THE UNILATERAL PROMISE
GENESIS 15: 7-21 EPC 3-11-18
- WHAT IN THE WORLD IS GOING ON HERE?
A. I have not preached in nine months. Let’s see if I remember. Am I doing it right so far? What a treat to be back home. In case the passage of time was not apparent, there are children graduating from High school this year who were not born when I left Elderton. And today we baptized the children of parents who were in kid’s club when I was the pastor here. Once a bulletin announcement on a baptism Sunday was a little confusing. It said, “Thanks to the Jones family for the new baptismal font which will be placed in the narthex at the church entrance. From now on babies will be baptized at both ends.” You can see the jokes have not gotten any better.
B. Baptism is an ancient ritual. But I think sometimes we have lost the significance of its meaning. I fear that some people approach it as a nice, cute, sweet little ceremony. But there is something much more important than just a photo op for grandma going on here. What in the world IS going on here? And why would the preacher choose such a gross passage of scripture for a baptism sermon?
C. We have this story of Abram needing a promise from God that the Divine will always be with him. And so God gives him instructions about cutting these animals in half and leaving a path between the parts. As my granddaughter Ainsley, an avowed vegetarian would say, “Oooh gross!” She showed me a picture of cow and said, “How could you eat one of these?” I said, “On a sesame seed bun with cheese and Heinz 57.” So why this gory story from Genesis?
D. I hope everyone keeps the promises they make today. But if they don’t, God will still keep God’s promise to be with you always.In another church two sets of parents had their babies baptized the same day. I told them that they were making sacred promises to raise their children in the church. They were promising to get them to Sunday school and to teach them Christian and Biblical values at home. One couple was in church every Sunday and the child was in Sunday school. They were clearly keeping their promise. We never saw the other family again. Guess which child God loves? Both of course.
II. NOT QUID PRO QUO
A. Because there is a big clue as to what in the world is going on in baptism. What Abram does is probably an ancient ritual that Middle Eastern people had used for centuries as a way of cutting a deal. That’s where the term cutting a check originates. There were no contracts or lawyers. So two parties who wanted to enter into a contract would enact this messy ritual. Then both parties would walk between the halved animals as a sign that they would each uphold their end of the bargain. They were saying in ritual, “If I don’t live up to my end of the contract, then what happened to these animals should happen to me.” Whew! ‘Talk about a binding contract.
B. So we come to church and we make promises about the ones who are baptized. The parents make promises. The congregation makes promises. And God makes promises. But it is not a contract. In a contract I promise to do something if you promise to do something else. I agree to pay for a ticket to see the Pirates play and Nutting promises to put a major league team on the field. In a contract if one party does not do what they promised then the first party does not need to keep their promises either. It is Quid Pro Quo.
C. No, baptism is not a contract. It’s a Both parties make promises, but if we don’t keep our promises, God still keeps God’s promises. I want you to notice a key part of this story. Abram does the butchering and chases the birds and flies away. But he is never asked to walk between the animals. Only God takes this walk of promise in the form of a flaming torch. God is saying “If I don’t keep my promise then I invoke death upon myself. God says, “I swear to ME!”
III. BE A BLESSING
A. Baptism is something that God does. We just make the arrangements. Fortunately filling the font with water is a lot less messy than chopping us animals. We set the stage, but God is the actor. God has promised that He will always be with these adults and children. They will know the unconditional love of God no matter what.
B. Baptism is something God does. Once in a while in my ministry someone would come to me and ask to be re-baptized. They usually say that they don’t remember their baptism and it would be so much more meaningful now. I try to explain that we don’t re-baptize because it is an act of God and God got it right the first time.
C. So are we just passive recipients of this sacrament? God says in many places in scripture what our response is to be. God tells Abram to be a blessing to humanity and to God. The prophet Micah says, “This is what the Lord requires of you. Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.” Jesus says, “Love God and love your neighbor.” And Paul says, “Live a life worthy of your calling.” Our response is loving gratitude which leads to keeping our promises.
D. And if we faIl? When we fail? If we find that we are having difficulty keeping our promises, then God sends the Spirit to help us and remind us that we are forgiven; no matter what. That is called grace. And that is the foundation of our faith.
A. Faith wavers but God does not. I have to confess that I had some faith wavering times in this last year. I found that I was angry and afraid much of the time. It seemed to me that our nation had made a wrong turn. People seemed to be filled with hatred and anger and fear of anyone who was not like us. It felt at times like the gospel message had been washed away in a spirit of meanness. Blaise Pascal wrote about the overwhelming feeling of the absence of God. I’ve felt it.
B. But I was sitting in church the first Sunday of Lent. The preacher was acknowledging that my negative outlook was wide spread. Then he called me (US?) back to what me faith had always taught me. I thought about giving something up for Lent. I thought about Brussel sprouts, but would not be much of a sacrifice. It was then that I decided that I was going to give up fear and anger for Lent.
C, It was then that I realized that I don’t trust Donald Trump. I don’t trust the Congress. I don’t trust the Democrats or the Republicans. I don’t trust human nature. I don’t trust government at all. My trust is only in the God who created me and redeemed me at the cross, and walked through the animal parts to promise me that God has not abandoned us. God is with us in the anguish of school shootings and Washington lies and an assault on the truth and rampant infidelity and systemic greed and bitter division. After all, this is the God of Golgotha as well as the empty tomb. It was as if God shouted in my ear, Don’t you remember? “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge God and He will direct your paths.”Oh Yea.
D. It is God who does the baptizing. It is God who makes the unilateral It is God who is our hope. It is in God we trust, no matter how bleak things might seem. Ann Lamott wrote, “If the ending is not happy then perhaps it is not really the end.” I wonder if Abram woke from his sleep like trance and wondered if it was all a dream. Cutting cows in half all day could disrupt your sleep. He might have thought that God didn’t really make a life and death promise. God did not really walk through the animals. Then he walked over to the animals and noticed that the grass between them had been scorched.