This covenant that Abram made with God was not Abram’s idea. Abram didn’t go to God with the proposal of a special relationship between them. It was God who approached Abram with it. And just so that we would know what sort of man this Abram was – God’s intended covenant partner-in-between the story of God’s proposal to him in Genesis chapter 12 and their wedding in Genesis chapter 15, we are told stories about Abram that show us his flaws and failures as well as his strengths and faithfulness. Just like us, Abram could run hot and cold. He had good days and bad. One moment he could be courageously faithful, and the next, shockingly faithless. And so, in our Scripture lesson this morning, at the pivotal moment when it was time for God and Abram to take their covenant walk between the animals cut in two, we are told that Abram fell sound asleep. Only God passed through the sacrifices that created the covenant. God cut His covenant with Abram while Abram slept! 18And whatever else this might mean, it means this – that just as it was God alone who proposed this relationship with Abram, so it would be God alone who would see to it that its terms would be kept.
I am thoroughly captivated by this idea that God keeps the covenant even when, especially when, we turn out to be groggy covenant partners. Talk about grace! We are loved by God with a love that “wilt not let us go.” I am not persuaded that God’s covenant faithfulness to us undoes the separation that our covenant faithlessness creates, but it does convince me that God doesn’t give up on us. In the words of Francis Thompson’s familiar poem, “The Hound of Heaven” –
|I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;|
|I fled Him, down the arches of the years;|
|I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways|
|Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears|
|I hid from Him, and under running laughter.||
|Up vistaed hopes I sped;|
|And shot, precipitated,|
|Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,|
|from those strong Feet that followed, followed after.|
|But with unhurrying chase,||
|And unperturbèd pace,|
|Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,|
|They beat—and a Voice beat|
|More instant than the Feet—|
|‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’|
In her book Hope Has Its Reasons, author Rebecca Manley Pippert told a story that I have never forgotten. Had there been time, I would have told it in my sermon last Sunday on Genesis 15. But since there wasn’t, and I didn’t, I want to share it here –
A few years ago I met a friend of my husband’s who was to change my life. He was quiet and unassuming in manner. But after talking to him for ten minutes I realized he was one of the most supernaturally powerful men I had ever met. His sensitivity and gentleness of spirit made me wonder if he had suffered. Then he told me his story.
He had been a minister for a long time. He felt his life was fairly in order, a good ministry, no problems in his marriage and fine kids. Then one day his wife came to him and said, “I have wanted to leave you for a long time. The marriage is not what I want and I don’t feel any love for you. I want out. I’m filing for divorce.”
He was devastated, and shocked. He simply had not seen it coming. He said, “Please don’t do this. Let’s try to make this work. Please don’t get a divorce.” And she said, “All right, I won’t file yet. But I will not stay. I’m going to separate from you.”
…He saw his wife occasionally after she left him, and they would talk. But she held out no hope that they would reunite. Still he believed that he was to remain constant and faithful. He was sure that someday she would change her mind and return. Then one day she came to him and said, “I have given up a lot of things I used to believe in. But, I can’t let go of my faith in Jesus because I’ve seen Him so clearly in you. I want to thank you for that. But I haven’t changed my mind about marriage, and I have decided to file for divorce now.” …She chose to get the divorce, and it went through.
That’s when the members of his church came to him and said, “Listen, you’ve waited and been faithful. Now she’s divorced you. We know some lovely women who’d be delighted to share your ministry. Let us help you get to know them.” But he couldn’t. He believed that God wanted him to remain faithful to her. It was his sense that God was saying to him, “I want you to love her as I have loved you.” He explained, “I don’t think that this is necessarily God’s calling to everyone, but I felt like it was God’s direct calling to me.” And so he did. For nine years he waited and remained faithful.
And then about a year after I met him, as I was going through the mail I saw a large envelope. I opened it to find a card that read [the names are changed] “Joe and Carol, and Ann invite you to share in the celebration of the reuniting of the marriage of their parents. For it was said on this day, “Lo, this is our God. We have waited for him. Now let us be glad and rejoice, finally in the day of our salvation” (Isaiah 25:9).
This story could have ended differently. She could have chosen to respond in another way. His obedience to God could not control his wife’s response. Yet there is no question that his willingness tom learn how to love and forgive his wife dramatically affected her life…
New Year’s was approaching shortly after that when we got a call. It was from this man. He said, “Guess what? My wife and I are in town. We want to take you and Wes to breakfast. I said, “I can’t imagine a better way to start the New Year!” So we went to breakfast and I remember saying to Wes on the way, “I’m not sure I’m going to like her very much.” But the truth was, I found her to be utterly delightful. And then I realized, how could she be anything else? She was wonderful in her own right. But when you have also been encircled with Christ-like love as she had, how could anyone not be the more marvelous for it? (191-194)
This is a story of what the Bible calls “steadfast love,” and if it sounds familiar that’s because it’s the rest of the story that the Bible tells. It’s the story of how the faithful God of Abram loves we who are his less than faithful descendents, God’s groggy covenant partners. It’s the rhythm of the stories about David, and Hosea, and Isaiah, and Peter that the Bible tells. It’s the portrait of the God that Jesus Christ painted in His lost and found parables of Luke 15. And it’s the story of you and me. This is how we are loved, God swore Himself to it in Genesis 15 in the covenant He cut with Abram. And it’s the covenant that gets renewed every Sunday morning when we break the bread and bless the cup.
Upon that cross of Jesus mine eye at times can see
The very dying form of One Who suffered there for me;
And from my stricken heart with tears two wonders I confess;
The wonders of redeeming love and my unworthiness.