(Genesis 15: 1-6)
Back on July 30 of last year, while most of us were still negotiating the ins and outs of life in a pandemic, a small rocket launched off the surface of Planet Earth and began its six-month, 138 million mile journey to Mars. We didn’t hear much about that journey – we had other things occupying our minds. But just over two weeks ago, on February 18th, nearly all of us watched on our various screens what NASA know-hows refer to as “7 minutes of terror” – a landing sequence that “involves a supersonic parachute, a thruster-powered descent, and nylon cords that lowered Mars probe Perseverance the final few meters to the Martin surface.”
The purpose of Perseverance’s mission is to learn more about the planet’s past – namely, when life was present – to discern whether the same could be part of its future. And so much is being gathered and collected in its mission – data, soil samples, and lots and lots of pictures. Perseverance began sending photos from the surface of Mars back to earth as soon as it landed, pictures that possessed a depth and clarity never seen before. Rock, soil, hills and mountains, all brown-red, exactly what we might expect from the red planet – simple yet beautiful. More images continue to arrive, introducing us to a planet we’ve only wondered about for centuries.
One photo, however, really stood out to me – even though, as it turned out, it wasn’t an actual photo but a well-informed rendition created by artist Hugh Hou. Using footage captured by Perseverance, Hou stitched together a 360 degree interactive 3-D view of the night sky as seen from Mars. Looking from the bottom up, you see the same red rock and soil, the same hills and mountains as in all the others. It’s what you see above all that that truly takes your breath away.
The stars. All of the stars.
Unencumbered by city lights and clouds, unobstructed by tall trees and buildings, hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of stars staring back at you in their raw, unfiltered shimmering beauty. It is breathtaking in its magnitude. I wish I had the words to describe it to you right now, but know you can go to our website later when the sermon is posted and see it for yourself, if you haven’t already. And if you have seen it, you very well might want to see it again.
All those stars.
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, if you ask me. No, I prefer to think of them the same way I did as a kid, the way the song recounts 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. And we are mesmerized when we see them in all of their brilliance, as Hou’s rendition reminds us.
And what’s fascinating to think about is the fact that those stars seen from the surface of Mars in 2021 are by and large the very same stars that Abram gazed upon in our scripture reading today from earth some 4000 years ago. It was three short chapters before that God appeared to Abram and made the first of multiple covenants with him – promising him faithfulness, promising him land, and in our passage today, promising him a nation. God takes him outside, at night. Look up, God says to Abram. Look up and count the stars. One imagines the sky Abram saw that evening might’ve borne a resemblance to Hou’s artistic rendition. Look up and count the stars. It was an impossible task, counting all of them. There was no way he could ever do that. Which was precisely the point.
Look up at the stars, Abram. Count them. Count your descendants – for they will number as many as the stars you see.
I can’t help but wonder what was running through Abram’s mind in that moment. God had dragged him out in the middle of the night, given him an impossible task, counting all those stars, and then dropped in his lap the heavy that his family lineage in the coming years would be just as hard for him to count. I wonder how that made him feel, especially given the fact that Abram and his wife Sarai had been trying for decades to have a child, just one child; and it goes without saying that you cannot have descendants of any number if you don’t have a child first.
Of course, Abram had no way of knowing how this story would end. How they finally would have that long-awaited child even in their advanced age; how more children would come; how their descendants would indeed grow as God said they would, and how among those descendants of Abram and Sarai would be the likes of Joseph and Moses and David and Mary and Jesus. In our blissful hindsight 4000 years later, we clearly see the wisdom and truth of God’s promise. Because it is Abram under those stars, not us.
But I have to think if we were the ones standing in his place that night, looking up at the vastness of it all, I’m not so certain we would’ve embraced that promise with such unquestioning faith. In fact, and I’m speaking for myself here, I very well may have taken issue with God. It doesn’t really seem fair, does it? All he and his wife wanted was a child. They were not asking for multitudes – they were just asking for one child. And here is God, commanding Abram to do something as outlandish as counting stars, suggesting that he believe in the fulfillment of a promise he would never get to see himself.
