Do you want to read the text of the Bible first?
- Then he said to him, "I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess."
- But he said, "O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?"
- He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon."
- He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.
- And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
- As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
- Then the Lord said to Abram, "Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years;
- but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.
- As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age.
- And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete."
- When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.
- On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,
- the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites,
- the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim,
- the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites."
For the last time held on the 3d of November 2002 at Hattem
Sometimes we have an experience that's a matter of life or death. You don't concentrate a moment on traffic. Oops, you almost hit an oncoming car. It's a matter of life or death. You're ill, and they call you to the specialist's room in the hospital, where he will give you his examination results. Can you be cured, or is it malignant and is little to do against your disease? It's a matter of life or death. It happened recently in the Netherlands: You say something to young people who are rough and dangerous on a moped. They come to you and beat you up. It's a matter of life or death. You are in a theatre in Moscow, and suddenly you're held hostage by Chechen rebels. It's a matter of life or death. You smell a weird air and immediately after that you become unconscious due to a gas distributed by the Russian army that puts an end to the hostage situation. Do you regain consciousness in a Moscow hospital or not? It's a matter of life or death.
But do you know what's also a matter of life or death? Although we may not think about it that much? That's our relationship to God. Do we or don't we live with God? Because living with God is real life and living without God is not. That's basically being dead.
In short, God's covenant with us, started with Abraham, is also a matter of life or death. Sometimes children are baptized in the service. Baptism is a sign of God's covenant with us. And that sign also indicates that it's a matter of life or death. We lay down our old life, connected with sin and death. It dies, immersed in the water. And we rise into a new life, that's connected to God and essentially eternal.
Now in our text story the Lord gives Abraham a similar sign of his covenant. And with a clear indication that it’s also a matter of life or death. For Abraham must cut living animals in two halves with a large butcher knife, kill them so, and place those halves opposite each other in such a way that a kind of path is created between them.It makes a rough, primitive impression on us. Not appetizing, such a bloody event. Baptism offers a more pleasant sight. But there are many centuries in between. It was a completely different culture then. The people had a completely different way of life. There were very different customs in the interaction between nations and between gods and people, in the social and religious life. Anyway, to Abraham, living at that old time, it was a great sign. It’s comparable with the sign of baptism now. A sign with a rich meaning. And we will look for that meaning and hope to learn something from it with a view to our contact with God and God’s contact with us today.
How does it start? Well, God comes to Abraham again and introduces Himself to him. He says: "I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land." And Ur was the place where people lived in the darkness of paganism. They didn’t know the Lord. Evil powers provoked them to debauchery. One was lost, without hope, without future, peace and happiness. Spiritually dead. The Lord brought Abraham out of that place. And led him into the promised land of Canaan. So that one day, Abraham would live there with his followers in full peace and bliss under the abundance of God’s benefits.
Many centuries passed since then. And Jesus renewed the covenant between God and men. But in essence, not much has changed. God still says to us, children of his covenant: "I am your Lord. I led you out of a world lost in sin and guilt, where all kinds of evil powers make humankind unhappy. I led you out of a world that has no future, in which everything gets stuck in the last crisis, the judgment of death. I am the Lord. I shall lead you into the new world of my Kingdom, a realm of peace, justice, freedom, joy, perfect and eternal. A land awaits you, so good, so beautiful, overflowing with milk and honey!" What a wonderful God, who says to you and me: "I, the Lord, I lead you out of the greatest misery and lead you to the greatest bliss. From death into life." What a great message. Too good to be true, so it seems. And that’s why you might find it hard to believe in such beautiful things.
It applies also to Abraham. For he says: "Lord, how can I know that I'll gain possession of it?" Abraham asks for a sign. He asks for proof of God’s promise that He leads from evil to good. From death to life. Is that allowed? The Lord responds differently to asking for a sign. The angels tolled Zacharias in the temple that John will be born to prepare the way for the redeemer. Zechariah reacted with the same words as Abraham did: "By what shall I know this, for I am old, and so is my wife." But he was punished with muteness. The Pharisees and scribes ask Jesus: "Master, we want to see a sign from you." He answers: "The evil and adulterous generation requests a sign." But Gideon asked God: "If now I have found grace in your eyes, show me a sign." And he received it without criticism. And that’s also the case here with Abraham. Why? Because there can be several reasons why we ask for a sign. Do we doubt God’s word? Are we not satisfied with that? Then we're on the wrong track. We arouse God’s annoyance, just as we are offended when someone clearly shows his suspicion in what we say by asking for hard evidence. Or do we doubt our faith? Do we know how weak our heart is, and how easily it can be distracted from trusting in the Lord by fears and worries? Then it will be alright. For which Christian, who knows himself a little, does not say: "Lord, I believe, but how small and shaky that faith is. Could you help me overcome my unbelief? Please, maintain my trust by the constant confirmation of your rich promises, with words and signs."
