants shall be.
Preached by Father Kyle Babin
11 August 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
 See commentary by Sara Koenig, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1730.