Text: Gen. 15: 112, 1718
A child wakes in the night and cries out, at first softly and then with increasing desperation. Alone in the dark he is clearly full of fear, even in his crib. The dark world around him seems threatening. Into his room comes his mother, who quietly takes him up, holds and soothes him, and says to him, “Everything is all right.” Finally, calm and reassured, the child drifts back into sleep.
According to sociologist Peter Berger, that scene enacts a fundamental human drama. We wake everyday into a vast, complex world needing to be reassured. Can life be trusted or not? Is the mother telling the truth when she says to her child, “Everything is all right?” Answering that question is an essential task for all of us, and it will ultimately affect how we live. It’s really a question of faith. Can we trust God?
But let me offer you another, much less reassuring little story from the psychologist James Hillman. A father puts his five-year old son up on the steps in front of their house and says, “Jump! And I’ll catch you.” Happily the boy jumps and is caught in his father’s arms. And so the father urges him to climb higher and higher—three steps, then four, and does it again. “Jump!” he says. The boy hesitates now, but goes ahead, and is caught. Finally, he puts the boy on the top step, and as the youngster jumps, the father steps aside, and the boy hits the pavement. He stands up hurt and confused and bleeding, as his father says to him, “That will teach you.”
It’s a cruel story that Hillman says is about what happens to all of us. We all at times experience life betraying us, sometimes by people who let us down, sometimes by disappointments, hurts, or tragedies we never imagined. And they make us wonder whether we can trust anything at all.
Our lives are a weaving of experiences that often assure us that, at a profound level, “Everything is all right.” But they also contain those other signals that life will hurt us, and we better be careful. Can we trust God?
That can be hard when the evidence isn’t clear, or when the pain of life seems to leave little space for God. It’s striking, how often Jesus, Paul, and the Old Testament writers urge people to trust, to have faith, to hold fast. Maybe the reason is that faith wasn’t so easy for them either. A lot of life makes faith look foolish. Read the newspaper, turn on the news, and then think, “Everything is all right.” You have to wonder. In a world like ours, can we believe that a God of love and purpose is at work—a God who listens, who promises to care for us, who answers our prayers?
Abraham and Sarah in our Old Testament lesson struggled for years with that question. Abram, as he was first called, had been living a comfortable life as a well-to-do, successful patriarch, who was the ripe old age of seventy-five when God called him. Out of the blue it came: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” God said, and then he went on: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…so that you will be a blessing.” And, out of the blue, Abram and Sarah immediately packed their bags and left—just like that—trusting in God’s promises.
But nothing was easy after that. They traveled to the new land of Canaan, but things were so bad there that they then trekked all the way to Egypt to avoid a famine. And in Egypt they endured fierce dangers that threatened Sarah’s well-being and revealed a very dark side of Abraham. God had given them promises, but year after year all they saw was hardship.
The biggest disappointment of their lives had been the fact that they had no children. Sarah was barren, and for a couple not to have a child was to be without an heir or a future. Abraham complained to God, and in response God took him out and pointed to the night sky and said, “Look at all these stars. You and Sarah will be parents of more descendants than all of them put together.”
But year after year it didn’t happen. Even with Abraham age ninety-nine and Sarah at ninety, old enough to be senior citizens in a nursing home, with oxygen tanks keeping them going, it didn’t happen. So much for trusting God. But then one day, so the story goes, Sarah became pregnant, and all she could do was laugh at the sheer wild joke of it all.
This isn’t a story about human gynecology. It’s the story Israel remembered and told about a God who keeps promises. God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah go on for decades without coming true. God calls people to lives of faith and trust, but they don’t get to see where it’s all leading, how it will all turnout. They are just called to stay faithful day by day. The light of Christ, someone once said, illumines in the night only your next step, but you can’t see the surrounding territory. All you can see is the one step ahead.
