Darkness at Home by the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Genesis 15:7-21 A Covenant and a Prophecy

He also said to him, "I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it."

But Abram said, "O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I shall gain possession of it?"

So the Lord said to him, "Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon."

Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the Lord said to him, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and ill-treated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterwards they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure."

When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking brazier with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates--the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites."

Luke 4:22-30 Jesus rejected in his home town

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. "Isn't this Joseph's son?" they asked.

Jesus said to them, "Surely you will quote this proverb to me: 'Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your home town what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.'"

"I tell you the truth," he continued, "no prophet is accepted in his home town. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed--only Naaman the Syrian."

All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

Arcana Coelestia #1837 Sunset in the church

"The sunset" is the last stage in the Church, which is called "the end," when there is no longer any kindness. The Lord's Church is compared to the times of day, its earliest time being compared to sunrise, or dawn and morning, and its final period to sundown, or evening and the shadows that fall then; for there is indeed a similarity between the two. In the same way, the Church is compared to the seasons of the year, its earliest time being compared to spring when everything is flowering, while the time next to the last is compared to autumn when everything starts to die off. The Church is also compared to metals: its first stage is called golden, its last is said to be of iron and clay, as in Daniel 2:31-33. So "the sun was setting" means the time and the stage just before the close, for the sun had not yet gone down. The following verses refer to the state of the Church when the sun had gone down, at which point thick darkness descended, and a smoking brazier and a flaming torch passed between the pieces.

As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. (Genesis 15:12)

Sometimes even when we're doing the right thing, and going the right direction, things get worse instead of better. And in our most difficult times, that "worse" is not because of bad things happening "out there" in the big bad world, but because of things happening right where we live. Sometimes in the place where we most want light and comfort--our own home--we find darkness and brokenness instead. These are the times when we are most severely tested. And that testing--these temptations--can go on for years.

Both Abram and Jesus faced that kind of trial and temptation. Their struggles are pictured in our Bible readings. And as we have been discovering, the outward trials that Abram faced also give us a symbolic, or correspondential picture of the far deeper trials that the Lord faced while he was here on earth.

Among the many stories of covenant in the Bible, the story of God's covenant with Abram in Genesis 15 is among the strangest to our modern ears. The famed voodoo rituals of sacrificing chickens have nothing on this story! Animals are cut in half and arranged with their halves opposite each other, and Abram has to drive the birds of prey away from their carcasses. It's all so gruesome! And it reminds us that this was an ancient, and in many ways primitive, culture in which the Lord was appearing. Today, rituals of animal sacrifice are the stuff of tabloids. To Abram, sacrifices were as ordinary as going to church is for us.

Yet even for Abram, this particular ritual was not a pleasant one. Slaughtering animals was all in a day's work. But driving away birds of prey was not. And as darkness fell on the land, a nightmarish vision took hold of him: "Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him," and then "when the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking brazier with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces."

What all of this is pointing to is that making a covenant with God, while it offers a tremendous promise for the future, can be a very difficult and even disturbing experience in the present. Remember that Abram was at that time "a stranger in a strange land," to use Moses' autobiographical phrase (Exodus 2:21; 18:3). It would be many generations before the wonderful promises God made to Abram here would come to fruition, and his countless descendants would not only live in this land, but be sovereign there, and consider it their homeland. At this time, it was still "the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites." And Abram himself was a foreigner living among these settled nations.

In Genesis 15, God renews his covenant with Abram, and strengthens his earlier promise to Abram that he would become a great nation, telling him that he will give to his descendants this land, in which he was now a foreigner. Yet God also said that before this happened, his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign country, where they would suffer and be abused. In other words, God made Abram a wonderful promise, but also told him that in order to enjoy that promise, he and his descendants would have to suffer many harsh things for many years.

Isn't it often the same for us when we listen to God's voice, and set out in a new direction in life? We would never make a change if it weren't for the promise of a better life on one level or another. But if we knew from the beginning everything we would go through to get there, I suspect most of us would never even start out on the path. We would just stay right where we were, in our flat and uninspired lives.

