Presence and Dependence

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 | Psalm 27

Jeremy Richards

 There’s a theme running through our two readings today, and running through most of Scripture that stands out to me. And it stands out to me because it’s so present in our readings, and so present in the whole of Scripture, and yet so often absent in my own life. And that theme is a real belief that God is present and active in our lives, and more than that, that we can depend on God. In the story from Genesis, Abram is completely dependent upon God to fulfill God’s promise and give him an heir, and God shows up and has a conversation with Abram about it. Psalm 27 is 14 verses of trust in God, who the psalmist is sure will never forsake him.

Now, to be clear, they I’m not saying that if we trust in God, if we depend on God, we won’t experience pain or suffering or heartbreak. No, the way I understand these Scriptures based on other passages from the Bible as well as my own experience, is that we will continue to experience hard times, but God will be with us in it all. God will be our strength. In the words of Jesus, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NIV).

The description of God that stands out most to me from our psalm this morning is found in the first verse, when the psalmist says, “The Lord is the stronghold of my life.” That’s quite a statement. The sentiment is so commonplace in Scripture that we might hear it and think, “Of course,” but if we were to meet someone today who said, “The Lord is the stronghold of my life,” with genuine conviction, it might surprise us a bit. We’re not used to people depending on God like that. We might expect people to say, “My faith is very important to me,” or, “I’m very involved in my church,” but “God is the stronghold of my life?”

Our first thought might be, “Really?” Because, the truth is, most people seem to get on alright whether they believe in God or not. We depend on things like food and shelter, not a God who we cannot see. The stronghold of our lives might more accurately be our job or the paycheck that comes with it. Or maybe it’s a spouse or a loved one who we can reach out and touch.

I remember a small group leader at my youth group growing up, one of my friend’s dads, sharing his testimony with us. He said when he was in high school, he was sitting in the balcony of his church, slouched down, not really wanting to be there, and the pastor said something like, “You cannot live without God,” and he felt this anger well up inside him and he thought, “What do you mean I can’t live without God? I’m here, I’m alive, I’m breathing.” This led him down a short but significant path of rebellion. To him, that seemed like an outright lie: “You can’t live without God?” Of course you can.

But Jesus said we can’t live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. The psalmist says God is his light and his salvation, the stronghold of his life. What does that even mean?

 Who is God? Can God be reduced to a set of beliefs we simply ascribe to? Or, on the other end of the spectrum, is God so big, so mysterious, that we cannot know God? Is God just an abstract idea with little bearing on our lives? Or is God something more? Can God be a real presence in lives? Can God be someone we depend on? Can God be our light and our salvation? Can God be the stronghold of our lives?

The biggest obstacle to this idea, I would guess, is the continued presence of suffering and evil, something I wish I had trouble finding an example of, but is, unfortunately, pervasive in our world. The most relevant example being the horrific terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand. How can we depend on God when God seems unable or unwilling to stop such horrific acts of violence, or even more commonplace struggles? It seems God does little to to save us from financial hardship, broken relationships, trauma, natural disasters, and health problems.

The thing is, while there are certainly some passages that seem to argue that if we just obey God everything will turn out great, the vast majority of Scripture says otherwise. The vast majority of Scripture tells us that we will continue to experience hard times, and still we should continue to trust God. Even those stories that ultimately end in happiness aren’t void of suffering and loss. Joseph becomes Pharaoh’s right hand man, but that’s only after he’s been sold into slavery by his brothers, imprisoned in Egypt, and has been estranged from his family for years. The Israelites eventually find their way to the Promised Land, but that’s only after centuries of slavery in Egypt, 40 years wandering in the wilderness, nearly starving to death, nearly dying of thirst, their camp getting invaded by poisonous serpents, the death of a whole generation, the death of Moses, and numerous other hardships.

The most obvious example is Jesus’ own crucifixion. Many of you are coloring posters of the stations of the cross. Each of these stations represent an event that took place on Jesus’ way to his crucifixion. Most of them aren’t good: betrayal, sorrow, condemnation, the crown of thorns, crucifixion. None of those things are good, even though we believe in the resurrection. The 40 days of Lent we’re currently in are in preparation of Easter – the happy ending – but to get to Easter we first must go through Good Friday, to get to resurrection we go first through crucifixion. And we all know that Jesus continues to bear the scars of that day, even after God raises him from the dead.