This Abraham, you know, is Father Abraham. He is the founding father of the three great monotheistic religions—of twelve million Jews, two billion Christians, and one billion Muslims. Even though each religion has its heroic leader—Moses, Mohammed, and Jesus—Abraham is acknowledged as the fountainhead of all three, with the declaration that God wants to bless all humankind. If only all three traditions could affirm that God’s promises are for all, that we are all children of Abraham. And wouldn’t the world be a safer place if they learned to trust God’s promises and not their certainty and rightness, and to live together with the modesty and humility of brothers and sisters in faith?
All three religions declare that God plants promise and hope in unlikely, desert, barren places. Seed grew in the barren womb of a ninety-year old woman. The seed of the people of Israel took shape in the desert wilderness. The seeds of faith Jesus planted grew eventually into the mighty trees that came to be the church. And the seed planted on the bitter Cross, after three days of death, became a promise of resurrection and new life for the whole human race. That was God’s ultimate promise. You can trust me, God was saying, no matter what.
Faith is more like falling in love than it is agreeing to a set of ideas. It is about giving our heart away because of glimpses we’ve had, people we’ve known, words that have cut to our hearts. And when we love, we can’t prove that our love will worthwhile. We have to risk and open ourselves, trusting that as we do that we will find the love growing deeper. That’s how faith works.
Yes, but…, we say. How can we trust in the midst of disappointment, unanswered prayers, and sorrow? Faith includes doubt. The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certitude. We live by trust—trust that there are some 300 million stars in our galaxy when none of us is going to count them, trust that there are electrons when no one has ever seen one, trust that our companions and friends will not betray us, trust that the mysterious Creator God who called us into life wants to bless us. We live every moment of our lives by trust, by faith, but that faith always includes uncertainty.
Christian faith in the trustworthiness of God would be impossible in the face of the evil and cruelty all around us, if it didn’t carry at its heart the conviction that God suffers with us, and seeks us out relentlessly, hung on a Cross to heal us, and promises us yet more new life beyond even death.
It is a hard thing to believe in a promise—to live by it day after day. It is hard to trust in a promise when you don’t have the power to make it come true. The challenge we face, as someone put it, is to give ourselves 100% to something when we are sometimes only 51% sure, sometimes less.
There are options other than trusting. We can throw in the towel to fatalism, or cynicism. We can give up on this story that feeds all the great monotheistic religions. We can decide that the human race for 6,000 years has been foolishly wrong, as some of the popular atheist writers of our day are trying to say. We can play life safe, manage our lives cautiously, and enjoy what we can. But what an adventure we will miss.
You see, our struggle to trust God is crucial for our spiritual growth. God has chosen not to make things clear. God has called us into a world that operates in freedom and on its own terms, where sometimes God’s will is done and often it is not. It seems that our spiritual growth demands that we not know ahead of time how things will work out, not be able to have God perform on demand in our prayers, that we not know if we have trusted in vain. God wants us to risk, and love, and struggle through the complexities of life in this world.
Abraham and Sarah are our father and mother. But Jesus is our savior. His life and death and resurrection make our little risks possible. Because he risked everything, we can risk daily in our trusting. He promises that if we risk everything, when we jump from the top step we will leap into the arms of the one he called Abba, Father.
One of the most moving records of trusting God I’ve encountered was written by a young Dutch woman named Etty Hillesum, who died in Auschwitz in 1943. In her diary called An Interrupted Life, we can watch her amazing growth in faith and trust, even as the reality of the death she would face closed in. One night, in Amsterdam, before going to the prison camp, she wrote:
God, take me by Your hand, I shall follow You dutifully, and not resist too much. I shall evade none of the tempests life has in store for me, I shall try to face it all as best I can. But now and then grant me a short respite. I shall never again assume, in my innocence, that any peace that comes my way will be eternal. I shall accept all the inevitable tumult and struggle. I delight in warmth and security, but I shall not rebel if I have to suffer cold, should You so decree. I shall follow wherever Your hand leads me and shall try not to be afraid.
Those are words Abraham and Sarah might have spoken—words of trust. After all, God promised old Abraham and Sarah descendants as numerous as the stars. And here we are—2 billion Christians, a billion Muslims, 12 million Jews—all of us children of Abraham and Sarah. That’s a God we can trust—in spite of everything.