(Genesis 15: 1-18; Psalm 27: 7-14)
They called it The Blackout of 2003. New York, Toronto, Ottawa, Cleveland, New England – this huge mass of northeastern North America, all without power for in some cases 48 hours. It all started around 4:00 on a Thursday afternoon; they think it began somewhere up in Ohio. Within a few hours it spread over state and country lines, throwing everything in its path into darkness – including the great city of New York.
A 60 Minutes journalist went around lower Manhattan in the dark on Friday night, interviewing residents as they slept on street corners. See, it was not just those experiencing homelessness who were sleeping out there. It was also folks from expensive high-rises who had to get out of the stifling heat of their condos. They were all there together on the street corners that night.
There was this one man the lady interviewed. He looked to be in his mid-30s and was playing checkers with a friend by the light of a kerosene lantern, sipping what had to have been a lukewarm Coke. He had a big smile on his face, though; as the reporter asked him what had been the most memorable part of the night. He pointed up to the sky. And he said, “Look up there! Do you see that? It’s amazing! All those stars…..” He paused for a minute, lost in the wonder of what he was looking at. “I’ve lived in Manhattan all my life,” he finally said to the reporter, “and I’ve never seen stars here. The city lights are always too bright. But with the power gone, it’s like these stars have come out of nowhere. It’s unbelievable! Who would’ve thought I’d ever get to see stars here??”
It’s true. I’ve never thought about the novelty of stars in Manhattan – stars you find in the sky, of course, not the stars walking Times Square. I imagine Grace, if she were here, would testify to the fact that you rarely see celestial stars all that much.
Webster’s defines a star as “a natural luminous body of great mass which produces energy by means of nuclear fusion reactions.” That’s a great way to kill the wonder of it all. I prefer to think of them the same way I did as a kid – the way the song tells it, “up above the world so high / like a diamond in the sky.” There are literally billions of stars in our universe, only a few of which are visible to the naked eye. They’ve guided sailors in their journeys and helped interpret the futures of fortune-seekers. The ancients configured them into groups of constellations and gave them names like Big Dipper, Gemini, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. We are mesmerized by the stars when we see them in their brilliance.
It’s the stars that make an appearance in our scripture today from the 15th chapter of Genesis. But it wasn’t a power outage that revealed them to Abram – there was, of course, no such thing back then. No, these stars were in the habit of revealing themselves to Abram and everyone in his day every night. And yet, it wasn’t until this particular occasion that Abram really saw those stars for what they were – much more than a pretty sight on a clear night.
It was God who told Abram to look up – look up and see the stars. It was God who implored Abram to count them. Which, of course, was an impossible task. And that was the point.
Look up at the stars, Abram. Count them. Can you do it? Implied answer: no.
Look at the stars, Abram. Count them. Count your descendants – for they will number as many as the stars you see.
I’ve always wondered what must’ve been running through Abram’s mind at that moment. God, dragging him out in the middle of the night, giving him an impossible task and then dropping in his lap the heavy that his family lineage in the coming years would be innumerable. No pressure there! No pressure especially given that Abram and his wife, both way beyond child-bearing years, had been trying for ages to have a child, unsuccessfully. It is hard to have descendants of any number if you haven’t had the one child!
Abram, of course, had no way of knowing what you and I know – how all this would play out, how the story would end. How God’s people would do great and mighty things; that among the many descendants of Abram and Sarai would be people with names like Joseph and Moses and David and Mary and Jesus. In our blissful hindsight we clearly see the wisdom and truth of God’s promise here. Because it is Abram under those stars, not us.
But if we were standing in his place that night, looking up at the vastness of it all, I’m not so certain we would’ve embraced it with such blind and unquestioning faith. In fact, and I’m speaking for myself here, I very well may have taken issue with God. It doesn’t seem all that fair, does it? All he and his wife wanted was one child. They weren’t asking for multitudes – they were asking for just one. And here is God, telling him to do something as outlandish as counting stars, telling him to believe in a promise to be fulfilled long after his time is done.
How hard would that be for you and me? I mean, we live today in a world of immediate gratification – we get what we want, and we get it NOW. We order a burger from the McDonald’s drive-thru and start getting antsy if it’s not shoved through our open window in seconds. We can purchase almost anything with just a few clicks of the mouse and sixteen digits of our credit card. Most of us would find our lives dramatically altered without things like cell phones and email, texts and instant messages. By and large, we live by the mantra my mother once had embroidered and hung in our kitchen growing up: God, please grant me patience – and give it to me right now!