Thus, with that spiritual condition in our hearts, we as parents may have baptized our child. And may we ask the Lord to lead us to the Lord’s Supper. These are now for us the signs of his covenant. It would be overconfident if we would think we could do without these God-given signs. If you want more certainty, check it honestly. Are you not sure about Gód? That’s wrong and proves that you don’t know God very well. Or are you not sure about yourself? That's good and shows true self-knowledge.
And then God says to Abraham: “Bring me a heifer of three years old, a goat of three years old, a ram of three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Verily no small matter. Not one sacrificial animal, but one specimen of all animals that can be sacrificed. Each three years old. That means: at the peak of their lives when they’re healthy and fertile. And when their meat also is the best. So when they've the most value for their owners. Besides the offering of the rich people: a cow, a sheep or a goat, the offering of the poor men also must not be missed: a turtledove, a young pigeon. It moreover sounds quite demanding: "bring me, get me." It’s as if God wants to say: "Abraham, you ask me now that I confirm my covenant with you by a sign, but first, give you me a sign. A proof of what it’s worth to you to be a friend of mine, to have me as your saving God. Because in every covenant, two parties are involved. Do show what you have for Me and the saving bond with Me. Show in your sacrifice that you're serious about living with Me. Show that you, as my ally against evil and for good, cling to me, trust me, love me, with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength." Do you understand? The Lord gives us an awful lot in his love and faithfulness. But at the same time, He also asks a lot from us. Our devotion and loyalty to Him. Our surrender to Him with heart and soul. The dedicating and offering of all we have to Him. He asks for our whole lives. Just as He asks the life of those sacrificial animals. In that way, He gives us confirmation of His promises and the support of our faith. Do we have anything left for God? Can we make sacrifices for Him? No, not of animals, but of our time, our money, our efforts and gifts in his service? For things that He can make to signs and forerunners of His Kingdom? Is it our passion to be engaged in the glory of God, the salvation of our neighbour, the building up of church and society? Is that the way we dedicate our lives to the Lord? We live in the ‘I’ era, the era of taking. We notice that mentality all around us, also within us. We grant and give ourselves a lot. Are we too thinking about what the Lord asks of us and we grant Him?
Ah, you might say, what can I give to the great rich God? With my little wealth and little gifts. But the Lord did not ask Abraham everything. One specimen of a sacrificial animal. As a sign of Abraham’s love for his God. And the sacrifice of the poor is just as important to the Lord as that of the rich. The turtledove and the young pigeon are also included. The widow’s penny was only a small amount, but because it was all she owned, she gave it with all the love of her heart, and that was the point (Luc 21:1-4). It’s not always about great things now, either. As long as they are signs that we want to serve the Lord. You do an errand for an ill neighbour. You refurbish a garden for him who can no longer do it himself. You run a youth association in the parish. The most important thing is our willingness, our commitment, our enthusiasm. The Lord wants people willing to serve Him. We read of Abraham: "He brought Him all these." Abraham is immediately ready to bring these sacrifices that the Lord asked. Is that willingness also among us?
And then Abraham divides the sacrificial animals into two halves and puts the pieces opposite each other. He doesn't share the birds but obviously puts the turtledove opposite the young pigeon. According to us, it’s a strange, bizarre way of doing. But not uncommon in that culture. When two people, two families or two parties made a treaty or covenant, they did the same. Both walked between the sacrificial pieces and solemnly swore the oath: As sure as the halves of these animals belong together, they only can live joined together and cut from each other they are dead, so surely we belong together from now on, we form as allies one living whole, and so surely death may come to get us if we break the covenant. So they promised to remain faithful to one another with their whole life’s commitment and keep to the agreements. And they pronounced the penalty of death on themselves if they were to be unfaithful to the covenant made. So it seems that such a solemn ritual of making a covenant is taking place here between the Lord and Abraham. Indeed, that will be a great sign, giving Abraham much comfort and assurance, firm faith in God’s promises.
But it does not happen automatically. The Lord makes Abraham wait a long time, testing his patience. Abraham may ask for a sign, but he must also learn that God is not directly at his beck and call. That’s not how God works. He is too high and holy for that. We cannot claim Him. We cannot require Him to do this or that in our time as a sign of His saving love. The Lord is not a means in our hands, but we are a means in God’s hands. And it’s not a covenant as between men, between equal partners. The Lord is number one and will remain so. And we are completely dependent on Him and His favour. It’s a covenant of grace. And sometimes He also let us wait to teach us that. Then we don’t notice anything about Him. It seems as if He has withdrawn from us. Nothing happens, in which we see a sign of his redeeming love. You may say: to which I see God loves me? All concerns and needs remain the same. All rescues fail. That’s not easy. But hold on to the Lord. Perhaps it’s his test case whether it’s really about Him in our life.
