The world is surrounded in darkness; sadness, evil, and brokenness. So how do we know that we can trust God? How do we know that God really loves us? In the midst of darkness in this world, God comes to us in the nighttime of our lives, shows us the stars, and reminds us of God’s faithfulness and love for us.
Vicar Neal Cannon, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 19, year C; texts: Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
I’ve always been a little bit creeped out by the dark, it makes me edgy. During my summers in college I worked at a camp called Voyageurs Lutheran Ministry. I almost always felt safe there, except when it got dark.
You see, my counselor cabin was at the bottom of a very steep hill. Much of the hill was lit up, except when you turned onto the path towards my cabin. On that path, there was only one light and for some reason there was a motion sensor on it, except sometimes it worked in reverse so when you walked by it would actually turn off. And when it did, it would be pitch black, and I’d be in the middle of the woods, by myself.
And even though I knew that camp like the back of my hand, when the lights went out I immediately became a little bit nervous about my surroundings and my imagination would start to run wild. Twigs breaking in the woods suddenly became wild animals watching me from a place I couldn’t see. Footsteps in the distance were no longer perceived as a possible friend, but a possible enemy.
In all, I trusted the camp a lot less when it was dark.
Darkness gives us a lot of doubt. It makes us doubt the things that we think we know. It makes us look at the world suspiciously.
Of course, this is not just about daylight vs. nighttime. Darkness is also a metaphor for evil, brokenness, and sadness in the world, and there is a lot of darkness. World-wide statistics point that out. For example, did you know that 21,000 children die every day. Similarly on a daily basis 21,000 people will die from hunger today. And what’s more, each year 677,000 children are abused in America, growing up in homes where they aren’t safe
When we hear about this kind of darkness that covers our world, it’s easy to become skeptical or cynical about those things that we thought we knew. Growing up in America, many people went to Sunday School learning songs like, Jesus loves me, this I know, and He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.
But if the whole world is in Jesus’ hands, why are so many people dying unnecessarily?
This kind of skepticism and cynicism is reflected in national studies that show an increasing trend in people who are claiming to be ‘agnostic’ or to have no affiliation with the church or ‘organized religion’. Many of these people are disillusioned with religion, and are asking, if God really loves me then why is there so much darkness?
This is a valid question. Wars, genocide, disease, corporate greed, individual greed, injustice of all kinds run rampant in our world. You don’t need me to tell you this because this is not a problem that is far off. It is a problem that is here, with us right now. Many people here have endured life with depression, anxiety or illness. Most of us, if not all of us, have dealt with an untimely or unexpected loss of a loved one. Still others of us have painfully suffered from, or watched loved ones suffer from addiction or self-destructive behavior.
Now, everyone reacts to pain and suffering differently, especially when it comes to matters of faith. While some people to reject the idea of a loving God, others, I’m sure many here, lean on God and their faith in order to weather turbulent times. We come to church, we pray, and maybe even find a person of faith to give us comfort. But at the same time even those who cling to faith in turbulent times can wonder how God could possibly be present, or even possibly be real in the face of extreme devastation.
That mix of devastation and doubt makes up the nighttime of our lives.
These are the times where we feel like darkness and evil surround us. These are the times where our faith is tested in extreme measure. These are times where we wonder if our prayers have gone unheard or if we can ever really proclaim again that, Jesus loves me, this I know.
We are not alone in feeling this way. The Bible is full of people who, in their darkest hours, lament to God and wonder out loud where God is in the midst of great evil and suffering.
After losing his livelihood, his family, and his health, for example, Job demands that God take his life and complete his suffering. “Oh that I might have my request, and that God would grant my desire; that it would please God to crush me, that he would let loose his hand and cut me off!” The Psalms ask over and over, “Why do you hide your face from me, O God?” We even hear this lament in the voice of Jesus on the cross as he cries, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Yet, it’s in these moments of darkness, of utter bleakness and loss, that God comes to the world and says, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”
And that is exactly what happens in our Genesis text today to Abram and Sarah. Here are two people, who have been told by God that they are to be parents of many nations, but now Abram and Sarah are both too old to conceive and they think they’ve lost their chance.
Can you imagine how devastated they must feel? During Biblical times, it was incredibly important to have children. Having a family meant having workers in your fields and homes. It meant having someone to pass your legacy down to. Many even believed that having a large family meant that God blessed you, while those who weren’t able to conceive believed God cursed them.
Abram and Sarah might be thinking that they’ve let God and maybe even the nations down in some way. Maybe they feel saddened by the belief that they will never get to raise their own children. However they felt, they’re surely going through a period in their lives where they are questioning God’s promise. They’re going through the darkness and they can’t possibly see the road ahead, where God is asking them to go.
“Do not be afraid, Abram,” says the LORD. “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram expresses his doubt with this answer. “O LORD God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”
It must be nighttime when this interaction occurs, because God takes Abram outside and he says something really interesting. God says, “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.”
Go outside where it is dark and count the stars. This is how God responds to Abram’s lament. I find this fascinating because God doesn’t say “hope comes in the morning” or “wait till first light,” like Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings”. No, God comes to Abram in the darkness, and it’s in the darkness that God gives Abram an incredible sign of hope. “Count the stars,” says God, “So shall your descendants be.”
In the face of Abram and Sarah’s struggle, to hear that God is still present, to know that God is still there and has a plan to bless them abundantly, must have been a comfort to them that night. Though they didn’t know how or why, and though they had struggles and doubts, Abram and Sarah from then on knew that anytime stars were out, that it would be OK.
Hebrews tells us that faith is the “conviction of things not seen.” The remarkable thing about this is that – if faith is the conviction of the unseen, then it takes place in the dark. Faith happens in the midst of doubt and evil, not in the absence of those things. And like Abram, it is in the dark that God comes to us with hope in a promise of God’s enduring faithfulness and love towards us.
Faith then is not something we can do ourselves. Faith is given to us through a promise when God comes to us in the darkness and says, “Count the stars, if you are able.” This kind of trust is not a belief in our faithfulness to God. This trust is a belief in God’s faithfulness to us, especially when we are surrounded by darkness.
It is incredibly difficult to trust God in our darkest hour, when we cannot see the path ahead of us. Like Abram and Sarah, often all that we have is a promise. But how do we know that we can trust this promise? Abram and Sarah were eventually given a miracle that proved God’s faithfulness, but how do we know that God will be faithful to us?
As Christians we see that God’s promise of faithfulness is fulfilled already, on the cross. By giving his Son for the world God has already proven his faithfulness to us. And what’s more, in the empty tomb we know that God has defeated darkness and will defeat darkness in our lives today. Because if God can turn the cross into a symbol of great love and joy, then God can take this present evil and turn it into a blessing too.
Few will ever experience the kind of miracle that Abram and Sarah experienced, but through the cross we can proclaim together that, Jesus loves me, this I know. And in the empty tomb we can proclaim that God does in fact have the whole world in his hands.
So remember, when it is dark out, God says do not be afraid. When things get scary, and feel hopeless, God says “I am your shield.” Then God takes us outside and asks us:
Do you know how faithful I am to you? Look up, count the stars.
Do you want to know how much I love you? Look into the sky, count the stars.
Do you want to know the plans that I have for you? Look towards heaven, count the stars.
All of a sudden the darkness isn’t so scary.