That impatience finds its way into human relationships as well. Often we expect people to instantly provide for us love, respect, affection. We’re quick as a society to jump into relationships and connections, and often just as quick to jump out of them. Many times we adopt a “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” mentality that demands a great deal from those around us, creating unreasonable expectations of others and sometimes unreasonable expectations of ourselves.
I love the story of Larry Walters, a 33-year-old man who’d recently been laid off from his job of ten years. In a moment of inspiration partly borne out of sheer boredom, Walters decided he wanted to, let’s just say, see his neighborhood from a different perspective. So he went down to the local army surplus store and purchased 45 used weather balloons, and strapped them and himself onto a lawn chair off his back porch. With him he brought a few Cokes, a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and a BB gun, so he could shoot the balloons one at a time when he was ready to land.
Now Walters made the assumption – as it turns out, an erroneous one – that the balloons would carry him a mere hundred feet or so in the air; a leisurely ride. He was not quite prepared when he instead soared to almost 11,000 feet. That’s over two miles off the ground! This is a true documented story! And as if that wasn’t enough, the winds wound up carrying him right into the heart of the traffic pattern for the Los Angeles International Airport. Too frightened to shoot any balloons, Larry Walters stayed airborne for more than three hours, forcing the airport to shut down its runways for much of the afternoon, causing long flight delays across the country.
Soon after he was safely grounded and cited by police, reporters asked Larry three questions, to which he gave three answers:
Were you scared? Yes.
Would you do it again? No.
Why did you do it? Because, he told them, I just couldn’t sit around doing nothing.
While most of us – I hope most of us – would find more productive and less hazardous things to do with our free time, I do think Larry’s story resonates at some level with part of our own. That part in each of us that has no desire to “sit around doing nothing.” We like to be on the move, on the go! We want to see results and see them now.
So it’s no wonder if we find ourselves taking umbrage with what God does in our scripture today. God asks his faithful servant Abram to do that which does not come naturally to the vast majority of us – God asks Abram to wait. To have faith and believe in the promise, even when that promise is not going to be fulfilled anytime soon. To go the arduous way of “delayed gratification” where we hold off on the reward and trust that it will come in its time. And that, my friends, that is much easier said than done.
One of Abram’s descendants whose star he got to see that night was, among other things, a poet. And in the final verses of the 27th Psalm, the great King David writes this:
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
Be strong and let your heart take courage;
Wait for the Lord!
What do you think it was that David was waiting on here as he penned these words? Was it deliverance from those who wished him harm? Was it grace and mercy to take the place of the guilt he felt after Bathsheba? What was David waiting on?
Where, I wonder, is your waiting taking place these days? Are you waiting for the next phase of your life to materialize? Are you waiting for peace amidst conflict? Are you waiting for some wrong to be made right? Are you waiting for fulfillment of some dream, some promise? Are you waiting with no idea what it is that you are waiting for?
I once heard someone say that one of the challenges of the Christian faith is the challenge of living, as he put it, in “the frequently perceived distance between what God has promised and what human beings experience.” I like the way he puts that – it feels spot-on. It’s being aware of the fact that people of faith are called to operate in a slightly different reality than the rest of the world; a world that spends an awful lot of time looking down at the ground. Whereas we are called to look up at the stars.
And you know what that means, right? It means we put our trust and faith in things that are not fully here now. Last night I went out on our back porch and looked up in the sky. Most of the stars were obscured, but south Charlotte is not Manhattan with power. I could see stars. And as I looked up at those stars, I had to remind myself that the light I was seeing at that moment was not light emanating right then. For science tells us that it takes an average of four years for a star’s light to reach earth. Four years. That means that the light I saw last night was light that was generated before our nation entered the home stretch of our last presidential election. Before my oldest was in middle school. Before I came here to be your pastor.
It takes a while sometimes for the light of God’s promise to illumine us in “the frequently perceived distance between what God has promised and what human beings experience.” But God’s promise, like the light of a star, shines upon us with absolute certainty.
And you know what that makes us, right? It makes us star-gazers, my friends. We are people of the promise. A promise given to a man long ago by a God who dragged him out of bed to look up at the night sky. A promise made manifest in each and every one of us. And you and I know: it is a promise that makes all the difference.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 http://www.snopes.com/travel/airline/walters.asp, visited on 8.1.2016.