In the name of Jesus. Amen.
“Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them,” the Lord God said to Abraham, four thousand years ago. And Abraham looked up and contemplated the stars, more than he could count. And now, four thousand years later, this Advent you and I are invited to look toward heaven and contemplate the stars.
God had called Abraham out of Ur. He promised that he would turn Abraham into a “great nation”. He promised him many descendants. But Abraham was already well into his nineties. He needed to be reminded of the Lord’s guarantee to fulfill that promise. In our text from Genesis, God promises that Abraham will have a son. God speaks his word to Abraham at night, in a vision, and Abraham is fully awake. When people meet up with God, they usually respond in sheer terror. The same is true of Abraham, he is afraid. “Fear not,” God says. Then God immediately proclaims for a second time his promise to Abraham. God is Abraham’s shield or defense in life. God will protect and guide Abraham. He also promises that his “reward will be great.” God means that his descendants will be very great or numerous.
Abraham recovers quickly from his fright and, in fact, replies in an almost blasphemous manner. God has told him, “You will have many heirs.” Abraham’s reply is, “No, I won’t. I’m well into my nineties!” Following a local custom, Abraham explains that because his wife is barren, his only heir will be Eliezer, the son of his slave woman. But Abraham quickly learns that he is dealing not with human custom but with God’s promise. God takes him out of his tent into the night and tells him to look at the stars and number them if he is able. “So shall your descendants be,” as many as the stars of heaven.
In Windsor where I grew up, the surrounding light makes it very difficult to see the stars at night. Night is never very dark. As a result I did not see very many stars. The first time I went camping up in the Georgian Bay near Tobermory, I had a hard time believing that the brilliance of the stars was actually real. But apparently about 73 sextillion stars are visible with the aid of technology. With the naked eye Abraham might not have been able to see quite that much, but he certainly could see more than he could count. Abraham will have many more than one or two thousand descendants. They will be countless. Abraham has no reason to believe that God’s promise will come true. As we say sometimes, “You’ve just got to take me at my word.” God simply gives him his word. Abraham has to trust God’s word. We are told, “Abraham believed the LORD, and he reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
This is the first instance of justification by faith in the Bible. It’s the same justification the apostle Paul talks about in his letters. It is not a doctrine made up in the New Testament. Justification by faith can be found here in Genesis. It’s here right from the beginning of God’s dealings with mankind. Abraham trusts God’s promise and believes that God will fulfill it. That is his faith, his trust, and that trust reckons him acceptable in the eyes of his God. A right relationship with God is credited to those who trust him, who trust Christ. You don’t have to do anything. Abraham didn’t do anything to receive this promise from God. God spoke the promise to Abraham. Abraham heard this promise and AFTER he heard Abraham believed. He didn’t do anything. As Paul says, “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of God.” (Romans 10:17 NRSV).
And like us, that’s something Abraham needed to hear continually. This is the second time God has proclaimed this promise to him. And he seems to have forgot about it. And Abraham will still try to fulfill the promise in his own way. Later on, he sleeps with his slave girl Hagar, and she has a son Ishmael. But this is not what God had promised, it’s what Abraham made happen. God comes to him, Ishmael is not the heir I was talking about. You’ll have a son through Sarah.
This was the problem which John the Baptist addresses. The Pharisees placed their trust in their ancestry and their own ability to keep the law. ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ they would say to themselves. In other words, ‘God made promises to Abraham; we are his children; therefore God is committed to us. God has to love us no matter what and we are bound to be all right in the end.’ Not so fast, warns John. Your God is the almighty creator, and it’s no trouble to him to create new children for Abraham out of the very stones at your feet. Although they were Abraham’s physical children, they did not trust in God.
Faith here, is not belief in specific facts or a specific doctrine or the performance of some good work—although these certainly flow out of faith. Rather, faith is trusting God’s promise and acting as if it will be fulfilled. For Christians, faith is not merely a matter of trust, but of trust in a particular person. We sometimes refer to “people of faith” or to someone “coming to faith” or use the saying “you just gotta have faith,” as if it is the faith that matters. It is not the faith that matters! It is the person in whom you have faith that matters. Faith is useless if misplaced. Your faith, your trust, needs to be in the right person!
This is what Paul is getting at in Romans 4. Abraham received the promise of God and trusted in God while he was still a Gentile! He had the promise of God before circumcision and the Law of Moses or any of that. We are not children of Abraham because we’re physical descendants of him. “Father Abraham had many sons. Many sons had father Abraham. And I am one of them, and so are you.” How can this be? God gives life to the dead, and calls things into existence when they did not exist before. God has, just like Abraham, called us, and given us great and many promises. Throughout the Bible, God makes many promises—specifically in the New Testament, for example, “Behold, I am with you always” or “whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” or “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.” Genuine trust in God clings to those promises and acts as if they are true. God proclaims to us his wonderful promises. This enables us to trust in those promises, or more correctly, to trust the One who gave us those promises. We become children of Abraham through that trust placed in God himself, and given through his Word.
God’s promise to Abraham, that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars, includes you. Look at the stars, children of God, and see in them our place--your place–in the story of salvation. Look at the stars, and see that you are a child of Abraham through faith. God hasn’t just given us unfounded promises. Look into the manger and see that God is your Savior! He has sent his only-begotten Son into the world. All of God’s promises find their fulfillment in his Son. “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.” (2 Cor. 1:18–20 RSV). He is the promised Messiah, the descendant of Abraham through whom all the nations will be blessed. His love is more eternal than the stars. Advent reminds us that God’s promises are more certain and reliable even than the stars! The marks of the nails and the pierced side assure you it is so.
And so may the peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.