Yet just as God told Abram in general terms the struggles his descendants would go through, so the Lord does give us some inkling, as we move forward on our new spiritual path, of the struggles that lie ahead for us. The moment we start trying to change our lives for the better, we begin to become aware of all the foreign and hostile nations that inhabit our own mind and heart. We become aware of our wrongheaded ideas, our less than noble desires, all the excuses we make up to justify our own self-centeredness and lack of concern for others, and even our own depressive and self-defeating ways of thinking, which hold us down. These things, and more, are represented by all those nations that inhabited the land where Abram was a mere stranger.

These wrong ideas, attitudes, and desires are not somewhere "out there," so that we can point the finger and consider the problem solved. No, they are right in our own home; they are right inside of us. And they are often manifested in darkness and coldness right in our own household, among our own family. The warm and loving home that we wish we could come home to is not the home that we actually have. Where there should be a fire in the hearth, there are instead burnt out ashes.

This was certainly the experience Jesus had when he went to his home town of Nazareth. Not long before, he had started his public ministry. By the time he headed to his home town, he had already begun to show his power. And at first, things seemed fine for him in Nazareth. As we heard last time, Jesus went to the synagogue and read a prophecy from the prophet Isaiah; and people were hanging on his every word as he said, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21).

Yet he knew that they were listening raptly not to be taught by him, but to test him and discount him. He was a hometown boy. How good could he be? And reading this attitude with pinpoint precision, Jesus named it--and thus brought their fury down upon himself. "No prophet is accepted in his home town," Jesus told them, and proceeded to illustrate this with stories of two of their own prophets, who gave their healing and sustaining blessings, not to Israelites, where their reception was cool, but to foreigners, who were more receptive to their message.

When the people of Nazareth heard this, they proved just how accurate Jesus' reading was of them was. Instead of admitting their own skepticism and the accuracy of his portrayal of it, they drove him out of town, intending to kill him by throwing him off the cliff at the edge of the hill on which the town was built. But in some mysterious way, he managed to thwart their wrath: "he walked right through the crowd and went on his way." I can think of a few times when the ability to walk right through a hostile crowd might have been useful!

But think of the experience Jesus was having. He had already begun to achieve some initial success and recognition in his divine calling. And he went to his home town, where he would be among his family and friends and all the familiar faces from his youth. There, instead of getting a warm reception, he encountered faces that were walls of skepticism and disbelief--which quickly changed into murderous fury. And this was right in the synagogue!

Even this story of Jesus' own experience of rejection in his home town has its deeper tale to tell. Because for Jesus, who was God himself in the flesh, the whole earth, and all of its nations and peoples, was his "home town." He came to those whom he himself had created, and instead of getting a warm welcome, nearly all of them rejected him. The earth was his, and the fullness thereof, and yet where there should have been light and warmth and love for their Creator, he found blindness, skepticism, coldness, hatred, and a desire to snuff out his presence from among them.

And these were the people he had come to save.

Not long before, Jesus had experienced the inner comfort and joy, at his baptism, of having the Spirit of God descend on him like a dove, and hearing God's own voice speaking words of love. But immediately afterwards, he had undergone forty days and nights of fasting in the desert. Then at the end of those forty days he was tempted severely by the devil-and came through those temptations victorious.

Abram heard the promise from God's own lips, but was still engulfed in a nightmare, and was told that it would be generations before that promise was fulfilled. And on a deeper level, Jesus, having just heard the divine promise, was plunged even more starkly by contrast into the coldness and hostility of those who should have been his family and friends. These, of all people, were the ones that on a personal level, he would most love to reach out to, and find openness. But they, of all people, were the most resistant. And he found that he no longer had a home in Nazareth. He saw the darkness in his home town. So in the end, he walked right through that crowd, and went on his way.

At various times in our lives, we are faced with the same darkness at home. It may be a coldness in our literal household, among our family members. And this is one of the most painful ordeals that any of us can face: longing for warmth and comfort at home, and finding only coldness and emptiness.

But perhaps the real coldness and emptiness is in our own hearts. Perhaps we have been looking for home in the wrong place. As long as we are here on earth, we are all strangers in a strange land; we are all foreigners sojourning in a place that is not our true home. Perhaps the times of dark emptiness that we experience in our homes and in our own hearts are God's messages to us, beckoning us forward, through struggle, to our true home. Amen.

   

 

Music: Velvet and Diamonds (the Star Filled Sky)
Bruce DeBoer
Used with Permission


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