My point is, the Bible is full of stories of God being with people and those people still experiencing hard times. Even when we come out of a dark period of life stronger, more confident in who we are, with a stronger faith, we still bear scars from that period.

In our passage from Genesis this morning, we find Abram in the middle of hard times, before the happy ending – Abram and his wife Sarai are in the wilderness, in a barren place, quite literally.

God had promised Abram and Sarai that they would be the parents of a great people, a people who would come to be known as the Israelites, the people of God. The only problem: Sarai is barren. Despite already knowing that Sarai was barren, Abram and Sarai decided to trust God and left their home and their family, everything they knew, for the land God had promised.

But our story today picks up years later. They’ve followed God and stepped out in faith, and yet no child. They’re growing old. It seems the window has closed. So when God shows up and acts like everything’s fine, reminding Abram of the promise God made to him, Abram doesn’t take it well. It seems like God’s just being cruel, instilling false hope in him and his wife.

Again, knowing the end of the story might make it hard for some of us to understand the despair Abram and Sarai are feeling. We know God will provide a son, Isaac, so it all works out. But Sarai is at least 90 when she has Isaac. Assuming she started trying to have kids when she was 15, which would be a reasonable age for that day and time, she would have been trying to have children for 75 years, which is 900 months. That means roughly 900 times Abram and Sarai got their hopes up, thinking this month would be the month God would fulfill God’s promise. 900 times God didn’t deliver.

Brie and I have had friends who’ve had a hard time getting pregnant. I’ve seen the way each month wears on them. It’s true that once that baby comes, if it does come, their sorrow is turned into joy, but in the midst of those months of disappointment, it’s easy to feel despair.

So when God shows up and says, “Do not be afraid Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great,” Abram isn’t having it. “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless…You have given me no offspring…” he says. Abram doesn’t let God off the hook. One biblical scholar characterizes Abram’s conversation with God as a prayer of lament, and he says when we pray prayers of lament “we tell God: you are complicit in my suffering. And we make our problem God’s problem…[T]he promise of prayer is that God is open to us doing that. God, in fact, commands us to invite God into our sufferings, and to make our problems into God’s problems.” Have you ever thought of prayer like that? That prayer is making our problems God’s problems? That we’re drawing God into our life? Sometimes we talk about salvation as God drawing us into God’s life – the life shared by the Parent, Son, and Holy Spirit – but it’s also drawing God’s life into our life, saying, “I’m suffering, but I won’t suffer alone. I’m sad, but I won’t be sad alone.” Misery loves company, and there’s no better company than the living God.

This is how God becomes a stronghold in our lives. Not by magically taking away the pain and the suffering, but by being drawn into it with us, carrying the load with us, giving us the strength to persevere, even in the wilderness, even in barren places.

I’m sure Abram is comforted by God’s reaffirming God’s promise, and by the hope of descendants as numerous as the stars, but I have to believe, in the moment, Abram is most comforted by God’s presence, that God cares enough to hear Abram’s complaints, and doesn’t rebuke Abram or try to defend Godself, but instead God hears him and reassures Abram that God will never forsake Abram. The psalmist knows this to be true. He says, “If my mother and father forsake me, the Lord will take me up.”

To depend on God is not to say that bad things won’t happen. Instead, it’s to trust that God is present even when bad things happen. In the words of Psalm 46, “God is our refuge and our strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” God rarely draws us out of the trouble. Instead, God is a strength and a refuge, an ever-present help, in the midst of trouble.   

The God we believe in, the one our Scriptures testify to, the one revealed in Jesus Christ, isn’t simply an idea, or a set of believes. Neither is God beyond knowing, too big to concern Godself with little old us. This God is real, is knowable, is present. This God meets us in our sufferings, and is willing to make our problems God’s problems. This God is a stronghold when our lives are under attack, a light when the darkness is all around.

This is the God we seek, this is the God we wait for.