Furthermore, that waiting is not an actless waiting for Abraham. On the contrary. It’s toiling all day long. He must scare away the vultures from the sacrificial pieces. For if they eat the flesh, the ceremony of the covenant-making cannot take place. These birds were considered very unclean and also ominous, symbols of death and other evil powers. Such powers still exist. Forces that work against the glorious, saving bond between God and us. Powers we need to chase restlessly away from us and not give them a chance to do their destructive work. Many of them are flying like vultures around us and our families. They take every opportunity to detract us from our connection with God. For instance, the greed that only seeks satisfaction in money and goods. The self-indulgence: we only fill life with pleasures. The sport becomes sports madness. Drinking alcohol becomes an alcohol addiction. Gambling becomes a gambling addiction. Etc. A child of God, trying to live in God’s covenant, knows what vultures, dangers and temptations come upon him. The Holy Spirit is telling him that. Do you know and do you always ask open eyes for it? A child of God also fights the daily battle to keep those vultures at bay and realizes that he cannot relax for a moment. Is that also the case with you? Are we so seriously fighting against sin? And if we fall into sin, don’t we stay in it, but get up again and chase away evil?
So Abraham is busy keeping the vultures away from the flesh until the sun is about to set. Then a deep and also terrifying sleep falls on him, thick darkness overtakes him. It’s as if Abraham is overcome by exhaustion and therefore falls into a deep, but a troubled sleep in which he still sees those terrible birds before him. He feels he has to keep fighting them, but no longer is able. Abraham experiences his failure. Small and insignificant as he is in the face of the power of evil. He lies helpless, overtaken by fear and darkness. At the end on the part of us, humans, in the covenant powerlessness only remains. It’s God’s one-sided work, and we're lying in the impotence of a deep sleep like a sleeping baby at his baptism.
But then, when we are at the end of our physical and spiritual possibilities, when we’ve learned we cannot contribute anything to that glorious covenant, when we’re in the nightmare of impotence and guilt, then it is God’s time. Then the Lord confirms his covenant unilaterally and by grace. Then He gives it to His beloved ones as in sleep (Ps. 127:2).
And so Abraham hears in his sleep which way the Lord will walk with his people in the future. It will go through suffering to glory. God’s people will be born under the pressure of four centuries of persecution in Egypt. At God’s time, He will deliver them. They will come out with great substance and take possession of the Promised Land. At that time He will judge the Egyptians and the Amorites, ‘when the Amorites’ iniquity is complete’. The ‘Amorites' is a collective term for the gentile nations in Canaan. Thus the wheels of God fit together, those of judging justice for sinners and freeing justice for his people. And the Promised Land will be great, from the river of Egypt - not the Nile, but a border river further east - to the great river the Euphrates. Abraham will not experience all of this himself. But he will be laid to rest in peace and old age. Thus the Lord reveals to him the way of redemption He will walk with His people.
And the Lord confirms his covenant with an impressive sign. When the sun has set, and there’s dense darkness, ‘behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.’ That’s the sing of God’s presence. In the Old Testament, we often read that the Lord appears in fire and smoke, for example, on Mount Sinai, when He again made the covenant with His people through Moses and gave His commandments. The Lord Himself is now going through the pieces. The Lord Himself thus confirms His covenant with Abraham. At that time, this ceremony was the most binding form of making a treaty among nations. That’s what the Lord is doing now with Abraham. What tremendous comfort and assurance that must have provided. Though the Lord came in the darkness, the darkness and terror were gone. In his goodness, the Lord united himself with sinners. And it’s a huge sign of that. The Lord said it to Abraham and says to us now: "As surely as those two halves of animals belong together, you and I belong together. I can be a God without people, but I don’t want to. I want to live with my children on earth. If I let them go, I actually am no longer the living God. I want to be connected with them forever.
And this close bond with us, this solidarity with us, this holding on to His promises of salvation and blessing for lost sinners, God has made all of this fully visible through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. In Him, God completely has become Emmanuel, God with us, one of us, in love and sorrow, even in the greatest need, even in death. In Him, God's covenant has proved truly indissoluble.
And do you know what is so great at all? Think again of the curse that the parties would pronounce upon themselves if they should break the covenant. I've earned death, and I may die like these separated animals have died, if I divide us. The Lord is never unfaithful, but we break that covenant daily through our sins, through our disobedience to God's commandments, and our unbelief in His promises. But now the Lord Himself, through His Son, takes upon Him the death that we deserve. Jesus Christ vicariously bore your and my curse on the cross. He bore your and my punishment for our sins. There, on Calvary, his body was broken. There it was: God separated from God. There He loaded the curse on himself so that He might fill us with his blessing. There He renewed and restored the covenant. There He obtained the glorious forgiveness for every new sin, every new breaking of the covenant on our part. There it has fully become an eternal covenant of grace, of pure, one-sided, undeserved grace. For there, God suffered and died for our infidelity. By what shall I know, Lord, that you love me and remain faithful to me? Well, there is no more glorious, rich, comforting sign than the cross of Golgotha. That sign is more than enough for you and me. Blessed be the God of Abraham, of Israel, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who said and made it true: "For the mountains may be taken away, and the hills be moved out of their places, but my love will not be taken from you, or my agreement of peace broken, says the Lord, who has had mercy on you. (Is. 54:10). Amen.