I think that’s the part of all of this I most sympathize with Abram about. Day in and day out, we make all kinds of promises to one another: I promise to take out the garbage. I promise I’ll pick you up after practice. I promise I’ll finish working on my degree. I promise I’ll pay off the loan. I promise I’ll make you proud. And by and large those promises are things we plan on seeing come to fruition. But that’s not the kind of promise God is making here, is it? God is asking Abram to take the long view – the very long view – and trust in something that will far outlive his lifetime by centuries upon centuries.
And if you want an indication of just how preposterous this promise is, consider that the light of those stars God is telling Abram to look up and count is light that has taken years just to get to him. Scientists tell us that the light of the nearest star, Sirius, takes four years to reach earth. Four years – and that’s the nearest star. There are stars out in our galaxy that you and I see on a clear night that have taken close to 7000 years to get to us.
What business does the God of the universe have in asking mere mortals like Abram – like you and me – to trust in that kind of promise? Especially when our view of the promise is not as clear as it was for Abram 4000 years ago, or for a Mars rover camera capturing stills from an uninhabited planet. When it’s more like the view of the stars I had off my back porch this past Monday evening, which is to say – no view at all. Clouds in the way. City lights overpowering any “natural luminous bodies of great mass producing energy by means of nuclear fusion reaction.” What do we do when our view of God’s outlandish promise is obstructed, when we can’t see it clearly?
Noted author Brian McLaren lifts up this thought in a recent article:
People can’t see what they can’t see. Their biases get in the way, surrounding them like a high wall, trapping them in ignorance, deception, and illusion. No amount of reasoning and argument will get through to them, unless we first learn how to break down the walls…
He goes on in the article to talk about various kinds of biases that keep us from seeing what we need to see – confirmation bias, complexity bias, complacency bias, to name a few. Perhaps biases are like clouds that obstruct a night full of stars, or the weight of realizing how long that promise has taken to get to us and how long it will be before it’s fulfilled. And that’s the rub of living in God’s promise, is it not?
One of those descendants that Abram was promised on that starry 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 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? What, I wonder, are you waiting on in your own life?
I once heard someone say that one of the joys and challenges of the Christian life is living, as he put it, in “the frequently perceived distance between what God has promised and what human beings experience.” The perceiveddistance Something about that is oddly comforting – maybe because it reminds us that as people of faith that we are called to move in a slightly different way in this 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.
Look up, God says. That’s the very first command God gives Abram. Before God asks him to count anything, he tells him to look up.
Beloved, it is true that there is promise in those stars. There is promise in their light that has taken so long to get to us. But there is also promise in the simple act of looking up. You cannot see the stars until you look up first. You cannot live into the promise unless you give God the chance to show it to you.
Look up, people of God, and see what God has done. Look around you at those you are with at this very moment, or those you are with in spirit. Sisters and brothers on the journey, look up and see the blessing they all are.
Look up and see this community of faith that even a global pandemic has not kept from fulfilling its calling to grow together and welcome all. Look at how we have not only managed to survive in this strange season, but even thrive. Look at how, through this technology that wasn’t here four months ago, we are now connecting with people in ways we never could’ve imagined. Look up and see the body of Christ that is this church – a body that is “more relational, more diverse, more collaborative, more hopeful and more agile” than we could ever know.
Look up and see the signs of God’s promise in both the broad strokes and the subtle nuance – sunlight breaking through morning fog, a long-awaited breakthrough in communication with a loved one, a scheduled vaccine shot. Hope is at the very heart of the promise we see when we look out of ourselves into the wider world – God’s world – and witness others doing the same.
The stars are always there. Their light shines, no matter what. Like Abram we see it from time to time. But even when we do not, even with any number of things might get in the way, the promise is still there. It is God reaching out to us. And we don’t need to be Abram dragged out of bed in the middle of the night 4000 years ago to know this is true. We don’t need to see a manufactured picture of a nighttime view from the surface of Mars in all its starry glory. All we need to do is look up from the ground to witness the beauty and wonder of God’s presence around us.
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.
 After preaching this sermon, learned from a Trinity member who knows his stars that Sirius is not the closest star to earth, but the brightest.
 Language borrowed from a statement about NEXT Church – https://nextchurch.net/about-next/faqs/