Have you ever gone to bed with a sense of foreboding, where some threat seemed just outside your peripheral vision, or with an apprehension that some crucial detail had slipped your mind? Have you ever slept fitfully, with fevered dreams that sought to dredge something from your subconscious into your conscious mind, and sat bolt upright in bed, wild-eyed and sweating, with no understanding why? Have you ever moved through your morning routine, ominously certain that things were askew but equally unsure how they might be, oblivious about what to do?
Sit with these questions for a moment or two. Live with them and see if your heart doesn’t pump a little faster, if the hair on the back of your neck doesn’t stand on end. If you are at all like me, this phenomenon is not unheard of in your life. It also give us immediate insight, across eons of time and a world of space, into the experience we read today of Abraham. Midway through our first lesson today, we read, “As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.” Abraham tosses and turns. Something isn’t quite right, but he can’t figure out what’s wrong.
What has led to this? Before he has succumbed to his nightmare, Abraham communed with God. God promised Abraham descendants, and God said, “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.” God then instantiated God’s promise through a liturgy which began before Abraham’s nightmare and ends the next day, when God says again, “To your descendants, I give this land.”
And from the mists of prehistory to today, we have seen the results of Genesis 15. That tiny sliver of land in the Near East has been a crucible of tension, violence, and religious self-righteousness that sometimes simmers and other times boils over. Beginning in the generations after the Exodus and continuing into the twenty-first century, the promise of God has led inexorably to the serial subjugation, oppression, and death of God’s children. Such was surely the case in Jesus’ own day, when, as we read in the Gospel today, Jesus laments over Jerusalem’s chronic and repeated failure to heed justice and the prophets of God. Hebrews to Canaanites, Philistines to Hebrews, Muslims to Jews, Christians to Muslims, Jews to Palestinians…the thousands-year cycle is, so far, endless. Recognizing this reality is not dependent upon one’s political leaning. The fact is so stark, brazen, and sharp-edged that it refuses to be smoothed or enfolded into gentler interpretation: The Holy Land is too often unholy. And the tap root of that fact is God’s promise to Abraham: “To your descendants, I give this land.” The implication being, and to no other. Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all believing themselves to be Abraham’s rightful and righteous descendants, take God’s promise as their own, and the results are often horrendous.
And yet, that night eons ago when God’s covenant was sealed, in the very intermission of that world-changing liturgy, “a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.” Abraham knows but cannot articulate, I believe, that he’s misunderstanding something, that he’s getting it wrong. In the cradle of God’s promise, Abraham cannot rest. What should be a dream of hope and joy is, instead a nightmare. Some crucial detail has slipped Abraham’s mind, some essential component that defines the whole. He does not remember it, and history happens as we know it. Abraham’s nightmare finds its way from dreams to reality.
What is it that resides just beyond the periphery of Abraham’s memory? What is it that, had Abraham and countless generations of Jews, Christians, and Muslims remembered would have made God’s dream come true? We don’t have to wonder; scripture tells us. It is a prior conversation between God and Abraham, the first conversation, in fact, of their relationship. It also likely happened in the middle of the night, causing Abraham to sit bolt upright in bed, and it was also God’s first articulation of the promise that would define not only Abraham’s life but the trajectory of much of world history. Then, in Genesis 12, God spoke through the haze to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great.”
So far, this promise is virtually identical to what God repeats three chapters later, in what we read today. This is also where Abraham’s memory ends. But the word of God does not end here. There is one additional phrase, tethered to the promise with one, minute conjunction. It trails God’s promise like the tail of a comet, and like the comet’s tail it is the brilliant light that illuminates the whole. Back in Genesis 12 God says to Abraham in full, “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
Abraham and all those countless generations of descendants even to our own day remember the that of God’s promise, but we fail to remember the why of God’s promise. The blessing is not a thing to be held and possessed like a fetish. The blessing is a calling, a responsibility, to be the conduit of God’s blessing to others—all others—in God’s world. The blessing is the sacred duty of Abraham and all those who claim him to be agents of grace. This is what Abraham forgets, or perhaps never fully hears in the first place. And God’s dream becomes a nightmare, with the blessing understood as a thing to set apart and above, rather than to share.
The Gospels go to great pains genealogically to connect Jesus to Abraham, and thereby to claim for us, the followers of Jesus, that we, too, inherit God’s promise. And so, it is our turn to toss and turn, to squirm in the pews, perhaps, to sit bolt upright in bed in the middle of the night and ask ourselves, “What is askew? What are we forgetting? Why do the dreams of so many become nightmares for so many others?”
The answer to these questions is always a question: Are we who are blessed also a blessing? Do we recognize and embrace that our blessings are all and only so that we, in turn, can bless others in God’s world? “I will bless you,” God says, “so that you will be a blessing.”
We are in Lent, that time of year when we remind ourselves of our blessings by setting some of the lesser and more trivial ones aside, giving up chocolate, wine or some such. But Lent better serves as the concentrated time to ask: To whom am I a blessing? Whose lives do I actively seek to bless? Not just my partner, spouse, children. Rather, for whom is the world more nightmare than dream, and how can I be a blessing to that person?
That question is the tail of the comet. It illuminates the entire promise of God. If we will ask and answer it with our whole hearts and our whole lives, we will become, indeed, the people of God’s covenant. By being a blessing, we will become truly blessed. And finally, God’s hope for the world begun in Abraham and assured in Jesus Christ will be a dream come true, from Jerusalem to Houston. May it be so.