In my final semester in seminary, I had to take a class called the Capstone Seminar. In this class, we were supposed to integrate all that we had been learning in classes with the reality of ministry in churches, hospitals, and other organizations. Our class was given the responsibility of leading one of the school's weekly chapel services, doing everything from music to scripture to preaching (in front of our professors, no less). After quite a bit of discussion of the things that stuck out to us, we finally honed in on our topic - dealing with the tension of doubt and faith.
In my sermon, I remember making this statement: "The quality I value most from my time in divinity school is something I call 'doubt aptitude.' It’s the capacity of one’s faith to embrace the tension of doubt without becoming completely incapacitated by it." You see, through my study, I had been exposed to new voices that spoke so powerfully about faith, but also about the reality of doubt. Voices like St. John of the Cross, Mother Theresa, Barbara Brown Taylor, Frederich Beuchner, and Henri Nouwen to name a few. All of these writers faced what John of the Cross called the "Dark Night of the Soul" but it did not cause them to lose faith. In fact, for some, it caused them to enter more deeply into the life of faith. I remember closing my sermon with this: "Doubt is not the opposite of faith, apathy is. Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!"
I have to wonder if this is what is going on with Abram in today's passage. In the previous chapter, Abram had chased the army that took his kinsmen captive and defeated them decisively. As he returns, he offers a tithe of their plunders (10%) to Melchizedek, the King of Salem, who throws a party for Abram and his men. He offers to let Abram keep the goods that he has brought, but Abram refuses, saying that he wants to be sure everyone knows that victory was from God alone. He is on a spiritual high.
Today's passage, just verses later, opens this way: "After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” (Genesis 15:1 ESV) Of course it will. Abram said so himself, he wouldn't take the king's treasure because he was waiting for true treasure from the King. But instead of responding with thanksgiving, he responds with doubts.
God promises to bless him and Abram says, "But God, I don't have any children."
"Trust me Abram, you will."
"But God, as it stands right now, my servant will inherit everything."
"I've got it under control, Abram."
"But God, how can I know that you are going to help us take the land?"
This is just like us, isn't it? God has been faithful time and time again. God has been true to God's promises. God has been steadfast. And yet we respond, "But God . . ." Therefore, God does something really special for Abram. God says, "Let's make a covenant." Tradition dictated that a covenant would be made between two parties. They would each sacrifice animals, cut them in half, and dig a trench between the halves, where the blood of the animals would run. Then the two parties would walk through the trench of blood, their robe dipping into the blood. In this way, they were making a statement to all the world - the blood on my robe stands as a testimony to the commitment we have made to one another. It is binding.
Abram is preparing for this type of covenant ceremony, when the sun begins to set and Abram falls into a deep sleep. While sleeping, He seems to have this vision of something (or someone) passing through the sacrificed animals. He sees a smoking pot and a flaming torch. Both of these are images/representatives of the person of God. Maybe the connection is the pilar of smoke and fire will lead the people out of Egypt. Maybe it's the connection to the brazen altar in the temple where sacrifices are burned. The specifics are not so important. The point, however, is that Abraham is not one of the parties walking through the sacrificed animals. God is making this covenant with the only person who is sure to uphold it for all eternity: God.
This is a place we can rest our cap - a place we can rest our hope. Even in the midst of our faithlessness, God is faithful. In the midst of our doubt, God is certain. When we can't hold up our end of the covenant, God holds it up for us. In these days of Lent, as we continue to meditate on the countless ways we've failed to keep covenant, surely this is a word of hope that we need.
Prayer: God, in my life I've demonstrated that I am either unable or unwilling to keep the covenant you established with your people. Thank you that it doesn't depend on me. Thank you for taking that role upon yourself. Thank you for holding me long after I've let go of you. Thank you for the kind of doubt that leads to a deeper kind of faith. Amen.